Flights of fear
Only two major plane hijacks have been noted in 2018 and 2019, so far.
This is a far cry from May 1961 to the end of 1972 when there were 159 hijackings in American airspace. Most were between 1968 and 1972, sometimes more than one on the same day.
Flights to communist Cuba were the most popular demands of the hijackers from 1961 to 1969, followed by millions of dollars in ransom at number two.
While there was reluctance to institute tighter security, such as metal detectors at airports for fear of what passengers might think, some innovative schemes were “put on the table”.
One idea was to build a pretend version of the Havana airport in South Florida so that hijacked planes could land there instead.
The 21st Century of course saw a massive security upgrade in the airline industry, right down to limits on liquids and banning of sharp objects (even nail scissors) in carry-on luggage. Jokes about bombs were likely to lead to arrest and heavy penalty. The catalyst of course was the 9/11 hijacking attacks in the US in 2001.
Thorough security scanning of every passenger became the norm. Armed sky marshals were put on random flights, domestically and internationally.
Though the hijack threat appears to have diminished somewhat in Australia and sky marshals are no longer thought to be operating on domestic flights (confirmation is unlikely), they are still used on international flights around the world.
The first mid-air hijacking is attributed to Australia in July 1960, when a Russian migrant who had been living near Sydney seized a plane on a domestic flight and demanded to be flown to Singapore.
In the US an era of destinations much further afield than Cuba began; a disgruntled marine of Italian origin seized a plane and demanded to be flown to Rome, and succeeded, setting the record for the longest hijack flight in the process.
Hijackers rarely get away with their acts, many ending their lives (or some ending them for them) as well as taking the lives of their hostages.
The first recorded mid-air hijack of an airliner happened in Australia in July 1960, a month before the first one in the United States.
Trans Australia Airlines (TAA) Flight 408, a Lockheed Electra named the John Gilbert (VH-TLB) was operating the 7.30 pm departure from Sydney to Brisbane, the last for the day, on 19 July.
On board were 43 passengers and five crew members.
One of those passengers had unconventional carry-on luggage – a sawn-off .22 rifle, a spare loaded magazine and two sticks of gelignite. Airport security screening wasn’t what it is today.
Also, he wasn’t intending to go to Brisbane. He wanted to go to Singapore.
The passenger was Alex Hildebrandt, a 22-year old Russian migrant
The crew comprised Captain John Denton, First Officer Tom Bennett, Flight Engineer Fred McDonald and stewardesses Fay Strugnell and Janeene Christie. Another TAA officer, Captain Dennis Lawrence, and pilot Warren Penny were among the passengers.
Captain Denton was preparing the plane for descent into Brisbane, when the 22-year-old Hildebrandt, an unemployed labourer, came out of the lavatory where he had assembled a gelignite bomb.
Fay Strugnell placed a dispatch bag on the vacant seat beside Hildebrandt, intending to put flight documents into it.
She looked up to see Hildebrandt pointing a gun at her head at close range. He ordered to get the captain. As she went to the cockpit, Hildebrandt pressed the call button and Janeene Christie responded. A sawn-off .22 rifle was thrust at her throat, and the Hildebrandt again demanded: “Get the captain.’’
Miss Strugnell returned with the flight engineer, Fred McDonald. While she was talking to Hildebrandt, she saw two sticks of gelignite beside him and a battery in the seat arm ashtray.
Hildebrandt then threatened McDonald with the firearm and demanded that the airliner be diverted to Singapore.
According to the Trans-Australia Airlines Museum notes, Hildebrandt had a suspended wire over a torch battery attached to a detonator linked to two sticks of gelignite, and another wire linking the battery and the gelignite.
It was not the kind of sophisticated explosives devised used in more recent times but was said to be capable of causing a major explosion that probably would have killed everyone on board.
Hildebrandt began ranting that he was going to destroy the plane and demanded the plane be flown to Darwin or Singapore. Meanwhile, Dennis Lawrence had walked up behind him after grabbing an axe carried on the plane to be used in an emergency escape and sat in the seat behind Hildebrandt.
Captain Denton, made aware of the hijack attempt, turned the plane towards the sea and kept it circling over Moreton Bay so the hijacker could not see that they were near Brisbane.
Tom Bennett left the cockpit and tried to calm Hildebrandt. As Bennett and Lawrence spoke to Hildebrandt the gun was fired. The bullet passed through the ceiling of the plane, missing Bennett for inches.
Bennett punched Hildebrandt and pulled the wires from his crude bomb.
He recalled: “I don’t know how I decided that the time was right to jump him. I know we were not getting anywhere, and I had this thought that it was time to take control.
“Then I did make my move, I just grabbed for the gelignite and threw a punch at him at the same time.’’
Captain Lawrence, rose from the seat behind the hijacker and hit him with the heavy rubberised handle of the axe.
