When Americans think of hijacking these days, one date sticks in their minds — Sept. 11, 2001, the day that 19 terrorists coordinated the hijacking of four airplanes and killed nearly 3,000 people. But there was a time in aviation history when “skyjackings” were so common that they were a topic of great concern at the FAA.
Stretching from the early 1960s into the mid-1970s, this “golden age of hijacking” featured the hostile takeover of more than 150 aircraft. The outbreak of lawlessness in the air led to new laws, regulations, executive orders and treaties. In addition to experts inside the FAA, pilots, aircraft designers, law enforcers and others brainstormed ways to address the threat domestically, and the International Civil Aviation Organization played a key role globally.
“Hijacking — or what to do about hijacking — confronts the government of the United States with serious challenges that require the harnessing of its technological, political and legal skills,” State Department official Frank Loy said in 1969.
The FAA deployed “peace officers” on select flights. It tested a system that combined behavioral profiling of passengers with technological screening and occasional interviews by U.S. marshals. And by the mid-1970s, the foundation of today’s passenger- and baggage-screening system had been laid in airports across the country.
The Cuban connection
It didn’t take long after the first successful flight of a powered airplane for the new technology to become a target of criminality. As noted in the 2017 book Violence in the Skies: A History of Aircraft Hijacking and Bombing, the first known theft of a plane was in 1911, followed by another incident in 1917 that ended with the two scofflaws dying in a crash.
While the earliest unverified accounts of skyjacking date back to 1919 in Hungary and 1929 in Mexico, the incident officially recognized as the first occurred Feb. 21, 1931, in Peru. A rebellion led by Lt. Col. Luis Miguel Sanchez Cerro was the impetus for that crime. Some disenchanted followers of his commandeered a Pan American Airways tri-motor plane for a flight from Arequipa to Lima to drop leaflets on the city. The captive mail pilot, Capt. Byron Dague Rickards, later received a Chicago Daily News award for his daring during that rebellion.
It took another 30 years — and the rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba — for skyjacking to surface as a major concern in the United States. Several Cuban aircraft were hijacked to the United States and elsewhere before and after the Castro-led Cuban revolution, but those defections from a newly communist neighbor didn’t stir much angst in America.
Then on May 1, 1961, Antulio Ramirez Ortiz forced a National Airlines pilot to take a detour to Havana, not the United States. Three more such attempts, including the first on U.S. soil, occurred between July 24 and Aug. 9.
The threat materialized just weeks after Najeeb Halaby took over the then-Federal Aviation Agency, which was created in 1958. Under his leadership, the FAA started imposing the maximum penalties for drunken and disorderly conduct on aircraft. More significantly, he spearheaded the Kennedy administration’s push for a law to make skyjacking a federal crime.
“This bill provides very simply that air drunks and flying fools and spies in the sky will face not just local police or a defenseless girl or a preoccupied crew but the full power of your federal government,” Shaffer told the Senate Commerce Aviation Subcommittee. In what the Virginia Law Review characterized as “an extraordinary exhibition of congressional speed,” the House and Senate cleared the bill to President Kennedy, who signed it into law Sept. 5.
The statute defined air piracy as a crime subject to at least 20 years in prison and potentially the death penalty. Interfering with an aircraft crew could result in fines up to $10,000 and jail time up to 20 years, with a life sentence as an option for a threat made with a dangerous weapon. The law also imposed penalties for assault, robbery and carrying concealed weapons aboard aircraft, and for giving false reports about any of the newly defined crimes.
The administration supplemented this legislative deterrent to air piracy with a groundbreaking executive action — the deployment of armed guards on civilian planes. The initial guards were deployed from among the ranks of U.S. border patrol a day after the third successful skyjacking in 1961. The FAA gained its own corps of “peace officers” six months later, fulfilling that duty only when airlines or the FBI requested it.
The birth of airport screening
The crackdown had the desired effect for a while. In five of the six years from 1962 to 1967, no U.S.-registered aircraft were targeted — the exception being 1965, which saw one successful hijacking and three failed attempts, according to a 1975 FAA report. But manmade turbulence returned to the air with unprecedented intensity at the tail end of the decade.
Seventeen skyjackings in 1968 eclipsed the previous annual record of five in 1961, and that total paled in comparison to the 40 in 1969. Another 25 aircraft were commandeered each year in 1970, 1971 and 1972. “An atmosphere of hopelessness existed, and few workable solutions emerged from testimony presented by government and private industry,” the Task Force on Deterrence of Air Piracy recalled in its final report in 1978.
The FAA created that eight-member task force in February 1969, and it spearheaded the federal response to skyjacking over the next few years. Led by Federal Air Surgeon H.L. Rheigard and FAA Chief Psychologist John Dailey, the task force met almost daily and worked full time to identify tactics for preventing skyjacking.
