It Happened To Me: I Survived An Airplane Hijacking

Apparently the secret to surviving a hijacking is not knowing it’s happening until it’s all over.
Publish date:
October 21, 2011
travel, crime, danger, hijacking

We were down to our last handful of drachmas after buying our tickets back to the United States, Promised Land of happiness and bright futures, a country I barely remembered and viewed with increasing dread as I sat in the terminal in Athens, playing with the toy helicopter my father bought me to appease my complaints after about hour five of waiting. We were also not off to the greatest start on our Grand Return.

In retrospect, the fact that an airline representative didn’t even bother to show up until almost a day after the plane was due to take off should have been a warning sign, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The man in the neat tailored suit set up the table with a flourish and then coyly slipped a sign reading “Pakistan International Airlines” out of the briefcase, attaching it to the table with a strip of tape. It was all very Greek and reassuringly familiar, as was his flippant response to my father's question about where the plane was, a distinct shrug of the shoulders with a helpless glance off to the horizon. “Surely,” his posture suggested, “the plane will be here when it gets here, and no sooner.”

None of these events, the late plane, the utterly lackadaisical approach to customer service, were particularly unusual for travel in this part of the world in the 1980s, not even what happened after we boarded and the groaning rust-bucket took off: the overhead compartments flying open to rain luggage on us as the plane took off; the food poisoning from the terrible food; even the man who died somewhere between Karachi and Athens and wasn’t noticed until we had left Berlin1 and were gearing up for the final leg across the Atlantic, to the shores of New York and what I was told was “home.”

All of this was par for the course with my previous experiences of travel, where things stopped unexpectedly or went to destinations other than those declared upon boarding or decided to just give up and go back to where they came from. Really, as long as I had reading material, I was happy, and I whiled away the flight quite contentedly, peacefully ignoring stampeding passengers fighting for the restroom and other unpleasant distractions.

It was with considerable excitement that I leaned over to peer out the window when the plane shuddered, suggesting that we were near our destination, and dropped precipitously through several thousand feet of what I assumed was US airspace. The landscape spilling out below the plane was entirely unfamiliar to me, but I reasoned that this was perhaps not entirely unexpected, considering that I’d left the United States in diapers. I pulled at my father’s sleeve and pointed out the window.

“Look,” I said. “New York!”

My father frowned with concern, and looked like he was about to say something, but the plane erupted in pandemonium as grateful passengers eager to escape the plane started packing up their luggage and preparing for evacuation. Most flagrantly ignored the seat belt signs when they flashed on and were thrown into their seats when the plane slammed into the ground and screeched to a stop just beyond the terminal. My father’s unease increased as he looked outside, and I squinted at the flag, which didn’t look familiar to me. Things really had changed in the United States since we’d left.

With a loud grinding and grating, the air stairs were rolled up and the side door opened, and a cadaverous man charged off the plane, followed by a trail of people grappling bags and forming a v-shaped cluster around him. The passengers quickly followed suit, pointedly ignoring my father’s faint cries of protest.

“This isn’t New York,” he said. “This is Toronto.”

They made it most of the way across the tarmac in a desperate bid for freedom before they were rounded up again by an assortment of disheveled Air Canada flight crew.

“Welcome to Canada,” they said, firmly steering people back into the plane. “Would you like some maple syrup?”

As soon as they’d crammed everyone back on, they skedaddled, the air stairs were pulled away, and the plane once again lumbered into motion, accompanied by an eerie silence as we all looked at each other, trying to puzzle out if that had really just happened, or we’d had a collective hallucination. No one could come up with a satisfactory explanation for why the plane had made an unscheduled stop in Toronto to disgorge a fortunate few passengers, only to take wing again.

The explanation for the phenomenon lay at the gate at JFK, where an assortment of stern-faced IRS agents were waiting for the man who had escaped in Toronto. Evidently someone had tipped him off, and he’d engaged in the time-honored and entirely logical tradition of avoiding the IRS by hijacking the plane and forcing it to land in Canada.

This necessitated miles of red tape, along with a delightful stay in a very swanky hotel room when my father was called to testify in the case; to my knowledge, they never got their man, but I do have to say, the Canadians do make some mighty fine maple syrup.

When I mention that I’ve survived a hijacking, among other air adventures2, people are always wide-eyed and horrified. They envision some sort of epic drama in the skies, men with guns and knives wrestling for control of the aircraft and terrorizing the passengers3, threatening the airline with demands and forcing someone somewhere to scramble some jets. I suspect money may have been the weapon of choice in this case, and he may have picked the most expeditious method for forcing the plane to land: bribing the pilots. These were the days, after all, when hijackers wanted the plane to land, along with everyone else, and just disagreed on landing location. It was all very quiet, really.

Apparently the secret to surviving a hijacking is not knowing it’s happening until it’s all over.

1. This nearly created an international incident as the airline argued with multiple authorities in a desperate attempt to ditch the body before departing for the United States. Ultimately no one was willing to accept him and we ended up with a hastily-assembled bier of vacated seats upon which his blanket-wrapped body rested for the duration of the flight.

2. Depending on how you view these things, I am either the luckiest or worst person to fly with, since I’ve endured three emergency landings (one of which was memorably necessitated by the entire left wing of the aircraft catching on fire) and two small plane crashes. One could argue that I’ve used up all my bad luck when it comes to flying ... or that I’m cursed and you should avoid all flights with my name on the manifest.

3. If you’re wondering, the most traumatic experience I ever had on board a commercial aircraft occurred when a flight attendant attempted to pass off Lipton Instant as tea. That sort of thing is just Not. On.