Warren Penny helped Bennett and Lawrence restrain the would-be hijacker. Handcuffs carried on the plane were sued to keep Hildebrandt controlled until the plane landed at Eagle Farm airport in Brisbane.
Penny recalled that Captain Lawrence had given him the axe and told him, “If he moves, smash him across the skull”.
It later emerged that in the morning of the hijack, Hildebrandt’s mother had given him 18 pounds at their Riverstone, Sydney, home. He was to have used 8 pounds to pay a fine for having evaded a rail fare, and the other 10 was to have been paid off the price of a suit.
Instead, the 22-year-old used the money to buy a coat and a plane ticket from Mascot to Brisbane.
When the plane landed at Eagle Farm at 9.25pm, police were waiting.
They boarded the aircraft and Det Sgt Merton Hopgood, arrested Hildebrandt. He was charged with having attempted to murder Tom Bennett and having had an explosive device on the plane with intent to destroy it.
Det Insp Les Bardwell, a police firearms expert, found that the bomb would certainly have detonated had the second wire touched the battery.
Tom Bennett recalled that Hildebrandt insisted the aircraft should not land in Brisbane, and that he tried to persuade him it did not have enough fuel to go anywhere else.
Hildebrandt faced court in Brisbane and found guilty on 7 October.
It was revealed Hildebrandt was born at Patoka, Russia, on May 30, 1938, and was taken to Germany when he was only a few months old because his father disagreed with the Communists.
His parents spent the war years in German labour camps, and he had little schooling.
The family came to Australia under the displaced persons migration scheme in 1950 and lived in migrant camps in Victoria and NSW before settling at Riverstone, near Sydney.
Hildebrandt had worked at various jobs and had a couple of convictions for minor offences.
A lawyer who appeared for him at his trial in Brisbane claimed Hildebrandt had a persecution complex caused by his father’s ill-treatment of him. The hijacker believed he was being victimised because employers only ever gave him labouring work and he despised the capitalism system.
Psychiatrists said he had a paranoid personality.
He was found guilty on all charges. For attempted murder, he was jailed for three years; for having attempted to destroy the airliner, he was given 10 years; and on the lesser explosives charge he received two years.
But Hildebrandt went to the Queensland Court of Criminal Appeal on the 10-year sentence and argued successfully that as the plane was still over NSW (somewhere near Casino) when he armed the explosives in its lavatory, the Queensland court had no jurisdiction on that offence.
He served the three-year sentence, and as he left jail in Brisbane in February 1963 was re-arrested by NSW police and taken to Sydney to again face a charge of having attempted to destroy the airliner. He was again convicted and sent to jail for seven years.
Tom Bennet was awarded the George Medal for his actions and Captain Lawrence was commended for his part in subduing the hijacker.
Sources: Trans-Australia Airlines Museum, Courier-Mail and Canberra Times news reports.
The long way home
“Why should I feel sorry?”
That was Raffaele Minichiello’s answer to the first question he was asked when released from prison on Monday 10 November 1969 after serving 18 months of a seven years and six months sentence.
He should have felt lucky he was sentenced in Rome for his crime, not in the United States.
The crime? Hijacking a TWA jet airliner from California to Rome – 11,100 km, the world’s longest recorded hijacking.
In the US he would have faced the death penalty. In Italy he became a cult hero, with supporters demonstrating against bids to have him extradited to the US.
Raffaele Minichiello was born in Melito Arpino, Italy, in 1949.
On 21 August 1962, the hills of southern Italy, a little north-east of Naples, began shaking in one of the most earthquake-prone parts of Europe. The 6.1-magnitude quake got everyone’s attention, but it was two powerful aftershocks that did most damage.
The Minichiello family lived just a few hundred metres north of the epicenter. When the shaking eventually subsided, their village of Melito Irpino lkay in ruins. The family had nothing, and no immediate help was forthcoming.
Almost the entire village was evacuated. It was levelled and rebuilt.
Many families returned but the Minichiellos decided to move to the US and they left Italy for what they thought would be a better life in 1963.
At school, Raffaele, who spoke little English, had a tough time. He was tormented in high school because of his accent and poor grasp of the language.
In 1967, he left high school and enlisted in the US Marine Corps at San Diego.
He was shipped to Vietnam in late 1967, where he was wounded in action, before returning to Camp Pendleton with a Purple Heart award.
While in Vietnam he learned that his father was terminally ill and was returning to Italy. Minichiello had been sending money to a Marines savings fund and had saved $800. But when he returned to Camp Pendleton, he found only $600 in his account, not enough to get to Italy to see his dying father.
And so it was at Camp Pendleton that Raffaele first ran afoul of authority and began on the path to jail in Italy.
Raffaele believed his unit’s paymaster had short-changed him $US 200. His complaints got short shrift.
