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The secrets behind the soldiers of our skies.

I CALMLY WATCHED the aisle in front of me and took in the spectacle unfolding in the cabin. Two men in black masks were prowling the aisles and yelling commands. "Nobody move!" said one of the masked men. "This is a hijacking!" said another.

I slouched back in my seat to avoid detection and watched my partner from the comer of my right eye. My partner was slouched slightly in his seat as well, watching the drama on his side of the split aisle, wide-bodied aircraft. I waited for his move. One of the hijackers pushed a flight attendant down to the ground and the other turned to see the action. They had put themselves in a vulnerable position: their eyes were focused toward the front of the aircraft instead of on the passengers. I knew that we were preparing our actions and sensed my partner's movement. In my peripheral, I watched as he began to draw his firearm. The race was on.

Within a split second my firearm was extended in front of me. Front sight focus. Multiple shots rang out and both hijackers dropped from where they once stood. "Police, don't move! Police, don't move!"

Passengers in the cabin screamed and the woman sitting next to me grabbed ahold of my shirt in panic. "Relax," I told her. "I'm one of the good guys." I quickly tucked my firearm to my chest and felt the woman's body for weapons while crouching up on my seat and wedging my body against hers. I had pinned her against the window to keep her from moving and positioned myself to have a better view of the cabin.

I caught a glimpse of my partner during my scan. He also was searching for additional threats. My partner yelled out to me in his desire to move up the aisle. "Moving!" I was stuck for the moment, but I acknowledged him anyway. I knew that I would follow him soon, after things calmed down in the aircraft.

"Move." I replied, controlling my breathing. My partner charged up the aisle like a cat, hunched low to avoid inquiring eyes. I heard a commotion toward the front of the aircraft, but avoided being drawn into the action. I knew our safety depended on both of us doing our jobs. At the moment, my job was to cover my partner until he had things under control. Once things had calmed down and he was in position, I prepared for my movement. I would use the passenger I was sitting on as a springboard, and began applying my body weight in preparation of my launch.

"Moving." I said, waiting for his acknowledgement I was not making a request; I knew that if he did not reply, I would be initiating other actions. "Standby!" my partner replied, extending his firearm toward some threat that I could not see. My partner fired two shots in quick succession while I watched the other passengers in the aircraft. Shortly after his volley, a masked figure, formerly hidden from my view, fell into my partner's aisle.

"Move!" His acknowledgement told me that it was safe for the moment. I immediately took his signal and launched from my seat, moving up the aisle and into position next to my partner. I scanned the crowd and looked at hands in an attempt to locate other threats. Everyone in the cabin remained seated; they seemed to be taking the situation well. My partner took this cue to issue further commands. "Everyone remain calm. We are the police. Place your hands on top of your heads and turn away from the aisles."

Hands went up on heads and passengers began to comply with our commands, turning away from the aisles to allow us to move freely without impediment. I noticed one passenger watching my partner's movements and took the opportunity to issue further commands.

'You! Third row back!" The man looked at me like I was from outer space. "Yes, you! Don't look at my partner. Put your hands on top of your head and turn away from the aisle." The man continued to stare at me while moving his hands down out of view. "Moving!"

"Move!" I moved toward the man like a freight train while stepping over a body in the aisle. As my foot came back down, I watched the passengers hands come up from behind the seatback in front of him. He held a camera and thrust it into my face. Before I could react, a bright flash blurred my vision.

I quickly holstered my weapon, took the camera from the passenger's hands and tossed it into the aisle. "Relax bro. I'm a reporter!" he said. I ignored the man and grabbed his head and pushed it between my knees. I wrenched his hands behind his back in an awkward and unnatural position and prepared to handcuff him. "Don't move or you're going to get hurt." I warned. The man screamed for me to release him while I applied the handcuffs. Once his hands were secure, I pushed the passenger back into his seat and quickly strapped him down with his seatbelt 'You're going to get fired for this!"

I pulled my firearm from its holster and scanned the crowd, looking for further movement. 'Do as you are told and don't move."

"Moving to you!"

"Move!" I was up the aisle and back in my original position within seconds. I began to scan the passengers again, looking for others who were unwilling to comply with our commands. My breathing was heavy. The protective mask prevented carbon dioxide from being expelled, and the adrenaline rush I felt forced me to slow down my breathing. Soon, the familiar voice of our lead tactics instructor broke our concentration. "Out of role! Everybody holster up!"

