On the Last Line of Defense
In the aftermath of September 11th the Bush Administration focused
on Federal Air Marshals as the last line of defense against terrorists
looking to turn airplanes into weapons of mass destruction. A massive
recruiting drive has been going on since then.
At a U.S. Federal Aviation Authority facility outside Atlantic
City the week's crop of marshal recruits are on the firing line.
Around 30 men are certifying their marksmanship. Firing 60 rounds
from distances ranging from three feet to 25 yards. Shooting in
timed trials drawing from holster or with gun already in hand.
The recruits have to meet the highest shooting standards in federal
law enforcement, higher than the FBI, higher than the secret service.
All of them have law enforcement backgrounds, but they haven't
worked in an environment like the metal cigar tube of an airplane
cabin. Nor have they worked under the rules of engagement that govern
air marshals, who must work undercover and are meant to remain unidentified
until a hostage or hijack attempt reaches crisis point. Bob Clark,
head of Federal Air Marshall training, says he has to retool the
reflex responses of his troops to suit this new environment.
Essentially, what we are doing as a team is re-hijacking that
aircraft. Intimidate, dominate, and get that plane down on the
ground as soon as possible.
The men play out various hijack scenarios in a decommissioned L-1011.
Here the marshals use "simunition," a real bullet with
a paint-filled plastic tip. It hurts when you get hit.
I have a gun. This is a hijacking. Nobody move. This is a hijacking.
Do what I say. Do it now.
Police do not move. Do not move. We are the police. Slowly,
put your hands on top of your head. Everybody Put your hands
on top of your head. Interlace your fingers. Remain calm. We
are the police.
The trainer fired his round from somewhere just behind my head,
his three rounds forming a crescent of tiny red splats across the
chest of the fellow playing the hijacker. Excellent shooting but
not everyone on the program shoots with such accuracy. The interior
of the L10 is streaked with red splats where bullets missed their
Clark acknowledges that for many trainees, old habits die-hard.
CLARK: Because they may have many years behind them doing something
a certain way from a former agency. That's where training comes
GOLDFARB: Is there special training to teach people how to
move in tight spaces?
CLARK: That's actually a very good question. Well, as you know,
an airplane is only a finite distance, so our training is built
around very close quarter combat.
And Clark only has his recruits for a brief period at a time. Since
September 11th, a new class comes through once a week.
Every Sunday night there's another herd.
Federal Air marshal program administrator Greg McCullough:
It's been a grind. It's been very, very tough. What we've done
has never been done before. We can't talk about specific numbers,
but nobody's ever hired, trained, and deployed the amount of
people in this amount of time.
The only number provided by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration
is that more than 200,000 people have applied to become Federal
Air Marshals. How many were accepted for training, how many qualified
is a secret. What is known is that the age cut off for marshal positions
was extended. The oldest you can be when joining the FBI is 37,
for the marshal program it is 40. But the main question is: is one
week enough to learn how to operate in the new environment?
"Absolutely not" says Tom Quinn, head of the Federal
Air marshals program:
What you have to consider is that they've already gone through
the federal law enforcement training center, or the FBI academy,
or the DEA academy. So this is the minimum necessary to be able
assign them to an office and to deploy them.
The other number the government won't part with is how many marshals
Tom Quinn will be able to deploy. At any given moment there are
thousand of planes in the sky over the United States: commercial
flights, private, and freight carriers. Obviously you can't have
marshals on each of them, or even most of them. Quinn say that negative
is actually a positive. It means terrorists face a deadly variable
if planning to commandeer a plane. But it also leaves flight crews
with a serious dilemma. If there are no marshals on board how can
they defend their plane? It was a key topic as congress debated
the Homeland Security Bill during the summer. Many congressmen including
Don Young of Alaska called for the pilots to be armed.
And I remind my colleagues, and in my heart, as one that has
carried weapons most of his life, will tell you that 9/11 would
not have happened if that pilot had had a weapon with him at
the time of the attempt of that hijacking.
