Arkansas pilot recalls 1972 airplane hijacking

Photo Courtesy of Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame

WALNUT RIDGE, Ark. — Nov. 10, 1972, started like any other day for Walnut Ridge native and pilot Harold Johnson.

He woke up, made his daily drive to Memphis and from there co-piloted a plane with pilot William “Billy Bob” Haas to Birmingham, Alabama. The plane let some passengers off, took a few more on and departed the airport.

After reaching cruising altitude, Johnson heard a “scuffle” in the galley. He figured it was passengers and flight attendants engaging in horseplay.

Then, in a matter of seconds, everything changed.

The cockpit door burst open, and Johnson saw a flight attendant come in with a gun pointed at her head by one of the three hijackers of Southern Airways Flight 49. The hijacker told Haas and Johnson that the three men — later identified as Henry Jackson, Louis Moore and Melvin Cale — were taking over the flight.

The hijackers demanded $10 million and a trip to Detroit, with the money being paid by the city of Detroit in an apparent attempt to strike back at what they later said was a corrupt and racist Detroit Police Department. They also demanded bulletproof vests.

Johnson got a clearance to go back to Birmingham, but the hijackers told them to instead land in Jackson, Mississippi. As the hijackers thought about what they wanted to do while they waited on their money, they ordered Haas and Johnson to fly to various cities, including Cleveland, Toronto, Knoxville and others.

Southern Airways worked to raise $250,000, but they kept a close eye on the flight, Johnson said.

“We didn’t know it at the time, but the company had another plane following us the whole time,” Johnson told The Jonesboro Sun .

The hijackers also threatened to fly the plane into a nuclear plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, near Knoxville, if they didn’t receive their money, Johnson said.

After being replenished with Coke, peanuts, KFC and beer, the crew received what they thought was $10 million, though it was only $2 million, a fact that was kept hidden, even from the crew.

“No one knew,” Johnson said.

The hijackers demanded to go to Cuba, thinking then-Cuban dictator Fidel Castro would welcome them with open arms. In anticipation of what they thought would be a happy meeting, they began doling out stacks of money to the crew and passengers, though it was later recovered by Cuban authorities and returned to the airline.

“They thought they would be big shots,” Johnson said.

However, when they landed in Cuba, Castro refused the men and forced them to leave. After an unsuccessful attempt to travel to Algeria, which was impossible due to the plane’s lack of fuel, the men eventually flew to Orlando.

Fuel trucks supplied the plane with fuel in Orlando, but Johnson realized his request for fresh oil wasn’t carried out, prompting Johnson to request service again.

“About this time, we hear a popping sound like popcorn in a microwave,” Johnson said. “You can actually feel the airplane settling down. The captain remarked, ‘They’ve shot our tires out.’”

The hijackers, upset by the shooting, shoved Johnson into the galley area with passengers, shot out the window at the fuel trucks and fired another shot into the galley. Jackson later appeared at the head of the galley and told Johnson he was going to die.

“He says, ‘Harold, stand up in your seat; I’m going to kill you,’” Johnson said. “I had this fleeting moment where I could just visualize my dad, my wife and my daughter.”

As Jackson fired his weapon, Johnson dove for the ground. The bullet landed in Johnson’s right arm, a non-fatal wound. Another hijacker told Jackson to allow Johnson to come back to the cockpit so they could leave.

The hijacking came to an end when the three men again landed in Cuba, where they tried to escape, only to be taken into custody by Castro’s troops. They served time in a Cuban prison before being extradited to the U.S. to serve 20 to 25 years in prison here.

While he was recovering, Johnson called his wife and asked if she knew his flight had been hijacked.

“The whole world knows it,” she said.

Johnson said while he never feared for his life, he’s happy to be alive.

“I had faith everything was going to be OK,” Johnson said.

The hijacking didn’t deter Johnson from his love of the air. Johnson, now 82, moved to Walnut Ridge at the age of 11, and knew he wanted to be around planes when he began playing in the twin engines that were near his home. After spending his younger years helping at the Walnut Ridge Air Field, Johnson spent his career flying and instructing.

In 1999, Johnson helped start the Wings of Honor Museum in Walnut Ridge, which preserves the history of the Army Air Force base that was located in the city in World War II.

After his decades of work in the aviation business, Johnson will be inducted into the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame on Thursday.

“It’s quite a high and distinct honor,” Johnson said. “It totally took me by surprise. I never expected such an honor, but I’m certainly appreciative of it.”