Everything seeks its own heightened version.
— Don DeLillo
Roberto Bolano poses the crime scene as the defining image of the 20th century. A runner up must be aircraft hijacking, the stealing of planes, a previously unimaginable concept. The sky as evidence. Since the advent of flight at Big Kill Devil Hill in 1903, there have been well over 1,000 such crimes, some big and others small, yet there remains to this day no comprehensive list or literary review, whether academic or ambitious. Such an endeavor might start, appropriately, with the very first airplane hijacking. In order to do so, one must first decide what an airplane is.
In the long tail of history, the airplane is more myth than reality. This is not hyperbole, but a matter of percentage. In 10,000 years of culture, the century-old technology has been impossible far more than possible. It has been magic more than science. It has been spiritual more than rational. All at a rate of 99 to 1. Amazingly, we live in that 1%, a moment (a young one, if moments can be young) in which the absurd and heretical has become not only real, but commoditized and redundant. In modern aviation, magic loses our luggage, religion is delayed by hours and the chariot crashes into the sea – with yawning regularity. The gods are searchable by price, time, size, and class – and come replete with car rentals and hotel bonuses. People can fly -- and earn points toward a toaster for doing so. Yet, the airplane is clearly not just another consumer good. It is not a flying toaster. Or, it is -- which is amazing because toasters don’t fly.
The airplane is more than the airplane: it’s a myth.
No matter how much detail Michael Crichton put into his novel, Airframe, no matter how much we know about timed slat-release and wing span, and no matter how dry a textbook we memorize, the act of flight and the means to do so retain great psychic weight. The un-coagulated and unrealized concept of the airplane has been the subject of dreams and scientific research and fantastical narrative alike for millennia, and it remains so today. Consider the TV show Lost and its success, the nether-world potential of the crashed plane. Consider the black box at the bottom of the ocean, a miniature Atlantis. Consider runway landing applause, a kind of modern speaking-in-tongues, equally as annoying. Consider the audacity of the Wright brothers, challenging history and Gods. Consider flying. The airplane is more than the airplane: it’s a myth.
Yet, okay, fine, it’s also real. And how exactly do we know that the airplane is real? Because it has been stolen.
Only real things can be stolen. Existence, like anything, is enforced by transgressions against it. To steal an airplane, to make it real, like Prometheus absconding with the magic of fire from the sky, is commonly referred to as skyjacking, or more traditionally, hijacking – a term whose definition has been repurposed.
The French translation of hijack is detourner, a word dangerously close to the Situationists’ term detournement, the practice of repurposing objects and texts for play and effect. To hijack once meant roughly the illegal seizure of a vehicle, having been derived from a mix of highway and jack (to hold up, as in to mug or rob) but it has been repurposed to mean to steal an airplane, often in flight. And by that I mean that the term has been detourned.
It has been hijacked.
Why mention this? Because it is key to understanding how the first airplane hijacking is unknown. Yes, to repeat: the first airplane hijacking is unknown.
Wait, you might say, I’ve seen a documentary, I’ve read a book. The first hijacking happened in Peru, in 1931, when revolutionaries commandeered a plane for political leverage. Go ahead, look it up: a group of armed men in the jungle, demanding for the first time in human history the right to fly – the image is drenched in romanticism and excitement. Indiana Jones practically inserts himself into the scene – what an adventure.
Come on, you might say, that’s got to be the one.
Yet, numerous sources contend that two years earlier, in 1929, a young pilot by the name of J. Howard “Doc” DeCelles fell victim to the real #1 hijacking, his plane forcefully repurposed by none other than Pancho Villa in a sudden redirected course toward Mexican mountain ranges through the dark desert night. I can see the romance in this, too, but if you follow the paper trail, you find that proper citation for the claim’s original source, a 1970 article in the Fort-Worth Star Tribune, is unfortunately lacking.
Can we really have romance without proper citation? Please, check your style guides, but in the meantime – it doesn’t matter. What is at stake here as that there is any confusion at all. We are talking about the birth of aviation and the first time someone stole an airplane. This should be a big deal, clearly established and well known.
Somehow, it’s not.
So, let’s settle it. Peruvian rebels or Mexican politicians? Who is the OG of hijacking? The researchers at the Fort-Worth Library gave it their best shot – they dug through their microfiche, combed over the entire newspaper, but to no avail. They couldn’t prove or disprove the 1929 claim. No trace of Doc’s political abduction. Peru it is?
Unlikely – examine this Sydney Morning Herald piece: “Walter William Crothers, 21, a fitter, was charged at the Parramatta Court yesterday with having stolen a Moth aeroplane, valued at £850, the property of the Aero Club of New South Wales.”
The possibility of earlier, unknown contenders looms over the whole idea of an original hijacking.The date? September 21, 1930, a year earlier than the official first hijacking in Peru, but still a year after the alleged but unconfirmed one in Mexico. This is not a solution, but a clue. The possibility of earlier, unknown contenders looms over the whole idea of an original hijacking. In fact, it seems obvious -- after the first manned flight in 1903, could it really have taken almost thirty years and a trip to another continent to steal it? This is America, people! We can do better than that.