So, he decided upon his own course of justice and after drinking eight cans of beer for courage one night in May 1969 he broke into the Post Exchange and took $200 worth of wristwatches and radios.
He fell asleep in the store, was arrested and charged with burglary and theft. He was due to face a court martial on 29 October 1969.
That wasn’t for him and he again decided to take matters into his own hands. He would go back to Italy. But not in a conventional way of buying an airline ticket.
The day before his court martial was to begin, the 19-year-old Raffaele deserted and went to Los Angeles where he bought an M1 rifle and 250 rounds of ammunition. He did buy an airline ticket, not to Italy but on TWA Flight 85, a Boeing 707 going to San Francisco.
Dressed in camouflage clothing, Minichiello bypassed the little security there was in those times by flirting with some hostesses, charming them into letting him board the plane early with them. His carry-on luggage included the disassembled rifle and ammunition. Just 15 minutes into the flight and after downing two shots of Canadian Club he assembled his gun in a lavatory, pointed it at a hostess and demanded to be flown to New York.
Trans World Airlines flight 85 began its schedule for the day in Baltimore before calling at St Louis and Kansas City.
Under the command of captain Donald Cook, 31, the flight landed in Los Angeles late at night and departed still in darkness. Next stop was to be San Francisco.
Flight attendant Charlene Delmonico began tidying the galley in the back of the plane with Tracey Coleman, who had been with TWA for only five months.
The passenger dressed in in camouflage clothing appeared in the galley.
He handed Delmonico a 7.62 mm bullet to prove the rifle was loaded and ordered her to take him to the cockpit to show it to the flight crew.
Among the passengers were members of Harpers Bizarre, an American pop band of the 1960s, perhaps best known for their cover version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).”
Band member Dick Scoppettone was stirred from his sleep by movement in the aisle and saw a man with a gun walking Delmonico towards the front of the plane.
Another band member, John Petersen, turned to Scoppettone from a few rows in front and said: “Is this really happening?”
Delmonico knocked on the cockpit door. She told the crew there was a man with a gun behind her. Minichiello stepped inside and pointed the rifle at each of the three men inside the cockpit: captain Cook, first officer Wenzel Williams and flight engineer Lloyd Hollrah.
Minichiello directed the crew to fly to New York. From there they would be going to Rome.
First, going to New York was a problem; the plane had only enough fuel to fly to San Francisco. And if Rome was to be the next destination, none of the flight crew was qualified to fly internationally.
Minichiello agreed to let the captain land in Denver to get enough fuel to reach the east coast. Cook alerted air traffic control for the first time that the plane had been hijacked.
Minichiello then said he would let 39 passengers get off in Denver if there wasn’t any trouble but insisted one of the flight attendants stay.
The members of Harper’s Bizarre called their manager and by the time they were cleared through the terminal a press crew was waiting for them. “It was the best publicity we ever had, by a mile,” Dick Scoppettone later told the BBC.
The plane left Denver with five people on board: Cook, Williams, Hollrah, Tracey Coleman and Minichiello.
The plane landed at John F Kennedy airport late in the morning where about 100 FBI agents were waiting.
Captain Cook warned the agents to stay away from the plane. Soon a shot rang out. It was later determined that Minichiello did not intend to shoot. Just outside the cockpit door, he is thought to have nudged the trigger of his rifle. The bullet pierced the ceiling but did not penetrate it or the plane’s fuselage.
Two TWA captains who were allowed to fly internationally, Billy Williams and Richard Hastings, boarded the plane past a ring of FB I agents.
“The FBI plan was damned near a prescription for getting the entire crew killed,” Cook later told the New York Times.
“We sat with that boy for six hours and had seen him go from practically a raving maniac to a fairly complacent and intelligent young man with a sense of humour, and then these idiots… irresponsibly made up their own minds about how to handle this boy on the basis of no information, and the good faith we had built up for almost six hours was completely destroyed.”
With the new pilots aboard and with the confusion surrounding the shot that was fired, the plane took off quickly, without enough fuel to get to Rome.
Within an hour TWA85 put down in Bangor, Maine, where it took on enough fuel to cross the Atlantic. Without further incident, the plane took off again and headed towards international airspace and Shannon, on Ireland’s west coast. There, in the middle of the night, TWA85 refuelled again.
Outwardly, there was relative calm on the flight. But the remaining crew on board held an underlying fear for their safety.
Minichiello chatted with various crew members along the way, teaching one how to play the card game solitaire.
On the way to Ireland, 31 October became 1 November, Minichiello’s 20th birthday. The was no celebration though.
TWA85 circled Rome’s Fiumicino airport early in the morning.
Minichiello demanded that the plane be parked well away from the terminal and that he be met by an unarmed police officer.
Pietro Guli, a deputy customs official who had volunteered to meet the hijacker, walked up the steps to the plane with his hands up. Minichiello met him.
