Aircraft hijacking

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For the fictional character, see Skyjack (Transformers). For the racehorse, see Sky Jack. For the Trumans Water EP, see Skyjacker (EP).

Aircraft hijacking (also known as air piracy or aircraft piracy, especially within the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, and informally as skyjacking) is the unlawful seizure of an aircraft by an individual or a group.[citation needed] 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, such as the September 11 attacks of 2001. In at least three cases, the plane was hijacked[1] by the official pilot or co-pilot.[2][3][4][5]

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. Various motives have driven such occurrences, including demanding the release of certain inmates (notably IC-814), highlighting the grievances of a particular community (notably AF 8969), or political asylum (notably ET 961). 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).

Warning posters in a Central African airport, in French and English. June 2012


The first recorded aircraft hijack took place on February 21, 1931, in Arequipa, Peru. Byron Richards, 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, Richards was informed that the revolution was successful and he could go in return for flying one group member to Lima.[6]

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. He 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 that he had no choice in the matter; he had to fly the group to their chosen destination. He 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. He went on to work for the FAA in Fort Worth after his flying career.[citation needed]

The world's first fatal hijacking occurred on 28 October 1939. Earnest P. "Larry" Pletch shot Carl Bivens, 39, a flight instructor who was offering Pletch lessons in a yellow Taylor Cub monoplane with tandem controls in the air after taking off in Brookfield, Missouri. Bivens, instructing from the front seat, was shot in the back of the head twice. "Carl was telling me I had a natural ability and I should follow that line," Pletch later confessed to prosecutors in Missouri. "I had a revolver in my pocket and without saying a word to him, I took it out of my overalls and I fired a bullet into the back of his head. He never knew what struck him." The Chicago Daily Tribune called it "One of the most spectacular crimes of the 20th century, and what is believed to be the first airplane kidnap murder on record." Because it occurred somewhere over three Missouri counties, and involved interstate transport of a stolen airplane, it raised questions in legal circles about where, by whom, and even whether he could be prosecuted. Ernest Pletch pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. However, his sentence was commuted (probably due to prison overcrowding), and he was released on 1 March 1957, after serving 17 years. He died in Eldredge, Missouri in June 2001.[7][8]

In the Dymshits–Kuznetsov hijacking affair on 15 June 1970, a group of Soviet refuseniks attempted to hijack a civilian aircraft in order to escape to the West, but were caught and spent many years in Soviet prisons. This case is politically distinct in the sense that the government of Israel[citation needed], which strongly denounced other cases of aircraft hijacking[citation needed], endorsed this one and declared its participants to be heroes and martyrs for the Zionist cause[citation needed]. This was denounced as a double standard by left-wing critics such as then Knesset Member Charlie Biton.

On September 11, 2001, 19 al-Qaeda 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, and Stonycreek Township near Shanksville, Pennsylvania (after passengers acted to stop the hijackers; its intended target was either the White House or the U.S. Capitol) in a terrorist attack. All in all, 2,996 people perished in the attacks, including 2,507 civilians, 72 law enforcement officers, 343 firefighters, 55 military personnel, and the 19 terrorists. This death toll makes the hijacking the most fatal in history.

Military aircraft hijacking[edit]

Main article: Rashid Minhas

A Pakistan Air Force T-33 trainer was hijacked on August 20, 1971 before the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971 in Karachi when a Bengali instructor pilot, Flight Lieutenant Matiur Rahman, knocked out the young Pilot Officer Rashid Minhas with the intention of defecting to India with the plane and national secrets. On regaining consciousness in mid-flight, Minhas struggled for flight control as well as relaying the news of his hijack to the PAF base. In the end of the ensuing struggle he succeeded to crash his aircraft into the ground near Thatta on seeing no way to prevent the hijack and the defection. He was posthumously awarded Pakistan's highest military award Nishan-e-Haider (Sign of the Lion) for his act of bravery.[9][10][11][12][13] Matiur Rahman was awarded Bangladesh's highest military award, Bir Sreshtho, for his attempt to defect to join the civil war in East Pakistan (modern-day Bangladesh).[11]

Mystery hijacking[edit]

Main article: D. B. Cooper

D. B. Cooper is perhaps the most famous hijacker of all time, and his case is the only unsolved hijacking in America's aviation history.[14]

Dealing with hijackings[edit]

Before the September 11, 2001 attacks, most hijackings involved the plane landing at a certain destination, followed by the hijackers making negotiable demands. Pilots and flight attendants were trained to adopt the "Common Strategy" tactic, which was approved by the United States 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;[15] often, during the epidemic of skyjackings in the late 1960s and early 1970s, an inconvenient but otherwise harmless trip to Cuba for the passengers.

