A Generation of ‘Flying Fools’

Originally published on the FAA’s internal website and at Medium
By K. Daniel Glover

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.

A scene from 9/11 as captured by an FAA employee

“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.

(more…)

Advertisements