Southern Airways Flight 49
|Date||November 10–11, 1972|
|Site||United States, Canada, and Cuba|
|Aircraft type||Douglas DC-9-15|
|Flight origin||Memphis, Tennessee|
|Last stopover||Orlando, Florida|
The hijacking of Southern Airways Flight 49 started on November 10, 1972 in Birmingham, Alabama, stretching over 30 hours and 4,000 miles (6,400 km), not ending until the next evening in Havana, Cuba. Melvin Cale, Louis Moore, and Henry D. Jackson, Jr. successfully hijacked a Southern Airways Douglas DC-9 that was scheduled to fly from Memphis, Tennessee to Miami, Florida via Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama. The three were each facing criminal charges for unrelated incidents. 34 people, including 31 passengers and 3 crew members, were aboard the airplane when it was hijacked. The hijackers' threat to crash the aircraft into a nuclear reactor led directly to the requirement that U.S. airline passengers be physically screened, beginning January 5, 1973.
Hijacking and ransom demands
Shortly after takeoff from Birmingham after 7:20 pm on Friday, November 10, 1972, en route to Montgomery on a series of scheduled stops in Alabama and Florida, the three hijackers brandished handguns and hand grenades and took over the aircraft, demanding a ransom of $10 million. The hijackers had the plane flown to multiple locations in the United States and Canada, including Cleveland, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, Lexington, Kentucky, and Toronto, Canada, while the hijackers figured out their demands before finally arriving in Cuba. At one point, the hijackers threatened to fly the plane into a nuclear research reactor, the High Flux Isotope Reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, if their demands for $10 million in cash were not met; one hijacker announced "I'm not playing. If you do not get that money together, I'm gonna crash this plane in Oak Ridge." While over Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the hijackers negotiated with numerous officials, including FBI officials, who only managed to get between $2 million and $2.5 million of ransom money. The plane later landed at Chattanooga, Tennessee's Lovell Field inbound from Knoxville, Tennessee's McGhee Tyson Airport to pick up the ransom. After picking up the less-than-demanded ransom money, the plane took off, bound for Havana. Contrary to the hijackers' expectations, Cuban leader Fidel Castro did not accept them into that country; thus the hijackers had the airplane flown to Orlando, Florida and discussed flying to Algeria (which was not possible due to the airplane's limited range). This marked the first time a hijacked airplane had left Cuba with the hijackers on board. While stopped for refueling at McCoy Air Force Base, in Orlando, the FBI shot out two of the airplane's four main tires, prompting the hijackers to shoot co-pilot Harold Johnson in the arm and force pilot William Haas to take off.
Capture and aftermath
The hijacking finally came to an end when the plane landed once again in Havana on Saturday, the 11th, after traveling for some 30-odd hours and 4,000 miles (6,400 km). (Contrary to several sources, according to the co-pilot, the runway was not covered in foam.) The hijackers were removed from the airplane at gunpoint by Cuban authorities and captured after attempting to escape. The hijackers served 8 years in Cuban prison before returning to the US to serve additional 20–25 year prison sentences. Cuba returned the airplane, crew, passengers, and ransom money to the United States. After serving their sentences in Cuba, the hijackers were returned to the United States to face further charges. The incident led to a brief treaty between the U.S. and Cuba to extradite hijackers, which has not since been renewed.
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