Arms locked out in front of me, I sweep my .357 semiautomatic pistol back and forth across the panicked passengers. My heart is thumping wildly, my breathing too rapid. Fighting the tunnel vision that comes from fear, I try to remember to scan the plane for threats. Just seconds earlier, I had heard the first bloodcurdling yell--"They're stabbing people back here!"
My partner had gone to the back to take on the attackers, and I had drawn my gun, rushing to the front of the first-class cabin and shouting "Police! Police! Police!" I whirled and faced the passengers, with my back to the cockpit door that I am to protect with my life. In these close quarters, I feel confident about only one thing: my Sig Sauer 229 handgun and its hollow-point bullets designed to mushroom inside the human body.
I can't see my partner. I can't hear him either; stress can impair hearing as well. I am only a few feet from horrified people yelling their lungs out, but it is as if I were deaf. I also feel that my eyes are bulging with the same terror I see in the passengers' faces.
Suddenly I see a passenger jump into my aisle, grasping something in both hands. I start to aim at him, but under the pressure I am experiencing, my muscles aren't responding well; it's as if my arms were moving through setting concrete. I hear the pop, pop, pop of his weapon. One round hits my stomach, another my right arm. The last, just below my eye. Trained to keep fighting even if shot, I focus the front sight of my Sig at his heart and pull the trigger repeatedly, riding the recoil. My assailant drops to the floor. I look for my partner and see he has taken down the other attacker. The plane is secure.
If this scenario had been real, I would be dead. Instead, it was just another day of hellishly realistic training for federal air marshals, the armed, plainclothes agents who patrol the skies. In this case, the bullets were made of paint; the terrorists and passengers were actors. And I was standing in as a federal air marshal in training--the first journalist ever allowed into the program's secure facility to drill alongside recruits.
The men and women selected to be federal air marshals spend 11 weeks in one of the best--and most specialized--federal law-enforcement training programs. Before 9/11, the U.S. employed just 33 marshals. Since then, thousands have been hired (the precise number is classified). The government has spent $31 million improving facilities at the Federal Air Marshal Training Academy in Atlantic City, N.J., adding, among other things, mock airplane cockpits and a $400,000 NFL-size gym.
Nearly every air marshal was once a soldier or a cop, so most ease right into the male-dominated, boot-camp atmosphere. Even a sedentary office worker like me felt a little bolder when I put on the trainee uniform (gray T shirt, black cargo pants, black boots), strapped my leather holster to my side and listened to the first instructor tell the class, "You've got to have a winning mentality. You have to believe you're Superman. Or maybe the Black Knight in Monty Python." I laughed, but my classmates didn't; they just nodded in silent agreement.