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Southern Airways Flight 49

The hijacking of Southern Airways Flight 49 started on November 10, 1972 in Birmingham, Alabama, stretching over 30 hours, three countries, and 4,000 miles (6,400 km), not ending until the next evening in Havana, Cuba.[1] Three men, 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 and Orlando, Florida.[2][3][4] The three were each facing criminal charges for unrelated incidents.[2] 34 people, including 31 passengers and 3 crew members, were aboard the airplane when it was hijacked.[2] 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.[4]

Southern Airways Flight 49
Douglas DC-9-10 N92S Southern ATL 06.10.73.jpg
A Southern Airways DC-9 15, similar to the aircraft involved in the incident.
DateNovember 10–11, 1972
SiteUnited States, Canada, and Cuba
Aircraft typeDouglas DC-9-15
OperatorSouthern Airways
Flight originMemphis, Tennessee
StopoverBirmingham, Alabama
2nd stopoverMontgomery, Alabama
Last stopoverOrlando, Florida
DestinationMiami, Florida

Hijacking and ransom demandsEdit

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.[1][2][3] The hijackers had the plane flown to multiple locations in the United States and Canada, including Cleveland, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, Lexington, Kentucky, and Toronto, Ontario, while the hijackers figured out their demands before finally arriving in Cuba.[2] 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."[2] 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.[5][6] 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.[5][6][7][8][9] 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).[2][3] This marked the first time a hijacked airplane had left Cuba with the hijackers on board.[10] While stopped for refueling at the Orlando Jetport at McCoy, the civilian commercial air terminal at McCoy Air Force Base, the joint civil-military airfield 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.[2][3]

Capture and aftermathEdit

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.[3]) The hijackers were removed from the airplane at gunpoint by Cuban authorities and captured after attempting to escape. The hijackers served 8 years in a Cuban prison before returning to the US to serve additional 20–25 year prison sentences.[2][3][11] Cuba returned the airplane, crew, passengers, and ransom money to the United States.[2] The incident led to a brief treaty between the U.S. and Cuba to extradite hijackers, which has not since been renewed.

The hijacking was the subject of the National Geographic I Am Rebel documentary series premiere episode "Jacked" by Lana Wilson which aired June 5, 2016.[12]

See alsoEdit


  • Reader's Digest (1983). People In Peril and How They Survived. We're Taking Over This Plane and We're Not Gonna Have Any Heroes!
  • Nuclear Afternoon: True Stories of Atomic Disasters (2007) Chapter 5 "Skyjacking"
  1. ^ a b Eblen, Tom, Lexington's airport owes a lot to Charles Lindbergh, Lexington Herald-Leader, August 4, 2010
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Time of Transition: The 70s, Our American Century, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, p. 134-5
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Johnson recalls hijacking 40 years later". Times-Dispatch (Lawrence County, Ark.). November 14, 2012. Retrieved 4 May 2013.
  4. ^ a b Koerner, Brendan. "Skyjacker of the Day". Excerpted from the book "The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking". Slate. Retrieved 19 June 2013.
  5. ^ a b Smyser, Dick (September 20, 2001). "Three hijackers of an earlier time, two of them from Oak Ridge". Oak Ridge (Tenn.)'s The Oak Ridger. Retrieved 19 July 2012.
  6. ^ a b Naftali, Timothy (2005). "The Lessons of Munich 1972". Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism. New York City, NY: Basic Books. pp. 61–63. ISBN 0-465-09282-9. Retrieved July 19, 2012.
  7. ^ "1972 plane hijacker, co-pilot recount ordeal". Little Rock, Ark.'s KTHV. May 25, 2011. Retrieved 1 July 2012.
  8. ^ Welsch, Anthony (May 25, 2011). "Convicted hijacker shares story, details 1972 threat to Oak Ridge". Knoxville, Tenn.'s WBIR-TV. Archived from the original on February 9, 2013. Retrieved 1 July 2012.
  9. ^ Derner Jr., Philip (November 10, 2011). "On This Day in Aviation History: November 10th at NYC.Aviation". Retrieved 1 July 2012.
  10. ^ Mickolus, Edward F.; Susan L. Simmons (2011). The Terrorist List. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-313-37471-5. Retrieved July 19, 2012.
  11. ^ Cuban Political Violence in the United States Disorders and terrorism, National Advisory Committee, on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals Washington: 1976. Report of the Task Force on Disorders and Terrorism Appendix 6: Chronology of incidents of terroristic, quasi-terroristic attacks, and political violence in the United States: January 1965 to March 1976 By Marcia McKnight Trick
  12. ^ Robert Allen (June 6, 2016), "Ex-Detroiter behind infamous 1972 skyjacking tells his story", Detroit Free Press

Coordinates: 33°33′52″N 86°45′17″W / 33.564571°N 86.754655°W / 33.564571; -86.754655