Hijacking Survival Guidelines

Hijacking of an aircraft is rare, but it does happen. It is well to consider how you should react if you end up being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The physical takeover of the aircraft by hijackers may be accompanied by noise, commotion, and possibly shooting and yelling, or it may be quiet and methodical with little more than an announcement by a crew member. Either way, how you and others react during these first few minutes of the hijacking may be crucial to the outcome.

The appropriate reaction may depend upon the presumed purpose of the hijacking -- is the hijackers' goal a suicide mission to use the airplane itself as a bomb, to take hostages to gain publicity for a political movement, a simple desire to escape to another country, or a single deranged individual. The risk to your personal safety varies accordingly.

Your first goal is to remain calm and assess the situation. Are the pilots left in control of the plane? Has either the pilot or the hijackers made a statement about their intentions? Is there any sign of a Federal Air Marshall on the plane? How many hijackers are there and how heavily are they armed? Are passengers able to place calls to people on the ground? Are the hijackers closely monitoring activities of the passengers? Are the hijackers demanding an ID from the passengers or singling passengers out based on nationality or other affiliation? Is anyone in position to resist the hijackers?

Remember that the hijackers will be extremely nervous and probably as scared as you are. Although they may appear calm, they cannot be trusted to behave reasonably or rationally. Fear can trigger a disaster. One wrong move by either a victim or a hijacker could easily set off a defensive spate of violence.

Physical resistance by passengers is warranted only if the hijackers try to seize physical control of the aircraft from the pilots, in which case the hijackers may be on a suicide mission to crash the plane. (The passengers who resisted the hijackers on Flight 93 during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were aware from cell phone conversations with family or friends on the ground that other planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.)

If it appears that the hijackers are not on a suicide mission, your goal should be to help promote a peaceful resolution. The following is the best way to do this:

  • Stay calm and encourage others around you to do the same.
  • Do not challenge the hijackers physically or verbally. Comply with their instructions. Do not struggle or try to escape unless you are absolutely certain of success.
  • If shooting occurs, keep your head down or drop to the floor.

Once the takeover of the aircraft has occurred, passengers may be separated by citizenship, sex, race, etc. Your passport may be confiscated and your carry-on luggage ransacked. The aircraft may be diverted to another country. The hijackers may enter into a negotiation phase which could last indefinitely and/or the crew may be forced to fly the aircraft to a different destination. During this phase passengers may be used as a bargaining tool in negotiations, lives may be threatened, or a number of passengers may be released in exchange for fuel, landing/departure rights, food, etc.

  • If you are told to keep your head down or maintain another body position, talk yourself into relaxing into the position. You may need to stay that way for some time.
  • Be aware that all hijackers may not reveal themselves at the same time. A lone hijacker may be used to draw out security personnel for neutralization by other hijackers.
  • Prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for a long ordeal with possible verbal or physical abuse, lack of food and drink, and unsanitary conditions.
  • Blend in with the other airline passengers. Avoid eye contact with your captors. Don't draw attention to yourself with sudden body movements, verbal remarks, or hostile looks.
  • If addressed by the hijackers, respond in a calm tone of voice. If interrogated, keep answers short and limited to nonpolitical topics. Minimize the importance of your job. Give innocuous reasons for traveling. Never admit to any accusations.
  • Do not attempt to hide your passport or belongings. If you are carrying both an official passport and a tourist passport, give your tourist passport in response to a general demand for identification.
  • Use your time wisely by observing the characteristics and behavior of the hijackers, mentally attach nicknames to each one and notice their dress, facial features and temperaments. Occupy your mind by memorizing this information so that you can report it after your release.
  • If you or a nearby passenger are in need of assistance due to illness or discomfort, solicit the assistance of a crew member first -- do not attempt to approach a hijacker unless similar assistance has been rendered by them for other passengers.
  • If you are singled out by the hijackers, be responsive but do not volunteer information.

The last phase of the hijacking is resolution, either by a hostage rescue team or through negotiation. In the latter instance, the hijackers may simply surrender to authorities or abandon the aircraft, crew and passengers. The following guidelines apply in the case of a rescue operation. The rescue may be similar to the hijacker's takeover -- noisy, chaotic, and possibly with shooting. The rescue force is re-taking control of the aircraft.

The termination of any hijacking incident is extremely tense. If an assault force attempts a rescue, it is imperative that you remain calm and out of the way. Make no sudden moves or take any action by which you could be mistaken for a terrorist and risk being injured or killed.

  • If you hear shots fired inside or outside the aircraft, immediately take a protective position — put your head down or drop to the floor.
  • If instructed by a rescue force to move, do so quickly, putting your hands up in the air or behind your head.
  • If fire or smoke appears, attempt to get emergency exits open and use the inflatable slides or exit onto the wing.
  • Once you are on the tarmac, follow the instructions of the rescue force or local authorities. If neither is there to guide you, move as quickly as possible away from the aircraft and eventually move towards the terminal or control tower area.
  • Initially, the rescue force may have no way of knowing whether you are a hijacker or a victim. They may treat you as a hijacker or co-conspirator until they can determine that you are not part of the hijacking team.
  • Cooperate with local authorities and members of the U.S. Embassy, Consulate or other U.S. agencies in relating information about the hijacking.

Related Topic: DoD Code of Conduct.




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