My Hijack

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In 1991 I was hijacked in my plane, at gunpoint. The experience taught me a lot about how people, particularly pilots, react under pressure. Perhaps the most important thing it taught me was the value of either having few options or being able to limit your options when in a crisis. Note that the following account is now almost thirty years old (it was written when I was 27 years old to an aviation-related “newsgroup” (as they were called then))

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From today’s Bloomington, IN Herald Tribune

“Teen arrested in ’91 hijacking pleads guilty to lesser charge”

By Kurt Van der Dussen
H-T Staff Writer

A Monroe County teen charged with hijacking a private plane and its pilot at Monroe County Airport last year has agreed to plead guilty to reduced criminal charges in Monroe County Circuit Court.

Robert A. Sparks, 18, 670 S. Kirby Road, will be found guilty of confinement, a lesser felony reduced by plea agreement from felony kidnapping. He will be sentenced June 15, following his graduate from high school.

Sparks was charged with kidnapping after an incident on the night of Sept. 22, 1991. According to police, Sparks took pilot Gregory Travis hostage with a shotgun and hijacked his private plane, forcing Travis to take off shortly after midnight on what Sparks wanted to be a flight to Montana.

Once airborne, Travis transmitted a secret radio code indicating to Federal Aviation Administration control towers that he had been hijacked. When it started to rain, FAA air controllers tracking him ordered him to divert to Kankakee, ILL., where he persuaded Sparks he had to land because of the weather.

Once on the ground, Travis told police, Sparks seemed to have second thoughts and decided that perhaps he should turn himself in. He unloaded his shotgun and left it in the plane and the two walked into the airport terminal where waiting police arrested Sparks.

Though Sparks was 17 at the time, he was charged with kidnapping as an adult and was eventually released on $50,000 bond.

The plea agreement accepted Monday by Judge Elizabeth Mann would require Spraks to serve 90 days on work release out of the Monroe County Jail and receive psychological counseling for a year. He could earn reduction of the conviction to a misdemeanor if he successfully completes probation.

Monroe County Prosecutor Bob Miller said he agreed to the plea agreement significantly reducing the charges against Sparks because of Sparks’ psychological problems, his youth, his lack of any previous criminal record and the approval of hijack fictim Travis.

“It was a very bizarre act by a very emotionally disturbed young man,” said Miller.

Ok, so you get the general idea. Here’s an eyewitness account:

The night in question, Saturday September 22, found our hero at the local airport about 9pm cleaning his plane. Of all the things I’ve had to deal with, explaing what the hell I was doing at the airport on a Saturday night washing my plane has been the most difficult. For the rec.aviation [Newsgroup] record, yes I love my plane. I also have a real life though and she happened to be working late that night — we were supposed to rendezvous around 10pm. At 9 I was just finishing up doing a micro-mesh job to the windshield and getting ready to head out.

My plane was in its hangar. The closest source of water was a few hangar rows away. I took my tools (bucket, mops, etc) over to rinse them out. In a few minutes a young man appeared (out of nowhere) with a shotgun and announced that I was his hostage. Well, hey, I’ve been around the track a few times, been mugged in Cleveland, New York (twice), and San Francisco. A guy in fatigues with a shotgun in the middle of the Midwestern plains wasn’t terribly scary. So I tried to laugh it off and asked the guy if he had been hunting, thinking that he was, perhaps, just trying to see if he could rattle me.

Well, the guy had it bad for somebody. He wanted to know where the tower controllers were and if anyone else was at the airport. No one was, but I told him the tower controllers would be back VERY soon (they actually wouldn’t be back till 7am the next day) thinking that if he thought people were going to show up he might beat it.

Turns out he was looking for authority figures to blow away. He told me he had tried to kill his boss that night, but couldn’t find him. Heh-heh thinks I. So, we were going to wait for the controllers to come back and then we were all going to be his hostage. Great, I think, I can’t wait to be part of the unholy mess that’ll ensue when this guy has a bunch of “hostages” and we call the local police out of the doughnut shops with a fresh load of sugar and caffeine in their systems.

So I ask if we can at least go back to my hangar. He says OK, but no funny stuff. He’s real nervous, sweating a lot, says he has lots of weapons. Fine, I think. We get to the hangar, he checks it out, we go inside. I show him my plane he says “We might be going for a ride later.” Bonehead move on my part I think — I was trying to be freindly and show him that we could talk about other things than large burnt holes in my body — he sees it as a transportation device. I told him it wasn’t airworthy — that I was doing some work.

We talk for two hours — during which time he is getting more and more antsy and nervous — starting to wave the gun kind of menacingly at me and stuff. Wants to know where the controllers are. I confess that I lied and that they won’t be there until next morning. I ask him what he wants to do. He’s not sure. I am, at this point, getting VERY tired of the whole thing and want a resolution. I have this strange feeling that the whole thing is completely unreal and that he will go away and I can go home and sit on the toilet and read Chief Aircraft catalogs and drink twenty five beers. (not in that order)

I think about jumping him a few times. Not sure what he’s got under his coat. He intimated that he was packing a pistol also. Never jumped a guy with multiple weapons before. Never really jumped anyone before except Eric Strobel in fifth grade when he punched me. I was totally victorious in that situation. How about this one? But, the situation seems to be relatively stable, although he is getting real antsy. I ask him if he intends to kill me. He says I’ll be fine as long as I don’t try anything and do as he asks.

