Brendan I. Koerner | The Skies Belong to Us | 2013 | 25 minutes (6,186 words)

‘There Is No Way to Tell a Hijacker by Looking At Him’

When the FAA’s antihijacking task force first convened in February 1969, its ten members knew they faced a daunting challenge—not only because of the severity of the crisis, but also due to the airlines’ intransigence. Having spent vast sums on Beltway lobbyists, the airlines had the political clout to nix any security measure that might inconvenience their customers. So whatever solutions the FAA proposed would have to be imperceptible to the vast majority of travelers.

John Dailey, a task force member who also served as the FAA’s chief psychologist, began to attack the problem by analyzing the methods of past skyjackers. He pored through accounts of every single American hijacking since 1961—more than seventy cases in all—and compiled a database of the perpetrators’ basic characteristics: how they dressed, where they lived, when they traveled, and how they acted around airline personnel. His research convinced him that all skyjackers involuntarily betrayed their criminal intentions while checking in for their flights. “There isn’t any common denominator except in [the hijackers’] behavior,” he told one airline executive. “Some will be tall, some short, some will have long hair, some not, some a long nose, et cetera, et cetera. There is no way to tell a hijacker by looking at him. But there are ways to differentiate between the behavior of a potential hijacker and that of the usual air traveler.”

Dailey, who had spent the bulk of his career designing aptitude tests for the Air Force and Navy, created a brief checklist that could be used to determine whether a traveler might have malice in his heart. Paying for one’s ticket by unconventional means, for example, was considered an important tip-off. So, too, were failing to maintain eye contact and expressing an inadequate level of knowledge or concern about one’s luggage. Dailey fine-tuned his criteria so they would apply to only a tiny fraction of travelers—ideally no more than three out of every thousand. He proposed that these few “selectees” could then be checked with handheld metal detectors, away from the prying eyes of fellow passengers. Most selectees would prove guilty of nothing graver than simple eccentricity, but a small number would surely be found to be in possession of guns, knives, or incendiary devices.

In the late summer of 1969, the FAA began to test Dailey’s antihijacking system on Eastern Air Lines passengers at nine airports.

When a man obtaining his boarding pass was judged to fit the behavioral profile, he was discreetly asked to proceed to a private area, where a federal marshal could sweep his body with a U-shaped metal detector. One of Dailey’s assistants secretly videotaped this process, so the FAA could ascertain whether travelers took offense at the intrusion.

Dailey pronounced the experiment a roaring success, noting that his profile selected only 1,268 out of 226,000 passengers; of those beckoned aside for a brief date with the metal detector, 24 were arrested on weapons or narcotics charges. More important, selectees rarely seemed to mind the extra scrutiny; when interviewed afterward, most said they were just happy to know that something was finally being done to prevent hijackings.[ad]

Satisfied with the subtlety of Dailey’s system, the airlines began to voluntarily implement the program in November 1969, right after Raffaele Minichiello’s highly publicized escape to Rome. Almost immediately, hijackings in American airspace dwindled to a handful—just one in January 1970, and one more the following month. Janitorial crews started to find guns and knives stashed in the potted plants outside airport terminals, possibly left there by aspiring skyjackers who lost heart after seeing posted notices that electronic screening was in force.

But there were two fatal flaws in how the FAA’s system was implemented.

The first was that pilots and stewardesses were not told which of their passengers were selectees. If a hijacker claimed to have a bomb, the crew had no way of knowing whether he had been searched prior to boarding—and thus no way of determining whether his threat was a bluff. All they could do was err on the side of caution and obey the hijacker’s every command.

The system’s more fundamental weakness, though, was the fact that it depended entirely on the vigilance of airline ticket agents. They, rather than professional security personnel, were responsible for applying Dailey’s checklist to every passenger they encountered. Over time the agents’ attention to detail was bound to flag as they processed thousands upon thousands of harried customers each day. It is simply human nature to grow complacent.

