Choosing A Self-Defense Training Program

By F/O Henry Williamson (United), ALPA National Security Committee, Defensive Tactics Training Project Team
Air Line Pilot, October 2003, p. 30

[Author’s note: This article reflects my own perspective and is subject to debate. My conclusions come from my training in various martial arts, law enforcement experience, and discussions and workshops with some of the foremost self-defense trainers in private industry and the U.S. government.]

Well before Sept. 11, 2001, pilots and flight attendants needed tools to address violence in flight. If not dealt with correctly, an enraged, intoxicated, or mentally unstable passenger can be just as dangerous to an individual crewmember as a terrorist bent on mass destruction. Only after the events of 9/11 did the airline industry, unions, and government begin to seriously address the need for self-defense training for flight and cabin crews.

In addition to establishing the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, the "Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act" mandated that the Transportation Security Administration develop self-defense training for all flight and cabin crewmembers. However, current proposed legislation (H.R.2115) would return to each air carrier providing scheduled passenger air service the responsibility for developing and conducting the training, which should include classroom instruction on threat recognition, crisis communications, and the psychology of terror along with effective hands-on training. This issue is expected to be resolved in the upcoming congressional session.

Whether enough time is allotted to make the hands-on skills truly effective remains to be seen. Pilots and flight attendants may not want to wait for this training to begin learning how to defend themselves. Others may be motivated by the mandated training to seek out more advanced training.

Several assumptions must be made at the outset. First, the flight or cabin crewmember has limited time available to train and must use that time to learn cabin/cockpit self-defense as efficiently as possible. Time spent practicing esoteric routines, exotic-weapon use, or flashy techniques should be used instead to learn truly effective self-defense. Second, learning to fight is the goal here—not such possible benefits as increased self-confidence, discipline, spiritual well-being, or even physical fitness. Many people have realized great personal improvement from the study of martial arts but do not have the skills or mindset to defend themselves in a truly violent confrontation. Conversely, with the right attitude and a good instructor, a student can take valuable skills away from any style or program.


Flight decks and cabins are very confined spaces, with numerous obstacles that impede free movement of both potential attackers and defenders. For this reason, high kicks (anything above the level of the abdomen) and acrobatics (jumping, spinning techniques) do not belong in a flight crewmember’s in-flight arsenal. Galleys, lavatories, and flight decks are, in effect, blind spots that reduce a flightcrew member’s reaction time to a threat. Because attacks may come with little or no warning, techniques that are close range (less than 2 feet between opponents) should be emphasized over long-range techniques.

Striking and grappling

An effective self-defense program must address both striking and grappling. The most obvious form of striking is punching, but training should include elbow and knee strikes, open-hand techniques, and low kicks. Grappling can be defined as any situation in which one or both opponents grab onto the other. This usually happens because one opponent is trying to control the other, execute a takedown, or simply avoid the other’s strikes.

Forget about the movies and think about any fight that you have ever been in or witnessed. Most fights end in a matter of seconds because one or both fighters disengage (most people really don’t want to fight) or because of outside intervention. Rarely, one fighter is quickly knocked out, but the majority of serious fights become grappling encounters.

Whether by a fighter’s design or due to a simple loss of balance, grappling encounters frequently end up with one or both opponents on the ground. Crewmembers who are serious about self-defense must develop basic ground-fighting skills, both offensive and defensive. Ground-fighting skills are easily adapted to fighting from the seated position, where flightcrew members might find themselves at the beginning of an attack.


Self-defense training should resemble as closely as possible the real-life attacks that a flight or cabin crew-member will most likely encounter. To use a military adage, "train like you fight; fight like you train." Training should include drills in which students apply as much contact, power, and resistance against each other as they can without undue risk of injury. Take-downs, joint locks, chokes, and other grappling techniques can be validated only when the student’s sparring partner is determined to defend against those techniques, just as an actual adversary would be. A padded mat area and clear rules of engagement are necessary for effective grappling training. Heavy bags, pads, and protective gear allow students to safely practice full power strikes. Programs using highly protective suits such as Redman, FIST, and HighGear are able to add a high degree of realism to their training. An instructor wearing one of these suits can safely absorb the full impact of a student’s strikes. This allows for realistic role-playing and scenario-based exercises.

Most traditional Asian martial arts devote time to the study of "forms" or "kata," choreographed, dance-like routines that often incorporate stylized strikes or techniques. Many martial artists find the study of forms or kata rewarding. flight and cabin crew-members who want to learn to defend themselves in an airplane, however, should use their limited time learning realistic techniques instead.


