This page can be viewed at http://www.historycommons.org/entity.jsp?entity=homestead_air_reserve_base_1
Three men hijack a commercial airliner and threaten to crash it into a nuclear plant, and authorities also fear they might crash it into President Richard Nixon’s winter home in Florida. (Graff 2011, pp. 43-47) The hijacking occurs on Southern Airways Flight 49, a DC-9 bound from Memphis, Tennessee, to Miami, Florida, with scheduled stops in Birmingham, Alabama, Montgomery, Alabama, and Orlando, Florida. (Koerner 6/19/2013) The plane has 27 passengers and four crew members on board. The hijackers—three men with criminal records—are Lewis Moore, Henry Jackson, and Melvin Cale. The aim of the hijacking, Moore will later say, is to bring attention to the brutality and racism of the Detroit Police Department. The ordeal, which lasts 29 hours, is, at the current time, “the most chilling domestic hijacking in US history,” according to national security historian Timothy Naftali. (Naftali 2005, pp. 61; Allen 6/6/2016)
Hijackers Demand a $10 Million Ransom - The hijackers manage to smuggle guns and grenades onto Flight 49 in a raincoat. (Koerner 6/19/2013) The plane takes off from Memphis at 5:05 p.m. on November 10. The hijackers seize control of it at 7:22 p.m., during the second leg of the flight. One of them enters the cockpit carrying a revolver and with an arm around the neck of a flight attendant. He tells the pilot, William Haas, “Head north, Captain, this is a hijacking.” (Detroit Free Press 11/12/1972; Graff 2011, pp. 43) The hijackers demand $10 million to release the plane. (Naftali 2005, pp. 61) Haas transmits a hijack code to air traffic controllers who, in response, begin the well-known and widely used procedures for dealing with a hijacking. They notify the FBI in Washington, DC, and the Federal Aviation Administration’s special hijacking command post.
Airline Is Told of the Hijackers' Ransom Demand - The plane lands in Jackson, Mississippi, at 8:10 p.m. to be refueled and then takes off at 8:36 p.m., heading for Detroit, Michigan, where the hijackers intend to settle their complaints with city officials. At around 10:30 p.m., while the plane is circling over Detroit, the FBI notifies the city’s mayor and Southern Airways of the hijackers’ ransom demand. At 12:05 a.m. on November 11, the plane leaves the Detroit area due to bad weather and heads for Cleveland, Ohio, where it lands and is refueled. It takes off from Cleveland at 1:38 a.m. and heads for Toronto, Canada.
Hijackers Threaten to Crash the Plane into a Nuclear Facility - While it is on the ground in Toronto, the hijackers learn that Southern Airways has only gathered $500,000 in ransom money. They refuse to take this and release the passengers. Consequently, after being refueled, the plane takes off at 6:15 a.m. and flies back to the US. It heads for Knoxville, Tennessee. As it is ascending, the hijackers tell controllers that unless their demands are met, they will crash Flight 49 into the Oak Ridge nuclear facility, near Knoxville. (Detroit Free Press 11/12/1972; Graff 2011, pp. 43-45) Jackson says: “We’re tired of all this bull. No more foolin’ around. We’re taking this f_cker to Oak Ridge and dive it into a nuclear reactor.” (Burleson 2007, pp. 66) By this time, the White House, the Pentagon, and the Atomic Energy Commission are all involved in dealing with the crisis. (Graff 2011, pp. 45) Meanwhile, key personnel at Oak Ridge discuss the possible outcomes of Flight 49 crashing into their facility. At the bare minimum, they all agree, the impact could rupture the protective shell and result in a massive release of radioactivity; the worst possibility is a core meltdown. (Burleson 2007, pp. 66-67)
White House Official Talks to the Hijackers - The plane diverts to Lexington, Kentucky, to be refueled and, by 11:00 a.m., is again over Oak Ridge. The hijackers are then connected to the White House. John Ehrlichman, the president’s top domestic aide, comes on the radio and Jackson tells him, “I’m up over Oak Ridge, where I’ll either throw a grenade or I’ll put this plane down nose first.” He says he and the other hijackers want a letter signed by the president stating that their ransom money is a grant from the government and they won’t be prosecuted. Ehrlichman says it will take some time to fulfil their request.
