Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sky Marshal Story - 40th Anniversary Sky Marshal Reunion

Darrell Henderson, TASOS class #19 is organizing a reunion of Custom Security Officers, former Treasury Agents who who flew as Federal Sky Marshals prior to the CSO's taking wing, as it were. Here is the e-mail I just received from him. In case you don't read all the way to the end, his contact is

Hello Everyone,

I have been promising to send out current information about the planned reunion celebrating the 40th anniversay of the CSO program. I am presenting what I have as of today (July 9, 2009) and I hope all of you will atten the get together.

I have reserved a banquet room in Las Vegas, Nevada, for the evening of Saturday, September 11, 2010. The Banquet room is at the BPOE hall in Las Vegas. The reason the evening of Sept. 11, 2010 was chosen is that on Sept 11, 1970, President Nixon announced to the nation his plan to counter the hijacking of American aircraft around the world.

After receiving responses from other former CSO's, I will be inviting to the reunion any former Department of Treasury agent who was asked to fly (as a Sky Marshal) prior to the hiring of the CSO's, that trained CSO's either at Ft. Belvoir or downtown DC, or who were members of the Customs Agency that were tasked to be our program supervisors during the four years, more or less, of the program.

The anticipated cost of the dinner is $60 per person. It is also anticipated that this will cover the cost of the banquet room, the dinner, decorations in the room and some entertainment. As this may be a once-in-a-lifetime gathering, I would like to suggest that the dress be semi-formal to formal. It is my desire that if there is any contributed money left over, after all the expenses have been met, the extra funds will be donated to charity.

When planning your trip to the reunion, please feel free to invite your spouse, boy/girl friend, or significant other. Also, if there is sufficient interest, I would like to see about an informal mixer on Friday, September 10th at a different location. I am thinking about the Marine Corps club in Las Vegas.

I will be sending our updated information to the associations of retired agents for Customs, Secret Service, DEA, IRS Internal Security and ATF extending the invitation to the reunion to any of their former agents who participated in the CSO program or acted as Sky Marshals at the beginning of the Nixon program. I will be trying to contact as many organizations as I can think of that might have former CSO's as members. These groups will include Customs, NTEU, NARFE, AARP, Fraternal Order of Police, FLEOA and any other group that comes to mind. If anyone has contacts with any of these organizations, or any other related organization that might have former CSO's as members, please let me know so that I can get the word out. My dream is to sell out the room.

As always, please pass this information on to anyone that you are in contact with who would qualify to attend the reunion. Also, does anyone have a new e-mail address for Larry Ryan. The address I have is DHS and I hear that he recently retired.

Best regards to all and I am anxious to meet you in Sept. 2010. Hope to hear from you soon saying that you will be there.

Darrell Henderson

To learn more, or to respond, please contact Darrell directly at

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sea Marshals: Gen. Petraeus Endorses Sky Marshals at Sea - #39

General David Patraeus

Apart from my stint as a Federal Sky Marhal over 35 years ago, or Air Marshal as they call in-flight armed guards these days, I have no extensive training or experience in security. Still it seems reasonable, and expedient that the concept of on-board teams of armed and trained personnel might work to protect the commercial ships currently being ravaged by pirates off the Somali coast. So, I tossed that idea out into the vast, uncharted Bloggosphere via this blog about a week ago.

Yesterday I read that no less an authority on combat, military strategy and related matters such as maritime security than General David Patraeus the former commander of the multi-national forces in Iraq and proponent of the "surge" that worked so well to quell the insurgents agrees with me. You read more about his comments on

If that link doesn't work, the article is dated April 24 and was authored by Tony Capaccio.

The generals concurrence means either that I'm a military genius like the general, or that the idea is a pretty obvious solution to the problem. I tend to support the latter conclusion. Either way, the owners and operators of the ships whose cargo and crew are potential victims to the hordes of kat-chewing, teenage Somali bandits should seriously consider the idea.

