Armed and Anonymous
On your next flight, the passenger in the seat beside you could be a federal air marshal.
- By D.C. Agle
- Air & Space magazine, May 2002
For Michael Mooney, the trip was a troublesome one. It had also been difficult on the other occasions he had traveled here. But here he was again, on an overcast November evening, having brought a small group of firefighter recruits from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to see for themselves what had occurred at this spot some two months ago. Mooney said he brought them here to contemplate what it meant to be a professional and do one’s duty.
“We attended the funeral of three New York firemen today,” says Mooney, himself an Atlantic City fire captain. “We did it to show our support. And now we are here. I have been here [seven] other times since it happened. I have worked the site. I have come just as an observer, and I have brought other firemen who need to see this for themselves. As many times as I have come here, it still makes me sick to my stomach.”
The devastation that occurred on September 11, 2001, at Church Street between Liberty and Vesey in lower Manhattan has more personal meaning for Mooney than for most. To him, the 16-acre site is not only the debris-filled tomb of so many civilians and his fellow firemen; it is also the symbol of a failure to protect the U.S. transportation industry. Mooney believes that he and others like him could have prevented the tragedy. He was once a federal air marshal.
“We were professionals and we knew our job,” says Mooney. “I guess you could say we almost did our job too well. The hijackings stopped and the cutbacks came, and I was forced to leave. I guarantee you, if one air marshal had been on each one of those planes, this would not have happened. You don’t bring a box cutter to a gun fight. And [the hijackers] would have been in one helluva gun fight.”
There are some in the federal government who would agree with him. On September 19, the Federal Aviation Administration began accepting applications for a new generation of FAMs, or “civil aviation security specialists.” To date, over 150,000 applications have been received for the $35,100- to $80,800-per-year job. An undisclosed number of applicants have been accepted and vetted for top-secret clearance, and an undisclosed number have been processed through the 14-week course. The FAA considers the number and identity of its marshals, the routes they fly, details about their training, and even the budget for the air marshal program to be matters of national security, and that’s the way the FAMs like it. “We don’t need people trying to dissect our infrastructure to figure out why they have an X percentage chance of meeting these guys on a flight,” says Jack Donovan, one of the supervisors of the marshal program. “There is a new game out there that we are really trying to discourage. It’s called ‘Let’s find the FAM on the airplane.’ That’s not a good thing because the flying public just needs to be reassured that we’ve got FAMs up there flying, and we’re getting more and more everyday. And they should feel secure in that. So don’t say ‘Ah, she’s one of them because she’s got a bulge in her pocket.’ That’s not helping and chances are you would be wrong. Weapons concealment is part of the trade. People need to know that we have the tools to get the job done.”
The tools and the people who will use them are tested and trained at the 5,000-acre William J. Hughes Technical Center, the FAA’s research-and-development center near Atlantic City, New Jersey. Behind the chain-link fences and barbed wire, bright lights and security cameras, instructors are busy getting the next generation of air marshals airborne.
Training includes everything from stress management and international law to cross-cultural communications and medical procedures. Add to the mix, as Michael Mooney found out three decades ago, lots and lots of weaponry skills: drawing weapons, reloading, firing with one hand, switching hands, changing targets, firing from a seated position, firing while moving, and reloading while moving. Training facilities include three outdoor ranges with moving targets, an indoor training room with interactive computer graphics, and a close-quarters countermeasures/personal defense training room with protective equipment and dummies. It’s no wonder, then, that air marshals have the best fire-range qualifications of all federal law enforcement employees.
The program also uses an inactive five-story air traffic control tower, a state-of-the-art fitness facility, and an operations center capable of secure communications worldwide. Mock missions are flown in a retired Boeing narrow-body 727 and a Lockheed wide-body L-1011: There, FAMs mix it up with “terrorists,” practicing their moves and techniques with paintball rounds. For firing the real thing, the FAMs have a 360-degree, live-fire shoothouse, which can be configured as either a narrow-body or a wide-body aircraft complete with computer-controlled targets and a bulletproof observation platform.
“We’ll pick a scenario based on something that’s happened in a hijacking somewhere around the world in years past,” says Donovan. “And we’ll take them through it and everything’s on video so that you can provide immediate training feedback. We’ll ask what they think occurred. They answer. Then we play the tape back and show them what really happened and what they missed. It is invaluable training.”
