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Pay attention to the quiet woman sitting next to you on the plane who tells you she’s on her way to a funeral. She might be packing a gun.
It’s just one of the tricks Canada’s air marshals, also known as in-flight security officers, employ to keep chatty seat-mates at bay to protect their cover on a mission.
Almost two decades after the 9/11 attacks, Canada still offers a police service at over 10,000 metres in the air.
Practically everything about the Canadian Air Carrier Protective Program is a closely guarded secret, including how many officers the program trains every year.
But in a rare event in the program’s 17-year history, the RCMP recently lifted the curtain on one of its most covert units as it evolves with the changing nature of terrorism.
The RCMP allowed journalists to visit the facility where Canada’s most lethal frequent flyers come to train — the “fight deck,” as they like to call it.
It’s easy to overlook the nondescript Ottawa-area warehouse that houses the program’s national logistics centre. That’s kind of the point.
Inside, officials sift through classified intelligence from Transport Canada, Public Safety and Canada’s international defence partners — including the intelligence agencies that make up the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance — to identify high-risk flights.
If they can get an officer on one of those flights, they can try to avoid real-life trouble. Their training involves how to handle the hijacking scenarios that play out down the hall.
For security and tactical reasons, CBC agreed not to disclose the participating officers’ names and faces following a recent demonstration of a training scenario. Media cameras weren’t allowed into the training area, either.
The theatrics started in a fake airport lounge, complete with a ticket counter and a magazine stall, where “passengers” milled about while waiting to board. Some talked to each other about their upcoming trips and drifted toward the magazine stall, while others sat silently.
Soon after the fake flight ‘took off’ (the officers work in an out-of-commission airplane parked in a hangar), the commotion started. A knife-wielding team barrelled toward the cockpit from the back of the plane.
Within seconds, two officers jumped into action, calling out demands to the other passengers and firing their guns to bring the attackers to the ground.
Because these officers confront armed assailants in close quarters, there’s a risk of a stray bullet hitting another passenger or tearing through the cockpit. If the officer loses control of the situation, a rogue shot could turn the airplane into a missile.
It’s preferable to de-escalate the situation, a critical area of training.
Citing security reasons, the RCMP won’t say how many such real-life incidents their in-flight officers have stopped. Chances are good, though, that you’ve taken a flight with an undercover officer on board, said Supt. Janis Gray, the program’s director.
Born in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, this team of specially-trained officers was assembled to foil terrorist attacks on civilian flights. While the goal remains the same — stopping the bad guys — the way they do the work has changed since 2001.
“Terrorists threats to commercial aviation industry, which is why we were actually originally created. It has evolved and it has increased in scope and frequency,” said Gray.
“Further threats to commercial aviation continue to evolve. We’re talking about rapid deployment of weapons, devices more challenging to detect. Intelligence suggests that terrorist groups are instructing individuals on how to specifically defeat or circumvent airport or aircraft security measures.”
The team members are picked from a pool of RCMP officers and given a month of training to become an in-flight officer. They are then re-certified through a week’s training twice a year.
Since 2010, said Gray, officers have had to upgrade their training constantly. Every in-flight officer is a cop, a bomb detector, a spy and a quasi-paramedic — a human Swiss Army knife.
Their brief goes beyond terrorism; officers are also trained to spot human traffickers and suspected cases of child exploitation. The training also has evolved to cover the possibility of a kidnapping in a foreign country.
“Their duties begin when they step off the curb at the airport,” said Gray.
The training is intensive and covers hand-to-hand combat as well as firearms. One of the stops on the media tour of the training facility was a simple, stripped-down gym where a team of officers on their re-certification week were paired off in sparring teams.
From the red blotches on the officers’ arms, the knife training session had been going on for a while.
Almost half of their work is focused on mental preparedness, said one of the trainers. Officers have to learn to move instantly when a threat emerges — to get past the shock of seeing an armed man sprint down the aisle and simply snap into action. On an airplane, the trainer said, a broken bottle or stick can work as a “weapon of opportunity.”
“Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the head,” said the trainer, borrowing a line from Mike Tyson.
The training team has remodelled the grounded plane to include the newer pod-style seats some carriers favour in first class. The chief trainer said officers need to be familiar with different aircraft layouts.
“Like anything, [air carriers’] crafts change and are modified and are adapting and we do as well, but we have a very good relationship and we work in concert with them,” said Gray.
The RCMP’s training model is one of the most robust in the world, said Gray, and other countries have sent representatives to the Ottawa area centre to learn from it.
“Within the RCMP we have highly-trained police officers coming into the program to begin with and so our training supports or enhances that further, which makes us an attractive program to support other countries,” she said.
Like most government programs, the Canadian Air Carrier Protective Program would like more money to expand. Its budget falls under the RCMP’s protective policing umbrella.
And like the rest of the RCMP, the program faces ongoing pressure to boost its diversity.
In a group of about a dozen officers recently up for re-certification, only two were women. And almost all participants were Caucasian.
“Within the RCMP our program is taking very, I would say, structured steps to ensure we have a diverse group,” Gray said, adding that a more diverse team helps its officers blend in with airport crowds.
“It enhances the program, it enhances the safety aspect, the covert aspect of the program, and making sure that it’s representative of the Canadian travelling public.”