November 14, 2012 Edition

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Johnson recalls
hijacking 40
years later




Harold Johnson (left) visits with William O'Barts of Black Rock Saturday at the Walnut Ridge Regional Airport's Swindle Field during a Veterans Day weekend salute. Saturday was the 40th anniversary since the hijacking of Johnson's Southern Airways flight.

(Editor's Note: Saturday was the 40th anniversary since the hijacking of Southern Airways Flight 49, of which Harold Johnson of Walnut Ridge was co-pilot. Hijackers attempted to kill Johnson, who dove behind a seat, receiving a bullet in his arm, rather than in his ribs. The 28-hour odyssey has been retold in countless media, including Reader's Digest. The following is Johnson's story, in his own words.)

In 1972 Janie, Debbie and I were living in Walnut Ridge, and I commuted to work in Memphis. Usually, I only had to go to the airport a few times a month, frequently flying three or four day trips. Flying was fun, rewarding and quite routine ... generally, no real excitement.

That changed on November 10, 1972. Our flight, which began in Memphis on Friday evening, with stops scheduled in Birmingham, Montgomery, Orlando and Miami, held a frightening surprise.

Any semblance of airport security in the 1960s was virtually nonexistent. You drove to the airport, purchased a ticket, checked your baggage, walked to the gate and boarded the airplane.

In 1961, there began a series of hijackings to Cuba. Nothing spectacular; someone just wanted a free ride. On July 8, 1972, President Nixon ordered the Federal Administration to tighten anti-hijacking measures for all airlines. Cursory scanning became commonplace.

Southern Airways Flight 49 departed Memphis on Nov. 10 with Captain Billy Bob Hass, Stewardesses Donna Holman and Karen Chambers, and me, as co-pilot. Billy Bob was flying the 75-passenger DC-9. I worked the radio, ran the checklist, and performed routine co-pilot duties.

In Birmingham several passengers deplaned, and others boarded. We taxied away from the gate about 7:10 p.m. It was customary that we alternate flying the airplane on each leg of the trip, so I made the take-off and headed for Montgomery to refuel and pick up additional passengers.

About 10 minutes after take-off, I heard unusual noises in the galley area immediately behind the cockpit. Then, the cockpit door burst open and in came a black man shoving stewardess Donna Holman in front of him, arm around her neck, a gun to her head and stating "We're taking over this airplane." Donna intoned, "He's not kidding, Billy Bob."

The captain took the controls and very calmly said, "Relax and tell us what you want."

"We want $10,000,000, and take us to Detroit," Henry Jackson declared.

Billy Bob told Jackson that we departed with just enough fuel to get to Montgomery, and we must refuel to fly to Detroit. Since Birmingham was the nearest suitable airport, Jackson said we could land there. I reached for the microphone to advise Air Traffic Control (ATC) that we needed clearance back to Birmingham. The move startled the hijackers, now three strong in the cockpit.

Billy Bob told him to relax while assuring him that we were going to cooperate. I proceeded to call ATC, and at the same time sent a code that we were in a hijack situation. During the remainder of the flight, except when he had to leave the cockpit, Billy Bob flew the airplane, and I handled the radio while in flight.

Clearance to Birmingham was received, but as we were on final approach, landing gear down and flaps extended, a hijacker ordered, "Don't land here! Go to Jackson, Mississippi."

As we headed to Jackson, I relayed the hijackers' demands: $10 million, 10 parachutes and 10 bulletproof vests. The request for 10 parachutes led me to believe there were more accomplices aboard, though only three hijackers ever appeared in the cockpit. I was never able to talk with Billy Bob or either stewardess to discuss the situation, since a hijacker was always in the cockpit.

When we landed in Jackson shortly after 8 p.m., the hijackers ordered us to stay on the runway and refuel there. The fuel truck arrived. Although procedures call for shutting down engines to refuel, we couldn't; three guns overruled procedures.

Once refueled, I requested clearance direct to Detroit. Quickly, the tower came back with the clearance, Southern 49, cleared direct to Detroit, climb and maintain (altitude.) (Wow, you get easy clearances when you're hijacked.)

On the way to Detroit, the hijackers' told us some of their story. They had a grudge against the City of Detroit, where they had been terribly mistreated by the court system. They wanted $10 million from the City of Detroit, not Southern Airways. Along the way, we came to know the three black hijackers as Henry (with a .38 Special), Lewis (with a Luger and hand grenade), and Melvin (with the 22 pistol.)

