I've been working in Chicago and commuting back to Sacramento for awhile now. This last Friday I decided to take the 3:15PM flight rather than the usual 5:25PM departure so I could get a few extra hours with my kids.
Great plan, but one of the passengers messed it all up. My observations and comments after the AP publication:
Airline Passenger Subdued After Bomb ThreatSaturday, April 22, 2006
DENVER — A passenger who claimed to have a bomb aboard a United Airlines flight was subdued by passengers as the California-bound plane was diverted to Denver International Airport, airport officials said.
Two F-16 fighter jets from Buckley Air Force Base
scrambled to escort the plane as it flew into Denver Friday, according to Lt. Commander Sean Kelly, a spokesman for NORAD
"They followed to make sure nothing untoward was going to happen," he said.
Jose Manuel Pelayo-Ortega was arrested after the plane landed around 4:30 p.m., FBI
spokeswoman Monique Kelso said.
Three Secret Service agents traveling between assignments who happened to be on the plane helped detain the passenger, said Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren.
After the A-320 Airbus landed, it taxied to a remote part of the airport where the passengers got off and were bused to the terminal.
None of the 138 passengers or six crew members was injured, airport spokesman Chuck Cannon said. The flight was headed to Sacramento, Calif., from Chicago.
Authorities searched the aircraft for explosives and re-screened luggage and passengers before they reboarded the plane, which took off for its original destination around 7:30 p.m., Kelso said.
The flight had been uneventful for the first 90 minutes out of O'Hare when a man walked up the aisle. He looked like he was heading up to use the bathroom in the front of the plane. While this is technically not allowed, each cabin class is supposed to use the bathrooms in their respective cabins it is not abused or enforced, so no one paid too much attention to him.
When he got to the front of the plane he turned to the left and began to attempt to open the door. The flight attendant attempted to stop him and he shoved her away and went back to working on the door. That's when several of the First Class passenger jumped up and subdued the man immediately. I was about 3 rows in back of First Class (on the A320 that would be about 12 feet), and was poised to move forward if the situation worsened. It was clear that the the four men holding him down and then using "tape" to secure his arms had it under control, the balance of the planes passengers all remained alert, but calm. While the man was being restrained he was, literally, screaming that he wanted off of the plane. While the situation was disconcerting, to say the least, the passengers were alert, cooperative and clearly ready to assist even if that meant staying out of the aisles.
After about 10 minutes, the man was moved to a seat and flanked by two "passengers". I use quotes because it was discovered later that they were either Air Marshalls and, or, Secret Service. When I heard Secret Service as the man was was sitting 2 rows in front of me, it seemed odd. Why would Secret Service be going to Sacramento? I know it happens, but what a coincidence.
The man was clearly mentally disturbed. As with any "medical" emergency I knew that we were going to divert to a nearby airport. My local fellow passengers and I speculated on where we would land. We got it right, Denver. We speculated on how long we would be there. Medical emergencies usually have you land, medical personnel come on, in this case one would expect law enforcement as well, and the injured passenger is removed. If the plane is low on fuel, the tank truck loads it up and you're back in the air in about 40 minutes to an hour. That was my guess as we headed to Denver.
As we progress to Denver, on channel 9, the planes radio carries an interesting communication to the pilot. There are 2 F-16 fighters as "escort". Why do we have an escort for a medical emergency? Fighter planes only have one purpose when escorting a commercial aircraft and that is to shoot them down if the become a threat.
The pilot declares and emergency and Denver take-off and landings are stopped. The A320 is at maximum airspeed until 15 miles out when we do a series of very sharp "S" turns to shed speed and altitude. The last of which was about 100' off the ground and airspeed a blistering 290 knots (normal landing speed is about 150 knotts). I don't mind saying the approach and landing were far more scary than the mentally ill passenger that initiated all this.
After landing on a runway far from the terminal, the emergency vehicles surrounded the plane. The door opens and law enforcement pulls the man off of the plane. After that the Pilot comes back and thanks us all for the assistance, calmness and patience. He then informs us that the "nutcase" and claimed that he had a "camera in is stomach" and "in essence, said he was going to damage the plane"....words that effectively said he had a bomb.
Then I knew we were not just going to close the door and leave.
The following is what happened in terms of security. I have thought about this since going through this and feel that it does not provide any insights to our enemies as to how to defeat security measures and may serve to dissuade them from an attempt using a plane:
The took us off the plane in groups of 20. We took all our personal belongs with us. On the runway we formed a line and faced the security personnel. They told us to put our baggage on the ground if front of us. Then a bomb sniffing dog checked all of the baggage.
As we cleared that screening we moved a bit further away and then next group was brought of the plane. When we were all off the plane, one of the security personnel came off the plane with a manila folder and a day-planner and asked who it belonged to. One of the passenger claimed it. It was clear that the inside of the plane had be "swept" and re-uniting the belongings with the passenger was not a nicety, but a procedure.
Busses were brought our for us and we boarded, but did not leave. Passengers with something to inform law enforcement about the incident gave statements. During the wait, the entire cargo of luggage was removed and gone through by the bomb sniffing dog.
After about 30 minutes since getting off of the plane, we were bussed to the terminal. We were informed by United that we would be provided a "security cleared plane" to proceed to Sacramento on. That seemed a cryptic way of saying we were getting our original plane back. Anyone that did not to fly that nite would be put up in Denver. No one opted not to get back on the plane.
We took off and the flight was typical until we landed at Sacramento. We were informed that we would be debarking at a different terminal. It turns out that Air Force One was at out usual terminal and so we couldn't get close. Now I understand why we had so many Federal Agents on the plane. Bush was visiting Northern California.
In a post 9/11 flying world, it seemed well organized and worked well.