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Fighting Back At 40,000 Feet

Part 1- Responding To Airborne Terrorists

By Christopher Caile

For weeks after 9/11 the events haunted me. I played them over and over in my mind and thought about what I would have done, and how I would fight back if I was ever faced with armed terrorists 40,000 feet in the air. Many of my friends have said the same thing.

Since then I have seen much media rhetoric about the new terror reality, and how airplanes can become a political instrument of destruction. But missing, I think, has been concrete guidance on when and how to fight back, strategies of defense and how to arm yourself with makeshift weapons and shields. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject based on my 40 plus years of martial arts and self-defense experience.

Hopefully this will get you thinking about the unthinkable, no matter how unlikely the event. Don’t get “warm and cozy” thinking that all the new security measures have made it safe again -- enhanced screening, onboard air marshals, armored cockpit doors and an armed crew. That nagging cut of fear which sometimes bleeds into your conscious is right: security is still not perfect. Another incident is possible and because air marshals are present on only about 5 percent of flights, don’t count on much help.

A friend of mine was recently shocked to find that she had forgotten to remove a pocket knife from her purse for her flight to New York City. It had gone undetected. Numerous other stories abound. The truth is that weapons, even explosive or incendiary devices, still can get aboard a plane.

So how can passengers help and how can we be prepared? Most are already contributing to security. They are more aware of other passengers and are on the outlook for weapons or anything suspicious. This might just help avert the next hijacker or terrorist incident.

Also, the willingness of passengers to fight back will certainly make terrorists think twice before acting again. This willingness to take action was demonstrated on 9/11 when passengers on Flight 93 over Pennsylvania fought back, though they died in their efforts. There have been more recent incidents as well, when passengers have jumped in to help restrain someone, the most notable case being that of the alleged shoe bomber.

You might be willing physically to assist the crew in cases of air rage, belligerency, or fisticuffs. But, be careful. You can still help, but I wouldn’t want to seriously injury some half drunk, emotional “Uncle Max” from Buffalo who is just venting to other passengers.

I would, however, take immediate action if I was close enough to stop someone with a weapon, or any type of explosive device. I would also try to intervene if someone was trying to take a hostage, or attacking an air marshal attempting to respond to an incident.

Most critical, it seems to me, is the protection of the cockpit, the pilots and the airline controls. Taking timely action can keep belligerents confined to the passenger cabin and hopefully restrained. In the process hijackers or terrorists are denied control of the airplane. If the cockpit security is breached, however, the likelihood of a successful counter-attack that will also prevent a crash is greatly reduced – not impossible, but very difficult. The worst case scenario is that of Flight 93, but at least those who fought back denied the terrorists success of their ultimate goal.

One of the most effective weapons may actually be the pilot himself. One US Air pilot told me, “there isn’t any official policy on this, but if there is a terrorist on board my plane, they better watch out. If they are not strapped in they will find themselves bounced around like a chicken piece in a bag of “Shake & ‘bake.”

This could seriously disrupt any concerted terrorist action. Being unbalanced and/or upended also gives passengers an opportunity to pile on top of assailants and restrain them. In Part 2 of this series we will discuss measures to deal with gyrations of movement, if standing.

The most horrific decision to consider is how you might respond if there were hostages. The typical ploy is to threaten the hostages if passengers don’t follow orders, or if the pilots don’t open the cockpit door.

In this type of situation you can only hope for an opening that allows successful action -- a distraction, like a sudden shift by the plane, a diversion or even some move on the part of a hostage. But in the end, if the cockpit is in danger, or people’s lives are at risk of being lost, I think it is incumbent on passengers to intercede even if a hostage’s life is at risk.

In these situations terrorists always try to turn the tables on you. They tell you that it’s your fault if someone get killed or injured because you interceded, or didn’t follow their instructions. Don’t bite. If they kill someone, they are the killers, not you. Remember too, that now the stakes have been raised. The old days when a hijacker wanted just to be taken someplace is gone. Now it must be assumed, unless proved otherwise, that terrorist’s goal is probably to kill everyone.

Hopefully what I have talked about will get you to think about what you might do in various situations and to create your own plan of action. Remember, the willingness to fight back, and to participate with others in decisive group action, is in itself a tremendous deterrent. It can also be the most effective means to counter any terrorist takeover of an airline.

In Part 2, of this series I will discuss various strategies of fighting back against terrorists or hijackers. In Part 3, we will talk about all the possible things available to you as passengers that can be used as makeshift weapons, shields and artillery. This greatly increases your fighting chances if terrorists or hijackers have weapons.


This article is for educational purposes only and does not represent advice, suggested action or activities that airline passengers should or could take. It represents the views of the author only, who is trained in self-defense and the use of weapons. The intent of this article is only to provoke thought. In the event of an actual airline incident the direction of airline flight crew, pilots and/or air marshals should be followed.

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About the Author:

Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of He has been a student of the martial arts for over 43 years. He first started in judo. Then he added karate as a student of Phil Koeppel in 1959. Caile introduced karate to Finland in 1960 and then hitch-hiked eastward. In Japan (1961) he studied under Mas Oyama and later in the US became a Kyokushinkai Branch Chief. In 1976 he followed Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura when he formed Seido karate and is now a 6th degree black belt in that organization's honbu dojo. Other experience includes judo, aikido, diato-, kenjutsu, kobudo, Shinto Muso-ryu jodo, boxing and several Chinese fighting arts including Praying mantis, Pak Mei (White Eyebrow) and shuai chiao. He is also a student of Zen. A long-term student of one branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong, he is a personal disciple of the qi gong master and teacher of acupuncture Dr. Zaiwen Shen (M.D., Ph.D.) and is Vice-President of the DS International Chi Medicine Association. He is also a student of Tai Chi under Dr. Shen whose father and teacher trained in China under the Yang family. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from American University in Washington D.C. and has traveled extensively through South and Southeast Asia. He has frequently returned to Japan and Okinawa to continue his studies in the martial arts, their history and tradition. In his professional life he has been a businessman, newspaper journalist, inventor and entrepreneur.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

airborne terrorists, self-defense on airplanes, airline security, air marshals, terrorism, cockpit security, airline security

Read more articles by Christopher Caile

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