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Aircraft hijacking

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Aircraft hijacking (also known as skyjacking and sky controlling) is the unlawful seizure of an aircraft by an individual or a group. In most cases, the pilot is forced to fly according to the orders of the hijackers. Occasionally, however, the hijackers have flown the aircraft themselves. In at least one case, a plane was hijacked by the official pilot.Unlike the typical hijackings of land vehicles or ships, skyjacking is not usually committed for robbery or theft. Most aircraft hijackers intend to use the passengers as hostages, either for monetary ransom or for some political or administrative concession by authorities. Motives vary from demanding the release of certain inmates (notably IC-814) to highlighting the grievances of a particular community (notably AF 8969). Hijackers also have used aircraft as a weapon to target particular locations (notably during the September 11, 2001 attacks).Hijackings for hostages commonly produce an armed standoff during a period of negotiation between hijackers and authorities, followed by some form of settlement. Settlements do not always meet the hijackers' original demands. If the hijackers' demands are deemed too great and the perpetrators show no inclination to surrender, authorities sometimes employ armed special forces to attempt a rescue of the hostages (notably Operation Entebbe).


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The first recorded aircraft hijack took place on February 21, 1931, in Arequipa, Peru. Byron Rickards, flying a Ford Tri-Motor, was approached on the ground by armed revolutionaries. He refused to fly them anywhere and after a 10-day standoff Rickards was informed that the revolution was successful and he could go in return for giving one group member a lift to Lima.

Note: In the Fort Worth Star-Telegram daily newspaper (morning edition) 19 September 1970, J. Howard "Doc" DeCelles states that he was actually the victim of the first skyjacking in December 1929. He was flying a postal route for the Mexican company Transportes Aeras Transcontinentales, ferrying mail from San Luis Potosí to Toreon and then on to Guadalajara. "Doc" was approached by Gen. Saturnino Cedillo, governor of the state of San Luis Potosí and one of the last remaining lieutenants of Pancho Villa. Cedillo was accompanied by several other men. He was told through an interpreter he had no choice in the matter. "Doc" stalled long enough to convey the information to his boss, who told him to cooperate. He had no maps, but was guided by the men as he flew above Mexican mountains. He landed on a road as directed, and was held captive for several hours under armed guard. He eventually was released with a "Buenos" from Cedillo and his staff. DeCelles kept his flight log, according to the article, but he did not file a report with authorities. "Doc" went on to work for the FAA in Fort Worth after his flying career.[citation needed]

Between 1948 and 1957 there were 15 hijackings worldwide, an average of a little more than one per year. Between 1958 and 1967, this climbed to 48, or about five per year. The number grew to 38 in 1968 and 82 in 1969, the largest number in a single year in the history of civil aviation; in January 1969 alone, eight airliners were hijacked to Cuba. Between 1968 and 1977, the annual average jumped to 41.

In 1973, the Nixon Administration ordered the discontinuance by the CIA of the use of hijacking as a covert action weapon against the Castro regime. Cuban intelligence followed suit. That year, the two countries reached an agreement for the prosecution or return of the hijackers and the aircraft to each other's country. The Taiwanese intelligence also followed the CIA's example-vis-?-vis China.

These measures plus the improvement in Israel's relations with Egypt and Jordan, the renunciation of terrorism by the Palestine Liberation Organization, the on-going peace talks between the PLO and Israel, the collapse of the communist states in East Europe, which reduced the scope for sanctuaries for terrorists, and the more cautious attitude of countries such as Libya and Syria after the U.S. declared them State-sponsors of international terrorism, the collapse of ideological terrorist groups such as the Red Army Faction and the tightening of civil aviation security measures by all countries have arrested and reversed the steep upward movement of hijackings.

However, the situation has not returned to the pre-1968 level and the number of successful hijackings continues to be high - an average of 18 per annum during the 10-year period between 1988 and 1997, as against the pre-1968 average of five.

On September 11, 2001, 19 al-Qaedan-affiliated Islamic extremists hijacked American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 77, and United Airlines Flight 93 and crashed them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the southwestern side of the Pentagon building, and Stonycreek Township near Shanksville, Pennsylvania in a terrorist attack.

Dealing with hijackings

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Before the September 11, 2001 attacks, pilots and flight attendants were trained to adopt the "Common Strategy" tactic, which was approved by the FAA. It taught crew members to comply with the hijackers' demands, get the plane to land safely and then let the security forces handle the situation. Crew members advised passengers to sit quietly in order to increase their chances of survival. They were also trained not to make any 'heroic' moves that could endanger themselves or other people. The FAA realized that the longer a hijacking persisted, the more likely it would end peacefully with the hijackers reaching their goal.This led to an escalation of attacks. First a few planes were hijacked and blown up on the ground, then hijackers began killing a few passengers to make a "political statement" this escalation continued until reaching the logical conclusion on September 11, 2001.

September 11 presented an unprecedented threat because it involved suicide hijackers who could fly an aircraft. The "Common Strategy" approach was not designed to handle suicide hijackings, and the hijackers were able to exploit a weakness in the civil aviation security system. Since then the "Common Strategy" policy has no longer been used.

Since the September 11th attacks, the situation for crew members, passengers and hijackers has changed. As in the case of United Airlines Flight 93, where an airliner crashed into a field during a fight between flight attendants, passengers and hijackers while likely heading to the White House or the United States Capitol, crew members and passengers now have to calculate the risks of passive cooperation, not only for themselves but also for those on the ground. Future hijackers most likely will encounter greater resistance from passengers and flight crews, making a successful hijacking more unlikely. An example of active passenger and crew member resistance occurred when passengers and flight attendants of American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami on December 22, 2001, helped prevent Richard Reid from igniting explosives hidden in his shoe. Flight attendants and pilots now receive extensive anti-hijacking and self-defense training designed to thwart a hijacking.