The Airline Pilot's Association agrees and has asked that its members
be allowed to keep a handgun in the cockpit. But the Bush administration
is skeptical about that request. Mike Robinson is in charge of the
Department of Transportation's Aviation operation:
Arming them creates a whole multitude of problems and difficulties,
for instance, an armed pilot is obviously going to feel compelled
to take action back in the passenger compartment of the aircraft,
which may in fact be a way of distracting him or pulling him
out of the cockpit to gain access.
Federal Air Marshal boss Tom Quinn frames the question differently:
QUINN: Why would you need to arm a pilot when that pilot can
keep anyone from entering the cockpit by applying force, wing
left, wing right, nose up, nose down, as he controls and lands
the aircraft. Why would he need a firearm to do anything more.
DOLAN: Well, coming from someone that's not an aviator that
sounds good, but that would be far more dangerous in my opinion
than arming pilots.
Captain Dennis Dolan of the Airline Pilot Association:
Because those maneuvers are very risky. Certainly if you were
going to contemplate a program like that, the pilots would have
to be trained to do this, and studies that we've conducted so
far tell us that this is not a good program to deal with that.
Like many commercial pilots Dolan learned to fly in the military.
He flew land-based and carrier based missions in Vietnam and is
a more than competent marksman. He points out that the APA's request
doesn't call for mandatory arming of pilots. It would be up to each
captain whether he wanted to carry a gun or not. More importantly
the APA is looking for other security improvements in the airplane.
You would want the cockpit door to be a series of doors, not
just one door, but as the Israelis have done where there's actually
two doors involved, and you can only open one door at a time.
If you want to call it a dead man's area, where you have a certain
amount of security in and of itself.
Before a situation gets that far, there is a first line of defense
in the cabin, according to Dolan: flight attendants.
Because they are the front line defense here of anybody in
the cabin who is going to do something that they shouldn't be
doing. They face that issue on a daily basis, and there's no
getting around that. We can't sugar coat that. That's how life
is for them.
Cabin staff have requested training in basic martial arts and policing
techniques, but so far it hasn't happened, neither the government
nor the airlines have figured out who should pay for it. Congressman
Peter DeFazio is pretty clear about who should foot that bill.
DEFAZIO: We're trying to force the hands of the airlines. I
mean the airlines don't want to pay them for the time off. They
don't want to pay for the training. But the first line of defense
is an alert cabin crew, who spots a problem before it gets to
a crisis point.
GOLDFARB: Should the federal government do that or should that
be the airline's responsibility? They are private businesses.
They are strapped.
DEFAZIO: Well, it should be the responsibility of the airlines.
The airlines have gotten many other benefits from the federal
government, including a $15 billion bailout. The airlines were
in trouble before 9-11 because of mismanagement and they're
still in trouble today because of mismanagement.
GOLDFARB: So you put it on the airlines.
DEFAZIO: It seems to me a basic thing. We require many other
things of employers in the workplace in terms of training and
safeguarding their employees. And that's a minimal thing for
the airlines to do for the flight attendants.
All of these questions: Who should be armed? Who should be trained?
What to train for? Who should pay? They are essentially theoretical
because no two terrorist situations on a plane are the same. But
there has been one very real incident since September 11th in which
all these matters came into play. It took place on December 22,
NEWS ANNOUNCER: A man is in custody in Boston this morning
for allegedly attempting to blow up an American Airlines 767
jetliner yesterday on route from Paris to Miami.
On American Airlines Flight 63, with no marshals aboard and Richard
Reid preparing to blow himself and the plane out of the sky, the
pilots and flight attendants found themselves on the front line.
Two weeks later, the crew, under the auspices of their union, the
Allied Pilots Association, videotaped a debriefing session, which
they hoped would help out other flight crews. Inside Out's Fred
Thys obtained a copy of this video.
In it, two senior flight attendants and the three pilots talked
through the events that day, events they had virtually no training
to deal with.
