Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Skywayman: The Story of Frank W. Abagnale Jr.

Taking Flight

Frank now had in his possession a replica FAA license, a Pan Am pass card, a working knowledge of the aviation industry, a company uniform and the audacity to pull off a remarkable con. Using the alias Frank Williams, he went around to area banks opening accounts in his pilot's uniform. During his rounds of New York's many financial institutions, he often drew a great deal of attention and respect from the bank employees, due to his admirable status as an airline co-pilot. Little did they know that he was merely a creative and adventurous kid making sport of pushing the envelope and testing people's perceptions.

In the 1960s, the aviation industry and those who worked in it were highly esteemed. Being a pilot was a prestigious position, even more so than today. According to Abagnale, it was considered even more illustrious to be a pilot for Pan Am, which was a flag carrier and called to be the "Ritz Carlton of airlines". Thus, it was not unusual for Frank to receive the attention he did when he entered banks or merely walking around in public sporting his pilot uniform.

To Frank's delight much of the attention came from beautiful women, which he decided to use to his advantage. While making frequent visits to the airports to collect information, Frank met many stewardesses who expressed a keen interest in him. His charm, good looks and uniform resulted in a torrent of dates and several short-term relationships. During his many outings with the stewardesses, Frank not only learned about the mysteries of older women but also a great deal of information about the workings of the industry.

Frank Abagnale Jr. at 16, poses with a stewardess
Frank Abagnale Jr. at 16, poses with a stewardess against a New York City backdrop

Eventually, Frank felt confident enough to attempt deadheading on a flight to Miami. He boarded an Eastern Airline 727 plane in his uniform after filling out a form stating his name, employee number and other pertinent information. When on the plane he made his way to the cockpit, eventually discovered the jump seat and prepared for any questions that might be asked by the pilots. One mistake would completely blow his cover and land him in jail.

To Frank's surprise, the pilots took little interest in him and the flight was mostly uneventful. He landed a short while later in Miami, breathing a sigh of relief. From then on, deadheading would be Frank's preferred method of travel for a couple years to follow. It was free and he had access anywhere in the world to cash his rubber checks. Moreover, Pan Am picked up the tab for his accommodations while abroad, which served as an additional benefit throughout his criminal career.

There was no doubt that Frank's check-cashing scheme had taken on many dimensions and become more intricate than even he had initially planned. In fact, not only had he become a successful check swindler but also an accomplished imposter. In his later autobiography, Frank stated that the key to his success rested on three critical factors: his personality, keen observation and intense research before attempting any elaborate scam.

During Devin Faraci's 2002 interview with Frank, he stated that during his check swindling days, he researched check cashing in particular detail, making sure to alter the check numbers in such a way that they would be rerouted and take longer to identify as fraudulent. This research allowed him to cash several bad checks in a row at the same bank. Frank was quoted as saying "I realized that the numbers (on the checks) were like zip codes, so if you altered that number the check would go somewhere else. The farther you sent it, the longer it would take to get back. That's how I was able to go back to the same bank over and over." 

Moreover, Frank was successful at cashing bum checks for a long period of time because he would open real checking accounts under assumed names. He often used real cash deposits and provided the bank with an actual address where he was staying or a post office box where he would receive a box of personalized checks. The details made the entire transaction more credible. Frank then would overdraw significant amounts from the account by writing checks for hundreds or even thousands of dollars at a time. This he did at banks throughout the country and world, making it difficult for the authorities to catch up with him. By the time investigators realized the checks were bad, Frank was already on route to another destination opening more accounts.

Frank was constantly on the run in order to evade capture. The thousands of dollars he conned out of banks were kept in safe deposit boxes throughout the country to be used at whim. One would think that a young man with all that money, female companionship and traveling around the world must surely have been enjoying himself. However, the fact was that Frank was not happy. He was tired of trying to outrun the police and he was very lonely. In his interview with Swan, Frank stated that everyone he met thought him to be somebody who he was not and that he couldn't have any serious relationships because he always had to give a fake name. He also knew that his lifestyle would not last forever and that it was only a matter of time before the authorities caught up with him.

Eventually, Frank did experience his first brush with the law on a deadhead flight to Miami. When his flight landed in Dade County, three officers intercepted him while he was still on the plane. Although Frank vigorously maintained that he was Frank Williams and an actual pilot, the officers still took him to the police station for questioning.

Frank Abagnale at 18, poses as an airline pilot
Frank Abagnale at 18, poses as an airline pilot

During the interview by investigators, Frank produced his false identification and gave the men several names of people to call to confirm his status. Fortunately for Frank he had made acquaintances with some of the airline personnel during his many deadheading flights that believed him to be an actual co-pilot. When the police made contact with his acquaintances, they confirmed Frank's position with Pan Am, not knowing he wasn't a real co-pilot. Once Frank's status was confirmed, the police apologized and let him go.

It was a close call for Frank which threatened his security. Shortly after his run in with the police, he decided to lay low for a while. He took refuge in Atlanta, Georgia where his life would take another unexpected turn.