Cockpit assault

Since July 1997, over a dozen passengers have attempted to breach cockpit doors during commercial airline flights. We've been lucky so far.

Published April 8, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

On March 16, aboard Alaska Airlines flight 259 from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco, a man did something that angry, frightened, deranged and intoxicated passengers are doing with alarming frequency these days: He broke through the cockpit door and attacked the pilots. Provoked (or so his attorney claims) by a bad reaction to blood-pressure medicine, Peter Bradley, 39, shouted, "I'm going to kill you," and lunged for the controls.

Having been alerted of the impending attack, the co-pilot was armed with an ax. He fought with Bradley, suffering a cut to his hand that would require eight stitches. Struggling to fly the plane during this tight-quartered assault, the pilot made an urgent plea for help over the intercom. At least seven passengers responded. The 6-foot-2, 250-pound assailant was snatched from the cockpit, wrestled to the ground, bound hand and foot with plastic restraints and taken into custody by federal authorities upon landing in San Francisco. A potential airplane disaster was averted. But what might have happened if no one had responded to the captain's plea? Or what if the response had been too little or too late?

Eleven days later, on March 27, an airplane cockpit was the scene of yet another in-flight battle. This time the results were even scarier. A German man broke into the flight deck during a Germania charter flight from Berlin to the Canary Islands. The man, believed by authorities to have been under the influence of alcohol, forced his way into the cockpit while the plane was over Spanish airspace. Once inside, reports say, he threatened the pilots and told them the plane was under assault by "terrorists." He then proceeded to punch, kick and choke the 59-year-old pilot.

At some point the attacker managed to grab the controls. The aircraft veered from its flight path and lost altitude briefly, but the co-pilot managed to stabilize it. "Help, we need strong men, we need strong men!" the co-pilot reportedly announced. Four passengers from Sweden, Russia and Germany, along with flight attendants, responded to his plea and managed to subdue the attacker. A spokesman for Germania, a charter company operated by LTU, said "There was no real danger at any point for the passengers." This statement is a crock of public-relations bullshit, pungent enough to wrinkle noses on both sides of the Atlantic. Everyone aboard the aircraft was in danger, all 143 passengers and crew. Why else would the co-pilot be screaming for help?

During the past few years, passenger attacks against flight attendants have been well documented by the media. Cabin personnel have been slammed against bulkheads, put into headlocks, punched, kicked, spat at, urinated upon, hit over the head with beer bottles and threatened with their lives. These in-flight assaults are extremely rare, yet more and more air ragers find themselves traveling to that final destination behind bars. Horrible though it may be, when a flight attendant is attacked, the safety of an aircraft and its passengers is not always at issue. When someone breaks through the cockpit door, however, when someone poses a physical threat to the only two people qualified to keep an aircraft aloft, the potential for disaster makes it everybody's issue.

The cockpit door is the only barrier between a kamikaze passenger and an unsuspecting pilot. It is a marginal defense, built for ease of crew entry and as an emergency escape, not as a fortification against determined intruders. The Alaska Airlines ordeal prompted five popular airlines (Alaska, American, Delta, Northwest and TWA) to announce, just one week after the incident, that they are seeking ways to fortify bifold cockpit doors -- standard on MD-83 aircraft -- like the one Bradley was able to break through. "The one thing you can't do is put a bank vault door on the cockpit," said Alaska Airlines spokesman Jack Evans. "The door needs to be secure, but it also needs to be an emergency exit as well."

Paradoxically, some international carriers allow the cockpit door to remain unlocked during a flight. Any passenger can walk right in, even those who might mistake the cockpit for the lavatory. U.S. airlines adopt a quite different policy, however. They require that the cockpit door remain locked at all times during flight, except, of course, while crew members are entering and exiting. In this respect, pilots and flight attendants carry cockpit keys as standard equipment. But in one particularly appalling incident, a cockpit key gave a deranged passenger access to the flight deck and the consequences were fatal.

On July 23, as All Nippon Airways flight 61 ascended from Tokyo's Haneda Airport on its way to Sapporo, Yuji Nishizawa, 28, got up from his seat, pulled an 8-inch knife on a female flight attendant and forced her to unlock the cockpit door. It's not certain how he managed to smuggle a deadly weapon through airport security. But what he did next is crystal clear. He ordered the co-pilot out of the cockpit and demanded that the pilot fly to a U.S. military base west of Tokyo. When the pilot refused, Nishizawa stabbed him in the neck and took control of the aircraft.

