Andy Downs

Speaker / Trainer / Author / Producer, 58 November FIlms

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Should the Captain of an Aircraft HAve Command Authority over Law Enfocement in a Hijacking or Crisis

I lecture to law enforcement and they think a captain has no more right than a gas station manger over the plane during a crisis or hijacking.
Captains, since 9/11, no longer have the right to refuse armed intervention if they choose...Is this a wise change in policy?

  • Mar 17 2013: Captains, since 9/11, no longer have the right to refuse armed intervention if they choose...Is this a wise change in policy?

    I suspect the policy is in regards to Air Marshals and It's exactly the right policy. No captain should be allowed to deny boarding to any air marshal or advise him on his/her duties.

    If you're concerned about hijacked flights without air marshals, it's still the correct policy.

    Pilots have absolutely zero training for this situation and possibly are no more capable of dealing with it than any other passenger on board. They are most certainly compromised. Any decision they make will be suspect. They don't have the complete picture of the situation inside and outside the plane. They don't know what resources are available to them nor how to deploy them. I can go on on on but you get the point.

    They are responsible for the plane and the passengers and only insofar as operating the equipment (the plane) so it doesn't kill any of them. That's it. Perhaps they can assist law enforcement in some way with communications and as an intermediary but when the time for armed intervention comes their first job is to help and assist passengers and other crew.
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      Mar 18 2013: Actually what you are saying is a common misconception.
      The policy did not refuse air marshals from boarding a plane. If an air marshal is on board, they do their job. In the event no law enforcement is present on the plane, law enforcement tactical actions have killed more than they have saved over the years from trying to read a crystal ball rather than coordinating with the captain.

      The fact is that captains are training to handle crisis and face crisis on a daily basis. They are training to handle the crisis not not let knee jerk actions take over along with emotions.

      The idea that any officer outside the plane knows better than the y captain has resulted in many people being killed worldwide.

      Again, there has never been a case where an innocent person has died as the result of a captain's decision in one of these situations. When law enforcement has that type of record, perhaps we can trust them to know more than others who are facing the danger with calm cool reasoning.
      • Mar 18 2013: Well I stand corrected then.

        As for Captains and HRT training - Haven't even remotely heard of such a thing at all and I deal with Airlines, TSA, customs, FAA etc almost daily on flight safety issues. Any info you can pass on would be of interest.
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          Mar 18 2013: I have been in the business as well for over 20 years as an owner and operator on part 135/121 operations. I work on these issues full time now and lecture across the country to LEO and special teams.
          Please feel free to email me at
          I would enjoy sharing the stats and info I have with you.

          I think you;ll find the details behind US1267 in PHL last Set very interesting and a microcosm of what needs to be addressed for the future.
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    Mar 14 2013: What qualifies the Captain to do so? Why would I entrust my life with someone, with a degree in flying, with a loaded gun to protect me? Put a real military man on each flight that is trained, with years of experience, in combat on our flights, Then you can have my thumbs up! If the government is to be involved, and they will be, let them fly the friendly skies!

    Condolences to you Andy.
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    Mar 14 2013: Kate,
    My father was the 1st Captain killed in a US hijacking Oct 4, 1971. I have been in the business for over 20 years as an owner and operator.
    So I get the joke that the captain doesn't fly.
    And yes they are mangers and are the responsible parties. No responsibility exists unless the authority has been given...and the captain has that authority to keep everyone safe.
    The communication issues between law enforcement and crews are the same issues my father dealt with just before he was killed on his plane. This is why I spend a great deal of my time on this issue.
    You can see info on my father's hijacking by going to
    In addition to the training I do, I am producing a documentary about the case. I'd love your thoughts on the project
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    Mar 13 2013: Another incident last Sept was US Airways 1267. In that case law enforcement raided the plane without notifying the captain. A plan clothed federal agent was in the front of the plane when they started the raid. They almost had a fire fight due to lack of communication.

    Law enforcement need to understand that the captain is a trained calm cool person who is trained not only to fly a plane but hand crisis situations.
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    Mar 13 2013: Here is the problem that people outside aviation do not understand. the captain is the only person legally responsible for every sole on board the plane. No exceptions.
    There is an interesting statistic that makes law enforcement uncomfortable as well...
    There has never been a hijacking or security crisis where an innocent person has died as the result of a decision made by a captain. Law enforcement does not have that record at all.

    The captain will know if the plane has been wired for explosives from the inside, they will know if a raid will cost an innocent life, etc.

    Check out thisATC tape from 1971
    Then check out this ATC tape from 2012

    The captains need to be consulted. Law enforcement does not want to communicate with the crews these days. The "Go it alone" strategy is dangerous
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    Mar 13 2013: seems wise to me, airline captains are trained in flying an airplane, not in dealing with crime. Why is there a question?
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      Mar 18 2013: Captain;s are training to handle crisis in a calm cool rational manner.
      It is not about fighting crime as much as knowing when you need help or when you can handle the situation.
      Again I go back to the fact that makes law enforcement very uncomfortable, not one innocent life has ever been lost due to a decision a captain has made in these type of crisis'. Law enforcement has the opposite record.

      They are less educated, have much less experience in the hidden dangers of aviation, and have anything but a great track record at resolving these matters.
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    Mar 13 2013: Andy, I am retired Air Force and retired law enforcement. That does not make me any type of authority but does allow me to see both sides of the issue.

    The Aircraft commander is in charge of the aircraft and the safety of the passengers ..... no question. If there are marshalls on board then I would consider their job to ensure that the aircraft commander is allowed to do that job by stopping anyone who has other plans. Each has a job and they are mutually beneficial.

    If on the ground and elements are hijacking a parked aircraft and the hijackers have access to the cockpit then a different set of values are in effect.

    Say I am the tactical team commander and I have been captured by the opposing force .... would you still take orders from me? No way. Once the plane is on the ground one of the pilots jobs is done .... he will still act in the best interests of the passengers if possible .... but he has few options or means of changing the situation. At that point he is just another hostage and the decision making goes to the agency outside of the aircraft.

    A good on scene commander uses all of the tools in his tool box ... most all situations are very fluid and decisioins must be made based on the highest priority threat and the best opportunities for success and the estimation of the consequences of failure.

    In your explaination you say that law enforcement think it is their game ..... what do pilots think ...... My grandkids are better than yours ... who you ask decides the answer you get. Did this surprise you?

    I wish you well. Bob.