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: History of Security Events


Aircraft, by their inherent high-value nature, are considered major assets. Their conspicuous value is evident with their premium rate engine technologies and their ability to transcend humans' abilities to travel; aviation has made it possible to be half-way around the world in the matter of hours, whereas previously it may have taken weeks or months. This results in aircraft being a significant mode of travel in an increasingly interconnected and globalised world. It is not only the high cost of manufacturing and maintaining aircraft that make aviation a significant target of hostilities, but their subsequent highly political nature. Aircraft disruptions have major ramifications that are distinct from other surface transportation means, due to a zero-tolerance attitude regarding failure. Consequently, this results in aircraft being able to consistently dictate high publicity in the media. Thus, as a result of these variables, aircraft have been hijacked to exploit these distinctive features.

Note: Explosive events, such as bombing of aircraft, are outside the scope of the discussion, and are thus not included. This is because the perpetrator of the event typically did not elect to fly with the device.

Threat and the Use of Violence in Aviation

The use of or threat of the use of violence has been frequently utilised in the history of aviation, dating back to the early days of flying. Historically, this has often included the use of weapons or explosives on board. The threat of violence, to gain a benefit through aircraft transportation, is commonly referred to as 'hijack' events. There have been records regarding the theft of aircraft; however, due to the essential and particular skill levels that are required to operate an aircraft, such occurrences are very rare in comparison to hijackings.

The earliest recorded event of a hijacking was on 21 February 1931, relating to a Ford Tri-motor aircraft (shown as Figure 2.1) located in Arequipa, Peru. After landing the pilot, Byron Richards, was approached by a local revolutionary militia Richards was detained for 10 days, as the militia attempted to force Richards to fly to another destination, to which Richards refused. Eventually, after notifying Richards that the revolution was successful, he was freed on the condition that he flew one of the members into Lima. This event was the first detailed account of a new form of hijacking: terrorism.

On 25 September, 1932 - about a year later on the same South American continent, during the Brazilian Constitutionalist Revolution, there was another theft of an aircraft, which included the kidnap of an airport staff member. Three rebels had taken a Panair de Brazil, Sikorsky S38 aircraft from a hanger. The S38 was a multi-engine piston amphibious aircraft (illustrated in Figure 2.2), seating around eight occupants including the pilot. While the perpetrators appeared to have no formal flying experience, they were able to take-off. Flowever, they experienced difficulties controlling the plane and


A historic Ford Tri Motor Aircraft in US company livery. (Joe Osciak.)


A Sikorski S38 aircraft (replica). (Christian Bramkamp.)

unfortunately the aircraft crashed in the Sao Joao de Meriti area, killing all four occupants.

This incident highlights that while there are difficulties in acquiring an aircraft by force, the complexities in the preparation of the aircraft and necessary skills pilots must possess in order to take-off, navigate and land are critical. The consequences the lack of expertise are often loss of human life for both victims and those conducting the hijacking.

Murder at the Controls of an Aircraft

The first recorded murder on a plane was on 27 October 1939, committed by trainee pilot Earnest Pletch. While undertaking flight instruction in a Taylor Cub two-seat single-engine piston aircraft (see Figure 2.3), Pletch shot his flight instructor twice in the head, before landing the aircraft. This event was also the first hijacking in the USA and is considered very unusual due to the lack of a clear motive. In court, Pletch was found guilty of the act of homicide and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. However, Pletch was later released in 1957, having been incarcerated for 17 years.


A Taylor Cub training aircraft. (Max Nustedt.)

The Second World War, and the Immediate Period Thereafter

During the Second World War, hijack events were rarely recorded, but a small number of events did transpire. After the war, with the repurposing of old military aircraft for civilian use, aviation operations flourished worldwide. As a result of the expansion of commercial air travel, hijackings exponentially increased and consequentially, they began to command worldwide attention.

Like many other commercial aircraft of the era, the Catalina 'Miss Macao' seaplane (see Figure 2.4) was a repurposed military aircraft.