* * *


Arthur Gates Barkley finally snapped after the Supreme Court gave him the cold shoulder.

He had been embroiled in near-constant litigation since 1963, when he lost his job as a truck driver for a Phoenix bakery. (He was fired for harassing a sales manager, who claimed that Barkley kept calling him to critique his job performance.) Barkley had initially sued his former employer for shorting him on nineteen days’ worth of sick-leave pay. He later turned his ire toward the IRS over a $471.78 tax bill, arguing that his wages had been miscalculated. After his federal lawsuit against the IRS was dismissed for lack of substance, he asked the Supreme Court to hear his appeal. He opened his petition with a memorable line: “I am being held a slave by the United States.”

Barkley was certain the nine wise men of Washington, D.C., would recognize the depth of his persecution and deliver the vindication he had been seeking for seven years. But as they do with 99 percent of the petitions they receive, the justices denied his request without comment. Barkley resolved to make them pay for their insolence. Over breakfast on June 4, 1970, Barkley informed his wife, Sue, that he would be flying to Washington, D.C., later that morning. The forty-nine-year-old World War II veteran had made the trip a few times before, to plead his case to indifferent bureaucrats at the IRS and the National Labor Relations Board. He promised Sue that this would be his very last visit to the nation’s capital. “I’m going to settle the tax case today,” he said as he kissed her goodbye.

When Barkley arrived at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, the ticket counter at his TWA gate was mobbed.

The airline’s lone metal detector was on the fritz, and the two overwhelmed ticket agents were unsure what to do if anyone fit the FAA’s skyjacker profile. They decided to avoid that dilemma by giving each passenger the most cursory of glances as they speedily issued boarding passes. Barkley, a ruggedly handsome man with slick blond hair and a pressed plaid blazer, did nothing to arouse suspicion as he checked in for Flight 486 to Washington, D.C.’s, National Airport.

As the Boeing 727 passed over Albuquerque, Barkley casually walked into the cockpit holding a .22-caliber pistol, a straight razor, and a steel can full of gasoline. In accordance with TWA policy, the pilots assured Barkley that they were willing to take him wherever he wished to go; they just hoped he was intent on Havana rather than some more exotic location.

But escape to another country was not Barkley’s plan.

He confounded the pilots by instructing them to head to Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia, about thirty miles from their intended destination. Aside from requesting this minor adjustment to Flight 486’s itinerary, Barkley had but one other demand: $100 million in small-denomination, nonsequential bills, to be taken directly from the coffers of the Supreme Court. If the money wasn’t waiting for him at Dulles, he vowed to splash gasoline all over the passengers and light a match.[ad]

TWA officials were blindsided by Barkley’s demand for ransom. They, like everyone else in the airline industry, had always assumed that skyjackers were interested solely in obtaining passage to a foreign land. It had never occurred to them that a skyjacker might try swapping passengers for money, like some garden-variety kidnapper. The airline had no procedure in place for dealing with this type of extortion.

TWA knew the Supreme Court didn’t have $100 million in cash, nor the capacity to pay even a fraction of that ridiculous sum. But the airline was scared to break that bad news to Barkley. TWA had to take his threat quite seriously in light of a violent episode that was still fresh in everyone’s mind: three months earlier one of that year’s relatively rare skyjackings had ended tragically when a man named John DiVivo had killed an Eastern Air Lines co-pilot near Boston, before himself being shot by the flight’s captain. Like DiVivo, who had ordered the Eastern pilots to fly toward Europe until the plane ran out of fuel and crashed into the Atlantic, Barkley appeared disturbed enough to kill: he kept transmitting radio messages in which he demanded that President Nixon, Secretary of Labor George Shultz, and the nine Supreme Court justices be informed that they were all “unfit to rule.”

With scant time to debate the pros and cons of giving in to Barkley, TWA made the fateful decision to try to mollify him with money. Airline employees were dispatched to two Washington-area banks to round up as much cash as they could on short notice. They returned to Dulles with a total of $100,750.

