K. J. Howe looks at airline security for the publication of SKYJACK

For the publication of SKYJACK, where lots of drama takes place on board a commercial flight, author K.J.Howe takes a look at airline security

Posted on October 2, 2018 in Guest Author
Tags: K J Howe, Skyjack, Thea Paris, airline security

After flying endless miles promoting Skyjack, I thought it might be interesting to learn more about the history of airplane safety…

Can you imagine boarding a flight without x-ray machines, security screenings or customs officers? Up until the early 1970’s, this was the reality of air travel despite the large number of hijackings between 1961 and 1970. In those “golden days” of skyjacks, most of the hijackings were motivated by money or as means of protesting against the Vietnam war – and they usually ended peacefully. Many of the hijackers were motivated by sympathy towards the Cuban revolution and simply wanted to land the plane in Cuba and “gift” the aircraft to Fidel Castro.  There was an economic cost to these events, but very little bloodletting in the early days. Airlines and the government were willing to absorb the expenditures of these crimes rather than invest the substantial funds needed to provide effective security.

That’s not to say the problem was ignored. In the US, they created an FAA group to study hijackings, inviting suggestions from the public on how to battle this crime wave. People didn’t disappoint, sending in thousands of suggestions, including:

  • Making all passengers wear boxing gloves so they couldn’t hold a gun.
  • Arming flight attendants with tranquilizer darts.
  • Building a fake Havana Airport in Florida to fool hijackers into thinking they had reached their destination, and then arresting them when they left the plane.
  • And my personal favourite – installing a trap door immediately outside of the cockpit so pilots could drop the hijackers at 20,000 feet when they tried to commandeer the aircraft.

None of these ideas were ever implemented.

Instead, the problem worsened. Between 1968 and 1972, 130 aircraft were hijacked, and motives were shifting. Monetary demands were skyrocketing, and new political motives – many tied to the conflicts in the Middle East – were now taking centre stage. The destruction of property and the reality of violence were becoming more severe and painful to endure. In 1970, one event changed everything.

On September 6th, 1970, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) attempted their most ambitious operation to date: trying to hijack four planes from Europe bound for the United States and succeeding in taking control of three of them. On September 9th they hijacked yet another plane bound for America. Three of these aircraft were flown to an abandoned UK airfield in Jordan named Dawson’s Field, which then became known as Revolution Field. The hostages were removed from the aircraft and the multi-million-dollar aircraft were summarily blown up.

The Jordanian government responded by declaring martial law, initiating military operations against a number of radical political groups within the large Palestinian refugee population ensconced in Jordan. These events cascaded into the Jordanian Civil War, often referred to as “Black September”, which included a covert Syrian invasion of Jordanian territory. While Jordan’s leadership was successful in maintaining control of their country, their relationship with the Palestinian people and the political shape of the Middle East would never be the same. The fallout included the formation of the notorious terrorist organization known as Black September, a group that carried out many well-known operations, including the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

While all of the hostages from the hijacked aircraft were eventually released and returned to their home countries in exchange for the release of a number of Palestinian radicals who were being held in prisons in various countries. This ambitious and successful cluster of hijacking operations changed the shape of the Middle East and world air travel forever.

Eerily, on September 11th 1970, US President Nixon began an initiative to deal with this new crisis of “air piracy”. His immediate direction included seven steps to increase security, including:

  • Appointing the first hundred armed Air Marshals to travel on aircraft.
  • Enhancing international co-operation on aircraft security.
  • Transferring x-ray technology available to the military to the civilian sector.

While the program began immediately, it was not fully implemented until after a hijacking in 1972, where three convicted felons hijacked a commercial airliner and threatened to fly it into a nuclear facility. By 1973, airports looked very much like they do today.

Since then, with the tragic exception of 9/11, passengers and aircraft in the developed world have rarely been the victims of hijackings. The actions of Nixon and the international community brought this epidemic of crime and terrorism to an end. While hijackings still do occur with some regularity in other countries, they tend to happen outside of Europe and North America and don’t receive much coverage in western media.  But we need to remain vigilant to ensure this safer trend continues.

In Skyjack, elite kidnap negotiator Thea Paris is shepherding two former child soldiers on a flight from Nairobi to London when the plane they’re on is hijacked, and the adventures begin from there. Thea’s skills are tested as she tries to rescue the passengers while being a hostage herself in the not-so-friendly skies.

Skyjack is out now





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