Informing air traffic control
To communicate to air traffic control that an aircraft is being hijacked, a pilot under duress should squawk 7500 or vocally, by radio communication, transmit "(Aircraft callsign); Transponder seven five zero zero." This should be done when possible and safe. An air traffic controller who suspects an aircraft may have been hijacked may ask the pilot to confirm "squawking assigned code." If the aircraft is not being hijacked, the pilot should not squawk 7500 and should inform the controller accordingly. A pilot under duress may also elect to respond that the aircraft is not being hijacked, but then neglect to change to a different squawk code. In this case the controller would make no further requests and immediately inform the appropriate authorities. A complete lack of a response would also be taken to indicate a possible hijacking. Of course, a loss of radio communications may also be the cause for a lack of response, in which case a pilot would usually squawk 7600 anyway.

On 9/11, the hijacker-pilot of Flight 11, Mohamed Atta, mistakenly transmitted announcements to ATC, meaning to go through the Boeing 767. Also, Amy Sweeney and Betty Ong called the American Airlines office, telling the workers that Flight 11 was hijacked.

Cockpit doors on most commercial airlines have been strengthened and are now bullet resistant. In the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia and France, air marshals have also been added to some flights to deter and thwart hijackers. Airport security plays a major role in preventing hijackers. Screening passengers with metal detectors and luggage with x-ray machines prevents weapons from being taken on to an aircraft. Only in Israel is decompression used on all luggage to check for pressure sensor detonators[citation needed]. Along with the FAA, the FBI also monitors terror suspects. Any person who is a threat to civil aviation is banned from flying[citation needed].

Shooting down aircraft

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Several states have stated that they would shoot down hijacked commercial aircraft if it can be assumed that the hijackers intend to use the aircraft in a 9/11-style attack, despite killing innocent passengers on board. According to reports, U.S. fighter pilots have been trained to shoot down hijacked commercial airliners should it become necessary. Other countries such as India, Poland, and Russia have enacted laws or decrees that allow the shooting down of hijacked planes. Polish Constitutional Court however, in September 2008, decided that the regulations were unconstitutional and dismissed them.

In August 2005, India revealed its new anti-hijacking policy. The policy came into force after the cabinet committee on security (CCS) approved it. The main points of the policy are

  • Any attempt to hijack will be considered an act of aggression against the country and will prompt a response fit for an aggressor.
  • Hijackers, if captured, will be sentenced to death.
  • Hijackers will be engaged in negotiations only to bring the incident to an end, to comfort passengers and to prevent loss of lives.
  • The plane will be shot down if it is deemed to become a missile heading for strategic targets.
  • The plane will be escorted by armed fighter aircraft(s) and will be forced to land.
  • A grounded plane will not be allowed to take off under any circumstance.

The list of strategic targets is prepared by the Bureau of Civil Aviation in India. The decision to shoot down a plane is taken by CCS. However, due to the shortage of time, whoever – the prime minister, the defense minister or the home minister – can be reached first will take the call. In situations in which an aircraft becomes a threat while taking off – which gives very little reaction time – a decision on shooting it down may be taken by an Indian Air Force officer not below the rank of Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Operations).

In January 2005 a federal law came into force in Germany – the Luftsicherheitsgesetz – that allowed "direct action by armed force" against a hijacked aircraft to prevent a 9/11-type attack. However, in February 2006 the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany struck down these provisions of the law, stating such preventive measures were unconstitutional and would essentially be state-sponsored murder, even if such an act would save many more lives on the ground. The main reasoning behind this decision was that the state would effectively be taking the lives of innocent hostages in order to avoid a terrorist attack. The Court also ruled that the Minister of Defense is constitutionally not entitled to act in terrorism matters, as this is the duty of the state and federal police forces. See the German Wikipedia entry, or

The President of Germany, Horst Köhler, himself urged judicial review of the constitutionality of the Luftsicherheitsgesetz after he signed it into law in 2005.

International law issues

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Tokyo Convention
The Convention on Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft ("Tokyo Convention") is a multilateral convention, done at Tokyo between 20 August and 14 September 1963, coming into force on 4 December 1963, and is applicable to offences against penal law and to any acts jeopardising the safety of persons or property on board civilian aircraft while in-flight and engaged in international air navigation.

The convention, for the first time in the history of international aviation law, recognises certain powers and immunities of the aircraft commander who on international flights may restrain any person(s) he has reasonable cause to believe is committing or is about to commit an offence liable to interfere with the safety of persons or property on board or who is jeopardising good order and discipline.

Hague Convention
Signed at The Hague on 16 December 1970, the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft contains 14 articles relating to what constitutes hijacking as well as guidelines for what is expected of governments when dealing with hijackings. The convention does not apply to customs, law enforcement or military aircraft, thus its scope appears to exclusively encompass civilian aircraft. Importantly, the convention only comes into force if the aircraft takes off or lands in a place different than its country of registration. For aircraft with joint registration, one country is designated as the registration state for the purpose of the convention.

See the United Nations website for full text.

Montreal Convention
See the United Nations website for full text on "Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Civil Aviation".

See also

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  • Airport security
  • List of aircraft hijackings
  • List of Cuba-United States aircraft hijackings
  • D. B. Cooper
  • FBI
  • Federal Air Marshal Service
  • September 11 attacks
  • Terrorism
  • Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
  • United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
  • Palestinian political violence

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