Billy Bob and I later learned that early into the ordeal, the hijackers forced the male passengers to strip to their underwear. After searching the garments, the passengers were allowed to dress. Also, that the company raised $500,000 and sent it on a Lear Jet to Detroit, in hopes that that would satisfy the hijackers.

Weather in Detroit was below landing minimums, so we circled in a holding pattern at 20,000 feet. While over Detroit, the hijackers made inquiries about the $10 million. "Is it ready?"

A controller said, "They're working on getting the money for you. They are doing all they can." A hijacker responded, "I don't have any more time... really... Get that money together, or I'm gonna crash it into Oak Ridge, Tennessee."

After circling for about an hour and a half, our fuel supply ran low, and I requested a clearance to Cleveland to refuel.

We landed at Cleveland about 12:30 Saturday morning, and sat on the runway, engines running, and waited for a fuel truck. It seemed like the truck would never arrive. As soon as the aircraft was refueled the hijackers ordered us to fly to Toronto, Canada.

At about 2:15 a.m. on Saturday, we arrived over Toronto, where we held, circling for about two and one-half hours before landing. After landing the company advised us that they had only been able to come up with $500,000. The hijackers were outraged and refused the offer in unprintable language.

We refueled and departed Toronto about 6:15 a.m. with a clearance to Knoxville, Tenn. We later learned that our plane was being tracked by another Southern Airways DC-9, with lights out, as well as a Navy Reserve plane, with FBI agents aboard.

As we approached Knoxville, we knew we needed to "kill some time" in the air, so I requested a clearance to "hold in the vicinity of Knoxville." There was continual pressure by the hijackers to get the $10 million.

We were ordered to descend through the clouds and locate the Oak Ridge Nuclear Facility. If the $10 million wasn't produced by 1 p.m. the hijackers warned they would crash the plane into the nuclear reactor at Oak Ridge.

While holding at Knoxville, hijacker Henry Jackson devised a plan. They would get a document from the White House stating that the $10 million was a grant from the U.S. Government. Billy Bob told me to call the White House and tell them the demand. The company patched me through, and soon I was speaking to John Ehrlichman, an advisor to President Nixon. I was assured the document would be dispatched to Knoxville.

As we continued a holding pattern near Knoxville, fuel ran low, and we flew to Lexington, Ky., to refuel. Flying back to the Knoxville area, we waited for the company to round up the $10 million as the looming 1 p.m. deadline neared. As the minute hand approached 1 p.m., the hijackers became irritated.

I pointed out that while it was 1 p.m. Eastern time, we had been in the Central time zone when the demand was made - so the company had another hour to meet their demand. The hijackers bought that story. We gained another hour!

Finally, the radio cracked, and Southern Airways advised that the $10 million was ready in Knoxville. As we lined up on final approach in Knoxville, the hijackers, fearing a trap, demanded we go to Chattanooga to pick up the money and provisions. (By now the list of demands had grown to include beverages, stimulants, alcohol and Kentucky Fried Chicken for everyone.)

At Chattanooga, the aircraft was refueled. Then, athletic bags, containing what the hijackers believed was $10 million as well as buckets of KFC, and the quite impressive document the hijackers had requested from the White House, were delivered.

Captain Haas had urged the hijackers to release the passengers when they got the money and believed they would do so. But, as the last item was loaded, the hijackers ordered the plane to Havana.

En route to Cuba, the trio brought a large bag of money to the cockpit and gave Billy Bob and me each several bundles of money. Henry, Lewis and Melvin were now in a good mood. They had money and apparently believed they could negotiate a good deal with Fidel Castro.

After landing in Havana, one of the hijackers climbed out the Captain's window to meet with Castro, who refused to see him. He returned to the airplane, climbed up a maintenance stand, and crawled back in the window in a very foul mood. We were ordered by the hijackers to take off.

Billy Bob advised that the plane's fuel was too low to leave Cuba. After a long delay and several requests for fuel, the hijacker became very upset. A passenger who spoke Spanish offered help. While a hijacker held a gun to his head, the passenger frantically pleaded with the Control Tower to send out a fuel truck, or he would be shot. It worked! In a little while a fuel truck arrived.

The fuel crew appeared unable to fuel the DC-9, so Billy Bob instructed me to slide down the emergency escape line stowed over the co-pilots window, to assist with refueling. When the fueling was completed, I was very tempted to not get back on the airplane... perhaps that would end the ordeal. But then I thought if I don't get back on, they will shoot some of the flight crew or they'll shoot passengers. And so I made the agonizing decision to go back and assume my duties.

