Skip to main content

After the 9/11 attacks we were told that no one could have predicted that terrorists would hijack planes and use them as missiles against buildings. This lie quickly fell apart when it emerged that NORAD – the US air defence command – had run training exercises in the years and months leading up to the attacks that included this scenario. The history of real life suicide hijackings is several decades old and offers a different way of understanding how predictable 9/11 really was. From the man who tried to assassinate Nixon by crashing a plane into the White House, to the jihadis who plotted to smash an airliner into the Eiffel Tower, this week’s episode looks into insane world of suicide hijackings.


Our story begins in 1930 when Samuel Byck was born in Philadelphia. He served in the army for a while before becoming a salesman, which he wasn’t very good at. Byck lost several jobs and was turned down for loans when he tried to start his own business. He was hospitalised for depression and his wife left him.

Shortly before Christmas in 1973 he conducted a one-man protest in front of the White House wearing a Santa Claus outfit.  He was shouting and carrying a sign saying ‘All I want for Christmas is my constitutional right to publicly petition my government for a redress of grievances.’ Byck was steadily losing his grip on reality, and a couple of months later he conceived and launched Operation Pandora’s Box.

In February 1974 he went to Baltimore-Washington International Airport with a fake bomb in a suitcase. Using a stolen revolver he shot and killed a police officer, and ran onto Delta Flight 523. Byck told the stewardess to close the door, and began firing into the cockpit, killing the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot. With no one left to fly the plane he shouted about wanting to go to Washington, and how he had a bomb, before grabbing a female passenger and pushing her into the cockpit and telling her to fly the plane. The police were trying to disable the plane by shooting out the tires, but this wasn’t working so one cop shoot through the door of the aircraft, hitting Byck who fell to the floor and then, realising his plan was a failure, shot himself in the head.

In the days before this hijacking attempt, Byck had sent audio cassettes to various public figures including composer Leonard Bernstein, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, scientist Jonas Salk and various journalists including Jack Anderson. The tapes made clear that his was to hijack a plane, force the pilots to fly it to Washington, then grab hold of the controls and crash it into the White House to kill Richard Nixon.

To the best of my knowledge this is the first time in history that someone had attempted a suicide hijacking – i.e. to hijack a plane and crashing it into a target. Others had previously suicide bombed planes, including Thomas G Doty in 1962. Likewise in May 1964 a former member of the Philippine Olympic Yachting team named Francisco Gonzalez boarded a plane going from Stockton to San Francisco.  He shot the pilot and co-pilot and crashed the plane.  These real life events would form the basis for the story in the film Airport in 1970.

So, Byck’s innovation likely originated in the fact that suicide attacks against planes happened several times in the 1960s, and he simply came up with a different way of doing it. However, the 2004 film The Assassination of Richard Nixon, a biopic of Samuel Byck where he is played by Sean Penn, suggests that he was inspired by a different incident.

In early 1974 Robert K. Preston, a 20 year old US Army Private, had flunked out of helicopter pilot training and sought to prove his skill to his superiors by hijacking an army helicopter. In the middle of the night on 17th February he stole a UH-1 Iroquois from Fort Meade, Maryland, and flew it to Washington. He hovered over houses near the base, and Maryland state police sent one of their own helicopters to give chase. After flying around the Anne Arundel County area, including setting down in a caravan park and flying over the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, he set off for the capital.

Arriving at the Washington monument he hovered several feet off the ground before heading for the White House. He buzzed over the building and hovered over the south lawn for six minutes before setting down briefly. Preston took off again and was pursued by two Maryland State Police helicopters, one of which he forced down due to his ‘erratic manoeuvres’. Bizarrely, he returned again to the south grounds of the White House, hovering around 30 feet above the ground. Members of the Executive Protection Service then riddled the craft with shotgun and submachine gun fire. Preston was injured slightly and set the helicopter down on the lawn, and was promptly arrested. Only days later, Byck tried to hijack a plane out of Baltimore-Washington airport.

