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Non Stop to Havana: Better To Be Lucky Than Smart

By Dick Blizzard
April 12, 2011

I had only been a captain for about three years when my DC-9 flight out of Chicago was commandeered. We were headed to Nashville with 30 souls on board. We flew nonstop to Havana without refueling. The bad guy had no control of the bomb he had taped to his body. We were incredibly lucky that day.

The airlines only put enough fuel on each airplane to reach the destination, plus a calculated reserve. If the weather is forecast to be bad when arriving at the destination, there is fuel enough to make an approach and then proceed to a suitable alternate airport.

Why not just fill it up… The airlines are in business to make money. Fuel is heavy and it cost money to carry unneeded fuel. The airline dispatchers spend a lot of time evaluating the weather and adjusting the fuel load as necessary to save a buck. If the Captain disagrees with the dispatcher, he can request more fuel. In my 33 years with Delta, I can only remember a handful of times when the Captain asked for more fuel.

I was a captain for 25 of my 33 years. I only requested more fuel on one occasion. It was granted without any discussion; just an exchange of teletype messages.

International flights are different. It was common for the L-1011 aircraft to depart Portland, Oregon with full fuel tanks for our flights to Korea. Believe me, we needed it all.

Unbelievably, the only time I ever departed with full fuel tanks on a domestic flight was the day I was hijacked. On that day, it turned out; we had enough fuel to go nonstop from Chicago to Havana. Having full tanks probably saved the aircraft and all the lives on board. I think about it a lot. What are the odds of things coming together like that? The only conclusion; it had to be luck – incredible luck.

We were scheduled to go from Chicago to Nashville. Nashville had zero visibility in fog, with no forecast for improvement. The nearest suitable alternate airport was Dallas. Our “short” DC-9 carried 25,000 pounds (approximately 4200 gallons) of fuel. We left Chicago, headed for Nashville with full tanks. At departure, it looked like we would end up in Dallas, for sure.

Our short DC-9 had a crew of four; two pilots and two flight attendants. We had twenty-six passengers onboard. While we were climbing to our planned cruising altitude (26,000 feet) for the relatively short flight to Nashville, a passenger in the rear of the aircraft was busy implementing an ill-advised plan to hijack the aircraft.

The hijacker was an educated black man. He was an ex-con and he had received a bad conduct discharge (BCD) from the U.S. Army. He boarded the aircraft in Chicago with the bomb materials in his brief case.

Security in 1971 was practically nonexistent. There was no body scan, no x-ray equipment, no metal detector and they were not required to look into your briefcase or your purse. There was no TSA.

Passengers were ‘profiled’. Our man fit the profile; he had paid cash for a one way ticket on a short flight and he did not check any luggage. He fit the profile, but they boarded him anyway. It was a common practice for station personnel to ignore the rules and put suspicious passengers and drunks on the aircraft. The station’s people were not equipped to deal with them.

In this case, the Chicago base personnel were fortunate. The hijacker had liquid nitro in his carry-on briefcase. A jolt of any kind would have set it off and people would have been killed or injured inside the terminal building.

The hijacker entered the aircraft and took a seat in the rear of the tourist cabin. He was educated, but he was not too smart. He had no control of the bomb he was about to put together; there was no need for a fuse, just shake it a little. After take-off, he opened his briefcase and began to tape three vials of the nitro onto his chest. He put one on each leg, just above the ankle. He was holding one in his hand.

When he taped the explosive to his body, he raised the temperature of the liquid from room temperature (72` F) toward body temperature (98.6` F). As the temperature rises nitro becomes more unstable and more unpredictable.

After he transformed himself into a human bomb, he wrote a note and gave it to the flight attendant for delivery to the cockpit. The flight attendant watched him write the note after he was seated in the rear cabin. It was well written with excellent grammar and clarity.

The female flight attendant entered the cockpit and said, “I think we have been hijacked. A man in tourist has something taped to his body and he wrote this note for you.”

I can’t remember the note verbatim, but this is basically what it said: “I have a bomb. I want to go to Havana. I plan to join Castro’s people and work with the Cuban Revolutionaries in the sugar cane fields. I will follow the flight out the window. There will be no descending or refueling until we reach Cuba.”

I turned his note over and wrote, “We are on the way.” That is what they teach today. It is a statement designed to calm things down and give the crew time to evaluate the situation and plan a strategy.

I handed the note to the flight attendant and said, “Give him this and ask him to come up here.”
That is not what they teach today, as every fifth grader knows. However, at that point, I was not convinced the liquid was indeed an explosive and we expected him to come bursting into the cockpit at any minute, anyway.

It was a mistake to invite him to the cockpit, but consider this: a bomb in the tail of an aircraft is just as dangerous as a bomb in the front of the aircraft. I really wanted to look him in the eye and have a talk with him.