With the deranged man behind the yoke, the Boeing 747, packed with 503 passengers and a crew of 14, plunged to within 300 meters (984 feet) of the ground. Moments before what might have been the airline industry's worst-ever disaster, the deposed co-pilot and an off-duty pilot stormed the cockpit, tied up the assailant and resumed control of the aircraft, which they managed to land safely in Tokyo. Despite the efforts of an onboard physician, the injured pilot bled to death.

Later, when police questioned Nishizawa about his motive, he expressed a fondness for flight simulation games, which had apparently ceased to capture his imagination. "I wanted to soar through the air," he reportedly told police.

In the All Nippon Airways case, a hijacker forced his way past the cockpit door in a planned attack. But unplanned break-in attempts by disturbed passengers add a whole new wrinkle to the withering face of in-flight tranquillity. Since July 1997, there have been at least 14 instances where an unauthorized person attempted to breach the cockpit door during a commercial airline flight, including the two described above. Of these, eight were successful. The result: Three physical attacks on pilots (all in March), at least five flight diversions and more than two dozen pilots who were forced to shift their attention from the controls to a potentially violent intruder. Here's how the incidents played out:

July 14, 1997: After Thomas Kasper poured hot coffee on a flight attendant (inflicting second- and third-degree burns), his traveling companion, Susan Callihan, kicked a hole in the cockpit door. Witnesses on the Continental Airlines flight from Houston to Los Angeles said Callihan then told the flight crew there were bombs and guns on the airplane, though none were found. In addition to this, Kasper nearly opened an emergency door when the plane landed. Both were arrested and convicted of interfering with a flight crew. The couple received his-and-hers prison sentences of three and two years respectively.

July 27, 1997: A woman traveling with her young son tried to enter the cockpit aboard a Northwest Airlink flight from Iowa to the Minneapolis-St.Paul airport. When the pilot closed the door, the woman -- described by one passenger as a white-knuckle flier in the midst of a panic attack -- became hysterical. She kicked open the cockpit door. Passengers said the pilots chose to return to Fort Dodge Regional Airport because they could no longer concentrate.

Nov. 25, 1997: As the pilots of a Cathay Pacific aircraft prepared to land in Bangkok, Thailand, a drunken Burmese passenger stormed the cockpit. He was removed by passengers and crew, handcuffed and turned over to Bangkok police upon landing. At the time of the incident, Cathay Pacific's policy allowed cockpit doors to remain unlocked during flight. The policy, an airline spokesman claimed, facilitates better communication between pilots and cabin crew.

Dec. 16, 1997: Dean Trammel, a muscular, 200-pound college football player, suffered a "psychotic break" aboard U.S. Airways flight 38 bound for Baltimore from Los Angeles. After wandering up the aisle and claiming to be Jesus Christ, he tried to get into the cockpit. Flight attendants blocked access, but Trammel threw one of them over three rows of seats. She slammed into a bulkhead. Passengers and off-duty U.S. Airways pilots wrestled Trammel to the ground. He was tied with seat-belt extensions at his wrists, elbows, ankles, knees and legs. The plane landed with the two off-duty pilots sitting on top of him.

Sept. 23, 1998: The FBI charged Titan Tibor Sallai with intimidating a flight crew by allegedly attempting to enter the cockpit of a United Airlines jet. The plane was traveling between Las Vegas and Washington. Crew members had to use force to prevent Sallai from opening the cockpit door as well as an emergency exit door. Federal agents reported that at some point during the flight, Sallai attempted to drink contact lens cleaning fluid. The plane diverted to Denver.

Oct. 27, 1998: British rock star Ian Brown, formerly a singer with the Stone Roses, threatened to cut off the hands of a British Airways flight attendant. While the pilots attempted to land the aircraft, he hammered against the door. Brown claimed the pilot had provoked him. Lawyers have attempted to exonerate him.

April 5, 1999: An intoxicated passenger forced his way into the cockpit of an unidentified commercial jet as pilots were attempting to land at Copenhagen, Denmark's Kastrup Airport. Once inside the cockpit, the passenger began shouting abuse at the pilots. His voice was reported to have been so loud and distracting that the crew had difficulty hearing radio directives from air-traffic control. The man was arrested upon landing.

