Federal air marshals are often referred to as “quiet professionals” in the skies. They have been on American planes for more than 50 years, spending hours in the air to ensure passengers and plane crew safety.

Short history of Federal Air Marshal Service

Air marshals (also known as sky marshals or flight marshals) is a special division of undercover armed law enforcement officers who make sure that every flight they are on lifts and lands well.

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Three subsequent US airliners hijackings in the 1960s, incited president of the United States John F. Kennedy to take action. In a Whitehouse press conference on August 10, 1961, he announced ordering the border patrolmen to ride on a number of the US flights. Kennedy referred to air marshals as border patrolmen, because the officers were trained by the US Border Patrol at Port Isabel, Texas.

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The first division of air marshals was introduced in 1970. The division members were equipped with firearms and received close quarter combat training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Because the majority of hijackings in the United States happened on flights that originated in Florida, the first Air Marshal Division was based in Miami.

In 1985, Congress increased the number of air marshals. President Ronald Reagan ordered placing air marshals on all international flights conducted by US carriers. Several countries, including the United Kingdom and Germany, were against weapons on flights landing in their countries. However, after a series of negotiations, sides managed to reach a common agreement.

The demand for the sky marshals had been changing periodically through the time. In 1974, after the introduction of X-ray screening at American airports, the Federal Aviation Administration cut the Air Marshal program’s ranks. The officers joined the US Customs service and became an extreme rarity on flights.

After 9/11 events, airlines around the world took necessary actions to protect the lives of their passengers, and the demand for the flight marshals service increased. To protect airlines, including aircraft, passengers, and crew members, a new organization, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), was created. The agency developed the Air Marshal Service and recruited 4,000 flight marshals from other government agencies.

Skills, equipment and daily tasks

As per TSA reports, air marshals usually spend in the air around 900 hours per year or five hours per day. They can work domestically or on international flights as well, depending on a task. Sometimes, air marshals may encounter five different time zones within a week. The exact number of officers who travel daily with regular passengers on board commercial aircraft remains undisclosed. However, based on the latest airline insiders’ reports, around five percent of US flights have an air marshal on board.

TSA division officers work not only at airports, but also collaborate with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, the National Counterterrorism Center and the National Targeting Center.

Badge of the United States Federal Air Marshal Service

Air marshal’s daily tasks include evaluation of the environment, identification of potentially suspicious activity and conducting investigations to protect passengers and aircraft crew against hostile actions. Like any other special division personnel, flight marshals are trained in investigative techniques and criminal or terrorist behavior recognition. They are equipped with handcuffs and semi-automatic pistols and are highly-skilled at accurate shooting in close quarters and combat.

Air marshals are not permitted to uncover their real identity and use fake cover stories. Until 2002, the main uniform for TSA division employees was a suit and a tie. However, the dress code rules were relaxed as such strict outfit could blow air marshals’ cover.

How to become an air marshal?

To become air marshal you must be a US citizen, between 21 and 36, have a qualifying experience or bachelor’s degree, pass a background investigation, drug screening, and medical exams. Successful candidates go through two phases of a 16-week Federal Air Marshal Service Training Program. During the training, future air marshals learn how to recognize criminal and terroristic behavior, how to arrest suspects quickly and lawfully, get familiar with international law, aircraft safety, aircraft medicine, and are trained to be proficient in firearm use and in close quarters self-defense.

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Future air marshals learn how to observe passengers on a plane and at airports and notice everything: when somebody is not sleeping when supposed to sleep and does not eat when everybody does. While following the order to be “undetected”, officers learn how to detect, deter, and defeat hostile individuals on board an aircraft without raising too much panic.

The profession of air marshal requires constant awareness, attention to detail, excellent physical health, and psychological resistance. This kind of job is not for everyone as often followed by stress and high mental pressure. To protect air marshals’ health, a 2012 Harvard sleep study recommended strict scheduling practices which include mandated periods of rest between duty shifts and limitation of the number of continuous working on a given shift.