On March 17, 1970, a passenger hijacked Eastern Airlines Shuttle Flight 1320 while en route to Boston, MA. Despite hijackings being a regular, nonfatal occurrence during this time, this time was different. This hijacker had no intentions of landing the plane – he was on a suicide mission. The pilots and cabin crew heroically fought the hijacker and safely landed the plane, but one of the pilots was fatally wounded. Because of the taking of Eastern Airlines Shuttle Flight 1320, no longer were hijackings viewed as a free trip to Cuba; instead, they were forever more viewed as a potential, homicidal attack on a flight’s crew and passengers.
Eastern Airlines Shuttle Flight 1320 Departs Newark for Boston with 68 Passengers Ombaord
It was just another ordinary, routine shuttle flight from Newark, NJ, to Boston, MA in March 1970. Perhaps the only unusual thing about the flight was that it was St. Patrick’s Day.
But in 1970, flying is an easy, often last-minute proposition. This was in a time that was free of the security lines and checkpoints that dot our journeys today. In fact, any airline passenger could simply buy themselves a ticket at the counter and then immediately turn around and board the plane.
Eastern Airlines Shuttle Flight 1320, a DC-9, which left on this day at 7:30 PM, was just such a flight where many passengers would race to the gate and try to buy a ticket in time to make the flight back to Boston. Racing through the Newark Airport were two passengers hoping to make Flight 1320: Lloyd Pedersen and Al Cavalieri, two top level employees working at General Electric. Lloyd, after catching a late connecting flight, just wanted to get home to his wife and two kids in Peabody, MA. Al was a mechanical engineer also with a wife and “houseful of kids” back in Topsfield, MA. They end up being the last two passengers to board, and they collapse into the seats, full of gratitude for having made it. Now they’d be going home.
The plane was carrying just 68 passengers and 5 crew members that day. Leading the crew was 35-year-old Captain Robert M. Wilbur, Jr. And like so many pilots, Captain Wilbur had been interested in flying since he was a teenager. He spent lots of time in his youth building model airplanes. He began flying for the United States Air Force, flying C119s and C130s and he even flew in France for 3 years, hauling mail and cargo. After he got out of the military, he kept his career goal of flying as he transitioned as a commercial pilot, joining EAL in 1959. He had just recently earned his Captain’s wings six months prior to flight 1320. He’d been in the cockpit of the DC-9-31 for three months, feeling very comfortable with the airplane, and had flown the shuttle routes from the NY/NJ area to Boston and Washington repeatedly over the previous two months.
Joining Captain Wilbur in the cockpit is First Officer James Hartley. The two pilots had been working together for just a couple of weeks leading up to Flight 1320 and they had started to grow accustomed to the way one another worked. First Officer Hartley was an Army veteran who had been stationed in Hawaii, where he married his first wife and had a son and daughter. He worked as a truck driver and fireman before getting his pilot’s license. His first marriage had eventually ended in divorce, an experience that those close to him say had taken its toll. But the 30-year-old copilot eventually remarried a nurse named Becky the previous year. Captain Wilbur and his wife, who lived in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, had just played bridge with First Officer Hartley and his wife, who lived in nearby Fort Lee. They’d had such a good time that the two couples planned to get together again once the weekend rolled around.
In addition to the Captain and First Officer, we have three flight attendants (called then stewardesses): Sandy Saltzer, 26, of Shortsville, N. Y.; Christine Peterson, 24, of Elizabeth, N. J., and Arlene Albino, 23, of Rutherford, N. J.
Eastern Airline Shuttle Passengers Pay for Their Tickets While Inflight
Flying was very easy and convenient in 1970. In fact, according to the Boston Globe article by Neil Swidey, passengers didn’t need reservations for the shuttle, and they often paid in the air while on the plane — the standard fare on this night was $21. Most paid in cash; those who used a credit card would get a carbon paper receipt.
