History's Headlines: Skyjack of 1972

 

Ever since September 11, 2001, no other airplane hijacking matters. The deaths of thousands of people on that day at the World Trade Center and elsewhere have seared that event into the national consciousness, understandably blotting out anything that came before.

But there were others that in their time and place attracted the attention of press and public. And one of them occurred on May 5, 1972 from a plane that took off from what was then ABE airport. The hijacker was Easton resident Frederick W. Hahneman, and the motives behind his actions have not totally been uncovered to this day.

By the early 1970s, hijackings of airplanes for money had become regarded as something of a performance art rather than a terrorist act. There had been 26 of them in 1971, 11 successful.

"They often command little more than one-column, six -paragraph stories on page 8 of most daily newspapers," noted an editorial writer for the Allentown Evening Chronicle in 1972. Perhaps the best known up to that time and one that remained so until 9/11 was one by a hijacker known as D.B. Cooper in 1971. Parachuting out of a plane over a jungle with a suitcase full of money (apparently a favored venue of hijackers of that era) neither he or it was ever found. As the only skyjacking that remains unsolved, it has spawned a raft of conspiracy theories that joined the one about JFK being kept alive in the Parkland hospital in Dallas.

It was in that era that a mystery man calling himself George Ames checked into the Americus Hotel in Allentown on May 2, 1972. Like characters out of a Perry Mason mystery, waitresses and other hotel staff would later recount that they were immediately suspicious. He was "polite, too polite." The night desk clerk, in what sounds like a not-much-gets-past-me-tone, had this to say: "He always seemed to have a preoccupied air," she noted. "You couldn't get close to him for some reason. He seemed to put a wall up around him right away."

As days past Mr. Ames became more and more of a mystery. At one point he asked the location of a travel agency. And on May 5, at 2 a.m. as he sipped a Coke and ate a slice of cherry pie, he divulged to them that later that day he was going "to catch a plane." Sometime on May 5th in the skies over the Lehigh Valley, the region's only skyjacking took place.

The so-called Ames was in fact Frederick W. Hahneman, a 49-year-old engineer from Easton. He had a blind wife and two children and was apparently a mystery man to everyone in his neighborhood. The flight he chose was Eastern Airlines No. 175, a 727 jet whose final destination was to be Miami with a stopover in Washington D.C.

Eastern Airlines prided itself on its ability to thwart hijackers. Just that February the airline told the Morning Call that it had instituted the Federal Airline Administration's anti-hijacking guidelines at ABE. Robert Zastempowski, a spokesman for Eastern, had this to say:

"We have always used the very effective psychological profile (of potential hijackers) and we will be shortly installing portable metal detecting devices here."

But apparently these devices were either not working or not installed when Hahneman walked on flight 175 sometime between 8 and 9 a.m. that morning with a loaded .38 caliber Colt Cobra pistol. Twenty minutes into the flight he pulled out his gun and walked to the front of the plane. Once there he informed the pilot, Captain W. L. Hendershott, that was taking over the plane. He demanded $303,000. A few minutes later Hendershott announced, "There is an armed man aboard." With that Hahneman took the chief stewardess hostage at the rear of the plane.

Among the 48 passengers were a number from Allentown. Among them were Edward R. Baldridge, then an assistant professor of history at Muhlenberg College, Edward C. Russoli of Cinruss, a Hamilton Street furniture store, and Frank Valck, a safety director with Western Electric.

Valck was not aware of how serious the situation was when he walked back to the rear restroom and saw the hijacker and his hostage. "After I asked him jokingly where the line began," Valck said later, "the man turned slowly around and jammed a gun into my midsection. He said, 'Don't try anything funny. Go back to your seat.' I really had to go by then," he recalled and headed to the front restroom.

When another passenger went up for a magazine in the rack, Hahneman yelled at him to get back to his seat. When the passenger sassed him back the hijacker rammed his .38 into the passenger's stomach. "That's the reason. Go back, or I'll blow your brains out." Other passengers on the plane were New York Times reporter Neil Amdur and his wife. He was later to write that the experience gave him "a feeling of fear that I had never known before."

Although the plane was scheduled to land at Washington's National Airport, the hijacker ordered the pilot to land at Dulles instead. On landing, he informed the airline he wanted his ransom money. He also asked for several parachutes and a particular brand of cigarettes. When that was done Hahneman allowed the passengers to leave the plane. Passenger Donald L. Seng of Allentown was the first to leave. "I walked right past him keeping an eye on the gun." When all the passengers were released Hahneman allowed one stewardess off with them and ordered the pilot to take off.

But a new wrinkle emerged when Hahneman saw the denomination of the cash given to him. For whatever reason, he had demanded $500 and $1000 bills instead of the $100 bills given to him. While the plane waited at Dulles, Eastern sought out the necessary bills. Since the government had not made that type of currency since 1966 it was a nationwide search.

Four hours later they were airborne once again. Hahneman then gave orders for the pilot to fly over the Central American country of Honduras, where the hijacker had been born. But a new wrinkle had come up. The plane was having problems and would have to land in New Orleans. Furious, Hahneman ordered that a new plane be on the ground when they arrived. This was done and after he hustled the pilot and crew on to it, their air odyssey was on again.

At 4:00 am the plane was over the jungle of Honduras. Hahneman ordered Hendershott to slow the plane. Then the hijacker put on a parachute, grabbed his cash filled attache case, and jumped out the back door of the plane.

Unlike D.B. Cooper, who the FBI was to claim was lost in the jungle and never found, Hahneman was more careful and landed successfully. But while the story faded briefly from the headlines, the FBI and Honduran police were on his tail. Reward posters by Eastern Airlines were all over the country, offering $25.000 for his capture.

Desperate, Hahneman went to a Honduran friend, asking him to hide him. The friend replied they were too old for such games and that he should turn himself in. So at 1:00 a.m. on June 2nd 1972, Hahneman walked into the U.S. Embassy in Honduras.

A torrent of headlines greeted his surrender in the Lehigh Valley. His wife and sons in Easton were surrounded by reporters.

There were rumors that Hahneman was plotting a revolution in Honduras with his cousin, then a delegate with the Honduran mission to the U.N., and needed the cash for that purpose.

On September 11, 1972 Hahneman waived his right to a trial and was sentenced to life in federal prison in Atlanta. Asked by a reporter what he did with money he replied, "None of your bloody business!" The FBI, offering few details, announced on May 8, 1973 that they had found the $303,000.

Hahneman was paroled on March 13, 1984 to a halfway house and on August 17th of that year was discharged. According to one source he died on December 17, 1991 at the age of 69 in Costa Mesa, California.

Asked in 1984 why her husband had done this, his perplexed wife responded, "I don't know why he did it. If you ever find out, will you please let me know?"