For several years during the Vietam Era, hijackings were astonishingly routine in American airspace. Desperate and deluded souls commandeered over 130 planes between 1968 and 1972, often at a pace of one or more per week. WIRED contributing editor Brendan I. Koerner tells the story of this forgotten criminal epidemic in his new book, The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, which comes out today. In this exclusive excerpt, Koerner recounts the early days of the “Golden Age,” when Cuba was the skyjackers’ destination of choice and the airlines thought they had everything under control.
MOST SKYJACKERS EARNESTLY believed that upon reaching Havana, their sole destination during the mid-to-late 1960s, they would be greeted as revolutionary heroes. “In a few hours it would be dawn in a new world—I was about to enter Paradise,” one skyjacker recalled thinking as the runway lights at José Martí International Airport came into view. “Cuba was creating a true democracy, a place where everyone was equal, where violence against blacks, injustice, and racism were things of the past. . . . I had come to Cuba to feel freedom at least once.”
But though Fidel Castro welcomed the wayward flights in order to humiliate the United States and earn hard currency—the airlines had to pay the Cuban government an average of $7,500 to retrieve each plane—he had little but disdain for the hijackers themselves, whom he considered undesirable malcontents. After landing at José Martí, hijackers were whisked away to an imposing Spanish citadel that served as the headquarters of G2, Cuba’s secret police. There they were interrogated for weeks on end, accused of working for the CIA despite all evidence to the contrary. The lucky ones were then sent to live at the Casa de Transitos (Hijackers House), a decrepit dormitory in southern Havana, where each American was allocated sixteen square feet of living space; the two-story building eventually held as many as sixty hijackers, who were forced to subsist on monthly stipends of forty pesos each. Skyjackers who rubbed their G2 interrogators the wrong way, meanwhile, were dispatched to squalid sugar-harvesting camps, where conditions were rarely better than nightmarish. At these tropical gulags, inmates were punished with machete blows, political agitators were publicly executed, and captured escapees were dragged across razor-sharp stalks of sugarcane until their flesh was stripped away. One American hijacker was beaten so badly by prison guards that he lost an eye; another hanged himself in his cell.
Yet graphic news reports about this brutal treatment did little to slow the epidemic’s spread. Every skyjacker was an optimist at heart, supremely confident that his story would be the one to touch Castro’s heart. The twenty-eight-year-old heir to a New Mexico real estate fortune hijacked a Delta Airlines jet while inexplicably dressed as a cowboy; a sociology student from Kalamazoo, Michigan, forced a Piper PA-24 pilot to take him to Havana because he wanted to study Communism firsthand; a 34-year-old Cuban exile diverted a Northwest Airlines flight back home because he could no longer bear to live without his mother’s delicately seasoned frijoles.
By July 1968 the situation had become dire enough to warrant a Senate hearing. The FAA was represented at the hearing by a functionary named Irving Ripp, whose testimony was devoid of even the slightest hint of hope. “It’s an impossible problem short of searching every passenger,” Ripp testified. “If you’ve got a man aboard that wants to go to Havana, and he has got a gun, that’s all he needs.”
Senator George Smathers of Florida countered Ripp’s gloom by raising the possibility of using metal detectors or X-ray machines to screen all passengers. He noted that these relatively new technologies were already in place at several maximum-security prisons and sensitive military facilities, where they were performing admirably. “I see no reason why similar devices couldn’t be installed at airport check-in gates to determine whether passengers are carrying guns or other weapons just prior to emplaning,” Smathers said. But Ripp dismissed the senator’s suggestion as certain to have “a bad psychological effect on passengers … It would scare the pants off people. Plus people would complain about invasion of privacy.” None of the senators made any further inquiries about electronic screening.
Two weeks after the Senate hearing, a deranged forklift operator named Oran Richards hijacked a Delta Airlines flight. Somewhere over West Virginia, Richards jumped from his seat and pulled a pistol on the first passenger he encountered in the aisle—a man who just happened to be Senator James Eastland of Mississippi. Though the Delta crew eventually talked Richards into surrendering in Miami, the skyjacking of a national political figure represented a dangerous new twist to the epidemic. Almost immediately the State Department proposed a novel anti-skyjacking solution: free one-way flights to Cuba for anyone who wished to go, provided they vowed never to return to the United States. But Castro refused to accept these “good riddance flights”; he had no incentive to help America curtail its skyjackings, which gave him excellent fodder for his marathon sermons against capitalist decadence.
Unwilling to spend the money necessary to weed out passengers with dark intentions, the airlines instead focused on mitigating the financial impact of skyjacking. They decided that their top priority was to avoid violence, since passenger or crew fatalities would surely generate an avalanche of bad publicity. As a result, every airline adopted policies that called for absolute compliance with all hijacker demands, no matter how peculiar or extravagant. A November 1968 memo that Eastern Air Lines circulated among its employees made clear that even minor attempts at heroism were now strictly forbidden:
The most important consideration under the act of aircraft piracy is the safety of the lives of passengers and crew. Any other factor is secondary … In the face of an armed threat to any crew member, comply with the demands presented. Do not make an attempt to disarm, shoot out, or otherwise jeopardize the safety of the flight. Remember, more than one gunman may be on board … To sum up, going on past experience, it is much more prudent to submit to a gunman’s demands than attempt action which may well jeopardize the lives of all on board.