June 6, 1999: After being denied more alcohol, Christopher Bayes fought with flight attendants and tried to storm into the cockpit, according to prosecutors at his trial. Delta Airlines Flight 64, en route to Manchester, England, from Atlanta, was forced to divert to Bangor, Maine, where Bayes was arrested. Bayes, who continues to deny his guilt, was convicted of assault and sentenced to six months in prison.

Aug. 5, 1999: Sanil Shetty Kumar, an American, was given a six-month jail sentence after trying to force his way into the cockpit on a Singapore Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Singapore via Tokyo. Kumar became intoxicated during the L.A. to Tokyo segment. After cockpit entry was thwarted by passengers and two male flight attendants, Kumar attempted to open an emergency exit door, shouting, "Tonight, everybody will die."

Nov. 21, 1999: A Canadian Airlines jet flying to Halifax from Calgary was forced to divert to Ontario after an angry passenger walked into the cockpit. The man, who allegedly attempted to assault the pilot, had been shouting and creating a ruckus earlier. He had to be removed from the cockpit by passengers and crew members. At the time of the incident, Canadian Airlines policy allowed cockpit doors to remain unlocked except during takeoff and landing.

March 2, 2000: The FBI filed a criminal complaint against Joachim Peter Franke, a German national who tried to break into the cockpit of a Delta Airlines jet because he thought the plane was "flying too low and was in danger of crashing." The deranged man had to be restrained after repeatedly trying to push past a flight attendant who blocked the cockpit door. The attendant yelled for help. Two passengers came to the rescue and held Franke in a seat until landing. Franke faces a fine of $10,000 and up to 20 years in prison.

March 20, 2000: An angry American woman was arrested after allegedly entering the cockpit during an America West flight from Phoenix to New York. How Denise Laverne Brown managed to breach the cockpit door is not exactly clear. But once inside, Brown allegedly attacked the co-pilot. FBI agent Doug Beldon said, "Apparently she refused to return to her seat, failed to obey the orders of the flight personnel, became angry, went into the cockpit and struck the co-pilot." The flight diverted to Albuquerque, N.M., where the passenger was taken into custody by federal authorities.

As much a testament to the competence of airline pilots as to the swift response of dauntless passengers and cabin crew, not one of these cockpit intrusions resulted in an airplane disaster. But if attacks continue at the present rate, how long can courage and competence hold out?

At least one airline isn't waiting to find out. More as a deterrent to hijacking than a defense against cockpit-bound passengers with fear or alcohol pumping through their veins, the government of India recently instituted a sky marshals program. As of Jan. 1, all Indian carriers are subject to random occupation by armed National Security Guard commandos. In an attempt to add an additional layer of in-flight security, flight attendants now undergo special "anti-hijacking" training. This no-nonsense approach comes after the Christmas Eve hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane that left one man dead and saw hostages held aboard the aircraft for nearly a week.

Are similar measures needed to prevent unplanned attacks like those on Alaska Airlines and Germania? Does this latest development by the Indian government signal an increase of federal marshals on U.S. carriers? Veteran fliers will remember that in 1970, following a decade in which U.S. airlines experienced dozens of airplane hijackings -- many of them to Cuba -- the sky marshal program was born.

These specially trained, armed agents travel on flights that have a higher-than-normal probability of being hijacked. Referred to nowadays as "federal air marshals," they sit quietly in coach or first class, dressed in civilian clothes and are authorized to make arrests without warrants for any offense against the United States or its aircraft. The air marshal program was enabled by the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, the Anti-hijacking Act of 1947 and the International Security and Development Act of 1985.

Capt. Bob Cox is special projects officer for the national security committee of the Air Line Pilots Association, an employee labor union representing 55,000 pilots at 51 U.S. and Canadian carriers (including United, Delta, TWA, Northwest, U.S. Airways and Alaska). Cox believes that other airlines should follow the example set by Indian carriers. "The ALPA strongly endorses an increase in the use of armed federal air marshals on random domestic flights to deter or prevent violent attacks on crew members," he says. "These are highly trained individuals with well-refined abilities to protect the cockpit and will do so at all costs."

