From the Bizarre to the Deadly: History’s Most Notorious Hijackings | History Hit

From the Bizarre to the Deadly: History’s Most Notorious Hijackings

A joyous wave of the hand and a tense searching look by homecoming Air France hostages, who were rescued from Entebbe Airport.
Image Credit: Moshe Milner / CC

Hijackings have existed almost as long as airplanes. From the first recorded hijack in 1931 to the tragic events of 9/11, hijackings were relatively commonplace in the aviation industry for 70 years.

Since 2001, security has been significantly tightened, and to a whole generation, hijackings seem to be almost entirely something of the history books. Here are some of the most remarkable stories of hijackings which have attracted the attention of the world for their outrageous, tragic or downright bizarre nature.

The first: Ford Tri-Motor, February 1931

The first recorded hijacking of an airplane was in Peru in February 1931. Peru was in the midst of political turmoil: some areas were controlled by rebels, others by the government. Planes were used to drop pro-government propaganda on rebel-held territories in Peru, but their size meant that they had to refuel often.

One such plane, landing on a rebel-held airfield, was forced to refuel and fly back to Lima, the capital, dropping pro-rebel propaganda instead of pro-government. Eventually, the revolution was successful and the Peruvian government was overthrown. The episode marked the first use of hijacking for overtly political ends, and it would be far from the last.

The hijacking epidemic: 1961-1972

America’s hijacking epidemic began in 1961: over 150 flights were hijacked and flown to Cuba, predominantly by disillusioned Americans who wanted to defect to Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba, The lack of direct flights meant that hijacks effectively became the only option for those who wanted to fly, and the Cuban government welcomed them with open arms. It was excellent propaganda for Castro and the planes themselves were often ransomed back to the American government.

The lack of airport security meant that it was easy to take on board knives, guns and explosives with which to threaten crew and other passengers. The hijackings became so commonplace that at one point airlines began giving their pilots maps of the Caribbean and Spanish-English dictionaries in case they were diverted, and a direct phone line was set up between Florida’s air traffic control and Cuba.

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The longest airborne hijack: Trans World Airlines Flight 85, October 1969

Raffaele Minichiello boarded Trans World Airlines Flight 85 on its last leg across America, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, in the early hours of 31 October 1969. 15 minutes into the flight, he got up from his seat and went over to the stewardesses holding a loaded rifle, demanding to be taken to the cockpit. Once there, he told the pilots to fly the plane to New York.

Raffaele Minichiello, the American marine who diverted a TWA plane from the U.S.A. to Italy.

When the plane stopped to refuel in Denver, the 39 passengers and 3 of the 4 air stewardesses were allowed to disembark. After refuelling again in Maine and Shannon, Ireland, the plane landed in Rome, nearly 18.5 hours after it had been hijacked.

Minichiello took a hostage and tried to make it to Naples, but the sheer amount of publicity generated meant a manhunt was quickly underway, and he was caught. Later assessments suggested that Minichiello was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after fighting in the Vietnam War and did not have enough money to buy a plane ticket home from America to Italy to visit his dying father. He was given a short sentence, reduced on appeal, and barely served a year in prison.

The most mysterious: Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305, November 1971

One of the biggest mysteries in 20th century aviation is the fate of the infamous hijacker known as D. B. Cooper. A middle-aged businessman boarded Flight 305 from Portland to Seattle on 24 November 1971. Once the plane was airborne, he alerted a stewardess to the fact that he had a bomb, and demanded $200,000 in ‘negotiable American currency’.

The flight landed in Seattle a few hours later to give the FBI time to collect the ransom money and parachutes Cooper had requested. Unlike other hijackers of the time, witnesses said he was calm and personable: he had no interest in harming the other 35 passengers on board.

Once the passengers had been swapped in return for the ransom money and parachutes, the plane took off again with skeleton crew: about half an hour later, D. B. Cooper parachuted from the plane with the money bag strapped around his waist. He was never seen or heard from again, despite one of the most extensive search and recovery operations in FBI history. His fate remains unknown to this day, and is one of aviation’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

FBI wanted poster for D. B. Cooper

Image Credit: Public Domain

The Israel-Palestine debate: Air France Flight 139, June 1976

On 27 June 1976, Air France Flight 139 from Athens to Paris (originating in Tel Aviv) was hijacked by two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations (PFLP-EO) and two Germans from the urban guerrilla group Revolutionary Cells. They diverted the flight to Beghazi and on to Entebbe, Uganda.

Entebbe Airport was cleared by Idi Amin, the President of Uganda whose forces supported the hijackers, and the 260 passengers and crew were held hostage in the empty airport terminal. Idi Amin personally welcomed the hostages. The hijackers demanded a ransom of $5 million as well as the release of 53 pro-Palestinian militants, otherwise they would begin to kill hostages.

Two days later, the first group of non-Israeli hostages were released, and subsequently all of the non-Israeli hostages were set free. This left around 106 hostages in Entebbe, including the airline crew, who had refused to leave.

Attempts to negotiate the release of hostages failed, leading the Israeli government to authorise a counter-terrorism hostage rescue mission by commandos. The mission took a week to plan but only 90 seconds to execute, and was largely successful: 3 hostages were killed during the mission and one died later after sustaining injuries.

Kenya, Uganda’s neighbour, had supported the Israeli mission, leading Idi Amin to order the killing of hundreds of Kenyans in Uganda, with thousands more fleeing persecution and potential death. The event divided the international community, who united in their condemnation of the hijacking but remained mixed in their reaction to the Israeli response.

The deadliest: 11 September 2001

Early in the morning of 11 September 2001, four flights on the east coast of America were hijacked by al-Qaeda in an act of terrorism. Rather than demanding money, taking hostages or diverting the course of the plane for political reasons, the hijackers threatened the crew and passengers with a bomb (whether they actually had explosives is unclear) and took control of the cockpit.

Three of the four planes were flown into key landmarks: the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. The fourth plane was crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers overpowered the hijackers. Its actual destination is unknown.

The attack remains the deadliest act of terrorism in history to date, resulting in nearly 3,000 fatalities and 25,000 injuries. It shook the world, acted as a catalyst for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and crippled the aviation industry, forcing the introduction of new, much more rigorous security checks in order to prevent similar occurrences in future.

Garrett Graff's tells the oral histories of 9/11, from archive material he has collated to interviews he has conducted with people who responded to events on the day. Producer: Peter Curry
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Sarah Roller