Roman Mars: This is 99% invisible I’m Roman Mars.

The term hijacking goes back to prohibition days.

Brendan Koerner: When gangsters would stop trucks carrying moonshine and they come up to the guy in the cab with their pistol pointing in their face and say “Hold your hands high, Jack!”. They’d take all the liquor and drive off with the truck.

Roman: But on the early days of commercial air travel the thought that someone would hijack a plane was scarcely even considered.

Brendan Koerner: When they created government oversight of aviation in 1958, the Congressional law that did that, did not make hijacking a crime because no one had foreseen that anyone in a country like America, where theoretically if you wanted to go somewhere you could just buy a ticket to go there. No one assumed that any American will ever do this.

Roman: And Brendan I. Koerner author of “The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking” says “That the design of airport terminals reflected that”.

Brendan Koerner: It’s hard to fathom now but you could literally you get out of a taxi at the curb and walk through the terminal, walk onto the tarmac the top of the boarding stairs sometimes onto the plane itself without a ticket, without showing anyone your identification. Certainly without anyone searching your person or your luggage in any way shape or form. So it was very much similar to getting on a train and that was by design by the airlines.

Roman: Then starting in 1961, an epidemic of hijackings began.

Brendan Koerner: It really was an epidemic. And I mean that in saying that the virus, the behavioral virus mutated over time, where kind a basic features of this hijacking is change.

Roman: The first phase of skyjackers all wanted passage to Cuba.

Brendan Koerner: May 1st, 1961 was the first American hijacking.

Roman: Perpetrated by Antulio Ramirez Ortiz.

Brendan Koerner: He was kind of a someone…a mentally disturbed electrician in Miami who got on a Key West-bound flight and announced, with holding a knife to the pilot’s throat, that he had been hired to assassinate Castro, Fidel Castro and wanted to go there to warn Castro about this.

Pilot: Back in Miami after the unexpected side trip from Houston to Havana our crew and passengers of the fourth hijack incident involving a US Airliner.

Roman: In the second phase, the skyjackers broadened their horizons to more distant lands.

Brendan Koerner: My favorite example was a man named Raffaele Minichiello who is an Italian American marine who actually went from Los Angeles to Rome. However he was hailed as a hero upon landing and actually ended up only doing 18 months in prison because the Italians refused to extradite him or actually charge him with hijacking. And he actually after that, ended up signing a contract to star in a spaghetti western film. A very good looking guy.

Roman: Then skyjackers morphed into classic kidnappers demanding ransom.

Brendan Koerner: The man who started this was a man named Arthur Gates Barkley, an unemployed truck driver had a dispute with the IRS. He actually hijacked a plane from Phoenix to Washington DC, where he demanded one hundred million dollars in cash to be given to him by the Supreme Court because he was enraged they hadn’t taken his tax case. So that kind a set this last phase of the epidemic where people started to asking for tons of money and gold bars and crates of liquor and cigarettes and anything their heart desired.

Voice clip: Hundred thousand in cash, getaway car and I want a letter M stricken from the English language. [laughing]

Roman: And all the while, hijacking was never considered that serious a threat by the airlines or the passengers really.

Brendan Koerner: It was more of an inconvenience than anything else. The assumption on the part of passengers was that “Well we know the airlines, we’ll fly us down to Havana, the hijacker be taken off the plane. We’ll maybe spend the night in Havana, we’ll be put up in a hotel, maybe buy some cigars and rum for our relatives”.

Roman: And go see the sex show with Fredo and Johnny Ola.

Voice clip: That’s him, that’s Superman.

Brendan Koerner: We’ll have a good story to tell, the next cocktail party back in the US.

Roman: It was taken lightly.

Brendan Koerner: Because the notion that this could really be something destructive and turn into mass murder was not seeing people’s minds at that time.

Roman: And because the skyjacking weren’t especially violent, and the passengers weren’t yet demanding extra security, the airlines fought to keep things exactly as they were.