Suicide Hijackings and the Terrorist Threat to Commercial Aviation

Two other relevant incidents in the following years may or may not have been inspired by Byck. I learned about both of these reading the paper The Terrorist Threat to Commercial Aviation by Brian Jenkins, a former special forces soldier who worked for Kroll Associates and now is a key adviser for the RAND corporation. He wrote this paper in the late 1980s, foreseeing 9/11, writing:

The nightmare of governments is that suicidal terrorists will hijack a commercial airliner and, by killing or replacing its crew, crash into a city or some vital facility. It has been threatened in at least one case: In 1977, an airliner believed to have been hijacked crashed, killing all on board. And in 1987, a homicidal, suicidal ex-employee boarded a commercial airliner where he shot his former boss and brought about the crash of the airliner, killing all 44 on board

The 1977 incident referred to by Jenkins took place on Malaysia Airlines Flight 653 and remains a mystery. It took off from Penang and was apparently hijacked half an hour later as it descended to land at Subang airport, its destination. The captain radioed in to say there was a hijacker on board, then again a few minutes later saying the plane was diverting to Singapore. Contact with the plane was lost shortly afterwards, and it crashed about twenty minutes after that. It is unknown what caused the crash, or who the hijacker was. The 1987 incident was the work of David Burke.

This wasn’t a suicide hijacking as such, and is a story of personal revenge rather than terrorism so we need not focus on it too closely. The tale of David Burke has been the subject of episodes of Black Box and Air Crash Investigation, so I’ll play you a clip.

Another similar case involving a disgruntled former employee came a few years later in April 1994. Auburn Calloway was born in 1952, like Burke, and served in the US Navy as a pilot before joining Federal Express as a flight engineer. However, he had lied on his application, exaggerating his piloting experience in the navy and falsifying his flight records. He was due for a disciplinary hearing in April 1994 where he thought it likely he would lose his job, and thus his FAA flight certification. On April 7th, the day before the hearing, shortly after 3:00 p.m. he got on FedEx flight 705 that was scheduled to fly from the company’s ‘superhub’ in Memphis, Tennessee to San Jose, California. He aroused little suspicion because it was routine for company employees to hitch a lift on flights (this is known as ‘jumpseating’). Bizarrely, when the flight crew came on board they found him running through the pre-flight check and adjusting instruments. When the official flight engineer Andy Peterson arrived, Calloway silently stepped aside, but Peterson noticed that the circuit breaker for the Cockpit Voice Recorder had been turned off, so he reset it.

Calloway had with him a guitar case containing two claw hammers, two sledge mallets, a knife and a speargun. Around twenty minutes into the flight his attack began. Captain David Sanders didn’t hear Calloway enter the cockpit, and as soon as he heard sounds of a struggle he turned to see Calloway soaked in blood, and both First Officer Jim Tucker and Andy Peterson slumped in their chairs and badly injured. Calloway attacked Sanders and the plane lurched around as he tried to defend himself. The crew fought back, surrounding the deranged Calloway who lashed out, inflicting yet more injuries. He retreated from the fight but then returned with the speargun, threatening the crew once again. Peterson grabbed the barrel of the gun, and both he and Sanders wrestled with Calloway while Tucker threw the plane around to try to keep the madman off-balance. Eventually they subdued him, and managed to make an emergency landing back at the Memphis superhub. Though they survived the ordeal they all suffered serious injuries, and none would ever fly professionally again.

In his appeal against the convictions of attempted aircraft piracy and interfering with the flight crew, Calloway contested that he wasn’t trying to gain control of the aircraft, and that he was merely going to allow it to crash after killing those on board. The judges found the argument unpersuasive, saying it made no legal difference whether he intended to deliberately crash the plane or just to allow it to crash. However, FedEx employees maintain that his intention was to deliberately crash it into the Memphis superhub to take revenge on the company and enable his ex-wife to collect on his life insurance. The indications are that he definitely intended to cause some kind of crash. He could have smuggled a gun on board, which would have made overpowering the flight crew much easier, but the weapons he chose caused injuries which would have been hard to distinguish from those caused if the plane had crashed. It appears Calloway intended to die as he sent his ex-wife over $50,000 in securities and cashiers cheques shortly before the attack.

Frank Corder’s Suicide Hijacking

Later that year, yet another ex military man crashed a small plane into the White House. Frank Eugene Corder was born in Perry Point, Maryland in May 1956, the son of an airport mechanic. Like Byck he dropped out of school and after some years joined the army in 1974. He served for less than a year and then became a truck driver, which he worked as until he was made redundant in early 1993. Corder was then arrested twice that year, once for theft and once for drugs offences and was hospitalised for alcohol abuse at the VA hospital in Perry Point in late 1993. In early 1994 he was convicted of one of the drugs offences and in August his wife left him.

On the evening of September 11th 1994, after drinking and smoking crack cocaine, Frank Corder asked his brother to drop him off near Aldino Airport in Churchville, Maryland. Corder went into the airport and found the key to a Cessna P150, a small plane Corder had flown before during several lessons. According to the plane’s instruments, he started the engine at 11:55 p.m. but the FAA didn’t detect the plane until 1:06 a.m., so what Corder and the plane did in the interim is unknown. Corder’s plane was picked up flying towards Washington and like Robert Preston he headed first for the Washington monument and then to the White House.

At 1:49 a.m. he skidded across the South lawn, struck a magnolia tree and smashed into the South-West corner of the Executive Mansion, only two floors below the Presidential bedroom. Corder died from massive blunt-force injuries, the plane was wrecked, the White House suffered minor damage, and the magnolia tree survived. As the NTSB ruled the crash intentional and the DC Medical Examiner ruled his death a suicide, the attack must be considered the first kamikaze strike on the mainland US. Perhaps because of Preston, Byck and Calloway’s earlier efforts, this incident was not a surprise to those working in US intelligence. Shortly after Corder’s crash, former CIA Director Richard Helms told Time magazine, ‘[F]or years I have thought a terrorist suicide pilot could readily divert his flight from an approach to Washington to blow up the White House.’

There are other incidents in the US after 9/11, such as in early 2002 when a depressed 15 year old who read Tom Clancy books crashed a plane into a Bank of America building in Florida. Or when Joseph Stack crashed a small plane into a government building in Austin, Texas in 2010. The point I’m trying to make is that when it comes to suicide hijackings this is a long-standing American pastime. For decades disgruntled ex-employees and would-be assassins have tried to steal or hijack planes and crash them deliberately, whether that be into buildings or into the side of mountains. The world’s first suicide bombing on a plane was in the US, the first attempted suicide hijacking, most of the subsequent attempted suicide hijackings, the first plane to crash into a government building or landmark – all in the US.

There’s an obvious reason for this – Americans are crazy. But seriously – it is because the US has had a massive domestic air transport network for longer than any other country. It’s a great big country geographically, it has been the richest country in the world for most of the oil era, most of the air transport era. As such, it should come as no surprise that it has grown the biggest air transport industry and therefore has had the most plane-based violence.

But what about Muslims? Surely they showed signs of planning or attempting suicide hijackings before 9/11? Radical Muslims did to some extent, but the circumstances around those pose a lot of serious questions.

The GIA Suicide Hijacking Attempt

Last week we looked at the Bojinka plot and the conversation between Ramzi Yousef and Hakim Murad about crashing a plane into CIA headquarters. But where did they get the idea? Two events spring to mind. While Ramzi Yousef was in New York, on February 11th 1993 Lufthansa Flight 592 was in its way from Frankfurt to Cairo when it was hijacked and diverted to New York. The perpetrator was initially identified as a 31 year old Somalian though this was a mistake. The actual hijacker was 20 year old Ethiopian Nebiu Zewolde Demeke, who was apparently seeking asylum and US intervention in Bosnia. The young man clearly didn’t know that via the likes of the Blind Sheikh and Hasan Cengic that the US was already deeply involved in Bosnia.

Demeke had smuggled a pistol on board the plane by putting the gun in an Indiana Jones-style hat on a table as he walked through the metal detectors. After he ordered the plane to ‘the West’ it flew to JFK airport in New York, where after an hour’s negotiation Demeke surrendered. Both passengers and officials were concerned that Demeke was going to crash the plane into Manhattan. On the morning of 9/11, NBC’s Katie Couric interviewed former CIA analyst and then deputy director of the State Department’s Office of Counter Terrorism Larry Chalmers Johnson. He referred back to the Demeke hijacking saying that, ‘One of the concerns we had at that time was the possibility of that plane, under the control of a hijacker, flying it into one of the buildings.’

A more likely inspiration for the plane-into-CIA element of the Bojinka plot was the GIA hijacking of Air France Flight 8969. In 1990 the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won 55% of the vote in the Algerian local elections. The following summer the government called a General Election and proposed changes to the electoral system that would restrict political campaigning in mosques. The FIS responded by calling a general strike, and so the government postponed the elections and arrested and imprisoned the leaders of the FIS. When the elections actually took place in December, the FIS won a huge majority of seats in the first round (188 out of 231) and looked certain to win an overall majority in the second round of voting. This would have enabled them to make changes to the Algerian constitution effectively ending elective democracy, which they saw as man’s arrogance in elevating political leaders above the law and will of Allah. The Algerian military staged a coup, canceling the election and seizing control of the government. The FIS was banned and many of its members formed militant groups, among them the Groupe Islamique Armé or GIA. A civil war broke out that lasted over a decade, and when the dust had settled over 150,000 Algerians were dead.

In the midst of this conflict another attempted suicide hijacking took place as Air France Flight 8969 was taken over in Algiers by four members of the GIA. The 54-hour ordeal began on December 24th 1994 and lasted until the evening of the 26th. Merry Christmas. After the GIA terrorists killed three passengers the Algerian authorities allowed the plane to leave the country and the terrorists directed the pilots to fly it to France. The plane ran low on fuel and so they stopped in Marseille, where they demanded it be loaded with 27 tons of kerosene, around three times what it would need to get to Paris.

Meanwhile, an Algerian secret service mole within the GIA had told his handlers that this was no ordinary hijacking, and that the plan was to crash the plane in Paris, possibly into the Eiffel Tower. This information was passed onto the French, whose GIGN special forces had been assessing ways to storm the plane as it sat on the ground in Marseille. They had planted bugging devices on board under the guise of delivering food and water to the passengers, and scanned the plane using infrared cameras. They knew there were no booby-traps and had identified the locations of the four terrorists. They stormed the plane, shooting dead all four hijackers. Though some passengers suffered minor injuries in the 20-minute gun battle no one else was killed.

The GIA suicide hijacking plan was a more sophisticated attack compared to the group’s prior tactics of assassinating high profile targets and burning down schools. This development in terrorist strategy can be attributed to the group taking on a new leader in October 1994, Djamel Zitouni, who convinced the group to specifically target and kill civilians. However, Zitouni was reportedly an agent of the DRS, the Algerian security service. According to a 2005 article in the Guardian, ‘in 1994, the DRS managed to place Jamel Zitouni, one of the Islamists it controlled, at the head of the GIA.’ Similarly, Jonathan Randal’s book Osama: The Making of a Terrorist cites Abdelkhader Tigha, a former Algerian security officer, saying, ‘army intelligence controlled overall GIA leader Djamel Zitouni and used his men to massacre civilians to turn Algerian and French public opinion against the jihadis.’ This allegation is born out by the fact that Zitouni not only directed the GIA to attack civilian targets both in Algeria and in France, but also Islamists within the GIA and its rival militant groups. They also massacred thousands of civilians in Algeria, sometimes wiping out entire villages.

An extensive analysis by the Hoggar Institute in Geneva compiled data showing that those areas that had most supported the Islamist FIS party in the 1991 elections were the same areas worst hit by the butcherous GIA under Zitouni. Their report explains how the horrific violence could well have been part of a counterinsurgency strategy designed to discredit the Islamists.

For a COIN trained general, Algeria’s violence is not so much a ‘civil war’, a ‘tragedy’ or ‘human rights crisis’ – as it is a circumscribed, protracted low-intensity conflict, where military activities are strongly bound by political and psycho-social considerations to influence the perceptions and loyalties of the civilian population…

…The strategic principle relevant to the issue of the massacres is that of ‘counter-mobilisation of the population’.

To undermine the support for Islamist parties and groups, Zitouni’s influence on the GIA made them target that exact support base. Though on a larger scale and hence much bloodier this is similar to the Operation Gladio strategy of tension as well as the ideas outlined in Frank Kitson’s Gangs and Countergangs. By having Zitouni’s group slaughter many thousands of people who had previously voted for the FIS, the Algerian authorities succeeded in repressing the Islamist revolt. The GIA began to disintegrate and in July 1996 Zitouni himself was assassinated by a splinter group.

How does this connect to Ramzi Yousef? An issue of Time magazine that described the GIA’s attempted suicide hijacking was found in room 603, the Bojinka bomb factory. It appears Ramzi, who reportedly loved watching CNN and consumed a lot of Western news media, read the article and this is what inspired the discussion about doing the same to CIA headquarters. Again, the idea that this was a prototype of the 9/11 plot is a baseless fantasy, all the evidence point to Yousef and Murad simply discussing this idea in response to news coverage of the GIA’s hijacking.

What does all this have to do with 9/11?

There are three elements that fundamentally connect these somewhat disparate stories to the 9/11 attacks.

1) They prove that the attacks were quite predictable.

2) In terms of culprits, there are a lot more Americans who have tried to do this sort of attack, or actually done it, than there are Islamic terrorists.

3) The military lied about their preparedness for a 9/11-type attack, and these stories expose the illogical nature of that lie.

Let’s take these in order. The fact that the US has such a long history, and such an explicit history, of suicide hijackings and similar crimes meant that they more than any other nation should have been able to anticipate something like 9/11. And numerous government documents prove that this sort of scenario was considered, from legal memos discussing the authority to shoot down a hijacked plane to intelligence analyses predicting this sort of attack.

However, when 9/11 happened the notion that the attacks had American culprits was never considered. No one mentioned Frank Corder, Auburn Calloway, Samuel Byck, any of this. The notion that domestic criminals or terrorists had done this was not part of the conversation. Instead there was a rush to judgment which blamed an outside force who had never shown the capability or even much intent to carry out this sort of crime before. Just to engage in speculation for a moment – if a private group of American military veterans decided to hijack multiple planes and crash them into several buildings, who do you think would have got the blame? Or a group of disgruntled airline employees who had gone crazy, who would have got the blame? Because those are the two groups who’ve shown a tendency towards this sort of behaviour before. But no, let’s blame some guy in rural Afghanistan on the other side of the world. Not that I’m saying that some small group of former employees of United and American Airlines did 9/11, I’m just highlighting how quickly real history is forgotten and false history takes its place when people are in a state of shock and fear.

As to 9/11 itself – the Commission did mention some of these events and they did question the military about their preparedness. The military’s answer is that their training exercises only prepared them for suicide hijackings coming from overseas, all the domestic hijackings they had trained for were of the usual kind, where the plane lands at an airport and the hijacker makes demands. The point is that when a plane is coming from overseas you typically have more time to deal with it, whereas a domestic flight could go off course and hit a target within minutes, leaving no time to intercept it. And if you look at the timeline of relevant training exercises that they provided to the 9/11 Commission, that’s true.

Now, obviously this is horseshit. Given the long history of domestic flights being suicidally hijacked within the US, why would the military have this bizarre blind spot? Furthermore, it makes no great difference whether a plane coming into New York is coming from Boston or from Paris, it could still be hijacked and smashed into a building very quickly. It’s only if the hijackers are kind enough to take over the plane early on during its flight and then phone ahead to say they’re going to crash it into a building that you have plenty of time to respond.

But the biggest reason why this is horseshit is because the timeline of exercises the military provided to the 9/11 Commission is incomplete. While it substantiates their story that they never trained for a suicide hijacking of a domestic flight, that’s because the exercises where they did train for that scenario were left off the timeline. This came up in testimony in 2004 before the Senate Armed Services Committee when they were questioning General Richard Myers, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and a US Air Force veteran. Myers admitted that they had trained for domestic suicide hijackings five times in the two years before 9/11. None of these five exercise scenarios appear on the summary provided to the 9/11 Commission by NORAD. Myers described five different drills, two run as part of Vigilant Guardian and three run as part of an exercise called Falcon Indian. All five ‘exercise hijack events… included a suicide crash into a high-value target’, three targeting the United Nations building in New York, and one each targeting the Statue of Liberty and the White House. So, as you would expect given the number of domestic American flights hijacked by dangerous, suicidal people, the military did prepare for this exact scenario. All testimony to the contrary is false. The whole notion that this was a ‘failure of imagination’ is false.

However, that still leaves open the question of who did 9/11. I’m not suggesting for one moment that the ghosts of Frank Corder, Samuel Byck and David Burke were flying those planes, though that would make a good X-Files episode. What I will say is that while there are also two significant examples of radical Muslims planning or attempting to carry out a suicide hijacking before 9/11, Hakim Murad and the GIA, neither were successful in the way Burke and Corder’s efforts were. More significantly, in both examples those responsible had connections to intelligence services. Though Murad’s suicide hijacking plan was only in its infancy, it was a part of plans and associations that involved the military spy Edwin Angeles, the probable spy Jamal Khalifa, and possibly other informants too. Similarly, the GIA’s hijacking of flight 8969 took place under the leadership of Djamel Zitouni, an agent of the Algerian security service. These connections have been systematically ignored not only by the 9/11 Commission but also by the vast majority of writers who have discussed the evolution of the suicide hijacking as a terrorist tactic.