Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Skywayman: The Story of Frank W. Abagnale Jr.

Preparing for Takeoff

Frank left home with a checkbook and $200 in his bank account and set off to New York City. He temporarily lived with the family of a young boy whom he met during his train ride to the city. It wasn't long before Frank also found a job at a stationery firm, using his experience from working in his father's business.

It was more difficult to earn a decent living than Frank initially thought, especially without a high school diploma. If he were to ever live on his own one day, he would have to make more than the $1.50 an hour he was earning. Frank had an idea that would increase his net worth in terms of his wages.

He decided to alter his birth date on his driver's license by adding another ten years to his age. His tactic was believable because he was mature for his age and six-foot tall with premature graying hair. Frank also decided to push the envelope a little further. He began to exaggerate about his education, knowing that it would likely result in a further increase in his wages. However, he quickly realized that even if he lied about his age and education, the jobs available would pay only enough to provide for the bare minimum in comfort. Frank had higher expectations.

The easiest route presented itself in the form of a checkbook. As soon as Frank arrived in New York, he opened a checking account and received blank checks. He was determined to use the checks in a less conventional manner than what they were intended for.

Instead of earning a living, Frank decided to quit his job and write bad checks in order to support himself.   Before long, he had written hundreds of bum checks and had overdrawn on his checking account by thousands of dollars. Frank knew that the police would eventually catch up with him if he stayed where he was. So, he decided it was best to move away and change his name. While he was in the midst of determining what to do and where to go, Frank had a revelation.

The Commodore Hotel in New York City
The Commodore Hotel in New York City

According to an article by About.com, he was struck with an ingenious idea to alter his identity after witnessing several airline pilots and stewardess' enjoying themselves outside of New York's Commodore Hotel. Frank thought that if he were able to get a hold of a pilot's uniform he would have more success with cashing checks all about town because pilots were generally more credible and respected professionals. Thus, bank tellers would less likely be suspicious of him swindling money when he went to cash his bad checks.

From that moment on, Frank set his elaborate scheme into motion. He decided that he would find a way to get a uniform and whatever else he needed so that he could pose as a pilot in order to cash his checks. It would prove to be a more difficult con to pull off than what he initially expected.

In an interview with Norman Swan in March 2000, Frank described how he went about acquiring a Pan American (Pan Am) uniform and impersonating an airline pilot. He contacted a purchasing agent at Pan American Airlines' corporate headquarters and told them he was a pilot for the company and that the hotel he was staying at in New York lost his uniform. He was instructed by the agent to visit a company specializing in Pan Am uniforms on 5th Avenue, which he promptly did. That very day, Frank was fitted with a Pan Am co-pilot's uniform, which was charged to a fictionalized employee number he invented while filling out the paper work.

Pan Am uniform
Pan Am uniform

Frank walked out of the building with his uniform in hand, having conquered one of the first of what would be many obstacles in his scheme. However, to make his new persona more believable, he realized he needed a Pan Am pass card. After looking in the yellow pages and making several phone calls, Frank learned that the 3M Company was responsible for making passes and IDs for several airline companies, including Pan Am.

Frank contacted the company, pretending to be a purchasing officer interested in buying new ID cards for his company. He then set up an interview. During the meeting with the sales representative, Frank was shown catalogs of the IDs they offered. He noticed in a catalog that there was a sample ID similar to that used by Pan Am. He told the salesman that he wanted to take back a completely finished copy of the pass, using as an example his picture and name so that his imaginary colleagues could see what the end result of the product would look like. The salesman complied with Frank's request and made him a sample pass with his name and picture on it. The card was almost an exact replica of the Pan Am pass, but without the logo.

Pan American Airlines logo
Pan American Airlines logo
  

Frank solved the emblem problem by buying a model Pan Am plane, which had a copy of the logo inclusive in the model kit. He removed the famous symbol and carefully placed it on the ID pass card. The finished product looked almost flawless. Another obstacle was removed from Frank's grand plan. 

Frank had two more areas to cover before his new identity was complete, an FAA license that was required by every pilot and knowledge concerning the airline business. First, he decided to obtain as much information as possible about aviation, piloting and terminology used by those in the industry. Much of what he learned about the field came from library books, although they were often outdated.

FAA logo
FAA logo
  

In an attempt to update his budding knowledge about the aviation industry, Frank decided that it would be more lucrative to obtain information first hand. He arranged several interviews with executives and personnel at Pan Am's headquarters posing as a student doing a research project on the company and pilots. It was a brilliant idea. He gained a wealth of relevant information, including knowledge of company policies and regulations about co-pilots, the types of planes used and the international hubs where the airline flew.

Most importantly, Frank learned about deadheading. Deadheading was an airline employee privilege that allowed a worker to fly to far-off destinations on other airlines to fulfill specific job requirements elsewhere. The employers would almost always cover the expenses of the trip. Frank was particularly interested with this concept, because if he were able to pose as a pilot he might also be able to hitch free rides on the airplanes around the world. He kept the knowledge in the back of his head and focused on accomplishing his plan.

The next issue Frank had to resolve was the FAA license. He learned that without the license he would not be able to impersonate a pilot, because the crew was often required to show the FAA license to airline personnel prior to outbound flights. Frank solved the problem by obtaining a plaque from a firm specializing in mounting licenses in silver. According to Abagnale's book, the FAA had a mail-order branch within the company. Frank falsified his name as Frank Williams and sent away for the plaque. Upon receiving it, he took the plaque to a printer and had it downsized, mounted on special paper and laminated. Voila! Frank was ready to take off into the wild blue yonder.

 

Categories
Advertisement