Brendan Koerner: The airlines were scared, they thought that if they treated all their customers kind of like criminal suspects because they were merely flying that people wouldn’t fly anymore, that people would drive to their destinations instead. So the airlines put up a lot of roadblocks whenever someone, especially in government mentioned the concept of having physical screening of all passengers; they would shoot that down. I mean, use their lobbyist muscle to shoot that down. They really forced the FAA’s hand to come up with the weakest, most tepid security improvements.

Roman: The FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration is the US government body that is responsible for the safety and regulation of Civil Aviation.

Brendan Koerner: This was all in the name of– “Well, we can put up with some hijackings and those cost us however… twenty thirty grand per hijacking in terms of lost convenience and whatnot.”

Roman: Or they could pay millions and millions on x-ray machines, screenings and security personnel.

Brendan Koerner: For the airlines, the smart financial choice was clear. Put up with a periodic hijackings comply totally and keep the customer experience on the ground the same.

Roman: But clearly something had to be done. If the airlines were unwilling to consider mandatory screenings and checkpoints inside the terminals, some less-intrusive and somewhat zanier solutions had to be considered.

Brendan Koerner: So in 1968, the FAA created the Special Anti Hijacking Task Force to come up with some solution that would be palatable to the airlines. They actually opened it up for public comment, they invited the public to submit suggestions about how this could be done.

Roman: The most common suggestion was complete capitulation: “Provide free transportation to Cuba for those persons leaving the United States.” But another tactic that was seriously considered by the Federal Aviation Administration was to build a phony Havana airport in South Florida.

Brendan Koerner: So the idea is that this time all the hijackers want to go to Havana and so you kinda just fly them out over the water and then turn back and land at this fake airport and arrest them when they get off the plane was the big idea. It turned out to be too expensive, it was cost prohibitive, they couldn’t do that solution.

Roman: But there are also a lot of delightful technical solutions whose patents are so much fun to read.

Brendan Koerner: There was a hijacker ejection seat.

Roman: There was also one patent for an injector seat, which would have a “hypodermic injection apparatus, arranged for driving the needle of a hypodermic syringe through the seat cushion into the passenger, to instantly sedate or kill the passenger.” Oh, humans the more you act like Wiley Coyote the more I love you.

Brendan Koerner: There was a trap door that was patented, that would go right outside the cockpit and lock the hijacker in kind of a plexiglass chamber so that could be, they could be brought to justice when the plane landed.

Roman: The public proposed that pilot’s depressurize the aircraft or expel sleeping gas throughout the cabin so that everyone falls asleep and the crew would go out with oxygen tanks and disarm the hijacker.

Brendan Koerner: One that I love actually was giving all the passengers boxing gloves and they can wear boxing gloves the duration of the flight. The theory being that you can’t hold a gun if you have boxing gloves on your hands.

Roman: Of course then there would be an epidemic of extremely ill advice boxing matches at 30,000 feet.

Brendan Koerner: But the real thing that the FAA going with was this behavioral profile. Now, here’s the one thing about the airline terminals, there was one place you had to halt, generally. That was at the ticket agent to get a boarding pass or to purchase a ticket. There were many more tickets purchased on site at that time. So this was the one choke point in the terminal experience, was the ticket counter. The FAA solution was to train the ticket agents in these 25 behavioral cues that might indicate someone who is a potential skyjacker.

Roman: These were things like not maintaining appropriate eye contact, not caring about your luggage, wearing military surplus gear.

Brendan Koerner: And if you saw any of these traits, behavioral traits in a customer coming through to get a ticket or boarding pass, you would very discreetly ask that they go to a room on the side and be searched. This was not a good solution. The real problem is that ticket agents are not security personnel, they are dealing with hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of often very harried customers per day. And so they’re not the people to really identify. Even if you assume these behavioral cue tip offs work.

Roman: And it turned out to be a bad assumption because plenty of skyjackers passed thru without notice.

Brendan Koerner: It was meant to be very low impact solution at the one choke point that already existed in airports and it was really a failure.

