Airplanes Cleared After Hijack Threats

A pilot on one of the planes targeted in a phone threat has a tense exchange with air traffic control while he tries to understand the police activity on the tarmac

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A hijacking scare at Kennedy Airport grounded two jumbo planes packed with passengers Monday. Pei-Sze Cheng spoke with some of the passengers, and has more of the air traffic control recordings that captured the tense exchange between one of the pilots and a controller.

    Police and FBI are investigating a false threat in which a caller claimed a hijacker was hiding in a plane set to land at John F. Kennedy Airport Monday afternoon.

    The threat was phoned in between 3 to 3:30 p.m., just as American Airlines Flight 24 from San Francisco and Finnair Flight 5 from Helsinki were about to land at Kennedy, according to law enforcement sources. 

    Pilot, JFK Control Tense Exchange

    [NY] Pilot, JFK Control Tense Exchange
    In a tense exchange with air traffic control at Kennedy Airport, a pilot of one of the planes targeted in a phone threat seeks answers as to why emergency vehicles are greeting the plane on the tarmac. Courtesy LIVEATC.NET.

    "The captain got on and he said, 'I'm not sure if this is bogus or not, but there's going to be some law enforcement people coming on the plane,'" passenger Tim Skelly recounted.

    When the planes landed at JFK, they were moved to an isolated area to be searched. Sources said the level of concern was low, but audio recordings between the pilot of one of the planes and the control tower at Kennedy Airport reveal a tense exchange as they both attempted to figure out why the plane was being met by emergency vehicles. 

    "Can you contact your company? Do they have any information for you?" the air traffic controller asks the pilot in the audio recordings. 

    "Negative, they're not answering. What do you have?" the pilot asks. 

    "I don't have a thing at this moment, except that you and the aircraft beside you need to wait in that area," the controller says. 

    The pilot says, "OK, we're surrounded by emergency vehicles. There's a reason for this. Somebody's got to give us the reason, or we're going to evacuate the aircraft. You got 60 seconds." 

    Finally, the controller tells the pilot, "We have the information. Can you possibly call?"

    The pilot responds, "Negative. I would demand the information right now over a frequency." 

    The Port Authority Police received a phoned threat that hijackers wearing gas masks were hiding in the wheel wells of the American Airlines plane, but the information was vague, sources said. The plane was carrying four federal air marshals.

    Debbie Teitelbaum, a Long Island passenger who was on one of the planes told NBC 4 New York, "They told us to stay calm while they searched the plane, but it was very nerve-wracking." 

    The Finnair flight was cleared around 4:30 p.m., a federal official said, and an all-clear on the American Airlines flight followed shortly afterward.

    All wheel wells of both planes were checked and police found nothing, sources said. Neither pilot indicated an emergency. 

    Police and FBI interviewed passengers and crew on both planes as part of the investigation, and are reviewing the phone call in which the threat was made.