Actions of the flight crew aboard the hijacked TWA jet in the Middle East have drawn uniformly high marks from freed hostages. Preparation for such hijack emergencies has officially been part of America's flight-crew training since early 1970, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued guidelines. Each airline draws on these and supplements them. But none want to talk about it.
``We obviously have very detailed training procedures, but for security reasons we're not willing to discuss them publicly,'' says Linda Johnson of American Airlines. United Airlines spokesman Joe Hopkins agrees it is ``proprietary'' information.
But it is known that some airlines use actual cockpit conversations recorded during hijackings and practice role playing in training sessions. And there are code words identifying the kind of emergency which crew members can use with each other. A code number fed into the cockpit transponder, a method of radar identification, can communicate the same message to the ground. And pilots say there are ways to set up radio communication with ground control, so the hijacker does not hear the advice from the ground.
Pilots and crew are also encouraged to use common sense and to cooperate in the interests of safety.
``You don't do anything to provoke or anger the hijacker,'' insists John Mazor, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association. ``To the extent possible, you try to accommodate their demands. No heroics.''
FAA spokesman Dennis Feldman says neither passengers nor crew are encouraged under any circumstances to try to overpower a hijacker. ``Interference could be disastrous -- no one wants any fireworks at 30,000 feet,'' he says. ``The major objective is to get the plane safely on the ground as soon as possible.''
``Going along with the hijacker and not endangering aircraft or passengers has proven a method better than resistance,'' adds Walter Coleman, director of operations for the Air Transport Association, an industrywide trade group.
``It's the same approach you take when you're mugged -- take what you want, but leave me with my life,'' says Kit Darby, a Georgian who recently completed pilot training.
Still, most airline training manuals suggest first trying to talk a hijacker out of the effort.
One seasoned pilot observes that persuasive discussion would rarely work these days. But he recalls that it often did work with earlier Cuban hijackers, who seemed to welcome the effort. This pilot also notes that the manual advice to not allow hijackers into the cockpit is often not practical these days.
``There's really very little you can do. The place to stop these things is really on the ground,'' he says. But if his plane were ever hijacked, he says, he would consider ``faking'' an emergency. ``I've always thought I would just shut down one engine and say, ``Jiminy Christmas, what was that?' ''
Lucille Solana, a Miami-based flight attendant, says her training stressed the importance of letting the hijacker know before doing or announcing anything, ``so there are no surprises.''
Ms. Solana also says trainees are made aware of the fact that male hijackers may relate more easily to female crew members and are alerted to the natural bond of gratitude captors tend to feel toward hijackers who have control over them.
Trying to determine whether or not a weapon is real is generally not advised.
``You really can't afford to quibble, because you're in a pressurized toothpaste tube,'' says one pilot, who recalls that many of the early Cuban hijackers used paper bags with shaving cream inside as mock grenades. He says he still carries charts of the Havana airport with him when he flies -- ``everybody does.''