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Date: October 31, 1969

Flight Info: Trans World Airlines Flight 85 from Baltimore to San Francisco, with scheduled stops in St. Louis; Kansas City, Mo.; and Los Angeles.

The Story: With the exception of an inebriated oil worker who wished to visit his estranged wife in Arkansas, the first several dozen American skyjackers were interested solely in obtaining passage to Cuba. The airlines thus geared their hijacking protocols toward getting planes to Havana as quickly and safely as possible. All planes were outfitted with navigational maps of the Caribbean, for example, and pilots were issued phrase cards to help them communicate with Spanish-speaking hijackers. These measures proved useless, however, when Raffaele Minichiello inaugurated the skyjacking epidemic’s second, more chaotic phase.

A native of Melito Irpino, Italy, who had immigrated to Seattle as a teen, Minichiello earned a Purple Heart as a Marine in Vietnam. Upon his return to California’s Camp Pendleton in April 1969, he came to believe that his unit’s paymaster had shorted him $200 in salary. Despite the relative pettiness of the disputed sum, the 19-year-old Marine considered himself the victim of a great betrayal.

One night in May 1969, Minichiello decided to exact his own form of justice. He guzzled eight cans of beer and broke into the Camp Pendleton post exchange, where he took precisely $200 worth of radios and wristwatches. When he was court-martialed for the burglary in September, Minichiello opted to flee the country rather than face trial.

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Date: April 13, 1972

Flight Info: Frontier Airlines Flight 91 from Albuquerque, N.M. to Phoenix.

The Story: The American public couldn’t help but sympathize with a few skyjackers whose personal narratives were unusually compelling—the ex-Green Beret who yearned to assassinate Fidel Castro, for example, or the troubled 18-year-old who had been sexually abused by her father. The era’s most widely beloved skyjacker, though, was 36-year-old Ricardo Chavez Ortiz, a Mexican immigrant and father of four. He tugged at heartstrings not only because of the hardships he had faced, but also because his sole demand was so modest: a fleeting chance for his voice to be heard.

In early April 1972, Chavez Ortiz left his family in Los Angeles to seek kitchen work in Albuquerque. But after just 36 hours in New Mexico, he made a radical decision: After 19 years of living hand-to-mouth, he was finished with the United States. He made a hasty plan return to his native Mexico, to become a cop in Tijuana.

Chavez Ortiz spent virtually all his remaining cash on two items: a plane ticket to Phoenix and a .22-caliber pistol. He planned to take the bus from Phoenix to Tijuana, then sell the gun on the black market at a $50 profit. After a few months on the police force in Tijuana, he would send for his eldest son, who was on the verge of joining an East Los Angeles gang.

But as Frontier Airlines Flight 91 made its way west, Chavez Ortiz had another change of heart: He placed his unloaded .22-caliber pistol on his lap and told the stewardess that he would like to speak with the pilot.

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Date: November 10, 1972

Flight Info: Southern Airways Flight 49 from Memphis, Tenn., to Miami, with scheduled stops in Birmingham, Ala., Montgomery, Ala., and Orlando, Fla.

The Story: The airlines long viewed hijacking as a manageable risk. They believed that if they acquiesced to all of a skyjacker’s demands, a favorable outcome was guaranteed—the passengers would go unharmed, the plane would be returned intact, and any ransom would likely be recovered after an arrest was made. Based on this assumption, the airlines were convinced that it was cheaper to endure periodic skyjackings than to implement invasive security at all of America’s airports. The Southern Airways Flight 49 incident revealed the folly of this mindset.

The hijacking traced back to a dispute between 27-year-old Louis Moore and the city of Detroit. In November 1971 Moore had sued the city for police brutality. Then in October 1972 Moore and one of his friends, Henry Jackson, were arrested for sexual assault—a charge the two men alleged had been trumped up in retaliation for the lawsuit. Moore and Jackson fled the city after posting bail, joined by Moore’s half brother, Melvin Cale, a burglar who had escaped from a Tennessee halfway house. The fugitive trio made a pact to teach Detroit’s authorities an unforgettable lesson.

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Date: July 2, 1972

Flight Info: Pan Am Flight 841 from San Francisco to Saigon, with scheduled stops in Honolulu, Guam, and Manila.

