The man who was about to die was angry. He had just flown into Miami from Medellin, Columbia on American Airlines flight 924 and, after he and his wife cleared Customs, he reboarded the same plane for its continuing leg to Orlando, FL. The plane he was boarding was full, 114 passengers jostling for overhead space, and the wet-blanket heat of Miami was thick and stank of sweat. And his wife, she just wouldn’t shut up.
As the passengers crammed on board, Rigoberto Alpizar’s temper exploded. He screamed at his wife with whom witnesses would later say he had been having a loud argument. With the passengers finally seated, Alpizar suddenly leaped up, shoved his way into the aisle as he shouted obscenities at his wife and began running toward the plane’s exit in front of First Class.
A flight attendant yelled at the dark complexioned man in his mid-30s to stop, go back to his seat, sit down, but he barged forward.
Hidden And Always Ready
Unnoticed, another man rose from his seat and moved purposefully down the aisle after Alpizar.
As Alpizar approached the front of the plane he yelled that he wanted to get off. “You can’t leave the plane,” a flight attendant replied. “This flight is closed.” Alpizar saw the door was still open and he uttered his last, fatal words of raw anger.
“I have a bomb!” he shrieked as he waved a backpack and shoved his way past the flight attendant. Alpizar ran through the open door and down the jetway, clutching his backpack to his chest.
The man that was following him sprinted past the astonished flight attendant and out the door as well, his eyes fixed on Alpizar like a cheetah closing on its prey.
What happened next was ordained, the outcome absolute and certain, given the circumstances. The man dashing after Alpizar was a Federal Air Marshal carrying a SIG P-229 chambered in .357 SIG. As Alpizar reached for his backpack—the one he declared contained a bomb, but as it turned out, didn’t—the Air Marshal fired. Multiple 147-grain Speer Gold Dot hollowpoints struck. None of the shots missed Alpizar, which again was to be expected. After all, they came from the muzzle of an Air Marshal’s gun.
The incident took place on December 7, 2005, but it was a day of validation, not infamy. The world’s most rigorous firearms training program had produced an armed agent who did not, would not, could not, miss. He was an Air Marshal, he was a shooter.
The FAMS (Federal Air Marshal Service) requires its agents to train in such things as terrorist profiling, emergency medicine and constitutional law, but none of that has a “90 percent to pass” criteria like the marksmanship part of their training.
“We want shooters on planes,” said former Air Marshal Matt Graham, who now operates a firearms training and tactical product development business called Graham Combat Training. “Because when you’re up there at 35,000 feet going 550 miles an hour in a pressurized aluminum skin, you cannot miss. Period. There is zero room for error.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, there were only 33 men working as what were then known as Sky Marshals. Graham may have become number 34 because he lost no time after the horrific attack, signing up as a trainee on Sept. 12, 2001. Today the three dozen Sky Marshals have grown to “several thousand” Air Marshals, according to FAMS, which is understandably vague about the precise number of agents in its ranks.
FAMS was established in 1968 with six armed agents, as a part of FAA’s Sky Marshal Program. However, special U.S. Customs “security officers” played a similar role as early as President Kennedy’s administration. In 1985 President Reagan and Congress expanded it into the FAM program (Federal Air Marshal) after two Lebanese Shiite Moslem hijackers commandeered TWA flight 847, murdering U.S. hostage, Robert Stethem. After 9/11, the program became the Federal Air Marshal Service, a part of TSA, inside the Dept. of Homeland Security.
Air Marshal training is two phase, the first is seven weeks at FLETC (Federal Law Enforcement Training Center). The second is at the William J. Hughes Technical Ctr. in Atlantic City. The firearms portion is paramount; you can ace everything in the program, but if you can’t shoot, you don’t fly.
“Marksmanship is a key component of Federal Air Marshal training,” says NY Special Agent in Charge Felix Jimenez, an understatement on the order of saying golf is a key component of Tiger Woods.
