Plane takeovers a dangerous reality

Former CIA: This is unprecedented
Former CIA: This is unprecedented


    Former CIA: This is unprecedented


Former CIA: This is unprecedented 03:03

Story highlights

  • Peter Bergen: Emerging consensus suggests Malaysian airliner changed course
  • Bergen: This suggests there was a human intervention, rather than a mechanical failure
  • He says it's likely a person or persons with non-political motives commandeered the plane

There is still much that is mysterious about the fate of Malaysia Air Flight 370, but there is emerging consensus that the passenger jet bound for Beijing changed course, flying west over the Indian Ocean and flew for at least four hours. This tends to suggest that there was a human intervention, rather than a mechanical failure.

Typically such a human intervention would be a hijacking for political purposes, as was the case with the 9/11 flights or any number of other hijackings.

But no credible terrorist group has asserted responsibility for this operation and whoever diverted Malaysia Air Flight 370 issued no demands, which would be typical in the case of most hijackings.

There is always the possibility of pilot suicide, as was the case with EgyptAir 990, which plunged into the Atlantic shortly after leaving JFK Airport on October 31, 1999. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the co-pilot intentionally caused the crash, although Egyptian authorities questioned that judgment.

Peter Bergen

But if Malaysia Air Flight 370 was a case of pilot suicide, why fly for so many hours and go through the trouble of switching off the transponder?

This leaves open the possibility that a person or persons with non-political or idiosyncratic motives commandeered the plane.

This is more common that one might presume. In the pre-9/11 era, before the introduction of reinforced cockpit doors, there were quite a number of such cases.

Air Safety Week, an aviation industry magazine, ran a story in January 2001 observing that, "the number of cases where the sanctity of the cockpit is threatened seems to be on the increase. In the last three years, there were at least 14 known attempts to enter the cockpit."

Virtual look at Flight 370's route
Virtual look at Flight 370's route


    Virtual look at Flight 370's route


Virtual look at Flight 370's route 01:47
Plane theories: Mystery of Flight 370
Plane theories: Mystery of Flight 370


    Plane theories: Mystery of Flight 370


Plane theories: Mystery of Flight 370 01:27

Air Safety Week pointed to a case from December 29, 2000, when a Kenyan man burst into the cockpit of a British Airways flight from London to Nairobi. The airplane plummeted more than 10,000 feet before the captain could regain control of the airplane.

Air Safety Week also pointed to two disturbing cases in the United States. On August 11, 2000, a 19-year-old Southwest Airlines passenger tried to get into the cockpit shortly before the plane was going to land in Salt Lake City. Six passengers restrained the man, who later died of a heart attack once he was taken off the plane.

On an Alaska Airlines flight on March 16, 2000, passenger Peter Bradley started taking his clothes off and ran up and down the aisle of the plane. The 39-year-old shouted at his fellow passengers "I am going to (expletive) kill you. I'm going to kill you all."

Bradley charged the cockpit door and then lunged for the flight controls. The co-pilot reached for an ax that was meant for emergency situations and began wrestling with Bradley. The episode ended when several passengers jumped on Bradley.

Since 9/11, plane commandeerings have continued despite the wide introduction of reinforced cockpit doors. Often such commandeerings are motivated by someone trying to claim asylum.

On January 24, 2007, there was a hijacking aboard Air West, a commercial airline flight in Sudan, which took off from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. The hijacker Mohamed Abdu Altif entered the cockpit armed with a pistol around half an hour after takeoff and put the pistol to the captain's head. He demanded to go to London, but was told by the captain that there was not enough fuel, so he agreed to go to Chad. Altif apparently wanted asylum in the United Kingdom. The plane diverged to Chad where Altif surrendered to authorities.

Of course, if it's the pilot himself commandeering the plane in order to claim asylum, getting through the cockpit door is not an issue. A recent example of this occurred on February 17, when the co-pilot of an Ethiopian Airlines commercial flight between Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Rome took over the plane when the lead pilot went to the bathroom. The co-pilot flew the plane to Geneva, Switzerland, where he landed and asked for asylum.