The airline assumed that Barkley would be reasonable and settle for this lesser sum. But the litigious former truck driver was in no mood for compromise. As soon as the canvas sack containing the money was delivered to the idling Boeing 727, Barkley pawed through its contents and realized that he had been shorted by a factor of a thousand. He made his extreme displeasure known by pouring the cash onto the cockpit floor. Up to his shins in hundred-dollar bills and his face purple with rage, Barkley ordered the plane to take off without delay.

As the jet ascended over the Virginia countryside beyond Dulles, Barkley radioed back an icy message that he addressed directly to President Nixon:

“You don’t know how to count money, and you don’t even know the rules of law.”

The plane circled Washington, D.C., as Barkley pondered his next move. The pilots tried to sell him on the idea of Cuba, but Barkley wouldn’t bite. He seemed suicidal at times and eager to take his fifty-eight hostages with him to the grave. “When you go, you shouldn’t go alone,” he told the pilots at one point. “You should take as many people and as much money as possible. Never go alone.” The North American Air Defense Command ordered four F-106 fighter jets to shadow the hijacked flight, in case Barkley tried to crash the plane into a populated area.

But after two hours Barkley decided to give TWA one last chance to deliver his $100 million. This time the chastened airline let the FBI take charge of the situation. At Barkley’s behest, FBI agents lined the runway with a hundred mail sacks, each allegedly stuffed with $1 million. (They were actually full of newspaper scraps.) As soon as the Boeing 727 landed and rolled to a stop, police marksmen shot out its landing gear. A panicked passenger reacted to the gunfire by kicking open one of the jet’s emergency exits and scrambling out over a wing. The other passengers followed his lead, collapsing into the grass beside the marooned plane—some out of sheer exhaustion, others because they had been drinking whiskey nonstop since the hijacking began.

Barkley peeked his head out of the cockpit to see that only a single passenger remained, a photojournalist who instinctively trained his Nikon on the startled hijacker. The man snapped five quick pictures before leaping onto the wing, just as Barkley aimed his gun to fire.[ad]

Moments later FBI agents swarmed up the aft stairs that dropped from the Boeing 727’s rear like a collapsible attic ladder; the pilot had stealthily lowered them while Barkley was preoccupied with the photographer. When he saw the agents running up the aisle, Barkley ducked back into the cockpit and shot the co-pilot in the stomach. The FBI responded with a hail of bullets, one of which perforated Bark ley’s right hand. He was handcuffed as he flopped around in a pile of cash, blood gushing from his busted nose.

Late that night reporters descended on Barkley’s shabby Phoenix home to get comment from his wife. Unlike most skyjacker spouses, who typically professed bewilderment regarding their husband’s exploits, Sue Barkley struck a defiant tone. “He believes in this country and the Constitution, he believes in what he was fighting for in World War II, but [the government] wouldn’t even listen to him,” she said while showing off her husband’s cartons of legal papers.

“He did it to get someone to pay attention to him. He was trying to help us! But he made it worse.”

* * *

Though his comically ambitious revenge had ended in failure, Arthur Gates Barkley was not without his fans. His novel demand for ransom had turned the skyjacking of TWA Flight 486 into one of the year’s most compelling media spectacles: dozens of cameras had captured the dramatic transfer of money from tarmac to plane, and Life soon ran a major spread on Barkley, featuring the blurry photographs snapped by his final hostage. The story was so enthralling because Barkley had lived out a common, if ignoble, fantasy: by briefly ruling the skies above the nation’s capital, an unemployed truck driver had forced the government to finally treat him with respect. Anyone who felt like an abject nobody could grasp the appeal of commanding such a powerful platform.

All too predictably, then, Barkley’s escapade touched off a new wave of skyjackings, one that laid bare the limitations of the FAA’s unobtrusive screening process.

