By Jeff Linkous Associated Press Writer Published: Sep 26, 2001 POMONA, N.J. (AP) - On a shooting range designed to simulate a jetliner cabin, two masked men jump from their seats and practice firing semiautomatic pistols without hitting anything but their paper and metal targets. The men are air marshals, and may someday need their sharpshooting skills to take out hijackers without hitting civilians.
"Shooting in a crowd ... you can't miss," said Greg, one of the many marshals and other federal agents who demonstrated anti- hijacking tactics for reporters Wednesday at the Federal Aviation Administration's technical center.
To preserve their anonymity, many of the marshals wore ninja-like masks and others gave only their first names. Federal authorities won't say how many marshals are working now or how many will be in the air once the force expands in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
President Bush has said he wants officers on almost every domestic or international flight.
The FAA is stepping up recruiting efforts to bolster the ranks, and as of Sept. 23, 150,000 people had downloaded application forms from the agency's Web site. Candidates must demonstrate firearms proficiency, pass several physical and mental tests, and clear security checks.
The program was created after a rash of hijackings to Cuba in the 1970s. In 1985, the government expanded the program following the two-week hijacking of a TWA jet to Beirut, Lebanon.
At FAA facilities here, agents train on outdoor shooting ranges, the aircraft simulator, and two airplanes during a 14- week course.
Aboard a widebody Lockheed 1011A jet, marshals ran through three hijacking scenarios Wednesday, starting from different points on the plane and trying to stop fellow marshals who portrayed assailants.
For ammunition, they used paint pellets. In a real hijacking, marshals would fire special bullets that can penetrate flesh but disintegrate against hard surfaces so they won't pierce an aircraft's fuselage.
In one scenario, hijackers armed with knives took a flight attendant hostage and rushed toward the cockpit. In the others, they had handguns and announced to the mock passengers that the jet was being seized.
In each case, the marshals drew guns as they swiftly rose from their seats, shooting the hijackers to stop them from reaching the cockpit. Then they ordered people portraying passengers to remain still and place their hands on their heads.
"We see empty hands, we know they're no threat to us," a marshal said.