SAA Hyjack

Picture the situation. You’re the captain on a SAA Boeing 737-800. You’re airborne out of Capetown en-route for Johannesburg. It’s a lovely winter’s morning and you’ve just leveled off at 37000 feet. The sky is indigo blue with a patchwork of stratus resting serenely in the valleys far below. Your thoughts are momentarily lost in the majesty of the stratosphere. You’ve seen this sight countless times yet it never ceases to enrapture you.
A coded buzzer pulls you back to reality. The cabin attendant requires entry onto the flight deck. She brings in the breakfast trays and takes a seat behind you, closing the door as she does so.
Seconds later you hear screaming and loud thumping. It’s coming from the other side of the cockpit door behind you.

“What the…?”

You reach for the video monitor switch on the throttle quadrant. Behind the cockpit door is a man wrestling with the other stewardess. He appears to be holding a sharp object, a knife maybe, to her throat. He’s demanding the cockpit door be opened – or he will kill her!

Suddenly everything becomes surreal. The images on the monitor seem like animated scenes from an old monochrome movie. This can’t possibly be happening!!! But then realization sets in… Someone is trying to hijack your plane! What the heck are you going to do now…?

This is how Captain Neville Reed and First Officer Richard Albrecht began their day on the 17th of June 2006.

Before I take this story further I’m going to digress slightly with an unusual request. There’s a movie on circuit called “United 93.” Go see it. It’s the chronicle of events on the 11th of September 2001 and how a United Airlines Boeing 757 was prevented from crashing into the White House, directly after three other hijacked airliners had found their mark on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

As an aviator, if you can sit through this movie without becoming extremely distressed and agitated then you’ve got ice in your veins!
Now to digress yet further.

One of the blessings (and curses) of a recreational writer is an over-active imagination. Many years ago I wrote a fiction novel which spun a story around the events leading up to the 1987 Helderberg 747 disaster. My novel was never published but much of what has emerged over the years has intimated my novel to be a plausible account. (Specifically, the reasons why the ANC government will never allow the truth on this tragedy to be publicly revealed.)

Then in 1998, with the uncontrolled crime and violence in SA, I spun another story. This time the main character’s family had been wiped out, as victims of the most atrocious crime, subtly endorsed by the government. Guess how my main character takes revenge?

Not three years later the same thing happens, only this time on a horrific scale in New York!

Since then of course, airport security has been radically tightened utilizing the most high-tech devices imaginable. (Washington’s Dulles Airport even has a booth that douses passengers with jets of air that is then sucked back into the device, to be analyzed instantly for illegal chemical traces.)

But with every high-tech answer there is always a low-tech alternative. The recent chemical bomb fears at UK airports have proven this. Many chemicals are individually harmless until combined with other substances that could have been carried onboard by an accomplice. Hence the reason passengers are no longer even allowed toothpaste as hand luggage!

What is truly disturbing is that despite all the high-tech dissuasion, radicals still consider commercial aircraft a worthwhile weapon in their arsenal of terror.
(Tactlessly the South African government gives the impression of softly condoning this method by recently hosting Leila Khaled, the first female Lebanese hijacker as if she were a celebrity! This woman underwent facial surgery after her first hijacking so she wouldn’t be recognized when she went out and did it again!)

At the end of this article I will humbly foretell where the next low-tech aviation threat is going to come from, and why.
Now back to our story.

Seated in the business class section of the 737 was an off duty SAA pilot paxing to Johannesburg. Captain Neil Hodgson was witness to the events and managed to contact Captain Reed on the aircraft interphone system to confirm the severity of the situation. An African male passenger was viciously assaulting the stewardess and holding a syringe to her throat, threatening to kill her if the cockpit door was not opened. Still an hour and a half away from Johannesburg, Captain Reed needed to think fast. Immediately he declared a “Mayday” on the radio and directed his co-pilot to take over the handling of the aircraft. (This point is central in SAA’s training philosophy as it allows the captain the breather required to assess the situation – without the stress of having to fly the aircraft at the same time.) During this time he could take stock, discuss, revue and manage the implications their decisions were about to have.
Cool thinking and a wary foresight identified one factor that could easily have been overlooked.

Having ample fuel reserves it was possible the hijacker could demand the aircraft be diverted over-border into foreign airspace. If that were allowed to happen the situation could deteriorate rapidly. As weather was not a factor, a decision was made for an immediate return to Capetown where ground security was deemed to be as good (or bad) as anywhere else.

Fortunately during this time Captain Hodgson and a cabin attendant, aided by two passengers were able to subdue the hijacker. Handcuffs and a baton are carried on the flight deck but Captain Reed was reluctant to unlock the cockpit door in order to pass them out, since in all the mayhem, there was no way of ascertaining if an accomplice was awaiting an opportunity to storm the flight deck. After measures were taken to ensure this couldn’t occur, the assailant was then handcuffed and suitably restrained. Obviously the more salient actions and precautions can’t be mentioned here but since there was a necessity to limit the period of further risk exposure, a high speed descent was carried out with a visual approach onto runway 19, touching down at 0850 utc. According to procedure, ATC then directed the aircraft to a remote parking bay well clear of the terminal. This is done to avoid exposing the public and terminal buildings to danger in the event of an explosion; as well as making it completely impossible for terrorists to escape!