The hijackers ordered us to take off and fly to Algeria - but, Cuba had been unable to completely fill the fuel tanks and Billy Bob advised them we would have to land in Key West to top-off the fuel. After refueling, in Key West, I requested a clearance and radar vector toward Algeria.

Billy Bob and I, and later, air traffic control began emphasizing that the plane was not capable of flying across the Atlantic and discussed the ensuing ditching in the Ocean. Sharks or drowning: either, was a bad way to go.

Shooting of tires triggers hijackers

The hijackers finally accepted their great peril and agreed the plane could return to Orlando for fuel and maps so they could chart a workable route. As the fuel truck pulled away after refueling the plane in Orlando, FBI agents with shotguns, rifles and revolvers shredded the tires with gunfire to prevent takeoff. I thought it sounded like popcorn in a microwave.

The hijackers panicked. One of them pulled me from my seat and shoved me into the passenger compartment, then, one climbed into the co-pilot's seat and tried to shoot the fuel truck.

Meanwhile, Henry Jackson returned to the passenger compartment where he confronted me, "Why did you do it Harold?" then ordered me to stand up in the seat, "I'm going to kill you."

Lewis Moore shoved the Luger in my ribs. I pushed the pistol away with my elbow. I told Henry that we tried to be cooperative, and that we'd done everything they asked us to.

It became quite obvious that he was going to shoot. I dived for the floor. As I did, he shot - the bullet went through the seat back and tray table and into my arm, just below the shoulder. The trauma of the shot temporarily knocked me out.

Melvin was in the cockpit when I was shot. He ordered Billy Bob to take off and fly back to Havana, but Billy Bob said he couldn't fly without his copilot. While Henry was ordering me to stand up, preparing to shoot again, Melvin emerged from the cockpit and told him to leave me alone, then ordered me back into the cockpit. (God bless Melvin.) I picked up my dangling, broken right arm with my left hand and hurried to the cockpit, hoping Henry was finished.

As I struggled to fasten my seat belt, Billy Bob pushed the throttles forward. Rolling on nothing but rims and mangled rubber, the DC-9 began moving and then headed skyward. No one was permitted to attend to my broken, bleeding arm, but I was able to perform the copilot duties with my one good arm.

We were ordered to fly to Key Biscayne so the hijackers could talk with President Nixon, but I was unable to establish radio contact with the President's Key Biscayne compound.

Once again we were ordered to Cuba, where we circled to burn-off fuel. As we prepared for landing, I flew the plane with the autopilot, while Billy Bob went to the rear to check the landing gear and reassure the passengers.

We had requested the runway be foamed for landing, and was assured by the control tower that it would be; but, contrary to several printed reports, there was no foam. Thankfully, the plane came to a stop with no fire.

As the plane rolled to a stop, the hijackers immediately grabbed all the moneybags they could carry, hopped out the over-wing exits and off the wing. Castro had his troops positioned along the runway, and the hijackers were promptly nabbed as they hit the ground.

The aftermath

The front door of the DC-9 was finally opened for the first time since leaving Birmingham, almost 28 hours before.

A taxicab met the aircraft and whisked me to a hospital in Havana. That was the scariest part of the hijacking. The taxicab driver didn't slow down for anything. He just honked his horn repeatedly, zooming through intersections.

On Sunday, Southern Airways sent another DC-9 to Havana to bring all of us, passengers and crew, home.

The hijackers spent eight years in a Cuban prison before returning to Birmingham, where Louis and Melvin were sentenced 20 years in prison. Henry received a 25-year sentence for shooting me. My arm healed, and I was able to resume my duties as a copilot. The following year, based on my seniority, I checked out as captain on the DC-9.

In January 1973, the FAA mandated that all airline passengers had to pass through metal detectors and put their carry-on baggage through inspection.

The original flight crew and I returned to Havana in April of 1977 to take the South Dakota basketball team to play Cuba. At the urging of a Georgia Congressman, Castro eventually returned the ransom money (which was $2,000,000 - not $10,000,000 as the hijackers thought) to Southern Airways.

That night in Orlando, I knew I was going to die.

Now, 40 years later I am aware that each new day is one Henry Jackson wanted to deny me. He was only six feet away; how could he miss? God decided I should live. I savor each breath, and the new opportunities he gives me.

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