This flight was so short that there was no beverage service and the cabin crew spent most of the time in-flight collecting airfare for tickets. Right around 8 PM, as they normally did in 1970, the three flight attendants began to roam through the passenger cabin row by row, collecting everyone’s air fares who had not yet paid. The plane was already in its descent, and outside the plane windows, you could see the glittering lights of the Boston skyline. Captain Wilbur had even turned the fasten seatbelt signs on in a routine effort to indicate to all passengers that they should shortly begin to prepare for landing.
On Flight 1320 to Boston, the third of their four legs for the day, flight attendant Sandy worked the collection cart with Christine, who is the crew’s senior stewardess.
When they push their cart to the second-to-last row, Sandy greets a young man with sunglasses who is occupying the middle seat and has the row to himself. They take in his appearance: the young man is thin with thick sideburns and shaggy brown hair. Even though the cabin was dimly lit, they can tell the man is wearing dark sunglasses, as well as a ragged suede coat. This is a very common look for 1970, one that would be described as “hippie”.
Sandy smiles at him and asks for the $21 airfare. The young man hands her several bills, which only equals $16, which Sandy kindly explains to him is not enough to cover the entire fare.
The man looks confused, hesitating for a moment. Then, he reaches down into a small black bag on the floor, which makes it appear like he is searching for additional money. But instead, the man pulls out a black Colt .38 revolver. Speaking with a slight slur, he tells them, “Don’t get excited. I want to see the captain.”
Passengers Pulls Gun on Flight Attendant, Demands to See the Captain
Not wanting to cause a panic, Sandy immediately shifts into professionalism mode and has the presence of mind to ask the man to hide the gun under his shirt so the other passengers would not see it and get panicked. The man does so, crossing his arms over his chest so the gun is not visible to anyone.
Sandy walks down the aisle first. The young man walks behind her with a slight limp, but he’s following so closely behind her that it is unsettling. Sandy notices that he had a walking cane with him, but he had not brought it along with him for their walk down the aisle.
Lloyd Pedersen and Al Cavalieri, the two passengers who were the last to board, see the man walking down the aisle behind Sandy. And nothing about this seems right. The man, who to them looks like a hippie, walks with his arms awkwardly folded, as if hiding something. And he is heading to the cockpit when the fasten seat belts light is on and the plane is close to landing. According to the account in the Boston Globe, a passenger sitting a few rows ahead of Lloyd and Al pointed to the hippie and cracked a joke, “Who does he know?”, inferring that the young man was some sort of VIP with access to meeting the pilots. But something tells Lloyd this isn’t a VIP getting special treatment.
And Lloyd is right. The man with the gun is 27-year-old John J. Divivo and he is in fact hijacking Flight 1320.
When Sandy and the young man make it to the cockpit doors, the hijacker gestures for Sandy to open the door. But Sandy explains to him that he can’t just go in there immediately, that she needs to call the Captain first and explain the situation. And so, she does.
She calls the flight crew on the intercom phone outside the cockpit. “Captain,” she said, as quietly as possible, “there is a man outside with a gun who wants to see you.” At first, Captain Wilbur, obviously distracted with landing checklists, tells her shortly, ““I cannot help you now. I’m too busy.” So, Sandy hangs up the phone and tells the hijacker that the pilots are too busy preparing for landing and they will not open the door.
This is when Sandy detects a distinct change in the young man. He says very coldly, “Call him back.”
And so, she does. This time, Sandy emphasizes the most critical piece of information: “Captain, you don’t understand He has a gun.” And this time, Captain Wilbur understands. “Well, I guess you better bring him up here,” he said.
The cockpit door opens. The hijacker turns to face the passengers, and passenger Lloyd Pedersen can see that he is smiling. In fact, his mood lightens as soon as he steps into the cockpit. The hijacker tells Sandy to close the door, but she asks Captain Wilbur if he wants her to stay. The pilot says no, she should tend to the passengers. The pilots would take things from here.
Sandy closes the door and pivots to face the cabin. She is processing the events unfolding before her, not entirely sure of the things that might come next. But one thing she is aware of: the eyes of 68 passengers are staring at her, trying to gage the situation by reading the expression on her face. She tells herself to act normal, that causing a panic will not help the situation. And so, Sandy manages a faint smile for all the faces staring back her from the cabin.
