Analysis: A Navy SEAL Breakdown of the Sunwing SWAT Takedown

Last week, on the morning of July 25th, Sunwing flight 772 departed from Toronto Pearson International Airport for Panama. The flight was carrying 183 passengers, most of whom were headed toward a relaxing tropical vacation. That idea was interrupted less than an hour into the flight with a wild outburst from a passenger who became irate, apparently over the price of duty-free cigarettes (yes, we are serious). Ali Shahi, a 25-year old man traveling with his girlfriend, began screaming, ripping apart magazines, safety cards, attempting to rip off window shades, and also declaring that he wanted to blow up the aircraft.

Flying over West Virginia at the time, the 737 turned back around and received an escort from two F-16 fighters from the Ohio Air National Guard. The fighter jets followed the flight to the Canadian border, where the aircraft then continued to, and landed safely back in Toronto.

Upon landing, the door was opened and the flight was greeted with the following:

The two short video clips captured on two passengers’ cell phones brought surprise to many who watched it. Seeing an aircraft being entered by a SWAT team in such a way is not something the public gets to see very often. The video led to many questions from people, wondering why such a team was necessary, and if what they did was dangerous.

“If you call in a SWAT team, that’s what you’re going to get,” says Rich Graham, former Navy SEAL and owner of Trident Fitness, a company that teaches not only physical fitness, but also tactical and weapons training for law enforcement and civilians.

Rich Graham (inside, center), arriving into action in the sweet ride of a Bell UH-1.

Rich Graham (inside, center), arriving into action in the sweet ride of a Bell UH-1.

For any tactical unit, the level of intensity is based on the perceived threat. “When we enter a room, we’re expecting to get people fighting back,” explains Rich. “We enter at what would be considered a level 10 and bring shock value. The level of force must be 1 or 2 levels above the people that you’re dealing with. But if we see an old lady, I don’t go level 10 on them, I may drop to a level 2 or 3, then jump back up to 8. The force must be able to fluctuate.”

But why even call in a SWAT team to begin with? Did the threat warrant such a response? If the suspect was already restrained, if no one was injured and if there was no current, active violence taking place, why not just bring some regular police officers to apprehend him?

One simple reason is that there may have been a lack of information in what the flight crew was able to successfully pass along through Air Traffic Control to law enforcement back in Toronto, or a few missing gaps in what may have been a “telephone game” relay through multiple parties. Law enforcement may not have known that there were no injuries, no active violence, nor whether or not passengers and flight attendants were still struggling to subdue the out of control individual. Rich says that, from the perspective of the police, having a lack of information means “I don’t know who that guy is, so I’m going to come in at the highest level needed to assure my safety.”

Though safety was achieved and ensured, the 6-year Navy veteran feels it was not perfect. “What I found confusing was that it took me 20 seconds to realize that they were saying ‘Heads down! Hands up!’ I felt their way of communicating was a little too chaotic, and many of the people were noncompliant because they simply didn’t understand what they were being asked.” He contends that in their after-action analysis, they should “change out verbiage so that it’s more clear and concise so people can understand.” Rich says he would have instead called out “Look down, put your hands on top of the chair!”

There are two reasons for this command to be given to the passengers. First, placing their hands on top of the seats helps identify who may or may not be a threat, or who may be holding a weapon, since bad guys may not operate alone and limited to the one violent man. Looking at rows and rows of pairs of hands, then seeing a single hand or no hands on one seat, may indicate someone that is up to no good.

Second, everyone keeping their heads down reduces risk in case the team needs to fire their weapons. This leads to Rich’s other concern, which is the type of weapons the tactical team used.

Rich (right), in a training display with his famed K-9 sidekick, named War Beast.

Rich (right), in a training display with his famed K-9 sidekick, named War Beast.

In the post-9/11 environment, many law enforcement agencies are trading in what used to be submachine guns, such as the 9mm Heckler & Koch MP5, for more powerful weapons, such as the tricked-out AR-15 rifles seen in the video. The issue is the high penetration level and size of that weapon’s bullet, which is the 5.56x45mm NATO round. Rich explains, “Those rounds will go right through. When we do ship boarding, we prefer to do it with an MP5, because it’s 9mm and doesn’t ricochet as much due to its a smaller caliber. If you’re taking over a plane, do you want to shoot a bad guy and have the round go right through the seat and hit someone else?” Ultimately, the police agency may not have another choice of weapon.

Though the SWAT team did their job correctly, how necessary was it for them to be there? Since the aircraft did not land immediately, the threat may not have been incredibly dire, and it is likely that a healthy amount of information may indeed have been relayed to law enforcement. But no matter what details were or were not known, it is important to note that the SWAT team did not manhandle anyone, and only came in verbally aggressive and visibly intimidating. If someone considers this reaction as overboard, it is not the fault of the SWAT team, but the fault of whoever made the decision to send that SWAT team in to begin with.

Regardless, though passengers received a scare, they arrived on the ground without injury and had a highly trained team of law enforcement officers ready to protect them and keep them safe.

Have a look at Rich Graham’s Trident Fitness and follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @TriFitKB. Aside from spreading health and defense knowledge, you can see him giving his time to raise money during events such as the Lake Norman SEAL Swim and the NYC Triathlon, where proceeds go to Operation Restored Warrior for those with PTSD and Combat Related Stress (CRS). He is also participating in the Battlefrog Series, benefiting the Navy SEAL Foundation, Navy Seal Museum & Trident House.

Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has a background in online advertising and aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter @PhilDernerJr.

About the Author

Phil Derner Jr.
Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He owns and operates NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert through writing, consulting, public speaking and media appearances. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.



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