As soon as Sara slammed the cockpit door, Arnie said, “Oh hell.” Immediately he rushed to the transponder and input the code denoting a hijacking. He then took command of the radio and called the tower.
“St. Louis tower, this is TWA flight 798.”
“Confirm, TWA flight 798?”
“Confirm flight. We are flight 798.” He said, giving code to the personnel in the tower that a hijacking was taking place. “I’m not sure of our current situation, but I know a shot has been fired, and the cockpit has been locked down.” He then unkeyed the mic and turned to the others. “Start up the APU and shutdown the engines.”
Gary responded, “It’ll take a minute to spin up the APU. You want me to wait until the APU is on-line or just shut the engines down now?”
The captain took a moment to consider the options. If he shut the motors down before the APU was on-line, the plane would go dark for want of electrical power. This could acerbate the problem in the back. He knew that most hijackers didn’t know the first thing about an airplane—certainly not enough to start the engines—and without the motors running; they weren’t going anywhere.
“It sounds quiet back there. Stu, what do you see?”
The flight engineer slid his seat back and got up. At the cockpit door, he glanced through a peephole and assessed the situation behind them.
“It looks like Sara’s talking to the gunman. At least, I think that’s what’s going on. She’s standing mid-cabin and everyone seems quiet. But kind of hard to tell from here.”
“Why the hell doesn’t one of the other stews call?” Arnie said under his breath. He then added at full volume. “Wait for the APU until shutdown. A few seconds isn’t going to make a difference.”
“TWA flight 798, what is your current situation?”
Arnie keyed the mic. “Tower, we don’t know yet. Please stand by.”
“Hey, boss.” Both Arnie and Gary turned to Stu, who was still at the door. “It looks like Sara’s coming forward. And it looks like the gunman’s behind her.”
“No, but I think so.”
“I guess we’ll know in a few seconds,” Gary added.
Stu glanced at his panel and quickly returned to his seat. “APU’s up boss.”
“Change over the power and kill the engines.”
Obediently, Stu removed the flow of power from the aircraft’s three engines to the lone APU. Almost immediately afterward, he reached forward and pulled the three fuel levers, starving the three JT8D engines of Jet-A. It was only a second later that the engine’s roar quieted to a whine as the jets lost momentum.
Arnie had the interphone in his hand almost the moment the chime came from the cabin.
“Sara, is that you?”
“Yes, sir,” she replied robotically.
“Is he beside you?”
“Yes, sir.” She answered in the same tone.
“Are you the only one who can hear me?”
“For the moment, sir.”
“Listen, if you can talk freely, call me Arnie, or use any of our first names. If you can’t, call me, or anyone else up here, ‘Captain.’ Do you understand?”
“Yes, Captain. Captain, there is a gentleman back here who would like to talk to you.”
“Go ahead, put him on.”
There was a moment of silence until a man’s voice replaced Sara’s. “Is this the captain?”
“Yes, it is. To whom am I speaking?”
“Now you listen to me: if you do what I say, there’s no reason anyone has to die. But if you don’t, not one of you’ll be getting off this plane alive.” The hijacker’s voice was excited and his words rushed.
“Now, just calm down,” Arnie said in a much slower cadence. “I’m sure we can all…”
“Don’t tell me what to do! I’m the one with the gun! Do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand”
“No, do you understand?”
“Yes, sir. I understand you. What do you want?”
“That’s better. Now look, I don’t want to hurt nobody, but I’m not afraid to either.”
“As I said, I understand. What do you need?”
“OK. First, I want a full tank of gas.”
“A full tank?”
“The plane! I want you to fill the plane!” the hijacker shouted.
Speaking slowly, Arnie said, “We’re ready for takeoff. We already have a full load of fuel.”
“Don’t bullshit me. I know you don’t go from St. Louis to Denver with full tanks of gas. I want a full load.”
Arnie looked at the other pilots in the cockpit. All seemed to be thinking the same thing: He knows more than he’s letting on.
“I think we can make that happen. What else?”
“I want a perimeter set up around the plane. No vehicles within half a mile, except for the fuel truck.”
“All right, sir. I think we can do all of this, but what will we get in return? Can you give us a show of good faith?”
There was a lengthy pause as the hijacker seemed to ponder his response.
“I can let the women off. How’s that?”
“That would be great. Besides the fuel truck, can we bring a stair truck up the plane? To get the ladies off?”
“No,” the hijacker snapped decisively. “You can use the stairs in the back of the plane.”
“Sir, you sound reasonable. Why don’t you just put the gun down and let all the people go? I’m sure all of this can be worked out so that no one gets hurt.”
“Sure it can. But that ain’t gonna happen with me putting the gun down. You think I’m stupid? A Cuban takes a plane and then gives up? You guys don’t like us too much right now. I won’t last a day. Now, here’s what I want: A full tank of gas and I’ll let all the ladies go. Then I want one hundred thousand dollars in cash. You understand?”
“What else?” the captain asked, anger touching his voice.
“I think we’re starting to understand each other now. Then we’re going for a ride. You’re going to take me home.”
Arnie closed his eyes in frustration and opened them again, feeling trapped. “And where might that be?”
“Are you even listening to me? Cuba. I’ll be home, and I’ll be safe. Kennedy made it so that no one can go there now. You can’t touch me there, and with the money, I’ll be set for the rest of my life.”
“I’m not sure we can make it all the way to Cuba from here.”
Any traces of amusement left the hijacker’s voice. “Don’t bullshit me, man. I know the range of a 727. You can make it there easy. I want a damn fuel truck, and I want it here in half an hour. If it’s not, someone dies. If it gets here, all the ladies go. I want my cash within two hours. If I don’t get my cash, then someone dies. I get my money, everyone else goes. You understand?”
“I understand,” Arnie said through gritted teeth.
“Oh, and captain, tell the boys in the tower, only one driver. He can also do the fueling. If I see more than one body, someone dies.”
There was the click of the interphone being hung up before Arnie could respond.
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