A Brief History of Suicide Hijackings Part II
13th May 2012
In Part I of this series we looked at the case of Samuel Byck who in 1974 tried to hijack a plane with the intention of crashing it into the White House and killing President Nixon. That was, of course, not the end of the story of suicide hijackings in America.
In 1987 a British born Jamaican man caused a large passenger plane to crash into the side of a mountain in California. David Burke was born in 1952. A handsome man, he sired seven children by four different wives, and worked for USAir out of Rochester, New York. He was accused of being involved in a cocaine smuggling ring and apparently to avoid further allegations he moved to Los Angeles in 1986, where he continued to work for USAir.
In 1987 he was caught by a hidden camera stealing around $70 in cocktail receipts, and was fired. He appealed to his supervisor, Raymond Thomson, on the grounds he had a family to support. Thomson showed him no mercy. On the way out of the hearing a secretary wished him a nice day, to which he responded 'I intend on having a very good day'.
A few days later, he bought a ticket on Flight 1771 from Los Angeles to San Francisco, a flight he knew Thomson would be on. Using his company credentials he smuggled a gun on board that he had borrowed from a friend. While the plane was cruising over California, Burke reportedly scrawled a message on a sick bag and dropped it into Thomson's lap on his way to the toilet. Shortly afterwards he came back out of the toilet and shot Thomson.
The cockpit voice recorder picked up the sound of the shots, and of the flight crew sending an emergency message saying 'there's gunfire on board.' Then a female voice, presumably a flight attendant, said 'We've got a problem' to which the captain replied 'What kind of problem?' Burke then stormed the cockpit and said 'I'm your problem!' before shooting the flight crew. A final gunshot indicates that Burke killed himself.
The pilotless plane went into a nosedive, breaking up as it reached very high speeds, before crashing into a hillside in the Santa Lucia mountains, killing everyone on board. The note Burke had written to Thomson was found among the debris of the crash, though his brother was sceptical, saying, 'How can they find a note in the wreckage of a plane? Where did they find it, in the black box?' The note, referring to the supervisor who had sacked Burke, said, 'Hi Ray, I think it's sort of ironical that we end up like this. I asked for some leniency for my family, remember. Well I got none and you'll get none.'
Two years later, David Burke's actions inspired RAND Corporation terrorism expert Brian Jenkins to write a paper called The Terrorist Thread to Commercial Aviation, in which he commented that:
The nightmare of governments is that suicidal terrorists will hijack a commercial airliner and, by killing or replacing its crew, crash into a city or some vital facility. It has been threatened in at least one case: In 1977, an airliner believed to have been hijacked crashed, killing all on board. And in 1987, a homicidal, suicidal ex-employee boarded a commercial airliner where he shot his former boss and brought about the crash of the airliner, killing all 44 on board. - Jenkins, The Terrorist Threat to Commercial Aviation
The 1977 incident was on Malaysia Airlines Flight 653, and remains unresolved. Jenkins was not the only one making such predictions. In 1994, bestselling military fiction author Tom Clancy published Debt of Honor. At the novel's climax a Japanese airline pilot crashes a Boeing 747 into the Capitol building, in revenge for the death of brother and son in a US-Japan war. The followup book, Executive Orders, sees longtime Clancy character Jack Ryan of the CIA installed as an effective dictator in the aftermath of the attack. He institutes martial law in response to a biological virus attack by a Irani-Iraqi superstate.
Exactly what inspired Clancy is not certain, it could have been David Burke's actions, or Sam Byck's, or Brian Jenkins' paper. It is particularly curious that at the same time Clancy was writing this novel, the same basic scenario was being discussed as part of the panel that produced the report Terror 2000: The Future Face of Terror. The suicide hijacking scenario did not appear in the final report, but it was part of the discussions that led to it.
Someone who may have been inspired by Tom Clancy's book was Frank Eugene Corder. Corder was an unemployed ex-military man, separated from his wife and a repeated narcotics abuser. On the evening of September 11th 1994 he stole a Cessna 150 from Aldino airport in Maryland. After touring around the area for while in much the same manner as Robert K Preston's military helicopter joyride back in 1974, he approached Washington. He dove down, skidded across the South lawn of the White House, hit a magnolia tree and came to rest against the wall of the building. Corder died instantly of massive blunt force trama. The plane was a wreck, the building slightly damaged and the magnolia tree survived with a few scars and a story to tell.
According to FBI files released to me under the Freefom of Information Act, Corder had been drinking and smoking crack cocaine with his brother that evening, and had spoken of committing suicide. He had previously talked of going out 'in a blaze of glory', and even of flying a plane into the White House or Capitol building. There is no evidence yet that these claims came to the attention of the authorities before the crash.
The documents also include a cable on press clippings relating to the crash. Amongst them is an article from the Cecil Whig, a local paper in Elkton, Maryland. The article, which does not appear to be available online, was titled 'Crash like Clancy book'. This is not the only curious thing present in the files.
Also included is a letter from a prisoner at the G Robert Cotton Correctional Facility to assistant FBI director Larry A Potts. The letter described how the Corder crash was connected to the Common Law Court - a section of the militia movement that grew up under the early years of the Clinton administration. The letter describes how the Common Law Court had approached the prisoner and told him they could get him out of jail.
The prisoner's letter explains that he was in jail for armed robbery, but was dying of AIDS with possibly only a year to live. He wrote that the Common Law Court had an army that was preparing for a civil war, and that they had tried to recruit him to be an assassin. They explained to him that because he was dying he could just walk into congress and blow everyone to hell.
The letter also outlined how a week or so before the Corder crash he was told by someone within the Common Law Court movement to watch the news for something big happening at the White House. He also said that he was told that the Corder crash was simply a 'test run'. You can download the letter here.
Whether this is just prison yard gossip or something more substantive is not clear. The FBI closed out the investigation in February 1995, concluding that there was no wider conspiracy. To help those interested in the case, and trying to understand it a bit better, I have put together a brief dossier of pertinent files from the FBI FOIA release on Corder.
You can download the dossier via the link above or directly from this site via this link (PDF, 2.0MB). In an amusing twist, or perhaps not so amusing, only weeks after Corder's crash an episode of the Simpsons depicted a similar scenario. Criminal genius Sideshow Bob escapes from prison and menaces Springfield with a nuclear bomb if they do not rid the town of television. Bob gets his way initially, but then Krusty the Klown begins broadcasting from a Civil Defence building. Bob tries to wreak revenge on Krusty by flying a plane, kamikaze-style, into the building.