Cockpit Intrusions

In the aftermath of the September 11 hijackings, crewmembers are asking themselves - and others - what they could or should do in the event of any attempts to interfere with the safe operation of the aircraft. While there may not be a foolproof way to prevent motivated, suicidal individuals from interfering with a flight crew, there are things crewmembers can do and should know. AVweb's Ken Cubbin, self-defense-trained flight engineer in real life, offers some ideas for prevention and for defense.


Just when we thought we had a handle on all the possible threats to the safe operation of our flights, along comes another facet of madness: air rage to the Nth degree. Cases of enraged passengers crashing through the cockpit door, assaulting pilots and trying to interfere with control of the airplane had been increasing throughout the world even before September 11, 2001. To date, in almost every case of this occurrence, passengers’ assistance has been needed by the pilots and cabin crew before the assailant was ultimately restrained. This, apparently, was also the case aboard UAL93 on that fateful day, as reported cellphone conversations and early word of the information captured by that flight’s cockpit voice recorder indicate.

Unfortunately the sad truth is that we pilots may find ourselves in a position where we not only have to prevent an irrational assailant from crashing our airplane, but we may also need to aggressively defend our lives and in a space smaller than a phone booth. In discussing this topic with my wife recently, she suggested that I offer the benefit of my expertise in the field of martial arts to fellow crewmembers (I have a black belt in Zen Do Kai Karate). As I gave this subject some thought, I concluded that before I offered some suggestions, it would be wise to carefully review instances of these extraordinary events that occurred before September 11. In other words, follow the lines of the old adage: Know your enemy.

Equal Opportunity Insanity

Aside from the events of September 11, there have been 16 cases of passengers hell-bent on breaking into the cockpit and causing havoc in the past few years. One would assume that this form of aggressive behavior would exclusively belong to the realm of men. Not so, as the following cases indicate: Women sometimes attack the cockpit.

  • July 27, 1997: A woman who was apparently suffering from a panic attack kicked open the cockpit door of a Northwest Airlink flight from Iowa to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Although she was quickly restrained by a cabin crewmember and passenger, the pilots returned to their point of departure due to the disruption in their ability to concentrate.

  • November 25, 1997: A drunken passenger entered the cockpit of a Cathay Pacific flight on its approach to Bangkok, Thailand. Passengers and crew restrained and removed the passenger before he could do harm. Up until this time, it had been Cathay Pacific’s policy to keep the cockpit door unlocked during cruise so flight attendants would not be inconvenienced when needing to gain entry. (You think this would have been a heads-up, wouldn’t you?)

  • December 16, 1997: A 200-pound male passenger was physically restrained after trying to break down the cockpit door of a U.S. Airways flight from Los Angeles to Baltimore. A female flight attendant, who had tried to block the assailant’s entry into the cockpit, sustained serious injuries after he literally threw her over several rows of seats.

  • September 23, 1998: A United Airlines flight en route from Las Vegas to Washington D.C. had to divert to Denver after an assailant was physically restrained from breaking into the cockpit. Crew members had to also restrain the assailant from trying to open an emergency exit door.

  • October 27, 1998: A passenger aboard a British Airways flight threatened a flight attendant and then began beating on the cockpit door with his fists. The passenger later claimed that a pilot had provoked him. (Anyone else hear the Outer Limits theme music?)

  • April 5, 1999: A drunken, abusive passenger broke into the cockpit of a flight (airline undisclosed) while the pilots were attempting to land at Kastrup Airport in Copenhagen, Denmark. Apparently the man was shouting so loudly that the pilots had trouble hearing instructions from ATC. He was arrested after the aircraft landed.

  • June 6, 1999: On a Delta Air Lines flight from Atlanta to Manchester, England, a passenger, after having been denied alcohol, assaulted flight attendants and attempted to storm the cockpit. He was restrained and the flight diverted to Bangor, Maine, where he was placed under arrest.

  • August 5, 1999: A drunken passenger attempted to break into the cockpit of a Singapore Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo, Japan. He was physically restrained from doing so by several passengers and male flight attendants. Not happy at being diverted from his perilous intent, the deranged man shouted, "Tonight, everybody will die!" as he tried to open an emergency exit door.

  • November 21, 1999: An enraged male passenger aboard a Canadian Airlines flight from Calgary to Halifax walked into the cockpit and attempted to assault the pilots. He was restrained and removed from the cockpit by passengers and flight attendants. Canadian’s policy at that time was to keep the cockpit door unlocked for periods other than takeoff and landing. (Should have been another warning.)

