Tour of Hughes FAA Tech Center

Matthew Kukorlo demonstrates a flight simulator at the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township. The Next Generation Air Transportation System being worked on at the center will switch the air traffic control system from radar-based to satellite-based.

Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The first thing you notice is the gunfire. Loud blasts slice through the air with a sharp crack, crack, crack.

Over the course of a day, the recruits who come to this tree-studded campus at the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center will shoot hundreds of rounds from every position. Lying, kneeling, standing, sitting — on the move and standing still. Then they’ll come back the next day and shoot hundreds more. By the time their training is complete, they’ll have fired close to 5,000 rounds.

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That’s because when you’re a federal air marshal and your work takes place in a 20-foot-wide space, 30,000 feet in the air, precision matters.

This year, the first new group of air marshal trainees since 2011 will go through a 16-week course designed to teach them how to spot — and thwart — potential threats on the thousands of commercial air flights that crisscross the globe each day. They’ll spend eight weeks in New Mexico learning basic police techniques before coming to this special Transportation Security Administration school, where their training takes into account their role as armed, undercover agents who spend the bulk of their time aboard commercial planes.

Shooting — and shooting with precision — is a big part of that, but so is being able to blend in and quietly size up passengers to determine who might be a threat. The Federal Air Marshal Service’s motto? Invisus, Inauditus, Impavidus (Unseen, Unheard, Unafraid).

Their charge is straightforward.

“Our focus in life is to make sure another 9/11 never happens,” said Michael Lafrance, assistant supervisory air marshal in charge at the Transportation Security Administration’s training center.

President John F. Kennedy created the air marshal program in 1961, after international hijackings raised concerns about the safety of commercial air travel. But it remained relatively small. At the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there were 33 air marshals. The program’s total budget: $4 million.

But after 9/11, everything changed. The Air Marshal Service underwent a massive expansion, adding thousands of new officers.

Though TSA officials decline to discuss specific numbers, citing security concerns, a 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office said the TSA employs “thousands” of air marshals. In fiscal 2012, its annual budget was $908 million. But in the intervening years, the Air Marshal Service has weathered its share of cuts and questions about how it deploys its people since there are not enough marshals to cover every flight.

There have also been concerns about employee morale among marshals, given the rigors of the job and relative low pay; the average salary is $44,000. About 7 percent of the marshals are women.

Once the new marshals complete basic police training at a facility in Artesia, New Mexico, they are sent to New Jersey, where the focus shifts to more tailored instruction. They spend time in gyms where they punch, jab and kick “body opponent bags” — large rust-orange-colored dummies mounted on flexible metal stands. They also take part in simulated hijackings staged aboard true-to-life models of the types of aircraft cabins they are likely to fly.

The goal, Lafrance said, is to place trainees in real-life situations that will sharpen their instincts for sussing out trouble. Rookie air marshals need to know how to size up a situation quickly but not overthink it, he said. The job also requires them to blend in — just another weary traveler trying to get to his or her destination.

Even so there are special considerations.

“Fighting someone on an aircraft is like fighting someone in a phone booth,” said Cardo Urso, a former Marine who teaches close combat techniques as part of the school’s defensive measures course. “There is very little room for error.”

Standing in a large training room at the campus, Urso outlined the three options air marshals face when confronted with a threat: fight, flight or freeze.

Of the three, he said, fight is the only option.

His course includes instruction in pressure points to cause pain or induce muscle spasms and other techniques that will disable an attacker quickly and with a minimum of fuss. He showed visitors a rubber knife designed to deliver a small shock, which he described as “a pain penalty for negative performance.”

At the training center, there is a high-ceilinged room designed to look like the waiting area of an airport. There’s a TSA screening area, a “Starbucks,” a “Dunkin’ Donuts” and the familiar black faux-leather seats arranged back-to-back in groups of eight — so common in U.S. airports.

Recruits will be put through scenarios including hijackings in spaces designed exactly like the cabin of an aircraft. Actors are brought in play passengers. Instructors are able to fill the cabin with smoke or shut off the lights. The encounters are recorded so that teachers can offer feedback.

Expert marksmanship is a key requirement for air marshals, who are tested quarterly on their shooting skills. Daniel Kowal, a supervisory section chief for firearms training, said over the course of their training, air marshal candidates may shoot as many as 5,000 rounds — more than some police officers fire during their entire career.

Back on the floor, an instructor barks out another set of orders.

“This time we’re going to start in a kneeling position,” he tells the group. When the marshals are ready, he gives them the signal to fire. The sounds is deafening. Their accuracy? Spot on.

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