The Story: In the summer of 1972, American airline pilots were livid over the inability of both their employers and the federal government to curtail the skyjacking epidemic. After a one-day work stoppage failed to alter public policy, many pilots felt that a more forceful statement of their frustration was in order. The hijacking of Pan Am Flight 841 provided an opportunity for one audacious Boeing 747 captain to make clear that he and his colleagues were sick of ceding control of their planes.

The hijacker, 24-year-old South Vietnamese native Nguyen Thai Binh, had graduated from the University of Washington on June 10 with a bachelor’s degree in fisheries management. He had once hoped to stay in the United States, but his visa had been revoked on June 7 due to his anti-war activism; he had been arrested for occupying the South Vietnamese consulate in New York. Seething over his expulsion as well as the carpet-bombing of North Vietnam, Binh had decided to hijack his flight home as an “act of revenge.”

Binh didn’t reveal his intentions to the Pan Am crew until they were over the South China Sea. He passed a stewardess a note: “You are going to fly me to Hanoi and this airplane will be destroyed when we get there.” When the flight’s captain, Eugene Vaughn, refused to comply, Binh wrote a second note, which he spattered with his own blood. “This indicates how serious I am about being taken to Hanoi,” it read.

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Date: June 11, 1971

Flight Info: Trans World Airlines Flight 358 from Chicago (O’Hare) to New York (JFK).

The Story: No one was surprised when the first passenger was killed by an American skyjacker. Such a tragedy was inevitable given the unhinged nature of the characters who seized planes with guns, knives, or jars of acid. But to those who knew him well, Gregory White seemed an unlikely murderer.

The 23-year-old White lived in a working-class Chicago suburb with his wife and two children, whom he supported as a railroad clerk. He had a weakness for liquor, a character flaw that had resulted in a few disorderly conduct arrests over the years. But nothing about White’s history suggested that he was capable of violence.

On the night of June 11, 1971, White showed up at O’Hare International Airport carrying only a folded umbrella. He strolled through the terminal and onto the tarmac, where he queued to board TWA Flight 358. He made it to the top of the Boeing 727’s stairs before a flight attendant asked to see his boarding pass. Rather than comply with this polite request, White pulled a pistol out of his umbrella, grabbed the flight attendant by the throat, and pressed the gun to her forehead.

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Date: November 13, 1971

Flight Info: Air Canada Flight 812 from Vancouver to Toronto, with a scheduled stop in Calgary.

The Story: At a congressional hearing in 1969, a Federal Aviation Administration psychologist named John Dailey testified that skyjackers were primarily motivated by a need for public recognition. “He is like the Indian scalp hunter,” said Dailey. “If the other Indians didn’t know when he scalped someone, he wouldn’t do it.” That statement may have been a gross overgeneralization, but it certainly applied to Paul Joseph Cini, a man who botched his quest for fame by tying a knot too tightly.

In September 1970, while downing shots of vodka in his Victoria, British Columbia, apartment, Cini had watched a television news segment about a failed hijacking for ransom. In the midst of the story, his alcohol-fuzzed mind somehow managed to produce a eureka moment: The best way for a hijacker to escape justice was not to fly abroad, but rather to jump from the plane.

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Date: November 17, 1965

Flight Info: National Airlines Flight 30 from Los Angeles to Miami, with scheduled stops in Houston and New Orleans.

The Story: A surprising number of American skyjackers were not yet old enough to drink or sometimes even drive. These adolescents were generally inept at planning their crimes, and few of their capers met with any success; most seemed to end within moments of starting, usually after a fatherly pilot convinced the nervous teen to hand over his gun. Sixteen-year-old Thomas Robinson, however, caused a bit more consternation than any of his similarly aged skyjacking peers, in part because he was a true believer in his cause.