And, no, I'm not offering up my rusty skills for the offer. The last time I was on an ocean -oing vessel was in 1965 when the U.S. Army was transporting me some 3,500 other soldiers to Germany. 7 days bobbing in the choppy waters of the North Atlantic with a ship of nauseated landlubbers scrubbed any desire for sea faring from my soul.

(c) Stephen Rustad, 2009

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sea Marshals: Sky Marshals at Sea?

It’s clear to many that the Federal Sky Marshal program was a rousing success because the number of commercial US Air Carriers being hijacked dropped immediately and dramatically after the program was initiated in 1970.

Furthermore, when the Sky Marshal Program was folded up in the mid-1970’s the number of airplane hijackings didn’t immediately rise and never returned to pre-program levels. Sadly, as would-be hijackers realized that commercial aircraft were still relatively easy targets, we had periodic incidents over the succeeding years culminating in the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

In the 8 following 9-11, we’ve had the Federal Air Marshal program administered by the Department of Homeland Security with undercover Sky Marshals protecting select flights. That, coupled with measures such as hardened cockpit doors and the preflight screening of passengers, can be presumed to have been effective in preventing a recurrence of airplane hijackings.

Since we know that placing armed security personnel on a commercial transport works to prevent in-flight hijacking I wonder how this technique might be used to combat current threat of seaborne piracy now prevalent along the coast of Somalia.

Somali pirates have been raiding international shipping since the early 1990’s. However international posturing, bickering and dithering (e.g., the United Nations) has done little to effectively thwart the increasing attacks on seaborne commerce. To fill the security gap, individual countries including India, France and the United States have positioned ships in the area to provide some protection to the seaborne commercial traffic. Recently, the US Navy killed three pirates and freed an American ships captain. In a similar effort the French Navy interrupted a hijacking and captured some pirates, who they later had to turn loose owing the bizarre local regulations. Despite these efforts the rate of attacks on shipping hasn’t diminished.

I’ve read about a proposal to convoy merchant ships through the pirate infested waters, which makes a lot of sense. The naval ships in the area could be concentrated around the convoys, drastically reducing the area they need to protect. Convoys worked against Germany’s U-Boats in World War II, who were far more lethal than today’s kat-chewing Somali riffraff in rubber speedboats. However I’m guessing that ship owners will balk at having to delay their schedules to join up with the next available convoy, preferring instead to gamble that their ship won’t be among the 5% seized.

So I propose a Sea Marshal program. It’s really pretty simple. Just before a commercial ship enters the danger zone, it picks up a team of professionally-trained armed guards who have been vetted by some International authority. These guards maintain a round-the-clock vigil until the ship is out of danger, at which time they are retrieved.

Placing guards on the ships would be more effective than relying on naval response. Because the naval ships are spread thin in order to cover the vast expanses of ocean, they require hours, if not days, to respond to a hijacking. By definition, onboard guards can respond immediately to any threat. Each team need be little more than a small, well-armed squad – enough personnel that there would always be at least two people on watch. These teams could be self-supporting so as to have little or no impact on the operation of the ship. In principal, they would function something like harbor pilots who are taken on by a ship entering a difficult-to-navigate and / or crowded port.

Of course, this would require hundreds, if not thousands of trained personnel, but given the number of men and women operating the naval flotilla that currently patrols the waters – not to mention the cost of operating the naval vessels – it could represent a tremendous savings to the governments whose ships patrol the waters.

© Stephen Rustad, 2009.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sky Marshal Story - Ex Air Marshal Survives Preflight Sceening 2009 - #37

In the – now – 37 years since I flew as a Federal Sky Marshal, or what they call an Air Marshal these days, I’ve noted with some interest the evolution in airport screening procedures. Since the TSA was created I, along with millions of hapless air travelers, have had to partially disrobe, sort out our toiletries into transparent bags, and have what we presumed were innocuous personal items confiscated all in the name of in-flight security. It’s good to know that our airways are safe from bottles of Evian.

