SKYJACK by K.J. Howe

Written by K J Howe

K J HOWEAn avid and frequent flyer, I consume everything I can about plane safety.  The good news is that airline travel is more secure today than it has ever been.  And the larger the plane and company, the safer you will be. 

Still, many people—my character Thea Paris included—have a palpable fear of flying.  Perhaps the total lack of control rattles their nerves?  Passengers do put their lives in the hands of pilots when they board.  This premise started my thriller mind thinking … 

Security measures focus on keeping terrorists and other interlopers from entering the cockpit.  The cockpit doors have been reinforced with a deadbolt, pilots have the ability to lock anyone out of the cockpit, flight attendants block the aisle when pilots use the restrooms.  There is a trap door, but it only works one way, letting the pilots into the cabin.  Everything is focused on keeping the bad guys out. 

But what if the hijacker was already in the cockpit, in the captain’s seat?

Sadly, this tragedy has occurred with more frequency in recent years.  Examples include German Wings Flight 4U 9525 and Malaysian Flight MH370.  Not every pilot has the passengers’ best interests at heart.  So I ran with this theme in SKYJACK.

To research this book, I needed to study the history of aviation security and hijacking to learn more about how today’s security measures evolved.  Perhaps knowing this background might make you a little more patient the next time you’re in a long security line.

The Golden Days

Can you imagine taking a flight without x-ray machines, security screenings or TSA officers?   Up until the early 1970’s, this was the reality of air travel despite a large number of hijackings that took place between 1961 and 1970.  

In those “golden days” of skyjacks, most of the hijackings were driven by money or as a protest 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. 

Sure, there was an economic cost to these events, but there was very little bloodletting in the early days.  Airlines and governments were willing to absorb the economic costs of these crimes rather than invest the substantial funds needed to provide effective security.

Still, the US government created the FAA group to study hijackings, and they invited suggestions from the public on how to battle this crime wave.  The public didn't disappoint, sending in thousands of suggestions, including:

·     Requiring 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 exited the plane.

·     And my personal favorite—installing a trap door in the floor immediately outside of the cockpit so pilots could drop the hijackers 20,000 feet when they tried to take over the plane.   

None of these ideas were ever implemented.

Of course, the problem only worsened.  Between 1968 and 1972, 130 American aircraft were hijacked and motives were shifting.  Ransom demands were skyrocketing, and there were new political motives, many tied to Middle Eastern conflicts.  The destruction of property and the reality of violence were becoming more severe and painful to endure.  This backdrop gave me plenty of fodder for SKYJACK.

Then one event changed everything. 

On Sept 6, 1970, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) attempted their most ambitious operation to date, trying to hijack four European planes bound for the United States simultaneously and they succeeded in taking control of three of them.  On Sept 9, they hijacked yet another jet liner bound for America.  Three of these aircraft were flown to an abandoned British airfield in Jordan called 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 in front of the gathered media.

The Jordanian government responded by declaring martial law and initiating military operations against a number of radical political groups within the large Palestinian refugee population ensconced in Jordan.  

Over a few weeks, all of the hostages from the hijacked aircraft were 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 Sept 11, 1970, President Nixon began an initiative to deal with this new crisis of air piracy.  His immediate direction included steps to increase security, including:

·     Appointing the first 100 armed Air Marshals to travel on aircraft.

·     Enhancing international co-operation on aircraft security.

·     Applying x-ray technology previously available only to the military to the civilian sector.  

While the programme 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 Sept 11, American and European passengers and aircraft have rarely been the victims of hijackings.  But they do happen, and there are always vulnerabilities which I explored in SKYJACK.  Still, the actions of Nixon and the international community brought the epidemic of crime and terrorism in the skies to a calmer place.  

While hijackings still do occur with some regularity in other countries, they tend to occur outside of Europe and North America and do not get much coverage in western media.  Still, we need to remain vigilant to ensure this safer trend continues.

To enhance the authenticity in my latest book, I consulted test pilots, commercial pilots, and military pilots, including a stealth bomber pilot.  Thea Paris is shepherding two former child soldiers from Nairobi to London, and she enters the not-so-friendly skies on a very bumpy ride.  SKYJACK is the perfect novel to take on your next flight…I dare you. 


Skyjack by K.J Howe is published by Headline as a pbk original at £8.99 on 26th July 2018


K J Howe

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