Roman: But the solution that we all know they’ve eventually came up with, screening everybody and their luggage with x-ray machines and requiring ID, all the things that make the airport the horrible place it is, wasn’t seriously considered until one hijacking changed everything.

Brendan Koerner: This is a really forgotten, really pivotal moment in American security history. This is November 1972. Kind of the tail end of this year which has been really crazy hijacking one after the next, people asking for huge amounts of money. Then you have this three fugitives from the law who hijack a Southern Airways Flight 49. They actually asked be taken to Detroit, they had a grievance with the Detroit police and they wanted ten million dollars. They said if they didn’t get it they were going to crash the plane into the Oak Ridge National Laboratory near Knoxville, Tennessee. At the heart of that laboratory is actually a uranium 235 reactor.

Roman: All of a sudden everyone realized that an airplane could be a weapon of mass destruction, in this case threatening the turn Eastern Tennessee into a nuclear wasteland.

Brendan Koerner: And that’s really when the light goes on for the airlines and the government, that the current situation is no longer tenable, fortunately they escape cataclysm there. What happens is the airline doesn’t have ten million dollars they have two million.

Roman: The hijackers landed in Chattanooga, Tennessee to pick up the money.

Brendan Koerner: And the hijackers by that time had actually drunk all the liquor on the plane and were completely bombed. And they bring 150 pounds of cash, it’s a lot of money and they think it’s ten million dollars and so they actually didn’t bother to count it.

Roman: It would take them forever to count that much money anyway, no one ever takes that into consideration. The hijackers eventually landed their plane in Havana where Cuban authorities captured them.

Brendan Koerner: Crisis averted but surely after that you have the executive order mandating universal physical screening to start on January 5th 1973, and the airlines put up no fight that time.

Roman: The airlines really wanted the government to provide airport security but the government refused and the airlines hired contractors to do airport screenings and run the metal detectors that the airlines desperately tried to avoid.

Brendan Koerner: They put them in January 5th 1973 and there’s literally not a single hijacking in American airspace that year.

Roman: There were 159 skyjackings in the US from 1961 to 1972 and they really changed the nature of air travel. Even though most of this history is completely forgotten, along with the image of the deranged desperate lone hijacker in military surplus clothing.

Brendan Koerner: The public conception of the hijacker changed dramatically in the ’80s in response to specifically the TWA hijacking in Lebanon in 1985. All of the sudden you had hijacking associated with Islamic terrorism. A real kind of scary prospect. Something that people didn’t understand and it was a boogeyman for people at that time. So I think once we kinda had that image, that famous image of the pilot of that plane on the tarmac in Beirut with his captor, with a gun to his head leaning out of the cockpit. We completely forgot about these kind of more quaint hijackers who want to go to Havana because they had a bad experience in Vietnam. And started thinking about more this really– scarier crime. A crime of kind of an enemy we don’t really understand or know very much about. And so that earlier air was papered over if you will, by this new image of who the hijacker was.

Roman: And that image remains today, reinforced of course by the terror attacks on 9/11, 2001. A date which was pre-seated by an entire decade free of any commercial airline skyjackings in US airspace. After 9/11 the airlines finally got what they lobbied for back when mandatory screenings were introduced in 1973. The government took over security of our nation’s airports and created the transportation security administration, the TSA, now calls the shots.

99% invisible is Sam Greenspan, Katie Mingle, Avery Trufelman and me Roman Mars. We are a project of ninety one point seven local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produced of the offices of Ark sign in beautiful downtown Oakland California.

  1. The folk etymology given for hijack is – obviously – wrong, since folk etymologies always are.

    Care to look up the real origin, Roman? You could just check your mail.

  2. anonycommie

    can’t print… i see you have a donate button… i would probably use this site heaps, the articles and production are great… but if i can’t print i can’t save, if i can’t save, i can’t cite or refer… so i won’t be back much… can you fix this? save as pdf would be ideal.

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