This article was first published in the summer of 2019 as part of a 100 part series on the history of British Airways and its predecessor airlines, Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA. You can browse the full series of 100 stories in numerical order, by theme or by decade.
On 29 December 2000, at a time the cockpit doors on UK aircraft were not locked in-flight, a passenger entered the flight deck of a Boeing 747-400 aircraft en-route from London Gatwick to Nairobi.
The passenger attempted to seize the control of the aircraft from First Officer Phil Watson who was flying it at the time.
The other two members of the flight crew, Captain William Hagan who was on a rest break, and First Officer Richard Webb, struggled with the passenger during which the aircraft descended by thousands of feet and went into stall. The incident took place six hours into the flight over Sudan.
With the assistance of other passengers the pilots managed to remove the passenger from the controls and stabilise the aircraft.
In addition to the 3 flight crew, there were 379 passengers and 16 cabin crew on board the aircraft and some were injured during the incident. The aircraft subsequently landed safely in Nairobi.
Captain William Hagan recounted the incident to BBC Radio 4 in 2008:
I couldn’t understand why the aircraft was banking from one side to the other side and stalling. I thought perhaps one or two engines had fallen off. I thought perhaps we’ve been struck by debris, space debris. The movements of the aircraft were so extreme that this was the sort of explanation I was looking for. I then heard the pilot, Phil Watson, calling for help. And I have to say, that call filled me with fear.
The aircraft was in a very steep descent at that point, Phil was already recovering the bank angle. But the aircraft at that time its steepest descent, about 37 degrees nose down. As you stand behind the pilots with that kind of descent rate, it’s extremely frightening. And I thought that I didn’t have very much time in which to act. We had to get him off the controls. And in order to do that, I started hitting him. That was totally ineffective. I then grabbed his shoulders and lifted him. But when I did lift him, the first thing he did was to pull himself down onto the controls. And at the same time, that has the effect of pulling the nose of the aircraft upwards. So it was quite good in that arrested the extreme rate of descent but he was still on the controls. As we started climbing again, the aircraft once again went into the stall. You’ve got a 300 tonne aircraft that’s no longer flying, and it really buffets and shakes. We were about 60 knots below the flying speed of the aircraft. So it was literally falling.
I had inspiration. A few days before that we spent the Christmas holiday in Crieff. And I was driving my little boy, he was full of questions. And one of the questions he asked was that, how would you fight off a shark or crocodile if it attacked you. And I said to him, I’ve been told that if you jab your finger into its eye that it will cause it pain, and that will cause it to stop its attack. So I was trying to remember where we were so I could work out how much time we had before we hit the ground. Then suddenly, I remember over in Africa, the highest ground there is only about 10,000 feet, which was a great relief. And at the same time, I then remembered that I had my family with me including my little boy. And that’s the inspiration to reach forward, feel very deliberately for his eye, and insert my middle finger and push back hard upwards as hard as I could. And that’s when he felt enough pain to break off his attack turned around to tackle me. That’s when I took the decision to enrol help from the passengers. And I called out loudly, loudly as I could “Help, help, help. Somebody come in, come in, come in”. And that’s exactly what happened. Then there I think there were about five or six people entered the cockpit. They tackled him from behind. I immediately removed myself from the fight and went back into my seat to see that Phil was actually virtually recovered from the stall at that stage and was putting the aircraft back to birth should have been.