Armed and Anonymous

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

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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.”

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