Saturday, April 13, 2024

Robb Heady: History's unluckiest hijacker

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When it comes to American mysteries, second only to 'who shot JFK?'* comes "Did D.B. Cooper get away with it?"

In November 1971, during the 'golden age of hijacking', D.B. Cooper** hijacked an internal US flight and demanded $300,000 and two parachutes. He got them, leapt from the plane at altitude and was never seen again.

Nine years later, some of the money he had been given was found buried in the banks of the Columbia River in Washington State.  This may suggest that the rest of the money and Cooper's body lie somewhere nearby, but there are good reasons why the mystery refuses to die.

The first is the Cooper demeanour throughout the hijack. He remained perfectly cool and in command, suggesting to many that he had a background in special forces. For them, even the knowledge that it was possible to jump from the rear steps of a Boeing 727 in flight suggests he had been involved in operations in Vietnam.

The second is that Cooper inspired a dozen copycat hijackings, and the perpetrator of everyone survived the parachute jump.

One of the copycats was Robb Heady:

On June 2, 1972, Robb Heady, a 22-year-old former Army paratrooper and Vietnam War veteran, hijacked United Airlines Flight 239 from Reno to San Francisco. Carrying his own parachute and using a .357 revolver, he demanded $200,000 in ransom money. Because the hijacking occurred at night while banks were closed, FBI agents were forced to secure the ransom money from two local casinos in Reno. 

Once he had received the ransom, Heady directed the pilots on a very specific flight path. However, the pilot intentionally altered the flight path by half a degree, causing Heady to miss his drop zone. Heady was captured the next morning. 

The money bag containing Heady's ransom was jerked from his grasp when he pulled the ripcord and was recovered by FBI agents two days later. In September 1972 Heady pled guilty to aircraft piracy and was sentenced to serve 30 years in federal prison

What that Wikipedia account omits is how Heady was recaptured. The FBI worked out from the flight path he had demanded where he had intended to land and searched the area. There they found a car parked in a remote area that was of particular interest to them, so they kept it under observation.

Sure enough, a man eventually arrived at the car, retrieved the keys from beneath a nearby rock and let himself in. The man was Robb Heady.

And what had drawn the interest of the FBI to the car? A 'Member of the U.S. Parachute Association' bumper sticker.

Which makes him history's unluckiest - or most careless - hijacker.

* If, like me, you wonder why more has not been made of Lee Harvey's time in the USSR and visit to Cuba, read the guest post by Jack White.

** The hijacker actually gave his name as Dan Cooper, but for some reason this faulty newspaper transcription stuck.

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