You would think that having the nerve to hijack a multimillion-dollar aircraft filled with passengers flying thousands of feet in the air would take serious skill, planning, and intelligence. But that’s not always the case. Of course, there have been some grave hijackings, like the obvious 9/11 attack.
And then there are the less well-known and more obscene hijackings. This is a list of the most notorious hijackings in aircraft history. Some are frightening, some are absurd, and some are borderline funny, but all of them are so crazy that you’re gonna think about them while waiting in the security line for your next flight.
1976: Air France Flight 139
Air France’s Flight 139 was headed from Tel Aviv to Paris on June 27, 1976. On the way, four people hijacked the aircraft. Two were members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a militant organization known for carrying out hijackings during the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The other two belonged to the Red Army Faction, a German terrorist organization. During a connection in Athens, four armed terrorists took over the plane. The men demanded that the captain, Michel Bacos, fly to Libya to refuel before landing in Uganda. Once in Uganda, the dictator Idi Amin, who knew about the hijacking from the beginning, welcomed them.
Once in Entebbe, the terrorists divided the Jewish and Israeli passengers from the rest, keeping the Jews hostages and freeing the others. Obviously, every hijacker has a demand. Theirs was $5 million and the release of several Palestinian militants from Israeli and other countries’ prisons.
Otherwise, they would start killing off the hostages. On July 4, about a week after the hijacking, the Israeli forces sent a unit to free the passengers in a mission dubbed “Operation Entebbe.” The Israeli forces managed to free all passengers, except for three who were killed in the crossfire.
1985: Norway’s First-Ever Hijacking
When it comes to flying, most people get at least a little antsy. It’s a good thing they have airport bars that charge you three times the price of a regular drink, am I right? Flying is just one of those forms of travel that basically requires a liquid mood stabilizer, if you will. And then there are those passengers who need a drink so badly they’re willing to hijack the plane to get one.
In June of 1985, Norway experienced their first-ever airplane hijacking. During a flight from Trondheim to Oslo, a man “apparently fed-up with society” (the words of the Aviation Safety Network) took the aircraft by force.
24, Drunk, and Pi$$ed
A 24-year-old, slightly intoxicated ex-convict boarded the plane. He threatened the crew with a gun and demanded a word with Norway’s prime minister and justice minister about his treatment in prison. Through it all, he kept drinking. The justice minister couldn’t have cared less, though: “We never considered yielding to his pressure,” he reported to The New York Times.
Anyways, the flight landed in Oslo, pretty much on time, and the tipsy hijacker allowed passengers to leave. The crew, however, was forced to stay put. The young impromptu terrorist then went into one of the airplane bathrooms while constantly watching his hostages.
No More Beer, Sir
His hostages included two pilots and three flight attendants. While they patiently waited for his rampage to teeter out, the man kept drinking and demanded the flight attendants bring him more beer.
About an hour after the passengers left the plane, airport police intervened and told him he couldn’t have any more beer until he handed over his pistol. He did just that. In the end, there were no casualties; just a crazy story for the passengers and crew to tell their family and friends.
1985: TWA Flight 847
Also in 1985, but on the other side of the world, Trans World Airlines was flying from Cairo to San Diego. En route, the plane made a stopover in Athens, when it got hijacked. The hijackers were Mohammed Ali Hamadei and another unnamed man, who held the 153 passengers and crew hostage for 17 days.
The two terrorists forced the captain to go back and forth multiple times between Algeria and Lebanon before finally landing in Beirut. During those two-plus torturous weeks, the terrorists beat several hostages and threatened to kill them.
The Longest Hijacking Ever
What were their demands? The liberation of hundreds of Lebanese detainees in Israeli prisons. One passenger was 23-year-old US Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem, who was killed in the hijacking and whose body was disgracefully left on the tarmac of Beirut’s airport.
The BBC reported that negotiations were carried out along the way and ultimately all other hostages were released. Many years later, in 2019, the case resurfaced when a Lebanese man was arrested in connection to the hijacking. But he was later released due to a mistaken identity.
1994: A Man Scorned
42-year-old FedEx flight engineer Auburn Calloway was down in the dumps after his wife suddenly divorced him. Taking his own life wasn’t an option – his life insurance wouldn’t cover it. So, he came up with the next best plan – to bring down a plane.
That way, of course, it would look like an accident and his children would be able to get his life insurance. So, he booked himself a “jump seat” on a flight. It was the term for free seats on FedEx planes that the company offers its employees.
