This is What Happened During the Golden Age of Hijackings: The History of Hijacking and the US Government's Response - The Comprehensive Minds

This is What Happened During the Golden Age of Hijackings

The 1950s and 60s are often in the early 1970s hijackings of flights originating from the US were quite literally out of control. When the US government passed the anti-hijacking act of 1974 it was a direct response to what is now sometimes called the golden age of skyjackings. In fact, between1960 in 1974 there were 240 hijackings or attempted hijackings between the US and Cuba alone. So today we're going to take a look at the Golden age of plane hijackings


The First US Hijacker Demanded To Be Taken To Cuba In 1961

This is What Happened During the Golden Age of Hijackings
Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

On May 1st, 1961 and Antulio Ramirez Ortiz took over the cockpit of a national Airlines flight on his way to Key West, Florida. He had a gun and a knife and he demanded to be taken to Cuba. So he could warn Fidel Castro of an assassination plot against him. Ortiz said he was a Castro loyalist who left Cuba looking for work but now wanted to return to his native land. 

When the plane arrived in Cuba. Castro returned it to the crew and the other passengers within a day. Ortiz stayed in Cuba two years later Ortiz tried to leave again. However, this time he was arrested. And in 1965 he was sentenced to three years in prison for espionage. When he got out of prison he tried to leave yet again and wound up spending another three years in prison in the early 1970s. 

He finally made it out of Cuba again in 1975. His triumph was short-lived however because he was immediately arrested for the 1961 hijacking upon arrival in the US. He spent four years in prison in the US. Although it's hard to believe now at the time of Ortiz hijacking the US had no official policies regarding air piracy. So instead, he was charged with assault and transporting a stolen aircraft across state lines.  


By 1968, There Were Dozens Of Hijackings Each Year

By 1968, There Were Dozens Of Hijackings Each Year
Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain


The late 1960s and early1970s were characterized by an epidemic of hijackings and most of the planes were taken in the US and then redirected to Cuba. The reasons for these hijackings varied widely with the perpetrators wanting everything from being able to study communism to getting some decent free Hollis that's not a bad joke. Seriously a guy hijacked an airplane for free Holli's hijacking for pizza I get free Holli's that's more of jaywalking. 

The US Congress decided to take action and as a result of Senate hearings the Federal Aviation Administration set up a task force to explore counter hijacking techniques. Previously pilots had been given guns but obviously, that wasn't too effective. 

Now operating under the theory that the best offense would be a good defense the government mandated that airline passengers were to be sent through metal detectors. Additionally, the first hijacker profile was established.  


Letters From Passengers Suggesting How They Find Hijackers

Letters From Passengers Suggesting How They Find Hijackers

If there's one thing the world has learned from social media and internet comments it's that everyone thinks they're an expert on everything. So when hijackings became a problem and the FAA decided they wanted to take action. 

You can bet your house the average airline passenger had a few ideas on what should be done and they weren't afraid to say so. Passengers understandably wanted to protect themselves. So they chimed in and offered suggestions ranging from cartoonishly impractical booby traps to screening processes rooted in bigoted paranoia. 

Some of the morememorable examples of passengersuggestions included installing trapdoorsoutside cockpits, arming stewardesseswith tranquilizer darts, and playing the Cubannational anthem before takeoff, and then arresting anyonewho knew the lyrics. Lucky for everyone the FAA decided to listen to the experts. Although it may not be the most exciting or gratifying strategy simply giving in to an armed skyjacker's demands was the safest,most practical option for airline pilots. 

So that's what they were told to do cockpits were equipped with maps of the Caribbean, pilots were told about the landing facilities at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport, and they were given cards with rudimentary Spanish so they could communicate with any potential hijacker. 

An official Cubahijack phone line was installed at Miami air traffic control in the Swiss who were the US is diplomatic intermediaries created a form that could be used to request the return of planes. 

Castro for his part was really more interested in embarrassing theUS than anything else. So most of the planes were eventually returned albeit with a heavy fee attached. 


Skyjackings Went Global

Raffaele Minichiello skyjacked a flight in October of 1969 one that had several stop-offs before reaching its final destination. He flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco where he hijacks a plane and demanded to be taken to New York guys racking up the miles. 

The plane stopped in Denver and the passengers were released. After refueling inNew York FBI agents tried to keep Minichiello from taking off again. Born in Italy, Minichiello wanted to go home and after firing his gun was allowed to continue on a flight to Rome. 

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He escaped capture when he landed in Rome but was later tracked down by police and taken into custody. Italy refused to extradite him and tried him in Rome instead. His actions woke up FAA and FBI officials as well as highjackers to the possibility of taking flights to a location other than Cuba which was something they had never really considered for no reason other than it had almost never come up before. 

So why was Minichiello so mad? What drove him to do it? Well he said he was shorted $200 in one of his paychecks as a US Marine you guys don't rip off a Marine.  


