Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

DB Cooper: The Legendary Daredevil

The Hijacking Dilemma

The 1960s and early '70s were the heydays of hijacking. More than 500 incidents of air piracy have been reported around the globe over the past 70 years, and about two-thirds of them happened from 1960 to 1973.

America has suffered its share—115 successful hijackings in 225 attempts against commercial airplanes owned by U.S. firms, according to the federal Transportation Safety Administration. The first reported airplane hijacking happened in 1931 in South America, when a Pan American mail plane piloted by an American was commandeered by revolutionary political faction in Peru. The commandos wanted to use the plane to drop propaganda leaflets. The pilot refused to fly, and the plane sat at an airfield for 11 days before the revolutionaries scratched the plan.

Political ideology played a role in most early hijackings, including about 25 airplane takeovers from 1947 to 1958 by Eastern Europeans attempting to flee Communism.

John Jack Graham, escorted
John "Jack" Graham, escorted
 

Financially motivated hijackings were rare but not unknown. On November 1, 1955, a United Air Lines flight from Denver to Seattle crashed 11 minutes after takeoff, killing all 39 passengers and five crew members. Investigators found indications of a bomb in the cargo hold. Evidence eventually cast suspicion on Jack Graham, a married father of two who managed a drive-in restaurant in Denver. Forensic experts determined the explosion was centered in a gift-wrapped parcel in luggage checked onto the jet by Daisie King, Graham's mother, who died in the crash. Graham had given the package to his mother as she prepared to leave on a trip to Alaska via Seattle. Evidence would show that Graham had hoped to collect an inheritance and $50,000 in insurance policies. Instead, he was convicted of murder and executed.

Hijackings spiked sharply during in the 1960s, when "Take me to Havana" became a reliable laugh line for comedians as backers of revolutionary Cuban leader Fidel Castro and others loyal to the man Castro deposed, Fulgencio Batista, crisscrossed the Straits of Florida aboard hijacked airplanes. This led President Kennedy in 1961 to initiate America's first anti-hijacking measures, which are well-known today: armed Border Patrol agents assigned to select flights and cockpit doors equipped with locks. Congress also approved the death penalty for air piracy.

In 1968, a new era in air piracy commenced as disaffected Palestinians and other Arabs used passenger jets to lash out against Israel. The first such hijacking happened on July 23, 1968, when three Arabs seized a Tel Aviv-to-Rome flight of El Al, the Israeli airline. The plane was diverted to Algiers, where the passengers were eventually released, although some were held for a month.

El Al became an industry leader in airline security by screening passengers, posting armed guards on its flights and equipping cockpits with armored doors. Political hijackers then began focusing on other airlines that serviced Israel, including a number of American air carriers. In 1970, Palestinians achieved the landmark coordinated hijackings of three jets—one each from TWA, Swissair and British Airways. The planes were diverted to Jordan, emptied of passengers and crew, and blown up. (Many terrorism experts view that hijacking as a blueprint for the deadly attacks of September 11, 2001.)

But American authorities were loath to make sweeping changes in air security, even after the trio of hijackings to Jordan. President Nixon ordered the usual response of armed sky marshals on some flights. More aggressive measures, including baggage inspection and metal detectors, were rejected as being bad for the air travel business: They would make passengers jittery.

Against that backdrop, Dan Cooper was able to walk unchallenged aboard Flight 305 with a bomb—or what he claimed was a bomb—even though everyone in the air travel industry understood that the lack of security meant any individual passenger could take down a plane.

 

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