Southern Airways Flight 49
The two-engine DC-9 craft took off from Birmingham at 6:30 PM en route to Florida via Montgomery's Dannelly Field Airport. Shortly afterward passengers Henry Jackson, Lewis Moore and Melvin Cale, all from Detroit, Michigan, produced handguns and a grenade. They had concealed the weapons in an overcoat which they passed back and forth during the airline's searches prior to boarding.
The men ordered the male passengers on board to strip to their shorts and demanded that pilot William Haas turn toward Detroit and to make a refueling stop in Jackson, Mississippi. They also demanded a $10 million cash payment in return for not harming their 34 hostages.
Southern Airways dispatched $500,000 to the Detroit airport, where local officials were in negotiations with the hijackers by radio. The hijackers bypassed Detroit and ordered the pilot to continue over Lake Erie to Cleveland, and then to land in Toronto, where they refused the smaller offer. The three ordered the pilot to return to the air and directed him to Knoxville, Tennessee. On the way, they raided the liquor cabinet and shared the contents with passengers.
During this leg, the aircraft was followed by a Southern Airways Learjet and another DC-9, as well as by a Navy Reserve plane with FBI agents on board. As they neared Tennessee, the hijackers threatened to crash the plane into the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a nuclear energy research facility. They held a gun to Haas' head and ordered him toward the target until they heard that the ransom would be paid.
Instead they landed in Chattanooga and received a mail bag stuffed with $20 bills. Authorities said it was the $10 million requested, but only $2 million had actually been provided by the airline. They also demanded and received bulletproof vests. Instead of releasing their hostages, though, the hijackers ordered the plane into the air again for a flight to Havana, Cuba.
During the final flight, the hijackers distributed their loot to the passengers. After failed negotiations on the ground at José Martí terminal in Cuba, the hijackers returned the plane to the air, and ordered Haas to fly to Europe. He explained the need for refueling, so instead they headed for Orlando, Florida. On the airstrip there, they demanded to speak to President Nixon. The FBI agents, under orders from Acting Director L. Patrick Gray, fired at the aircraft's tires to prevent it from making another ascent.
The hijackers reacted by shooting copilot Billy Johnson in the arm and ordering Haas to take off anyway. He did manage to get the plane into the air despite the damaged tires and landed it again safely in Havana. Cuban soldiers arrested the hijackers and confiscated the cash. The passengers and crew were returned to Miami. The incident led to a change in airport security measures, and also led Cuba to agree to a limited dialog with the United States on how to prevent future hijackings.
On January 5, 1973 the Federal Aviation Administration ordered hand-held metal detectors and armed guards at all passenger searches. The measures were effective in stopping the spate of airline hijackings. Jackson, Moore and Cale spent eight years in a Cuban prison before being extradited to the United States, where they remained imprisoned.
The three hijackers faced trial in U. S. District Court in Birmingham in February 1981. Jackson was sentenced to 25 years and Moore and Cale to 20 years each. Cale was paroled in 1993 but was arrested shortly afterwards when he and an accomplice robbed a bank in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Moore was released in 1998.
- "Terror on Flight 49" (November 27, 1972) TIME magazine
- "Hijacking of flight to Montgomery led officials to overhaul security at airports" (October 1, 2001) Tuscaloosa News
- Blair, Ed (2006) Odyssey of Terror: Flight 49. self-published. ISBN 1475078447