Skyjacker of the Day

The Lonely Hijacker Who Just Wanted to Visit His Pen-Pal in Italy
Then, again.
June 12 2013 8:00 AM

Skyjacker of the Day

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All Richard Obergfell wanted to do was visit his pen-pal in Italy.

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Illustrations by Ellie Skrzat.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United States suffered through a skyjacking epidemic that has now been largely forgotten. In his new book, The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, Brendan I. Koerner tells the story of the chaotic age when jets were routinely commandeered by the desperate and disillusioned. In the run-up to his book’s publication on June 18, Koerner has been writing a daily series of skyjacker profiles. Slate is running the final dozen of these “Skyjacker of the Day” entries.

Name: Richard Obergfell

Date: July 23, 1971

Flight Info: Trans World Airlines Flight 335 from New York (LaGuardia) to Chicago (O’Hare).

The Story: In the early years of America’s skyjacking epidemic, the airlines were reluctant to let the FBI attempt to end hijackings by force; they feared that innocents would get caught in the crossfire, thereby sparking a wave of negative publicity. But by the mid-summer of 1971, the hijackings had become so brazen and bizarre that lethal violence seemed the only appropriate response. Twenty-six-year-old Richard Obergfell could scarcely have picked a more inauspicious moment for his strange caper.

A former Navy aviation mechanic, Obergfell had grown despondent after getting fired from his United Airlines maintenance job for “unsatisfactory absenteeism.” He found comfort in a pen-pal relationship with an Italian woman, with whom he fell in love. Obergfell began to dedicate the bulk of his time to listening to Italian radio shows and reading Italian newspapers, so he could pick up the language. He also applied for a job with Alitalia; when his application was rejected, he concocted an illicit scheme to reach his beloved pen pal in Milan.

Using a Walther P38 pistol that he had stolen from a New Jersey sporting-goods store, Obergfell took over Flight 335 about 20 minutes after it left New York. He did so by sticking his gun in the back of a stewardess, Idie Maria Concepcion, and telling her, “I’m not going to hurt you if you do what I say.” Concepcion guided Obergfell to the cockpit, where the hijacker demanded passage to Milan. When the pilot informed him that the Boeing 727 didn’t have the range necessary to cross the Atlantic, Obergfell asked for another plane capable of traversing the ocean.

The jet returned to LaGuardia Airport, where Obergfell released all of his hostages except for the 21-year-old Concepcion. The hijacker held the stewardess at gunpoint as they boarded a van bound for nearby John F. Kennedy International Airport, where TWA was preparing a long-range Boeing 707 for the trip to Italy. It was also where FBI sniper Kenneth Lovin was waiting for a chance to end the hijacking with a single bullet.

As Obergfell and Concepcion marched across the tarmac toward the Boeing 707, Lovin scaled the 10-foot metal wall near the plane’s tail. Clad in tight white trousers that hiked up to his calves, the sniper balanced his .308-caliber rifle atop the wall and peered through his telescopic sight. But Obergfell was too close to his hostage for Lovin to fire safely.

A few feet away from the Boeing 707’s stairs, though, Concepcion accidentally stepped on Obergfell’s toes. The hijacker momentarily lost his balance and staggered back a foot. Lovin took advantage of the split-second opportunity.

The stewardess heard two shots and thought, “I’m dead—he killed me.” But then she heard the thump of a body hitting the tarmac and realized there was no longer a gun barrel lodged against her spine. “I looked around, and [Obergfell] started to get up on his elbow,” she would later recall. “He looked a little dazed. When I saw he was still on the ground, I thought he was going to shoot me, and I started to run, run, run.”

Obergfell never managed to pull the trigger. One of the sniper’s bullets had shredded his vital organs; he was pronounced dead at Jamaica Hospital 30 minutes later.

The Upshot: TWA made no attempt to hide its elation over Obergfell’s demise. “TWA is grateful to the FBI for forestalling the further hijacking of a TWA aircraft to Europe, with all the potential tragedy that might result from an armed man in charge of a crew,” the airline wrote in an official statement. “The assurance of prompt and swift justice is the most certain method of discouraging acts of armed aggression against the passengers and crews of aircraft.” Kenneth Lovin, meanwhile, was sharply criticized by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover for wearing a short-sleeved shirt while sniping.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of The Skies Belong to Us.