So far, so good. Up to this point everything had been handled in an extremely professional and expedient manner. Control was back in the hands of the good guys, and it was time to wrap this all up.

Then along comes the “Task Force.” Forty minutes after touch down! In fact, an hour and ten minutes after notification of the emergency! These guys train for something they hopefully will never experience and the last thing they’re going to pass up on is the opportunity to storm a couple of terrorists in an aeroplane! After all, you never know when such fun will present itself again!

Without giving away all their failings (except to mention a few bruised passenger heads) they were the reason the media had such a field day, misreporting what was really a very slick operation that regrettably turned into a ham-handed fiasco. So focused were the public on the media’s negative reporting, that nobody ever considered what could have happened if the hijacker had chosen to fly on another domestic airline!

And here comes the crux of the matter. Without deliberately punting SAA, but also to balance recent negative reports, a few facts shouldn’t be allowed to go amiss. According to both Airbus and Boeing, SAA’s Flight Training Department measures with the best in the world. To the point where we’ve been accused of over-training our pilots. (Any surprise SAA pilots are in such demand worldwide?)

After 911 all SAA aircraft were fitted with highly sophisticated impenetrable cockpit doors. No other domestic airline in SA has these, let alone the surveillance cameras that proved so valuable in this incident. Sure some have lockable cockpit doors, but none that will stand up to anything beyond a good tug. Had the hijacker made his attempt on any other domestic airline he would almost certainly have gotten away with it. To what end? Who can say?

It turned out he was a Zimbabwean student whom the police later discovered was running from death threats. So who knows what was ultimately going through this criminal’s mind.

My detractors point out that it’s unlikely he was much of a threat with only a syringe. Perhaps. But what was in that syringe? And how could anybody have known that at the time? These are dangerous times we live in. There were a million possibilities. He could have been in a drug induced craze intent on taking out Mugabe’s mansion, for all anybody knew. How do you negotiate with people, whose preferred bargaining tool is suicide, taking innocent passengers along for the ride?

This wasn’t the case here, but who’s to say that it couldn’t have been? Go see that movie and you’ll get my point.

Now, let’s get on to where the next threat in aviation is coming from. And more importantly – how to prevent it. Well, you’ll just have to read about it in my new book. (Only kidding – I haven’t written it yet.)

There are two great weaknesses. One of them is in Africa. The African aviation industry (North of the Limpopo) does not have the ability, resources or the will power to prevent the repeat of a 911. I’ll give an example. Several African airlines with dubious political affiliations fly to destinations that are vulnerable. We’ve already established that with timing, access can be gained to a flight deck. (Even pilots need the loo don’t they?) All the terrorist need do is time their intrusion to be on the decent into Europe – not America! Europe is so compact that Buckingham Palace, Westminster, the Eiffel Tower or the Airbus factory in Toulouse would be a smoldering ruin before the first Grippen or Eurofighter even got airborne! (Imagine the economic impact that last target would have!)

To win a war one must know your enemy. The Americans made that mistake when they tackled Vietnam. Both Hitler and Napoleon did the same in Russia. And now the Yanks are doing it again in Iraq.

This is not a political commentary, only to say that the radicals of today care naught for who they use to further their aims. I doubt if they’ll shy away from taking advantage of a neutral countries airline. After all, they want the whole world involved don’t they?

So how do you prevent it?
By insisting that only modern aircraft from non-hostile countries be allowed into western airspace. Future flight decks will also need to be completely redesigned to isolate the pilots from the rest of the aircraft during flight. From startup to shutdown, pilots will need to be entirely self sufficient. That means on long range aircraft, pilots would require their own toilet and galley. Requiring no service or outside intervention whatsoever! And it’s not impossibly difficult to implement either.

Arkia, a domestic Israeli airline has been operating this way for many years already. An interim low-tech method would be to simply install a curtain a short distance between the cockpit door and the cabin, making it impossible for the terrorist to choose the correct time to storm the flight deck. (On some aircraft such as the 737, 767 and 757 and smaller Airbuses, the cockpit door is visible and readily accessible from the passenger cabin, while on the wider bodied A340, 747 and 777 it is not.) Another security measure that in my view should be revisited is “sky marshals.” Twenty years ago we carried them on strategic SAA routes. Only the captain knew who they were and where they were seated. They were there to recognize and take out an assailant before he got anywhere near the cockpit. No weapons required. They were all Chuck Norris type of guys. (Keep practicing your karate son. Maybe there’s a job for you in aviation somewhere down the line.)

And as for the other threat? I’d rather not say. That’s far scarier! Don’t want to read about another one of my plots being abused by a couple of wackos.

The author is an A340 Training Captain with SAA and CEO of Flight Training College George.

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