It may be hard to believe, considering the sheer amount of airport security we have now, but there was a time in the not-that-distant past where airplane hijackings [or skyjackings, if you will] were commonplace— we're not just talking about DB Cooper, here either; there was a single day in 1970 when 3 planes were separately, independently hijacked. And the attitude around them was, "Eh, hijackings are going to happen. What're you gonna do?" It's baffling now, but proposed security measures to deal with skyjackers were, for a long time, considered ridiculous. After one skyjacking, a TWA spokesman rhetorically asked, "How far can the airlines go?... Restrict everyone from the terminal who has a ticket? Stop everyone from entering the airport area except those who have a ticket?" Ridiculous, indeed.
The vast majority of American skyjackers from this period in the 1960s and 1970s asked to go to Cuba. At first, Cuba was glad to receive these American defectors, trotting them out as proof that the United States was broken and that the Cuban way of life was superior. Unfortunately, hijacking planes to Cuba became a craze by the end of the 1960s, and the Cuban government became annoyed with the number of Americans showing up with planes full of civilians at their airports. Many American hijackers endured nightmarish prison stints in Cuba before gratefully being returned to the United States. The Cubans set up a squalid prison called Casa de Transitos [roughly, Hijackers House], which at one time had up to 60 hijackers imprisoned. Perhaps the most famous of these would-be Cubans is Anthony Bryant, who was a former Black Panther convinced of the superiority of Cuban life. He was imprisoned on a sugar-harvesting plantation for 12 years upon his arrival. Immediately after setting foot on American soil, Bryant declared the United States the "greatest country in the world" and became a right-wing talkshow host.
Another Cuban hijacker was former Green Beret Robert Helmey, who in a bout of temporary insanity hijacked a plane so he could assassinate Fidel Castro. He was imprisoned for a few months before being deported. Lawrence Rhodes, a criminal who sought asylum in Cuba in 1968, did so early enough for his request to actually be granted. Cuban authorities gave the other hijacked passengers cigars and pictures of Che Guevara to commemorate their visit. The first Cuban hijacking happened in 1961, confusing the hell out of Cuban authorities when they heard an American plane was approaching their airspace.
The number of hijackers who were killed is shockingly small; airlines had protocols set up to get people to Havana as quickly as possible when they hijacked a plane, figuring if they gave the hijacker what he wanted, they could the passengers and plane back quicker. Occasionally, hostages took matters into their own hands, shooting or beating the shit out of a would-be hijacker. But the system was mostly designed to accommodate the hijackers in the hopes they wouldn't hurt anybody or damage anything. It's inconceivable now, but hijacking was once met with a "hijackers are gonna hijack" attitude.
For a ton of entertaining stories about plane hijackers from the 1960s and 70s, read Brendan Koerner's The Skies Belong to Us, and check out his Skyjacker of the Day blog, which has 100 or so of them. BlairWalshProject can be followed on Twitter @IBHirsch.