The experts ultimately settled on a two-step screening process at airport gates. Airline personnel analyzed passengers for various undisclosed behaviors that had been identified as matches for 82 percent of past hijackers. Passengers also walked through weapons-screening devices. U.S. marshals interviewed those who fit the behavioral profile and/or who carried items identified as potential weapons.
The FAA worked with Eastern Air Lines, a victim of multiple hijackings in the 1960s, to test the system in August 1969. One-day tests were held at Eastern gates in Atlanta, Dallas, New Orleans, New York, Miami, St. Louis, Tampa, the Washington, D.C., area and Puerto Rico. The airports featured signs to alert passengers to the screening, and the FAA held press conferences and videotaped passengers at each site to get public feedback.
Rep. Jim Wright hailed the program as a success in a June 1970 article he wrote about anti-hijacking efforts for Airways magazine. As proof, he described what officials found in a single planter near an Eastern gate in New Orleans — two pistols, a sawed-off shotgun and several knives that people presumably dumped there upon realizing they would be screened.
David Brown, the public affairs representative on the FAA task force, said that of the dozens of articles written about the program, only three were negative. Air travelers concerned about the rise of skyjacking also voiced their approval directly to the FAA. “We couldn’t find anybody who objected or refused to fly,” Brown said. “Not one.”
‘Guns for everybody’
Americans shared their opinions in another way, too, flooding the FAA with anti-hijacking ideas of their own. “Mayors, bank presidents, civic club members, teachers, whole classrooms of students write in,” Al Butler, assistant chief of the air-carrier research branch of the Flight Standards Service, told Associated Press. “We read them all and acknowledge every one.”
Some people contacted the FAA directly, while others channeled ideas through their members of Congress. The editor of The Nation raised the idea of screening all passengers, sent a copy of his editorial to the FAA and asked for a response on the record. Syndicated columnist Norton Mockridge recapped suggestions made by celebrities like cartoonists Chester Gould and George Wunder, authors Arthur Hailey and Mickey Spillane, and watercolor artist Dong Kingman.
AP characterized the proposals as “some serious, some frivolous and most pretty unusual.” A dive into the FAA archives and news coverage of the day revealed more impractical and bizarre ideas than thoughtful ones. The suggestions ran the gamut from capitulation (free travel to Cuba for anyone who wanted it) to confrontation.
A Miami Beach man who regularly commuted to Boston by plane proposed adapting the “riding shotgun” approach from the Old West to modern aviation. The weapon in this case could have fired darts, tranquilizers, tear gas or anything else that would have worked well within a few feet. “A north end Boston boy would solve this problem in 10 seconds — shoot the first man who approached a restricted or unauthorized section,” he wrote in a telegram. “… A few people shot would clean up this mess.”
Talk of how to deter skyjacking was so pervasive that a similar off-the-wall pitch made it into a 1972 episode of “All in the Family.” Archie Bunker shared it in a “guns for everybody” broadcast editorial that still gets laughs today. “If that was up to me, I could end the skyjackings tomorrow,” Bunker said. “All you gotta do is arm all your passengers. … They just pass out the pistols at the beginning of the trip, and they pick them up again at the end. Case closed.”
Here are some of the other unusual recommendations the FAA received:
- Install double-door cockpits and airtight compartments between the two doors to trap and gas hijackers.
- Install trap doors or ejection seats in planes to get rid of hijackers.
- Build a needle apparatus into seats to sedate or kill hijackers.
- Require passengers to wear only robes or to wear smocks over their clothes, inhibiting their access to weapons.
- Equip all passengers with boxing gloves so they couldn’t wield guns.
- Lock passengers’ legs to their seats.
- Gas everyone on the plane during refueling stops on the ground so law enforcers could board and apprehend the hijackers.
- Depressurize the cabin until the hijackers (and everyone else except the pilots) passed out from hypoxia.
- And play the Cuban national anthem before takeoffs, arresting all who stood for it.
The Cuban connection to skyjacking inspired another pitch the FAA heard several times a day — building a decoy airport in Florida to look like Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. Writing in Family Weekly in July 1969, FAA Administrator Jack Shaffer exposed the obvious flaw in that plan: “Using a fake airport would work once, and that’s all.”
From ‘parajacking’ to terrorism
Cuba remained a popular destination for hijackers through the 1960s, but criminals began to see airplanes as a means to other nefarious ends. Italian-American Rafael Minichiello forced a Trans World Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Rome so he could escape his obligations as a U.S. Marine. And D.B. Cooper, the first “parajacker,” held a Northwest Orient Airlines flight hostage until he collected a $200,000 ransom, then jumped out of the plane, never to be found.
Media coverage of such events tended to glorify the hijackers unwittingly, a development that caused concern in the FAA. The agency refused to help a documentary filmmaker tell the story of Minichiello’s hijacking for that very reason. The FAA couldn’t even be swayed by Rome-based Carlo Ponti Production’s vow to let the agency review and approve the script.