What Have You Got There in Your Guitar Case?
On April 7, he boarded the aircraft with a guitar case. As the plane rose and hit cruising altitude, Calloway took a hammer out of his guitar case and started attacking the flight crew. Somehow, the pilot and co-pilot survived the head-bashing and managed to fight back.
They took the hammer from the crazed man, who then went to plan B: a scuba speargun (which he also had ready in his guitar case). Luckily, the crew got control of Calloway, but as they were attempting to land, the man got free again.
The Hardest Plane Landing in History
That’s when the pilot took the aircraft on a series of steep dives and climbs, a whole bunch of ups and downs, trying to throw Calloway off long enough for the crew to keep him down. It’s basically a miracle that the pilots were able to land the plane.
Thing is, they were so badly injured that neither the pilot nor co-pilot would be allowed to fly commercial planes again. Still, the entire flight crew was given medals for heroism by the Airline Pilots Association. As for Calloway, he was sentenced to two consecutive life terms.
1948: The First Commercial Hijacking
On July 16, 1948, a new crime was created. On a plane to Hong Kong from (the then-Portuguese colony of) Macau, four greedy men tried to take control of the aircraft. It proved to be the first-ever hijacking of a commercial plane, with dire consequences for both the attackers and the innocent passengers on board.
At the time, this was an unprecedented crime. There was no such thing as hijacking back then. The newspapers called it an act of “air piracy.” The managing director of Cathay Pacific Airways said, “the facts were so fantastic that they appeared incredible.”
Miss Macao’s Unlikely Three
The aircraft was a seaplane called the Miss Macao, which was known to carry very rich businesspeople and even gold bars back and forth between Macau and Hong Kong. These pioneering hijackers were an unlikely group of Chinese men who had the gall to perform an airborne heist.
And these weren’t thieves or gangsters – they were three regular villagers. One of them, though, was a trained pilot, and he came up with the idea of taking over the plane. The plan was to fly it to a remote location and steal from the wealthy passengers.
What Happened to Yu?
This terrorizing trio had one problem: a lack of geographical knowledge. They wanted to recruit someone who knew the local islands and coastlines well and they had a guy in mind: a rice farmer named Wong Yu.
He was supposed to be the fourth man – the one to guide the hijackers to a proper landing site. But Yu didn’t pull thorough apparently, and things went very, very wrong. As it turns out, the two pilots on this fateful flight weren’t even supposed to be there…
An Interesting Group of Passengers
27-year-old American pilot Dale Cramer and 23-year-old Australian first officer Ken McDuff were in the cockpit that day, but neither of them should have been there. Cramer was only brought in because the original pilot had developed an earache that morning.
As for McDuff, he was covering for the original first officer who happened to fall into the water while trying to secure the seaplane after a previous flight. An assorted group of passengers were on board, including a jockey, a millionaire executive at a gold bullion firm, a Coca-Cola employee, and the ringmaster of a traveling circus.
All Hell Broke Loose
Among the hodge-podge of passengers were the hijackers, dressed in suits and hats like the classic gangsters you see in old movies. Back then, they didn’t employ metal detectors, so handguns were absurdly a commonplace item of luggage. Shortly after the flight took off, the gang took out their guns and ordered the pilots to surrender control.
Stunned and outraged by this, the pilots simply refused. McDuff lunged at one of the attackers, hitting him on the head with a mooring pole. That’s when all hell broke loose. The passengers started to retaliate and attack the hijackers.
A Nosedive Into the Waters Below
Shots were fired, and one of the bullets hit pilot Cramer in the back of his head, killing him instantly. As his body slumped forward, the plane started on a deadly downward slope towards the water below.
The official report from the airline reported: “The plane must have turned right round and dived into the sea at a very steep angle, the impact tearing off the nose. The force of the water, under extreme pressure, rushed through the fuselage and tore away the tail.” The sole survivor? Wong Yu, who was at the back of the plane, at the time of the crash.
Who Is This Yu Guy, Anyway?
After being pulled ashore, he was taken to the hospital. Sooner than later, people started suspecting Yu as being involved in the hijacking. The police needed to get Yu to talk, so they tried all kinds of tactics, like recording devices secretly planted on the ward and having detectives pose as patients in neighboring hospital beds.