The hijack was over, 18-and-a-half hours after it had started over California.
“So long, Don,” Minichiello told the captain. “I’m sorry I caused you all this trouble.” Minichiello asked for Cook’s address so he could later write to him and explain what had happened after the hijacking.
Minichiello directed his new hostage to drive towards Naples. They were followed by police but lost them – and themselves. Minichiello then abandoned the car and ran off.
Police launched an extensive search with officers, dogs and helicopters in the hills around Rome.
Eventually a priest found the hijacker. Minichiello had sought shelter in a church after getting rid of his camouflage clothes and hiding his gun in a barn. He was recognised by a church official at Mass.
The police caught up with Minichiello outside the church.
As he was led away after an interrogation in a Rome police station, a reporter asked: “Why did you do it?”
“Why did I do it?” he replied. “I don’t know.”
Minichiello’s father, by then living near Naples, knew what caused his son to hijack the plane. “The war must have provoked a state of shock in his mind,” Luigi Minichiello told reporters who tracked him down. “Before that, he was always sane.”
Minichiello became a folk hero in Italy, portrayed as an Italian boy who would do anything to return to his motherland, even though his mother was living in the US.
About -300 demonstrators bearing placards reading “no to extradition”, “the executioner will not have Minichiello”, began gathered at Avellino in southern Italy, fearing that Minichiello would be extradited to the US and face the death penalty.
The villagers of Acqua-fredda Di Melito Irpino, Minichiello’s birthplace, raised money for his defence.
As it turned out, he was prosecuted in Italy only for crimes committed in Italian airspace, mainly weapons possession and kidnapping.
Three judges deliberated for three hours and 48 minutes. Minichiello, who had retained Italian citizenship, was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison.
At the trial, his lawyer Giuseppe Sotgiu, portrayed Minichiello as the poor victim of an unconscionable foreign war: “I am sure that Italian judges will understand and forgive an act born from a civilisation of aircraft and war violence.
His sentence was reduced on appeal and he was released from prison on 1 May 1971, saying to waiting media ‘Why should I feel sorry?”.
Minichiello settled in Rome where he worked as a bartender. He married the bar owner’s daughter, Cinzia, with whom he had a son. He once owned a pizza restaurant named Hijacking. A career as a nude model and actor fell by the wayside.
In 1980, a magnitude-6.9 earthquake struck southern Italy, its epicentre about 30 km from the one in 1962 and the most powerful earthquake to strike Italy in 70 years. The quake caused massive damage across the Irpinia region. Around 4,690 people were killed and 20,000 homes were destroyed.
It was reported that Raffaele Minichiello was among the hundreds of people who went to the region east of Naples to distribute aid.
Standing in the ruins, reporters noted that Minichiello appeared repentant: “I’m very different now to who I was,” he said. “I’m sorry for what I did to those people on the plane.”
In February 1985, his wife Cinzia was pregnant with their second child. After being admitted to hospital in labour, she and her newborn son died. Medical malpractice was alleged and Minichiello was enraged, let down by authority again. He planned to attack a prominent medical conference outside Rome to draw attention to the negligence that had cost his wife and son their lives.
While he plotted, Minichiello struck up a friendship with a young colleague, Tony, who introduced him to the Bible and read him passages out loud. Minichiello took heed and called off his plan.
In 1999, Minichiello decided to return to the US for the first time since the hijack after learning that there were no outstanding criminal charges against him there.
Because he had fled a court martial, he was given an “other than honourable discharge” by the Marines.
His former platoon comrades have been fighting to get this reduced to a general discharge, to reflect his service in Vietnam, but they remain unsuccessful to this day, even with letters to President Trump.
If his discharge is not amended, he will be ineligible for treatment for PTSD, and he will not receive any other veterans’ benefits.
In August 2009, Minichiello and his former platoon held a reunion in Branson, Missouri. He invited the crew from the hijacked plane to meet him. Williams and Delmonico accepted.
The atmosphere was tense for a while. But as more questions flowed, and Minichiello began to explain what had happened to him, the group grew closer.
Before they left, Minichiello handed them both a copy of the New Testament. Inside, he had written:
Thank you for your time, so much.
I appreciate your forgiveness for my actions that put you in harm’s way.
Please accept this book, that has changed my life.
God bless you so much, Raffaele Minichiello.
Underneath, he added the words Luke 23:34.
The passage reads: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
More recently, it has been reported that Raffaele Minichiello divides his time between Washington state and Italy, flies a home-made plane for fun and curates a YouTube feed dedicated to accordion music.
It is believed he has signed a film deal about his life story.
Sources: BBC News (Roland Hughes), Trove newspaper archives, People.com (Leonora Dodsworth, 1980).
Harpers Bizarre broke up in the mid-1970s. Dick Scoppettone went on to host a local radio show in Santa Cruz, California.