So, Painesville Telegraph: “The first airplane known to have been stolen was recovered here today, but the two young pilots who ‘borrowed’ it at the point of pistols in Kansas City escaped.” Coming in November 1929, beating Doc’s by one month, this is it. This is the first airplane hijacking.
That is correct, hijacking #1, en route to a party in Jersey Shore.But Pittsburgh Press: “Alleged Stolen Plane Crashes With Suspect.” August 28th, 1927. So, there it is then! The real first airplane hijacking. And why was it stolen? This is important. “Charles, it is charged, took the airplane of a commercial flyer at Jersey Shore to get to a party in a hurry.” That is correct, hijacking #1, en route to a party in Jersey Shore.
Except – Chicago Daily Tribune writes that a man “was named in the warrant issued yesterday by United States Commissioner James R. Glass, alleging interstate transportation of a stolen airplane. This is said to be the first warrant ever obtained for an alleged airplane theft.” When? January 5th, 1926, a full five years earlier than the Peru incident! And look at the excitement in the article’s language: “A jobless young aviator from out of the West beat the most spectacular of long-standing records of city criminals by stealing an aeroplane…It was the first time probably in the whole history of aviation when a civilian aircraft was stolen by flying it from its hangar.” But wait – that’s from the Ashburton Guardian, December 28th, 1921, almost ten years earlier than Peru. That’s right: “Authorities here are on the watch for an airplane reported stolen yesterday…An automobile driver reported he carried two men to the aviation field about 4 o’clock this morning. About 6 o’clock the plane was reported over the city.”6 March 7, 1921, A full ten years.
But, why stop there? 1917, almost fifteen years before Peru: “To his exultation on his first – and last – flight was added the spice of forbidden fruit, for he had taken L W F Tractor , No. 113 into the air against orders.“
And, finally, 1911, twenty years before Peru: “…this is the first time anyone ever complained of the theft of a flying machine. Lessard suspects ‘joy flyers.’“
Flying machine! So, wait, what’s happening here? How can anyone claim that the first hijacking occurred in 1931 when there are all of these readily available newspaper articles offering counter-examples? No matter what happened in Peru, someone stole E.E Lessard’s flying machine in August of 1911. Why doesn’t it count?
The go-to answer ought to be that these early events don’t meet some particular criteria of hijack qualification. Is it because they were not stolen from the sky? But even the Peruvian one starts on the ground – and in fact never even leaves. Is it because there are no hostages? This presents the clearest line of demarcation, yet it still leaves one theft that qualifies and predates Peru and Mexico. Ransom H. Merritt’s 1917 flight took an unwitting passenger for the ride, one Anthony Spilena, a young airfield mechanic. Fifteen years before Peru, Merritt stole a plane scheduled for flight, took it illegally into the air, and killed an unwilling participant on board. Even under the strictest of detourned and hijacked definitions, this must qualify.
And yet it doesn’t.
I propose that the actual stealing of airplanes has itself been hijacked, inadvertently, by those now considered traditional hijackers.
I propose that the actual stealing of airplanes has itself been hijacked, inadvertently, by those now considered traditional hijackers. In a Google search, “flying airplane” yields 33 million results to the 44 million of “flying terror.” How did this happen? The year with the highest recorded number of hijackings, 1969, saw nearly all of them through the lens of political leveraging, acts of ideological and real violence aimed not at the sky but at culture. Flying was hardly ever the purpose. Forget the air, they wanted to steal sovereignty, to steal revolution, the success of which has been arguably minor in comparison to their success in hijacking to steal planes. When we look backward through time toward the first hijacking, we must look through the smoke left by the 60s. No longer can hijacking be about seizing an airplane to fly into the sky, but only into the minds of the masses. So, for lack of political agenda, not one of the early thefts fits the bill.
Well, it’s time to steal hijacking back. To take control of the myth above our heads. To detourn the sky. In order to do so, let’s construct an imaginary game of Go, one played between 1917’s Ransom Merritt and the Peruvian rebels, respectively representing the pre- and post- 1931 hijackings. Wait, but why Go? Here: Go is a traditional Chinese game, the aim of which is taking control of a board, to conquer more space than the opponent, wherein power is achieved by literally limiting the opponent’s freedom. In other words, whoever hijacks first, wins. The fewer moves a player has available, the less power. One can be said to have hijacked the board when they have the most freedom.
Ransom Merritt sits at the board dressed in his mechanic’s coveralls, considering the graph-like grid of play. His strategy evolves from the fact that events occur on a 2D surface, a flat plane, x and y. If one player suddenly gains purchase of the z axis -- the plane headed upward from the traditional horizontal gaming area – if one can literally float their pieces above the board, then the new freedom of movement would grant enormous advantage. Where one might previously be trapped or cornered, motion would now be possible through game flight. Here, the freedom to move through space is not the product but the catalyst of power, as in the case of a bird. The opponent hardly matters when a player moves upward into limitless space, leaving the rules behind. It is this line of thinking around which Merritt, staring jealously at the sky, would construct a strategy.
