41st Anniversary of Airport Screening

Forty one years ago today, the US instituted airport screening at New Orleans’ Moisant Field, now known as Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.  Prior to 1968, the hijacking Of US airliners was very rare.  In the two years leading up to 1970, however, the number of hijackings increased dramatically.

Through the mid-1960s, only two hijackings occurred in the United States.  On May 1, 1961, Antulio Ramirez Ortiz hijacked a National Airlines flight to Cuba from Miami.  Six years later, Louis Babler, hijacked a Piper Apache to Havana from Hollywood, FL.

In 1968, things changed.  Hijackers commandeered 15 airplanes from the United States to Cuba.

The following year, the number of hijackings increased dramatically.  There were 34 total incidents in 1969.  April was the only month in which there was no air piracy.  January saw eight hijackings; there were four in February, March, and June; three each in August and September; the months of May, July, and October had two hijackings each; and November and December each had one.

Hijackings declined considerably over coming the years.  In 1970 and 1971, the US saw 13 hijackings to Cuba each of those years.  There were only six in 1972 and then only one hijacking each in the years 1974, 1979, 1980, 1985, 1992, and 1993.  In 1996, there were two hijackings.

For the most part, these events did not involve injury or death to the pilots, cabin crews, or passengers.  During those three decades, airline management preached the mantra of non-confrontational compliance.  Historically, if a captain faced a hijacker, he or she knew if they gave in to the hijacker’s demands, they would go to Cuba and eventually find their way home unhurt.

Things changed dramatically on June 14, 1985.  TWA Flight 847 originated in Cairo with 139 passengers and a crew of eight.  On the leg between Athens and Rome, members of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad took control of the aircraft.  What followed was a three-day ordeal in which the hijackers demanded the pilot fly the aircraft to various destinations throughout the Middle East.

In the course of the hijacking, passengers were tortured, including US Navy diver, Robert Dean Stethem.  The hijackers tortured and killed Petty Officer Stethem and dumped his body from the aircraft onto the tarmac at Beirut.

Because of this hijacking and the events of September 11, 2001, airport security has become a high-level priority.  In addition, the government has authorized, and some pilots have elected, to fly armed.

More than likely, as the passengers of United 93 so inspirationally demonstrated, Americans probably will never allow the takeover one of our flights again.

-30-

©2011 J. Clark

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2 Responses to 41st Anniversary of Airport Screening

  1. Harrison says:

    Brings back old memories, Joe. One of our 727s was on approach to Columbia, S.C. when the intercom rang. The engineer answered and a panicked flight attendant said, “There’s a man with a bottle of gasoline and a lighter and he’s going to blow us up if we don’t take him to Cuba.” The engineer handed the phone to the captain and said, “It’s for you, boss.” True story.

    Also, there’s a book titled “Odyssey of Terror” published in 1977 by Broadman Press. It was written by Captain Billy Bob Haas, and tells the story of Southern Airways Flight 49. Their hijacking lasted two days as they flew up and down the east coast, gathering ransom money, and finally ended in Cuba. First Officer Harold Johnson was shot but survived. The FBI shot the tires out in Orlando, (without consulting with Billy Bob) but Haas wrestled the DC-9 off the ground and made it to Cuba. Sorry about the long comment; your blog inspired me.

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