Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law


Gary N. Horlick

First Page



The interests of aircraft hijackers are not easily summarized, if for no other reason than that the motivation of a given incident often cannot be clearly defined. For example, the recent extortion hijackings could have been motivated as easily by a desire for notoriety or other psychological reward as by a desire for cash. Hijackers exhibit, however, several recurring motivations. One fairly consistent element is the desire of the hijacker to escape the country in which he lives. Clearly, this motive was present in the eighteen attempts (eleven successes, seven failures) to flee Eastern European countries since 1960 by hijackers having no other legal means of departure. Hijackings to Cuba by military deserters, Black Panthers and other fugitives from justice may have been similarly motivated. Of 49 hijackers traced by the Justice Department by 1969, fourteen had prior criminal records, and four were currently being sought on charges ranging from passing a bad check to the attempted murder of a policeman.

Personal problems probably underlie most of the attempted hijackings. An example is the Army deserter who fled to Cuba with his daughter, whose custody had just been awarded to his ex-wife. Often, however, these hijackings can be viewed as political in the broadest sense--i.e. an expression of the hijacker's discontent with his life in the departed country. An American psychiatrist has claimed that most of the hijackers he has interviewed exhibited suicidal personalities and a strong need to attract the attention of the entire world to their plight. Additionally, there is a certain contagious quality about a successful hijacking covered extensively by the media. Perhaps this explains why extortion hijackings seem to occur in waves or cycles.

In addition to hijackings for reasons of escape, personal discontent or notoriety, a number of hijackings have been undertaken as part of a political plan either to extort some advantage in bargaining power or to call attention to a political issue. The former category clearly would include those hijackings designed to take hostages. The 1969 hijacking to Syria to protest the sale of U.S. Phantom jets to Israel falls more clearly into the category of political "demonstration," even though six Israelis were detained for various lengths of time. In addition, the flights to China and North Korea by radical students certainly involve an element of "demonstration." Finally, many of the hijackings to Cuba from the United States and Latin America may have some element of "demonstration," although they are pre-dominately for "escape" or personal reasons.

Hijackings solely for extortion became popular in late 1971. The fictitious "D.B. Cooper" became a minor folk hero when he successfully parachuted from a Northwest Orient jet on Thanksgiving Eve with 200,000 dollars ransom money. Five of the six attempted American hijackings in January, 1972, were for extortion (all five were thwarted), and March, 1972, was marked by the use of bomb threats for extortion, patterned after the example of the hoaxer who persuaded Quantas officials in Australia to pay over 560,000 dollars in May, 1971.