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Open­ing fire 10 kilo­me­tres above the ground sounds like a death wish: if a sky mar­shal – the term for a counter-ter­ror agent disguised as a pas­sen­ger – shoots wide of the mark or a ric­o­chet smashes through the fuse­lage, then you’re in big trou­ble. De­spite this, no shoot­ing ban ap­plies to sky mar­shals, who are de­ployed to com­bat any would-be ter­ror­ists on board.

US fed­eral air mar­shals (FAMS) carry a Sig Sauer P250 or P229 pis­tol as stan­dard. On board they use am­mu­ni­tion spe­cially de­vel­oped for the pur­pose of hit­ting ‘soft tar­gets’.these ‘fran­gi­ble’ bul­lets will dis­in­te­grate upon con­tact with a sur­face harder than the bul­let it­self or will frag­ment into tiny pieces when the tar­get is hit. As a re­sult they achieve a high level of stop­ping power, be­cause they trans­fer a large part of their ki­netic en­ergy to their tar­get when they strike in­stead of glid­ing straight through. This means the shots can dis­able a ter­ror­ist, but won’t pen­e­trate hard ma­te­ri­als like an air­craft’s cabin wall. Sky mar­shals aren’t just de­ployed on flights orig­i­nat­ing in the US. Al­most ev­ery Euro­pean coun­try has a force of its own. In Aus­tralia, sky mar­shals were in­tro­duced in 2001, in re­sponse to 9/11, al­though the pre­cise de­tails re­main top se­cret. Af­ter all, it’s im­por­tant that the mar­shals work in se­crecy in or­der to pre­vent ter­ror­ists from get­ting an in­for­ma­tion ad­van­tage.

Ric­o­chets on board could lead to catas­tro­phe. For that rea­son sky mar­shals use a spe­cial type of am­mu­ni­tion for soft tar­gets.

SE­CRET MIS­SION Sky mar­shals only make them­selves known in an emer­gency. And even then they don’t al­ways bran­dish a weapon as shown here in the film Non-stop.

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