Aboard Flight 564: Pilot reminds passengers they are not helpless in face of terrorists

Posted: Monday, September 24, 2001

As it was at most U.S. airports, last Saturday (Sept. 15) was the first near-normal day at Denver International since the terrorist attacks. On United's Flight 564, the door had just been locked and the plane was about to pull out of the gate when the captain came on the public address system.

"I want to thank you brave folks for coming out today. We don't have any new instructions from the federal government, so from now on we're on our own."

'If someone were to stand up, brandish something such as a plastic knife and say 'This is a hijacking' or words to that effect, here is what you should do: Every one of you should stand up and immediately throw things at that person -- pillows, books, magazines, eyeglasses, shoes -- anything that will throw him off balance and distract his attention.'

-- Pilot on United's Flight 564 on Sept. 15

The passengers listened in total silence.

He explained that airport security measures had pretty much solved the problem of firearms being carried aboard, but not weapons of the type the terrorists apparently used, plastic knives or those fashioned from wood or ceramics.

"Sometimes a potential hijacker will announce that he has a bomb. There are no bombs on this aircraft, and if someone were to get up and make that claim, don't believe him.

"If someone were to stand up, brandish something such as a plastic knife and say 'This is a hijacking' or words to that effect, here is what you should do: Every one of you should stand up and immediately throw things at that person -- pillows, books, magazines, eyeglasses, shoes -- anything that will throw him off balance and distract his attention. If he has a confederate or two, do the same with them. Most important: get a blanket over him, then wrestle him to the floor and keep him there. We'll land the plane at the nearest airport and the authorities will take it from there."

"Remember, there will be one of him and maybe a few confederates, but there are 200 of you. You can overwhelm them.

"The Declaration of Independence says 'We, the people,' and that's just what it is when we're up in the air: we, the people, vs. would-be terrorists. I don't think we are going to have any such problem today or tomorrow or for a while, but some time down the road, it is going to happen again, and I want you to know what to do.

"Now, since we're a family for the new few hours, I'll ask you to turn to the person next to you, introduce yourself, tell them a little about yourself and ask them to do the same."

The end of this remarkable speech brought sustained clapping from the passengers. He had put the matter in perspective. If only the passengers on those ill-fated flights last Tuesday (Sept. 11) had been given the same talk, I thought, they might be alive today. One group on United Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field, apparently rushed the hijackers in an attempt to wrest control from them. While they perished, they succeeded in preventing the terrorist from attacking his intended goal, possibly the White House or the Capitol.

Procedures for dealing with hijackers were conceived in a time when the hijackers were usually seeking the release of jailed comrades or a large amount of money. Mass murder was not their goal. That short talk last Saturday (Sept. 15) by the pilot of Flight 564 should set a new standard of realism.

Every passenger should learn the simple -- but potentially life-saving -- procedure he outlined. He showed his passengers that a hijacking does not have to result in hopelessness and terror, but victory over the perpetrators.

The Airline Pilots Association, the pilots' union, last week dropped its opposition to stronger cockpit doors and is now calling for retrofits. (Its opposition was based on pilot concerns about getting out easily in emergency situations.) The scandal of easily penetrated airport security will result in congressional calls for a federal takeover of the security system.

Previous efforts to reform security procedures and raise standards have been talked to death. This time, however, no lobbying efforts must be allowed to prevent airport security from getting the reforms that are needed: federal operation, rigorous training, decent pay and no foreign nationals eligible for employment.

Peter Hannaford is a public affairs consultant.

Copyright � News World Communications Inc. Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times. This column was first published Sept. 19, 2001.



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