I now routinely detach the Swiss Army pen knife from my key chain before a flight lest it disappear into the void that has consumed several of its predecessors. Yes, I admit that I’ve lost a couple of pen knives as the rules for allowing or seizing such items changed without notice over the years. I’m sure seasoned travelers have noted that not just the procedures but the intensity of their enforcement varies greatly from airport to airport.

Still, I have compassion for the folks in the TSA because I was part of the cadre of air marshals that initiated the pre-flight bag checks, pat-downs and helped implement the first metal detectors in boarding lounges in the early 1970’s. I know what it’s like to waylay someone who only wants to get through the screening so they can join the queue in the jet way that’s shuffling onto the aircraft. And I had my share of irate passengers complaining about Gestapo tactics.

As a result I experienced a mixture of bemusement and concern when my son was confronted by a couple of deputy sheriffs as he and I were departing to visit some potential college campuses some months back. I’m not going to name the airport because I regularly fly out of there. Through I doubt that the deputies featured in my story are among the dozen or so out there who read this blog…you can never tell.

So, that morning as we’ve just passed through the metal detector as a young TSA screener halts my son and asks to inspect his backpack from which the screener produces a shiny, chrome-plated shuriken (ninja throwing star) - a souvenir that my son had found at Navy Pier in Chicago some years earlier when our family had visited his aunt. My boy is an avid video game player and his room is a collection of faux martial arts memorabilia.

As an aside, my son was in martial arts for more than six years, and though he mastered all of the forms, techniques and disciplines, he also demonstrated a total lack of killer spirit. Or, as his sensei put, “He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.” Anyway, this particular item of oriental arcana had remained unnoticed and forgotten in his backpack for several years until that fateful day in the preflight screening line.

In short order after the TSA had extracted the shuriken from my son’s backpack, two deputy sheriffs assigned to back up the TSA ambled over. I was taken by the irony of the situation when I noticed that the younger of the two cops is a large, angry man who is radiating righteous indignation. On the other hand, my son looks like a deer facing a voracious mountain lion. This cop, who I’ll call officer Cavity Search, launches into a lecture on the seriousness of the circumstances and the implied threat to national security – not to mention God, mother and apple pie – that the infraction represents.

In the meantime the TSA guy, who appears bored by the whole thing has us fill out a short form and returns to his duties. While officer CS is berating my kid, I notice that his partner - a much older policeman with tired eyes – looks as if he is secretly hoping that officer CS runs out of steam before they have to fill out the paper work.

As I’m explaining how the shuriken, which was never meant for actual use and therefore falls somewhere between a butter knife and a fingernail file as a weapon, ended up in my son’s backpack, officer Lotta Paperwork reports that shurikens aren’t actually on the list of banned items. Officer CS – much disappointed – winds up with a lecture on responsibility and they let us go. I check in with my son to see what he makes of the whole thing and find that while he’s a bit shaken he appreciates implications…and the ultimate reprieve.
© Stephen Rustad, 2009

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sky Marshal Story - Experts Recommend Eliminating Sky Marshals...Again - #36

Though my days as Sky Marshal are long gone, in the fashion of veteran soldiers and retired athletes, I still like to read about the game – in my case, air security. Yesterday (2/17) the Wall Street Journal served up a tasty morsel in the form of an article in the Personal Journal section titled: Tips for TSA to Make Flying Safer, Easier.

It was déjà vu all over again. Pre-flight screening is the answer so the costs of maintaining an in-flight cadre (“numbering in the thousands”) could be put to better use elsewhere. To be brutally honest, pre-flight screening has always been more about public relations than prevention. On the heels of 9/11 the government had to be seen as “doing something” to protect passengers. After enduring long lines, the inconvenience of disrobing and in some cases outright humiliation at the hands of the TSA, airline passengers must feel safer…right?.

