Saturday, July 5, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Sky Marshal Bullets - #27

When the government placed over 1,700 Federal Sky Marshals (these days, Air Marshals) on US flag-carrying air craft in late 1970 and early 1971, there was a fair amount of talk in the press about the possibility of a shootout at 36,000 feet. Some in the media speculated that the government must have provided the newly minted Custom Security Officers with special firearms training to prepare them for potential gun battles in the claustrophobic confines of an airplane passenger cabin. Likewise, pundits theorized that the lightweight nature of aircraft construction would necessitate the use of special ammo.

The ammo used by the Sky Marshals was indeed special…some especially hot stuff called Super Vel that first showed up in the ‘60’s. It was invented by a guy named Lee Jurras who had the brainstorm of combining a lighter weight bullet with state-of-the-art gun powder to produce cartridges with about 20% greater velocity. In those days a typical .38 Special traveled at around 950 feet per second. By comparison, a .357 Magnum round reached about 1,350 fps. A .38 caliber super Vel split the difference clocking in at between 1,100 and 1,200 fps…the speed of sound.

The materials used in aircraft construction would be no match for that sort of velocity. A Super Vel round fired in mid-air would cut through all of the planes interior construction and its skin like razor blade through Jello, and then continue on for quite a distance before it expended all of its inertia. First officers, or co-pilots, used to half-jokingly suggest that if we had to fire in the direction of the cockpit, we aim to the left side – where the pilots sat – and in so doing create some openings for promotion.

Super Vels were tipped with a positively-expanding jacketed, 110 grain bullet that was partially encased in copper and capped with a lead donut. I believe the terminology for these sorts of rounds is “jacked hollow point,” or JHP. Since this sucker would both mushroom and splinter on impact it made up for in carnage what it lacked in stopping power.

Another somewhat odd aspect of Super Vels was that the shooter didn’t get off scot-free. When fired, Super Vel rounds generated a fireball that was about a foot in diameter. Since Sky Marshals carried snub-nosed, Smith & Wesson .38 Chief's Special, firing more than one or two Super Vel rounds from a gun with a 2” barrel left third degree burns on your gun hand, or both hands if you were shooting T-man style.

Sky Marshals did receive extensive firearms training which culminated in a live-ammo qualification conducted a mock airplane passenger cabin. Cardboard silhouettes stood, or more correctly, sat in for the passengers arranged in rows of seats between the shooter and the target. The task was to fire five rounds each from three positions: standing and shooting over the heads of the passengers towards a target at the opposite end of the cabin; crouching and shooting down the aisle between the rows of seats, and shooting with the while resting the gun on the seat back in front of you. In case you’re interested, we were allowed to perforate two passenger cutouts and still pass the test.

Once I actually started to fly as an undercover Sky Marshal one aspect of the training seemed to me to be ill-advised. I noted a great number of elegantly coiffed ladies with blue beehive hairdos sitting in the First Class area of the plane. This caused me to reconsider the idea of firing while supporting the gun on the back of a seat. In the event that one of those ladies was seated in front me, imagine the effect of 12-inch diameter fireball exploding only a few inches above her heavily lacquered hair. Poof and in a flash (literally) some upper crust doyen is left with a shiny pate, a third degree burn, and smoking tufts of hair over her ears like Bozo the Clown after he’d been shot from a cannon.

Fortunately, after Sky Marshal school, I never again had the occasion to fire any Super Vels. When I left the program along with my gun, badge, handcuffs, sap and two passports, I returned the bright yellow Super Vel box I had been issued at graduation, minus four of five cartridges that I had given as souvenirs to some Italian cops who had marveled at the nickel-plated cases when I was checking in my pistol at Fiumicelli Airport outside of Rome.
© Stephen Rustad, 2008


Anonymous said...

So are we able to buy super vel bullets at a store or do we have to be sky marshals to use them?

Stephen Rustad said...

To my knowledge, SuperVel ammunition is no longer available for over-the-counter purchase.

Back in 1971 it was issued to me, other Sky Marshals (Customs Security Officers), and I assume to members of other branches of law enforcement within the Treasury Department.

As to the second part of your question, I believe today's Air Marshas carry semi-automatic pistols, most likely chambered for 9mm or .40 cal. ammo. As such, the .38 cal SuperVel ammo would be inappropriate.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve, Robert Gonsalves former "sky Marshall" 1 st class to start and finish at Fort Belvoir. Later worked out of Tampa, Atlanta and Miami. Later U.S. Customs Patrol out of Tampa, Florida.

Nice Page.