Eastern Airlines Shuttle 1320 Pilots Realize This is No Ordinary Hijacking
The hijacker then steps into the cockpit. The DC-9 cockpit is so small that First Officer Hartley is able to open the door without even getting out of his seat. The two pilots seem surprised that Sandy and the gunman appeared so quickly – they assumed Sandy called from the back of the plane.
Captain Wilbur, a former military man, knew a gun when he saw one and immediately understood that the gun the hijacker had was in fact a real .38 caliber. And, the Captain asks the hijacker a single question, one that was so commonly asked in this age of commercial hijackings: “What do you want?” It is a question that immediately indicates a compliance of sorts. It also implies that the man looking back at him still retains a sense of reasonableness.
The driver for why the pilots react with this seeming compliance is a sign of the times. More than 50 US flights had been hijacked in the previous two years — in 1969 alone, Eastern Airlines had been targeted 10 times. And all those so-called skyjackings had ended peacefully, with no fatalities. The hijackers would typically demand money and command the pilot to fly to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, where they hoped to find asylum. Skyjackings were so common, in fact, that the airlines seemed to treat them as little more than a nuisance. Even passengers didn’t seem too upset by it. In exchange for the inconvenience, they would typically get bottomless drinks and a story of adventure they could tell for the rest of their days.
But this hijacker is not a reasonable man. And this event will not mirror the many that had come before so many other planes before them.
This hijacker is scattered and confused-acting. He tells the pilots he doesn’t know what is wrong with him, he just feels all f-ed up. Perhaps Captain Wilbur senses the instability of the person that has just joined them in the cockpit, so he suggests that the hijacker take a seat. The man declines.
At this time, Flight 1320 is about 20 miles from Boston, flying at an altitude of just around 5,000 feet. A voice from Approach Control at Logan crackles, instructing Captain Wilbur to begin his descent to 2,000 feet. Captain Wilbur asks the hijacker if it was OK if they stuck with the plan to land in Boston. The man says no. Captain Wilbur asks him where they should be headed toward, but the hijacker seems unsure. After a long pause, the man says, “Fly east.”
While this dialogue is happening between the hijacker and Captain Wilbur, First Officer Hartley quietly uses a transponder code to alert the control tower that they are being hijacked. Yet it isn’t clear the message has gotten through. Now, the First Officer radios the tower to notify them of their change in plans. He says: “Eastern 1320. We’re gonna take up a heading of east here for a while and go out over the water.” The approach controller asks, “Do you have a problem?” First Officer Hartley responded, “Affirm.”
As Captain Wilbur begins to bank out toward the ocean, another thought crosses his mind that he felt was important to communicate. They have very little fuel left and cannot remain airborne for too long, a fact that should have been important to the hijacker, especially if they were going to head to Cuba, where so many incidents before had ended. But the man’s response stops Captain Wilbur cold. He says, “Just fly east and let me know when we’re within two or three minutes of running out of fuel.”
Immediately, the situation comes into full view for the pilots. This is not the standard hijacking. There are no demands, no plans to be made, no negotiations to be had. This man wants to end his life and take everyone onboard along with him, no matter the methods.
After a few moments of flying in silence, Captain Wilbur asks the man if they can turn back, and for some reason – most likely because the man’s mental state is on edge and distracted – says yes.
Eastern Airlines Shuttle 1320 Pilots Battle for Their Lives
As Captain Wilbur begins to make a wide 180-degree turn back toward Boston, the hijacker asks the Captain if they are in fact heading back in, which the Captain confirms.
Then, inexplicably, the man takes out his revolver and fires a shot at First Officer Hartley, which throws the pilot’s body back in his seat. The First Officer completely slumps over. Then, the hijacker quickly pivots toward Captain Wilbur and shoots at him, too. Searing pain slices down and through the Captain’s arms.
What happens next shouldn’t have been possible. First Officer Hartley is slumped in his seat. As the official reports would later detail, the bullet that the hijacker had fired into Hartley’s body had entered near his left shoulder blade, punctured his lung and then his aorta, before exiting his right armpit. His chest cavity was quickly filling with blood.
