Inside the secret world of Federal Air Marshals

Channel 4 given unprecedented access to training

By Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects

MIAMI - Inside a non-descriptive building in South Florida is a very covert group like no other. Channel 4's Scott Johnson and Channel 4 crime and safety analyst Ken Jefferson recently returned from an unprecedented look at how Federal Air Marshals train to keep you and your family safe.

You can call the Federal Air Marshal program a secret world because the men and women stay hidden and specifically train to blend in. They sit with you in the terminal, board the plane with you, even protect you on the ground when you'd never expect it.

As news stories break, like with the "Underwear Bomber," the "Shoe Bomber" and most recently the Boston Marathon bombings, you hear about the FBI and other Federal agencies, but seldom do you hear about Federal Air Marshals.

IMAGES: Federal Air Marshal training

"We've been termed as the quiet professionals, and that's the way we'd like to remain, the quiet professionals," said Supervisory Federal Air Marshal Steven Petrick.

On the first day at the training facility, Channel 4 was given access to a unique training tool, a mock airplane. It's important for Air Marshals to train with every possible scenario that can occur inside a plane, even at 30,000 feet. And there are hundreds of scenarios they are prepared for.

"Now you're in a long tube?" Johnson said.

"Absolutely," Petrick said. "It changes the game tremendously. As a police officer on the street, you can fall back and take cover. When you're in the tube, it's you and the bad guy."

Air Marshals can do all kinds of things inside their mock airplane, even fill the cabin with smoke, make sounds and cause the lights to flicker in and out of darkness.

"We'll have other Air Marshals in here participating in the training. And that adds to the realism for the Marshals that are actually acting," said Nate Gulick, acting assistant supervisory Air Marshal in charge.

The agency was started in the 60s to handle an increased amount of hijackings. It fell under the Federal Aviation Administration. But at the time, there were only a few dozen Air Marshals in the country. It wasn't until Sept. 11, 2001, that all changed. Following the terrorist attacks, the Federal Air Marshal Program was moved to the Department of Homeland Security.

Petrick was a sheriff's deputy in Pinellas County.

"[I] had dreams of Secret Service, FBI, and then Sept. 11 happened," he said.

Petrick sent in his application overnight when he heard the Air Marshal Program was expanding to hundreds of Air Marshals around the county. He's been with the program ever since.

Petrick and his fellow Air Marshals have trained tirelessly to help prevent similar attacks from happening again. And if something were to happen and an Air Marshal needed to take action in the air, they train to protect the plane and the passengers.

"A child pops up, someone gets in your way. People are screaming. That's why we train so much and so hard," Petrick said. "We try to throw in every scenario possible just so when that comes, we're ready."

But you won't recognize the Air Marshal sitting on your flight. They are also trained to blend in.

"You've got passengers who probably want to chat, bump over luggage and kids. How do you prepare for that and make sure no one knows who you are?" Johnson asked.

"We train hard," Petrick said. "The men and women of the Air Marshal's Service are professionals. It's what we do."

Air Marshals are also the best shooters in the country. They have higher marksmanship scores than any other agency, including the Secret Service and the FBI.

"We train to never miss," Gulick said. "There's a lot of training that goes into that. A lot of time spent here in the simulator and on the range, and I guarantee you there's no one better."

"And I assume better than anyone else on that flight?" Johnson asked.

"Better than anyone," Gulick said.

Jefferson watched as the men and women showed how they train to see how it compares to police training.

"They've got very high expectations of proficiency," he said. "It's very unique, tight quarters, travel hundreds, thousands of miles. They have to be proficient with a firearm."

After meeting with the Air Marshals, Jefferson believes they are equipped for something else. New Transportation Security Administration regulations are being debated right now to allow small pocket knives on airplanes.

"The logic behind it is, well, it can't do anything that bad," Jefferson said. "Well, if you gouge someone's eyes out, you can blind them. If you get them in the throat, you can hit the carotid and cause death or harm. So I think the idea or thought of idea to check that on airplane is very bad idea."

The Air Marshals can't comment on that specifically, only to say they are prepared for any threat.

Abel Reynoso is assistant supervisory Air Marshal in charge. He's the second in command at the Miami Field Office. He says getting everyone where they need be safely is what they do.

"We are always looking. That's our specialty," Reynoso said. "The whole point of an Air Marshal is to make sure the airplane leaves and lands safely. If nothing happens and you didn't know an Air Marshal was on board, we did our job."

Reynoso also said they never forget that no matter what happens on board, there is an audience watching.

"It's 200 passengers or plus. When we activate, there's a lot of people watching us," Reynoso said. "With today's technology of cameras and cellphones, we're going to be watched very closely, law enforcement in general. The looky-loos, everyone's taking pictures."

Air Marshals go beyond protection on airplanes. Many people don't realize they help protect all modes of transportation. Within the Air Marshal Program are VIPR teams, who often assist local law enforcement. Fort Lauderdale's Mayor, Jack Seiler, says his city has worked with VIPR team multiple times for large events where security is paramount.

"I'm a big fan of the VIPR program," Seiler said.

That program excels in looking for danger, like traces of a nuke, a homemade bomb or any other threat of terror.

Seiler explained the VIPR teams bring so much help when Fort Lauderdale has big events downtown. It takes a lot of the pressure off local law enforcement.

Air Marshals also assist local law enforcement. An example is a course they provide called "Flying Armed." There are cases when an armed officer needs to travel.

"Part of the training is that we know, should there be an incident in the air, we know what they are going to do or what their procedures are. Therefore, we are not hindering them," said Lt. Eddie Aponta, of the warrants section of the Miami-Dade Police Department.

Aponta spent an hour or so talking about the respectful relationship Miami-Dade police have with the Federal Air Marshals.

"We do the extraditions for Dade County, approximately 300 a year," he said. "So in the process of doing the extraditions, we thought that our officers would need more training than what we had with our department. We got in contact with our Federal Air Marshals and they were able to schedule us with them for training."

Aponta appreciates everything the Federal Air Marshals do for the country, his community and his fellow officers.

"Their training definitely augments our training," he said.

So these men and women of the Federal Air Marshal program will continue training for the "what-ifs," and as events like the bombings in Boston happen, it reminds them of why they do this in the first place.

"For me, it just reignites that whole Sept. 11 feeling inside you, more dedicated," Petrick said. "And every day, you never know what you're going to come across and you've got to be ready for that threat."

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