It was pilot Harold Johnson’s time to die. The DC-9 he was co-piloting was commandeered by three domestic terrorists, Nov. 10, 1972. The FBI shot the plane’s tires on a runway in Orlando, and one of the terrorists, Henry Jackson, blamed Johnson who had left the cockpit and was sitting with the other passengers.
“Stand up Harold. I’m going to kill you,” Jackson said.
Harold knew Jackson meant it. He didn’t stand. Jackson fired the gun just as Johnson dove toward the floor. The bullet lodged in his right arm.
Johnson survived the incident and is slated to be inducted into the Arkansas Aviation Historical Society Hall of Fame on Thursday. Zane Anderson, born in Warren, Ark., and Gen. William Smith, of Hot Springs, will also be inducted. The event is being held 6 p.m. in the Ron Robinson Theater in downtown Little Rock.
‘WE’RE TAKING OVER THE PLANE’
The harrowing event led to security checks before passengers were allowed to board airplanes in the U.S.
“I knew Henry was going to kill me. I knew I was going to die,” Johnson told Talk Business & Politics. “I thought about my parents. I thought about my wife and daughter. I knew I’d never see them again.”
Johnson, a Walnut Ridge native was a commercial pilot for 18 years. He is the founder of the Wings of Honor Museum in Walnut Ridge.
The day his plane was hijacked began like any other. The plane departed from Memphis and headed to Birmingham, Alabama. When the flight resumed to Montgomery, Johnson, the co-pilot, heard a scuffle in the galley. The door opened and a man had his arm around the stewardess’ neck. It was 7:22 p.m.
“We’re taking over the plane,” the man said.
Jackson, and his cohorts, Louis Moore and Melvin Cale, were angry about what they considered a corrupt police force in their hometown of Detroit. Moore and Jackson were facing charges connected to a string of rapes and assaults. The two men claimed racism fueled the unfounded charges, and said police had threatened their families. The three men decided to hijack a plane.
KFC AND CUBA
The 30-hour odyssey covering thousands of miles and three countries began with the hijackers demanding $10 million, and an order for the plane to go to Detroit. The weather was too bad in Detroit to land, so they refueled the plane in Cleveland. The DC-9 then headed for Toronto, Canada, and the terrorists gave authorities a 1 p.m. deadline to come up with the money, 10 parachutes and 10 bullet-proof vests. The deadline came and went. The men prepared to begin killing the 26 passengers and the three crew members when Johnson spoke.
“We were in the eastern time zone when you set the deadline, and we’re in the central time zone now,” he said.
The hijackers ordered the pilots to take the plane to Knoxville, Tenn., and if the deadline wasn’t met they would crash the plane into the Oak Ridge nuclear power plant. The terrorists also wanted a signed document from Richard Nixon stating the money was freely given from the U.S. government. Johnson spoke with Nixon aid John Ehrlichman, who would become famous a few years later due to his involvement in the Watergate scandal.
The money finally arrived as did buckets of Kentucky Fried chicken, Coke, Sprite, beer and stimulants to keep the crew awake when the plane landed. After the money and supplies were gathered, the men ordered the pilots to take the plane to Havana, Cuba.
During the trip, the terrorists were in good spirits and gave money to the pilots. They stashed cash in empty areas throughout cockpit.
“They were very jolly,” Johnson said.
Their demeanor changed once they arrived in Cuba. The trio had hoped to seek asylum on the island nation, but Castro wouldn’t grant it. The DC-9 needed fuel, but the Cubans refused to refuel the plane. One passenger who spoke Spanish got the radio and begged the Cubans to give them fuel as a gun was held to his head.
The Cubans sent out a fuel truck, but the workers couldn’t figure out how to refuel the plane. Johnson had to climb out of the cockpit to help. It was at that moment he had to make a critical decision.
“It was agonizing. I had to decide whether to stay on the ground or go back. … I decided to go back,” he said.
OFF TO AFRICA
The terrorists decided their next move was to take the DC-9 to the north African nation of Algeria. The aircraft didn’t have enough fuel capacity to reach Africa, the crew didn’t have maps, and the plane wasn’t designed for that type of flight. But the men were resolute. The plane headed out into the Atlantic.
At some point, the men were convinced to return the plane to Orlando, Fla. It was there the FBI shot the tires. One of the terrorists grabbed Johnson and removed him from his seat. Johnson walked through the galley and took a seat with the passengers. It was then that he was shot by Jackson. When he awoke from the shooting, Jackson was lording over him. The other pilot told Jackson he couldn’t fly the plane without Johnson.
It saved his life.
The terrorists decided to return to Cuba. The DC-9 was able to take off despite the damage to its tires. When it landed in Cuba, the men ran off the plane with stacks of money into some nearby woods. Castro had soldiers stationed in the woods and the three were captured. They remained in Cuban custody until 1980 when they were returned to the U.S. for trial.
Johnson was rushed to a Cuban hospital, and returned home the next day. When he found a telephone that worked he called his wife.
“Honey, we were hijacked. I didn’t know if you heard,” he said.
“The whole world knows,” she replied.
The scariest part of the entire ordeal?
“The cab ride to the Cuban hospital. That driver was flying. He didn’t stop for anything. I didn’t think I would survive that,” he said.