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News & Editorials

DC-10 Captain, a Police Officer, Talks Straight

September 26, 2001

Fraternal Brothers and Sisters, My name is John Burnett. I am a DC-10 Captain for FedEx. I am also a Police Officer for the Memphis Police Department.

My purpose in writing this is to share some of my thoughts regarding actions a pilot might consider when faced with a modern-day hijacker. These thoughts are outside-the-box when it comes to the way we've all been trained. Neither the FAA or our companies will suggest any of these techniques or implement them as a part of our normal training cycles. They couldn't for fear of lawsuits. I am distributing this via e-mail to buddies I've flown with. I'm asking them to send it to their circle of friends within the industry, and for you to send it to yours. I know most of us have e-mail, and I hope this reaches the next to face the horror of some religious fanatic onboard.

We have all had training in what to do in case of a hijacking; try to keep the hijacker calm, make him think you're doing what he wants, take him where ever he wants to go, etc., etc., etc. Save your passengers, your crew, and your aircraft. In an emergency, you will revert to that training. When our unfortunate peers were faced with the screams of the Flight Attendants and hijacker's demands to open the cockpit door, their training probably made them open the door. When the fanatics made demands, their training told them to comply as best they could. I can only wonder what their thoughts were as they left the cockpit and were tied up in the back of the plane; what they thought as they descended over New York. I hope the fanatics had to kill them in their seats and drag their dead bodies out of the cockpit. But, I bet they did as they were trained to do.

As you look back over recent hijackings, FedEx, Egypt Air, and now the September 11th hijackings, you see a perpetrator who, for one reason or another wants to take over the airplane and kill himself. Each of these hijackers, except for the FedEx incident, were successful. They took over the airplane and killed everyone onboard. If you're following the news programs today, you hear a lot about how we could let these hijackers learn to fly. You would think if knowing how to fly would guarantee a successful hijacking, Auburn Calloway (the FedEx hijacker) would have been a hijacker success story. He was a Navy pilot, a martial arts student, a fellow FedEx crewmember, and he took all the weapons he needed: hammers, knives and a spear gun. He didn't have to overcome any Flight Attendants or demand they open the cockpit door. He just went back to his bag, took out his hammer came back into the cockpit and started crushing skulls. The crewmembers on that flight didn't worry about Flight Attendants, they didn't worry about passengers. All three pilots left the cockpit and fought a hand-to-hand, life-or-death battle. To survive today's hijacker, you cannot worry about your passengers; you cannot worry about your Flight Attendants. You must develop a mind-set that everyone onboard, including yourself, is already dead. Because, if the hijacker is successful in taking over your airplane, not only you, your crew, your passengers and your aircraft are lost, but thousands on the ground are at risk.

One of the reasons the FedEx crew survived, is the extraordinary actions of the copilot. Although he had brain injury, the copilot took the DC-10 and immediately executed a half-roll. This maneuver took the hijacker off his feet as the Captain and S/O were struggling with him. During a point in the maneuver, the hijacker, Captain and S/O were thrown back behind the cockpit door. When he righted the airplane, the F/O then left his seat and joined the fight in the galley area of the plane. It was only after the Captain determined the hijacker was subdued, he returned to the cockpit and flew the airplane to landing.

Very few of us have had to confront true evil. Fewer still have seriously considered taking the life of another human being. I believe this is the reason the FedEx crew did not kill their attacker. The crew's heroism that day is beyond belief and any action that leads to a safe landing and recovery cannot be argued with. But, when the Captain left the F/O and S/O, thinking the situation was under control, he was mistaken. The F/O and S/O had sustained serious, life-threatening injuries. The hijacker had not. As the Captain flew the aircraft, the hijacker, who had surrendered, began the fight anew. As the airplane landed, the hijacker was just moments away from overcoming the two crewmembers. I mention this for your consideration. I would suggest that you make the conscious decision to kill anyone who tries to take your airplane from you.

Today we are at war. The hijacker who comes through your cockpit door is going to kill you and everyone onboard. So, how do you do that? What weapons are available to us as pilots?

The intercom.