Sometimes such a commandeering happens for reasons that are quite idiosyncratic. On October 4, 2006, Hakan Ekinci, slipped into the cockpit of a Turkish Airlines passenger airline flight between Tirana, Albania, and Istanbul, Turkey, after a stewardess had opened the cockpit door.

Ekinci claimed to have a bomb and that he would detonate it unless the plane was diverted to Italy so that he could speak to the Pope. Two Italian fighter jets scrambled and forced the plane to land in Brindisi, Italy.

Ekinci was a deserter from the Turkish military. He had written to Pope Benedict XVI during the summer of 2006 a letter asking for his help to avoid military service. He was arrested when the plane landed in Italy.

If Malaysia Air Flight 370 was indeed commandeered, the person or people responsible for it knew enough about civil aviation to know how to turn off the transponder. Of course, this is exactly what happened with three out of the four planes that were hijacked on 9/11 so it's a technique that is not unknown.

For the moment, the fate of Malaysia Air Flight 370 remains an enigma, but with the few facts that we now know about the flight, a commandeering of the passenger jet is the most plausible explanation.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

      Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

    • nr intv moni basu husbands quiet suffering flight 370_00020822.jpg

      An empty space on earth

      His wife never came home from her flight on MH370, and now K.S. Narendran is left to imagine the worst of possible truths without knowing.
    • This handout photo taken on April 7, 2014 and released on April 9, 2014 by Australian Defence shows Maritime Warfare Officer, Sub Lieutenant Ryan Penrose watching HMAS Success as HMAS Perth approaches for a replenishment at sea while searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. Two fresh signals have been picked up Australian ship Ocean Shield in the search for missing Malaysian flight MH370, raising hopes that wreckage will be found within days even as black box batteries start to expire.

      Is this the sound of the crash?

      Was the sound of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 striking the water captured by ocean devices used to listen for signs of nuclear blasts?
    •  A crew member of a Royal New Zealand Airforce (RNZAF) P-3K2-Orion aircraft helps to look for objects during the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in flight over the Indian Ocean on April 13, 2014 off the coast of Perth, Australia. S

      Search back to square one

      What was believed to be the best hope of finding the missing plane is now being called a false hope. Rene Marsh explains.
    • Caption:A Chinese relative of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 uses a lighter as she prays at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on April 8, 2014. The hunt for physical evidence that the Malaysia Airlines jet crashed in the Indian Ocean more than three weeks ago has turned up nothing, despite a massive operation involving seven countries and repeated sightings of suspected debris. AFP PHOTO/WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

      Bring in the lawyers

      Involved parties, including the manufacturer Boeing, are bracing for a long public relations siege.
    • The painstaking search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 got a vote of confidence Friday that the effort is headed in the right direction, but officials noted that much work remains.
Credit: 	CNN

      Pings likely not from Flight 370

      Official: The four acoustic pings at the center of the search for Flight 370 are no longer believed to have come from the plane's black boxes.
    • INDIAN OCEAN (April 14, 2014) -- Operators aboard ADF Ocean Shield move U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21 into position for deployment, April 14. Using side scan sonar, the Bluefin will descend to a depth of between 4,000 and 4,500 meters, approximately 35 meters above the ocean floor. It will spend up to 16 hours at this depth collecting data, before potentially moving to other likely search areas. Joint Task Force 658 is currently supporting Operation Southern Indian Ocean, searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. (U.S. Navy video by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Blair/RELEASED)

      Underwater search on hold

      The underwater search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane will effectively be put on hold this week, and may not resume until August at the earliest.
    • Movie-makers say they have recruited leading Hollywood technicians to bring their experience to mid-air flight sequences.

      An MH370 movie already?

      Movie-makers in Cannes have announced they're making a thriller based on the disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370.
    • The story of the search

      The search for the missing Boeing 777 has gone on for eight weeks now. CNN's David Molko looks back at this difficult, emotional assignment.