But now, somehow, in the exact moment that he is dying, First Officer Hartley summons the strength to pull himself up. He lunges at the hijacker and wrestles the gun from him. The First Officer aims the gun at the hijacker’s chest and fires twice. The man falls to the floor, his feet pushing open the cockpit door.
And then, as if his he knows his final act is complete, First Officer Hartley collapses back into his seat, the gun dropping from his hand. He is now motionless, unbreathing.
Captain Wilbur, injured and in severe pain, grabs the gun from the floor and places it on the console in front of him. Blood is streaming out both his arms – the bullet has torn through both of them at once. He looks to his right and can see plainly that First Officer Hartley is, at best, unconscious. The situation is clearly dire.
Eastern Airlines Shuttle 1320 Captain Must Land Plane Solo, Wounded
Now it is up to Captain Wilbur to get the plane back on the ground if he and anyone else is to have a chance of surviving. Pushing through his own pain, he focuses all his mental and physical strength on the landing that he needs to make. He increases power, pushing the speed up to 288 miles per hour, nearly its top speed. He next radios Approach Control on a frequency that can be heard by other pilots in the area and tells them that the copilot is shot, and they require an ambulance and police support at the airport. Of course, in the commotion, he never tells Control that he, too, is shot.
The control tower didn’t seem to grasp how emergent things are. Or maybe something gets lost during the handoff sequence from the approach controller, who directs incoming air traffic, to the tower controller, who directs landings. Less than two minutes later, when Flight 1320 is 6 miles out and closing in fast, the tower informs the Captain that a small Mohawk aircraft is first in line to land.
It takes the pilot of another jet on approach, American Airlines 380, to make the tower understand. “Call the police — and an ambulance!” the American pilot screams. “The Eastern behind us, the copilot is shot! The copilot is shot!” After the American pilot stresses, “Every second might count,” the tower hurriedly tells the Mohawk to go around. Now, Flight 1302 has an open path to bring the DC-9 in for a landing.
Passengers Become Aware Something is Wrong
The passengers are barely aware of the battle in the cabin. They hear the commotion but didn't understand there was a hijacking until shots rang out. There was one other clue of possible danger. They became aware that the flight had veered off course when they found themselves flying over the Back Bay.
Remember Peggy McLaughlin that we heard about in the beginning of this story? She was 19 at the time and remembered thinking that they were going to have to land in the harbor. So, she takes her boots off. She thought that would help in case she had to swim to safety.
But once the body of the hijacker fell through the cockpit door, everyone knows that things are going wrong. Al and Lloyd look on with alarm at the feet sticking out through the open cockpit door. They urge Sandy to check on the pilots.
After making her way up the aisle, Sandy peers into the cockpit. Looking to the right, she is horrified to see First Officer Hartley slumped over in his copilot seat, eerily still. Looking down, she sees the hijacker lying underneath the jump seat, moaning.
Sandy is most surprised when she looks to the left and sees a very badly bleeding Captain Wilbur at the controls. But at the same time, Sandy recalls she couldn’t have been more relieved to find him in command. The Captain tells her he is alright and is going to land the plane.
Seemingly awaiting news from the cockpit, a group of passengers from the front row with a view of the cockpit yells out to the rest of the cabin, “We have a pilot!”
Flight 1320 is now only 2 miles from the runway and is cleared to land. Captain Wilbur, now on his own in the cockpit, uses one arm to control the levers and the throttles, and the other to guide the nose steering wheel, despite being in extreme pain and the DC-9 being the kind of plane that takes muscle to fly.
Hijacker Makes One Final Stand Against Captain in Cockpit
Just as Captain Wilbur is preparing to land, the hijacker somehow manages to lift himself off the cockpit floor and get to his knees – and he lunges at the Captain.
But this time, Captain Wilbur is ready for him. With his bloodied left hand, Captain Wilbur reaches for the gun he placed on the console, transferring it to his bloodied right hand. He smashes the flat side of it against the hijacker’s head, twice, yelling, “Get down, you bastard!”