With the exception of Federal Flight Deck Officers, flight and cabin crew-members do not have access to conventional deadly weapons. Improvised weapons such as crash axes, fire extinguishers, and wine bottles can be very effective, but flightcrew members should not count on those items being available in a time of crisis. Concealable edged weapons and handguns are the most likely armed threat to a flight or cabin crewmember. Weapons training should be limited to defenses against opponents wielding those weapons.

Physical limitations

In an ideal world, flight and cabin crewmembers would all be in top physical condition so as to better perform in crisis situations. We all know that the reality is quite different. While we are concerned here about self-defense, physical fitness is a critical component in any survival situation.

Try to choose a program that will challenge you physically. To paraphrase another military adage, "the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat." But some flight and cabin crewmembers may have physical conditions that may prevent them from safely participating in some of the more demanding programs.

Instructional quality and style

Choosing a style and school can be a daunting task. Unfortunately, many people who seek self-defense training simply sign up at the closest or best-advertised school in their community. Some of these people soon quit, frustrated with forms, traditional weapons, tournaments, and dogma, when all they really wanted was to learn how to defend themselves.

For long-term training, a flight or cabin crewmember will have to find a school or instructor with a personality that he or she is comfortable with. When shopping for a school or program, be alert for several "red flags" that may indicate sub-par training.

Classes should be for adults only. Realistic self-defense training is not a family activity. The presence of children slows the pace and reduces the intensity of training.

Avoid programs that focus excessively on achieving rank or competing in tournaments. Belts and trophies are not a good indication of an individual’s true fighting abilities. Martial arts school owners can be very aggressive salesmen. Be sure you are satisfied with the program before you sign a long-term contract.

If an instructor talks up his extensive hand-to-hand combat experience, walk away. Most Americans are able to make it to their middle ages with only a few minor scuffles, if any fights at all. If this instructor is not lying, he might have questionable judgment or self-control. Either way, he may not be the best choice. Instructors with law enforcement and, to a lesser extent, military special operations backgrounds may have considerable real-life experience in unarmed self-defense. You should expect these instructors to be quiet professionals who hold self-aggrandizing words and actions in disdain.

Any claims of "secret," "deadly," or "lethal" arts or techniques should be met with great skepticism. With one’s bare hands, a person can cause another’s death only through asphyxiation, strangulation, or direct trauma to the brain or upper spinal cord. Basing your self-defense training on science, not on ancient Asian mysticism, is best.

For effective, realistic training, consider boxing or muay Thai for striking skills, Brazilian jiu-jitsu for grappling and ground fighting, and a Philippine or Indonesian martial art for weapons defense training. Progressive schools in most large cities teach a mixture of these styles under one roof. The better jeet kune do and krav maga programs will incorporate techniques from these styles as well.

The first place to start your search can be your local Yellow Pages. Go to the Karate or Martial Arts section. Read the ads; do they emphasize personal development and kid’s programs, or self-defense? Images of tigers, dragons, and flying kicks in an ad might indicate that a school’s focus is not entirely realistic.

Make a few calls and ask a lot of questions. Watch or, better yet, participate in a few classes at several schools before you make any decisions on training.

Asian Martial Arts
These styles tend to emphasize discipline and self-improvement. Training is conducted in an atmosphere of formality and regimentation. For these reasons, children often make up a large percentage of the students at schools teaching these styles.

• Tae Kwon Do: The Korean form of karate and perhaps the most prevalent martial art in the United States. Acrobatic, high kicks are emphasized over short-range strikes. Strong emphasis is placed on forms, light contact "point sparring," and tournaments. Pros: Unless you live in a rural area, a tae kwon do school is probably within minutes of your home. Most schools will accommodate any student regardless of physical condition or limitations. Cons: Little focus on short-range fighting, less on grappling, and none on ground fighting. Forms and tournament training take time away from self-defense training.

• Karate and Kung Fu: These Japanese and Chinese styles usually mix hand strikes and kicks more evenly than tae kwon do. Some styles emphasize rigid stances while others practice graceful, flowing movement. Strong emphasis on forms and traditional Asian weapons. Pros: Like tae kwon do, very accessible to almost anyone. More focus on short-range striking than tae kwon do. Cons: Little focus on grappling and no ground fighting. Forms and weapons training take time away from self-defense training.

• Jiu-Jitsu: Not to be confused with Brazilian jiu-jitsu, classical jiu-jitsu stays close to its ancient Japanese heritage. Jiu-jitsu is a grappling art that places a strong emphasis on defenses to knife and stick attacks and common strikes and grabs. Pros: Good emphasis on short-range defense and grappling. Cons: Limited striking and ground fighting. Some techniques too complex for the cabin/flightdeck environment.

• Judo: Derived from jiu-jitsu, judo emphasizes flipping or throwing one’s opponent to the ground and submitting them with chokes and painful joint manipulations (joint locks). Judo training is mostly found in collegiate clubs or teams. Training is often based around tournament rules that discourage extended ground fighting. Physically demanding, with a moderate risk of injury. Pros: Excellent grappling training. Cons: No striking training, limited ground fighting.

