• U.S.

CRIME: Terror on Flight 49

6 minute read

Southern Airways of Atlanta prides itself on its ante bellum hospitality. Its blue-and-yellow planes even have smile faces painted on the nose under the inscription HAVE A NICE DAY. But no one was smiling after one of the most theatrical and spectacularly prolonged episodes in the chronicles of skyjacking. Three men armed with pistols and a hand grenade boarded Flight 49 in Birmingham and took the 30 passengers and four crew members on an odyssey of terror that ended 29 hours later in Havana. Everybody lost something on the flight: the copilot was wounded, the passengers were badly shaken, Southern Airways may be financially crippled by the ransom it paid, the FBI has been damned for a trigger-happy performance and the hijackers are said to be condemned to spend the rest of their lives in 4-by-5-by-5-ft. cells in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. On top of all that, the painful problem of prevention still begs for solution.

Flight 49, a two-engine DC-9, took off from the Birmingham airport peaceably enough. Professor Gale Buchanan, a plant expert at Auburn University, began editing copy for his magazine, Weeds Today. Alex Halberstadt, a construction engineer, scribbled idly on a yellow legal pad. A two-year-old child fell asleep in his mother’s arms. In the rear of the plane, Alvin Fortson, 83, sat back to enjoy the ride to Orlando to see his son. But also at the rear were three blacks—Henry Jackson, 25, Lewis Moore, 27, and Melvin Cale, 21—who had no intention of going to Orlando. Jackson and Moore were wanted for suspicion of rape in Detroit, where they had once sued the city for $4,000,000 for alleged police brutality. Cale, Moore’s half brother, had been serving time in the Tennessee State Penitentiary for grand larceny, and was a recent escapee from a work release center. The trio managed to get past Southern agents by the old and obvious device of concealing their weapons in a raincoat and passing it back and forth.

Courage. Airborne, the trio brandished their weapons and ordered the pilot to make a refueling stop at Jackson, Miss., then head for Detroit. Since embarrassment helps keep people in line, the three also forced the male passengers to strip to their underwear. The hijackers soon broadcast their ambitious demand: $10 million in cash. Southern Airways placed $500,000 aboard an aircraft and dispatched it to Detroit in hopes of a settlement. Despite the efforts of Detroit officials to talk the hijackers into landing, they made the pilot shoot across Lake Erie to Cleveland’s Hopkins Airport. Meanwhile, the passengers showed extraordinary courage. Halberstadt called to Moore, “If you have a minute, I’d like to talk to you,” and tried to reason with the hijacker while Moore held a Luger and the hand grenade.

During the early-morning hours the plane landed in Toronto, where the hijackers refused the offer of $500,000 and renewed their demand for $10 million. As the plane sped away from Toronto, this time bound for Knoxville, Tenn., Passenger Fortson had a mild seizure. Also the hijackers got into the liquor supply and drank more than 40 of the small airline bottles. By now the jetliner was being tracked by a Southern Airways Learjet and a DC-9, as well as a Navy Reserve plane with FBI agents aboard. Over Tennessee the prospects darkened; the hijackers began threatening to plunge the plane into the atomic-energy facilities at Oak Ridge if their demands were not met. They finally landed in Chattanooga, where Southern sent aboard an estimated $2,000,000 in aluminum boxes, as well as the bulletproof vests the hijackers had requested. They had promised to release the passengers there, but the large crowds gathered at the airport rattled them, and they ordered the plane to Havana.

En route, the trio maniacally distributed money up and down the aisle while reassuring the passengers that they had nothing against them. At José Martí terminal in Havana one of the gunmen disembarked to dicker with Cuban officials; he returned two hours later grousing: “These people here treat you worse than George Wallace or Lester Maddox.” The plane headed back to the U.S. and eventually landed at McCoy A.F.B. in Orlando. There the odyssey nearly ended in disaster. After the hijackers demanded to talk to President Nixon, the word came down from Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray that the plane had to be stopped. Agents with shotguns, rifles and revolvers then shredded the tires with gunfire in order to prevent takeoff.

Outraged. That only served to panic the hijackers, who shot and wounded Copilot Billy H. Johnson. Taxiing on nothing but rims wrapped in tattered rubber, the veteran pilot, Captain William R. Haas, 39, miraculously got the plane off the ground. He was again ordered to Cuba, where he set down on a foam-covered runway at José Martí. Cuban authorities immediately confiscated the money and led the hijackers away. The passengers and crew were flown back to Miami. Their 29 hours of terror were ended.

But the furor was not. The FBI came under heavy criticism for shooting out the tires. Director Gray even admitted that his judgments “were not necessarily perfect.” The Air Line Pilots Association was outraged—especially since it was obvious that Southern had been careless in allowing on its plane three men who fit the classic skyjacker “profile.” ALPA President J.J. O’Donnell threatened to call a nationwide pilots’ strike if stringent anti-skyjacking measures are not enforced. Something more has to be done. There have been 387 skyjacking attempts worldwide since the first one in 1930; of those, about two dozen, all of them recent, have been for extortion purposes. The most successful attempt was made last November by the notorious parachuter D.B. Cooper, who was never captured (authorities believe that both he and his ransom money were buried in a Washington State snowdrift). Of 38 other skyjackers, three were killed and 35 are in custody or in foreign hands; almost all the extortion money has been recovered. Thus the fact that air-piracy extortion is almost never successful is not in itself a deterrent.

Although the Federal Aviation Administration is already strengthening surveillance measures, it ultimately seems that the best way to halt skyjacking is to make certain that no country is a haven for skyjackers. The one positive result of the Southern case is that it may lead to a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Cuba on the problem, which in turn could pave the way for cultural exchanges and even political dialogue. The Cubans last week offered to discuss the matter, and Secretary of State William P. Rogers said that the U.S. was more than willing. While Castro is as unpredictable as ever, it appears likely that he may be just fed up enough with skyjacking to join the U.S. in doing something about it before a real catastrophe occurs.

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