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


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


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.


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.


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.