Things were different in 1971. Airlines had already had several hijackings, but no one had ever demanded anything except transportation to a different destination.

Once we determined we had sufficient fuel to make the trip safely, there was no reason to take any other action. I knew we could drop him off in Cuba and get back to Miami in time for dinner.

We called ATC for a vector to Havana and switched the transponder to the hijack squawk. Air Traffic Control turned us 5 degrees to the right and answered with a simple, “Roger.” No big deal.

The cockpit door opened and I expected to see the bad guy. It was the flight attendant, “He says he is going to stay in his seat, and he wants you to stay in the cockpit.” I didn’t have a problem with that, and it gave me a better understanding of his intentions.

We asked for a climb to 31,000 feet. Jets use less fuel at higher altitudes. I made some quick calculations and determined we could make Havana and have 45 minutes fuel remaining.

We were on the radio with the company in Atlanta. Delta dispatchers confirmed my fuel calculation and suggested we continue our climb to 33,000 feet (FL 330) to extend our range.

The copilot and I discussed the fact that the hijacker was atypical. The typical hijacker wants to enter the cockpit and take control. Our man was hesitant to walk, because he did not want to jolt the nitro and blow himself into the hereafter. He wanted to live long enough to get to Cuba. He thought he would be welcomed in Havana as a hero. That did not happen – he went straight to jail.

There was no commotion on the plane, so the other 25 passengers had no idea what was taking place. I intended to keep it that way; I did not want anyone to scuffle with our human bomb. We eventually made an announcement saying we were going to an alternate airport because of the dense fog in Nashville. We gave our passengers an estimated time of arrival and opened the bar. I authorized a free drink, compliments of Delta Airline. The booze was offered as compensation for passing Nashville; it was company policy.

As we winged our way south, things were calm and relatively quiet. Finally, the flight attendant suggested we quit serving alcohol – the passengers were starting to party down.

We were out over the Gulf of Mexico, west of Tampa, when we encountered turbulence. It was similar to driving your car over a corduroy road. It is referred to by pilots as a chop.

The moderate chop caused our hijacker to pale and perspire. The liquid was shaking around in the vials. The flight attendant came to the cockpit and reported. “It is really cool back there and he is very tense and he is sweating like crazy.”

We were on the verge of a disaster, but I did not want to believe there was any immediate danger. The copilot and I laughed, but the flight attendant wanted her captain to turn off the turbulence. She gave us a disgusted look and left.

About 110 miles north of Havana we started our descent for landing. Miami ATC handed us off to Havana Air Traffic Control just like it was a common occurrence. The controllers in Cuba spoke good English; it was a smooth transition.

The air was smooth during the descent, but there was a gusty crosswind reported at Jose Marti Airport. It was the copilot’s leg. He made a good landing.*

During taxi to the terminal building, the hijacker stood up and walked to the rear lavatory. He removed the explosives from his body and wrapped them carefully in crumpled up newspaper.

We made an announcement: “We are in Havana. Everyone please stay seated.” Some of the passengers were surprised, but most had already figured out what was happening.

The DC-9 had exit stairs built into the aircraft. Usually the stairs were extended by the agent on the ground. The tower called us and requested that we extend the stairs and open the door from the inside. I had never done that before, but the instructions were on the control panel near the front exit door.

When I left the cockpit to open the door, the hijacker was standing in the aisle with the package containing the explosives held carefully in both hands. He was smiling and apparently very pleased with himself.

I opened the passenger exit door and spoke to him politely. “Are you our ________ passenger?”

“Yes, I am. I hope you are not in trouble.” He answered pleasantly.

I could not help but notice that he had an abnormally narrow head and face. I have thought about it, and I feel sure his appearance may have contributed to the fact that he had lived a troubled life.

Four uniformed Cubans came up the steps and approached the hijacker.

“Where is it?” They asked in English.

He handed them the package and they left the aircraft in single file with our man sandwiched in between. The Cuban’s were all wearing side arms. They marched into the building and we did not see him again.

The crew and the passengers were directed to separate rooms inside the terminal building. There were two sailors in uniform in one room, the civilian passengers in another room, and the two flight attendants, my copilot and myself in another room.

We waited; soon two armed young men in uniform came into the room. They helped each of us fill out a form. It was a simple immigration form. We did it quickly and they left.

After about 30 minutes a man opened our door and commanded. “Follow me.” We followed him to an upstairs restaurant and joined our passengers for lunch.

Our passengers were finishing their free lunch when we arrived. Bobby Goldsboro and his band were among our passengers. Bobby was at the heights of his popularity. He sang and played the guitar and he had some big songs. You might remember his two biggest hits, “Honey” and “Watching Scotty Grow”.