  • March 2, 2000: A deranged passenger was restrained by flight attendants and passengers as he attempted to break into the cockpit of a Delta Air Lines flight.

  • March 16, 2000: A 6-foot-2-inch, 250-pound passenger broke into the cockpit of an Alaska Airlines flight and physically attacked the pilots while en route from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco. The co-pilot, having been forewarned of the attack, had armed himself with the crash ax. In the melee that followed, the captain called frantically over the P.A. for passengers’ assistance. Ultimately, the assailant was restrained, but not before the co-pilot received a nasty gash on his hand. This is a particularly important case to note, because a weapon that was intended for the assailant was used against the co-pilot. Luckily, the assailant did not gain full use of the ax, or we might have witnessed another tragedy as occurred on a Federal Express DC-10 several years ago.

  • March 20, 2000: An America West flight from Phoenix to New York diverted to Albuquerque, N.M., after an irate woman broke into the cockpit and began assaulting the co-pilot.

  • March 27, 2000: A drunken man broke into the cockpit of a Germania charter flight from Berlin to the Canary Islands and began to punch, kick and choke the 59-year-old captain. After a plea of help from the co-pilot, burly passengers subdued the assailant and removed him from the cockpit.

  • July 23, 2000: In one of the most serious attacks prior to September 11, an All Nippon Airways Boeing 747-400 captain was killed by an assailant who had taken over the controls of the airplane and flown within 1,000 feet of terrain. Serious breaches of security procedures led to the assailant being able to smuggle an eight-inch knife aboard. After takeoff, the deranged man pulled the knife, held it to a flight attendant’s throat and made her unlock the cockpit door. He then demanded that the copilot leave. At this point, the assailant instructed the captain to land at a U.S. naval base west of Tokyo. When the captain refused, the assailant stabbed him in the neck. With the deranged murderer at the controls, the aircraft came within 1,000 feet of striking the terrain before the copilot and an off-duty pilot managed to regain control of the situation. The motive for this premeditated crime? The mentally unbalanced assailant apparently had grown bored with flight simulator computer games and wanted to experience the real thing.

  • August 11, 2000: In another serious attack, a 19-year-old assailant died while being restrained by passengers on a Southwest Airline’s flight from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City. The young man had allegedly kicked a hole in the cockpit door, tried to open an emergency hatch and had punched several male passengers who tried to restrain him. There are allegations that passengers overreacted and continued to beat on a man who was already subdued, but U.S. Attorney Paul M. Warner decided not to press charges against passengers who, he claimed, acted in self-defense.

  • December 29, 2000: In the most recent case, a deranged 27-year-old man stormed into the cockpit of a British Airways Boeing 747-400 en route from London, England, to Nairobi, Kenya, and tried to seize control of the aircraft. Unbelievably, despite having experienced previous attempted assaults on the cockpit, BA’s policy at the time was to keep the cockpit door unlocked during cruise. During the scuffle that followed, the autopilot disconnected and the aircraft went into a violent dive. Several passengers were injured by falling during the unusual flight maneuvers and a flight attendant suffered a broken ankle. In typical British fashion, the captain later apologized for having to disable his attacker by poking him in the eye. The aircraft landed safely in Nairobi where the young man was placed in a psychiatric hospital. Incredibly, a doctor diagnosed the man as having been suffering severe paranoia at the time he stormed the cockpit, probably triggered, he said, by extreme exam stress. Under these circumstances, the local attorney general decided not to charge the young man with any criminal offense; not much solace for the passengers and crew who were scared witless during their ordeal.

None of these incidents, of course, compare to either the outcomes or what must have gone on in the cabins and cockpits of the airliners hijacked on September 11, 2001.

The Maniac’s Profile

Putting aside the hijackings of September 11 (if that’s even remotely possible…) and the motivations behind them, one is tempted in circumstances such as these to wonder "Why would somebody do such a thing?" The only answer to this question is, "There are no explanations for the inexplicable." As Forest Gump would say, "Irrational is as irrational does."

In almost half the cases, alcohol was a significant factor in the attacker’s violent behavior. Other cases were the result of the assailant’s mental imbalance or cognizance irregularities. On each occasion, the assailant was beyond the point where flight attendants might have reasoned with him or her in a conciliatory manner.

