Tennessee Narrowly Dodged Bullet in Tense ’72 Hijack Episode

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Twenty-nine years ago, hijackers took over an airliner with 27 passengers and four crew aboard and threatened to crash into the government’s nuclear weapons production complex in Oak Ridge.

“They let us know that if we didn’t have the money by X hour then we were going to dive into Oak Ridge,” co-pilot Harold Johnson recalled from his Memphis home. “And there was no doubt in my mind that we would have done just that.”

Johnson would be threatened with his life and shot in the arm before the 32-hour ordeal that began over Alabama and extended to Toronto finally ended on Nov. 12, 1972, in Havana.


Airline hijackings to Cuba were common in those days. The commandeering of the Southern Airways DC9 with its smiley face on the nose was one of about 30 hijackings that year.

But this was one of the few times in American aviation history--before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon--in which an airplane was used as a weapon.

Johnson, who retired in 1983 and lives in Memphis, said domestic security measures were increased after his flight. But he said the government didn’t go far enough, as evidenced by the latest hijackings.


“For a long, long time, it was something that I thought could happen someday, but had just hoped and prayed that it never would,” he said.

“My thoughts were, ‘Gee whiz, four airplanes. That’s bad.’ But it could have been 20 airplanes. Whoever put this together could have had 20 airplanes just as easily as he had four,” he said.

But unlike the recent hijackers, the three Americans who took control of Johnson’s Memphis-to-Miami-flight had little training and virtually no plan. They did have guns, a hand grenade and a grudge against Detroit, where two of them had been charged with rape.


Hijacker Melvin Cale had grown up in nearby Knoxville and had worked in Oak Ridge before moving to Detroit with his half-brother, Louis Moore, another hijacker. Henry Jackson of Detroit completed the trio. All were in their 20s.

They commandeered the plane about 10 minutes after a stopover in Birmingham, crashing through the cockpit door with an arm around a flight attendant’s throat and a gun to her head.

They wanted a $10-million ransom from Detroit, 10 parachutes and 10 bulletproof vests, and told the pilots to fly north. But Detroit was fogged in, so the plane flew on. It refueled in Cleveland and Toronto before heading to Tennessee.

The plane reached Knoxville and began circling Oak Ridge, site of the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant and their specific target--a nuclear research reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The hijackers set a 1 p.m. deadline for their demands. But the pilots stalled them by saying they had changed time zones and were an hour early.

“It was surreal in a sense,” said Jim Alexander, a former government spokesman at Oak Ridge. “We would look up in the sky and see this jet airliner circling. It was high, but it never left.”


Reports suggest the facilities were evacuated. Alexander could only recall the question on everyone’s mind: What would happen if the plane hit the reactor?

The best guess: “The building would have been demolished and radioactivity would have been released, but it more than likely would have been confined to our own reservation,” Alexander said.

Hijackers Get Their $2-Million Payoff

And then, after about an hour, the threat to Oak Ridge was over, though not the flight. The airline came up with $2 million for the hijackers and they headed to Chattanooga to pick it up.

In his book, “Odyssey of Terror,” the plane’s captain, William Haas, wrote that the hijackers became enraged when the Nixon White House did not show interest in their demands. They forced Haas to begin a steep decent on Oak Ridge, pulling out only when the airline said it would comply.

Johnson, however, said the plane never got below 8,000 to 10,000 feet and that was only so the hijackers could identify Oak Ridge.

The hijackers stopped in Chattanooga to get their money, but did not release any passengers or crew. They forced the pilots to fly on to Orlando, Fla., and then to Havana, where they planned to seek asylum. Rebuffed by Cuba, the plane returned to Orlando to refuel and get maps to fly somewhere else.


FBI agents surrounded the plane while it was on the ground and shot out its tires. The hijackers returned fire and one of them grabbed Johnson, pulling him out of the cockpit and flinging him into the passenger compartment.

“Harold, stand up. I am going to kill you,” Johnson said the hijacker told him. “He wanted me to stand up in my seat. He wanted to blow my brains out so all the passengers could see.”

When Johnson couldn’t talk him out of it, he said, he dove for the floor. The gun went off and a bullet struck his right arm.

“The passengers told me that he then put the gun to my head and pulled the trigger and it misfired. I don’t know that, because frankly I blacked out.”

Another hijacker came in and helped Johnson back into the cockpit. Haas got the DC9 off the ground and on to Havana, where it landed safely on a foam-covered runway.

Castro Has Surprise in Store for Hijackers

Cuban President Fidel Castro greeted the pilots and crew as heroes and threw the hijackers in prison for eight years. The trio returned in 1980 to Birmingham, where they were sentenced to 20- to 25-year terms.


Haas returned to the skies shortly after the hijacking and retired in 1988. He died earlier this year. His widow said he never would have crashed the DC9 into Oak Ridge.

“There is not a pilot in the United States that flies commercially that would do anything like that,” Ann Haas said. “He might make the hijackers think that was what he was going to do, but never, never would they use it as a target.

“You know doctors have their code,” she said. “Pilots have theirs.”