The First 747 And Female Hijackings

The First 747 And Female Hijackings

Most of the planes hijacked in the late 1960s and early 1970s were relatively small carrying about 100 passengers on average. In 1973 however, when a hijacker identified as R Campos commandeered American Airlines flight 299 from New York to San Juan. He took a plane with 379 passengers on board to Cuba. 

The plane landed safely in Cuba and was greeted by Fidel Castro himself. Castro chatted with a pilot captain Augustus Watkins and inspected the 747while assuring him that the plane would be able to take off Despite its size and a lack of appropriate runway space at the Cuban airport What can't Castro do? 

The plane did take off shortly after landing and made its way to Miami after FBI agents debriefed Watkins the 747 departed for SanJuan arriving only about seven hours late. Most all hijackers up until this point had been men but not all hijackers are men. 

Take Catherine Marie Kerkow who along with fellow Black Panther Roger Holder hijackedWestern Airlines flight 701 from Los Angeles to Seattle by claiming to have a bomb. They demanded $500,000 and let the plane land in San Francisco once on the ground Kerkow and her colleague boarded a plane to Algeria where they were granted asylum, not cool Algeria. 

She was charged with air piracy by a federal court in 1972 and a warrant was issued for her arrest. In 1975 the two were arrested for trying to illegally enter France. They were found guilty and fined and they were released but not allowed to leave Paris. Kerkow however, left Holder was extradited to the US but Kerkow whereabouts are unknown. She remains on the most wanted list for domestic terrorism.  


Hijacker Returned to The US

After hijacking a PanAmerican flight headed to Puerto Rico in 1968, Louis Armando Pena Soltren spent over 40 years in Cuba. According to accountsSoltren and two accomplices stormed the cockpit with weapons he snuck on the flight in a diaper bag. 

His fellow hijackers were arrested and sent back to prison in the US. But Soltren was protected and he had a long tenure as a fugitive in inCuba before returning to the US in 2009. 

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However, the US doesn't forget hijackers and upon his return in 2011 he faced air piracy and kidnapping charges and was sentenced to15 years in prison.  


Potential Targets

Another Attempt Targeted The White House
Photo: Matt H. Wade / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1972 three criminals hijacked a plane in Birmingham, Alabama shortly after it took off. They ordered the pilot to fly around the country for a while and demanded a $10million ransom. At one point they even threatened to have the plane crash into the nuclear facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. 

Despite the bluster, however, the affair eventually ended thankfully without a nuclear explosion. But the incident wasn't completely bloodless either. The first officer was shot and 31 passengers were held hostage for 29 hours. 

In 1974 Samuel Byck hijacked a delta Airlines flight leaving Baltimore, Maryland and he had big plans namely the crashed plane into the White House. Byck had a gun and a bomb on board when he got to the cockpit of the plane he shot both the co-pilot and the pilot killing the first and injuring the latter. Thanks to the unsmart thinking of taking out the pilot. 

Byck never got the plane off of the ground then a police officer pursued him who shot him while he was still in the plane. Accounts vary as to whether or not the cop who killed Byckor merely wounded him before Byck took his own life. Byck didn't get to carry his plan out but he did leave his mark on pop culture. 

He's a character in Stephen Sondheim's and John Wideman's 1991 musical assassins and he was portrayed by SeanPenn in the 2004 film the assassination of Richard Nixon. He's even alleged to be one of the inspirations for the character Travis Bickle who was played by Robert De Niro in the 1976 hit film Taxi Driver. 


Hijackers Even Jumped Out Of The Plane And Vanished

Hijackers Even Jumped Out Of The Plane And Vanished
Photo: U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain


Possibly, the most famous jacker of all time was the enigmatic Dan Cooper who threw a mistake propagated by the mass media became known to the world, DB Cooper. Cooper whoever he may have been famously hijacked a NorthwestAirlines flight in 1971 over Washington State. 

After the flight landed in Seattle authorities delivered him $200,000 as well as several parachutes. He demanded to be taken to Mexico and the plane took off again. While heading SouthCooper parachuted out of the plane never to be seen again. While the FBI believes Cooper likely couldn't have survived his jump given the weather conditions and gear he was wearing there are Nonetheless lots of theories about what happened to him. 

There have been no traces of Cooper himself since the hijacking however, in 1980 three packets of cooper's ransom money were discovered in the Sandyriver bank of the Columbia River. And in 2017authorities found what they thought was a strap from his parachute in the Pacific Northwest. 

As the 1970s wore on airplane hijackings became more brazen, more global, and more extortionist threatening passenger's lives for money and then using the planes to escape with a preferred method of skyjacking. To end the situation once and for all the FBI began sending snipers to tarmacs and plainclothes agents began boarding planes. 

Finally, in January5, 1973 all passengers began being screened. While this didn't put an end to hijackings. It did put an end to the frequent occurrences that constituted the golden age of hijackings. So what do you think? Do you feel safe on airplanes in modern times? Let us know in the comments below.

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