Passenger Air Travel - When the Bullets Run Out

The student candidates had a brief moment of clarity during the second phase of a two-phase Federal Air Marshal in 2008 when an instructor said, “I keep plenty of extra ammunition and magazines in my bag, just in case. … [But] don’t get caught” doing the same thing. The instructor was referring to a policy, which is still in effect, that limits the amount of ammunition that could be carried by a federal air marshal on mission flights.

This raises a serious question, “What happens if and when the marshal runs out of ammunition – 30,000 feet up?” Of course, if that were to occur, calling for a time-out during combat would obviously not be a viable option. Something more would be needed.

Instilling Awareness in Air Marshal Candidates 

Air marshals must be prepared at all times – both physically and mentally – to take action, usually through the intelligent use of some well-articulated counter-terrorist engagement tactics. Depending on the hiring demand, multiple trainings for air marshals are conducted each year by the Federal Air Marshal Service and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Topics of those trainings include hand-to-hand combat tactics, firearms skills, behavioral recognition, and aircraft-specific tactics. For the mentioned above, however, there was only a single one-hour course that focused on mental preparation, including establishment of the proper mindset for what could be an extremely perilous assignment. In 2008, at the start of the course, an unidentified middle-aged man – hunched over and looking very nonthreatening – walked to a podium at the front of the fairly large room and started a PowerPoint presentation.

After the projected title appeared, the “presenter” turned around and slowly moved toward the students. He approached one of them, who was sitting in the first row but not totally focused on any potential danger. Suddenly, and without warning, the presenter pulled a hatchet from behind his back and slammed it into the desk where the candidate was seated. The presenter then stepped back and pulled a knife from the shaft of his walking cane and yelled at the candidate, “Get up!” But the candidate was frozen in place and could not move.

That lesson later served as a vivid reminder to all members of the about staying alert and being ready at all times to expect the unexpected. After graduating from the academy in 2008, the new air marshal recruits started flying missions to various areas of the world. Because the teams passed one another so frequently – one group entering a country while another group was departing – much of the mystique of the Federal Air Marshal Service started to slowly fade away.

There was another reality the now much more experienced students had to face. For most of them, part of the initial mystique they experienced in their training days was the notion that air marshals had the highest firearms qualification standard of all of the federal government’s law enforcement agencies. If that had been true in the past, it certainly was, and is, no longer the case – nor is it necessarily the most important qualification for those protecting an aircraft and its passengers.

Collaborative Efforts at 30,000 Feet 

Today, although the Federal Air Marshal Service still uses the same qualification standards that were used when air marshals first carried revolvers – from the 1960s to the 1980s – many current candidates are better qualified to meet today’s more complex security requirements. They are eager to learn, physically fit, and diverse enough in appearance to blend in well with other passengers.

Their mindset is also considerably different, as is the collective mindset of most passengers. Ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks – during which a mere handful of relatively small terrorist teams took control of four large passenger aircraft and used three of them as explosive WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) – U.S. air marshals and the American people have taken the safety and security of aircraft and the people onboard much more seriously than ever before in the nation’s history.

For air marshals, the most obvious change is in their training. Unlike firearms skills, which can be taught and improved in both the room and on the firing range, there is much greater emphasis on operational security and, most important of all, common sense. Both are much more difficult to teach, but the lessons learned from 9/11 and other hijackings, both before and since that infamous date, have helped immensely to instill the higher skill sets now needed. This is particularly true when the bullets run out and the air marshals have nothing left but their training, stamina, and individual as well as collective mindsets to keep them – and the aircraft’s passengers and crew – alive.

Stonycreek, Shanksville & Uncommon Valor 

Passengers and crew members also have proved to be invaluable in responding to actual or attempted terrorist attacks. Since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, both of those groups also have developed their own collective mindsets – one of determination to never permit “another 9/11” takeover to occur. The first and still best example of this new national mindset occurred on 9/11 itself, when the passengers and flight crew took control of United Airlines Flight 93, which ultimately crashed in a meadow in Stonycreek Township near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. All post-crash evidence suggests that those aboard Flight 93 were determined to save the lives of their fellow citizens on the ground – probably in the Washington, D.C., area – even if doing so meant losing their own lives.

Those passengers already knew – because they had been listening on their headsets about the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon – that the moment had come to act, before their own aircraft was used as another flying bomb. In essence, therefore, the bullets had run out for the passengers and crew onboard Flight 93. They had nothing to fight with but their own collective mindset and their determination to stop a threat to not only the aircraft and their own lives, but also to many other potential victims on the ground.

The lesson is clear: Preparedness at 30,000 feet is not necessarily about who had the best score for his or her firearms qualification, who could run the fastest, or who is in the best physical condition. And it also does not include sleeping on the flight (after having had too many drinks the night before, perhaps) or being complaisant after taking the same “uneventful” flight perhaps a hundred times before. In other words, when the air marshal’s bullets run out, everyone – all hands on board the aircraft – has a personal responsibility to protect the aircraft. And, by doing so, to protect those on the ground as well.

The lesson learned should never be forgotten: Air marshals, passengers, and crew members should continually ask themselves how prepared they would be if a hijacking, in-flight bombing, or other potentially disastrous incident were to occur while they are onboard. There may or may not be air marshals on every passenger flight to, from, or within the United States – but there are flight crews (and usually passengers) on each and every flight. Combating terrorism in the skies is therefore not simply the job and duty of air marshals, but requires the vigilant and proper mindset of everyone onboard.

Clay W. Biles

Clay W. Biles is a former U.S. Federal Air Marshal (13 April 2008 to 3 June 2013). He currently lives and works in Mexico assisting high-risk personnel. He received the Distinguished Honor Graduate Award for his air marshal training , and from 2011 to 2012 served as the lead firearms instructor for the Service’s San Francisco Field Office. He is a former U.S. Navy corpsman, Stanford Medical Center researcher, and bodyguard (for President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan). His new book and first-hand account of the Federal Air Marshal Service will be available in August 2014.



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