Armed and Anonymous

On your next flight, the passenger in the seat beside you could be a federal air marshal.

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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.

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