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Through Turbulent Times:
The Days of NO Airport Security
D.B. Cooper became famous in 1971 when he hijacked Northwest Airlines for $200,000, and then bailed out of the rear air stairs of a B-727 over Oregon. Cooper and the money were never seen again and the case is still unsolved.
That event gave copycat hijackers the idea to threaten an airline with a weapon, ask for cash and then fly off into the sunset and parachute out of the rear air stairs of a B-727 with the money. This occurred on several occasions over the next few months. These incidents were the impetus for the beginning of airport security. At Reno/Tahoe Cannon Airport (now Reno/Tahoe International Airport) there was no perimeter fence, the terminal was much smaller, and the gate boarding area had a roof but was not even enclosed at ground level. You walked across the ramp and up the stairs into the aircraft. I was the Regional Vice President for United Airlines based in San Francisco at that time and Reno was one of the cities in my region.
On Friday evening, June 2, 1972, a male in his twenties rode his bicycle onto the tarmac with a gun across the handlebars. He stopped at the forward entrance to a United B-727. Only the B-727s had the rear stairs that lowered and were convenient for parachuting. In later years the stairs were all bolted shut permanently.
He entered the aircraft, put a gun to the head of a flight attendant and demanded $200,000 in one hour or he would kill her. The passengers had not yet boarded. The Captain radioed the request to United ground operations in Reno and the quest began to find the money. The only large bank in Reno had already closed for the weekend, and we learned that the vault was on a time lock and would not open until Monday morning. Bob Gardiner, the United Manager, was very creative and said he would try to get the money from the casinos. In those days, we were instructed to cooperate and negotiate with hijackers. The rules of engagement have changed since September 11 and negotiation no longer works.
Gardiner contacted Roy Powers, still a resident of Reno, at Harolds Club and Mert Smith at Harrahs and asked if they could help. Both casinos were located in downtown Reno. Each said without hesitation they would come up with the cash. So Gardiner dispatched one of his supervisors, Wayne Duvall, in a police car from the airport to downtown Reno. Powers and Harolds Club scooped $150,000 into cloth money bags and Duvall signed for it on a cocktail napkin. I still have a copy of the napkin. There was no time to get serial numbers. Then they dashed next door to Harrahs and got the remaining $50,000. With sirens blazing and lights flashing they were back at the airport with just minutes to spare.
The money bags were given to the hijacker, the door closed and the aircraft taxied to the runway for takeoff to the south at the hijackers request. The flight attendants said that the hijacker went to the rear of the plane, put on his parachute, secured the money bags to his body and waited. Shortly after takeoff, the aircraft was climbing near Little Washoe Lake fifteen miles south of the airport. The hijacker opened the rear cabin door and lowered the stairs. He calmly walked down the steps and jumped.
The captain immediately radioed their position. Law enforcement en masse headed for the east side of Little Washoe Lake in the area of Eastlake Blvd. It was dusk and parked in the trees was a car. The license plate said "parachute." They waited in hiding and thirty minutes later a man carrying money bags and limping came up the road to his parked car. He was immediately arrested and the money was safely returned.
Turbulent times bring change. Those were the days of trust and convenience in air travel. The past year has been very difficult for airlines and air travelers. However, as I fly several times a month, I see improvement in security lines, usually less than ten minutes at most airports now. Airports and air travel are an absolute necessity for our country and our economy. In the months ahead more security measures will be implemented, completely scanning all checked and carry on luggage. More efficient techniques for passenger identification will be developed. The speed of processing will improve as will the quality of our security. But it will never be the same as the early days of NO airport security.
Howard Putnam is a resident of the Reno/Tahoe area and a professional speaker on leadership, visioning, transformation and change. He is the author of "The Winds of Turbulence" and the former CEO of Southwest and Braniff Airlines. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org or (760) 603-8110.