Command that all men come forward and fight the hijackers. You have many able-bodied men onboard. They are sitting in shock not knowing what to do. Command they come forward and help you kill your attackers. And, they will come.

The airplane itself.

Get the hijackers off their feet. Go into an immediate dive to float them to the ceiling. Then execute a 6G positive maneuver and hope they hit their head or break their back as they hit the floor, galley shelf, etc.

Dump the cabin.

Maybe one of the hijackers has a head cold.

Pull the fire handles, shut the start levers and turn the fuel valves off.

If you loose the battle, at least the airplane won't be used as a guided missile on a kamikaze mission. With luck, maybe these guys didn't learn how to do an in-flight restart. Then leave the cockpit, all of you, and kill your attackers. Don't believe it when they surrender. Don't be nice to them. KILL THEM.

Flare Gun.

If your airplane has one, the Captain might consider making sure it's loaded and secured next to his bag. I can think of nothing more satisfying than watching a ball of burning phosphorous embedded into a fanatic's gut, burning its way through him.

The crash-axe.

I would suggest you have your copilot take it from it's holder and secure it next to him so he has it immediately available. Makes an excellent skull crusher.

Your flashlight.

The FAA use to require a 2 cell. A 3 cell Mag-Light makes an excellent weapon. If your maneuvers have the hijackers on the floor writhing in pain, crush their skulls with it.

Your stolen hotel bic pen.

Drive it into an attacker's eye, ear, throat, or into the area just under the jaw bone. That's a particular interesting place to drive it, because when he opens his mouth to scream, you can read Hyatt sticking there.

Your hand and fingers.

Drive your fingers into his eyes and try to feel your fingernails scrape the back of his eye sockets. Scoop the eyeballs out. It will confuse the hell out of him when he finds himself looking at his shoes as they dangle there on the ocular nerves.

Your teeth.

Remember Hannabal Lecter. Eat a nose, a cheek, or a finger. And keep eating. Attack with all viciousness. A piranha is a small fish, but it's greatly feared. A hijacker is not expecting you to eat him and it might make him forget why he got on your airplane to begin with. It will, at least, impress his buddies.

Now here's my wish-list of things the FAA could do to help, especially in this time of war.

Arm the Captain.

The battle is not going to require any long shots and a small revolver would be a good choice. It would hold off the attackers long enough for you to disable your aircraft. If the attackers claimed the red package they were holding was a bomb, I'd shoot out the door glass and hope the door would be ripped out and the hijacker and his package would be sucked out. And hey, if I got sucked out with him, I'd try to fly myself to the hijacker look in his face and laugh at him all the way to the ground.

Invite the local Police to jumpseat.

Police are always looking for something free.

Donut shops use to be a favorite target for robbers, until they started giving donuts to the Police. Robbers don't rob donut shops anymore. I would suggest each Police Department send the FAA a list of the best shots on the department and those guys and their guns would be welcome on my airplane. Fill every vacant seat with armed Police, give them a donut, and tell them to shoot anyone who gives your Flight Attendant any shit.

Stop this silly no-knife rule.

Make it public. Tell the public they're welcome to bring their pocket knives onboard. Then everyone will bring them. When you make your intercom call for help, you'll have a dozen or more knife wielding helpers trying to make sure their new Gerber tastes fanatics blood. There are even a few of them who'd want to keep ears as souvenirs.

Law enforcement agencies are all aware there are copy-cat criminals and fanatics. We have a number of loony fanatical hate-groups here in the USA: ALF, PETA, KKK, Army of God, Anti-abortionists, and the list goes on. It doesn't matter the size of your airplane. Right now, as I write this, there is an anti-abortionist escapee here in the Memphis area. He's seen what happened at the World Trade Center. A small commuter plane would do a great job on an abortion clinic, or on an animal research facility, or on a local synagogue, mosque, etc., etc., etc. None of us is immune. Take some time and consider your actions if this event should ever happen to you.

My prayer is none of you ever have to face this kind of decision.

Best of luck to you, and may God Bless

John Burnett


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Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. LORD ACTON (1887)

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