Air Marshal Confessions – Flying with the Good, the Bad and Very Ugly

This story was contributed by Sean Black, a reader who was one the first U.S.Federal Air Marshals to be selected following 9/11. Follow him on Twitter @Official_SBlack
Are you a fan of flying? Allow your imagination to wander back in time and you will find yourself flying in style as Don Draper with a cigarette in one hand, and a martini the other. Your shoes stayed on and there were no X-rated body scans. It was a good time. Many things have changed since 1978's deregulation and the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Flying can be a stressful experience. You are forced to move and herd like cattle through American airports. Today's passengers must endure lengthy security lines, loud and demanding drunks, screams and sick children, as well as a host of other unpleasant experiences, such as being pushed through airports like cattle. All of these personalities can be combined on a 37,000-foot aluminum tube and it is a recipe for disaster. It's not surprising that airline travel is now more about safety and survival rather than carefree adventures. It's a test of patience, not perfection.

Although flying has changed dramatically for Americans, pilots and crewmembers still prefer safe and carefree flights. How do I find out?

Over twenty years of my career I have been in Law Enforcement. I was also one of the first U.S. Federal Air Marshals to be selected following 9/11.

First week as an Air Marshal

Many of us were called up from the special ranks, including veterans SWAT officers, Navy SEALS and Delta Force, to assist in the aftermath of September 11. Anybody who knew me before I made the jump into the undercover world would have dismissed me. I was the poster boy for the wild bunch. After being kicked out of my parents' house by their divorce, I was 15 years old and worked various glamorous jobs. These included ranch hands, fruit pickers, and ranch hand. At seventeen years old, I was finally able to see the light and join the U.S. Army. This was where I found my adrenaline-charged calling, jumping out of perfectly good planes and earning the silver jump wings. All roads eventually led me to Law Enforcement, where I reached the top of the ladder to SWAT and Undercover Investigations.

Twenty years have passed since the September 11th attacks and many of us are now retiring from Law Enforcement. We were witnesses to the changing aviation landscape, where security was at the forefront of our lives not too long ago. Let's look at your flight between Los Angeles and London to reveal the secretive world. Most likely, you have played the Air Marshal guessing games. As an International Air Marshal supervisor, it was a challenge to think outside of the box. When covering critical flights, I tried to bring some humor and fun to the undercover team.

Some Air Marshals will fly in Business or First class to protect your flight. This is a well-known fact. You would have guessed that they were wearing a nice military haircut and a high-end golf shirt. You were wrong. Our Air Marshal is dressed in a clerical collar, masquerading as an ordained catholic priest. He is the one sitting at the window, discussing the finer points.

United Airlines B767 onboard

United B757-2200 in the cockpit

If you look closely, you might also have missed the other Air Marshal. Our pride and joy, she is the female undercover Air Marshal. She is the one with the SIG Sauer.357 semi-automat strapped to her body, and she is reading Better homes and Garden magazine.

Air Marshals use tricks and deception to play the grey guy. This is a loving name for an ordinary person, who, for lack of a better description, is quite unremarkable. He or she is just a regular Joe. We create fake professions and use fake names. To fool passengers, we create backstories and then watch the bad guys. That's why some flights are so popular.

Meet President George W. Bush

I'll be carrying my fake Australian or Irish passports. You may know me as Rory O Neil, Connor Brown.

Many people believe Federal Air Marshals can't drink alcohol on flights. Here is where tradecraft and trickery collide. It is a great feeling to be ignored while sitting in Business Class sipping a Bloody Mary. You didn't know that the flight attendant working in co-hoots brought a small bottle vodka to mix into my Bloody Mary. It is not vodka. You can see the water in the bottle. We do it with a little bit of hand. It's a simple trick. Watch me stir the vodka and you will see a trick that alters your perception. It is this new perception that makes reality.

Air Marshall Training

We have developed a sixth sense of criminal and terrorist behavior over the many years we spent on patrol. We have a good sense of what the good, bad, and ugly aspects of flying. We are able to observe the behavior of passengers every day and draw conclusions about human behavior. We have seen it all, from drugged-up celebrities to sex-crazed cult leader, real estate scammers to 60-year-old hookers heading to Vegas to make their fortunes.

Flying can be fun if people work together and use common sence. We appreciate passengers who are friendly, polite, and have all of their paperwork in order. We are grateful for those who are kind to Flight attendants, crew and passengers. Your attention to detail and the fact that you board with your assigned group is a great thing. We are happy to see you take the time for personal hygiene, and we appreciate those who don't fly in pajamas.

Despite all the positive behavior we experience, there are times when we have to deal with the negative. Some people believe that Air Marshals should arrest drunken and resolve passenger disputes. We generally avoid those situations. We prefer to stay in complete secrecy because we don't want to be exposed or drawn out by the flight attendants.

We don't harass hookers in our undercover work. We stop the hijackers.

Air Marshals can give you a feel for how it will be before you even board your flight. We stare at the boarding area, and we cringe with Gate agents. She is the one who tries in vain to get passengers to board with their assigned group. They defy logic and crowd together, clinging to and clogging the gates. They are known as Gate Lice in our industry.

We are not above being abused by European hikers who come aboard with their oversized backpacks as U.S. Federal Air Marshals. Bad behavior doesn't just affect the young. It's also a problem for hormone-charged, enamored couples who want to be the top of the heap. As if all that weren't enough, flight attendants have to deal with a constant stream of overweight and oversized passengers bringing their luggage onboard. We are astonished at the expectation of flight attendants to lift, juggle, and stuff their large bags into overhead bins.

Every day we are faced with horrible situations. As a parent changes the diapers of her baby, we watch in horror. We watch in horror as the twelve year old picks up his nose and digs for gold, before he wipes the magazine's crusty prize.

The award for worst behavior, the crme de crme goes out to the feet pickers and pimple poppers who fly on today's aircraft.

A retired TV actress was seen in first-class on a recent flight from Honolulu. She took off her sandals, and began to peel off the skin. We were able to see the latent evidence of her crime after the flight. The only thing that remained was a heap of dried and scaly human flesh. Finally, let's not forget about the old pastime of rudely acting flyers. They're the ones who spray everyone with a toxic gas plume as they move through the cabin. Crop dusting is a subtle art form.

As an Air Marshal Supervisor, I've had many roles to play for passengers, fellow agents and crew members. I've been a mentor, counselor, priest, lawyer, psychologist, and social worker.

Maybe it's age or experience. It is the flight we dream about. It's all about what we love about flying. Sometimes, it can also be about things we don't like.

Public event to protect Halle Berry

George Clooney's safety at public event

As I near the end of my Law Enforcement career, I notice that I fly less and enjoy my time on the ground. Protecting actors and occasionally spoiled celebrities is what I do most of my time. That's okay. It's all part of the cycle. Every now and again, I look up at the sky and long for my Airline partners, the scent of jet fuel, warm cookies, and occasional meals in flight. As I get ready to board the next flight to Mexico, I pray for the best human condition. We like it when everyone arrives on time, safely, sound, and healthy. This is the American way.