There has been only one attempt to use a plane as a means of extortion in this country. However, the story is much more than that Qantas flight.
In a lovely example of life imitating art, on the 26th of May 1971, Australia was under the spell of an exciting event that gripped the nation. At about noon that morning, the Australian Federal Police received a phone call from a mysterious man calling himself “Mr Brown”. There was, he said, a bomb on board Qantas flight 755 from Sydney to Hong Kong. Once the airplane would dip under 6,500 meters, it would trigger the altitude sensor and the jet would explode. If the authorities wanted to save the 128 people on board, they had to pay half a million dollars in cash, in unmarked and used $20 notes, within hours. Soon, the nation held its breath. The “Great Plane Robbery” was in full swing, and it looked like Mr Brown was winning. For number six in our series of the weird and wonderful in Australian history, let’s go back to the only airline extortion attempt ever pulled off in this country. And to what happened next.
To prove he wasn’t lying, Mr Brown led police officers and Qantas officials to a locker at Sydney Airport, where they found a bomb that looked remarkably like the device the extortionist had been describing. They defused it, replaced the explosives with a testing light bulb and took it up in another jet. At exactly the moment “Mr. Brown” had predicted, the light came on. This was disconcerting and a reason to contact the pilot of the plane, Captain William Selwyn, who was in charge of “City of Broken Hill”, the Boeing 707 at the centre of the drama. They were lucky as Selwyn was the son of a WWI stretcher-bearer, who had won himself a few military medals during that conflict. The son, who was now behind the controls, had been flying anti-submarine bombers during WWII. So he was very able to keep it cool under pressure, and that was necessary, because the authorities had no idea what to do. They told Selwyn to divert the plane and send his crew out to search it in the meantime. So over the next two hours, flight attendants pulled paneling off toilet cubicles and rifled through every garbage can and oven. They found nothing. Selwyn, who had first set course for Brisbane and then for Sydney, was getting a tad worried. The longer his flight was in the air, the less fuel he had to land it safely.
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At 3pm that afternoon, Mr. Brown made another phone call, telling the authorities where to deposit the money. Finally, at 5.30pm, Qantas agreed to pay the ransom, and half an hour later, its general manager, Robert Ritchie, could be seen pushing suitcases full of cash through the window of a Volkswagen Kombi that had stopped in front of Qantas House. Behind the wheel was Mr. Brown, of course in disguise, who sped off after the delivery had been made. At 6.20 he called again, telling the anxious emergency committee that there was no bomb after all. Half an hour later, Selwyn landed his plane, with 6 minutes of fuel left. Shaken and even a little stirred, he retired at the end of 1971.
A massive manhunt ensued, but without result. And that was a problem, for a number of reasons. First of all, of course, because half a million dollars was a lot of money and you can’t let anybody get away with that. But another issue was that 1971 was peak year for hijackings. Throughout the whole of the 1960s, there had only been about a dozen of them worldwide. But in 1970 alone, ten planes had been taken over. Sometimes by crackpots, but more and more by people with a political gripe, like the Japanese Red Army, Cubans demanding the release of political prisoners, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Kashmir Separatists, students opposed to the Marcos government in the Philippines and even a US Navy deserter who had a problem with being shipped to Vietnam. In the first few months of 1971, there were four such hijackings, and the authorities didn’t want airplanes to become the new black for people with an issue, political or otherwise.
But whatever was tried, soon the trail went cold. Then, in August, there was a breakthrough. A service station attendant called the police, telling them about a young barman who had suddenly rocked up with a very expensive sports car. It was one of the 14,000 phone calls the authorities had received after putting up a 50,000 reward, but this time it actually led them to the perpetrators. First to Ray Poynting, a 28-year old from Bondi, who started talking straight away and led them to the heist’s mastermind, Peter Macari, an Englishman who had been in Australia since 1968 after skipping bail on an indecent assault charge. During the trial in October, the judge called Macari a “daring, resourceful and clever criminal” who was “not in the least contrite”. He had taken the idea from a movie he had been watching, called Doomsday Flight. The film had been so clear about the steps to take, that all he had to do was find himself some explosives. For that, he drove to Mt Isa, where he befriended a miner, who stole some gelignite and a dozen detonations for him. After that, all he had to do was make the phone call.
Of course, really smart criminals don’t start throwing cash around. Especially not on an iridescent blue Chevrolet Camaro, a white E-type Jaguar and a tangerine Falcon GT. But Macari and Poyting (who couldn’t even drive, but bought the cars anyway) were a lot less disciplined. But that didn’t mean they weren’t smart. Or at least Macari was. When he was arrested, he made up some story to explain where the money was. There had been a man called Ken, he said. He was the head of a really dangerous gang. The one who put him up to the heist, and the one who now held the cash. Unfortunately for Macari, a few days later, $138,000 was found under a bricked-up fireplace in Annandale. And a little later another $137,000 turned up under the floorboards of a house in Balmain. But the other $244,000 was never found. In November of 1971, Poynting was convicted to seven years, Macari to 15. In 1980, Macari was deported to Britain, of course on a Qantas flight. There he started running a fish-and-chip shop.
But that was not the end of it. Four days after the heist, the Nashua Telegraph in New Hampshire, America, published an interview with the screenwriter of Doomsday Flight, Rod Sterling. By now, the film had triggered at least three extortion plots, and Sterling was distraught. “I didn’t realise there were that many kooks in the woodwork,” he said. “I wish I had written a stagecoach drama starring John Wayne instead. I wish I’d never been born.” In August of that same year, a few days before Macari and Poynting were arrested, a similar attempt was foiled at Denver, with a British Overseas Airways Corporation flight with 380 passengers on board. A week later, the US government urged 500 television stations to ban the film, telling them they would be “making the highest possible contribution to the safety of more than 60 million passengers.” A year later, in August 1972, newly-minted Minister for Customs Don Chip, pressured by the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, banned a similar film, Skyjacked, “in the interests of the travelling public”. “There are”, he explained, “enough crackpots and lunatics in the community who would be drawn to this film like a bee to honey.” He was right. In November of that year, even without having seen the film, a slightly crazy man hijacked an Ansett Airlines Flight, wanting to “commit suicide in a spectacular way.” Two years later there was another attempt to extort Qantas in almost the same way as Macari had done. Thankfully, it was done by a 21-year old painter from Drummoyne who instructed the police to drop off the money to his home address. It was another example of badly thought-out stupidity, but still alarming.
So when authorities realised in 1985 that the whole Macari-Qantas saga was being made into a film, all hell broke lose. Questions were asked in the Senate, and Qantas actively tried to stop the movie being made. They failed, but Network 10, that had invested a quarter of a million dollars into Call me Mr Brown, refused to screen it. It remained unseen until it came out on video in 1990. You can find it on YouTube, as well as the 1971 Peter Hiscock song A certain Mr Brown, that told the story (“a shocker in your locker”) to the tune of Click go the sheers. But still, it wasn’t the end of it. In 1998, a cold case was reopened into the disappearance of a young Ten-Pound Pom called Billy Day. He had migrated to Australia in 1969, travelled a bit and then disappeared. His last known address was with Peter Macari, who had used his identity in the 1980s to open bank accounts in Britain to safeguard some of the ransom money. A coronial inquest was held, but nothing conclusive came out of it. Macari was not extradited and allowed to continue to live his life in Britain. Billy Day has never been found. It was a nasty end to an otherwise weird and wonderful episode in Australian history.