Back in the day, flying was a different beast.
You could smoke on the plane, flight attendants told wild tales of various misdeeds, and it was far easier to hijack a plane and then demand a cash ransom before leaping out of the moving plane with a parachute to escape.
If you think that last one sounds familiar, it’s probably because of the story of DB Cooper, one of America’s great crime mysteries.
A less well-known, but equally wild tale of skyjacking, was recently told by Martin McNally for the podcast Criminal, and it’s Hollywood stuff right from the start.
NewsAU have his full account, but for the sake of brevity we’ll try and pluck out the most interesting bits:
He waited until the plane was 15 minutes from its destination at Tulsa, Oklahoma before he made his move — pulling out his gun, flagging down a flight attendant, and forcing her to deliver his note to the captain.
The 28-year-old [below] planned to force American Airlines Flight 119 back to St Louis where he could get the cash he demanded — $500,000, plus $2000 in spending money — and make the plane re-route to Canada. At some point along the way, he’d use a parachute to jump out with his loot.
It was a bold get-rich-quick scheme for the penniless young navy vet who hadn’t been on a plane before, much less knew how to use a parachute.
This all took place back in 1972, a year after the DB Cooper incident, and McNally says he first hatched his plan after hearing about Cooper on the radio.
He spent months researching the crime, looking into terminal velocity, and finding out about how parachutes worked, and then scouted airports throughout America’s Midwest to pick the softest target, settling on Lambert Airport in St Louis.
Also aiding him was the fact that at this stage, airport security was very lax, and he boarded with a sawed-off rifle, a pistol and smoke grenade:
Once it landed in St Louis, McNally ordered women and children off, and then decided to also let go anyone who was elderly, had a heart condition, or was on medication…
But McNally needed hostages. He made 15 men stay behind, along with the flight crew, and demanded the plane circle over St Louis while banks pulled together his $502,000.
After about five hours, the plane landed at St Louis again and McNally was given his money in a bag. He gave $2000 to flight attendants as a tip.
He also received other items he’d demanded: two shovels, goggles, five parachutes, two harnesses, and an altimeter for measuring altitude.
Finally, at about midnight, McNally kept one passenger hostage on the refuelled plane and it started preparing for takeoff.
So far so good, except now it really gets bonkers. A chap called David Hanley had been watching the drama from the airport terminal, and he was bloody livid.
Rather than sit idly by, he left the terminal, got in his Cadillac El Dorado, and headed for the runway:
…he sped towards the plane on a collision course. With the plane’s tank freshly filled with jet fuel, the impact could have been disastrous.
The pilot hit the brakes and while the Cadillac struck, there was no explosion.
But it was a major setback for McNally.
“What the pilot did was slam on the brakes, the plane bounced twice, I think at that point everything came to a stop,” he said.
“I realised we were really hit by some damn fool (and) we’re going to have to order another plane.”
With authorities and emergency services surrounding the now-damaged plane, another passenger jet was brought in as close as possible so McNally and his hostages could move from one to the other.
To prevent FBI snipers from taking him out, McNally used two flight attendants as human shields, and made it to the second Boeing 737.
The plane took off and McNally was way behind schedule, meaning some vital parts of the plan were rushed:
“Never in my life had I put on a parachute,” McNally recalled.
He said four flight attendants watched him as he tried to get his leg straps on. He asked one of them for help.
“And she says, ‘I don’t think we’re supposed to be doing this’. And I said, ‘young lady, trust me: you’re supposed to be doing anything I tell you do to’.”
McNally used twine to tie the bag of money around his leg and used his belt to secure it. His plan was to jump out, land safely, bury the money, lay low for a while and then go back and retrieve it…
McNally jumped. His goggles instantly came off. When he pulled the cord of the parachute, the violent jolt caused his money bag to tear off his leg and fly off.
The money — the whole point of the hijacking — was gone.
You have to applaud him for making it this far, but the twine-tying was a massive brain fart.
He landed in a field in Indiana, penniless, with a massive FBI manhunt underway. Still, his first encounter went rather smoothly:
The next night, McNally ditched his gun and hitchhiked to Detroit — and incredibly, the local police chief picked him up, not knowing who he was.
“He said, ‘it’s not safe to be on the streets tonight, there’s a lot of excitement,’ and I said, ‘yeah, I heard about the search that’s going on here for that skyjacker’,” McNally said.
“He said, ‘yeah, there’s a lot of FBI around here’. I said, ‘I can imagine.”
A farmer found the money shortly afterwards, and another farmer found his gun. Within six days of his jump, McNally was arrested. He was charged with two counts of federal aircraft piracy, found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison.
That last bit was less Hollywood – if it was a movie, he would have buried the money near to a tree and him and Morgan Freeman would have lived happily ever after on a beach somewhere.
Shawshank Redemption reference there, guys.
Here’s how this real-life story ends:
McNally reckoned the cost of planning the failed skyjacking was more than $2000 — driving from airport to airport, buying the gun, sourcing his equipment.
Hearing his verdict, McNally recalled thinking: “I got life and it cost me two grand.”
But the sour ending wouldn’t deter McNally for long. In a supermax prison in Kansas, serving his life sentence — which was 30 years at the time — McNally was approached by another convicted skyjacker, with whom he hatched an escape plan using a helicopter hijacked by an accomplice on the outside.
He was up to his old tricks. That plot failed, too.
McNally eventually left prison early the old fashioned way, with good behaviour.
And even though he could if he wanted, he’s never stepped foot on another plane.
I’m not saying I endorse his criminal endeavours, but I wouldn’t mind sitting down for a beer with ‘ol Martin.
That’s not going to happen, but you can settle for listening to the podcast here.
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