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Airport '98

[whitespace] airplane Hijacking exercise taken to new heights

By Heather Zimmerman


A plane loaded with passengers sits alone on the night tarmac at San Jose International Airport, diverted to the opposite end of the airport from the passenger terminals. The red safety lights flash in the pelting downpour, reflecting a crimson warning streak in the puddles on the pavement, as if at any moment the plane might taxi away from the remote General Aviation Terminal and take off. That's exactly what the surrounding crowd of people in combat gear wants to avoid, all because some fictitious loser named Joseph Mackie has decided to get revenge on his boss--and maybe impress his girlfriend--by hijacking this plane.

For someone who doesn't exist, Mackie gets a lot of attention. Very real members of the San Jose Police Department, Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department and the FBI have been brought out in force to waylay him and his two accomplices, or at least pretend to: Mackie and his cohorts are scripted characters in a scenario specially created for a tactical "Aircraft Hijack Incident Management Training Exercise." This FAA-required exercise is staged every three years by the airport division of the San Jose Police Department and the San Jose International Airport as a kind of elaborate fire drill designed to train officers in how to handle hijackings. This hijacking enactment, faux or not, is a complicated business. According to Officer Ed Conway, who wrote the scenario for this exercise, the whole thing took about four months for a committee of four to plan, not much different from a movie script. On hand to thwart the fictional hijackers is everything from S.W.A.T. teams to infrared radar to a bomb-defusing robot. The empty plane that will be temporarily taken hostage is a Boeing 757 on cautious loan from Delta Airlines, along with its crew. Reserve police officers and FAA representatives pose as hostage passengers; the hijackers are portrayed by police. A phony passenger list has been created, complete with passengers who ordered vegetarian meals.

With floodlights set up to illuminate the plane, the exclusion of the public and the convoy of emergency vehicles, the place looks like a movie set. Officer Dave Stengel is one of the few among the 250 participants who has read the entire script. He interprets the radio transmissions between the plane and controllers and also occasionally drops hints to observers when something major is about to happen. He knows everything from the hoped-for reactions of the hostage negotiators to the personal histories of the hijackers and their families. Conway says that as much detail as possible is included to "give hostage-negotiating teams something to look for, to figure out, 'What is this person's [the hijacker's] motivation?' "

Stengel tells us that Mackie is something of a desperate character. He is a disgruntled employee of the make-believe Excel Aviation, terrified of getting laid off and currently being pressed for more alimony by his ex-wife. Pushing him closer to the brink is a gold-digging girlfriend. But the true thorn in Mackie's side is his boss, and it turns out that Mackie has hijacked the plane in the hopes of getting the undivided attention of the FAA so he can tell them what a rat his boss really is. Conway points out that such a situation is probably more likely to crop up in a hijacking than an attack by the usual suspects, fanatical terrorists. "The first thing was to get away from the international terrorist aspect and focus on the local aspect," he says. "If you look at the history of crimes on aircraft, you find that the perpetrators were usually ordinary people having a rough time."

So what was Mackie's ultimate fate? Well, it's probably not hard to guess. After all, his two accomplices, whom he had tricked into thinking they were accompanying him on a vacation, jumped ship early during the exercise. Mackie shot the second of his escaping friends in the leg (with blanks, of course), and a passenger (one of the vegetarians) saw his chance to successfully escape in the commotion when the first accomplice went AWOL. But the operation carried on into the wee hours of the morning, even past this night-owl writer's bedtime, so Stengel let me in on a little secret as I was leaving at 2:30am, with the exercise only half over: The FBI would eventually storm the plane, "and there's a happy ending," he told me. Steven Spielberg himself wouldn't have asked for more than that, but, most importantly in this case, neither would the FAA.

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From the February 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro.

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