Hijackers Receive the Ransom Money - The hijackers then direct the plane to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where it lands at 1:30 p.m. It is refueled and the hijackers are given the ransom money, along with food and other supplies. Southern Airways has only been able to put together $2 million, but the airline is assuming—correctly, as it turns out—that the hijackers will lack the time to count the money and realize it is much less than the amount they demanded. The plane leaves Chattanooga at 2:35 p.m. and heads to Cuba, where many hijackers fled during the 1960s and early 1970s.
Authorities Fear the Plane May Be Crashed into the President's Winter Home - As Flight 49 is flying south over Florida, authorities become concerned that the hijackers might crash it into the president’s retreat in Key Biscayne, where Nixon is currently staying. Military officials contact Florida’s Homestead Air Reserve Base and fighter jets there are placed on alert as a precaution. Fortunately, no incident occurs and Flight 49 lands in Havana at 4:49 p.m. However, to the surprise of the hijackers, the Cubans are unhappy about the plane’s arrival and soldiers surround the aircraft after it touches down. José Abrantes, President Fidel Castro’s head of security, explains to the hijackers the nation’s discomfort about the situation. Therefore, after being refueled, Flight 49 leaves Havana and heads back to the US.
FBI Agents Shoot the Plane's Tires - It lands at McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando at 9:17 p.m. By now, Robert Gebhardt, assistant director of the FBI’s investigative division, has given the order to disable the plane when it is next on the ground. Consequently, after it lands, FBI agents start shooting at its tires. The hijackers, realizing what is happening, order Haas to start the plane’s engines. In the panic that follows, Jackson threatens Harold Johnson, the co-pilot, and shoots him in the arm in front of the terrified passengers. The hijackers give the order to take off and, despite now having two flat tires, the plane is able to get off the ground. Jackson then orders Haas to fly to Cuba again. The damaged plane makes an emergency landing in Havana at 12:32 a.m. on November 12. (Detroit Free Press 11/12/1972; Graff 2011, pp. 45-52) Cuban soldiers then arrest the hijackers and seize the ransom money, so it can be returned to Southern Airways. (Koerner 6/19/2013)
New Security Measures Will Be Introduced in response to the Hijacking - The catastrophic incident will lead to increased security in the aviation industry. Within two months, mandatory screening of all passengers and carry-on luggage will be introduced. The Justice Department will sign an agreement with the Department of Defense, making military assistance available to the FBI in the event of a terrorist emergency. Other measures will be considered but not introduced, such as armoring cockpit doors, allowing pilots to carry weapons, and centralizing airport security nationwide under a single agency. (Naftali 2005, pp. 66-67; Graff 2011, pp. 53) “No one understands the impact that this flight and this 30-hour ordeal had on the nation, and transforming everyone, from the White House to the FBI, to the way that we board an airplane every day,” Brendan Koerner, author of a book about aircraft hijackings, will comment in 2016. (Allen 6/6/2016) As a result of the hijacking of Flight 49, “the American public for the first time began to take the question of terrorism seriously and began to accept trade-offs of civil liberties in exchange for greater security,” journalist and author Garrett Graff will write. (Graff 2011, pp. 53-54)
Fighter jets that are scrambled by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in response to suspicious or unidentified aircraft in US airspace are able to take off within minutes of receiving a scramble order, in the years preceding 9/11. (McKenna 1/1996; Dennehy 9/15/2001; Spencer 2008, pp. 117) NORAD keeps a pair of fighters on “alert” at a number of sites around the US. These fighters are armed and fueled, ready for takeoff. (Arnold 4/1998; Hebert 2/2002; Kelly 12/5/2003) Even before 9/11, the fighters are regularly scrambled to intercept errant aircraft (see 1990-2001). (General Accounting Office 5/3/1994, pp. 4; Associated Press 8/14/2002)
Pilots Stay Close to Their Aircraft - Pilots on alert duty live near to their fighters, so they will be ready for a prompt takeoff if required. Author Lynn Spencer will write that pilots on alert duty at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia “live, eat, and sleep just steps from jets.” (Spencer 2008, pp. 117) According to Major Martin Richard, a pilot with the 102nd Fighter Wing at Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, “Every day” at his base, “365 days a year, 24 hours a day, at least two fighter pilots and four maintenance personnel ate, slept, and lived nestled adjacent to three fully loaded F-15 jets.” (Richard 2010, pp. 8)