There are more past incidents for trainers to use as scenarios than most people realize. The first recorded instance of the hijack of a civilian carrier occurred on February 21, 1931, after a young Pan American Grace Airways pilot named Byron ‘By’ Rickards took off from Lima, Peru, with three passengers and a load of mail in a Fairchild FC-2 monoplane (the aircraft now belongs to the National Air and Space Museum). Upon landing in Arequipa, Peru, Rickards was confronted by gun-waving revolutionaries intent on commandeering the single-engine Fairchild for a drop of propaganda leaflets on local villages.
“‘By’ told me this story 60 years ago,” says William Krusen, a former Panagra pilot and author of the book Flying the Andes: The Story of Pan American Grace Airways and Commercial Aviation in South America, 1926–1967. “He said he thought one of his passengers was in on it. But he didn’t try to fight any of them off or anything like that.”
Rickards steadfastly refused to fly the revolutionaries anywhere, and the standoff continued for 10 days. Then, on March 2, the would-be hijackers abruptly informed Rickards that even without their leaflet drop, the revolution had succeeded and their comrades had the capital Lima under firm control. So Rickards began to barter, and soon it was agreed: Rickards would be freed if he gave one of the revolutionaries a lift to Lima. The world’s first hijacking had ended in a draw.
In perhaps one of the most remarkable coincidences in aviation history, three decades, five months, and seven days after his first run-in with armed revolutionaries, By Rickards was again involved in a hijacking attempt. “He was a captain at Continental by then,” says Krusen. “Two hijackers wanted to fly to Cuba and it turned out to be in By’s plane.”
On August 3, 1961, Rickards was in the left seat of a Continental Airlines 707 on a flight out of El Paso, Texas, when ex-convict Leon Bearden and his teenage son, Cody, took over the airliner while it was still on the ground. The two amateurs, with very little preparation and what has been described as even less intellect, thought they could commandeer an airliner and proffer it to Fidel Castro as a gift, but these kin-in-crime never got off the ground. Security officers in four cars chased the Boeing down the runway and shot out its tires. After a two-hour standoff, the duo was captured.
Although perceived by some as a somewhat comedic episode, the case of “the gang that couldn’t hijack straight” signalled a change in the motivations of hijackers. Since World War II, nearly all acts of hijacking had involved individuals attempting to escape from repressive governments, like those of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. But in 1961 the rules changed. The attempt on Rickards’ Continental flight and the successful hijacking of National Airlines and Eastern Air Lines flights to Cuba earlier that year had brought piracy to the airways of America.
The U.S. government responded to the new threat by passing a law making hijacking a crime punishable by imprisonment a minimum of 20 years or death. And in 1962, President Kennedy started the federal sky marshal program. The FAA deputized 20 of its employees as U.S. marshals and utilized them on flights that agency analysts determined to be high-risk (the FAA will not identify these flights). The Kennedy administration kept the program secret. But with only 20 sky marshals in a secret program, the number of hijackings of U.S. aircraft continued to rise dramatically. In 1968, 22 hijackings to Cuba were attempted, and 18 succeeded. In 1969, there were 40 attempted hijackings of U.S. airliners. And while those numbers were alarming, it took the events of September 6, 1970—what came to be called “hijack Sunday”—to set in motion the story of armed policemen in the sky.
On that day four airliners were hijacked by gun- and grenade-toting zealots of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Two of the airplanes, a TWA 707 that had taken off from Frankfurt and a Swissair DC-8 on a Zurich-to-New York trip, were flown to Dawson’s Field, a former Royal Air Force airstrip in the middle of the Jordanian desert. A third airliner, a Pan Am 747 that had departed Amsterdam, was hijacked to Cairo because it was too large to land on the Dawson’s Field runway. The following day the almost new 747 was destroyed by suitcase bombs. On September 13, the two airliners held hostage at Dawson’s Field were blown up alongside a BOAC VC-10 that had been hijacked to Dawson’s four days earlier on a flight from Bahrain to London. Remarkably, the passengers and crew from all three aircraft survived by getting out before the bombs were detonated.
In the fourth hijacking attempted that Sunday, two armed PFLP terrorists attempted to take control of an Israeli El Al 707 flying out of Tel Aviv. After a running gun battle between the terrorists and several El Al sky marshals, the flight was diverted to London’s Heathrow Airport, where it dropped off the two hijackers, one restrained, the other dead.
The hijackings were front-page news around the globe. “There was no question it was a leading story for quite a bit of time and did propel the president to take action immediately,” says Martin Pollner, a former director of law enforcement for the U.S. Department of the Treasury and one of the fathers of the 1970 sky marshal program. “Nixon indicated that as a result of the hijacking of U.S. air carriers by Palestine guerrilla groups, he would put federal agents on all planes.”
Nixon put the U.S. Customs Service in charge of the fledgling sky marshal program, and the agency hired 1,500 marshals for use on both domestic and international flights. Although much of the program was secret, its existence was made known and the marshals were given one widely publicized mandate: Shoot to kill. One of those who would eventually carry the license to do just that was a young Vietnam vet named Michael Mooney. “They were taking United States flagships over to North Africa and blowing them up,” says Mooney. “I was really pissed off that these people were hijacking and assaulting Americans.”
Mooney had served in the U.S. Air Force; he had qualified as a sharpshooter and pulled duty as a guard for military convoys. After leaving the service in 1968, he attended college until a newspaper ad caught his attention. “They were looking for police officers or service veterans who were combat-trained and ready to do what needed to be done,” he recalls. “You knew that you were doing a good thing for your country. And it was my idea that no one was ever going to hijack my plane and put it down in the desert and set it on fire—period.”
The same ad caught the eye of Bill Ruzzamenti, a college-weary 22-year-old who had just gone through U.S. Army National Guard basic training and was looking for something interesting to do. “I was going to law school at the time,” says Ruzzamenti, today a drug task force consultant for the Drug Enforcement Administration. “I had just gotten married and was burnt out on the whole academic thing and basically decided I needed a change.”
Mooney’s and Ruzzamenti’s applications were two of the thousands received; the Customs Service used an extensive written test to thin the ranks. Mooney was the only one in his class of 360 applicants to make it; Ruzzamenti was selected from 500. They then underwent a series of interviews and psychological and physiological tests.
“In those days, our training was in Fort Belvoir, Virginia,” recalls Mooney. “All day long, 10 hours a day, classroom and testing. We were trained in special weapons tactics, bombs—we were trained how to deal with one at 30,000 feet—and drugs. You name it, we trained for it. There was intensive firearms training. Probably shot every day for seven weeks. And if you failed any one portion of any of the testing criteria, you were immediately phased out.”
Mooney recalls an instructor the students called “the Hook,” who would knock on the doors of dropped candidates at night and tell them to gather their things. The next morning there would be vacant seats at the breakfast table.
In Ruzzamenti’s class, the customs agents didn’t even wait for nightfall. “It was kind of weird: Sometimes you would be in a class or at the range and they would just call a guy over and he’d never come back,” says Ruzzamenti. “There were whispers that something came up on his background or that he’d flunked a test, but all we really knew was that he was gone and we never knew why.”
Both Mooney and Ruzzamenti were assigned to Pan American, mostly flying from New York to Europe and the Middle East. “On a typical mission you’d be on duty two hours before a flight to meet with the pilots and flight crew,” says Mooney. “We were in civilian clothes and undercover and they needed to know and be comfortable with who we were.”
Remarkably, “the biggest problems I ever had were with the plane captains,” Ruzzamenti says. “Often times the pilots would tell me ‘I don’t care who you are, you are not to pull your gun out, and if we are hijacked we will just go to Cuba.’ I cannot tell you how many times I had that said to me. It was a very common expression. A couple of times I even had captains of aircraft say that they wanted the guns—that they would keep them up in the cockpit of the aircraft, and that if I needed it I could come up and get it, which is just a ludicrous idea. They would say stuff like that and you would have to get into a whole conversation.”
After the “get to know the guys with the guns” session was over, the sky marshals (according to one former FAM, air marshals almost always work in teams of two or more) would slip into the airport terminal and mingle with the crowd. “There were two reasons for this,” says Ruzzamenti. “First, we wanted to blend in with the rest of the passengers. Secondly, we wanted to see if there was anything suspicious or unusual going on. If people were clandestinely meeting behind posts or talking to each other but really not flying together or if they are exceptionally nervous, we could identify them before the flight as potential threats.”
Once a federal air marshal takes his seat (he sits on the aisle to have better mobility and sight lines), he is prepared to take action against not only would-be hijackers but also overly curious and garrulous travelers. “Your job wasn’t to converse with the passengers,” says Mooney. “It was to stay alert, undercover, and ready to react. You were all about business. During training they taught us how to create a good cover story.”
“We actually had a class to help us develop our little b.s. stories to tell people,” remembers Ruzzamenti. “Guys would come up with ones that they were junior executive with so and so.” Air marshals stationed near the cockpit found themselves sitting in first class and adjusted their cover stories accordingly. “Some of the old ex-military guys came up with these off-the-wall stories,” remembers Ruzzamenti. “They had inherited all these weird fortunes or they were relatives of J. Paul Getty and on and on. You can imagine them explaining this to someone in first class while wearing a polyester suit! It was pretty funny.”
Ruzzamenti’s story was that he was traveling first class because his father was an airline pilot and they were meeting up to do some sightseeing. Mooney came up with one that was easy to believe but not likely to lead to further conversation. “I was a school administrator attending a conference,” says Mooney. “It seemed to work real well. Not too many people were really that interested in my job.”
Mooney and Ruzzamenti remain as secretive about the air marshal methodology of the 1970s as the current federal air marshals are of the techniques used today. “I imagine not a hell of a lot has changed in the last thirty years,” says Mooney. “You are still dealing with a steel tube 30,000 feet in the air.” He will say he found a need to keep well hydrated. He ate very little and tried not to get too comfortable lest he doze off—a definite no-no in the air marshal world but hard to avoid when you are flying through multiple time zones on 10-hour international flights. “I drank a lot of coffee,” says Mooney. “It was tough. You have to be alert and ready to go for the entire 10 hours.”
Something else Mooney will allude to with a subtle, somewhat crooked smile: the layovers on those international flights. “I was a single guy,” he says. “The 747 was staffed by 16 stewardesses. And the stewardesses at that time on overseas flights tended to be the younger, more beautiful ones. And they knew who we were. And when we would get to Paris, we would find our own way to our hotel, but we’d stay at the same hotel as the flight crew. You can imagine being in a foreign country. You don’t know Paris. And stewardesses like to show you all around town.”
Three years later, with the number of hijackings in decline, Nixon’s sky marshal program was scrapped and replaced by a smaller number of marshals overseen by the FAA. Seeing the writing on the cabin wall, Mooney left the program and went to work as an Atlantic City fireman. He could only look on when in 1985 two Lebanese Shiite Muslims, hoping to negotiate the release of Shiite prisoners in Israel, hijacked TWA Flight 847.
That flight had departed Athens when it was hijacked and diverted to Beirut, where additional hijackers climbed aboard. A two-week ordeal ended in the death of one passenger, U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem. As a result, President Reagan ordered the expansion of the ranks of armed sky marshals, who were renamed “federal air marshals.” Again the program grew in size and scope, but only a few years later it shrank again as the hijacking threat diminished.
While the federal air marshal program continued to soldier on, it was revealed by U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta at a security conference last October that only 32 active-duty air marshals were working prior to September 11, 2001. Now, of course, the ranks are growing again.
Those who survive the three-and-a-half months of intensive instruction must be able to travel regularly for several weeks at a time, work irregular hours, and be on call 24 hours a day. While deployed, they have limited contact with family and limited time off. Also, according to the FAA’s air marshal job announcement, FAMs are expected to spend some of their non-flying hours in “foreign countries that are sometimes politically or economically unstable and may pose a high probability of terrorist or criminal activity against the U.S. Government. In addition, some locations may present health hazards such as poor sanitation and unsafe water.”
Another sacrifice the new batch of marshals may endure is career insecurity. Aviation security expert Charles Slepian sees parallels between the present situation and that of the mid-1970s and late ’80s, when the threat of hijackings had receded and many of the government’s highly trained sky and air marshals were looking for work. Says Slepian: “I have a son-in-law who is a federal agent in Florida. He was being heavily solicited to transfer to the air marshal program. I said if he did, he would be unemployed within a year. I think technologically we’re going to make it impossible to get into the cockpit and take over the aircraft. So we’re not going to have the same situation as we did on September 11. Which raises the question what the air marshals’ function is going to be.”
In the meantime, it is wise to heed the admonitions of flight attendants and carefully follow the new security procedures of air travel. On November 12, 2001, a US Airways passenger did not follow the new federal rule stating that in the last half-hour of an approach into Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C, all passengers must remain seated. About 15 minutes before the Airbus A319 was to land, Raho Ortiz, without a word to anybody, got out of his seat and walked briskly toward the front of the aircraft. As Ortiz neared the cockpit, a federal air marshal seated near the front of the airplane made himself evident and yelled “Stop!” Another air marshal appeared from the back of the airplane with gun drawn. After Ortiz was handcuffed, the marshals ordered the other 106 passengers to put their hands behind their heads and later rest them on the seat backs in front of them. The airliner, per new FAA procedures regarding such incidents, was diverted to Dulles airport in northern Virginia (directing it away from potential targets such as the U.S. Capitol and the White House). As he lay face down on the floor, Ortiz, a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency, could be heard saying “I’m sorry. I just wanted to go to the bathroom.”
“You cannot take anything or anyone for granted,” says former marshal Mooney. “In my day I had all the confidence in the world. I knew, if I had to, I could nail a terrorist between the ears if he was standing at one end of a 747 and I was standing on the other. And that was before all the new firearms technology and simulator training. This new group, these new air marshals, are going to be something.”
Mooney and his crew of Atlantic City firemen watch from a special platform, erected for VIPs and the families of those lost at the World Trade Center. On the unfinished wood railing in front of them, scrawled in ballpoint, are the plaintive entreaties of family members of the dead and missing. In the distance, the firemen watch as one of the constantly moving cranes excavates another layer of debris and unearths a new chamber of smoldering heat. Exposed to the air for the first time in two months, the chamber ignites and the ever-present trickle of smoke that continuously rises from the ruins suddenly transforms to a surge of smoke and flame. As the Atlantic City firemen look on, several N.Y.F.D. firemen turn a half-dozen hoses loose on the source, and in time the billowing plumes begin to dissipate.
Soon, Mooney and his group of firemen take their leave of ground zero. Those still at the site hear the unmistakable roar of a heavy jet climbing out of Newark. No one can help glancing skyward.
Ping Ping Ping
Federal Air Marshals carry the polymer-framed .357-magnum Sig Pro SP2340, firing bullets that are frangible—on impact with metal or glass, they mushroom and break apart, so they can’t rip into an airliner’s fuselage. FAMs have been instructed that when the aircraft is at risk and they have to fire their Sig Pros, they must shoot to kill. “These guys don’t pull their weapons out and start spraying,” says Bo Bosiljevac, a former Army Ranger, Navy SEAL, and currently a special operations and counter-terrorism instructor at Blackwater Lodge, a privately owned, 5,200-acre firearms and tactics training facility in Moyock, North Carolina. “They don’t rattle easily, and when they pull their weapons out, they take deadly aim. They’ve trained repeatedly and they do not miss.
“I cannot tell you exactly how air marshals do things,” says Bosiljevac. “But I can tell you some standard practices that are used by those in the security field.” He sits down in one of the chairs at a Blackwater firing range. “Now if something happens and I need to act, I do not have to stand up to do so,” he says. “I can use the seat in front of me as a gun rest, take the hand the gun is not in and place it against [the head of] the passenger in front of me so they do not get in the line of fire. I can even use the elbow of my gun hand to keep the other person in front of me out of the way. Drawing your weapon is one quick, fluid movement. You would be surprised how fast a trained agent could draw, accurately aim, and get a shot off—faster than most people could pull the trigger.” In what seems like one motion, Bosiljevac draws a holstered semi-automatic pistol and fires three quick shots: ping ping ping. Three times he hits a metal target 20 yards away. Then Bosiljevac gets up and moves forward, constantly firing, constantly hitting the target. “Surprise, speed, and aggressive action are the cornerstones,” he says. “When you engage, aggressively identify yourself as a counter-attacker—that draws the terrorists’ entire attention onto you. They cannot help it. It is an automatic reflex—self-preservation. That pulls the terrorists’ potential deadly force away from the cockpit, flight crew, and everybody else and aims that lethal force on you.” And studies have shown that in a one-on-one gun battle between a trained terrorist and a trained agent, the agent is going to win. “I know some FAMs; all I can tell you is that they are extremely sharp, highly motivated guys,” Bosiljevac continues. “I would not want to tangle with any of them on any given day. And that is no joke. They are really, really good.”