Despite the TSA’s history of inconsistent rules, rude screeners and sloppy work (Hey, it’s government after all), experts still feel that redistributing the more than $800mm budget for the TSA’s Law Enforcement office will improve our safety. I suppose one reason for laying off the non-canine individuals,* AKA Sky Marshals, is that since that horrible day over seven years ago, no person or group has successfully hijacked an American passenger airplane. Maybe that’s due to the now pervasive pre-flight hassle and maybe the terrorists feel that they made their point and are focused on causing mayhem elsewhere.

*I presume that the 600 explosive sniffing dogs which are also funded under the LE Office budget will be kept on the payroll.

Terrorists may be paranoid fanatics who intentionally misrepresent the tenets of their Holy Book to serve a xenophobic agenda, but they aren’t stupid. If they wanted to hijack a commercial aircraft the last thing they would attempt would be to try to run the pre-flight gauntlet. It would be far easier for them to get jobs as ramp rats or baggage handlers. I seriously doubt that the FBI is doing full field background checks on all airline job candidates – let alone current airline employees.

Do you suppose there are immigrants from the Middle East working in our transportation system who have relatives back home, or who follow the Muslim faith? Okay, that’s a rhetorical question and I can hear the cries of “racial profiling” as I type the words. However, since Al Qaeda isn’t recruiting many Protestant, Catholic or Jewish Europeans, American, Far Eastern and African peoples to their ranks, it’s probably reasonable to focus our prevention on the sort of folks who’ve conducted the overwhelming majority of hijackings in the last 40 years.

Terrorists know that the preflight screening is mostly Public Relations and the airports in general are not bastions of security so perhaps having a last line of defense on board the planes is still a valid idea. In the previous blog, I discussed how few Sky Marshals currently protect our airways. Though the TSA says the total number of in flight officers is classified, they claim that the program is an effective deterrent because one can never know if a particular flight is protected by a Sky Marshal. Well, if they do chose to end the Sky Marshal program then everyone WILL know.
So as a public service I propose an affordable program that is simple to implement and sure to raise awareness of in-flight security. Whether or not a flight has onboard security, specially prepared cards will be placed on random, unoccupied seats on every commercial flight which designate that seat as reserved for...
…the Sky Marshal.
(c) Stephen Rustad, 2009

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sky Marshal Story - Air Marshals Are Rare Marshals - #35

Even back in 1971, when I was among the 1700 or so Federal Sky Marshals flying the then very un-friendly skies, the big question on the minds of many airline passengers was, “Is there a Sky Marshal on my flight?” You can do the math for yourself: a total 1700 Sky Marshals (or Air Marshals if you prefer) to cover somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 commercial flights a day. Even if every Sky Marshal worked 24/7, the answer for about 99% of airline passengers was clearly “No!”

Fast forward to today and some things have changed. Many of the airlines Sky Marshals protected, like PanAm and TWA no longer exist. The stainless steel, .38 caliber, Smith & Wesson Chief’s Specials we were issued 37 years ago, have been replaced by 9mm Sig Sauers, Glocks and the like carried by today’s Air Marshals.

However, much remains the same…

After the tragic events of 9/11, I read quite a number of articles discussing a call to recruit as many as 50,000 Air Marshals to protect our commercial aircraft. Out of curiosity, I went to the website to look at the application. I know what you’re thinking, but even 8 years ago I was still 20 years past top end of the age limit for the job.

Yes, I do think cutting off potential recruits at 35 years was rampant “age-ism.” Still, were it actually possible for me to apply for the job and (mirabile dictu) had I been allowed to rush back to the front lines as it were…if the training didn’t do me in, my wife would have.

Though now an arm-chair Sky Marshal, I still routinely check out articles about in-flight security, which is how I came upon an article on authored by Drew Griffin, Kathleen Johnston and Todd Schwarzchild titled:

“Air Marshals missing from almost all flights.”

At the sight of this headline I was shocked, I tell you, shocked…

It seems that the math hasn’t changed much in the 34 years since pre-flight screening with metal detectors halted the in-flight security program. According to the CNN article, of the 28,000 commercial flights a day no more than 1% of these have an Air Marshal on board.