To facilitate impromptu journeys to Cuba, all cockpits were equipped with charts of the Caribbean Sea, regardless of a flight’s intended destination. Pilots were briefed on landing procedures for José Martí International Airport and issued phrase cards to help them communicate with Spanish-speaking hijackers. (The phrases to which a pilot could point included translations for “I must open my flight bag for maps” and “Aircraft has mechanical problems—can’t make Cuba.”) Air traffic controllers in Miami were given a dedicated phone line for reaching their Cuban counterparts, so they could pass along word of incoming flights. Switzerland’s embassy in Havana, which handled America’s diplomatic interests in Cuba, created a form letter that airlines could use to request the expedited return of stolen planes.
As the airlines labored to make each hijacking as quick and painless as possible, the epidemic only grew worse. Eleven flights were commandeered during the first six weeks of 1969—a record pace. The hijackers included a former mental patient accompanied by his three-year-old son; a community college student armed with a can of bug spray; a Purdue University dropout with a taste for Marxist economics; and a retired Green Beret who claimed that he intended to assassinate Castro with his bare hands.
At the behest of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, the FAA formed a special anti-hijacking task force to develop possible solutions to the crisis. The group was immediately inundated with thousands of letters from concerned citizens, who recommended inventive ways to frustrate skyjackers: installing trapdoors outside cockpits, arming stewardesses with tranquilizer darts, making passengers wear boxing gloves so they couldn’t grip guns, playing the Cuban national anthem before takeoff and then arresting anyone who knew the lyrics. The most popular suggestion was for the FAA to build a mock version of José Martí International Airport in a South Florida field, so that skyjackers could be duped into thinking they had reached Havana. That idea sparked serious interest at the agency but was ultimately discarded as too expensive.
John Dailey, a task force member who also served as the FAA’s chief psychologist, began to attack the problem by analyzing the methods of past skyjackers. He pored through accounts of every single American hijacking since 1961—more than seventy cases in all—and compiled a database of the perpetrators’ basic characteristics: how they dressed, where they lived, when they traveled, and how they acted around airline personnel. His research convinced him that all skyjackers involuntarily betrayed their criminal intentions while checking in for their flights. “There isn’t any common denominator except in [the hijackers’] behavior,” he told one airline executive. “Some will be tall, some short, some will have long hair, some not, some a long nose, et cetera, et cetera. There is no way to tell a hijacker by looking at him. But there are ways to differentiate between the behavior of a potential hijacker and that of the usual air traveler.”
Dailey, who had spent the bulk of his career designing aptitude tests for the Air Force and Navy, created a brief checklist that could be used to determine whether a traveler might have malice in his heart. Paying for one’s ticket by unconventional means, for example, was considered an important tip-off. So, too, were failing to maintain eye contact and expressing an inadequate level of knowledge or concern about one’s luggage. Dailey fine-tuned his criteria so they would apply to only a tiny fraction of travelers—ideally no more than three out of every thousand. He proposed that these few “selectees” could then be checked with handheld metal detectors, away from the prying eyes of fellow passengers. Most selectees would prove guilty of nothing graver than simple eccentricity, but a small number would surely be found to be in possession of guns, knives, or incendiary devices.
In the late summer of 1969, the FAA began to test Dailey’s anti-hijacking system on Eastern Air Lines passengers at nine airports. When a man obtaining his boarding pass was judged to fit the behavioral profile, he was discreetly asked to proceed to a private area, where a federal marshal could sweep his body with a U-shaped metal detector. One of Dailey’s assistants secretly videotaped this process, so the FAA could ascertain whether travelers took offense at the intrusion.
Dailey pronounced the experiment a roaring success, noting that his profile selected only 1,268 out of 226,000 passengers; of those beckoned aside for a brief date with the metal detector, 24 were arrested on weapons or narcotics charges. More important, selectees rarely seemed to mind the extra scrutiny; when interviewed afterward, most said they were just happy to know that something was finally being done to prevent hijackings. Satisfied with the subtlety of Dailey’s system, the airlines began to voluntarily implement the program in November 1969, right after Raffaele Minichiello, an Italian-American Marine, famously escaped to Rome on a hijacked Boeing 707. Almost immediately, hijackings in American airspace dwindled to a handful—just one in January 1970, and one more the following month. Janitorial crews started to find guns and knives stashed in the potted plants outside airport terminals, possibly left there by aspiring skyjackers who lost heart after seeing posted notices that electronic screening was in force.
But there were two fatal flaws in how the FAA’s system was implemented. The first was that pilots and stewardesses were not told which of their passengers were selectees. If a hijacker claimed to have a bomb, the crew had no way of knowing whether he had been searched prior to boarding—and thus no way of determining whether his threat was a bluff. All they could do was err on the side of caution and obey the hijacker’s every command.
The system’s more fundamental weakness, though, was the fact that it depended entirely on the vigilance of airline ticket agents. They, rather than professional security personnel, were responsible for applying Dailey’s checklist to every passenger they encountered. Over time the agents’ attention to detail was bound to flag as they processed thousands upon thousands of harried customers each day. It is simply human nature to grow complacent.