I heard a scream from the number three flight attendant, and
I ran up the aisle. And already the passengers were starting
to get out in the aisle, but I still could get up the aisle.
I ran up and jumped up on a seat across from where everyone
was. By the time I got there, number 3 was standing there, obviously
injured and the passengers had completely surrounded the passenger.
So I took a duty free cart, and put it across the galley there,
so he couldn't get to the cockpit.
I saw that the passengers were really involved in trying to
get this guys subdued, so that's when I took the initiative
to jump in on his hands and try to tie him up that way. And
I realized that the seatbelt wasn't going to work, and that
it only tied one of his arms. I held up my belt, and they all
took off their belts, and then we proceeded to tie his hands
up over his head. Eventually the flux cuffs came, and I told
him "if you try anything or do anything, I'm going to hit
you with the fire extinguishers and we're going to explode them
in your face." He kind of realized we were serious about
that and so he didn't try anything.
Confident that the passenger, Richard Reid was under control, the
third pilot searched his belongings.
I went in the back and that's when I found a pair of shoes
on the ground. There was a cord coming out of the shoe. My first
reaction was, "maybe I'm going to pull the cord and the
cord is going to come out that he was going to strangle somebody
with, or maybe a knife is going to come out." And I got
the shoes, showed them to him, said are these your shoes. He
said yes. Then I took them up to the front, and one of the dumbest
things I ever did was to call the cockpit to say, you know,
I'm coming in with something. On the way in there, I smelled
the cord and I see the burnt end, and I think, "Oh my gosh,
this is what he was trying to light." This is now not a
shoe and a weapon, this is a bomb.
At this point, the plane was mid-Atlantic, almost three hours away
from the first possible landing point in the United States, Boston's
Logan Airport. It was the flight attendant's responsibility to deal
with the bomb.
The shoes were brought back to the galley, and two of the other
flight attendants and I then started to do our explosive devices
procedures, with the blankets and the pillows, and we watered
the galley with liquids and I was just so concerned that there
was somebody else who was going to do something else, but I
really was focused on really just keeping an eye on the cabin,
but we did have the explosive device. We were afraid, we made
sure that no one came near it. Of course, anytime the airplane
even made a little jolt, we were like - uhhh- you know we were
just - a little disturbed, to say the least.
The cabin crew secured the bomb according to procedure, and the
decision was made to search the passengers.
And the whole time, I'm feeling bad for these people that were
having to do this, but they were very nice about it, they were
very understanding. This is what we had to do.
We kind of got together as a little bit of a group back there,
and I said that I think that nobody should go into the overhead
bins, we should lock the lavs and I relayed this to the passengers,
not over the PA, but in a group-by-group speaking session, because
I wanted to look at each group of passengers, make sure that
they got the information I was telling them. The information
I told them is, "Get to know your neighbor. We are in a
very volatile situation. If you're afraid to know your neighbor,
tell one of us, because we'll come and we'll talk to your neighbor
and find out what the scenario is there."
Everything else was an evolution of ideas. We really weren't
prepared for something of that magnitude.
As the plane headed towards Boston, it was accompanied by F-16
fighter jets. While the cabin crew tried to keep people calm, in
the cockpit, the pilots kept in constant communication, via the
ground, with the jets. The approach to Logan airport required the
plane to fly directly at the Boston skyline, before hanging a sharp
right turn onto the runway.
Pilots were concerned that the fighter jets know of their every
maneuver, lest they mistake that approach as being an attack.
Once on the ground, the crew could breathe again, and reflect on
what they had learned.
We have to be aggressive I think in looking at our passengers
- not aggressive action towards them, but just in being more
aware, stay in their aisle, stay alert, know where your emergency
equipment is. Don't be afraid to ask questions of them. If something
doesn't sound right to you, it probably isn't. Go immediately
to the cockpit.
Perhaps for all the millions being spent, the single greatest security
apparatus is something money can't buy, the common sense and ordinary
heroism of flight crews and passengers flying in the increasingly