Not all pilots agree with such a drastic approach. Ed Horton, an international airline captain with 25 years' experience in matters of flight security and disruptive passengers, doesn't want the airplane cabin to turn into a battle zone. "The last thing you want is shots being fired inside an aircraft." Horton believes the best way to stop potentially violent passengers is with well-trained eyes rather than weaponry. "All airlines need to do a better job at training crew members to recognize potentially disruptive passengers," he says. "We need to learn more effective ways to approach them, how to diffuse the problem and how to deal with them effectively should violence erupt."

With the possible exception of Indian Airlines and a few others, most airline companies do not properly train their flight attendants on how to handle violent passengers. Cabin crews are equipped with written, step-by-step procedures for dealing with almost every conceivable problem on a flight: seat malfunctions, broken ovens, cabin depressurization, medical emergencies, emergency evacuations and inoperative lavatories. They even receive detailed information on what steps to take should a woman give birth in flight. But there are no comprehensive procedures for suppressing a ballistic customer, no blueprint for crews to follow should they come face to face with the passenger from hell.

Left to their own devices, crew members are nevertheless quick to improvise. When Trammel attempted to break into the cockpit of the U.S. Airways jet, a quick-thinking flight attendant used a service cart to block access to the door. That stopped him long enough for passengers to help wrestle him to the ground. Flight attendant Renee Sheffer suffered serious injuries during the melee. Her husband, Mike, promptly created the Skyrage Foundation, a watchdog organization aimed at eradicating assaults against flight crews. With Sheffer at the helm, the foundation's Web site tracks every reported instance of in-flight violence and serves as a forum for open dialogue on the subject. Sheffer believes that "anyone who attempts to, or actually enters, the cockpit and endangers the safe operation of the aircraft should have the maximum penalty imposed if convicted. (If President Clinton signs the aviation bill that the House and Senate just passed, that would mean a $25,000 fine)."

But he'd like to see the penalties become even more severe. "We should also adjust the federal sentencing guidelines to reflect the enormously serious nature of these acts, by increasing the level of offense to something similar to kidnapping or attempted murder. That way, federal judges would be able to impose serious prison terms."

In 1994, the Federal Aviation Administration reported 121 incidents of
in-flight passenger misconduct. These incidents run the gamut, from severely
rude and obnoxious behavior -- for example, a passenger verbally threatening
to punch a crew member -- to outright physical assault. By 1998 the figure
had reached 283.

But because the FAA records only those incidents that airlines choose to
disclose, the total number of assaults is probably much higher. United
Airlines, for example, recorded 635 incidents of disruptive behavior in
1998. Of these, 61 were physical assaults. If one airline claims to have had
635 disruptive incidents in one year (9.6 percent of which were assaults),
and the FAA reports a grand total of only 283 occurrences on 84 U.S.
airlines during the same period, it's safe to say that somebody is not
telling the whole story.

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, a pleasant smile and friendly demeanor will no longer be listed in the job description for those seeking employment as a flight attendant. Instead, airlines may seek physically imposing, nightclub bouncer types who can deliver a knee to the groin or a blow to the solar plexus as effortlessly as an after-dinner cordial.

Now that older jets with three-pilot cockpits are gradually giving way to economically efficient models built with a cockpit for two, the modern-day flight crew is reduced by 33 percent. With only two pilots aboard instead of three on many flights, their safety and well-being have become more important than ever. As a result, pilots are becoming more and more reluctant to put themselves in harm's way. "Sending a pilot into the passenger cabin to help resolve a dispute seriously diminishes the safety of the flight," says Northwest Airlines Capt. Stephen Luckey, chairman of the ALPA's national security committee. "This is particularly so in the event of an altercation which could result in an incapacitated pilot."

Airline pilots must remain untouched and unencumbered behind the cockpit door. Unsound doors need to be fortified. Cabin crews need to be better trained. The federal air marshal program may need to be expanded or restructured to accommodate this new wave of nonterrorist terrorism. Until these aspects of in-flight security are properly addressed, who's going to stop a fearless, able-bodied maniac from breaking into the cockpit and assaulting the two most important individuals on an aircraft? Fearless, able-bodied passengers and cabin crew have done so in the past, but our luck is bound to run out one of these days.

By Elliott Neal Hester

Elliott Neal Hester has been a flight attendant for 15 years. He has also written for National Geographic Traveler, Men's Fitness, Glamour, Maxim and Caribbean Travel & Life. Out of the Blue appears every other Friday. E-mail your tale of life in the sky to Hester. For more columns by Hester, visit his column archive.

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