A man armed with a bottle of nitroglycerin took a Pan Am Boeing 747 from New York to Havana, where Castro personally inspected the brand-new airplane and asked in-depth questions about its design; an Army private hijacked a Philadelphia-bound TWA flight to the Cuban capital by duping the pilot into thinking that he had a bomb-toting accomplice on board; a black AWOL Marine seized a Delta flight en route to Savannah, Georgia, claiming that he could no longer endure his commanders’ penchant for calling him “nigger.”

President Nixon at first paid little attention to the epidemic’s resurgence. He was too busy pressing Congress for anticrime legislation that would stiffen penalties for domestic bombings—an effort to end a spate of attacks on university campuses, where antiwar radicals were targeting laboratories with Pentagon ties. With the congressional midterm elections approaching that November, Nixon’s decision was smart politics: Republican voters were convinced that shaggy-haired students represented the Vietcong’s fifth column. Skyjackers did not yet elicit the same emotional response from the conservative “silent majority.”

But a coordinated series of hijackings in the Middle East forced the president to alter his priorities. On September 6, 1970, four teams of operatives from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine simultaneously hijacked four planes, three of which belonged to American carriers and were en route to New York. Among the hijackers was Leila Khaled, the female commando who had become a global fashion icon the year before. She managed to avoid preflight detection thanks to her new face, the product of multiple surgeries that had clipped her nose and stretched back her cheekbones.

Khaled and her partner were overpowered by passengers before completing their mission, but the three other PFLP teams succeeded.

One Pan Am plane was flown to Cairo and, after the hostages were released, destroyed with hand grenades. The other two planes were taken to a desert airstrip in Zarqa, Jordan, where masked gunmen paraded the weary passengers and crew past reporters; eighty-six of the hostages were American citizens. Five days after that humiliating display, the PFLP dynamited the planes in front of several Western film crews. Startling footage of the jets’ fiery obliteration led the evening newscasts on all three American networks; the nation’s major newspapers, meanwhile, ran front-page photos of jubilant guerrillas dancing on the planes’ blackened wreckage.

On the night of September 8, as the doomed planes sat on the tarmac in Zarqa, President Nixon called his top advisers to the Oval Office to formulate an emergency antihijacking plan. The PFLP operation had struck a nerve with the president, who recognized the danger of letting foreign militants believe they could take American hostages with impunity. Secretary of State William Rogers, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover were all at the meeting, as was Henry Kissinger, then serving as a special presidential assistant. They worked into the wee hours, brainstorming measures that could be implemented by executive order.

On September 11 President Nixon made a somber national address in which he outlined his advisers’ seven-point plan. “Most countries, including the United States, found effective means of dealing with piracy on the high seas a century and a half ago,” he declared in his gruff baritone. “We can—and we will—deal effectively with piracy in the skies today.”

Most of the plan’s directives were fairly dull, such as a promise to study the best security practices of foreign carriers and a vague commitment to develop “new methods for detecting weapons and explosive devices.”

But one of the president’s decrees was truly radical:

To protect United States citizens and others on U.S. flag carriers, we will place specially trained, armed United States government personnel on flights of U.S. commercial airliners. A substantial number of such personnel are already available and they will begin their duties immediately. To the extent necessary they will be supplemented by specially trained members of the armed forces who will serve until an adequate force of civilian guards has been assembled and trained.

The details of this sky marshal program did not emerge until five days later, when FAA chief John Shaffer appeared on a one-hour ABC television special devoted to the hijacking epidemic. Shaffer revealed that the United States planned to have four thousand undercover agents in the air by early 1971, at an initial cost of $80 million per year. The marshals, armed with .38-caliber pistols, would be instructed to shoot to kill; no man was supposed to qualify for the job unless he could fire twelve bullets in twenty-five seconds with enough accuracy to kill a hijacker from forty-five feet away. The force would be overseen by Lt. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., whom President Nixon had appointed to the newly created post of Director of Civil Aviation Security. Davis, a retired Air Force general who had recently resigned as supervisor of Cleveland’s troubled police department, was essentially the nation’s first skyjacking czar.

