Air marshal program girding to guard against future threats

FAA center working overtime since attacks to train new marshals

War On Terrorism

The Nation

November 09, 2001|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

It's High Noon in the crowded cabin of an airliner. An air marshal leaps from his seat, draws his handgun and fires with Wyatt Earp-like accuracy to thwart a hijacker trying to commandeer the plane.

In the old movie, law man Gary Cooper battles the desperadoes on the dusty streets of a town in the Old West. This air marshal is practicing for a showdown at 30,000 feet. The close-quarters firing drill is captured on video and conducted inside a decommissioned Boeing 727 at a federal training center in Atlantic City, N.J.

As Americans ponder the frozen images of Sept. 11 - planes crashing, the twin towers collapsing, more than 4,500 people dying - the Federal Air Marshal program is moving to prevent a repeat of that dreadful day.

Airport security bills

In the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in this nation's history, both the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate have passed sweeping airport security legislation that includes increasing the number of air marshals, strengthening cockpit doors and other measures to prevent terrorism.

But the bills differ on who should employ the workers who screen baggage and operate checkpoints at the nation's major airports - the federal government or private contractors working under federal guidelines. A conference committee must work out a compromise, and there is no assurance of success, despite President Bush's call for both sides "to work together to send a strong and effective bill to my desk."

Even as the lawmakers wrangle, the air marshals are girding to guard against future threats. Officials at the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees the program, won't say how many air marshals they plan to hire, citing national security. It seems unlikely that all 35,000 daily flights in the United States - including commuter flights in propeller planes - will be staffed. Other flights on jumbo jets could have multiple agents.

FAA Administrator Jane F. Garvey will only say that her agency plans to spend "a lot."

Already, federal law enforcement officers from the Treasury and Justice departments have been drafted into the air marshal program, along with some Park Service rangers. They augment a small staff dating back to the 1970s and an earlier wave of hijackings. In recent years, the marshals have served principally on international flights.

Since Sept. 11, the FAA has received more than 67,000 applications for air marshal jobs.

Marksmanship is key

The FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City has been working overtime lately to train new marshals. The facility has three different outdoor ranges with moving targets and sophisticated virtual-reality computer equipment that allows the marshals to simulate situations aboard planes and at airports. To give the exercises the feel of reality, they are conducted on the 727 narrow-body aircraft and a wide-body L-1011.

Marksmanship is a key part of the training at the New Jersey facility. The air marshals are taught to shoot without hitting passengers or hydraulic lines sitting behind the cabin's skin.

Firing a gun on a plane is inherently dangerous because a bullet could pierce the plane's skin, causing the passenger cabin to depressurize.

While the FAA declines to say what sort of ammunition the air marshals will employ, pilots and others familiar with the program say they are using guns loaded with standard-issue hollow-point bullets.

The danger could be lessened by using frangible bullets that disintegrate when they hit hard surfaces, such as the wall of an airliner's cabin. Hollow points are more likely to penetrate the plane if they miss the intended target, but they have a reliable record for stopping adversaries.

While the terrorists who commandeered and crashed four planes Sept. 11 were armed with box cutters, pilots and other security officials fear that future adversaries will be better armed.

In New Orleans recently, a man with a loaded gun in his briefcase managed to get past security and board a flight, demonstrating continued problems with airport security.

One worry is that terrorists could pose as police officers or federal agents who are empowered to carry guns on aircraft.

Agents from at least 130 federal agencies, ranging from the Bureau of Printing and Engraving to the Department of Agriculture, and thousands of state and local police departments are now eligible to carry their side arms when they travel by air.

"A law enforcement officer can walk up to a metal detector at an airport, show their credentials, and walk into the secured area with one or more weapons on their person," says Capt. Phillip S. Beall, a spokesman for the independent union that represents 12,000 American Airlines pilots and a law enforcement officer with 17 years' experience.

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