The conclusion on our enemy? While authorities believe — and certain evidence indicates — that the hijackers of September 11 somehow brought knives aboard the flights they commandeered, all but one of the assailants involved in the incidents recounted above was unarmed when he or she stormed into the cockpit and attacked the pilots. Nevertheless, if we are to have a plan to deal with such an attack, our actions will need to be predetermined, coordinated and aggressive.

Some of the following suggestions for disabling an attacker may seem brutal. If you feel that way while you read, remind yourself of one thing: Make no mistake about it, if you have to defend yourself against a cockpit attack, you will be fighting for your life. Remember also the age-old credo of combat: The best defense is attack.

Predetermined Defense

The Cockpit Briefing For The 21st Century…

Every takeoff is pre-briefed in terms of possible actions that might be taken if an engine fails before or after V1. I suggest that we now include a preflight discussion of what actions will be taken in the event of a cockpit attack. This briefing should include an analysis of pilots’ strengths and weaknesses, which pilot will focus on ensuring control of the airplane is maintained, and which pilot will disable the assailant.

Like all responses to in-flight emergencies, spatial awareness is critical. Therefore, a pre-departure briefing should include looking around the cockpit and getting a feel for what articles may be used for defense and what facets of cockpit layout will inhibit your freedom of movement.

Of course, the cabin crew should also be briefed on what your actions will demand of them in case of a cockpit attack. This should include reminding them to elicit passengers’ assistance as soon possible. Methods that may be used to restrain the assailant once the attack has been thwarted should be discussed. How will he or she be removed from the cockpit? What will be used to tie his or her hands and legs? Where will he or she be placed for landing?

In many of the cases mentioned above, the enraged passenger continued to cause havoc in the cabin once the cockpit assault ended. Therefore, cabin crewmembers would be best-advised to tie the attacker’s hand behind his or her back once he or she has been removed from the cockpit. To this end, airlines should place handcuff straps on board each flight as part of the emergency equipment. Flight attendants would be well-advised to remember two other adages of combat: Never let your guard down, and never underestimate your enemy.

…Striking Back: A Coordinated And Aggressive Defense

Before considering moves that will disable an assailant, we first should look at the environment in which we may need to defend ourselves. Although some cockpits are larger than others, and cockpit crew size will vary between short- and long-haul flights, there are common elements:

  • Both operating pilots are seated, facing forward with seatbelts fastened (on departure and approach, shoulder harnesses will also be restraining movement).
  • Pilots’ legs are usually (Airbus-type aircraft excepted) on either side of the yoke.

  • While a pilot’s hands are free to ‘dial and press,’ his or her arms have limited freedom of movement; this will greatly influence how much force will be behind each blow that a pilot can deliver against his or her attacker.

  • Most people are right-handed.

  • Most first officers are younger than captains.

  • Men are usually stronger than women.

Given the last three facts on the list, male first officers will probably provide the best defense against an attack. If the first officer and/or the captain is a woman, don’t begin to think that being female will divert an attacker’s intent to harm you. If you are the last line of defense, you should be prepared to fight dirty and with every ounce of your strength.

The following example is assumed to be a next-to-worst-case scenario: An abrupt attack by an unarmed, enraged, large-framed male.

The Setting

You’re enjoying a cup of coffee and discussing with your first officer where you might eat dinner later that night when a flight attendant calls on the flight interphone and tells you that they’re having a problem with a loud and abusive passenger.

Do not leave the cockpit under any circumstances.

Instead, take the call for what it is: A heads-up.

Five minutes later, you are just about to call the cabin to see how they’re getting on with the unruly passenger when the cockpit door bursts open and a 200-pound, enraged man crashes into the cockpit. He screams obscenities and begins grabbing for controls. Your heart races, you become nervous, and your blood pressure goes through the roof. For precious moments, you are literally stunned by the intrusion. However, your body chemistry is arming you with exactly what you will need to defend yourself against the intruder: adrenaline.

Since the attacker probably has no idea how to shut down an engine, it is most probable that he will attempt to interfere with the thrust levers, control column, or both. The suddenness of the attack and the man’s ferocity will be disorientating; however, luckily you and your co-pilot have discussed what your relative actions will be and you spring into action.

You, the captain, will focus on one thing: Keeping the man’s hands away from the controls.

Grab his fingers and bend them back or use your nails to scratch deeply into his flesh. The first officer will begin striking the assailant aggressively and repeatedly. He or she will not stop his or her attack on the assailant until help has arrived from the cabin and the aggressor has been removed from the cockpit.

The emphasis is on aggressive defense.