In a typical ham-handed bureaucratic attempt at spin control, The TSA responded that 1000’s of flights a day are covered. Unfortunately that claim is profoundly undermined by Greg Alter, Assistant Special Agent in charge of the Federal Air Marshal program who warrants that the total number of Air Marshals is in the “four digits.”

Well, whether the actual 4-digit number of active Sky Marshals is 9,999 or 1,700, the net effect on the security of 10.2 million commercial flights each year is about the same now as it was in 1972.

Don’t bet on having an Air Marshal on your flight.
© Stephen Rustad, 2009.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sky Marshal Story - Sky Marshal Reunion

Darrell Henderson of Class #19, who served as a Sky Marshal from March of 1971 to April of 1973, is exploring the idea of organizing a reunion of Customs Security Officers, Sky Marshals to us, sometime next fall (2010) or perhaps the following year. FYI -they call us Air Marshals these days.

Here is the text of an e-mail that he sent me:

"When I first began the search for former CSO's, I was thinking of a reunion in April 2011 or possibly December 2010. However, I am now thinking of having the reunion on Saturday, September 11, 2010. The reason for the Sept. date is that on September 11, 1970, President Nixon announced that he was instituting a program to counter the hijacking of American aircraft. Then on Sept. 12th, Treasury agents began flying. Some of these agent went on to become instructors at TASOS, where they trained CSO's.

In the search for former CSO's, I contacted the retired agents associations for Customs Special Agents, former narcotics agents, the Secret Service agents, and the Special Agents of the IRS. With the assistance of these organizations, I have been in contact with many former CSO's. However, I am still having a difficult time trying to contact former CSO's that became Customs Inspectors and Customs Patrol Officers. If any one has an idea as to how to contact these officers and those CSO's that went to other federal agencies or some other position outside of the government please let me know, or initiate the contacts yourself and have the individuals contact me so that they may be included in the desired reunion.

I would like to obtain some opinions as to where a reunion may be held. I had hoped to try and hold the reunion in San Diego on the USS Midway Museum, however, the up front costs are more than I can absorb on my own. I would like some suggestions as to a location that would be acceptable to everyone, without being overly expensive and still hold some interest to all of the attendees. Also, in an effort to limit the cost to each of us, does anyone have some ideas as to how we could solicit a sponsor or two that would help cover some of the upfront costs of putting on such an event? Also, should the group desire to hold the reunion in a city other than San Diego, I will have to have some assistance in finding the location and making the arrangements for the reunion. I could also use help even if the location is San Diego.

The original idea of the reunion as stated above is to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the inception of the CSO program. In an effort to possibly get as many persons to attend the reunion, would anyone have an objection to inviting members of the group of Treasury agents that were assigned to flight duty prior to the CSO's being selected, trained and placed in the field? How about the Customs Special Agents that acted as supervisors?

While researching the Internet, I have learned some interesting facts. I have also been in touch with a current ASAC of the Federal Air Marshal Service and he has provide additional information on the history of the sky marshal/air marshal programs over the years. The year 2010 is the 40th anniversary of the inception of the CSO program. May 2011 will be the 50th anniversary of an anti-hijacking program started by President Kennedy. I have also heard that some individuals employed by the FAA are putting together a 30 year reunion of a program they were involved with. The questions arises, would we consider participating in a combined reunion of two or more of these programs or do we want to restrict the invitees to only the CSO program?

I have been contacted by 35 individuals that are either former CSO's, Customs agents that were supervisors of CSO's, or Treasury agents that first flew after 9-11-70 and then taught the CSO's either at Ft. Belvoir or in DC. If the number of interested persons grow, would anyone be interested in having a golf tournament, a pistol shoot, or some other activity as part of the reunion package? If so, what other activities would you suggest?

Please provide your thoughts and opinions on all of the above discussed subjects and any other thoughts that would contribute to an exciting and enjoyable reunion.

I await to hear your ideas and suggestions. Again, thank you for your interest in this endeavor."

If you are interested in attending a reunion of Customs Security Officers, please contact Darrell directly at: