The Best Prophet of the Future is the Past: September 11 – 1970, 1981, and 2001

Today’s post is written by Chris Naylor, Director of the Textual Records Division.

I recently opened a fortune cookie that contained a saying with special significance to me.  This phrase, “The best prophet of the future is the past,” originally attributed to Lord Byron, returned to me a few days later as I reviewed a document at the National Archives.

By September 1970, the Nixon Administration was becoming increasingly concerned about the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s (PFLP) targeting of airlines for violent attacks and hijackings as a means of furthering the organization’s agenda.  The PFLP had already hijacked an El Al flight from Rome, Italy in July 1968, opened fire on an El Al plane in Athens, Greece about to take off for New York on December 26, 1968, attacked an El Al jet in Zurich, Switzerland in February 1969, hijacked a TWA flight departing from Rome in August 1969, and attempted to hijack a TWA flight from Rome to New York on December 21, 1969.  In addition, the PFLP-General Command, a splinter group, attempted bombings aboard Austrian Airlines and Swissair Flights on February 21, 1970.  The Swissair Flight was destroyed killing all 41 passengers and crew in the first successful mid-air bombing conducted by terrorists.

On September 6, 1970 the PFLP simultaneously hijacked four commercial aircraft in Europe destined for New York City in what came to be known as the Dawson’s Field Hijackings.  Teams of two hijacked a Pan Am, a TWA, a Swissair, and an El Al flight.  The hijacking of the El Al flight failed when two El Al plainclothes security guards shot and killed a male hijacker and wounded a female.  The Pan Am flight ended when the hijackers released the passengers in Cairo, Egypt and blew up the plane.  The Swissair and TWA flights were diverted to Dawson Field, an abandoned British airbase in the Jordanian desert.  The 306 people, including passengers and crew, became hostages.  The PFLP demanded the release of numerous terrorists held in several countries in return for their release of the hostages and gave a clear message that they were targeting the United States in addition to Israel.

President Nixon recognized that the PFLP had carried out these hijackings as a dramatic method of attacking the foreign policy of the United States and was determined to have the U.S. Government take the lead on addressing this problem.  He spent the next several days discussing with his senior advisors various means to respond to this growing threat.  On September 11, the President issued a statement announcing several actions as part of a comprehensive antihijacking program, including:

  • The placement of specially trained, armed U.S. Government personnel on flights of U.S. commercial airliners.
  • Extension, under Department of Transportation auspices, of the use of electronic surveillance equipment and other surveillance techniques by U.S. flag carriers to all gateway airports and other appropriate airports in the United States and–wherever possible–in other countries.
  • The acceleration of ongoing efforts by the Departments of Transportation, Treasury, and Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Office of Science and Technology, and other agencies to develop security measures, including new methods for detecting weapons and explosive devices.
  • To facilitate passenger surveillance, appropriate agencies of the Federal Government were to intensify their efforts to assemble and evaluate all useful intelligence and to disseminate such information to airlines and law enforcement personnel.
  • The State Department and other appropriate agencies were to consult fully with foreign governments and foreign carriers concerning the full range of techniques which they use to foil hijackers.

During the White House Press Conference on September 11, FAA Administrator John Schaffer and Assistant to the President Peter Flanigan discussed the program to inhibit further hijacking of U.S. airlines and answered several press inquiries (see document below).

Throughout the 1970s, the Federal Aviation Administration developed numerous new procedures to protect commercial aircraft from hijackers, including mandatory screening of all passengers.  On September 11, 1981, Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 108 went into effect, which extended and consolidated airline security requirements to provide for the safety of persons travelling aboard aircraft against hijackings and other criminal acts.

Excerpt from Civil Aviation Security Section of the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of the Secretary 15th Annual Report, Fiscal Year 1981.
Excerpt from Civil Aviation Security Section of the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of the Secretary 15th Annual Report, Fiscal Year 1981.

Over the next two decades however, airplane hijackings remained a threat to civil aviation.  On September 11, 2001, exactly thirty-one years to the day that President Nixon initiated his program to deal with airplane hijackings and 20 years to the day of the implementation of FAR 108, 19 al Qaeda operatives simultaneously hijacked four airplanes and carried out the most devastating terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in history.  In his Address to the Nation that evening, President George W. Bush assured Americans that “Our first priority is to get help to those who have been injured, and to take every precaution to protect our citizens at home and around the world from further attacks.”  These tragic events reawakened a national discussion of aviation security and began anew the U.S. Government’s efforts to develop government-wide programs to counter hijackings.

This blog continues with Part II – Cockpit Doors


  • Statement by the President and Press Conference of John H. Shaffer, Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration, and Peter M. Flanigan, Assistant to the President, Office of the White House Press Secretary, September 11, 1970; File: 1970 – 8040 – Hijacking (NAID 663289); Subject and Correspondence Files, 1959-1982 (NAID 623341); Department of Transportation. Federal Aviation Administration. Office of the Administrator; Record Group 237; National Archives at College Park
  • U.S. Department of Transportation Office of the Secretary 15th Annual Report Fiscal Year 1981, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (TD1.1: 981)
  • Statement by the President in His Address to the Nation, White House Office of the Press Secretary, September 11, 2001. Retrieved May 2015