Insider the Secret Service
[Editors Note: Most of our understanding of Secret Service work comes from Hollywood. Few of us have ever met a Secret Service Agent, or maybe you have and don’t know it. “Inside the Secret Service-A Former Agent’s Stories” is about life as a Secret Service agent. Our contributor is still a Federal Agent but with a different agency, therefore we have chosen not to reveal his name. These are the real life experiences from a Concord resident who spent several years as a Secret Service agent. This is his story….]
When a dignitary under Secret Service protection flies on a commercial airline, there is always an agent assigned to the cockpit. The agent maintains the integrity of the cockpit and is the last line of defense should someone try to commandeer the plane. The cockpit agent will also relay any pertinent information from the tower and/or the pilot or co-pilot to the working Secret Service detail and vise-versa. It always surprised me that most agents working protection details were not interested in the cockpit assignment and instead preferred to be in close proximity with the protectee, usually in first class, and at other strategic locations throughout the plane. The technology of the aircraft and the expertise of the pilots always impressed me. Plus, it was interesting to sit in the jump seat with the headphones on and listen to the tower and the pilots communicate before takeoff and when landing. Once the plane has reached its flying altitude, the pilot sets the autopilot and the plane flies itself. I was always interested in the workings of an aircraft.
This particular flight was aboard a Boeing 767. The flight was to be 5 hours and was filled to capacity. The pilot, Matt, and Co-Pilot, Steve, (not their real names) had gone through their preflight procedures and we pushed away from the gate. The tower vectored us to our runway and cleared us for takeoff. And sure enough, at 37,000 feet and a cruising speed of 530 miles per hour, he set the autopilot.
Matt explained that our plane was equipped with a “glass cockpit” which basically meant it had state-of-the-art digital display screens that took the place of many of the traditional analog instruments and gauges found in older aircraft. The screen showed our plane, its altitude and speed, as well as that of other planes within a certain radius of us. Matt announced that there was a Boeing 777 flying at 1000 feet above us and 3 miles behind. Matt asked me if I’d ever seen a 777 fly right over the top of me. I told him I had not. Matt said, “Alright, I’m going to slow us down a bit and in just a minute he’ll cruise right over us.” Within several seconds after cutting our airspeed the huge 777 majestically passed over the top of us as the setting sun glistened off its aluminum body. It was quite a sight and looked like we could almost reach out and touch it. Matt said, “Look at the belly on that baby!” This guy’s been a pilot for over 25 years and was as excited as I at the sight before us. Then Matt asked if I’d ever seen a 777 from the side as it flew away from me. Again, I answered no. “Okay, check this out.” He then banked our plane to the left taking us completely off course and we watched as the 777 pulled away. Matt, with a sense of awe in his voice, said, “Look at that!” After several seconds, he eventually brought us back on course. Pretty neat side show.
At one point, Steve asked me if I’d like to sit in his co-pilot’s seat. I was surprised at the offer and really wanted to, but declined thinking it may be unprofessional on my part. After all, I was working a protective detail. Both Steve and Matt both insisted, so I obliged. Granted it was only 3 feet in front of the jump seat I had just vacated, but it felt like another world. This was too cool.
Matt said, “Hey, grab the controls.” Did he just say what I thought he said? “No, really, take the controls.” I gave Matt a sly smile as I placed my hands on the controls. “Well, what do you think?” Matt asked.
Again with a sly smile I replied, “I think you have it on autopilot.”
To my surprise Matt reached up, flipped a switch, and said, “Not now, it’s all you.”
There’s no way he just turned off the autopilot and gave me control of the plane. I very slightly pulled back on the controls and immediately, to my utter amazement, the nose of the aircraft pulled up. I was really flying this thing. “You weren’t kidding!” I said excitedly. They then directed me to ease the controls forward. I did so and the nose immediately dropped down to a slight descend. In a matter of seconds I had nosed the 767 both above and below where it needed to be. They told me to very slightly pull the controls back again. I did so and was able to get the plane level again, kind of. But now this was no longer fun and games for me. I could already feel the perspiration building on my forehead as I totally focused on the keeping the plane level. It wasn’t an easy task as the sensitivity and responsiveness of the plane at that altitude felt more like a sports car than a big, hulking, jet liner. For the next three or four minutes I concentrated hard on trying to keep the plane level. In fact, I don’t even recall the conversation in the cockpit during that time. Matt eventually took over and locked the plane on course and reset the autopilot. That was a totally new experience for me.
Matt explained that planes traveling at high speeds don’t just drop during turbulence. He likened turbulence to a boat on a choppy lake. He stated that a planes’ wings ride up and down over choppy air, much as a boat rides up and down over choppy water, and that this motion can often create a false sensation of falling. Then, Matt said, “Watch, I’ll show you.” The next thing I know, Matt began to rapidly move the controls back and forth for several seconds. The plane shook. Matt then stopped and said, “See that? The altimeter didn’t move from 37,000 feet. But I guarantee you all 260 passengers on board just thought we hit turbulence and dropped 300 feet.” I couldn’t believe it. This guy was having as much fun showing off for me as I was experiencing it. Now obviously, Matt didn’t put anyone in danger at any time. Even when I was “flying” the plane, he was seated just a few feet away and could have taken complete control in a split second.
In Secret Service, you live many unexpected experiences, but being in control of a 767 jetliner with 260 passengers, albeit briefly, while protecting a dignitary, ranks up there with some of the more memorable and exhilarating experiences. So, the next time you’re on a commercial flight and the fasten seat belt sign comes on, don’t panic, it’s probably just a veteran pilot showing off for a wide-eyed Secret Service agent.