Eventually, Yu confessed by bragging about the hijacking to a police informer who was disguised as a patient recovering from surgery. Now get this: Yu walked away a free man after just a couple years. How? Because Portuguese authorities in Macau and British authorities in Hong Kong were in disagreement on whose jurisdiction Yu fell under, since the crime took place in between the two locations.
1969: The 14-Year-Old Hijacker
David Booth from Cincinnati wasn’t having a good go of it in November of 1969. He was a “confused, messed-up kid,” as he told WNWO. For this teenager, the event that triggered him was his brother moving to Massachusetts.
On November 10, David decided to forge a check from his dad, and then he headed to the airport. Being the young and inexperienced kid he was, he didn’t fill out the check correctly, so the airport refused to sell him a ticket. David called home, and by that point, his school had already reported the student as missing.
The Kid Snapped
That call home was an explosive conversation with his father, who made it clear to his son that he would sorely regret this stunt when he got home. David then “snapped.” He realized he didn’t need a ticket and had another plan.
Thinking about the Vietnam vet who had just hijacked a plane from California to Rome two weeks earlier, David came up with a plan. He simply walked toward the nearest gate – Gate 5. There, he saw an 18-year-old ballet dancer (named Gloria Jean House) escorting her grandmother to her flight.
His Handy Pocketknife
For David, they were his ticket on to the plane. But for the girl and her grandmother, it would become a traumatic experience and one they would never have expected that day. The grandmother, who had never flown before, had won a trip to Mexico and was excited to embark on her first-ever vacation.
But then this troubled teenager showed up. Gloria Jean and her mother were helping the grandmother board the Delta flight to Chicago (for the first leg of her trip) when David grabbed Gloria Jean and flashed his pocketknife. He told her: “for protection.”
“I Have a Bomb”
David forced Gloria Jean onto the tarmac, and her mother shouted for help. “I was really scared after he put that knife at my side and said, ‘You’re going with me, we’re going to Sweden,’” Gloria Jean said later.
David demanded that he be taken to Sweden, but the Delta official told him that the plane was incapable of crossing the Atlantic. So, he switched his destination to Mexico. David declared that he had a bomb, but it was really just an ink bottle with a wick in it.
Son, Put Down the Knife
He assured Gloria Jean that he wouldn’t hurt her, but he told her to scream to make people think he was hurting her, “so I did,” Gloria Jean recalled. The 68 passengers then got off the plane, which is when the authorities reported they chose “to make a show” and taxied the plane onto a runway.
Meanwhile, airport police boarded the plane to tell David that he needed to surrender already. After the police and the FBI promised not to press charges, David dropped the knife. No one was injured in the end.
The Judge Was Merciful
“It wasn’t a very well-thought-out plan, to say the least,” David said in 2009, a then 54-year-old retired man living in Tennessee. He said he was just trying to see his brother at the time. Despite the fact that hijacking (or attempted hijacking) is a federal offense, officials agreed to allow local authorities to handle the case.
David’s father tried to declare his son as incorrigible. Luckily for the Booth family, Judge Benjamin Schwartz found something worth saving in the teenager. He sentenced the kid to six months in the Bob Hope House, a home for vulnerable children.
Looking Back With Remorse
David said the compassionate treatment helped him get back on his feet. He went on to get married, have three kids, and lead a successful career at a New Hampshire chemical plant. “If I did something like that today, they’d lock me up and throw away the key.”
But at the time of this 2009 interview (with 24 News), David was in bad health, and he couldn’t help but look back on that fateful day and regret his stupid mistake. He thought about Gloria Jean House.
His Apology Was 13 Years Too Late
“I want to make my amends; I want to make my peace,” he said. But the woman would never get to hear his apology because she had died 13 years earlier of throat cancer. When a reporter informed David, he broke down and cried uncontrollably “for nearly a minute.”
“The one big regret I’ve had is that in 40 years I never was able to apologize to that girl. Now I can’t. Oh, this is terrible. I’m so sorry for Gloria Jean and her family,” he mourned. David was certainly upset to hear how his hijacking attempt had a long-lasting negative effect on the dancer.
Nightmares and Anxiety
Gloria Jean’s sister, Lynn Panno, said that for the first few years afterward, Gloria Jean had consistent nightmares and woke up screaming, convinced someone was in her room. For decades, she was uncomfortable being physically close to strangers and would avoid crowds, “because of the way she’d been grabbed that time,” Panno stated.
She was married twice but never had children. But according to Panno, her sister “was a very loving and generous person, a very forgiving person. I’m sure she’d forgive him. I know she would.”