The Cathay Pacific Airways Catalina aircraft was chartered by the subsidiary Macau Air Transport Company and was normally used to carry passengers. Being a seaplane, the Catalina was different to the other fleet of operational aircraft from the owners, Cathay Pacific Airways, as Cathay's first aircraft was a DC3 known as 'Betsy' (see Figure 2.5).

However, the Macau Air Transport Company also imported gold from Hong Kong to Macau, which would then be distributed to anti-Communist organisations who required funds, thus avoiding a violation of the Bretton Woods Agreement, which included the prohibition of the importing free


'Miss Macao' Catalina aircraft.


Cathay Pacific Airways first aircraft, DC3 'Betsy.' (Cathay Pacific Airways.) gold among countries such as those in Western Europe (Hong Kong was a colony of the British Empire at the time). As Macau was a Portuguese colony in the Southern China region, Macao Air was exempt from these limitations (i.e. not covered by the Bretton Woods Agreement). While the 'Miss Macao' represented a growth in profits for Cathay Pacific and was an example of the global expansion of the aviation industry, it was operational during a postwar society where the security risk and potential for hijacking events were greater than ever. On 16 July 1948, a few minutes after take-off, four men hijacked the 'Miss Macao' seaplane, 6 km North East off Kauchau Island, China; the aircraft was enroute from Macao to Hong Kong. The hijackers had handguns and instructed the pilot to land in a remote area of the coastline in order to rob the passengers and ransom them. It was later reported that four of the passengers were significantly wealthy individuals, with one carrying over 100 kg of gold. Following an altercation with the hijackers, the pilot was shot in the head and collapsed over the controls, which resulted in the aircraft nosediving into the sea. All passengers and crew died, except for one hijacker who was the sole survivor.

While this was not the first hijacking of a passenger aircraft, it was the notable milestone involving a significant loss of life that resulted in protocol change to protect lives in such unforeseen events. Following this event in Asia, airlines around the world adopted a compliance stance with hijack demands, whereby they would comply with the demands of the hostiles to minimise the risk to life and to the aircraft. This also demonstrates the beginning of aircraft security evolving in response to hijacking incidents.

The Late 1950s and 1960s

In the years prior to the Cuban revolution (1958), a number of aircraft hijackings took place in Cuba, where a series of events occurred. This is where individuals (sometimes travelling as passengers) used force to take control of the flights, including the hijack of a Cubana de Aviacion DC3 aircraft (Figure 2.6).

The hijackers' common motive for many of these hijack events was to escape the island of Cuba, prior to and in the years after the revolution for independence. Between 9 April 1958 and 2 October 1959, there were at least 11 separate recorded events. The occurrences of persons using force to hijack flights bound to or from Cuba became even more frequent in the following decade. The solution that the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) adopted was the deployment of armed guards on commercial flights from 1968 onwards. The introduction of these armed 'covert' guards (later known as 'Sky Marshals') did little to prevent the regular occurrences of hijack events on flights between the USA and Cuba (and vice versa).


Cubana de Aviacion DC3 aircraft.

The American Airlines further responded to these frequent hijack events (that were very bad publicity for the carrier) with an 'absolute compliance' to the hijackers demands. Pilots and crews would obey the instructions given by the hijackers.

The 1970s Onwards

Throughout the 1970s numerous further acts of terrorism took place on USA-Cuba flights. The regular occurrences took place up to late 1972. In 1968, Senator George Smathers (Florida State) suggested that 'new' security technologies that were being used at US high-security prisons should be deployed at US Airports to prevent the hijacking problem. Shortly after this suggestion by Senator Smathers, the FAA dismissed his concept. However, the government and industry later deemed the concept as a viable solution to the problem of aircraft security, as July 1970 saw New Orleans International Airport becoming the first airport to employ magnetic detectors as a means to detect weaponry. Passenger profiling was deployed as the initial means used to identify 'who to search', which might result in a further 'pat down' search of the traveller. Later, all passengers were required to walk through a


Metal detectors used to enhance security inside airports during the 1970s.

'hoop' style metal detector (Figure 2.7) when proceeding from the landside to the airside.

The 1974 US Air Transport Act saw all airports being required to introduce metal detectors for all passengers, and X-ray machines to screen carry-on baggage (Figure 2.8).