My partner and I holstered our firearms and put our hands out to our sides for the instructors to see that we no longer were armed. The role-players on the ground stood up and dusted themselves off. Passengers in the cabin helped retrieve the other weapons scattered on the aisle floor and passed them forward. Once all of the equipment was collected and everyone was holstered up, we all waited for further instruction. "Everyone holstered up?"

I looked at the hands around me. Those that had been armed with pistols gave a thumbs-up. "All right. You can all remove your headgear and have a seat" Everyone had a seat, while the role-players departed the aircraft. We all watched them leave; everyone knew that they could not be present for the sensitive debrief, as they did not have high enough security clearances.

"Clay, Tony, great job!" said the instructor. "Everyone should take note of how that was executed. That was picture perfect. Neither of you panicked when we threw some extra problems in the mix."

My colleague and friend Tony Gilotti had been my partner for the scenario, and I knew him to be a capable individual but, to me, he was just another member of the air marshal force. In the back of my mind, I knew I might end up flying with any number of individuals when I graduated in August, including senior air marshals who had been flying mission flights months after 9/11. I already had discovered through discussions with instructors that many of the senior air marshals and old hands at field offices across the country had begun to lose focus with what their mission was.

Already five weeks into the second phase, I still was no closer to understanding what the air marshal culture was, or how I would fit in to my new position when I graduated. As I watched the lead tactics instructor give our debriefing, I thought about a class we had been given weeks earlier on the history of the air marshals. Since coming to the academy I had been interested in the Federal Air Marshal culture, and the class did not help me get any closer to putting the missing pieces together.

The class had been developed by an air marshal instructor named Max Ratterman, and the short lecture only slightly had quenched my appetite for more. During the class, we had watched a PowerPoint presentation on air marshal history. In the 30-minute presentation, Ratterman had pointed out just how lacking in culture the Federal Air Marshal Service was. "There really is no culture here," he had said. "It's really up to you guys to go out and establish one."

I had been confused by what he said. I wondered how an entity that originally was formed under Pres. John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s could have no established culture. In my desire to leant more about the history of the air marshals, I had begun to speak with Ratterman during my off time. These discussions had led to a stack of notes that I kept in my hotel room, and I was anxious to fill in the missing pieces when I graduated.

I know there has to be a culture here, I thought. They talk a lot about diversity, but I already have seen the double standard on that point.

As I watched another two of my classmates prepare for their mission tactics scenario, I looked around the aircraft cabin. Everyone was cleaning their protective masks, and role-players had begun to arrive and quietly were taking their seats. Nearly everyone in the aircraft, students and instructors alike, looked like carbon copies. I remembered how I was singled out for having longer hair than the norm before leaving for phase one. As I looked around at the shaved heads and cookie-cutter figures, I thought about the operational security aspect and how it could compromise air marshals on a real aircraft. If I was an outsider, I would have thought that these men either were in the military or law enforcement. Was the culture here at the Federal Air Marshal Service one that promoted diversity for certain individuals, but pushed a silent and unspoken policy on others?

Class 802 would be walking on the stage at the Federal Aviation Administration center in two weeks, and we were preparing to wrap up over five weeks in phase two. The previous five weeks had been filled with aircraft emergency evacuation procedures, in-flight fire response, emergency medicine, and least resistant bomb location training. The majority of our training had consisted of firearms drills and polishing our weapon handling skills at the firing range.

Unfortunately, Kelly Venden had left the Federal Air Marshal Service before our class had started phase two, and I was sad that I did not get to train under him; he obviously was a person who understood the need for strict standards. It was rumored that, during his reassignment from training, Joseph D'Angelilio had offered Venden the Miami field office, which at the time was notorious for where "[dirt]bags" were sent--a disgraceful maneuver by a man that had nowhere near the experience of Venden.

D'Angelillio, the head of training in Atlantic City, had apparently had enough of people trying to tell him how to run training. By the time I had started phase two, the Triple Nickel course had been banned and become an underground movement for air marshals that were anxious and motivated to excel. These performance oriented air marshals knew how detrimental the stagnant tactics and training had begun to affect their capabilities, and they were not the types of people to rest on their laurels.

I remembered my friend Al Gionni's comment on the firearms standard: a monkey could pass the firearms qualification for the Federal Air Marshal Service. I was lucky to be in a strong class but, as I often had heard from instructors, other classes before us had not been so lucky. Many students in previous classes had struggled in firearms training, but because of their ethnicity or gender, they were carried by instructors by order of Joe D in hopes that they would "be remediated at the field office."

Clay W. Biles is a Federal Air Marshal and author of Unsecure Skies, from which this article is adapted.
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Title Annotation:Homeland Security
Author:Biles, Clay W.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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