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Airline Pilots Association

Transportation Security Administration

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 target.

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 in.

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, 2001.

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 unfriendly skies.