1985: EgyptAir Flight 648
Before 9/11, the EgyptAir Flight 648 hijacking was the most infamous in the history of aviation, because of the number of victims. 60 people died in the hijacking of the plane en route from Athens to Cairo.
The hijacking began only ten minutes after take-off when three members of the Abu Nidal Organization (a Palestinian militant group) took control of the plane and started to divide Israeli and American passengers from the rest of the passengers. During the flight, an Egyptian security guard managed to shoot one of the terrorists dead before getting fired at.
One of the Deadliest Hijackings
Soon enough, the cabin pressure was lost, and the pilot was forced to make an emergency landing in Malta, rather than Libya, as demanded by the terrorists. Once on Maltese territory, negotiations began between Malta’s government and the hijackers.
They threatened to kill one person every 15 minutes if the government didn’t allow them to refuel. The main hijacker, Ali Rezaq, killed five people – two Israelis and three Americans – when his conditions weren’t met. After a series of diplomatic talks with Malta, Western governments responded with force.
Way Too Many Explosives
American-trained Egyptian soldiers were sent to rescue the hostages. But the Egyptian unit attacked the plane by detonating explosives. They used simply too many explosives, and since it was a windy day, the explosion fueled a fire that then took over the fuselage and moved throughout the overhead compartments of the cabin.
Soldiers were shooting inside the plane, killing passengers and the co-pilot yet missing Ali Rezaq. Rezaq then disguised himself as a hostage and was taken to the hospital. The hijacking conspirator was sentenced to 25 years but only served seven before being extradited to the US, where he is still serving a life sentence.
1971: The Notorious “Skyjacker,” D.B. Cooper
On November 24, 1971, a man by the name of Dan Cooper boarded a plane in Portland, Oregon, destined for Seattle. Cooper was a quiet man in a plain business suit, who ordered a bourbon on the flight.
He told a flight attendant he had a bomb in his briefcase and proceeded to give her instructions. She then presented Cooper’s demands to the flight captain: four parachutes and $200,000 in 20-dollar bills. After landing in Seattle, he received what he asked for in exchange for all the 36 passengers and some members of the crew.
Who Is D.B. Cooper?
He kept several of the crew on board with him and ordered the captain to fly to Mexico City. Cooper then jumped out of the plane “somewhere between Seattle and Reno,” according to the FBI. The FBI investigated the case for many years, questioning over 800 suspects, but the man has never been found or identified.
Nine years after the hijacking, a bag with 20-dollar bills was found that matched the ones given to Cooper. The remaining $195,000 is unaccounted for. Theories regularly pop up, even to this day, but who the hijacker is and what became of him remains a mystery.
The Only Unsolved Hijacking in the Country
The D.B. Cooper case happens to be the only unsolved air hijacking in America. And the case, which was closed in 2016, has led to multiple copycat hijackings. Within a year of the “Skyjacker,” at least nine copycat hijackers jumped out of planes.
One of the best known ones was in April 1972, when helicopter pilot, skydiver, and military vet Richard McCoy hijacked a plane with a hand grenade. He demanded half a million dollars and four parachutes. Just like Cooper, McCoy stopped for the cash…
From One Crazed Copycat to the Next
He then put on a flight suit on the next plane and jumped out over Utah. At first, the FBI suspected McCoy as being behind the Cooper caper, but he was then cleared from the suspect list. McCoy is, however, believed by many (including two FBI agents who even wrote a book about it) to be the actual D.B. Cooper.
Two months later, Robert Wilson boarded a flight from St. Louis to Tulsa. After paying his ticket in cash, he put on his purple sunglasses and carried through his mission…
An Airport Argument and an FBI Shootout
Wilson carried a submachine gun inside his trombone case and boarded the plane. Wilson took control of the plane and ordered it back to St. Louis. Wilson reportedly infuriated a random and probably drunk stranger in the airport lounge.
The man then drove his car right through the airport fence and into Wilson’s hijacked plane at 80 mph. Ducking behind his hostages to avoid the FBI sharpshooters, Wilson hijacked another plane and jumped out over Indiana. (I told you some of these cases are absolutely insane.)
2000: The DIY Hijacker
Like many of the other nutjobs on this list, Reggie Chua’s life was on a downward slope in 2000. He was facing bankruptcy and his wife was cheating on him with a cop. On May 25, the angry husband drank himself into a courageous state and packed a carry-on with some DIY projects he had been working on.
