This Day in History: Samuel Byck Hijacks an Airliner with the Intent of Flying it into the White House to Kill President Nixon

DC-9 Cockpit

On This Day In History: February 22, 1974

On this day in history, 1974, Samuel Joseph Byck attempted to assassinate President Richard Nixon.  Byck’s plan was to take control of an airliner and then force the pilots to fly the plane into the White House, thereby presumably killing the President who was there at the time.  Not all went as planned, of course, though he did manage to get as far as taking control of a Delta Airlines’ plane.  However, he never managed to get it off the ground.

Byck, a high school dropout and ex-army soldier, had been down on his luck for some time when he decided to try to “take back the government” for the people, by assassinating the president.  His wife had left him two years before, taking their kids as well.  He also was having trouble keeping a job and recently had been rejected by the U.S. Small Business Administration for a loan to start his own business, something he was extremely bitter about.

As such, Byck decided a revolution was needed to fix the rampant corruption he perceived, with politicians being more concerned about keeping special interests happy, rather than helping actual American citizens.  He also believed the government was conspiring with those special interest to keep people who were poor, down-and-out.

Luckily for the rest of the passengers on the plane, Nixon, and White House staffers, Byck wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed and his plan was fairly poorly conceived in terms of its execution, more or less the “show up, and see what happens approach”.  First, Byck made a “bomb”, which more or less was just two Valvoline containers filled with gasoline, placed inside a suitcase.  Obviously this wouldn’t be the most effective incendiary device, even if he did set it off.  This would have been even less effective in that his design of the bomb didn’t actually include any sort of fuse or other means of detonating it.

The bomb wasn’t the only crowd control item he brought with him in his attempt; he also brought a gun.  Now, given he was already on the F.B.I. and Secret Service’s watch list, purchasing a gun was somewhat out of the question for him.  So, instead, he  stole a Smith and Wesson .22 caliber, six-shot gun from a friend and pocketed around 40 rounds of ammunition to take with him in his assassination attempt.

On the morning of February 22, 1974, he made his way to the Baltimore/Washington International Airport.  Once there, rather than attempt to get on the plane without drawing attention to himself, he encountered a Police Officer, George Neal Ramsburg, in the terminal and shot him in the back. This was unlucky for the officer, who died, but very lucky for the passengers as had he not done this, he may have managed to get on the plane without causing a ruckus and perhaps could have waited to hijack it until after it was in the air.

In any event, after killing Ramsburg, he ran to a Delta Airlines’ plane, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 (which can hold around 70-109 passengers, depending on the configuration).  Byck chose this plane as it was about to depart, with passengers in the final stages of boarding.

Thanks to the fact that he decided to murder Officer Ramsburg, at Byck’s heels was another police officer, who had just come on duty and had heard the shots fired and ran to the scene.  The officer (whose name was blacked out in the official F.B.I. report, but I believe was named Charles Troyer), then grabbed Ramsburg’s .357 Magnum and chased after Byck.  He did not, however, get to Byck in time and when he first spotted Byck, he was already aboard the plane.

Once on the plane, Byck entered the cockpit and told the pilots he had a bomb and that he wanted them to take off.  Before they had a chance to respond, he pointed his gun at the co-pilot, Fred Jones, and shot him in the head.  At this point, the pilot, Reese Loftin, decided it would be a good idea to do what Byck told him to do, so he started the engines.  However, after Byck left the cockpit temporarily and then came back and again shot the co-pilot, who was already dead, and then shot Loftin in the back, he changed his mind and figured he was just dealing with a crazy person, which was a more accurate assessment given Byck’s history of mental problems and current actions. Thus, at this point, the pilot told Byck the doors needed to be closed in order for them to take off, which got rid of Byck temporarily and allowed the pilot to call for help from air traffic control.

This is the point when the officer chasing after Byck spotted him in the plane, with two stewardesses attempting to shut the door at the time.  Before they were able to, the officer was able to get a couple shots off at Byck before the door swung shut.  However, none of them connected.  Upon returning to the cockpit after having the doors closed, Byck proceeded to shoot the dead co-pilot again and also shot the pilot two more times.

Lucky for the pilot, who ultimately survived, Byck did not get the opportunity to shoot him a fourth time.  The officer that had been shooting at Byck managed to hit him at fairly close range through the aircraft door when he saw Byck stand in front of a port hole.  After being shot, Byck staggered back and the officer emptied his clip through the door.  As the officer had now run out of bullets, he left and by the time he got back other police officers that had arrived on the scene informed him that Byck was down.  When they entered the plane, they found Byck lying dead on the floor.

According to the “History” Channel, Byck was only wounded by the officer, not killed, and when he saw his attempt had failed, he instead attempted to kill himself before the officers could board the plane.  They went on to state that he said “help me” to the officers when they entered, but then died.  It should be noted, though, that him stating “help me” is not in the official F.B.I. report, which details the event, including the officers’ accounts.  The officers stated that Byck was dead when they arrived inside the plane.  The surviving pilot’s account also doesn’t mention Byck saying anything after the police entered.  Of course, he had just been shot three times and perhaps wasn’t in the best state to remember such details (though he claims to remember up to the point when the officers arrived).

Three days later, a letter arrived at the Miami News desk, written by Byck, stating his reasons for the assassination attempt:

It has become evident to me that this government that I love, dearly, will not respond to the needs of the majority of the American citizens.

The majority of the people in government, so called “Public Servants”, are financed by special interest groups and if they are servants, they are servants to these groups.

Now is the time! Independent-minded citizens must take back the government before their government takes complete control of them all.

I, for one, will not live in a controlled society and I would rather die as a free-man than live like a sheep

Power to the People,
Sam Byck

Bonus Facts:

  • Byck was later found to have sent similar letters as the above, along with recordings, to various news agencies, including to famed reporter Jack Anderson.
  • Jack Anderson himself was the target of an assassination attempt; this one instigated by the Nixon administration.  Two members of the Nixon administration, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, admitted under oath that they had been ordered by a “senior White House aide” to kill Anderson.  Once ordered to do so, they set about trying to find a way to either poison him or murder him via a mugging to make it look like a random event.  They even met with a CIA operative to discuss the best way to go about killing him.  Luckily for Anderson, both conspirators were arrested just a few weeks later, being part of the Watergate scandal.  Liddy stated that Nixon had issued the following statement: “We need to get rid of this Anderson guy”, which set in motion the plot to kill Anderson. However, Nixon wasn’t apparently involved in ordered the killing, nor supposedly knew anything about it.  He just simply stated Anderson needed to be gotten rid of and his people figured the best way to “get rid of” Anderson was to kill him.
  • Nixon apparently had been upset with Anderson since 1960 when Anderson revealed on the night before the presidential election that Howard Hughes had given a substantial “loan” to Nixon’s brother.  Anderson also uncovered the fact that the Nixon administration was systematically harassing John Lennon during their attempt to get him deported.  Anderson was notoriously good at uncovering government scandals and digging up dirt on politicians.  Indeed, after his death, the F.B.I. tried to seize his files on the grounds that “the information could hurt U.S. government interests.”
  • In 1989, Jack Anderson successfully managed to bring a gun to an interview of Bob Dole, attempting to demonstrate how easy it would be for a terrorist to do so, at the time.  Needless to say, security policies for such events were modified shortly thereafter.
  • This assassination attempt wasn’t the first time Byck had threatened Nixon.  Indeed, Byck had previously been arrested twice protesting in front of the White House as he had no permit to protest, which is a requirement for protesting at that location.  During one of his protests, he wore a Santa Costume and had a sign that said “All I want for Christmas is my constitutional right to publicly petition my government for a redress of grievances.”  However, the Secret Service didn’t take him seriously at the time, though they did opened a file on him.
  • Police later found a tape recording in the trunk of Byck’s car describing how he felt the country was being raped and plundered by the Nixon administration.
  • Another bit that is not in the official report, including not in the pilot’s testimony, is that after shooting the pilots, Byck supposedly grabbed a passenger and put her in the pilot’s seat and told her to fly the plane. Given the pilot’s account of the event included the incident from when Byck entered the plane up to the point where the officers arrived in the aircraft and he never mentioned it, it is questionable whether this actually happened or not, despite certain documentaries stating that it did.  Further, the police arriving in the plane also did not report anyone in the cockpit except the dead co-pilot, still strapped in his seat, and the grievously injured pilot, also still strapped into his seat.
  • The police initially tried to shoot out the tires of the plane once the engines kicked on, but their bullets just bounced off the tires.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy this one on a slightly more successful plane hijacking: A Man Calling Himself Dan Cooper Hijacks a Plane, Collects His Ransom, then Parachutes from it and is Never Heard from Again

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  • Byck could of just waited – Nixon resigned the presidency less than five months later on August 9, 1974

  • Error in this statement: After being shot, Byck staggered back and the officer emptied his clip through the door.

    If the officer was shooting the deceased officers .357, it was a revolver, not a semi-auto with a magazine (also, there is no such thing as a pistol “clip”). Also, in 1974, virtually no law enforcement officers carried semi autos. Revolvers ruled the day.