The September 11 attacks presented an unprecedented threat because it involved suicide hijackers who could fly an aircraft and use it to deliberately crash the airplane into buildings for the sole purpose of causing massive casualties, with no warning, demands or negotiations, and no regard for human life. 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 in the USA and the rest of the world to deal with airplane hijackings has no longer been used.

Since the attacks, the situation for crew members, passengers and hijackers has changed. United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field as flight attendants and passengers—who had heard about the other three hijacked planes ramming into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—fought hijackers who were probably aiming to crash the plane either into the White House or the United States Capitol. As on Flight 93, crew members and passengers now have to calculate the risks of passive cooperation, not only for themselves but also for those on the ground. Later examples 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, teamed up to help prevent Richard Reid from igniting explosives hidden in his shoes. Another example is when a few passengers and flight attendants teamed up to subdue Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who attempted to detonate explosives sewn into his underwear aboard Northwest Flight 253 on December 25, 2009. Flight attendants and pilots now receive extensive anti-hijacking and self-defense training designed to thwart a hijacking or bombing.[16]

In 2012, six hijackers hijacked flight 7554. Two of the hijackers died from severe injuries sustained during a fight with passengers and crew who attempted to subdue them. A doctor led elderly and children away from the violence. The hijackers had weapons which they used to attack cabin crew and passengers. Six policemen were on board the aircraft. They helped remove explosives and weapons from the hijackers. A group of resourceful passengers protected the cockpit door using a beverage cart that was rolled in front of the door. The pilot heard screaming and fighting from the cabin. A first class flight attendant was injured trying to stop three hijackers who were in first class from entering the cockpit. Seven passengers were injured during the fights on board the aircraft. It was the first violent hijacking since the 9/11 attacks in North America. When the pilot realized what was happening, he decided to fly the aircraft back to the airport. Once the plane landed, police surrounded it.

Informing air traffic control[edit]

To alert 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.[17]

On 9/11, the suicide hijackers did not make any attempt to contact ground control to inform anyone about their hijackings, nor engage in any dialogue or negotiations. However, the hijacker-pilot of Flight 11 and the ringleader of the terrorist cell, Mohamed Atta, mistakenly transmitted announcements to ATC, meaning to go through the Boeing 767. Also, onboard flight attendants Amy Sweeney and Betty Ong called the American Airlines office, telling the workers that Flight 11 was hijacked. 9/11 hijacker-pilot Ziad Jarrah aboard Flight 93 also made a similar error when he mistakenly transmitted announcements to Cleveland ATC about the hijacking.


Cockpit doors on most commercial aircraft have been strengthened and are now bullet resistant. In the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, Austria, the Netherlands 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 helps prevent weapons from being taken on an aircraft. Along with the FAA, the FBI also monitors terror suspects. Any person who is seen as a threat to civil aviation is banned from flying.

Shooting down aircraft[edit]

According to reports, U.S. fighter pilots have been trained to shoot down hijacked commercial airliners if necessary.[18] Other countries, such as India, Poland, and Russia have enacted similar laws or decrees that allow the downing of hijacked planes.[19] However, in September 2008 the Polish Constitutional Court ruled that the Polish rules were unconstitutional, and voided them.[20]


India published its new anti-hijacking policy in August 2005.[21] 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 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.[22] 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 [3]

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[edit]

Tokyo Convention[edit]

The Tokyo Convention states in Article 11, defining the so-called unlawful takeover of an aircraft, that the parties signing the agreement are obliged, in case of hijacking or a threat of it, to take all the necessary measures in order to regain or keep control over an aircraft. The detailed analysis of the quoted article shows[according to whom?] that in order of an unlawful takeover of an aircraft to take place, and at the same time to start the application of the convention, 3 conditions should be met:

  1. The hijacking or control takeover of an aircraft must be a result of unlawful use of violence or an attempt to use violence;
  2. An aircraft should be "in flight" (that is, according to Article 1, paragraph 3 of the Tokyo Convention, from the moment when power is applied for the purpose of take-off until the moment when the landing run ends);
  3. The unlawful act must be committed on board an aircraft (that is, by a person on board an aircraft, e.g. a passenger or crew member. In case of an assault "from the outside", such an offense would be treated as an act of aviation piracy).