Each table had a white table cloth with nice china and silverware. The only choice was steak cooked medium rare with all the trimmings. It was good, but my copilot advised me it was probably horsemeat, and he would not eat his. It was a good idea for one of us to not eat, just in case. The food was delicious and no one got sick. We expected a Cuban cigar for a keepsake, but they gave us a pack of Cuban cigarettes. That was a disappointment.

The U.S. did not have relations with the Castro government then, and they still don’t today. There was a representative from the Swiss Embassy at the airport. He was there to meet our flight, he paid for our lunch and he paid for the fuel. Delta Airlines eventually got the bill.

Neither the copilot nor I had ever refueled a DC-9. I was asked which grade of fuel we required. I saw an Iberian DC-8 on the ramp and said, “Whatever you put in that DC-8 will be just fine for us.” We found the refueling door under the wing and the instructions were on a placard inside the compartment. The fuel truck pumped slowly, so it took about 45 minutes. We got it done.

The Delta dispatcher in Atlanta had sent a ‘fuel load’ and a flight plan to Jose Marti operations, so it was just a matter of following instructions. We were flying to Miami with a light fuel load. Miami weather was excellent and it was just 100 miles away.

There were military vehicles lining the runway when we took off. All of our passengers, except one, had full bellies and ready to head home. We were met in Miami by the FBI and the FAA and our crew was taken immediately into a room for debriefing. A new crew was waiting to take the aircraft and the passengers to Nashville.

The next day we were ordered to appear at Delta headquarters in Atlanta for another debriefing. This one was for the company. By that time, I was hoarse from telling the same story over and over. Each debriefing started like this: “Start at the beginning and tell us what happened.” It wasn’t difficult, but it was a long process.

The hijacker was held in a Cuban jail for almost five years. He was finally released and allowed to fly over to Barbados (a U.S. territory). He was met and arrested by U.S. Marshalls. The Marshalls took him back to Chicago where he was jailed awaiting trial.

I was called to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago to deliver a deposition. I was very impressed by the government attorneys. They were efficient and polite with an emphasis on following the law. I sensed they were being extremely careful to avoid technical mistakes that might cause a mistrial.

I was not called to testify at the trial. He was given 30 years, even though he had already served over five years in Cuba and Chicago. I never learned his name.

During the time he was still in jail in Cuba. A man came to our home in Atlanta with photographs. He laid out the pictures of several men on our living room coffee table and asked if I could identify the man who hijacked the flight. All the men in the photos were beaten and their faces swollen. I did not see anyone who looked familiar.

As he was leaving, I asked. “What was that liquid he brought on board?”

“It was nitro.” I was a little surprised; he answered frankly and without hesitation.

“What would it take to set it off?” I was digging.

“Hold it about waist high and drop it on a tile floor.” He said.

I wasn’t surprised, but until that point, I didn’t know for sure. I felt lucky. I still feel lucky.

*I dedicate this story to my copilot, Jerry Alcini. Jerry passed away several years ago and I miss him. He was a good pilot and a great guy.

Written by
Dick Blizzard

Dick Blizzard has a total of 40 years of aviation experience, spending seven years as an aviator in the US Navy, and a further 33 years as an airline pilot. He has been published in aviation magazines, and shares his experiences and writings on his excellent blog: http://dickblizzard.blogspot.com.

6 User Comments:
Username: Csavel [User Info]
Posted 2011-04-16 04:47:06 and read 32768 times.

The hijacker was held in a Cuban jail for almost five years. He was finally released and allowed to fly over to Barbados (a U.S. territory). He was met and arrested by U.S. Marshalls. The Marshalls took him back to Chicago where he was jailed awaiting trial.

Just a bone of contention. Barbados isn't and never was a US territory. Was a British territory, still drive on wrong side of road, play cricket, and part of Commonwealth.

Username: Travelavnut [User Info]
Posted 2011-04-18 04:34:14 and read 32768 times.

Thank you Dick for sharing this incredible story!! Never knew about this incident.

Username: Lecca [User Info]
Posted 2011-05-03 12:20:45 and read 32768 times.

amazing story! thank you

Username: Luganopirate [User Info]
Posted 2011-06-13 23:07:49 and read 32768 times.

I agree, great story well written. How different things were in those days compared to now. I believe the Swiss still represent US interests in Havana though?

Username: Heathrow [User Info]
Posted 2011-07-08 10:06:08 and read 32768 times.

Amazing story! Thanks for all that! Very lucky indeed, and I'm glad everything turned out okay in the end!

Username: BoeingMerica [User Info]
Posted 2013-10-21 18:43:09 and read 5577 times.

Amazing story. The best comment, news story or post I've read on A.net in my time here. Fantastic pilot, that's for sure. Calm in the face of a storm, can't ask for more.

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