It is imperative that the first officer strike the attacker as many times as he or she can and with all his or her strength, even if being simultaneously struck by the assailant. If necessary, and if the assailant has redirected his focus from interfering with control of the airplane, the captain should join in the fray.

This point is critical: Do not hit him once and hope he’ll be discouraged from continuing his attack; the man is supercharged with adrenaline and may not even react to what would normally be very painful strikes. In other words, you may only enrage him further if you let up in your counterattack.

Strike Targets

Head Area…

Areas to aim at are eyes, ears, nose, upper lip, temples and throat.

  • Poke your finger or a sharp object, such as a ballpoint pen, into his eye; do not attempt a Mo, Larry and Curly maneuver; keep it to one finger and/or sharp object.

  • If you have the opportunity, cup your hand and strike as hard as you can over the assailant’s ear. If on target, his ear drum will burst. At the very least, his ear will ring loudly and he will become disoriented from pain.

  • Using your elbow, fist or any bony protrusion of your hand, strike at the assailant’s nose repeatedly. Nose strikes cause severe watering of the eyes, intense pain and profuse bleeding. There are also many nerve endings under the top lip, so if you miss and hit there, you will also cause his eyes to water.

  • If you are able, bend you finger tips and thumb under so your hand becomes like a chisel and strike at the assailant’s throat. Even a semi-delivered blow will cause him to cough and wheeze.

  • Striking the assailant’s temple with your closed fist will stun him and disrupt his attempts to take control of the airplane and/or attack one or both pilots.

…Body Area

In most circumstances, body strikes will be best used by a third pilot and/or cabin crewmember. Target areas are knees, thighs, groin, kidneys, spine, and fingers.

  • Using the inside or outside side of your foot, kick laterally and downward to the side of an assailant’s knee. This will incapacitate him immediately.
  • Using your knee, strike at the outer side of the man’s thigh. This is less affective than the knee or groin; however, a good strike will cause the assailant great pain and make it difficult to remain standing.
  • The groin can be struck with the foot, knee or hand. One particularly debilitating defensive move that will ensure immediate incapacitation is to grab a man’s genitals, squeeze and not let go.

  • An upper-cut punch to the kidney area is very affective at disabling an attacker. If possible, try to put your body weight behind the punch to increase its effectiveness.

  • A strike to the spine at the base of the skull will stun and temporarily disable an assailant.

  • If you can get hold of the assailant’s finger, pull it back with all your strength.

The target areas above are optimal; if you can’t hit the assailant in one of the areas mentioned, him anywhere you can. The important thing to remember is that if you are forced to strike the assailant in defense, do not hesitate; hit him as hard and as fast as you can and do not relent until he is completely disabled and removed from the cockpit.

Restraining An Assailant Once He Has Been Removed From The Cockpit

The following comments are primarily aimed at flight attendants:

In my opinion, cabin crewmembers would be well-advised to grab the now-disabled attacker in a choke hold. By simultaneously walking backwards while strongly locking his or her arm around the attacker’s throat, you can render the assailant completely unable to retaliate. However, once out of the cockpit, the man may strike out with his legs at anyone who approaches or attempts to restrain his legs in any fashion.

Options at this point are limited by cabin crewmembers’ and passengers’ strength and willingness to assist in restraining the passenger until landing.

  • The choke hold can be dangerous. If executed correctly, in less than one minute, the man might lose consciousness. If pressure continues to be applied, death will ensue in several minutes. Therefore, if the assailant loses consciousness, the person applying pressure to his throat will need to make a critical decision as to whether to continue applying pressure or whether to relax pressure and hope the assailant is not feigning unconsciousness.

  • But, it’s critical that the man’s feet be disabled before relaxing pressure — even if this is accomplished by several burly passengers sitting on them. Why is this so? Take a moment to compare the muscles of your arm to those in your leg. Added to the disparate muscle size of the two limbs is the extra leverage given by the distance from the fulcrum. That is, shoulder/elbow versus hip/knee. In other words, a kick can deliver far more destructive force than a punch. Therefore, instruct a cabin crew member and/or a passenger to tie the man’s feet as soon as possible. Perhaps seatbelt extensions can be used for this purpose. (However, once again handcuff straps would be ideal.)

Hopefully, most of the fight will be knocked out of the attacker at this point. However, if necessary, don’t hesitate to strike him in any of the above-mentioned target areas as often as needed.

