Robbery at 30,000 feet

Adventures in real-life airplane stickups. (And you thought hijacking hardly happened anymore.)


Elliott Neal Hester
July 14, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

Last week, like a scene out of a John Woo action movie, a group of armed bandits robbed a commercial jetliner as it prepared to take off from the international airport in Brasmlia, Brazil. They escaped with 132 pounds of gold. Value: about $500,000.

According to news reports, as many as 15 men were involved in the July 6 heist. Armed with machine guns, they overpowered guards at the VASP Brazilian Airlines cargo terminal and drove two vehicles onto the tarmac. Not far away, three suitcases filled with gold were being transferred from an armored car to a VASP airplane bound for Ptrto Alegre. The precious metal was the property of a mining company and had been flown to the airport by helicopter.

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The robbers approached the plane, overpowered workers and snatched the three heavy suitcases. During the getaway, they exchanged gunfire with federal police who had arrived at the scene. Though none of the 70 passengers was injured during the shootout, a bullet struck the airplane's wing, missing a fuel tank by inches.

In all the confusion, the gang left behind one suitcase containing 50 pounds of gold. They escaped in stolen vehicles with one hostage, who was released the next morning.

"This was a very rapid operation, very well-planned," said a spokesman for the Federal District Military Police. "They certainly spent a lot of time reviewing how to do it."

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In contrast to this orchestrated ground attack, the May 25 robbery aboard a Philippine Airlines jet was a poorly planned in-flight affair that ended in disaster.

With 278 passengers and 12 crew members onboard, the Airbus 330 had just taken off from Davao, Philippines, for a 90-minute flight to Manila. After the cabin crew completed the snack service, a man wearing a blue ski mask suddenly appeared near the cockpit. With a pistol in one hand and a grenade in the other, the man, later identified as Reginald Chua, seized flight attendant Meg Bueno. He said, "This is a holdup! This is a holdup!" He then forced Bueno to open the cockpit door.

Once inside, Chua told the pilots to return to Davao. When they said there wasn't enough fuel, he demanded cash. Reports say Emmanuel Generoso, the senior pilot, offered his own money. "He was very angry, very temperamental," Generoso said. "The man said, 'If you do not do what I say, we will die together.'"

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At some point the gun fired, but no one was hit.

Still, Chua wanted more money. Ida Marie Bernasconi, a local TV news reporter, was a passenger on the flight. "He collected all the money he could from the passengers," she said. Bernasconi said she assisted the crew in the collection process. After the money was gathered, it was placed in a small plastic bag and given to the hijacker.

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At Chua's insistence, the pilot descended to 6,000 feet and the cabin was depressurized. While the plane circled Manila, the hijacker donned a homemade parachute, which he produced from his backpack. He then told a crew member to open the rear door. Despite the powerful gust of wind that initially blew him backward, he astonished everyone onboard and jumped.

An on-ground witness reported seeing someone parachute out of the Philippine Airlines jet. But the homemade parachute did not remain intact. Chua plummeted to a gruesome death. "I saw the parachute separate from the person," said Basilio Gesmundo, chief of Liabac, a small village east of Manila.

National police chief Panfilo Lacson told reporters, "The body was embedded in the ground with only the hands protruding."

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D.B. Cooper -- the infamous hijacker who parachuted from a commercial jet with $200,000 in ransom money strapped to his body -- may have suffered a similar fate. On Nov. 24, 1971, the night before Thanksgiving, he hijacked Northwest Airlines Flight 305, bound to Seattle from Portland. Claiming to have a bomb, Cooper demanded the ransom and four parachutes. When the plane landed three hours later at Seattle-Tacoma Airport, he received the money and the parachutes; in exchange, he released the passengers but kept four crew members on the aircraft.

After refueling, the Boeing 727 took off for Mexico. Cooper instructed the pilot to fly no higher than 10,000 feet with the landing gear down -- a ploy designed to slow down the plane and make it easier for him to jump. At approximately 8:13 p.m., 30 minutes after takeoff, he opened the jet's rear stairway and parachuted out. Tied around his waist was a 21-pound bag stuffed with 10,000 $20 bills.

Unlike in the Chua case, Cooper's body was never found. As a result, he has evolved into a sort of aviation folk hero. The town of Airel, Wash., close to where authorities believe the hijacker landed, still holds an annual D.B. Cooper ceremony to commemorate the event. Robert Duvall and Treat Williams starred in a 1981 movie about him ("The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper"), and former FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach wrote a book about the ordeal ("NORJAK: The Investigation of D.B. Cooper"). Himmelsbach believes the hijacker died not far from where he touched down.

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The case remains the only unsolved domestic airplane hijacking in U.S. history.

These airplane-related incidents bring to mind a daring heist that hit close to home. This one happened on Feb. 17, 1997. To the best of my knowledge, the robbery failed to appear in U.S. news reports. But it happened. I should know -- I was one of four flight attendants working aboard the aircraft.

