Thursday, May 29, 2003 was a day like any other for the crew of Qantas Link (operated by Impulse Airlines) flight QF1737. The afternoon service, flown by a Boeing 717 (VH-NXN), was due to depart Melbourne (MEL) for the short hop across the Tasmanian Sea to Launceston (LST).
The passenger load was light, with just 47 checked in. Looking after them were Cabin Manager Greg Khan and Flight Attendant Denise Hickson. Captain Corey Purves was joined by First Officer John Morgan on the flight deck.
One of the passengers was a 40-year-old British man, David Mark Robinson.
Boarding went as planned, and the plane pushed back from the gate ahead of schedule. After the obligatory safety demo, the passengers settled in for the flight and the crew strapped themselves in for departure. At 14:50 local time, the plane took off.
A short while after takeoff, the crew had been released to commence their duties. Khan and Hickson were in the forward galley preparing for the inflight service.
Robinson was seated in row 7. As soon as the seatbelt sign had been switched off, he stood up. Hickson saw this and initially thought nothing of it. We’re all used to passengers standing up when they want! But Robinson appeared agitated and began to make his way up the aisle towards the front.
What no one knew was that Robinson was armed with two 15cm sharpened wooden stakes hidden in his jacket pocket.
Hickson sensed something wasn’t right and attempted to intercept him. She was immediately attacked. Robinson then lunged for Khan.
He later told Australian media that he believed that the passenger was simply making his way to the toilet. Then he noticed his ‘wide, staring eyes.’
“I thought he was just someone who freaked and wanted to get off the flight. As he got, like, two steps away from me, both arms came up and he sort of had me in like a bear hug and was just stabbing the back of my head with, what I saw, it looked like one of those wooden doorstep things. At that stage, I just thought, well, ‘you’re not getting in there to the flight deck.”
Despite receiving several stab wounds, which were now pouring with blood, Khan forced his head into his assailant’s chest and drove him down the aisle to row six. All the while, Robinson “Kept up his frenzy of stabbing the back of my head.”
“I was pushing him back, basically, until I could get him on the ground and he went down. I went down on top of him. I didn’t realise I was bleeding ’til then. I was sort of numb to any pain.”
Witnessing what was happening, several passengers jumped to the stricken crew member’s aid. Domenic Bordin, Keith Charlton, Gregory Martin and Garry Stewart jumped from their seats and helped pin him down between two seats while the badly bleeding Hickson grabbed some plastic ties to retrain him.
According to passengers, the whole frenzied attack lasted less than a minute. “The steward had a lot of blood on the back of his neck; he was good, very good, very brave,” said Joe Da Costa.
Derek Finlay, who also helped subdue Robinson, later told the press: “All I remember is the plane lifting off, me reading my magazine, then all of a sudden a girl screaming, Greg running by me and then I was on top of him and things were going crazy.”
‘We Thought A Service Trolley Had Come Loose’
In the flight deck, the pilots initially thought that a trolley had come loose and struck the cockpit door.
Speaking after the incident, Captain Purves explained:
“Approaching 8,000 feet, there was a bump against the cockpit door, not a very significant one but there was one, and occasionally that can happen in the normal course of events because it’s a very small galley area. John and myself did subsequently hear some secondary bumps and commotion down the aisle, but of course we were not to know what was taking place at the time. We thought maybe initially a service trolley had come loose. Within 40 seconds of the initial bump, we got a call through to the cockpit and we were then made aware that there was a security threat against the safety of the aircraft.”
Indeed, it was later revealed that before they knew about the security threat, the screams they had heard led them to declare a ‘Pan-Pan’ call to air traffic control. The investigation also uncovered that one of the crew members had used an international code for hijacking via the interphone to the flight deck. The crew members believed they had received a reply. But the flight crew never heard the message and found out much later that there had been an attempted hijacking and the crew had been injured.
Once the pilots knew what was happening in the cabin, they immediately initiated a return to Melbourne. The jet touched down safely, and the Australian Federal Police arrested Robinson.
The injured Cabin Crew would spend the night at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Paramedics also treated two passengers at the scene for minor injuries.
Khan would require 16 stitches. He went on to say: “I didn’t have time to feel afraid. He just came at me and I just sort of decided it wasn’t going to happen. We were well-trained on how to do these things, but adrenaline and instinct kicked in as well.”
Just five weeks later, both crew members had returned to the air, still bearing the physical scars of their attack but hiding any emotional scars they may have had.
Speaking to the press, Hickson said she was relieved and happy to be back in the air, just to ‘have some sort of routine’.
Khan said: “If anybody wants to come to the front toilet, I’ll just be watching them like a hawk.”
Later, he and four passengers who assisted in overcoming the would-be hijacker received the Bravery Medal from Victorian Governor John Landy during a ceremony at Government House in Melbourne.
Speaking at the ceremony, an emotional Khan said: “I got him to the ground, and he was still stabbing my head and I was on top of him, and when I got to there I thought `What am I going to do now?”
Mr Khan would also receive the inaugural International Air Transport Association International Aviation Security Award for Excellence in Athens in November 2011.
After Robinson had been arrested, police searched him. He was found to have several aerosols and a cigarette lighter in his hand luggage which he planned to use as flame throwers.
Terrifyingly, it was also revealed that Robinson had attempted to hijack an aircraft in January of the same year. He told police that while travelling on a Hobart (HBA) to Melbourne (MEL) flight, he had tried to open the door to the cockpit, but it had been locked.
Mr Robinson said he had been questioned by a Flight Attendant who told him to sit down, and crew members had then kept a watch on him for the rest of the flight.
Robinson later appeared at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court charged with attempting to hijack a plane – which carries a maximum term of life imprisonment – and attempted murder and grievous bodily harm. However, the Victorian Supreme Court jury found Robinson not guilty on the grounds of insanity.
During the trial, he revealed that he had intended to take control of the plane and crash it into the Walls Of Jerusalem National Park. This, Robinson believed, would ‘release the Devil from his lair and bring about Armageddon.’
He was ordered to undergo psychiatric testing and found to be severely paranoid schizophrenic. The judge ordered his indefinite retention within the Victorian mental health system.
The incident led to a review of a number of Australian aviation security measures. This included the strengthening of flight deck doors on Qantas’s 717 fleet.
Airport security staff stepped up searches of bags, passengers and crew. New regulations banning passengers from carrying sharp objects in their hand luggage.
Like previous safety, medical and security incidents before it, Qantas utilised the event in its training for new entrant and recurrent crew members. Both Khan and Hickson were interviewed at length for the video. They discussed the horrific bloodstains all over the aircraft due to their injuries. They also revealed that one passenger complained that the plane was heading back to Melbourne despite the attempted hijacking.
In the early days of flying, hijackings such as TWA flight 847 or the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie were a common occurrence. And of course no one can forget the horrific events of 9/11. Thankfully, today, due to massively increased security measures, events like this are rare and therefore is little discussed during training. But events such as QF1737 are a stark reminder of why the crew are on board an aircraft and shows both Greg Khan’s and Denis Hickson’s INCREDIBLE bravery in such terrifying circumstances.
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