We’re cruising at 30,000 feet. Suddenly a hijacker sneaks up I behind a flight attendant and puts a gun to her head. I’ve got to act….
That’s never really happened to me. But it could, almost any day of the week, since I’m one of thousands of Federal Air Marshals (also known as FAMs) who fly on commercial airliners to protect the public. We wear regular clothes and try to look, as the FAM director puts it, like “quiet professionals.” But we’re here for a reason. In my case, ifs 9/11. I’m 40 and I’d spent my entire career either in the Army or
police work. I have a 4-year-old son and I want the world to be safe for him. So I signed up in June 2002. Plus, I’m psychotically patriotic. I can’t get through “God Bless America” without bawling my eyes out!
For security reasons, I can’t tell you anything but my first name, Becky, or show you my face. But I can describe what a typical workday is like:
On a recent sunny morning, I leave my apartment in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. My assignment: the Delta Airlines shuttle between Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and LaGuardia in New York City. People on the road must think I’m crazy, because I spend the drive preparing by actually shouting out commands like, “Everybody stay calm!” and “Drop your weapon!”
At the airport, I stop at Starbucks for a mocha. Just one shot of espresso—too much caffeine dehydrates you, a big concern when you fly 50 hours a week. (And, no, I don’t get frequent flyer miles.) As a woman in law enforcement, I have an advantage. People don’t suspect I’m a marshal. I make a stop in the restroom and make sure my weapon is concealed—a SIG Sauer .357-caliber semi-automatic. I’m also trained in hand-to-hand combat and know that a kick to the outside thigh, six to eight inches below the hip bone, is enough to bring somebody down like a sack of potatoes. Personally I haven’t made an arrest as a FAM, but since the program was revved up after 9/11, agents have arrested 30 passengers for offenses ranging from carrying weapons to interfering with the flight crew. We’re there primarily to guard against terrorists, but we can arrest anyone who’s breaking the law. One guy tried to set his seat
on fire and another had fondled a 16-year-old girl.
On the plane I introduce myself to the crew. I tell them that, in this case, there is no specific threat to the aircraft, a Boeing 727, and that seems to reassure them. One attendant says she’s glad I’m aboard. Finally I ask if there’ll be any VIPs or LEOs—law enforcement officers—booked on the flight. Turns out there are, at least by Washington standards: Ethel Kennedy and former senator Bob Dole.
The passengers are now boarding. I’ve already searched the plane, looking for weapons and bombs. Now I take my seat and pull out a USA Today. Really, I’m paying more attention to the people coming down the aisle. I look at what they’re wearing and carrying. I’m looking for aberrations: a guy wearing shorts on a flight to Alaska, a passenger who carries nothing on a long-haul flight. You can pick up a lot from cell phone conversations, too. And I’m also looking for anyone wearing a military uniform or insignia who I could ask for help if I had to.
After takeoff the cabin crew serves a meal: bagels and orange juice. I’m not a big fan of airplane food, but I eat it just to be like everyone else. Luckily, nobody wants to talk to me. But if they do, I’ve got a few cover stories, like I’m visiting family or friends.
We’re approaching LaGuardia. Below I can see the buildings of lower Manhattan out the window, and a woman in my row is saying how strange it is not to see the Twin Towers.
We’ve landed—another flight without incident. When I was a cop, I measured my success by the number of arrests I made. Now success means nothing happened on the plane. After I get off the flight, my cell phone beeps. I have a text message: “BOLO [be on the lookout] for federal fugitive Daniel San Diego.” My next flight leaves at 1:30—back to Washington, then home to my son in Virginia. I don’t see him every day, but he’s well cared for by family and friends. And he knows what I do—he’ll point out airplanes and say that’s where I work. That makes me feel good. This job isn’t about recognition; it’s about safety and security for all our families.