Sounds reasonable.

I suggest that we walk across to the FBO where there is a telephone. If he wants, I will call the cops and be his hostage (I am not wild about this idea — same reasons as above). Or I can call the FAA, or, or…

We get there. He sees other airplanes on the rame. Starts talking about how we’re going to go to Montana in one of them and I am going to fly. Should be easy to get it going.

I say that if we’re going to do that, let’s take mine ’cause I know it and its condition. He says “I thought it was broken.” I say that it is minor and that I can fix it shortly.

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[STUPID! I could have gotten time in the King Air on the ramp, or the AeroStar, for FREE!!]

We go back to the hangar. I show him my intrument charts. Show how we’ll get there. I told him we only had about 3 hours of fuel because I had been flying earlier. Does he want to stop in Indy [Indianapolis] first where we can get more fuel? NO! He is very agitated by the mere suggestion of going into a large airport. I told him we could make it into Iowa (the truth) and land at the Quad Cities airport which would be open but was smaller than Indy (not the truth). He accepts that.

During my preflight of the airplane I reach in and set a certain box. I am almost nailed but lie and say I was reaching for a chart (which was next to the box, thank god.)

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I am curiously relieved that we are going flying. I like flying. I like being in my airplane doing things that I understand, even though I am pretty scared. I am often scared in my airplane. It is a normal feeling in that environment. I feel, for the first time since 9PM, in control of the situation even though I have no idea what’s going to happen.

We taxi out. He is sitting in the back set of my 172 with his shotgun (not pointed at my skull, thanks!)

At this point BMG [Bloomington, Indiana airport] is VFR [Visual Flying Rules, not requiring a flight plan] clear, it’s about midnight. We take off and head towards Terre Haute. The box is blinking in a soothing way.

We have on headphones, but I have not used the radio at all. I have the audio turned off because I am afraid someone, somewhere, will yell “Who’s the bozo who’s

As I pass over Terre Haute airfield I look down and notice that they are flashing a red light at the aircraft and also flashing the runway lights.

I do not alert my passenger to this phenomena.

At that point it begins to rain. I have an excuse to confirm my situation! I knew that the “radio code” was probably not sufficient to really get them going. I tell my passenger that I do not have a good picture of the weather ahead but that I believe we may encounter some instrument weather and that if “they” see us flying in instrument weather without a clearance that “they” will be suspicious and might follow us. I explain that I will call Terre Haute radio [“Flight Service”] to get the weather and to file a flight plan and that he can listen to everything and I won’t do anything goofy. He agrees with the admonition that I “better not try anything.”

[Calmest, most normal voice I can muster]

“Terre Haute Radio, Terre Haute Radio, N5457E”

“N5457E Terre Haute, go ahead”

“Terre Haute Radio, N5457E is a C-172 at 4,500' directly over Terre Haute Northwestbound like to get the weather into, ahh, Montana. We’re doing 110knots, outside temperature 50 degrees, squawking 7500, heading 330”

“57E, roger, right now we’re showing generally VFR conditions throughout although radar indicates a band of showers from Chicago to approximately 100 miles south of your position. Mostly level one And, 57E, confirm that you’re …

“57E, roger, that’s affirmative where does the best area for penetrating that line of rain seem to be [pre-WX-900 [WX-900 is a thunderstorm depiction device] days for 57E don’t you know…]”

“Ahh, looks like just south of Chicago is pretty good.”

“Roger, I’ll call you back with an IFR flightplan.”

“Roger”

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I turn turn almost due north so that I am parallel to the line of showers as I work out a flight plan. I have filed flight plans hundreds of times but tonight it seems VERY difficult, almost impossible, for me to do. We are over Danville, IL when I figure out a route that goes, basically, direct Kankakee, direct Moline.

My passenger told me he does NOT want to get too close to Chicago.

I call back Terre haute on the same frequency. They are very scratchy. I give them the plan. They tell me to talk to Chicago [Air Traffic Control] Center on XXX.YY [radio frequency] for my clearance. A few minutes later I call Chicago:

[calm voice like nothing is at all wierd]

“Chicago Center, good evening, Cessna 5457E looking for instruments to Moline.”