A few moments before the plane departed Curagao for Miami, I performed my part of the routine safety demonstration and then headed for my seat. Of the four flight attendants onboard, two were assigned to the jump seat near the forward entry door. The other attendant and I were to occupy the seat attached to the emergency door at the rear of the 727 aircraft.

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The plane was full of suntanned vacationers, their smiles fading as the realities of the real world began to creep into their thoughts. None of them knew they were about to witness one of the boldest robberies in aviation history.

After the captain made his departure announcement, the engines roared, the plane lurched forward and the aircraft began to roll down the taxiway. Some passengers dozed; others flipped impatiently through magazines. I talked quietly with Amy, the flight attendant seated beside me.

Suddenly, the aircraft came to a halt. From my seat at the rear of the aircraft, I saw the cockpit door swing open. Our captain -- a no-nonsense, ex-military type -- marched down the aisle at a gait that made everyone nervous. His face was expressionless, a mask of professional indifference that aroused more suspicion than it averted. I turned to Amy. She threw a look at me. Something was terribly wrong.

As the captain approached, we unbuckled our seat harnesses and stood nervously. By now, the passengers were stirring in their seats. Like waves closing behind the wake of a passing speedboat, a splash of worried faces filled the aisle.

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In a hushed voice, the captain spoke to Amy and me. "The cargo door indicator light came on," he said. "I'm going to go check it out."

He opened the aft emergency door, pulled a lever that lowered the stairs and a moment later was gone. Just then, I noticed a passenger with both arms flailing. Apparently, he'd been trying to get our attention for a few seconds. He was seated next to a window on the left side of the aircraft. As I approached the passenger began pointing out the window. "Just before the plane stopped, we saw a guy run underneath the airplane," he said. "He just ran underneath and disappeared." Several passengers nodded their heads in agreement.

A gentleman sitting on the opposite side of the plane chimed in. "Yeah, and we saw a guy come from under this side of the airplane. He ran off carrying a bag."

Were we in danger? Was this some kind of terrorist act? Amy stared at me, but before I could run to the cockpit and alert the first officer, a first-class passenger came running down the aisle. Behind the thick lenses of his black-framed glasses, his eyes were wide with panic. They were also vaguely familiar.

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"Someone ran off with my bag," he told me in a winded voice. "It was in the cargo bin. I ... I just looked out the window and saw someone running away with it."

I grabbed the man by his shoulders in an attempt to settle him down. That's when I remembered who he was. Over the years I'd seen him on one flight or another, sitting in a first-class seat, chatting with flight attendants he knew by name. He was an air courier for one of the best-known companies in the money transportation business. Air couriers like him are responsible for accompanying large sums of cash and negotiable bonds. But the money is stowed in the cargo hold, not in the airplane cabin.

Here's how large sums of cash are flown from one location to the next: Moments before an airplane departs, an armored truck pulls alongside the aircraft. Gun-toting officers dump the bags of cash into the cargo hold, then watch carefully as the airline ground crew closes the hatch and the aircraft pulls away from the gate. The operation runs in reverse at the point of arrival.

The situation was suddenly crystal-clear.

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The captain came back up the stairs with a puzzled look on his face. "The cargo door is wide open," he said. "How the hell could ..."

I interrupted him, relaying the new facts. His eyes narrowed, and he rushed down the stairs again. I went after him. The courier followed. The three of us stood beneath a smoldering Caribbean sun, mouths open, heads shaking, unable to believe our eyes. We were staring into an open cargo compartment that was missing one rather important piece of luggage.

According to the courier, there were two money bags. One was filled with unmarked bills in small denominations; the other held negotiable bonds and other monetary instruments. Apparently, the thief crept onto the taxiway and ran alongside the aircraft as it rolled down the taxiway. There were two cargo compartments, both on the right side of the aircraft. He knew exactly which one to open and exactly how to open it. He also knew which of the two bags to take. It was definitely an inside job, and the suspect was long gone.

After reporting the incident to airport authorities, the crew readied the airplane for a somewhat late departure. Realizing the plane would not wait, and knowing there was nothing he could do in Curagao, the courier decided to join us. He had some very bad news to share with his superiors in Miami.

"Exactly how much money was in the bag?" I whispered while escorting the courier back to his seat. His heavy gaze fell upon me. In that one dismal moment I felt almost as bad as he looked.

"Almost $500,000," he said.

The Curagao bandit, along with two accomplices -- one of whom was an airport employee -- were caught within a month, after they went on a conspicuous, on-island spending spree. They remain in prison to this day.


Elliott Neal Hester

Elliott Neal Hester has been a flight attendant for 15 years. He has also written for National Geographic Traveler, Men's Fitness, Glamour, Maxim and Caribbean Travel & Life. Out of the Blue appears every other Friday. E-mail your tale of life in the sky to Hester. For more columns by Hester, visit his column archive.

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