On September 11, 2001, the world watched in horror as 19 terrorists took control of four American jetliners and used them as weapons of mass destruction. Two struck the World Trade Center in New York, one hit the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C., and the last plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, the militants’ plans thwarted thanks to the passengers on board.
But this was not the first time a hijacker attempted to use a commercial airliner as a weapon against a United States target.
On February 22, 1974, Samuel Joseph Byck hijacked a Delta Airlines’ passenger plane and tried to force the pilots to crash it into the White House — hoping to assassinate President Richard Nixon. But like most things in Byck’s life, things didn’t pan out the way he’d hoped. According to the website This Day in History:
Byck, a high school dropout and ex-army soldier, had been down on his luck for some time when he decided to try to “take back the government” for the people, by assassinating the president. His wife had left him two years before, taking their kids as well. He also was having trouble keeping a job and recently had been rejected by the U.S. Small Business Administration for a loan to start his own business, something he was extremely bitter about.
As such, Byck decided a revolution was needed to fix the rampant corruption he perceived, with politicians being more concerned about keeping special interests happy, rather than helping actual American citizens. He also believed the government was conspiring with those special interest to keep people who were poor, down-and-out.
In 1972, following his many setbacks, Byck began suffering severe bouts of depression, so he admitted himself at a psychiatric clinic. It was here that he first publicly revealed his belief that the government conspired to oppress the poor in this country. He also began sending out audio tapes to public officials threatening that he was going to kill President Nixon. The Secret Service was notified, but they considered him generally harmless.
Byck’s anger grew. He conducted two protests outside the White House, and was arrested each time because he didn’t have a permit, which is a requirement for protesting there. During one of his protests, he wore a Santa Costume and held a sign that read: “All I want for Christmas is my constitutional right to publicly petition my government for a redress of grievances.” Again, the Secret Service didn’t see Byck as a legitimate threat and no action was taken against him.
Then in 1973 Byck began developing his plan to kill Nixon, finally enacted it in early 1974.
He decided to steal a .22 caliber pistol from a friend and also made a bomb using two gallons of gasoline. He also recorded himself talking about his plans, stating that he believed he would be a hero after the assassination.
On the morning of February 22, 1974, he drove to the Baltimore International Airport with intent to hijack a plane. He was stopped by George Ramsburg, a security officer at the airport, but ended up shooting him to continue on his way. He ran through the airport and boarded a Flight 523 to Atlanta aboard a DC-9.
At this point some stories differ as to what happened.
Officer Ramsburg died, but Officer Charles Troyer had just come on duty, heard the shots, and ran toward the scene. He found the fallen officer, took his gun, and continued pursuing Byck.
Byck made it into the plane’s cockpit where he told the pilots he had a bomb and wanted them to take off. Some reports state the pilots stalled him, others say Byck just fired at them before they could respond. Either way, pilot Reese (Doug) Loftin was wounded, and co-pilot Fred Jones was shot in the head and instantly killed.
Meanwhile, on the tarmac, police attempted to shoot out the plane’s tires; unfortunately, the .38 caliber bullets fired from their police-issued Smith & Wesson revolvers couldn’t do the job. The bullets just ricocheted off the tires.
Inside the plane, Byck exited the cockpit and with the help of a flight attendant(s) they attempted to close the door; this was either done on his own accord, or because Loftin told him the doors needed to be closed for takeoff. However, before they were closed Officer Troyer arrived and fired at Byck. None of the bullets hit, and Byck fled back to the cockpit where he allegedly shot the dead co-pilot again, as well as the surviving pilot.
Officer Troyer then stormed onto the plane and fired four shots through the aircraft door at Byck with the gun he’d taken from Ramsburg’s body. Two of the shots hit Byck after penetrating the thick window of the aircraft door and wounded him. Before the police could gain entry to the aircraft, Byck committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
A History Channel documentary said Byck lived for a few minutes after shooting himself, finally dying after saying “help me” to one of the police officers who entered the plane after he had been shot. However, TDIH notes that Byck “stating ‘help me’ is not in the official F.B.I. report, which details the event, including the officers’ accounts. The officers stated that Byck was dead when they arrived inside the plane. The surviving pilot’s account also doesn’t mention Byck saying anything after the police entered. Of course, he had just been shot three times and perhaps wasn’t in the best state to remember such details (though he claims to remember up to the point when the officers arrived).”
Some versions of the story also say that after shooting the pilots, Byck grabbed a female passenger and ordered her to fly the plane. Some sources doubt the validity of this claim, including TDIH.
Given the pilot’s account of the event included the incident from when Byck entered the plane up to the point where the officers arrived in the aircraft and he never mentioned it, it is questionable whether this actually happened or not, despite certain documentaries stating that it did. Further, the police arriving in the plane also did not report anyone in the cockpit except the dead co-pilot, still strapped in his seat, and the grievously injured pilot, also still strapped into his seat.
Regardless of these discrepancies, no one in the country seemed prepared for such an attack to happen again. But it would — 27 years later.
Byck’s story was turned into a movie in 2004 entitled The Assassination of Richard Nixon; it starred Sean Penn.