Security and aviation have been strange bedfellows almost since the beginning of commercial aviation. Every day we hear about potential new threats and hazards affecting our routines of air travel. And, even though we sometimes view the regulations as nonsense, they are there to protect us. Yes, it may be inconvenient to pack your shampoo into a 100 ml bottle before boarding your plane to sunny, St. Somewhere, but the alternative might interrupt your trip even more.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s there were almost 300 airliner hijackings, about 1 every 5 days. In 1969 there were more than 50 airline hijackings alone. But, one hijacking on Halloween 1969 would carry both the title of first transatlantic hijacking and the longest hijacking with the most miles covered, 6900 miles! And, the hijacker would also go down as the hijacker to receive the most marriage proposals and the most “Spaghetti” Western movie star offers. Yes, bizarrely enough, this all happened. And, the aircraft also made a stop in Bangor, while the aircraft was under the control of the hijacker.
19-year old, US Marine Raffaele Minichiello was accused of breaking and entering and stealing $200 work of merchandise from a post exchange at Camp Pendleton and listed as AWOL. On Thursday, October 30, 1969 he failed to appear for his hearing and was facing a court martial from the military. The following day, Halloween, he bought a ticket from Los Angeles to San Francisco for $15.50. As TWA Flight 85 was enroute at 22,000 feet over Fresno, California, Raffaele Minichiello took a bag and entered the lavatory. Inside the bag was a disassembled rifle, 250 rounds of ammunition, and a knife. Upon exiting the lavatory, he pointed the gun at a flight attendant, entered the cockpit, and asked to be taken (first) to New York. Because the Boeing 707 aircraft didn’t have enough fuel, a stop would be needed in Denver, Colorado to take on fuel to continuing the flight to New York.
Onboard the flight were 39 passengers, including the band Harpers Bizarre – famous for their rendition of the original Simon and Garfunkel song, 59th St. Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy). And, if you aren’t familiar with the (melodramatically catchy, earworm-worthy) tune, ask your Mom, or Grandmother. I’m sure they will be able to sing a few lines for you. I know I can remember my Mom playing the song on our piano in the living room, singing along. I digress….
During the Denver fuel stop, Raffaele released all 39 passengers and 3 flight attendants. However, one brave flight attendant, Tracey Coleman, decided to continue on to New York. Once the flight became airborne again, the skyjacker ordered a change in destination. The new destination, Rome, Italy. But, he ordered the flight crew to report to authorities that it was Cairo, Egypt to mislead them. With the new destination came another fuel stop; a stop in New York would be needed.
Upon landing at New York’s Kennedy Airport, TWA Captain Donald Cook recalls to the New York Times on November 3, 1969, “the FBI plan was damned near a prescription for getting the entire crew killed and the plane destroyed.” Captain Cook is referring to the FBI’s plan to board the airliner. Instead of the arranged minimum ground crew, Raffaela noticed a large crew, some carrying weapons (not standard refueling practice!), awaiting the fueling operation and became nervous. As some of the weapon-carrying agents approached the aircraft, the hijacker ordered Cook to get them away from the aircraft. To do so, Cook opened the side cockpit window and screamed that everyone needed to back away or, “this boy is going to shoot us.” Rather than obey though, the FBI continued to move towards the aircraft. Realizing that refueling had not begun, Raffaela feared he’d been tricked by the ground crew and the flight crew. In his anger, he fired into the ceiling of the cockpit as a warning and started running up and down the aisle. Then, without refueling, the hijacked TWA Flight 85 tookoff from Kennedy Airport with its pilots at gunpoint.
And, for the third time since the aircraft departed Los Angeles, a fuel stop was needed. This time, it was Bangor, Maine. The FBI did not try any plan in Bangor, and the aircraft was uneventfully refueled and took off for its journey across the North Atlantic. By this time, the hijacker was taking No-Doz tablets to stay awake. Captain Cook recalled that during this stage of the flight Raffaela was also constantly on edge, pacing, and even taking apart and cleaning his rifle. The crew noted that he “wanted to kill someone or be killed.”
After one more fuel stop in Shannon, Ireland, the hijacked airliner landed in Rome, Italy. The entire flight taking 17 hours, and crossing 6900 miles! Once on the ground, the hijacker took the Chief of Airport Police as a hostage and departed in a car. It was thought at this time that his intent was to visit his dying father near Naples. However, after a five-hour search with over 500 policemen, he was found due to his attire; his checkered Bermuda shorts had given him away at Mass!
A priest at the Sanctuary of Divine Love, south of Rome, had alerted the police of a man acting suspiciously during the morning Mass on All Saints Day (November 1). And, he stood out because he was the only one in the crowd of over 2000 wearing Bermuda shorts! Consequently, November 1 was also Raffaela’s 20th birthday. I doubt he was, “feelin’ groovy” as he was arrested by the Italian police!
During the aftermath of the hijacking, Raffaela Minichiello was called the considerate hijacker, the most handsome hijacker, an Italian folk hero, a gentlemanly madman (with suicidal tendencies), and a heartthrob. He received countless marriage proposals from Italian teenagers. He was even offered a leading role in a “Spaghetti” Western film!
Even though the FBI had charged him with “air piracy, kidnapping, and interference with commercial aircraft,” Italy did not extradite Raffaela. And, since air piracy was not a crime in Italy at the time, he was charged with kidnapping and a weapons charge and sentenced to seven and a half years in an Italian jail. However, he was released after serving only 18 months! When asked by local news why he hijacked the airliner, his answer was, “I don’t know.”
After being released from jail, he remained in Italy, working as a waiter outside of Rome. His last known address was near Naples in the town of Melito Irpino, Italy. And, although I was unable to find more on his current residence, he does have a YouTube channel dedicated to accordion music….
Aviation security has come a long way since 1969! And, even though the safeguards put in place may seem like nonsensical hindrances, they are there for reasons – to keep us safe.
Worth mentioning are the heroic crew of TWA Flight 85, shown below, Captain Donald Cook, Jr.; First Officer Wenzel Williams; Flight Engineer Lloyd Halloran; and Flight Attendant Tracey Colman. Their actions lead to the hijacking ending with no lives lost.
Life Magazine, June 2, 1972, “Skyjacking con amore” Page 8.
San Francisco Chronical, November 3, 1969.
The Gettysburg Times, November 1, 1969.
YouTube Feelin Groovy (You can thank me later when you can’t get the song out of your head!)
In researching this story, I found conflicting and inconsistent information about the locations that the hijacker wanted to go to. Whether the final destination was ever New York could be questioned, and the timing of the request to go to Rome. Some news accounts also show the hijackers first name as Rafael.