The qual course, technically known as a Civil Aviation Security Specialist, consists of 30 rounds, all fired at 7 yards on an FBI “bottle” target (Speedwell’s QIT CB) with a center 5-zone strip that runs from the “head” of the man-shaped bottle straight down into the “torso,” anatomically correct and corresponding to the spinal cord, vital organs and brain. Hits outside the kill zone are 2 points. Of the possible 150 points in the qual, a passing score is 135, or 90 percent.
Not too bad, except that the course is shot cold and timed. If you miss one of the time limits by even a hundredth of a second, you fail the entire qual. It goes like this:
• One round from a concealed holster, in 1.65 seconds. Repeat for two rounds total.
• Double tap from the low ready in 1.35 seconds. Repeat for four rounds total.
• Rhythm fire six rounds from low ready with no more than 0.6 seconds between shots in a total of 3.0 seconds.
• One shot, reload, one shot, from low ready in 3.25 seconds. Repeat for a total of four rounds.
• One round on each of two targets three yards apart from low ready in 1.65 seconds. Repeat for a total of four rounds.
• An El Presidente without the reload. Start with your back to three targets, pivot, draw from concealment and fire one round at each target in 3.5 seconds. Repeat twice (must shoot with both a left and a right turn) for a total of six rounds.
• One round from low ready position to slide lock, drop to one knee, reload, one round in 4.0 seconds. Repeat for a total of four rounds.
To prepare trainees for the qualification course, a FAM class will fire 2.9 million rounds in eight weeks. That’s 362,500 rounds a week or over 50,000 rounds a day! I don’t know how many trainees are in a given class, but that’s a serious amount of lead downrange. Remember, this training is just for a single class.
You can fail at any time during the training, even if your shooting is superb. Trainees are required to perform a 360 degree “threat scan” after every course of fire; miss your threat scan just once, and you’re done.
“They take threat scans very seriously,” says Graham who is equally passionate about them in his own classes. “That’s be cause, once again, there is no room for error at 35,000 feet.”
In addition to the prodigious live-fire training, FAMS also emphasizes real-world training in force-on-force role-playing scenarios using Simunitions. During these secenarios is when Graham first conceived a device for shooting with a flashlight called the Combat Loop, a patented product now marketed exclusively by SureFire. It’s a rubber sleeve that fits over the tailcap of a SureFire light and provides a finger loop for your weak hand’s middle finger to hold your light during reloads or malfunction drills as well as a way to pull the light into your firing hand to activate it. Similar to the ”ring” that Bill Rogers and SureFire developed, Graham’s differs in one very important respect—it doesn’t compromise your shooting grip.
“There really was no flashlight technique that was designed for shooting,” Graham explained. “The Harries and other techniques were developed primarily as searching techniques with a handgun at the ready, but when it comes time to shoot, you can’t fire multiple aimed shots with any of those techniques. You lose your grip after the first few shots.”
The scenario that drove this home to Graham was a multiple-crisis onslaught on the FAMS trainees in which the lights suddenly went out and the cabin filled with smoke. Mind you, the grounded plane they were training in was real, the “passengers” were professional role players.
The “passengers” began to yell, as normal if lights went out and smoke flooded the cabin, a flight attendent screamed, “Hijacker!” and the trainees had to respond. This scenario had been played out many times at FAMS’ NJ facility and no trainee had ever “survived” until Graham came along.
The moment the panic started, Graham took a protective position. When the flight attendant screamed, he drew his Simunitions-loaded pistol and, in his weak-hand, his SureFire Z2 flashlight with a homemade Combat Ring on it. He played the beam around the cabin, including a place no other trainee had ever before searched for a threat— the floor.
“They had the hijackers crawling up the aisle and when they got to you, they reached up and stabbed your femoral artery, or pretended to. They would hit you hard with a rubber knife and you’d double over. Then they would slash your throat,” Graham said.
“They’d gotten everyone with this trick, but I had my SureFire out and saw them crawling up the aisle. I shot them like fish in a barrel. They told me later that I was the first guy to ever survive this scenario.
“They asked me how I got my light out so quickly and I showed them the Combat Loop and told them that I always draw my light and my gun at the same time. They said I cheated. I said it’s not cheating if you win.”