However, even without the order of the captain, any crewmember or passenger can take reasonable measures, when he or she has reasonable grounds to believe that such action is necessary to protect the safety of the aircraft, or of people or property therein. The captain may decide to disembark a suspected person on the territory of any country, where the aircraft would land, and that country must agree to that. (Article 8 and 12 of the Convention).

Continuation of the passengers' journey was a provision that first appeared in the Tokyo Convention (Article 11).[23]

Hague Convention[edit]

The Convention for the suppression of unlawful seizure of Aircraft (known as The Hague convention) went into effect on 14 October 1971. Article 1 of the Convention defines the offences to which it applies

Montreal Convention[edit]

Main article: Montreal Convention

In popular culture[edit]

The Hollywood film Air Force One recounts the fictional story of the hijacking of the famous aircraft by six Kazakh ultra-nationalist terrorists.[24] The film Con Air features an aircraft being hijacked by the maximum-security prisoners on board. The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story was a made-for-TV film based on the actual hijacking of TWA Flight 847, as seen through the eyes of the chief flight attendant Uli Derickson.[25] Passenger 57 depicts an airline security expert trapped on a passenger jet when terrorists seize control.[26] Skyjacked is a 1972 film about a crazed Vietnam war veteran hijacking an airliner, demanding to be taken to Russia.[27] The 1986 film The Delta Force depicted a Special Forces squad tasked with retaking a plane hijacked by Lebanese terrorists.[28] The 2006 film Snakes On a Plane is a fictional story about aircraft piracy through the in-flight release of venomous snakes.[29] The 2014 film Non-Stop depicts an aircraft hijacking.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Photos: Major aircraft hijackings that shocked the world" (Mid Day). Retrieved 24 December 2014. 
  2. ^ China Airlines Flight 334
  3. ^ "Air China pilot hijacks his own jet to Taiwan". CNN. 28 October 1998. Archived from the original on 21 March 2008. Retrieved 25 January 2007. 
  4. ^ B. Raman (2 January 2000). "PLANE HIJACKING: IN PERSPECTIVE". South Asia Analysis Group. Retrieved 29 January 2015. 
  5. ^ Ethiopian Airlines ET702 hijacking
  6. ^ 30 years later Richards was again the victim of a failed hijacking attempt. A father and son boarded his Continental Airlines Boeing 707 in El Paso, Texas and tried to force him at gunpoint to fly the plane to Cuba hoping for a cash reward from Fidel Castro. FBI agents and police chased the plane down the runway and shot out its tires, averting the hijacking. See
  7. ^ [1] The Murderous Story of America's First Hijacking, Mike Dash, (5 August 2015)
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ John Pike. "PAF Kamra". Retrieved 29 January 2012. 
  11. ^ a b "Pakistan". Retrieved 29 January 2012. 
  12. ^ "Pilot Officer Rashid Minhas". Retrieved 29 January 2012. 
  13. ^ "Nishan-i-Haider laurelled Rashid Minhas’ anniversary today". Samaa Tv. Retrieved 29 January 2012. 
  14. ^ Gray, Geoffrey (21 October 2007). "Unmasking D.B. Cooper". New York magazine. ISSN 0028-7369. Retrieved 24 April 2011. 
  15. ^
  16. ^ [2] Secure Skies (website)
  17. ^ Aeronautical Information Manual, paragraph 6-3-4, "Special Emergency (Air Piracy)", Federal Aviation Administration, 1999
  18. ^ "US pilots train shooting civilian planes". BBC News. 3 October 2003. Retrieved 24 November 2012. 
  19. ^ "Poland to down hijacked aircraft". BBC News. 13 January 2005. Retrieved 30 March 2010. 
  20. ^ English translation of the judgement of the court
  21. ^ "India adopts tough hijack policy". BBC News, 14 August 2005
  22. ^ English translation of the judgement by the court
  23. ^ Sovereignty and Jurisdiction in Airspace and Outer Space: Legal Criteria for Spatial Delimitation, by Gbenga Oduntan, Routledge, 2011, pg. 118.
  24. ^ IMDb. "Air Force One". IMDb. 
  25. ^ IMDb. "The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story". IMDb. 
  26. ^ IMDb. "Passenger 87". IMDb. 
  27. ^ IMDb. "Skyjacked". IMDb. 
  28. ^ IMDb. "The Delta Force". IMDb. 
  29. ^ IMDb. "Snakes on a Plane". IMDb. 
  30. ^ IMDb. "Non-Stop". IMDb. 

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