Some of these hijack demands during the 1970s included the ransom of the aircraft, where the threat of force was implied either by use of a weapon or by the suggestion that the person was carrying a bomb. Payments were demanded by the perpetrators and paid by the airlines to secure the release of the aircraft and crews.

Elsewhere in the world, hijack events also continued on a regular basis, often with a deeper political motive. For example, on 31 March 1970 Japan Airlines Flight 351 on a Tokyo to Fukuoka domestic flight was hijacked by the Japanese Red Army. The flight was forced to land in Gimpo Airport, South Korea. After a standoff, the hijackers demanded a further onward flight to Pyongyang, North Korea. Likewise, 6 September 1970 saw a politically motivated terrorist group (The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) coordinate multiple hijackings of four separate aircraft (TWA flight from Frankfurt, Swissair from Zurich, attempted hijack of El Alfrom Amsterdam, Pan Am from Amsterdam, BOAC from Bahrain). All the hijacked aircraft were forced to fly to Jordan, and land at a remote site known as Dawson's Field.


X-ray baggage scanners used at airports and high-profile security events by US Secret Service during the 1970s. (American Crystallographic Association, David Haas.)

As the years continued from the 1970s to the 1980s, the increased levels of passenger security screening did prevent many of the 'would be' attempts to hijack aircraft and make demands. While the number of occurrences in the USA continued to fall year on year, as a result of the more effective screening, yet occurrences elsewhere in the world continued frequently.

Security and screening continued to evolve in the 1980s and 1990s, and the carrying of prohibited items by passengers onto large commercial aircraft became more difficult, with requirements to pass through landside/airside security thwarting many attempts. However, some hijackers changed their methodology to use some of the emergency equipment carried onboard the aircraft. One example of this was Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961, which was a multi-sector flight from Addis Ababa to Lagos in Nigeria. After take-off, three young men stormed the flight deck, obtained the fire crash axe that is carried on aircraft for fire-fighting purposes, and threatened violence to the pilots. The fire crash axe is carried to pry open panels and bulkheads to gain access a fire in an inaccessible location. One of the hijackers on this


Hijack and ditching of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 on the beaches of the Comoro Islands.

flight falsely claimed he was also carrying a bomb onboard the aircraft, and the three terrorists demanded to be flown to Australia. The Captain of the aircraft knew that this B767 aircraft was not carrying sufficient fuel for the demanded flight, and instead flew down the African coastline in a general southern direction. The Captain directed the aircraft towards the Comoro Islands, but before the aircraft could reach the airport and land, the aircraft exhausted its supply of fuel. The aircraft then performed a forced (deadstick) ditching on the sea, some 100 m from the beaches that were popular with tourists. Tourists on the beach were able to film the B767 ditching, cartwheeling in the process (see Figure 2.9), before sinking to the seabed. A local dive school returning to the beach on boats, having just finished a series of underwater diver training classes, was able to respond immediately. The members of the dive school were able to descend onto the submerged B767 that had sunk in shallow water: the divers rescued 50 of the 175 passengers and crews.

The changes made after the hijack events associated with 9/11 will be discussed in Chapter 7.


This chapter has explained a brief history of some of the hijack events where perpetrators have used or threatened to use violence to coerce the airlines and the pilots to submit to their will. The historical events indicate that hijack is not a new problem, because aircraft and aviation is seen as a high-value target. Early demands were to force the pilot to carry the hijackers, but this later changed to extortion and politically motivated acts. Pilot homicide inflight was also observed. Eventually, the regulators and industry responded to this new threat of hijacking, with the introduction of Sky Marshals on certain flight routes, and improved security profiling of passengers. The mandatory use of 'hoop' metal detectors and cabin baggage X-ray screening for passengers moving from the landside to airside did result in a decrease in the event frequency, but many individuals were still able to circumnavigate these new security protocols, as the hijack statistics demonstrate. Lastly, one hijack event included storming the flight deck and obtaining the aircraft safety equipment fire axe to coerce the flight.

The next chapter will explain the background events behind the development and deployment of flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders (i.e. black boxes), which are used by accident investigators to piece together the final moments before a crash or ditching event.


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