Facing airline hijackers
Contributed by Shane Steinkamp, Steinkamp Systems ([email protected]). Contributed articles do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the Aegis Journal.
We have been getting a lot of requests about what to do when faced with hijackers onboard an aircraft. In reality, there are many other threats that you are more likely to encounter in your everyday life that are more dangerous than air travel. Like many of you, we travel quite a bit on airlines both nationally and internationally. The likelihood of the aircraft being commandeered is usually at the bottom of our threat assessment list.
In the interest of discussion, however, there are a few things you can do to increase your security at airports and onboard commercial aircraft. The first thing, of course, is simple awareness of your surroundings. While in the airport or boarding the plane, observe your fellow passengers. If you see, hear, or smell anything suspicious, you should immediately report your observations to the proper authority.
While you are much more likely to encounter an intoxicated or unruly person onboard a commercial airliner rather than a hijacker, your course of action is generally the same when dealing with either. Previous experience once taught us that cooperation with the hijackers was the best course of action for passengers, but those rules have changed now that the objectives of hijackers seem to have changed.
Before we discuss weapons, we need to discuss tactics. First and foremost, any hijacker – or unruly person – must be denied access to the cockpit (a risk which will diminish in the future when cockpits are better secured). Once a bad person is in the cockpit or at the controls, your tactical situation is extremely poor. If you are going to board a plane with other people known to you, you should discuss possible scenarios with them. You should seat women, children, or your client at the window, and you should sit at the aisle.
Since the World Trade Center crime, the only agency that has over-reacted has been the FAA. Airport security has been confiscating even innocuous things like nail files, but make no mistake: Weapons can still be brought on board an aircraft by persons with malicious intent. You must think ahead when boarding a plane in order to provide yourself with options. Not necessarily weapons mind you, but options. Perhaps a heavy leather belt with a heavy buckle can be used as a flail, a whip, or as a restraint device. Heavy boots or shoes may also be beneficial and provide options. Think about your choice of clothing, and always use the thickest and strongest bootlaces you can find. We carry Tuff-Tie cuffs (http://www.tufftie.com/) because handcuffs aren’t allowed on commercial aircraft.
If you own it, always wear your body armor (vest) and be prepared to identify yourself to security when they demand to know why you are wearing one. If there is a person or persons with a firearm on board, you become the bullet sponge, something in every other confrontational situation we advise against. Unfortunately an aircraft is a fragile environment, and a bullet in the wrong place might bring a plane down, so you need to confront the person with the fire arm at close range and should that weapon discharge before you disarm the individual, it is best that the weapon discharge into your vest.
Going from bad to worse, a bomb should be given all due respect, but access to the cockpit must still be denied. We understand that bombs are an unknown element to many people, and dramatic Hollywood portrayals of bombs being defused has added to their mystique. We encourage everyone in the trade to study the manufacture and construction of bombs and explosives to demystify them.
Usually dealing with a bomb is easy: Call the bomb squad. Unfortunately, you do not have that option in the air. You may be forced to deal with an armed explosive device, or, worse, one with a countdown timer. Many of these devices can be dealt with simply by removing the batteries or disconnecting the detonator. You should familiarize yourself with different types of devices so that you can recognize and handle them on an emergency basis if you have to do so. The simplest ‘bomb’ is a stick of dynamite with a detonator and a fuse. Once the fuse is lit, however, you still have options. You can remove the detonator from the stick, or cut the fuse. (Don’t try to remove the fuse from the detonator, since it’s crimped on and trying this can cause the detonator, and hence the dynamite, to explode.) Other devices are often simple, having a timer and/or switch, a battery or other power source, wires, a detonator, and the primary explosive. The green wire, red wire, blue wire question often portrayed in movies simply does not apply to these simple devices.
Let’s take another simple bomb: A grenade. A grenade is a safe unit, even if the pin is pulled, so long as the lever has not been released. If you can get the grenade away from the individual, then just keep it in a safe place until the plane lands or unscrew the detonator from the grenade body. Grenades, and other ‘simple’ bombs should all be handled in the same way: Don’t fool with them if you don’t have to, and keep them safe.
If the pin is pulled and the lever released, you have seven seconds to unscrew the detonator from the grenade body. This is not always possible or advisable. What do you do with it then? You’ve got an object that is going to detonate in a very fragile environment with lots of people who have nowhere to run. You cannot stop this event, but you can control where it detonates. The ‘best’ scenario is to locate the grenade on the floor in the center isle of the plane and lay on top of it – or, better, lay the individual to whom it belongs on top of it. Remember your vest? Well, it won’t save your life, but it will save the lives of others. The floor of an airplane isn’t very strong, and the blast will go through the floor and into the baggage area. This is better than the blast zone being inside the cabin – albeit not much better. Grenades and other small low brisance devices aren’t usually very powerful, and can be contained in some way.
Complex bombs, bombs made from high brisance explosives, and large bombs are beyond the scope of this document, but learning their component parts and how they work will allow you to make choices in a difficult situation.
If you have really prepared ahead, you can make a ‘bullet proof’ briefcase or valise. When you retire your old vest in favor of a new one, cut it apart and cut the Kevlar panels to fit inside a pocket of your valise or glue it into the lid of your briefcase using a non-hardening glue such as rubber cement. (Hard glues, like resins, epoxy, cyanoacrolates (superglue), and other glues that dry hard will decrease the effectiveness of the Kevlar.) This case can even be modified to have side handles like a shield. (Some bags have such ‘handles’, but they are for holding an umbrella or a newspaper.) If this is handy, you can use it as a shield or on top of a soon-to-detonate device. (Unfortunately, experiments with ‘bomb bags’ that would contain the shrapnel have proven ineffective.)
If we go from worse to better, and the subject or subjects are armed with edged weapons, your tactical situation is much better. Keep remembering that your first tactical goal is denial of access to the cockpit, then work to restrain or eliminate the subjects. Good training is your first, last, and best tool in this situation, so make sure you have it.
When faced with weapons other than firearms or bombs, remember to look for things in your environment and access your tactical situation. Fortunately, an airplane is full of useful tools. Remember the words in the ‘emergency lecture’: “In case of a water landing, your seat cushion can be used as a flotation device.” Every seat cushion on every airplane is removable, and can be used not only as a flotation device, but also as a shield if necessary. They even have nifty straps that let you hold them like a shield. Carry on luggage with wheels often has telescoping handles that can be yanked out of the bag forcefully and used like a baton. (You may wish to purchase such a bag and modify it so that the handle pulls out readily.)
Magazines, books, laptop computers, and other items can be thrown as ‘distractors.’ Soda cans, and other beverage cans or bottles can be retrieved from the drink service cart or attendant area and thrown. Three or four men with good arms and fifty cans of soda can persuade even the most cheerful person that he is having a bad day. Seatback trays can be torn away from the seat back if necessary. Overhead compartment doors can be torn away, albeit with difficulty.
Our final recommendation is this: Every time you are going to board a plane, buy a lottery ticket. Why? Because you’re far more likely to win several lotteries than you are to ever be hijacked.