Co-pilot shares harrowing experience during infamous hijacking

WALNUT RIDGE, AR (KAIT)-  It was November 1972 that Southern Flight 49 was hijacked by three men. The co-pilot of the plane, Harold Johnson, lives in Walnut Ridge and recently sat down with Region 8 News.

What started out as a routine flight from Birmingham to Montgomery soon turned into a hijacking that lasted nearly 30 hours.

"Probably 10 or 11 minutes after take- off, I heard a scuffle back in the galley, then suddenly the cock pit doors open and in came the flight attendant and a hijacker had his arm around her neck and a gun to her head,"Johnson said.

And that was the start of the 28 hours the three hijackers took control of the plane.

"They wanted to go to Detroit and they wanted 10 million dollars, 10 parachutes and 10 bullet proof vests," Johnson explained.

But what they didn't have was fuel. They flew to Detroit only to learn the bad weather would keep them from landing. From there they flew to Cleveland, Toronto then to Knoxville.

"They wanted to go to Oak Ridge and the threat was if we didn't come up with the money by a certain time, we would fly the airplane into the Oak Ridge reactor," he said.

After receiving the $10 million dollars from authorities, the hijackers told the pilots to fly to Cuba.

"They thought that they had 10 million dollars and Mr. Castro would be excited to see them with that much money and that they would be big shots in Cuba," Johnson said.

From Cuba the hijackers wanted to go to Africa but there wasn't enough fuel for the trip so they chose to land in Florida. As the plane started to land, the FBI shot out the tires forcing the pilots to go back in the air. It was at that point they blamed Johnson.

"It became apparent that he was going to shoot me and so I had just a flashing momentary view of my dad and my wife and my daughter," he said.

Johnson was shot in the arm and the hijackers ordered the pilot to fly back to Cuba. The captain told the hijackers he couldn't fly without his co-pilot so they let Johnson return to the cockpit.

After landing, the hijackers were captured and taken into custody.

"I did get a chance to talk to my wife and I said 'hunny we've been hijacked, did you know it?' She said the whole world knows it."

As for Johnson, he flew 10 more years before retiring.

I don't think about the hijacking as such and I don't have any bad feelings towards the hijackers, though one of them tried to kill me," he said.

He said the experience taught him to be grateful for each day.

"I'm more thankful everyday to be alive and appreciate every minute."

Today, Johnson is an instrumental part of the Wings of Honor museum at the Walnut Ridge airport where he serves as president of the board.

Because of this very incident, it became a federal requirement that U.S. airline passengers be physically screened. Before, boarding a plane was like walking aboard a bus without any security.

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