Fighters Can Get Airborne in Minutes - The fighters on alert are required to be in the air within minutes of a scramble order. General Ralph Eberhart, the commander of NORAD on 9/11, will tell the 9/11 Commission that they “have to be airborne in 15 minutes.” (9/11 Commission 6/17/2004) Richard will write that the objective of the alert pilots at his base is “to be airborne in 10 minutes or less if the ‘horn’ went off.” (Richard 2010, pp. 8) According to other accounts, fighters on alert are generally airborne in less than five minutes. Airman magazine reports in 1996 that NORAD’s alert units “work around the clock, and usually have five minutes or less to scramble when the warning klaxon sounds.” (McKenna 1/1996) A few days after 9/11, the Cape Cod Times will report that, “if needed,” the fighters on alert at Otis Air Base “must be in the air within five minutes.” (Dennehy 9/15/2001) According to Spencer, pilots on alert duty at Langley Air Force Base are “always just five minutes away from rolling out of the hangars in their armed fighters.” (Spencer 2008, pp. 117) Captain Tom Herring, a full-time alert pilot at Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida, says in 1999, “If needed, we could be killing things in five minutes or less.” (McKenna 12/1999) In 1994, NORAD is planning to reduce the number of alert sites in the continental United States and, according to a report published that year by the General Accounting Office, “Each alert site will have two fighters, and their crews will be on 24-hour duty and ready to scramble within five minutes.” (General Accounting Office 5/3/1994, pp. 16)
'Everything Else Just Stops' following Scramble Order - Once an order to scramble is received, alert pilots try to get airborne as quickly as they can. According to Richard, being a pilot sitting on alert is “akin to being a fireman.” Richard will later recall that when the horn goes off, signaling for him to get airborne, “no matter where I was or what I was doing, I had to swiftly don my anti-g suit, parachute harness, and helmet, run to the jet where my maintenance crew was waiting, fire up the powerful jet engines, and check all of the systems while simultaneously talking with the Otis command post who had a direct feed from NEADS [NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector]. When the horn blew, a frantic, harrowing race into a high pressure situation ensued.” (Richard 2010, pp. 8) Herring says: “We go full speed when that klaxon sounds and people know not to get in front of us, because we take scrambles very seriously.… We’re fired up about what we do and we’re the best at what we do.” (McKenna 12/1999) Technical Sergeant Don Roseen, who keeps the alert fighters at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida ready for instant takeoff, says in 1999 that these fighters are “hot and cocked, they are ready.” Roseen says that when the klaxon goes off, “everything else just stops.”
Suspicious Aircraft 'Could Be a Terrorist' - When they are taking off, pilots may be unaware exactly why they are being scrambled. Major Steve Saari, an alert pilot at Tyndall Air Force Base, says: “There are several different things you could run into and you don’t know until you’re airborne. And sometimes you can’t tell until you have a visual identification.” Saari says: “The unknown [aircraft] could be something as simple as a lost civilian or it could be somebody defecting from Cuba. It could be a terrorist or anything in-between.” (Filson 3/1999) According to Airman magazine, the unidentified aircraft might be “Cuban MiGs, drug traffickers, smugglers, hijackers, novice pilots who’ve filed faulty flight plans, or crippled aircraft limping in on a wing and a prayer.” (McKenna 12/1999)
Intercepted Aircraft Could Be Shot Down - Fighters can respond in a number of ways when they intercept a suspect aircraft. In 2011, Jeff Ford—at that time the aviation and security coordinator for the NORAD and USNORTHCOM Interagency Coordination Directorate—will say that before 9/11, scrambled fighters can “intercept the aircraft, come up beside it, and divert it in the right direction toward an airfield or find out what the problems are in order to assist.” (Doscher 9/8/2011) According to MSNBC: “[I]nterceptors can fly alongside a plane to see who’s flying it. They can also try to force it off course. Once it is apparent that it is not following directions, it might be forced over the ocean or to a remote airport—or even shot down.” (Arnot 9/12/2001) On September 11, 2001, NEADS will scramble fighters that are kept on alert in response to the hijackings (see 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001 and 9:24 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Wald and Sack 10/16/2001; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 20, 26-27)
Except where otherwise noted, the textual content of each timeline is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike