Take me to Cuba! The skyjacking craze of the 1960s
The term “Hijacking” goes back to prohibition days, when gangsters would rob moonshine trucks saying “hold your hands high, Jack!” However, in the early days of commercial air travel, the idea that someone would hijack a plane was scarcely even considered. It all changed in the 1960s, when stories about hijacked planes hit the newsstands every week.
When the government started to oversee aviation in 1958, hijacking wasn’t technically a crime and the early design of airport terminals reflected this. Airports were once more like train stations, where you walk through the terminal and onto the tarmac, and sometimes straight onto the plane itself, without flashing a ticket or showing anyone your identification.
Then in 1961, an epidemic of hijackings began.
The first wave of hijackers all wanted passage to Cuba. May 1st, 1961 was the first American hijacking, perpetrated by Antulio Ramirez Ortiz, an electrician in Miami. Ramirez got on a Key West-bound flight, held a knife to the pilot’s throat, and announced that he had been hired to assassinate Fidel Castro, and wanted to go to Havana to warn him.
In the second phase, the skyjackers broadened their horizons to more distant lands. There were skyjackers like Rafael Minichiello, an Italian-American marine who hijacked a plane from Los Angeles to Rome. He was hailed as a hero upon landing and served only 18 months in prison because the Italians refused to extradite him. Minichiello was a good-looking guy, and actually ended up with a role in a spaghetti western film.
Eventually skyjackers morphed into classic kidnappers who demanded ransom. This trend was started by Arthur Gates Barkley, an unemployed truck driver who had a dispute with the IRS. Barkley hijacked a plane from Phoenix to Washington DC, where he demanded 100 million dollars in cash be given to him by the supreme court. After that, skyjackers started asking for money and gold bars and crates of liquor and cigarettes and anything their hearts desired.
All the while, hijacking wasn’t considered a serious threat by airlines or passengers. It was more of an inconvenience than anything else. The passengers assumed that if the plane was hijacked, they would simply be flown down to Havana, where the hijacker would be taken off of the plane. Maybe they’d have to spend the night in Havana. Maybe they could catch a show and buy some cigars and rum and have a good story to tell back in the United States.
Since passengers weren’t yet demanding extra security, the airlines fought to keep things exactly as they were. Security screenings would alienate customers, the airlines worried, and if they treated all their customers like criminal suspects, people would opt to drive to their destinations instead of fly.
Whenever the idea of physically screening of all passengers was suggested, the airline lobby would shoot it down and force the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to come up with the weakest, most tepid security improvements. After all, a hijacking only cost an airline twenty or thirty thousand dollars, whereas x-ray screenings and security personnel would cost millions. For the airlines, the smart finanical choice was clear: put up with the hijackings, comply totally, and keep the customer experience on the ground the same.
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