The airlines dreaded the prospect of sky marshals. They worried that planes could lose pressure and crash if their bulkheads were punctured during midair shootouts. And they feared the legal fallout should a passenger be slain by a marshal’s errant bullet; a civil court might be sympathetic to a lawsuit alleging that an airline’s ticket agents should have flagged a skyjacker before boarding.

The airlines’ discontent turned to rage when they learned how the Nixon administration planned to pay for the armed guards: by increasing the tax on each domestic ticket by half a percent, and on each international ticket by two dollars. “The airlines see no justification for the imposition of these new taxes,” the head of the Air Transport Association of America, the industry’s primary trade group, told the Senate Finance Committee at an October hearing. “The taxes are discriminatory in their application because they would be levied on many persons who could not benefit from the purpose for why they are proposed to be imposed.” In other words, because only a minuscule percentage of flights would actually have sky marshals aboard, the industry thought it grossly unfair that all travelers should be expected to pay for protection they probably wouldn’t enjoy.[ad]

Several senators were swayed by this selfish logic, though perhaps more by the airlines’ threats to slash service should the tax be imposed. The Senate Finance Committee’s deliberations became bogged down in acrimony, with senators touting pet amendments that would exempt Alaska-bound flights from the tax or prioritize the hiring of unemployed pilots as sky marshals. The powerful American Automobile Association, meanwhile, became a major proponent of the tax, hoping the surcharge would convince many travelers to drive instead of fly.

By early December the so-called skyjacking tax was dead in the water, the victim of too much lobbyist meddling. Deprived of critical funding, the sky marshal program had to drastically scale back its ambitions. The manpower goal was slashed to twelve hundred guards, though high turnover meant that as few as eight hundred eventually ended up on duty at any given moment. The training regimen was trimmed to a mere one-week course at Virginia’s Fort Belvoir, a move that raised questions about the marshals’ marksmanship. “The program is a menace to the people who ride airplanes,” one marshal warned the Associated Press. The airlines instructed their ticket agents to bump marshals off full flights in favor of paying customers.

But even if the tax had passed, a full complement of well-trained marshals would have done little to curtail the epidemic. There were 5.1 million airline departures in the United States in 1970; even if four thousand guards were on the job around the clock, the odds of a sky marshal and a skyjacker winding up on the same flight were infinitesimal. The program was akin to placing a single sprinkler in a twenty-story office tower, in the vain hope that any fire would start right beneath it.

It was even more foolish to presume that skyjackers could be deterred by the remote possibility that one of their hostages might be a sky marshal. As Thomas Robinson’s father had observed back in 1965, after his son’s failed attempt to reach Havana, the rational calculus of risk and reward meant nothing to a skyjacker. These were lost souls bent on salvaging their self-worth, on seeking the transformative high of reigning supreme in America’s most distant frontier. As long as they could board aircraft with guns or bombs or jars of acid tucked inside their bags, they would gladly risk death for a chance to right their wayward lives.

And so the hijackings kept right on going as the calendar flipped to 1971.

A seventeen-year-old Alabama boy tried to hijack a National flight to Montreal, where he believed the large community of American draft dodgers would understand his adolescent angst; a former New York City police officer threatened to blow up an Eastern Air Lines Boeing 727 unless he was given $500,000, a plan foiled by an airline official who tackled the hijacker during the ransom exchange in the Bahamas; a fifty-eight-year-old West Virginia coal miner, suffering from a terminal case of black lung, demanded that a United Airlines crew fly him to Tel Aviv, where he hoped to curry favor with the Almighty by working on a kibbutz.

Convinced that the epidemic was only destined to get worse, Lloyd’s of London began to offer hijacking insurance to travelers in the United States. For a $75 premium per flight, a traveler could earn $500 per day of captivity, plus $2,500 in medical coverage, and $5,000 in the event of death or dismemberment.