The Captain hits him so hard, the gun grip shatters. The hijacker collapses back onto the floor. Next, Captain Wilbur instructs Sandy to return to the cabin to watch over the now crumpled hijacker.
Now, for the landing. Captain Wilbur didn’t have time for the customary gradual descent. The plane is coming in at over 200 miles per hour and takes a steep dive toward the ground to descend even faster. Considering how fast he is coming in, it was remarkable how smooth the landing is — a point that many passengers would soon stress. Once on the ground, he races the plane toward the Eastern terminal.
Eastern Airlines Shuttle 1320 Lands Safely, Hijacker Taken into Custody
Once the plane has stopped, a swarm of State Police officers storm the plane with guns drawn. Captain Wilbur immediately directs them to take care of First Officer Hartley, who remains in his seat, unmoving. But to get to the copilot, they first need to remove the hijacker, whose body was blocking the cockpit door. As they grab the hijacker, he yells out, “Don’t hurt my arm! Don’t hurt my arm!” The cops aggressively subdued him, dragging him off the plane.
Next, they remove the First Officer from the plane. They place him on a stretcher, where his limp arm falls by his side. Three times, someone lifts his arm and gingerly places it across his chest. Three times, it falls away from his body. After helping Captain Wilbur off the plane, ambulance crews rush the pilots to Massachusetts General Hospital. Police take the hijacker there in a cruiser.
Eastern Airlines Shuttle Flight 1320 First Officer DOA
First Officer Hartley is pronounced dead on arrival at Mass. General at 8:35 p.m. The medical examiner would later say he had died in the air, likely within a couple of minutes of the hijacker shooting him. A single .38 slug had entered the copilot’s upper back, fracturing a rib and continuing through his left lung. When the bullet punctured his aorta, blood began pouring into his chest cavity. The bullet exited near his right armpit and grazed his bicep. The devastating power of a bullet fired at close range made the pilot’s last-breath heroics all the more remarkable.
At the hospital, Captain Wilbur and the hijacker are initially treated in adjoining bays in the emergency room before being rushed into surgery. Back at Logan, State Police shepherd the three stewardesses and dozens of passengers into a warren of rooms to interview them.
Eastern Airlines Shuttle 1320 Captain Has Grueling Recovery, Survivor’s Guilt
Captain Wilbur, who underwent several surgeries, celebrated his 36th birthday in his hospital room, and then Easter, too. He regained full use of both his arms and, after 28 days, he was discharged. Eastern Airlines sent him and his family on a 10-day vacation to Puerto Rico.
As for the stewardesses — Sandy, Christine, and Arlene — Eastern gave them each a Distinguished Cabin Service Award. But the airline also stressed that, after a couple of weeks off to clear their heads, they were expected to be back in the air.
The Captain also received a flood of commendations, telegrams, and plaques, and Eastern named its new training center in memory of First Officer Hartley. But soon everyone — including the rest of the airline industry — wanted to move past this incident as quickly as possible. But most of all, so did Captain Wilbur. Not only did he feel uncomfortable with all the attention bestowed upon him as hero of the hour, but every mention of his cockpit heroics that spared the lives of 72 passengers and crew reminded him of the one life he had been unable to save: First Officer Hartley.
Lloyd Pedersen and Al Cavalieri walked quietly out of the Eastern terminal, hopped in their cars, and each headed north on 93 to join their families.
FBI Leads Criminal Investigation into Eastern Airlines Shuttle Flight 1320 Hijacking
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) ultimately took over the investigation, and the MA State Police, who allegedly did not interview all passengers immediately after they were taken off the plane. We saw this when Peggy McLaughlin recounter her experience being interviewed. After the hijacking was over, Peggy simply picked up her bag, hopped on the Blue Line, switched to the Green, and returned to her dorm room. She called her parents, whom she had been visiting in Jersey, to tell them what had happened (they initially did not believe her until they saw the incident in the next day’s papers). Peggy recalls an FBI agent dropping by her dorm a couple of weeks after the hijacking to interview her.
