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Sunday, 12 May, 2002, 08:59 GMT 09:59 UK
Passengers train to tackle hijackers
Flightwatch exercise
Passengers practise restraining a 'hijacker'
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By Maggie Shiels
In Los Angeles

A plane full of passengers is in uproar as a small stocky man pulls a flight attendant kicking and screaming towards the cockpit. He warns everyone to keep back otherwise he will snap the woman's neck and kill her.

Seconds later a tall dark-haired man runs up the aisle shouting he has a bomb.

This scene echoes what many believe happened on the planes that were hijacked on 11 September, resulting in the worst terrorist atrocity in American history.

My comfort level will be much better as a result of taking this training

Lynne Allen, Flightwatch trainee

Perhaps mirroring the bravery of those who fought back on doomed Flight 93 before it crashed in rural Pennsylvania, a number of people on this aircraft jump to their feet.

Some lunge at the 'bomber' grabbing his arms and legs to prevent him from blowing up the plane.

Others target the man holding the air hostess hostage. In no time these 'have a go heroes' have him in a vice-like grip, and have strapped him into one of the seats using their belts.

Citizens' army

Thankfully, this is a training exercise aimed at creating a sort of citizens' army made up of frequent flyers who are willing to do what is necessary to prevent a repeat of 11 September.

Flightwatch America is the brainchild of businessman Don Deitrich who said "count me in" when during a flight shortly after the terrorist attacks, a fellow passenger told him they would have to act if anyone tried to hijack their plane.

Flightwatch training scheme
Flightwatch offers frequent fliers personal safety tips

But Don realised he would not have a clue what to do if the time came.

"I think it was at that moment I realised it, like it or not if your aeroplane is hijacked you have just been mandated to do some hand-to-hand combat with a crazed terrorist and all without any guidance or training," he said.

During the day's training held at an aviation museum 16 kilometres (10 miles) south of San Francisco Airport, pupils are taught a multitude of skills ranging from disarming a hijacker to dealing with a drunk on board or, as is becoming more common, a case of air rage.

First line of defence

Flightwatch stresses it is not trying to create vigilantes but recognises that air passengers are increasingly being seen as part of the final frontier in preventing disaster high in the sky.

Before 11 September, people were trained to sit back and let things happen

Dana Maudlin, Flightwatch

In the United States, federal regulations passed following 11 September require flight attendants to turn to passengers for help if needed.

Flightwatch instructor Dana Maudlin, who is also a flight attendant, says it is heart-warming to know she can rely on passenger in a crisis:

"Before 11 September, people were trained to sit back and let things happen. That shattered our paradigm.

"And for me as a flight attendant, passengers are our only resource and it's comforting to know there are people willing to help."

Willing volunteers

A recent poll by ABC television found that 61% of Americans are willing to take on skyjackers.

Most of those taking part in the Flightwatch course were sent by their employers because they fly a lot for business.

Lynne Allen, who works in Silicon Valley, told me: "I fly four or five times a week. My comfort level will be much better as a result of taking this training.

"That was my goal to feel more prepared and more secure when I get on that plane."

While not officially endorsed by the Federal Aviation Authority, the agency has said the concept of the programme seems to be a good one.

See also:

21 Feb 02 | Americas
UN to audit airline security
21 Sep 01 | UK
Q & A: Airport security
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