Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Night Flight to SFO - #31



As a Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) assigned to PanAm from early 1971 to the fall of 1972, I conducted most of my in-flight security duties aboard the Boeing 747. At the time, I didn’t realize how revolutionary the 747 was.

The 60’s boom in air travel had created a major traffic jam at the country’s airports as the 707’s and Douglas DC8’s jostled for space at the jet ways. As a remedy, Juan Trippe, Panama’s legendary Founder and President, pushed Boeing to create a plane at least twice the size of the 707. In response Boeing produced the 747-100 or Jumbo Jet. It’s said that PanAm's influence as a “launch customer,” and the company’s hand in the design even before they placed their formal order, allowed Trippe to influence the development of the 747 in ways never seen before or since in the history of commercial aircraft.

PanAm inaugurated 747 Jumbo Jet service in 1970. At 2.5 times the size of a 707, the wide body featured eight-across seating. The cockpit was on an upper deck, behind which was a “lounge,” for lack of a better word. The upped deck was accessed by a circular staircase – really a curved ladder – that looked like it had been yanked out of in artist’s studio in Soho.

The powers-that-were decided to increase the teams of Sky Marshals assigned to 747 to three members, whereas 707’s and other “narrow-body” craft warranted teams of two. Usually two Marshals sat in First Class. The poor sap who drew the short straw sat way in the back of the cabin. Of the two Marshals who got to mingle with the carriage trade in First Class, one was required to sit at the foot of the spiral staircase.

Since there were no assigned seats in the upper deck lounge we couldn’t position ourselves up there without blowing “our cover.” Yet, protocol required that no passenger was to visit the lounge without a Sky Marshal to keep him or her company. Any passenger who was hip to that knew exactly who was following them up the stairs.

Most of flights I guarded over my tour of duty were a half to three-quarters full and – at least in first class – that left ample room to stretch your legs. However, I remember one flight where the increased capacity of the 747 was put to the test.

The flight to SFO lifted off from Haneda Airport in Tokyo sometime after 10PM packed to the gills with men, women, children and babies. The cabin of the plane felt like a subway at rush hour. As a Sky Marshal, I’d never worked a flight where every seat was full. For the first half dozen hours everything was pretty normal. It was late, the cabin lights were dim and most of the passengers were snoozing.

But as the evening dissolved into morning and folks began to stir, they did what most folks to when the first wake up…they went to the bathroom. Had they chosen to space the visits out, the plumbing might have handled the onslaught, but it seemed like everyone went, or wanted to go, all at the same time. In short order, the bathrooms began to fail, one after the other, until two long lines of fidgety passengers packed the two aisles leading to the last functioning bathroom in the back of Coach. It was so congested that the Marshal who had been positioned in the back had to work his way forward to the central galley just so that he could have some freedom of movement.

Though the First Class bathrooms remained functional, airline rules forbade passengers from migrating past the bulkhead that separated the two sections. Then a woman with a sick baby burst through the curtains and headed for one of the First Class bathrooms with such fierce intention that she was virtually dragging in her wake the near-hysterical stewardess who had been trying in vain to explain the rules to her.

Well, the sight of this determined woman breaching the sacred curtain of First Class broke the dam, as it were. Soon the aisles in First Class were also jammed with folks hopping from one to foot to the other. In the beginning, none of the Coach passengers who had stormed the bastion of privilege were aware of the bathroom on the upper deck but I knew it would be only a matter of time.

Since the door to the upper deck bathroom was directly adjacent to the cockpit door, a scrum of passengers clustered in the upper deck lounge presented a security nightmare so I decamped from my seat at the base of the staircase to the lounge where I sacrificed my cover to spend the remainder of the flight standing sentry-like in front of the cockpit door.

Interestingly, not one person that night asked me if I was a Sky Marshal.
© Stephen Rustad, 2008