You’re 11 km (36,000 ft) up in the air, taking a nap in your seat. Suddenly, a scream wakes you up. You’re scared and disoriented. The passengers next to you look terrified, and some are covering their heads.
Two armed men have taken control of the plane. You feel sick, can’t breathe, and you want to scream. But you’ll have to control your nerves to make it out alive.
To put it simply, hijacking a plane is like a pirate taking over a ship or boat, but it happens in the air instead of on the water. The first plane hijacking in the United States took place in 1961. But the so-called “golden age” for hijacking was between 1968 and 1972, when more than 130 flights were hijacked. Sometimes, more than one plane was hijacked per day.
By the end of the 1970s, the FAA used x-ray screening of luggage, passenger screenings, and metal detectors. Following the terrorist attacks of September 2001, hijackings became increasingly rare, thanks to the solid reinforcement of cockpit doors and higher security in airports. But there have been about 50 hijackings since then, according to the Aviation Safety Network. None of them were in the U.S.
Should you fight back or lay low? What are the chances of your plane getting hijacked? What should you say if hijackers interrogate you?
The current odds of being in a flight hijacked by terrorists are about 10,408,947 to one. But in case it does happen to you, follow these tips to survive.
Step 1. Don’t Be a Hero
The whole situation is stressful, not only for you but for the hijackers too. So do everything you can to avoid creating tension. Try to calm other passengers, and listen carefully to any instructions the hijackers or the flight attendants are giving. Prepare mentally for being in a living nightmare, and try to focus on what you’ll do or who you’ll see when the hijacking is over.
If you’re thinking about fighting back, think twice. You don’t know how many more hijackers might be on the flight and hiding among the passengers. Your attack could trigger a disaster and cost everyone their lives.
However, sometimes you might not have a choice but to fight back. And if that’s the case, you might want to stick around for step 5.
Step 2. Be invisible
Stay silent and try to blend in with the rest of the passengers. Don’t look at your captors. And don’t make any comments unless it’s to calm and reassure your family or someone close to you. Keep your head and eyes down, don’t speak unless spoken to, and be docile. Don’t make the hijackers take you as a hostage.
And if they pull you aside to interrogate you, be polite. Don’t make any sudden movements, keep your answers short, and don’t talk about politics. Minimize the importance of your job and give minor, ordinary details of your trip. If they accuse you of something, deny it calmly and respectfully.
Step 3. Call for help
If you get the chance, activate the internet connection on your phone. It should be OK if you’re already in the air. Try texting 911, or posting on social media so someone can contact the authorities.
Keep your phone silent. And make sure nobody is watching you, not even other passengers, as they could be working with the hijackers.
Step 4. Observe and analyze
Try to take mental notes about the hijackers, including their height, body structure, clothing, and how they refer to each other. Try to identify if there’s a leader. This could be helpful if they escape after the plane lands or if you survive and need to testify during a trial. It could also help you identify who to attack if you have to fight.
Step 5. Fight for your life
If a group of passengers tries to coordinate a revolt, or if the hijackers make it clear that they are on a suicide mission, try and get items like beverage cans, alcohol bottles, the food and beverage carts, and other heavy objects to use to barricade and surprise the attackers.
Step 6. Escape
If the confrontation happens when you’re on land, or if an assault force attempts a rescue, don’t fight. And stay out of the way. Stay low to avoid any shots that could be fired, and crawl towards an emergency exit. Try to use the inflatable slides since jumping out of the plane could be dangerous. When you land, run with your hands up and cooperate with the authorities until they realize you’re not a hijacker.
In 1986, a group of Palestinian militants took control of Pan Am Flight 73 in the airport in Karachi, Pakistan. The pilots escaped. But when the authorities didn’t send another pilot, the hijackers started shooting into the passengers. During the chaos, three of the plane’s doors were opened, some passengers tried to jump 6 m (20 ft) to the ground. Some were injured and suffered broken bones. Twenty-two people died that day, and another 150 were injured. The hijackers were arrested.
The chances of your flight being hijacked are really low, but it’s still possible. So remember not to panic and don’t try to be a hero.
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- “Inside a hijack: The unheard stories of the Pan Am 73 crew”. Megha, Mohan. 2016. BBC News.
- “Here’s How High Planes Actually Fly, According To Experts”. Celine, Hacobian. 2021. Time.