Chua then boarded a plane to Manila under a phony name. After an hour on the flight, he revealed his makeshift gun and a grenade and took control of the plane.
That’s a Bad Idea, Sir
Chua forced his way into the cockpit with his hand on the grenade pin. The crew’s chief asked the passengers, over the cabin PA system, for “voluntary donations” which were then handed over to Chua.
Witnesses reported seeing the hijacker strap himself into what was described as “a repurposed tent.” Chua told the crew chief to open the rear door of the plane, while threatening the pilot who tried to explain that it was a very bad idea. Still, they took Chua to the rear of the plane and opened the door.
Surviving the Jump, Only to Die in the Swamp
Of course, the wind slammed Chua inside, with his body half-in and half-out of the plane. Seeing that the lunatic still had the grenade in his hand, the crew chief pushed Chua the rest of the way out. Look, he did what he had to do.
According to Chua’s brother, Rannie, “He longed to be a skydiver,” as he told The Philippine Star. “But he had never jumped before.” Even with his DIY parachute and lack of experience, Chua “probably” survived the jump, but according to UPI, he then drowned in the muddy bog he landed in.
1981: Soaked in Gasoline
In May 1981, five minutes before Aer Lingus flight EI164 was set to land in London, Larry Downey went into the bathroom to soak himself in the gasoline that he managed to smuggle on to the flight. Flight attendant Deidre Dunphy recalled the event…
“When I got up and turned around, this passenger was there, covered in petrol, and he had two little vials and said they were cyanide gas… that was the start of it.” Covered in gas, Downey walked into the cockpit and demanded to be taken to Iran.
The Monk Turned Hijacker
As it turns out, Downey was once a Trappist monk in his home country of Australia, but he was expelled 30 years earlier for striking a superior. The pilots on the Aer Lingus flight told Downey that the plane didn’t have enough fuel to make it to the Persian Gulf.
Downey settled for France instead. Once the plane landed, it was surrounded by French police, which is when Downey issued his next demand. He wanted the Vatican to release the Third Secret of Fatima.
Conspiracy Theorists Unite
This Third Secret was a vague Portuguese “miracle” from 60 years earlier that was popular with conspiracy theorists. It took about 10 hours of waiting before the French authorities ran out of patience. So, special forces went ahead and raided the plane.
Downey was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to five years in prison. The Third Secret of Fatima was published nearly 20 years later. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, described the document as “probably proving disappointing or surprising after all the speculation.”
1996: Ethiopian Airlines’ Drunken Hijackers
In November 1996, Ethiopian Airlines’ flight to Nairobi was hijacked by three men. They were described to be “young (mid-twenties), inexperienced, psychologically fragile, and intoxicated.” The trio declared that they were carrying a bomb and if their demands weren’t met, they would destroy the plane.
The “bomb” was discovered to be a covered-up liquor bottle. They were demanding asylum in Australia, which is where they ordered the plane to land. As in many of these cases, the plane didn’t have enough fuel to make such a trip, but the hijackers weren’t convinced.
Out of Fuel? No Way
The captain, playing for time, flew south along the African coast. When the trio noticed they were still near land, they forced the pilot to fly east. The captain headed for the Comoros Islands near Madagascar, and as fuel continued to run out, the hijackers continued to ignore the captain’s warnings.
Finally, the plane made a dive into the Indian Ocean. Miraculously, 50 people survived the crash. US Ambassador to Mauritius commented: “It was a couple of nuts. It was nothing political at all, it was some goofy kids, and they apparently didn’t have more than fire axes and fire extinguishers and didn’t even know where they wanted to go.”
1969: Take Me to North Korea
In 1969, ten minutes after Korean Air’s flight to Seoul, South Korea, took off, the plane was diverted to North Korea. Three DPRK fighter jets flew alongside it, and when the plane landed, military officers boarded the aircraft, blindfolded the passengers, and took them off the plane.
South Korean authorities questioned every passenger and crew member but found no evidence that the pilots had any reason to go to the North. There were two passengers, though, who had absolutely no background information.
In the end, South Korea concluded that the two anonymous men were actually the hijackers and that the pilots’ “confession” (which was radioed in) was mostly likely a forced confession. UPI reported that North Korea rejected the allegations of it being a “stereotyped anti-DPRK political plot pursued by hostile forces.”
North Korea stated that the 11 passengers still remaining in the country chose to spend the next five decades in the poverty-stricken communist state and to never see their families again. Yup, that sounds about right…