A Brief History of Suicide Hijackings Part I

21st January 2012

The suicide hijacking is a terrorist tactic with a much longer and more elaborate history than many people realise. Even those in the 9/11 truth movement are largely unaware that its history goes back nearly 30 years prior to the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon. The first article in this series looks into the case of Samuel Byck, who attempted a suicide hijacking in 1974 with the aim of assassinating Richard Nixon.

Byck was born in 1930 in Philadelphia, to a poor Jewish family.  He served in the army before become a salesman.  His professional career was largely a failure, he lost several jobs and was turned down by the Small Business Administration when he applied for a loan to start his own company.  With a wife and several children to feed he became depressed and was hospitalised on several occasions.  His wife left him, worsening his mental state. 

In late 1973 he protested in front of the White House wearing a Santa Claus outfit.  According to the story he either shouted out loud or carried a sign saying 'All I want for Christmas is my constitutional right to publicly petition my government for a redress of grievances.' Though this is an exceptional slogan, it was the creation of a man losing his grip on reality. In February 1974, Byck launched his plan, codenamed Operation Pandora's Box. 

The hijacking attempt, like most of Byck's life, was a horrible failure.  He took along a fake bomb in a suitcase, comprised of two 'valvoline' containers full of petrol but no igniting or initiating mechanism.  Using a stolen .22 revolver he shot in the back and killed a police officer named George Neil Ramsburg.  He ran onto Delta Flight 253, told the stewardesses to close the door of the plane, and fired into the cockpit.  He killed co-pilot Freddie Jones and seriously wounded the pilot Reese Loftin.  Byck shouted about wanting to go to Washington and how he had a bomb, before grabbing a female passenger, pushing her into the cockpit and telling her to fly the plane. 

Meanwhile the police were attempting to disable the aircraft by shooting the tires, but this failed.  One cop named Charles Troyer fired shots through the door of the aircraft, hitting Byck in the chest and stomach.  Byck then fell the floor, before committing suicide by shooting himself in the head.  His plan was to hijack a plane, force the pilots to fly it to Washington, then grab hold of the controls and crash it into the White House to kill Richard Nixon. 

Baltimore Sun - Slain Hijacker Said to Have Planned to Crash Plane into White House

Byck outlined this plan in a series of letters and audio cassette recordings that he mailed on his way to the airport.  These letters were sent to numerous people, including columnist Jack Anderson, and media outlets including the Miami News, the Detroit Free Press and the Atlanta Journal.  He had also sent recordings to composer Leonard Bernstein, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, scientist Jonas Salk and magistrate Jean Dwyer.  Excerpts from these recordings were used in a Discovery Channel documentary about Byck.

Samuel Byck with protest sign

Byck hated Nixon, and in the tapes refers to his attack as a consequence of Watergate.  However, it was also the lack of support from the Small Business Administration that caused Byck to conclude that the government had no interest in ordinary people.  Byck wrote to the SBA, accusing it of corruption.  He also protested frequently against Nixon and even made threats against his life. 

Indeed, Byck had come to the attention of the Secret Service on more than one occasion, though it is impossible to know what clues they had or what action they took as the FBI file on Byck has completely redacted this information.

FBI Byck secret service redacted

So far the Secret Service have ignored my Freedom of Information Act request regarding Byck, so no further facts are available at this time. 

It is not at all clear where Byck got the idea for the suicide hijacking.  From my knowledge he is the earliest example of someone attempting to hijack a plane and use it as a guided missile against a building.  As noted in a timeline prepared by the law firm Motley Rice and sent to the 9/11 Commission, in May 1964 a former member of the Philippine Olympic Yachting team named Francisco Gonzalez boarded Pacific Airlines flight 773 from Stockton to San Francisco.  He shot the pilot and co-pilot and crashed the plane.  Though it is similar, this event was not directed at a building and so is not quite the same as what Byck had in mind.  However, it may well have provided the imaginative spark that led to Byck's actions.  You can read the Civil Aviation Board's report on the flight 773 incident here

There is another somewhat abstruse possibility.  The 1970 disaster movie Airport was a huge box office success and spawned several sequels and spoofs.  Central to the story is a man named D.O. Guerrero who like Byck is bankrupt and has a history of mental illness.  Guerrero carries a suitcase bomb onto a transatlantic 707 with the intention of blowing himself up, downing the plane, and enabling his wife to collect on a life insurance policy.  Like Byck his plot essentially fails and Guerrero succeeds only in killing himself. 

Though there are comparisons, Byck's idea of hijacking a plane and using it as a targeted missile is quite different to Guerrero's suicide bombing.  More likely, the Guerrero character was inspired by Francisco Gonzalez (the surnames are a bit of a giveaway), and Byck's innovation is simply another step in the evolution of terrorism. 

Black Sunday posterWhile the inspiration for Byck's suicide hijacking attempt is not clear, the influence his actions had on popular culture producers was considerable.  In 1977 a film was released that was clearly based on Byck's real-life story. 

Black Sunday is a story about a man who works as a Goodyear blimp pilot as NFL games.  He is quietly insane, driven crazy by memories of being tortured as a prison of war in Vietnam.  He was also court-martialled on his return from the war, and his marriage has fallen apart.

He conspires alongside a white, female member of Black September, a somewhat unrealistic character clearly inspired by Patty Hearst.  The two plan to attach a large bomb to the blimp and crash it into the stadium on the day of the Superbowl.  They ultimately fail and both would-be suicide hijackers are shot dead.

The parallels with Byck's story are abundant.  Byck had served in the army, though there's no evidence he was tortured as a prisoner of war.  He also felt betrayed by the government, and his marriage had failed.  He did not collaborate with anyone in his hijacking attempt, but it ended in the same way as the story in Black Sunday.

The 1981 film Escape from New York contained similar memes.  This time, a lone white female terrorist hijacks Air Force One on behalf of a workers terrorist organisation, the National Liberation Front of America.  She crashes the plane into a skyscraper in lower Manhattan in a cinema moment that would be repeated for real 20 years later. 

Escape from New York suicide hijacking

However, it would not be until after 9/11 that a film was made of the real Byck story, rather than politically useful fictionalisations.  The 2004 film The Assassination of Richard Nixon stars Sean Penn as Samuel Byck and portrays the run-up to the hijacking attempt, culminating in Byck's suicide.  It is remarkably touching and sympathetic towards Byck given the immediately post-9/11 context in which it was made. 

To help people understand the Sam Byck story I have put together a dossier of documents from the files released by the FBI in response to a FOIA request. 

Sam Byck dossier

You can download the dossier via the link beneath the document viewer or directly via this link (PDF, 3.1MB).

Related articles:

A Brief History of Suicide Hijackings part II

A Brief History of Suicide Hijackings part III