The rebels, armed and righteous around the board, would approach the game differently. They would forego movement and seek the power of still objects. They would tell us that stationary airplanes are powerful and combustible and are a means to freedom. How do we know? The Peruvians, in 1931, held their pilot hostage, stubbornly sitting in one spot for ten days, never lifting into the air at all. Why do so many hijackers remain grounded while sitting in airplanes? It’s absurd, but think of a bomb, the revolutionary might say to us, making a weak strategic metaphor – bombs are powerful, aren’t they? Bombs contain power that bestows the freedom of movement to its owner, through the limitation of others’ motion (isn’t that the point of Go?) and by opening previously unconquerable barriers (this is a pretty good strategy, actually…), like enemy defenses and bank walls and political lines. With a bomb, the hijacker tells us, power grants freedom.
Yet, this is false. It’s a myth we would be wise to resist.
The power of every explosive is therefore derived from its nascent freedom of movement...Why? First of all, even the largest of bombs has total freedom of movement already, the true source of their power. Yes, bombs can move. It is in fact their primary function. That is, at the point of detonation, a bomb exercises its freedom of movement by expanding in all directions, almost as if it were boasting, expressing the availability of options open to it, moving through all obstructions. No one can move like a bomb. The power of every explosive is therefore derived from its nascent freedom of movement, not – as the traditional hijacker’s Go strategy would have it – the other way around.
A perfect bomb’s movement is unlimited by any direction or impediment, and in this manner, bombs are in fact freer than the people who wield them.
This is why people want to explode.
Not literally (and certainly not in order to destroy others), but to travel in all directions at once, to have all options open, to climb off of the xy coordinates of the earth and soar into the z axis of the sky. To move in all dimensions for the first time in history. To put aside the things that ground us, to forego the constraints that bind us, to break the rules and finally be in a place we previously could only imagine is real, to move beyond the confines of our skulls. Love is detonation.
This is the crucial distinction between Merritt and the rebels, that of motion vs stagnation, adaptation vs stubbornness, exultation vs revolt, celebration vs denigration.
It is this ideal toward freedom and transcendence that is encapsulated so purely in the original airplane thefts, those early uncounted ones, especially Merritt’s. Most of these early crimes were committed by men who worked as mechanics, mechanicians, fitters, tuners or taxiers, working class people who could see the possibility but were barred from grasping it. No ideology, just sky.
That is, more so than the hijackers of the 60s, Merritt’s case should remind us of Phaeton, the mythical Greek hijacker who thousands of years ago impulsively stole the chariot of the sun for the sheer joy of it, only to crash and burn in humiliation. The only comparable event today would be a man stealing a rocket and flying to the moon, just for the sense of freedom, and dying on re-entry. It seems impossible, but also like a miracle.
“Merritt drove the machine with a recklessness that took away the breath of Capt. Walker G. Kilnes, in charge of the post, and the entire personnel of the school, who stood gazing at the flight. Merritt sprinted, dipped, dived, looped, turned, twisted, and did everything except loop the loop, and all went well until he tried to come back to earth… An investigation late today disclosed that Merritt had often boasted he was ‘going up alone some day.’”
It is through Merrit’s eyes, and the other early hijackers, that it is easy to understand the very first hijacking, almost too easy. It happened when we robbed the myth of Phaeton from above and made it ours, when we first stole into the sky itself.
There can be no flight at all without hijacking – because only the stolen can be real. Or, at least, that’s the myth we’re flying. The only way to truly detourn hijackings, to re-understand them, is from the vantage point of the past. We will look -- not backward through the smoking remnants of the 20th century -- but forward from a time when these impossible airplanes and their magical thieves could only be ghosts and heroes, poets and gods.
***Dolan Morgan is a writer whose fiction and poetry can be found in venues such as Armchair/Shotgun and The Believer (upcoming). His story "Cells" received an honorary mention for 2008’s Italo Calvino Prize, and his story "Investment Banking in Reverse" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011. He recently served as an English teacher in the Bronx public schools system.
1. “Youth Convicted. Amazing Theft of Aeroplane.” The Sydney Morning Herald. September 30, 1930.
2. “First Sky Bandits Desert Stolen Plane After Hop.” The Painesville Telegraph. November 27, 1929.
3. “Alleged Stolen Plane Crashes With Suspect.” The Pittsburgh Press. August 28, 1927.
4. “Flyer Charged With Theft of Nonstop Plane.” The Chicago Daily Tribune. January 5, 1926.
5. “Aero Thief Injured.” The Ashburton Guardian. Volume XLII, issue 9420. December 28, 1921.
6. “Watching for Stolen Plane.” The Evening Independent. March 7, 1921.
7, 9. “Two Killed in Stolen Flight.” The Boston Daily Globe. May 8, 1917.
8. “Plane Stolen; Sherriff in Air.” The Baltimore Sun. August 9, 1911.
9. See 7.