ST. LOUIS • Robert Wilson paid cash for his ticket. He wore purple-tinted sunglasses and hefted a trombone case onto American Airlines Flight 119, headed for Tulsa, Okla.
Wilson slouched into a back row of the Boeing 727. Approaching Tulsa, he showed flight attendant Jane Furlong the submachine gun he smuggled aboard. Furlong told the pilots, "You're not going to believe this, but we're being hijacked."
The hijacking on June 23, 1972, was one of many four decades ago, before airlines and airports clamped down on security. That day, American still wasn't using metal detectors at St. Louis, although other airlines were. (American later snapped into line.)
What made Wilson's crime noteworthy was its bizarre unfolding.
Wilson demanded $502,500 and five parachutes as he ordered the jet back and forth between Oklahoma and St. Louis. He was the ninth copycat of the mysterious D.B. Cooper, who bailed out of a 727 somewhere south of Seattle in 1971, never to be seen again. The thieves liked the three-engine airliner because its rear staircase could be opened in flight for a bail-out.
Back in St. Louis, the jet attracted a crowd along the airport perimeter. Wilson dispatched a hostage to get his loot.
David J. Hanley of Florissant watched live TV in the Airport Marriott lounge and got angry. At 12:30 a.m., he crashed his 1971 Cadillac convertible through the airport fence and sped down the runway at Wilson's commandeered jet. He smashed into the wheel struts at 80 mph.
Inside the plane, a jumpy Wilson demanded a second 727 and hid behind his hostages from FBI sharpshooters as they walked to another jet. They took off, heading northeast. Wilson gave flight attendants generous tips and jumped at 2:50 a.m. over northern Indiana from an altitude of 8,000 feet.
Three days later, searchers found the full money sack and gun in fields near Peru, Ind. A fingerprint led to their man, a bruised but alive former Navy sailor named Martin J. McNally, 28, of suburban Detroit. "Wilson" had $13 in his pocket.
Hanley, 30, couldn't remember a thing about his deed. He announced his candidacy for president in 1976.
McNally drew two life sentences and was sent to the federal prison at Marion, Ill., where he met fellow air pirate Garrett B. Trapnell. On May 24, 1978, Trapnell's girlfriend, Barbara Oswald of Richmond Heights, commandeered a helicopter and ordered its pilot, Allen Barklage, to fly to Marion, where Trapnell, McNally and a third inmate were hiding in a yard.
Barklage grabbed Oswald's pistol and killed her in flight. The inmates were nabbed.
Trapnell died in prison in 1993. Barklage died in a helicopter crash in 1998. McNally was paroled from a California prison Jan. 27, 2010, at age 67.