Armed and Anonymous

On your next flight, the passenger in the seat beside you could be a federal air marshal.

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“‘By’ told me this story 60 years ago,” says William Krusen, a former Panagra pilot and author of the book Flying the Andes: The Story of Pan American Grace Airways and Commercial Aviation in South America, 1926–1967. “He said he thought one of his passengers was in on it. But he didn’t try to fight any of them off or anything like that.”

Rickards steadfastly refused to fly the revolutionaries anywhere, and the standoff continued for 10 days. Then, on March 2, the would-be hijackers abruptly informed Rickards that even without their leaflet drop, the revolution had succeeded and their comrades had the capital Lima under firm control. So Rickards began to barter, and soon it was agreed: Rickards would be freed if he gave one of the revolutionaries a lift to Lima. The world’s first hijacking had ended in a draw.

In perhaps one of the most remarkable coincidences in aviation history, three decades, five months, and seven days after his first run-in with armed revolutionaries, By Rickards was again involved in a hijacking attempt. “He was a captain at Continental by then,” says Krusen. “Two hijackers wanted to fly to Cuba and it turned out to be in By’s plane.”

On August 3, 1961, Rickards was in the left seat of a Continental Airlines 707 on a flight out of El Paso, Texas, when ex-convict Leon Bearden and his teenage son, Cody, took over the airliner while it was still on the ground. The two amateurs, with very little preparation and what has been described as even less intellect, thought they could commandeer an airliner and proffer it to Fidel Castro as a gift, but these kin-in-crime never got off the ground. Security officers in four cars chased the Boeing down the runway and shot out its tires. After a two-hour standoff, the duo was captured.

Although perceived by some as a somewhat comedic episode, the case of “the gang that couldn’t hijack straight” signalled a change in the motivations of hijackers. Since World War II, nearly all acts of hijacking had involved individuals attempting to escape from repressive governments, like those of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. But in 1961 the rules changed. The attempt on Rickards’ Continental flight and the successful hijacking of National Airlines and Eastern Air Lines flights to Cuba earlier that year had brought piracy to the airways of America.

The U.S. government responded to the new threat by passing a law making hijacking a crime punishable by imprisonment a minimum of 20 years or death. And in 1962, President Kennedy started the federal sky marshal program. The FAA deputized 20 of its employees as U.S. marshals and utilized them on flights that agency analysts determined to be high-risk (the FAA will not identify these flights). The Kennedy administration kept the program secret. But with only 20 sky marshals in a secret program, the number of hijackings of U.S. aircraft continued to rise dramatically. In 1968, 22 hijackings to Cuba were attempted, and 18 succeeded. In 1969, there were 40 attempted hijackings of U.S. airliners. And while those numbers were alarming, it took the events of September 6, 1970—what came to be called “hijack Sunday”—to set in motion the story of armed policemen in the sky.

On that day four airliners were hijacked by gun- and grenade-toting zealots of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Two of the airplanes, a TWA 707 that had taken off from Frankfurt and a Swissair DC-8 on a Zurich-to-New York trip, were flown to Dawson’s Field, a former Royal Air Force airstrip in the middle of the Jordanian desert. A third airliner, a Pan Am 747 that had departed Amsterdam, was hijacked to Cairo because it was too large to land on the Dawson’s Field runway. The following day the almost new 747 was destroyed by suitcase bombs. On September 13, the two airliners held hostage at Dawson’s Field were blown up alongside a BOAC VC-10 that had been hijacked to Dawson’s four days earlier on a flight from Bahrain to London. Remarkably, the passengers and crew from all three aircraft survived by getting out before the bombs were detonated.

In the fourth hijacking attempted that Sunday, two armed PFLP terrorists attempted to take control of an Israeli El Al 707 flying out of Tel Aviv. After a running gun battle between the terrorists and several El Al sky marshals, the flight was diverted to London’s Heathrow Airport, where it dropped off the two hijackers, one restrained, the other dead.

The hijackings were front-page news around the globe. “There was no question it was a leading story for quite a bit of time and did propel the president to take action immediately,” says Martin Pollner, a former director of law enforcement for the U.S. Department of the Treasury and one of the fathers of the 1970 sky marshal program. “Nixon indicated that as a result of the hijacking of U.S. air carriers by Palestine guerrilla groups, he would put federal agents on all planes.”

Nixon put the U.S. Customs Service in charge of the fledgling sky marshal program, and the agency hired 1,500 marshals for use on both domestic and international flights. Although much of the program was secret, its existence was made known and the marshals were given one widely publicized mandate: Shoot to kill. One of those who would eventually carry the license to do just that was a young Vietnam vet named Michael Mooney. “They were taking United States flagships over to North Africa and blowing them up,” says Mooney. “I was really pissed off that these people were hijacking and assaulting Americans.”

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