The son of a mathematics professor, Robinson was a hard-working overachiever who maintained a straight-A average at his Brownsville, Texas, high school. (“Tommy was not the type to go out and sit at the drive-in sipping malts,” his principal would later observe.) One of his favorite pastimes was keeping abreast of current events. In early October 1965, he began to read newspaper accounts of Fidel Castro’s relaxed emigration policy, which permitted thousands of refugees to leave Cuba by boat. This “open-door” policy infuriated Robinson; he viewed it as a clever public-relations ploy by Castro designed to obscure the fact that an untold number of political prisoners were still languishing in tropical gulags. Robinson soon hatched a bizarre plan to liberate some of those prisoners, in the hopes of calling the world’s attention to the plight of Cuba’s dissidents.

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Date: July 23, 1971

Flight Info: Trans World Airlines Flight 335 from New York (LaGuardia) to Chicago (O’Hare)

The Story: In the early years of America’s skyjacking epidemic, the airlines were reluctant to let the FBI attempt to end hijackings by force; they feared that innocents would get caught in the crossfire, thereby sparking a wave of negative publicity. But by the mid-summer of 1971, the hijackings had become so brazen and bizarre that lethal violence seemed the only appropriate response. Twenty-six-year-old Richard Obergfell could scarcely have picked a more inauspicious moment for his strange caper.

A former Navy aviation mechanic, Obergfell had grown despondent after getting fired from his United Airlines maintenance job for “unsatisfactory absenteeism.” He found comfort in a pen-pal relationship with an Italian woman, with whom he fell in love. Obergfell began to dedicate the bulk of his time to listening to Italian radio shows and reading Italian newspapers, so he could pick up the language. He also applied for a job with Alitalia; when his application was rejected, he concocted an illicit scheme to reach his beloved pen pal in Milan.

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Date: December 26, 1971

Flight Info: Air Canada Flight 932 from Thunder Bay, Ontario, to Toronto.

The Story: Most of the American skyjackers who fled abroad eventually elected to return to the United States, having tired of life on the lam. These homecomings typically involved prearranged surrenders to the FBI, in the hopes of earning lenient sentences. But a few skyjackers managed to sneak back into the U.S. undetected, and to live peacefully for years until they were finally caught. The boldest of these clandestine returnees was Patrick Dolan Critton, whose story might be much better known if he had been captured just a few days earlier.

Harlem-born and a onetime honor student at DeWitt Clinton High School, Critton joined the militant Republic of New Africa movement in his early 20s. He was allegedly involved in the manufacturing of explosives at an East Village tenement, and he later participated in the botched robbery of an Upper West Side bank. In the wake of that robbery, which left one of his accomplices dead and a bank teller gravely wounded, Critton fled across the border to Canada. He obtained a handgun and a grenade while on the run, and he used these weapons to commandeer Flight 932 shortly before its scheduled landing in Toronto. The hijacking note that he handed to a flight attendant read: “Think. We have fragmentation grenades and a .38-caliber revolver. Take me to the captain, we are going to Havana. This is no joke.”

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Date: August 3, 1961

Flight Info: Continental Airlines Flight 54 from Los Angeles to Houston, with scheduled stops in Phoenix, El Paso, and San Antonio.

The Story: The first outbreak of America’s 11-year skyjacking epidemic occurred in the summer of 1961, when four planes were seized in the nation’s airspace. The last of these incidents, involving 16-year-old Cody Bearden and his father, Leon, is the one that finally forced the federal government to pay attention to the escalating crisis.

The elder Bearden was a convicted bank robber and father of four who, due to a host of financial and psychological problems, had decided that the United States was rotten to the core. He roped Cody, his guitar-playing eldest son, into a plot that would allow them to start fresh in Cuba: Their plan was to give Fidel Castro a $5.4 million Boeing 707 as a gift and thereby earn political asylum.

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Date: January 8, 1970

Flight Info: TWA Flight 802 from Washington D.C. to Rome, with scheduled stops in Baltimore, New York, and Paris.

The Story: Described by one of his fellow passengers as “very sexy and cute,” Bellon boarded the Boeing 707 in Paris. En route to Rome, he removed his shirt to reveal a holster containing a pistol; he then dug another pistol and a rifle out of his carry-on bag. Bellon demanded passage to Damascus, in order to protest an Israeli military operation that had resulted in the capture of several Lebanese nationals. He punctuated this demand by spraying cockpit’s instrument panel with gunfire. After the plane stopped in Rome to refuel, though, Bellon changed his mind and asked to be taken to Beirut instead. Once the flight reached the Lebanese capital, the hijacker was taken into custody by displeased police, who slapped him across the face several times.