  • You’re not over the ordeal yet. It is imperative that the man’s arms be restrained. Take whatever actions are necessary to tie the man’s hands behind his back. This is necessary because even tied hands can be used to effect if they are in front of the man’s body. Once again, the ideal restraining apparatus would be handcuff straps, but if not available, consider using seat belt extensions. Try to leave the man in a prone or sitting position, and ensure that he is guarded by strong men until police take him into custody after landing.

  • In the interim period between restraining the attacker and having him placed in police custody, remember that he has been vigorously and repeatedly struck by numerous defenders and may need help to ensure his ability to breathe is not jeopardized. Also, it may be necessary to prevent riled passengers from continuing to strike at the assailant after he has been incapacitated and restrained. If you can, offer any assistance that will ensure he lives while not jeopardizing further attack.



Enough air-rage attacks alone have occurred for this scenario to be included in our annual emergency training. Pilot and cabin crew employee unions should consult with airlines and draw up a training program that will assist them in not only dealing with an attack once it has begun, but will improve their communication skills so potentially explosive situations may be diffused early.


In the early 1980s, an Air New Zealand flight engineer thwarted a would-be hijacker in his tracks by knocking him unconscious with a duty-free bottle of scotch. Despite his choice of weapon, there is ample room for discussion of whether alcohol should be banned on flights. Serving alcohol on flights is a carry-over from an age when air travel was a luxury that few people could afford. Today, getting from A to B is more a chore than a pleasant interlude in our busy lives. Therefore, in my opinion — and I like to have the occasional beer — alcohol is a problem; let’s remove it once and for all. Having said that, unless the FAA acts on advice from Congress and issues an edict banning alcohol from commercial flights, airlines are unlikely to take the initiative. However, since this is a worldwide phenomenon, IATA should actively pursue this subject with international governments and regulatory authorities.

…Human Resources…

There is no doubt that having more than two crewmembers to defend against a cockpit attack is better than having just two. However, particularly on short-haul flights, the probability is that there will be only two pilots to offer resistance. Therefore, you will need to rely heavily on cabin crewmembers’ and passengers’ assistance if you are attacked. Don’t be afraid to ask — the sooner the better. And, if the attacker happens to be female, do not let that fact alter your vigorous defense.


You should not make any attempts to defend yourself with a lethal weapon, such as the crash ax. Unless you are completely willing to use it without hesitation, chances are that the weapon will be used against you and others. It only takes a microsecond of indecision for the weapon to be taken off you.

If the attacker is armed with a knife or other sharp object, you will have to make the decision of when to disarm him or her. Yes, that’s right, when. You cannot reason with him or her because he or she is irrational, and you cannot comply with irrational demands. Under no circumstances let him or her take control of the aircraft. If the co-pilot is ordered to leave, he or she should take that opportunity to look for an advantage against the attacker.

Stall, wait for help if possible, and take your best shot.

…A Word About Air Marshals…

Some pundits have called for an increase in the presence of air marshals on flights. However, unless an undercover air marshal is on every flight, this is not a satisfactory solution. After all, the people who commit these crimes are irrational and impulsive. Previous knowledge that is supposed to act as a deterrent will not affect them.

…And Reinforced Cockpit Doors

There has been some consideration of reinforcing cockpit doors. The most popular choice is to install a removable iron bar on the inside of the door frame that would be stowed before landing. In my opinion, this is not a viable solution either. What if the pilots forget to stow the bar, the aircraft runs off the runway and the pilots are injured? Emergency access to the cockpit for rescue purposes would be hampered. Similarly, if cockpit smoke or some other emergency occurs in flight and the pilots need assistance from the cabin, an iron bar may prevent flight attendants or other off-duty pilots from gaining access.


I think there is far more to be gained from enhancement of communication and negotiation skills. It might also be a good idea for crewmembers to take a few classes in self-defense.

As I commented earlier above, some of the defensive actions I have suggested may appear brutal to some. In reality, some are even fatal if a full-force blow is delivered accurately. Right now you may doubt whether you have the ability to strike an assailant with such callous disregard for permanent injury you may cause.

If it helps any, it has been my experience while participating in tournaments that there is plenty of aggressiveness in us all when we have been struck or had our safety threatened. I have witnessed plenty of fellows who needed to be physically restrained from continuing to fight after judges have ruled an end to the contest. And these were not life-threatening situations.

Believe me, the ability to become violent is there in us all — all it takes is the correct stimulus.

Remember, you will indeed be fighting for your life if you are unlucky enough to be placed in this situation. To not react aggressively and swiftly to such a threat is to virtually assure that the situation will become deadly.

Don’t react aggressively and I reckon you’ll end up dead.