Reader's Digest India|November 2020
The one-hour commuter flight 50 years ago started out routinely. It ended up changing how we fly
Neil Swidey

THE UNITED STATES IN THE 1960s had been plagued by so-called skyjackings, but none had turned deadly. For some experts Flight 1320 on St Patrick’s Day, 1970, is a dividing line in aviation history. Before it, major carriers could treat the threat of hijacking as barely more serious than an air-traffic delay, and let passengers walk on to planes without screening them. After it, everybody knew better.

THEY SPRINTED ACROSS Newark Airport in New Jersey, two middle-aged men desperately trying to make their 7:30 p.m. flight, home to Boston. By the time they got aboard Eastern Airlines Flight 1320, they were sweating. As the stewardess secured the passenger door behind them, Lloyd Pedersen looked back to his colleague Al Cavalieri and said, “How lucky are we?”

Within minutes, this shuttle flight on 17 March 1970, with its 68 passengers and five crew members, was in the air. It was scheduled to land in Boston in under an hour.

About 30 minutes into the flight, Pedersen, a plant supervisor, and Cavalieri, a mechanical engineer, were talking shop when two stewardesses, one blonde, the other brunette, both in their 20s, appeared at their row pushing a cart. Passengers didn’t need reservations for the shuttle, and they paid in the air—the fare was $21 (₹1,541).

The brunette greeted Pedersen and Cavalieri. Her name tag read Sandy. She was pleasant and efficient and soon moved on to the row behind them.

SANDY SALTZER, 26, a native of upstate New York, gave up a good job in a school system to become a stewardess. She had been flying with Eastern for six months when, at the beginning of March 1970, she began a stint with the Newark-based shuttle crew—a pilot, a co-pilot and two other stewardesses—on two daily round-trip flights between Newark and Boston.

The flight was too short to provide a drink service, collecting fares took up most of the time in the air. Saltzer worked the collection cart with Christine Peterson, 25, the crew’s senior stewardess.

At the second-to-last row, Saltzer greeted a young guy with sunglasses who had the row to himself. She smiled and asked for $21.

He handed her $16 (₹1,174). “There’s not enough here, sir,” she said politely.

He looked confused then reached under his seat to retrieve a black leather camera bag. A label on its strap read JOHN DIVIVO, NY. He pulled out a black Colt revolver.

“Don’t get excited,” Divivo said. “I want to see the captain.”

He stood up. Not wanting to cause a panic, Saltzer asked Divivo to hide his gun.

JUST AFTER 8 p.m., the pilot turned on the fasten seat belts sign. The plane would soon be making its descent. Glancing to his left, Pedersen spotted Saltzer walking towards the cockpit, trailed closely by a guy with thick sideburns and shaggy brown hair wearing sunglasses, as well as a ragged suede coat.

Nothing about this seemed right. He walked with his arms awkwardly folded, as if hiding something. And he was heading to the cockpit when the fasten seat belts light was on and the plane was close to landing.

“Al, that guy shouldn’t be up there!” Pedersen said, tapping his seatmate’s arm.

Al wondered if he might be a hijacker. More than 50 US flights had been hijacked in the previous two years. The hijackers would typically demand money and command the pilot to fly to Cuba, where they hoped to find asylum. The airlines seemed to treat these skyjackings as little more than a nuisance.

Even passengers didn’t seem too put out. They would typically get bottomless drinks and a story they could tell for the rest of their days.

DIVIVO GESTURED for Saltzer to open the cockpit door.

“I’ll have to call him first,” she told him. She picked up the intercom phone. Saltzer knew that Bob Wilbur, 35, had been promoted from first officer to captain a few months earlier. But over just a few weeks, she had found him to be a gentleman and as sure-footed as any seasoned veteran.

“Captain,” she said quietly, “there is a man outside with a gun who wants to see you.”

“I cannot help you now,” Wilbur replied. “I’m too busy.” He sounded distracted—Saltzer figured he hadn’t really heard what she’d said.

She hung up the receiver and told Divivo that the pilot and co-pilot were too preoccupied getting ready to land. She detected an instant change. She had been confident he could be reasoned with, like other hijackers she’d heard about. She didn’t believe that now.

“Call him back,” Divivo snapped. She picked up the receiver and spoke slowly and firmly. “You don’t understand, Captain, he has a gun,” she said.

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