Close Menu
Back To Blog

Key Responsibilities Of Air Marshals And The Type Of Body Armour Needed

Written by: Robert Kaiser

Air Marshals undergoing intense training
Air Marshals undergoing intense training

In response to the truly shocking and unforgettable event that shocked the world on the 11th September 2001, airlines across the globe took a number of now necessary actions to protect the lives of their passengers.

Air marshals (also known as sky marshals or flight marshals) are undercover law enforcement or counter terrorist agent on board a commercial aircraft to counter aircraft hijackings.

It has become their mission to detect, deter and defeat hostile individuals on board on an aircraft. They are highly trained in investigative techniques and criminal or terrorist behaviour recognition. To state the obvious… they are clearly pretty good at blending in with passengers.

Sig Sauer P250 Compact
Sig Sauer P250 Compact

The sidearm of choice of the Federal Air Marshal Service is the Sig Sauer P250 Compact, after previously using the P229. While the P229 is the company’s most widely-used pistol by law enforcement professionals nationwide, it is only available in three calibres and does not offer the customisation of the P250.

However, the decision to utilise the P250 might not have been as transparent as one would hope for at that time. The home of the Director of the Federal Air Marshal Service was raided in 2013… following allegations that Federal Air Marshal supervisor D.P. was using his relationship with Sig Sauer to obtain discounted and free guns. Apparently he then provided them to high-up agency officials for their personal use.

Anyway… suggesting air marshals should wear concealable bullet proof vests does not necessary mean I also suggest there is a high risk of firearms being used within an aircraft environment.  However I certainly suggest there is some risk we need to accept, and this one includes the risk and threat of all sorts of types of improvised ballistic weapon, as well as improvised edged weapon or hypodermic needles, which can represent immediate danger to the cabin crew and passengers.

A brief video of the Israeli Air Marshal training can be viewed here:

[youtube_sc url= width=600 rel=0 fs=1]

So, who are these air marshals?  When did this all start?

The air marshals are not a new phenomenon and their job can certainly not be described as ‘cool’ or ‘overly exciting’. They have been on American planes for more than 50 years. The ‘sky marshal’ programme was set up in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy who was concerned about the growing threat of hijacking. The US Federal Aviation Administration began its official “Sky Marshal” program in 1968.

President Richard Nixon boosted the numbers of air marshals and in 1974 gave responsibility for the service to the Federal Aviation Authority.

The numbers were again increased by President Ronald Reagan after the hijacking of TWA flight 947 in June 1985. Lebanese terrorists seized the aircraft in Athens, demanding the release of Shia prisoners. The American public was horrified when American navy diver Robert Stetham was shot and his body dumped on the tarmac. I understand the U.S. Government is still offering a $5 million reward for information that will bring the killers to justice. Anyway… in the very same year 1985 the responsible authority to fight crime on board on aircrafts became known as the Federal Air Marshal Service.

In 1987 the service had 400 marshals working on planes, with a brief to disarm potential armed hijackers, but when terrorists started bombing aircraft rather than hijacking them, attention turned to security on the ground and the service went into near-terminal decline.

Clay Biles, a former Navy SEAL who spent five years as a federal air marshal and is the author of a book about Federal Air Marshals (FAMS) called ‘Unsecure Skies’ says the job of an air marshal is nothing more than watching the cockpit door. “It’s based on the 9/11 mentality of a terrorist hijack team assaulting the cockpit to assume control and fly the aircraft into a designated target as a weapon of mass destruction.”

Would an air marshal get involved in any seriously heated argument? No, they wouldn’t and Clay Biles will agree with that.

On 1st November 2013, when Officer Gerardo Hernandez was shot by a lone gunman at Los Angeles International Airport and lay bleeding on the ground for more than half an hour and later died, Biles says that a team of air marshals was less than 100 yards from the shooter yet failed to respond or engage the threat.

Biles claims their inaction was mostly due to a mentality and unwritten policy that exists at the FAMS’ by upper management that tells air marshals not to get involved.

The Canadian Air Carrier Protection/Protective Program (CACPP) began just 13 years ago on exactly the 17th September 2002, when an agreement was signed between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with Transport Canada and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority. This program is been taken care of by specially and highly trained undercover, armed officers, known as Aircraft Protective Officers.  They operate on selected domestic and international flights only.  Although these professionals are classed as ‘peace officer’ within Canadian territories, they are acting under the Tokyo Convention as a legal basis for getting involved in an incident outside of Canadian airspace.

By law, these officers do not require a permit for importing or exporting their duty firearms (using very unique ammunition) or for justifying their use of their concealable bullet proof vests when crossing the border.

The Commonwealth instituted an Air Security Officer (ASO) Program under the Australian Federal Police in 2001. This particular programme provides a discreet anti-hijacking capability for Australian civil aviation by providing armed security personnel on board of their aircrafts. This involves both random and intelligence-led placement of armed ASOs on flights operated by Australian registered planes, which includes domestic and international flights into and out of Australia.

In Europe law makers have decided on crystal clear rules allowing the use of armed guards on EU flights under strict conditions in early 2008.  Although sky marshals within the EU do already operate and wear bullet proof vests, they will be able to carry weapons on flights only if all nations involved agree. These rules were backed by all 27 EU states.

However, under these fairly new regulations, if member states want to adopt more stringent measures than the basic agreed standards, they will have to be “relevant, objective, non-discriminatory and proportional to the risk”

PPSS Group’s Concealable Bullet Proof Vest Model CV1 is ideal for air marshals due to their low weight, low thickness and outstanding breathability.

Personally I feel that anyone with such great responsibilities should be equipped appropriately, and concealable bullet proof vests must be a part of such equipment. The ordinary passenger (including you and me) may well rely on their ability to operate effectively even when any type of shot within an aircraft has been fired or other weapons have been used.

Due to their huge responsibilities and operational risks these professionals require the thinnest, lightest, most comfortable and most concealable bullet proof vests out there.  New and truly outstanding NIJ IIIA+ concealable bullet proof vests have been developed with especially the operational requirements and personal safety of air marshals in mind.

PPSS Group have developed such covert bullet proof vests, with the aid of outstanding and groundbreaking high performance materials. Manufactured in the UK and utilising a ground-breaking European high performance ballistic material, Cordura® 180 and temperature regulating Outlast® space technology based base layer fabric are part of our latest development.  Our covert NIJ IIIA bullet resistant vest model CV1 also offer additional protection from Tokarev Ball 7.62 x 25mm and Makarov 9 x 18mm.  They have been designed to offer especially air marshals the exceptional protection and comfort they require. They are also undetectable when being checked by metal detectors.

Due to their ‘low profile’ and strict order to remain ‘undetected’, numbers of assaults on air marshals are low despite widely reported incidents, such as the Federal Air Marshal who was attacked on board a plane with a needle containing an unknown substance (click here) on 8th September 2014.

For further information please comment on my blog or view our website email or call us on +44 (0) 845 5193 953

As always… be safe!


Related Blog Posts

Created with Sketch. 1 May 2017

Understanding Covert Bullet Resistant Vests

Created with Sketch. 23 November 2012

Body Armour Can Help Protect Lone Workers!

Created with Sketch. 6 July 2011

We must protect prison officers with covert body armour!

Created with Sketch. 30 May 2015

Research Project: K9 Bullet Proof Vests / Body Armour