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Fighting Back At 40,000 Feet:

Part 3 – Weapons, Shields and Artillery

By Christopher Caile

Editor’s Note: Part 1 of this series discussed the possible eventuality of a terrorist takeover of an airplane, and the dilemmas of choice and morality that such an event would present to passengers. In Part 2, I examined some of the group strategies and individual tactics and methods that could be used to fight back. Here, I address weapons, shields and other items available to you in such emergencies.

Defending against an attack, aided by a suit coat rolled around him forearm as a shield, this passenger strikes back with a low, bottom of the foot stomp kick to the attacker’s knee.

Airborne terrorist often depend on weapons. Knives, box cutters and other bladed or sharp pointed weapons, guns are intimidating. They know this and use the fear against you. They depend on you feeling helpless and not knowing what to do. Even worse, they may take hostages and if you get in their way, watch out. They’re ruthless.

But you aren’t defenseless. You can use everyday items as weapons, shields or spears: your laptop computer, cell phone, wallet, briefcase and many other items to create your own arsenal. You simply have to recognize what can be used and how. These items will not guarantee your success, but better armed than naked against fanatical armed assailants.

But don’t wait. Think about this topic now, because if you wait until the last second, until you are faced with actually doing something, it may be too late -- you may not be able to think clearly, or you may miss items that could save your life.

Instant Help: Shields

Holding a briefcase in front of you as a shield

If a terrorist with a knife or other bladed weapon was near me and I had decided to spring into action (from the front), I might look for something I could use, quickly – some physical object to block or smother the weapon, or to cover and protect part of my body, such as my arm used to ward off an attack If the shield is large enough (such as a seat cushion or carry on bag) it can be used to push or smother an attacker’s movement, or distract him until, hopefully other passengers intervene.

Shields are everywhere. You can use a large pocket book, brief case, or carry on bag. One of the best barriers to use is a seat cushion from an unoccupied seat. Since these seat cushions are often designed to be used as a floatation device, they come loose easily and conveniently have handles or straps by which you can hold them. On “water equipped flights” (those over the ocean), however, life vests and other water safety items are found under the seats, and the seats themselves are not easily removable.

You can quickly improvise a shield to cover your forearm by wrapping a suit coat, jacket or overcoat around it. Start by grasping the inside of the collar.

Extend your left hand and pull the end of the coat toward you to start wrapping it around the forearm. A suit coat will normally wrap around the forearm twice, while a longer overcoat will go around three times.

Hold your shielded arm in front of you. Be careful to keep the back of your arms turned outward so as to protect the more vulnerable inside.

Shoes can also be pushed over bare hands for protection from knife cuts. Overcoats, topcoats, jackets, blankets, sweaters or other items can be wound around your forearm to protect it from knife slashes or hits from hard objects. And don’t forget to use an injured or subdued terrorists himself who can be held up as a shield against his friends.

In most airline galleys there are also metal storage boxes affixed to the wall that have large square metal lids with handles. They can make excellent shields and might even be able to deflect or slow down a bullet. Their corners can also be used as weapons.


Barriers are used to block movement by an assailant or to deny entry into an area by others. Most often it is a passenger, sometimes aided by a shield, who physically blocks an aisle or area with his body. This person can also use the threat of an improvised weapon, or use hard kicks (see part 2) to intimidate and forestall movement or attack.

A disarmed, subjugated assailant can also be used as a human barrier to block movement of his friends. If a serving cart is accessible, however, it can also be used to help block an aisle or the path of an attacker.

Improvised Weapons (lances, clubs and maces)

Weapons are equally abundant around you. Look for heavy, hard or hard cornered objects, or things with points or that can be folded to make a point. These types of weapons have an advantage over you own natural weapons like your fist – they extend your range of attack. They can also be more threatening. Below, I have categorized various types of improvised weapons.

Weapon and Shield Combo: The corner or edge of any hard object, such as the corner of a computer or a semi-hard briefcase, book, or the edge of a metal galley container cover. The object can be used as a shield, but also pushed forward to strike an assailant’s neck or a corner can be thrust into an eye socket (see illustrations in Part 2).

Turning a magazine into a spiked weapon is easy. Start with it flat.

Fold one corner onward.

Fold the entire magazine again in the same direction.

Spiked Lances: A magazine can be folded to make a hard point along the ridge of its binding. A pen or pencil can be stuck in the fold of a wallet, a business card carrying case, soft cover book, or wrapped in a glove, or the pointed end of a spiked comb can be used to stab like an ice pick – into the eyes, neck or other soft areas of the body.

The end of tightly rolled paperback book is used to strike at an attacker’s throat.

The hard edge of the end of a full soda can is used to strike an attacker’s temple.

A pen stuck into the fold of a business card holder, wallet or paperback book can be held in the hand and used as a spiked weapon.

Clubs: Hard objects held in the hand, such as a camera, cell phone, CD-playier, full can of soda, or a computer transformer. Even a paperback book can be used if it is rolled up tight in the hand. The striking surface is the tightly backed rolled end. In the airline bar cart or galleys there are also usually small bottles of wine that can be held in the hand, the end protruding, and used as a small club. In first class, once the flight is in the air there are also usually full sized bottles of champagne and wine sitting out on the counters of the first class galley for easy access. These make perfect clubs.

Here a briefcase is swung overhead like a mace into the head of an attacker. Because of the low ceiling, the arm is brought up first, but then pulled down as the briefcase swings forward.

Mace-like Swung Items: A briefcase (if it has hard corners) can be swung at shoulder height (so not to hit the low cabin ceiling) to target the head (illustrated in Part 2) or neck or swung underneath and up into the groin. Heavy, hard objects can also be put in a sock, fanny pack or in a shirt and swung as an impact weapon like a mace used by European medieval knights (also illustrated in Part 2). Useful objects include a computer transformer, camera, full can of soda or any other small weighty object. The cover from an airline pillow can also sometimes be used to hold the object, but be sure it is cloth, not paper.

Knives, Bladed Weapons and Guns: While these are not initially available to passengers, if an armed terrorist is subdued, his or her weapon becomes available.

Projectiles (personal artillery)

Projectiles are any items that can be thrown or projected into the face or path of an assailant to distract him, make him flinch, or to affect his eyesight momentarily. Their use provides a split second opportunity for other action.

Use pocket change (illustrated in Part 2) or other pocket items as keys. Don’t forget that any liquid in a cup, such as coffee, juice, soft drink or liquor, works well too. This includes spitting into someone’s face. You can also use about anything else you can pick up including a camera, full soda bottles, etc., but be careful not to hit other passengers. Thus these objects are best used before actual engagement, when you as an individual or a group of people are closing in.

Use of these items also presents a danger. They might be thrown back. More importantly, however, if the plane should suddenly lose height or shift position, loose items can become airborne missals that can hit and injure anyone in their path.

Smothering Items

These are items that can be thrown over the heads of attackers to blind their visions momentarily and confuse them and/or smother arm movement. Use of such objects usually include an effort to pin an assailant’s arm, tackle or otherwise restrain. Use overcoats, jackets, blankets or other large cloth objects. These have to be used at close range, however, and the height of the cabin often restricts movement.

Restraining Items

If you are able to overwhelm terrorists, follow-up restraint is necessary. A group of passengers can pile on a terrorist to neutralize him and hold him or her in place, but using some form of other restraint is preferable, especially if it is for a prolonged period of time. Some useful items for tying up an attacker include: belts, long shoe laces, headset cords (those provided by the airline and those from passenger CD-players and other electronic devices), and electric cords or telephone line cords from computers. Also look for lifelines, which are located over the wing exit doors. They are used to help passengers navigate across wings in the case of emergency exit, and are long and somewhat cumbersome. Additional restraint can also come from a seat belt that can help hold an assailant in a seat if he or she has been otherwise subdued or restrained.

While the above items do not comprise a full list, they should get you thinking. They just might help you, or even save your life, if you are ever confronted by the unlikely event of an onboard terrorist attempt to take over your airplane.


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, fighting airplane terrorists, group self-defense, improvised weapons, shields, barriers

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