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Plane hijacking: Reality of aviation life

Plane was used as tools for terrorist violence prior to September 11, though no suicide attack in conjunction with a hijacking was ever reported.
PTI | By Sanjay Kumar (, New Delhi
UPDATED ON AUG 01, 2003 03:31 PM IST

Plane hijacking was used as a tool for terrorist violence prior to the incident of September 11 also, though no suicide attack in conjunction with a hijacking was ever reported.

There is still a discussion about the first plane hijack -- also known as 'skyjacking'. Some say it occurred on February 21, 1931. Byron Rickards was flying a Ford Tri-motor from Lima to Arequipa, in Peru. After landing, he was surrounded by soldiers and was told that he was now a prisoner of a revolutionary organisation. He was later released on March 2.

However, it seems the first air hijack occurred only on July 16, 1948. A Catalina seaplane, operated by Cathay Pacific and christened "Miss Macao", departed from Macao and was bound for Hong Kong. A little while after take-off, three armed men entered the cockpit, and one of them asked the pilot to give him the controls. Pilot's refusal cost him his life, as well as the life of the other passengers. The pilot's wounded body fell on the control stick, making the plane dive into the sea. Out of the 27 occupants, only one survived and ironically, it was the leader of the terrorist group, which hijacked the ill-fated plane.

The forties and early fifties witnessed few hijacks, mostly from communist defectors, trying to pass over the West. Most of these hijack attempts were failures.

It was not until 1961 that aeroplane hijacking came to be viewed as a criminal act. However, attacks on commercial airlines became a major problem in late 1960s. In 1966 five attacks on commercial aviation occurred. In 1967 six attacks were recorded. In 1968, however, there were twenty-nine attacks and in 1969 there were 94.

From early 1960s to early 1970s three motives for hijacking planes became apparent: escape; political terrorism; and extortion. In the first stage, which peaked in 1968, most hijackers attempted to take the plane to Cuba. In that year, 18 out of 22 attempted hijacks were successful.

Following year, terrorism became a factor when members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) skyjacked an American aircraft en route to Syria. This wave of hijackings involving terrorist organisations culminated in 1970 with destruction of four jets. The third motive--extortion--began with its only successful attempt in 1971 when hijackers received $US200,000 from Northwestern Airlines, then parachuted. During the period between 1971-1973, 21 similar attempts in the United States failed.

Airline hijacking peaked between 1968-72. During this period 326 attempts were made around the world. During the following decade numbers dropped significantly to an average of 9.3 attempts per year in the United States compared to 29 per annum during 1968-72. The dramatic drop may be attributed to the implementation of many new deterrent and preventive measures in the previous decade.

The longest hijacking incident occurred in 1968, when passengers from an El Al plane were held for 40 days after Palestinian militants forced a flight from Rome to divert to Algiers. The Algerian authorities held 22 hostages, releasing the final 12 only after a boycott by pilots throughout the world.

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