Tuesday, 11 July 2006

So many hijackings

Last night my coworkers and I had a little office outing to Bryant Park for one of the HBO movie nights. They were showing Bullitt, made in 1968, apparently some kind of milestone in the action movie genre for its groundbreaking car chase. I found myself staring at the screen in bewilderment, wondering why anyone would voluntarily subject themselves to this movie, but that’s just me. Action movies, not really my thing.

Anyway at one point in the movie the detective, played by Steve McQueen, has to arrest this guy on an airplane which is about to take off. The control tower tells the plane to return to the loading dock and have the passengers disembark. As they’re leaving the plane McQueen boards and heads toward the criminal. The criminal proceeds to stand up, run to the back of the plane, open the back door, jump out and run out onto the tarmac. McQueen gives pursuit, and the criminal pulls a gun out of his pocket and starts shooting at him. For some reason McQueen seems to have forgotten he has a gun, or chooses not to use it. He proceeds to chase the main through the airport, which seems to be operating normally even though there’s a gun-wielding maniac running around the tarmac.

Now by this point in the movie I was willing to suspend my disbelief. After all the whole thing made absolutely no sense. But this seemed ludicrous. How did he get on the plane with a gun? How was he able to open the back hatch? Why isn’t the airport being evacuated? Why are planes still taking off??

But it turns out there was actually a rational explanation for my queries, when put into historical context. My co-worker pointed out that he just happened to be reading the other day that they didn’t start screening passengers for weapons until 1970, after four airplanes were hijacked at once by Palestinians. Before then, he said, you could just walk onto a plane wit anything, as if it was a bus.

Four airplanes hijacked at the same time? Surely this couldn’t be true. When I got home I checked it out on Wikipedia, and sure enough, this really did happen. The incident, called the Dawson’s Field Hijackings, occurred on September 9, 1970 and saw members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijack four New York City-bound airplanes from Europe and brought them to Dawson’s Field, an old British military base in the desert of Jordan. Flights from Zurich, Frankfurt were successfully. A third plane was taken to Beirut, and the hijacking of a fourth plane from Amsterdam was foiled. A fifth plane from Bahrain was hijacked two days later by a PFLP sympathizer and brought to Dawson’s field.

After protracted negotiations and the release of Palestinian prisoners in Switzerland and the UK, the hostages were freed on September 11, 1970.

What was more shocking than the fact that this event had occurred and I had never heard of it was that there was a colossal number of hijackings that occurred during the entire decade. Indeed, there have been way more hijackings in the history of aviation than I ever would have imagined. There were a whole bunch of hijackings in between the US and Cuba in the 50’s and 60’s, but then in the late 60’s (right at the time of the series of Israeli-Arab wars) there was an explosion in the number of hijackings. In 1969 there were 82 recorded hijack attempts worldwide, more than twice the total attempts for the whole period 1947-67. Then there were 385 hijacking incidents between 1967-1976. From 1977-1986 there were 300 incidents and by 1987-1996 this figure was reduced to 212. During the late 60’s and early 70’s it would appear Palestinian terrorists developed the airplane hijacking into an art form. I was astounded by how many there were.

Even more astounding is that although the intent of almost all hijackings before 2001 was to hold the passengers hostage until certain goals were met, there were several incidents in which the hijackers intended to use the airplane as a weapon, most notably the hijacking of Air France Flight 8969 in 1994, in which a group of Algerian terrorists intended on flying a plane loaded with a full tank of fuel into the Eiffel Tower. It was only because they hijacked the plane before the blocks had been taken off the wheels that they failed in this endeavor.

Even more fascinating were the hijackings by our own home-grown terrorists. In 1974 Samuel Byck hijacked a plane with what may or may not have been dynamite strapped to his chest, intending on forcing the pilots to fly into the White House. In 1971 a man named Dan Cooper hijacked a flight out of Portland, landed it in Seattle, and demanded $200,000 for the release of the hostages. He got the money, then ordered the pilots to fly south toward Mexico at a low altitude, and during the flight he actually opened the back door and parachuted out, never to be heard from again. After this aircraft were fitted with a device called the “Cooper Vane,” which prevents the rear door from being opened. This explains why, in 1968, someone would be able to escape out of the back door of a plane.

It was only after this flurry of hijackings that security measures like metal detectors were instituted. Can you believe it? Before then you could just walk onto a plane with an AK-47!

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