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Help Wanted in the Sky

Friday, 21 September 2001 12:00 AM

Are you indifferent to having limited contact with your family and little time off, as specified in the job description? Does the prospect of spending time "in foreign countries that are sometimes politically or economically unstable and may pose a high probability of terrorist or criminal activity against the U.S. government" appeal to you?

And are you undaunted by places that "may present health hazards such as poor sanitation and unsafe water?"

If so, the life of a federal air marshal might be for you.

Rebecca Trexler, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson in Washington, told United Press International in a phone interview that she is not at liberty to divulge the number of new air marshals being recruited, or even how many have served in the past.

Air marshals are being trained "at undisclosed locations across the country," she said.

"We're augmenting the program now with law-enforcement officers from other government agencies who will be trained very quickly," Trexler told UPI. "That's going on while we're proceeding with this hiring campaign."

Air marshals travel incognito, vigilant for possible hijackers on domestic and foreign flights. No one aboard knows an agent is present except for the pilot and crew.

Their routes, of course, are secret, and the ammunition in their weapons is designed to stop an attacker without puncturing the aircraft's skin.

Air marshals "do have cover stories," Trexler confirmed. "They blend in with what they expect the passengers on that flight would look like.

"If it's mainly a business flight, then their dress and cover story would be that of a business person. If it's mainly students - vacations, or something like that - they might dress as a student. They could be a housewife, anybody," she said.

According to a fact sheet written by Trexler, those who volunteer for the marshal's program must pass initial psychological screening and fitness testing. The federal job posting indicates that this includes a "weapon manipulation test." The program is based on minimum use of force, the fact sheet said, "but that force can be lethal."

Successful applicants undergo "sophisticated, realistic law enforcement training," with updated instruction and "standardized preparation" before every mission. Those denied top-secret clearances for any reason are terminated.

The fact sheet is succinct to the point of opacity.

It says aspiring marshals are trained on three different outdoor ranges with moving targets, "a 360-degree live-fire shoot-house" configured as both a narrow-body and a wide-body aircraft with computer-controlled targets and a bulletproof observation platform, an indoor laser disc "judgment pistol shooting interactive training room" and a "close-quarters countermeasures/personal defense training room" with protective equipment and dummies.

What does all this mean?

Trexler said the interior of the "shoot-house" is set up like an airplane. Some marshals act as hijackers; others act as marshals and passengers. "And they're actually using real, live ammunition," she said, "so that tells you how accurate they have to be."

She said a target on a pulley gives the effect of someone running down the aisle. "Live targets" pop out from unexpected places.

Air marshals also train on two real airplanes, she said: "a wide body and a narrow body."

The Federal Air Marshal program grew from the Sky Marshal program of the 1970s, which was designed to stop hijackings to and from Cuba. The current program was created shortly after the hijacking of TWA flight 847 in June 1985.

That was when two Lebanese Shi'ite Muslims hijacked a Boeing 727 departing Athens and diverted it to Beirut, where accomplices boarded the plane. During the two-week standoff, the hijackers demanded the release of Shi'ite prisoners held by Israel and murdered Petty Officer Robert Dean Stethem, a 23-year-old U.S. Navy diver who was returning from an assignment in the Middle East.

Stethem was singled out for his military status, beaten, tortured and finally shot. For his bravery in the face of death, he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. The USS Stethem, a guided missile destroyer in the Arleigh Burke class, is named for him.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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Are you indifferent to having limited contact with your family and little time off, as specified in the job description? Does the prospect of spending time in foreign countries that are sometimes politically or economically unstable and may pose a high probability of...
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2001-00-21
Friday, 21 September 2001 12:00 AM
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