* * *


No one was surprised when the first passenger was killed.

With skyjackers striking nearly every week during the summer of 1971, and their demands consistently growing more outrageous, such a tragedy was inevitable. But to those who knew him well, Gregory White seemed an unlikely murderer.

The only remarkable thing about the twenty-three-year-old White was his unusually gangly physique, which he accented with a bushy goatee. He lived in a working-class Chicago suburb with his wife and two children, whom he supported as a six-hundred-dollar-a-month clerk for the Illinois Central Railroad. His sole vice was liquor, which he used to overcome an innate shyness that bordered on the pathological. He sometimes acted foolishly when drunk; his criminal record was marred by several charges for disorderly conduct. But nothing about White’s history suggested that he was capable of violence, or that he had any particular interests aside from keeping food on his family’s table and his bar bills paid.

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

“North Vietnam,” said White, his slurred speech revealing that his bravado was fueled by whiskey.

“We’re going to North Vietnam.”

A man who had boarded the flight immediately ahead of White, a sixty-five-year-old management consultant named Howard Franks, turned around and moved back toward the stairs. Perhaps he meant to help the imperiled stewardess, or maybe he was oblivious to the drama and just wanted to retrieve an item from his hanging coat. His true intent will never be known because the spooked White shot him twice—first in the head, then again in the back, as Franks’s limp body twisted to the jet’s carpet.

The murderous deed done, White whipped his gun back to the stewardess’s head; she could feel that the barrel was still hot. “You’re next,” said White.

Screaming passengers stampeded off the plane, pushing past the hijacker, his captive stewardess, and Franks’s corpse. When the chaos settled, White reiterated his demand to the pilots: North Vietnam. And he wanted $75,000, too, as well as a fully loaded machine gun.

After Franks’s body was removed from the nearly empty plane, the flight proceeded to John F. Kennedy International Airport, where White was told he could transfer to a larger jet capable of travel to Southeast Asia. While on the ground in New York, White stuck his head out the cockpit window to survey the scene. He saw something move in the darkness beneath the plane’s right wing—a man crouched low to the asphalt, creeping forward inch by inch. White fired once at the trespasser and missed; the man, an FBI agent who was working his second hijacking in as many weeks, fired back and pegged White in the left bicep. The bleeding skyjacker meekly surrendered at once.

Two days later, as White was wheeled out of the hospital by federal marshals, a reporter shouted out, “Why were you going to Vietnam?”

“I wanted to bring arms to help the people there fight,” yelled back White, who had never before expressed the slightest hint that he cared about the war.

In the days that followed, TWA was widely criticized over the security loophole that had led to Howard Franks’s murder: White had been permitted to walk onto the tarmac and ascend all the way to the plane’s entrance despite the fact he didn’t have a boarding pass. Because White was not a ticketed passenger no TWA agent had compared him to the FAA’s skyjacker profile.

But TWA rejected the notion of altering its security policies even one iota. “How far can the airlines go?” replied a clearly irritated TWA spokesman when asked whether his employer planned to make any changes to its boarding procedures. “Restrict everyone from the terminal except those who have a ticket? Stop everyone from entering the airport area except those who have a ticket?”

The Gregory White hijacking did, however, increase the airlines’ faith in the FBI. The agent who wounded White did so in the dark, firing upward from fifty feet away. His pinpoint accuracy under pressure convinced the airlines that the FBI could be trusted to use lethal force, though only if no passengers were present.

That was precisely what happened six weeks after White’s capture, when a former Navy aviation mechanic named Richard Obergfell hijacked a TWA flight as it departed New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Obergfell demanded passage to Milan, where he intended to propose marriage to a female pen pal. The Boeing 727 he had commandeered lacked the ability to cross the Atlantic, but Obergfell was promised a long-range jet if he released his hostages. He did so back at LaGuardia, keeping only a twenty-one-year-old stewardess as he boarded a maintenance van bound for nearby Kennedy Airport, where a Boeing 707 was waiting to take him to Italy.[ad]

As he walked toward the new jet with his gun pressed against the stewardess’s back, Obergfell had no idea he was being marked for death. An FBI sniper had climbed halfway up the ten-foot metal wall that stood behind the 707’s tail. Clad in tight white trousers that hiked up to his calves, the sniper balanced his high-powered rifle e atop the wall and peered through his telescopic sight. But Obergfell was too close to his hostage for the sniper to fire safely.