“57E, roger, loud and clear, cleared to Moline via radar vectors, climb and maintain 6,000' verify

[thinking to myself, in a Homer Simpson voice, “Duh-oh! Radar Vectors! [radar vectors are air traffic controls way of saying “we will tell you which way to go”] I filed to Kankakee so I could avoid the rain he’s about to drive me through! Duh-oh! Why do they keep asking me if I’m really the bonehead they think I must be? I’m trying to be in control, here”]

I am too tired to fight with the controller though and accept his turn direct Moline. It is about 1AM now and I am becoming alarmingly fatigued and want this to be OVER. It is raining pretty hard now, but the weather does not bother me at all. I actually remember thinking how nice it was to fly at night without worrying about the engine because I am so scared of getting my head. blown off. On the other hand, my passenger is getting very nervous due to the rain.

“57E, Chicago Center, Moline airport is CLOSED due to a runway light power failure. Say intentions.”

[What the hell is he talking about? Is he serious? Is this some kind of ploy? Or is it really closed? This is a BIG airport after all — I can’t believe it closed because of a “runway light power failure” What does he REALLY MEAN? I am tired. I don’t want to play games.]

I know I am close to the Kankakee airport because I am close to its VORTAC [navigation beacon] and I know that Kankakee has a 24-hour FSS [Flight Service Station. These were all closed in the 2000s for cost-cutting considerations] but is uncontrolled [does not have a control tower].

“Perfect” I think, “Knowledgeable aviation professionals will see to it that the plane is completely surrounded by able-bodied SWAT members and Secret Service agents as soon as I leave the active. Yet, the size of the airport will not alarm my passenger on approach.”

I brief my passenger that we are running low on fuel and should land at Kankakee where we can get fuel. “Have we been flying that long?” he asks “Yes, says I — we’ve been flying nearly two hours” He heard them say Moline was closed. I tell him that we should be able to get fuel at Kankakee and be on our way.

“Chicago Center, 57E, we’re running low on fuel [we actually had over an hour left] — we would like to land at Kankakee.”

“57E, Chicago, Roger, turn right 350 plan the ILS 5 [Instrument Landing System to runway 5] into Kankakee.”

“57E, we’ll plan on the ILS 5.” [I get set up]

“57E, Chicago, India Kilo Kilo [IKK, airport code for Kankakee] has no 100Lima Lima, suggest you try Peoria. Turn left now, 280 vectors Peoria.”

[What the F*ck? “100Lima Lima” is that some kind of code? Why didn’t he just say “fuel” or 100 “Low lead” What does “Lima Lima” mean in this context? How does he know? Are they playing games again? What DO they want?]

Peoria is NOT going to work though. I know it is a LARGE airport and that it will alarm my passenger to go there. I am also under the [mistaken] impression that it is quite a way further [remember, I had trouble even putting together a basic flight plan. I am becoming aware that my planning and decision making skills are kaput] and I have a genuine concern that I do not have sufficient fuel to make it there. Turns out that it is actually very close.

Anyway, I am MUCH too tired to drag out the flightplans, etc. for Peoria and figure out how to get there.

“57E, negative. We’re going to land at Kankakee and see what we can find.” [this is me, essentially giving up]

“57E, roger, turn right heading 350 vectors for the ILS”

The ILS is very close by and very routine. It is raining very hard, but out of a high overcast. I pick up the runway just past the outer marker [radio beacon] inbound.

I do not realize it, but we are moving with the wind. Final is very bumpy. Touchdown is not the best landing I’ve ever made, although the plane and passengers survive.

Now I’m wondering what’s going to happen. I realize that my dream of agents in blackface behind every bush and building may not have been the most realistic thing. The airport seems deserted. We taxi to the ramp. I am beginning to wonder if its really going to come to an end here or if, nightmares, we’ll take off again with a full load of fuel for Montana.

At this point a cruiser appears without its lights on. My passenger sees it. It is a ways away from us I say “Looks like the airport patrol. Pretty standard. They’re just looking for drunk teenagers necking on the runway.”

Like even drunk teenagers would neck in the pouring rain. [Did I really say “necking?” What is this, 1952?]

We get out, I explain that there is a weather office across the road where we could get a weather briefing and that he can come and I won’t pull any funny stuff. He says he;’s going to leave the shotgun in the plane. I wonder what that means? Is he giving up? He starts to talk about those whole thing being pretty dumb. I tell him it’s all up to him but I do not like standing in the open so let’s go to the FSS.

We pass several large bushes. No agents jump out. What’s going on? I see behind us that the cop has started cruising up and down the runway WITH HIS LIGHTS ON. I do not point this out. We go to the FSS and enter:

THE ROOM OF THE STONEFACED BRIEFERS.

“Hello, I need a briefing for an instrument flight to Montana [where are the cops?]”

They mechanically peck at they keyboard. FINALLY two of Kankakee’s finest enter the room, no BURST into the room. The briefer nods at us. We are both grabbed, handcuffed and taken outside where we are thrown against a wall
and frisked.

I do not look at my passenger. I feel ashamed that I have betrayed him.

It takes the cops 15 minutes to sort out who is who. I produce a checkbook and my wallet bearing my name and demonstrate to the police how that name matches the registration in the airplane. Passing this hurdle earns me a ride in the FRONT seat of the squad car. Hijackers ride in back!

The police confiscate the gun and some shells from my aircraft.