• Thai Boxing or Muay Thai: Thailand’s national sport, muay Thai emphasizes powerful shin kicks and short-range strikes including knees and elbows. Thai boxers continue to fight after they "clinch" or grab onto each other. Extensive full-power and full-contact training. Physically demanding, with a moderate risk of injury. Pros: Excellent short-range striking, some grappling. Cons: No ground fighting.

• Philippine and Indonesian styles (Kali, Arnis, Escrima): These martial arts focus largely on knife and stick fighting. Practitioners develop lightning- fast attacks from multiple angles and effective counters to those attacks. Pros: Excellent stick and knife defenses. Cons: Limited striking and grappling, no ground fighting.


Western Martial Arts
Practitioners of Western martial arts are less concerned with formality, tradition, and ritual than their Eastern counterparts. Training in street or gym clothes instead of uniforms is common.

• Fitness Center Kickboxing is a fitness program and has no real application to self-defense. Aerobics instructors who have taken a short certification course usually teach these classes. Cons: No self-defense applications.

• Boxing: A well-trained boxer is a formidable opponent. Boxers develop fast, powerful punches and nimble footwork. Training is physically demanding with a moderate risk of injury. Pros: Powerful, fluid punches. Cons: No kicks, open hand, elbow, or knee strikes. No grappling or ground fighting.

• Wrestling: Wrestlers are trained to take their opponents to the ground and immobilize them. A proficient wrestler can usually overcome an untrained, unarmed opponent. Wrestlers are not trained to submit their opponents through chokes or joint locks and may be vulnerable to those attacks themselves. Physically demanding training with a moderate risk of injury. Pros: Excellent grappling and ground fighting skills. Cons: No striking or submissions.

• Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: Derived from Japanese jiu-jitsu, this grappling art was developed by the Gracie family in Rio de Janeiro over the last century. Through countless "no holds barred" tournaments, challenge fights, and street altercations, they modified classical techniques and created new ones to deal with modern violence. Practitioners prefer to submit or disable their opponents with chokes or join locks instead of strikes, thus protecting themselves from injury and blood-borne diseases. Physically demanding with a moderate risk of injury. Pros: Arguably the most proven martial arts style in modern times. Excellent grappling, ground fighting, and submissions. Cons: Very limited striking. Practitioners may become predisposed to "go to the ground" at inopportune times.

• Jeet Kune Do: Developed in the United States by martial arts legend Bruce Lee, jeet kune do takes a modern approach to classical Asian martial arts, teaching concepts and techniques from a variety of martial arts. Practitioners are encouraged to take what works for them and discard the rest. Pros: Excellent close-range striking and grappling. Cons: Little or no ground fighting.

• Krav Maga: Based on Israeli military training, krav maga teaches unarmed self-defense with an emphasis on knife and gun defense. Conceptually a solid program, krav maga has been franchised across the United States. Traditional martial arts instructors can attend a week-long certification course and begin teaching at their own schools. Instructors may lack proficiency or understanding of realistic self-defense. Pros: Good, basic defenses to common attacks. Cons: Questionable instructor quality control.

• Defensive Tactics and Close Quarter Combatives: Primarily offered to law enforcement personnel and military special operators, this type of training emphasizes a mixture of close-range striking, grappling, and ground fighting along with weapon retention and disarming techniques. Some commercial organizations are now offering civilian versions of this training in 2- to 5-day courses. Pros: All-encompassing, reality-based training. Cons: Can be expensive, often requiring cross-country travel to the training site.

• Flightcrew-Tailored Training: Several private-sector organizations and schools have developed self-defense training programs specifically for pilots and flight attendants. While some of these groups are highly qualified to teach these programs, others may not be. Groups such as the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy and Progressive Force Concepts have already taught many crewmembers effective self-defense and continue to do so today. Pros: Training is tailored specifically to the inflight environment and threat. Cons: Can be expensive and require cross-country travel to attend.


• Progressive Force Concepts: Based in Las Vegas, this group offers flightcrew-tailored self-defense programs in addition to law enforcement and military combatives training; 702-647-1126;

• The Gracie Academy: Brazilian jiu-jitsu from the source in Los Angeles; 310-782-1309;

• Modern Warrior: This Lindenhurst, N.Y., school offers a free 1-day "Confined Area Safety/Survival Training" course for pilots and flight attendants; 631-226-8383;

• Defend University: This web-site, devoted to the research and development of realistic self-defense, includes excellent articles and links to other websites;

• A listing of Brazilian jiu-jitsu schools and instructors around the world;

• United States Muay Thai Associations: Information and instructor listings;