A few feet away from the Boeing 707’s stairs, the stewardess accidentally stepped on Obergfell’s toes. The hijacker momentarily lost his balance and staggered back a foot. The sniper took advantage of the split-second opportunity.

The stewardess heard two shots and thought, “I’m dead—he killed me.”

But then she heard the thump of a body hitting the tarmac and realized there was no longer a gun barrel lodged against her spine.

“I looked around, and [Obergfell] started to get up on his elbow,” she would later recall. “He looked a little dazed. When I saw he was still on the ground, I thought he was going to shoot me, and I started to run, run, run.”

But Obergfell never managed to pull his trigger. One of the sniper’s bullets had shredded his vital organs; he was pronounced dead at Jamaica Hospital thirty minutes later. TWA did not hide its elation over Obergfell’s demise. “TWA is grateful to the FBI for forestalling the further hijacking of a TWA aircraft to Europe, with all the potential tragedy that might result from an armed man in charge of a crew,” the airline wrote in an official statement. “The assurance of prompt and swift justice is the most certain method of discouraging acts of armed aggression against the passengers and crews of aircraft.”

For the first time since early 1970, when the debut of the FAA’s behavioral profile had coincided with a sudden downturn in skyjackings, there was genuine hope that the epidemic had entered its sunset phase. The publicity surrounding Obergfell’s death seemed certain to dissuade potential hijackers, since they now knew that the FBI had the means and the authority to kill at will. Perhaps the occasional hijacker could still get away with flying direct to nearby Cuba, where he would likely end up in a tropical gulag. But those with grander ambitions would always need to stop on American soil to obtain fuel or ransom. And the more time a skyjacker spent idling at an airport, the greater the odds that he would be felled by a sniper’s bullet.

But though the skyjackers may have been a delusional bunch, psychological illness does not necessarily interfere with raw intelligence. Those who aspired to commit the crime studied their predecessors’ failings and took away a vital lesson: the best way to avoid law enforcement was to avoid the ground.

* * *


Paul Joseph Cini might have become a celebrated figure in criminal folklore if he hadn’t been so assiduous with his wrapping.

When the twenty-six-year-old Cini hijacked a Calgary-to-Toronto Air Canada flight on November 13, 1971, he did so carrying a brown-paper package bound tightly with twine. No one paid much attention to the parcel, for they were more concerned with the weapons that Cini was brandishing: a sawed-off shotgun and ten sticks of dynamite, one of which he rudely stuck into the mouth of an unfortunate flight attendant. Falsely claiming to be a member of the Irish Republican Army, Cini demanded $1.5 million and passage to Ireland. Air Canada scrounged up $50,000, which it delivered to Cini at the small airport in Great Falls, Montana. Unlike Arthur Barkley, who had freaked out when TWA shorted him by $99,899,250, Cini didn’t mind the lesser ransom.

The DC-8 was en route back to Calgary to refuel when Cini decided to spring his surprise: he told the crew to open one of the plane’s emergency exits, so he could parachute to freedom. In preparation for his jump, he started to unwrap his brown-paper package, which contained a parachute he had purchased from a Chicago skydiving shop.

Cini had been planning this stunt for over a year. In September 1970, while downing shots of vodka in his Victoria, British Columbia, apartment, Cini had seen a television news segment about a failed hijacking in California. His alcohol-fuzzed mind somehow managed to produce a eureka moment: a hijacker could escape with his ransom only if he jumped from the plane.