The Upshot: Fate unknown.

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Date: January 20, 1972

Flight Info: Hughes Airwest Flight 800 from Las Vegas to Reno.

The Story: A former Army paratrooper, the 23-year-old LaPoint commandeered the DC-9 by claiming to have a bomb. He asked for and received a $50,000 ransom in Reno, as well as two parachutes and a crash helmet. He then directed the plane to fly over northeastern Colorado, where he bailed out. LaPoint’s great mistake was jumping in inflexible boots; upon hitting the frozen earth at 80 miles per hour, he sprained his ankle so badly that he was unable to move. FBI agents quickly located him in a wheat field thanks to a radio transmitter they had hidden on his parachute.

The Upshot: Sentenced to 40 years in prison.

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Date: March 5, 1969

Flight Info: National Airlines Flight 97 from New York (Kennedy Airport) to Miami

The Story: Particularly during the late 1960s, a large number of American skyjackers earnestly believed that Fidel Castro’s Cuba was an egalitarian, post-racial utopia. They diverted planes to Havana not only as a form of protest against the Vietnam War or Puerto Rico’s lack of political sovereignty, but also because they wished to forge new lives in a country they envisioned as a genuine land of opportunity. Most of these skyjackers were quickly disabused of this fantasy, perhaps none quite as famously as Anthony Bryant.

A small-time hoodlum who had spent most of the 1960s at San Quentin State Prison in California, the 30-year-old Bryant claimed that he hijacked Flight 97 under orders from his higher-ups in the Black Panther Party; he said his mission was to arrange for the purchase of bazookas to aid the organization’s struggle against oppression. He used a revolver to commandeer the Boeing 727, and en route to Havana he robbed several passengers. One of his victims, whom Byrant forced to turn over a briefcase containing $1,700 in cash, was a Cuban intelligence operative.

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Date: June 4, 1970

Flight Info: Trans World Airlines Flight 486 from Phoenix to Washington, D.C. (National Airport).

The Story: Like many of his fellow skyjackers, 49-year-old Arthur Gates Barkley was motivated by a complicated grievance against the federal government. In 1963, the World War II veteran had been fired as a truck driver for a bakery, after one of his supervisors accused him of harassment. Shortly after his dismissal, Barkley became involved in a bitter dispute with the IRS; he contended that the agency had overcharged him by $471.78 because it had miscalculated his wages. He traveled to Washington, D.C. on numerous occasions to plead his case to indifferent bureaucrats. He eventually asked the Supreme Court to hear his appeal, opening his legal brief with a memorably bombastic line: “I am being held a slave by the United States.”

When the Supreme Court declined to hear his case, Barkley resolved to take drastic action. On the morning of June 4, 1970, he kissed his wife goodbye and told her, “I’m going to settle the tax case today.”

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Date: September 14, 1970

Flight Info: TWA Flight 15 from New York to San Francisco, with scheduled stops in Chicago and Los Angeles.

The Story: A 27-year-old sign painter and Army veteran from Reseda, Calif., Irwin had a troubled history. He had been arrested for assault with a deadly weapon in 1968, after sideswiping a police car while driving in excess of 100 miles per hour; he also drifted in and out of psychiatric hospitals. He boarded the Boeing 707 in Los Angeles with a starter’s pistol; as the jet soared over Salinas, Calif., he handed a stewardess a note indicating that he was armed and taking over the flight. Irwin indicated that he wanted to go to North Korea, stating, “I have business there.” The pilot convinced him that they should first land in San Francisco to refuel. As the plane idled on the tarmac in San Francisco, a Brinks security guard named Robert DeNisco, who had been hired to protect a shipment of cash aboard the aircraft, opened fire on Irwin with his .38-caliber revolver. The hijacker was shot in the stomach.

The Upshot: President Richard Nixon called DeNisco to personally thank him for stopping the hijacking. After he recovered from his wounds, Irwin was convicted of attempted kidnapping and sentenced to twelve-and-a-half years in prison. DeNisco passed away just six weeks ago, at the age of 76.

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