Skyjacker of the Day

The 16-Year-Old Who Hijacked a Plane to Protest Cuba’s Emigration Policy
Then, again.
June 13 2013 8:51 AM

Skyjacker of the Day

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Thomas Robinson hijacked a plane to protest Cuba’s emigration policy. He was 16.

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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: Thomas Robinson

Date: Nov. 17, 1965

Flight Info: National Airlines Flight 30 from Los Angeles to Miami, with scheduled stops in Houston and New Orleans

The Story: A surprising number of American skyjackers were not yet old enough to drink or sometimes even drive. These adolescents were generally inept at planning their crimes, and few of their capers met with any success; most seemed to end within moments of starting, usually after a fatherly pilot convinced the nervous teen to hand over his gun. Sixteen-year-old Thomas Robinson, however, caused a bit more consternation than any of his similarly aged skyjacking peers, in part because he was a true believer in his cause.

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The son of a mathematics professor, Robinson was a hard-working overachiever who maintained a straight-A average at his Brownsville, Texas, high school. (“Tommy was not the type to go out and sit at the drive-in sipping malts,” his principal would later observe.) One of his favorite pastimes was keeping abreast of current events. In early October 1965, he began to read newspaper accounts of Fidel Castro’s relaxed emigration policy, which permitted thousands of refugees to leave Cuba by boat. This “open-door” policy infuriated Robinson; he viewed it as a clever public-relations ploy by Castro designed to obscure the fact that an untold number of political prisoners were still languishing in tropical gulags. Robinson soon hatched a bizarre plan to liberate some of those prisoners, in the hopes of calling the world’s attention to the plight of Cuba’s dissidents.

Robinson ran away from home and headed for Houston, where he boarded Flight 30 with two of his father’s handguns wrapped in newspapers. Shortly after the plane departed New Orleans, Robinson took over the jet by pulling out a .22-caliber pistol and sticking it in the jaw of a fellow passenger. He then walked backward to the cockpit door, paused, and fired three shots into the floor. “I’ve got a gun, and I’m not afraid to use it,” he declared, a point he punctuated by firing another three bullets downward.

After making his demand for passage to Cuba, Robinson was joined in the plane’s first-class lounge by a fellow passenger, an electronics executive who had flown B-17s in World War II. The man fixed the teen a stiff drink and talked to him about politics for approximately 25 minutes. Once he had established a good rapport with Robinson, the man showed him a plastic cylinder filled with rare gold coins. Robinson, as it turned out, was an avid numismatist, and he was eager to inspect the coins. He foolishly put down his two guns in order to grab the cylinder, at which point he was tackled by two officials from NASA’s Gemini space program.

At his federal arraignment in New Orleans the following day, Robinson offered an impassioned argument for why he felt compelled to hijack the plane: “All the poor guys who are suffering in Cuba! It seems so unnecessary when the United States is so close. I don’t think the government encourages the anti-Castro people enough. It is in the best interests of the United States to do so.”

Robinson’s mother, meanwhile, pronounced herself completely baffled by her son’s sudden militancy: “How can you tell what happens when a perfectly normal person cracks?”

The Upshot: Robinson pleaded guilty to attempting to intimidate a pilot, a far less serious charge than air piracy. He served a brief sentence at an Arizona prison camp for youthful offenders.

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