Shaffer warned that such a film would “evoke both sympathy and heroic images,” and it could encourage more hijackers to adopt Minichiello’s unprecedented approach of requiring pilots to land and refuel multiple times for long-distance hijackings. Transportation Secretary John Volpe urged the filmmaker to ditch the idea altogether.
“The risk of exposing innocent passengers is always present and could never be explained away should a disaster occur,” Shaffer said in a letter to the law firm representing the production company. “As the agency responsible for safety, we cannot condone anything that would expose passengers to such risks, nor could we endorse the concepts in such a film.”
The risks endemic to skyjacking became clear days after Shaffer penned those words. On March 17, 1970, suicidal hijacker John Divivo shot the pilot and co-pilot of Eastern Air Lines Flight 1320. Capt. Robert Wilbur Jr. survived and landed the plane safely, but co-pilot James Hartley died — after wresting the gun from Divivo and killing him.
The tragedy marked a turning point in the government’s thinking about what motivated hijackings. They were no longer seen as being primarily about political escape but instead as driven by psychological problems. “The trend now is toward the hijacker who is emotionally deranged, stunt oriented, or possibly intent on suicide or under the influence of drugs, or one or more, even all of these,” Shaffer said in a letter to an industry group.
The FAA reacted to the Flight 1320 hijacking by expanding airport screening. The agency initially let airlines decide whether to use the system that was tested in 1969, and four U.S. carriers had employed it by the summer of 1970. In a trial run after the shooting, the FAA expanded the program to all passengers at then-Moisant Field in New Orleans. The agency also replaced its temporary anti-piracy task force with the permanent Office of Air Transportation Security and expanded the mission to encompass sabotage, bomb threats and air-cargo theft.
President Nixon had his own 9/11 moment months later. He proposed a series of anti-hijacking initiatives after the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked or attempted to hijack four jets headed to the United States. Nixon’s proposals included screening at all U.S. airports and for U.S. carriers abroad when possible, deployment of armed guards on U.S. commercial flights, and ratification of a treaty on extraditing and punishing hijackers.
“We can — and we will — deal effectively with piracy in the skies today,” he said.
Four years later, in one of his last acts before resigning as president, Nixon signed the Anti-Hijacking Act into law. Among other steps, it required nationwide passenger and baggage screening, allowed the FAA to deploy personnel for airport security programs (this led to the creation of the Civil Aviation Security Service), and authorized the president to suspend airline services to and from countries that aided terrorist hijackings.
The early 1970s also saw the ratification and implementation of two treaties through ICAO. The Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft took effect in 1971, followed by the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation two years later. Together they required signatory countries to extradite or prosecute people who hijacked, sabotaged or destroyed aircraft, or interfered with air navigation facilities.
The world after 9/11
The number of U.S.-related skyjackings fluctuated in the ensuing decades but never rose to the same intensity of danger as in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Major events continued to spur government action domestically and globally. The efforts included creative research pursuits like Project Gerbil. After eight hijacking attempts of U.S.-registered aircraft in 1978, the FAA awarded a $100,000 research grant to study the possibility of using the rodents as part of a bomb-sniffing patrol in airports.
One of the more dramatic hijackings in the 1980s lasted two weeks in Beirut. Two Lebanese Shiite Muslims aboard TWA Flight 847 forced pilots to go to that destination and held passengers hostage while demanding that Israel release hundreds of Shiite prisoners. The terrorists murdered U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem and held a gun to the head of pilot John Testrake, a defining photographic moment of hijacking as a means of terror.
That incident and two others involving Pan American World Airways in 1987 and 1988 — the hijacking of Flight 73 in Karachi, Pakistan, and the mid-air bombing of Flight 103 near Lockerbie, Scotland — contributed to new agency initiatives. The agency deployed explosives-detection systems, imposed tough baggage-screening requirements on U.S. carriers in Europe and the Middle East, required computer systems to control access to secured airport areas, and appointed civil aviation security liaison officers at key international locations.
Security measures implemented after the terrorist attacks in 2001, including the expansion of the air-marshal program, the reinforcement of cockpits and the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, have made skyjackings rare. The Aviation Safety Network has tallied only about 50 of them worldwide since then.
Most recently, two incidents in 2016 — the hijacking of an EgyptAir flight in March and of an Afriqiyah Airways flight in December — were bookended by years with no hijackings in 2015 and 2017. This past April, a mentally ill passenger threatened a China Air flight attendant with a fountain pen and forced an emergency landing.
The closest thing to a skyjacking in the United States since 9/11 occurred this past Aug. 10. An airline employee stole a Q400 turboprop from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and flew around the area for about an hour before crashing into Puget Sound. FAA air traffic controllers earned praise for their interactions with that man.
“There was a time when there was no security and we had this awful, awful crisis,” Brendan Koerner, author of the 2013 book The Skies Belong to Us, told CNN. “And I think it would be even worse today if we stripped away a lot of security.”
This story originally appeared on the FAA’s internal website. It has been reprinted with permission.