Bombs Away

Barge Traffic on the Mississippi River

Here in Saint Louis, Robert Wilson paid cash for his ticket and carried a trombone case onto his American airlines Boeing 727 flight to Tulsa. As the plane approached its destination, he showed a flight attendant the machine gun he was carrying. It was June 23, 1972, well before Lambert began using metal detectors. Wilson demanded half-a-million dollars and five parachutes. He was the ninth copycat of D.B. Cooper, who had bailed out of a 727 the year before, never to be seen again. Thieves liked this three-engine airliner because its rear staircase could be opened in flight for a bail-out.

This story occurred eight years before I moved to Saint Louis. I heard about it as an aside of another story that I was told. When I first moved to town, I worked at McDonnell Douglas in their flight simulation department. Because we routinely dealt with military pilots, kept on staff was own cadre of flyers. To stay current most of these men also flew for the Guard out of neighboring Lambert. On this fateful day one of these coworkers, Dave, was flying for the Guard.

He took off in his F-4 Phantom, heading for a practice range in Illinois. Crossing the Mississippi, he decided to make a practice bombing run on one of the river barges. While not permitted, this was apparently a common practice. He dove on the boat, but when he went to pull up, one of his external fuel tanks came loose and headed for the barge. The way I was told this story, the fuel tank struck the lead barge. This seems improbable, since it was still full of gas. Likewise the account of crewmembers diving off the barge and into the river, when Dave came around again to see what he had done. He knew he was in trouble, not only for doing the bombing run and for what had occurred, but also for not catching the faulty mounting of the fuel tank during his preflight check.

Tail between his legs, he turned back home. By then though Wilson and his hijacked jet had already landed there and was attracting a crowd. While Wilson dispatched a hostage to get his loot, Dave was directed to land at the far end of the runway and wait there. Negotiations with the hijacker dragged on for hours, all the while Dave was sitting out in the hot sun in his un-air-conditioned plane, on a late June, Saint Louis summer day. But wait there’s more. A David Hanley had been following the course of the high-jacking on TV. Angry at what he was seeing, after midnight, he crashed his Cadillac convertible through the airport fence and at 80 MPH smashed into Wilson’s jet, disabling it.

A second plane was eventually procured and Wilson finally took off. He jumped out over Indiana. In the jump, he lost the money and his gun, which were later recovered in a cornfield. Three days afterwards Wilson was captured, with $13 in his pocket. Hanley survived his car crash, but had no memory of it and suffered little if any legal repercussions. As for Dave, he too overcame his difficulties and eventually rose to become the squadron’s commander.

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