Cini initially had no designs on attempting this himself, for he was deathly afraid of heights. But the more he contemplated the risky caper, the more he became convinced that it represented his one shot at improving his lackluster life. “I wanted recognition,” he would later explain. “I wanted to stand up and say, ‘Hey, I’m Paul Cini and I’m here and I exist and I want to be noticed.’ ”

Cini spent months preparing for the crime. He cased airports, studied aircraft design, and asked copious questions at a Calgary skydiving school. Worried that his red-and-yellow parachute would be too conspicuous in the sky, Cini dyed it dark blue and then paid a Canadian paratrooper to repack it properly. On the morning of the hijacking, he filled a suitcase with candy bars and survival gear, just in case he had to spend days wandering through the Albertan wilderness.

But one minor error was Cini’s undoing: he wrapped the parcel containing his parachute too tightly.

Unable to loosen the package’s twine, Cini asked one of the pilots to lend him a sharp instrument to cut free his parachute. When the pilot offered him the DC-8’s fire ax, Cini absentmindedly laid down his shotgun to accept it. Seeing that the hijacker was now unarmed, the pilot kicked away the shotgun and grabbed Cini by the throat. Another crew member took the ax and smashed it into Cini’s head, fracturing his skull. Paul Joseph Cini would be remembered not as the world’s first “parajacker” but as a fool.

The fame that Cini had so desperately craved would instead go to a man who called himself Dan Cooper.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Just eleven days after Cini’s misadventure, Cooper boarded a Northwest Orient Airlines flight in Portland, Oregon. Shortly after takeoff, he informed a stewardess that he had a bomb in his briefcase. He requested $200,000 in cash and four parachutes, all of which he received after the plane landed in Seattle. After releasing the hostages, Cooper asked to be flown to Mexico City, with an agreed-upon refueling stop in Reno, Nevada.

But shortly before the Boeing 727 reached the Oregon border, Cooper jumped from the aft stairs into a wicked hailstorm. He was never seen again, though tattered bills from his ransom were later discovered along the banks of the Columbia River.

Experienced skydivers scoffed at the notion that Cooper could have survived his jump. The man seemed to know virtually nothing about skydiving, as evidenced by the fact that he jumped without a reserve chute and didn’t ask for any protective gear. The plane was traveling at roughly 195 miles per hour when Cooper exited, a speed that even experienced parachutists consider unsafe; it is possible that Cooper was knocked unconscious immediately after jumping.

Even if he did survive the initial plunge through subzero air temperatures and pounding hail, the terrain below was lethal—nothing but hundred-foot-tall fir trees and frigid lakes and rivers. Like so many skyjackers before him, Cooper was probably too psychologically askew to have thought his plan all the way through.

But a massive search through the forests of southern Washington and northern Oregon turned up no trace of Cooper, dead or alive. The case’s lack of resolution gave the public free rein to mold the skyjacker into a folk hero, a quasi –Robin Hood figure who stole from the rich to prove the machismo of the average American male. “His was an awesome feat in the battle of man against the machine,” declared a University of Washington sociologist who pronounced himself a Cooper expert. “One individual overcoming, for the time being anyway, technology, the corporation, the Establishment, the System.”

Known to the public as D. B. Cooper due to a reporter’s transcription error, the mysterious skyjacker was celebrated in both art and commerce. A twenty-nine-year-old Seattle waiter made a small fortune selling T-shirts depicting a suitcase full of money attached to a parachute; a Portland lounge singer scored a minor hit with “D. B. Cooper, Where Are You?,” which featured the admiring couplet: “D. B. Cooper never hurt no one / But he sure did blow some minds.”

By now well versed in the contagious nature of skyjacking, the airlines and the FBI both braced for the inevitable post-Cooper outbreak. But they were still woefully unprepared for the utter mayhem of 1972.

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Skies Paperback Cover #1

From The Skies Belong to Us, published by Crown. © 2013 Brendan I. Koerner.

Top illustration: Kjell Reigstad