And, while everything was being investigated, the hijacker was being held at the Charles Street Jail pending his trial. After the FBI took over the case, they dug into the man’s background and found his family history plagued by dysfunction. John Divivo’s father and namesake had died in prison. And they noticed something significant about the day the hijacker chose for the skyjacking: the hijacker’s father had died on March 17, 1968 — Saint Patrick’s Day. When the hijacker was a teenager, he had apparently tried to commit suicide: he had shot himself in the head but somehow lived, only to be left with a limp. And then, early on Halloween morning 1970, just roughly 7 months after he attempted to crash Flight 1320, John Divivo finally succeeded in taking his own life: guards at the jail found the hijacker hanging from a scarf in his cell, dead.
Eastern Airlines Shuttle 1320 Changes the Way Flight Crews Respond to Hijackings
This was the hijacking that changed everyone’s attitude and led to changes in the industry that remained in place for decades. 1960s America had been plagued by these incidents, starting in 1961 and intensifying as the decade drew to a close. Time magazine had even published an article at the end of 1968 titled “What to Do When the Hijacker Comes.” But none of those events had turned deadly and, besides, this particular flight seemed like the unlikeliest of targets. It was a short-hop shuttle in the Northeast that carried nowhere near enough fuel to get to Cuba.
Yet to experts like MIT professor Arnold Barnett, this Saint Patrick’s Day flight in 1970 is a dividing line in aviation history. Before it, the major carriers could get away with treating the threat of hijacking as barely more serious than an air traffic delay, and with letting passengers walk onto planes without even bothering to screen them. After Flight 1320, everybody knew better.
Two days after the hijacking, on March 19, 1970, US Transportation Secretary John Volpe held hearings in Washington to discuss new security measures to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. The United Nations announced it would convene a special meeting in Montreal to investigate possible solutions to air piracy.
In reality, it was obvious what aviation officials needed to do. For years, experts had been calling on the airlines to put all passengers and their carry-ons through electronic screening before boarding. And for just as long, the airlines had refused, leveraging their enormous influence in Washington to block the measures.
Airlines had concluded that the cost of screening — both in terms of inconveniencing regular business travelers and scaring newer travelers — outweighed the safety benefits it would produce. The hijacking of Eastern Flight 1320 laid bare that false calculation.
Despite Eastern Airlines Shuttle Flight 1320 Hijacking, Airlines Reluctant to Make Wholesale Changes
Yet even in the face of this deadly skyjacking, the airlines continued to resist wholesale changes, at first accepting only half-measures. In 1970, the major airlines began a practice of screening for weapons, but only with passengers who matched a certain behavioral profile.
On September 11, 1970, following the Eastern skyjacking and others overseas, President Nixon announced a raft of new anti-hijacking efforts, including additional security personnel at airports and improved surveillance. A month later, Governor Volpe of MA announced a new permanent force of 2,000 sky marshals who would board select flights, undercover and armed.
However, the situation didn’t really improve until January 1973, when the Federal Aviation Administration mandated that the airlines screen all passengers and carry-on bags. The airlines complied, though they were careful to continue catering to their frequent-flyer businessmen. A month later, the United States and Cuba signed an extradition treaty for hijackers.
These substantive, if woefully belated, new security measures had a dramatic and immediate effect. While there had been 124 hijackings from 1968 to 1972, in all of 1973 there was one. The measures would represent the biggest change in airline security until another set of flights that were also connected to Newark and Boston: the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Eastern Airlines Shuttle Flight 1320 Captain and First Officer Hailed as Heroes
In Harper Lee’s American literary classic, To Kill A Mockingbird, the main hero of the story, Atticus, speaks to his children about courage. He says, "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway, and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do."
First Officer Hartley showed everyone what real courage was that day, that even though he may have known he was about to die, he chose to see the situation through, no matter what. His actions, along with the actions of Captain Wilbur, are the very reasons that everyone onboard was spared. And that makes them both heroes in the truest and realest sense.
And THAT is the story of Eastern Airlines Shuttle Flight 1320.