By Penny Rafferty Hamilton (Reprinted from the State Aviation Journal NASAO Conference Edition)
Every NASAO conference is packed with top notch speakers, educational programs, and important aviation industry information. This year Tennessee featured its own Captain David Sanders (Ret.), winner of the Airline Pilots Association Gold Medal Award for heroism. Earning his Navy wings on March 28, 1969, he joined Federal Express in the early 1970s. He worked his way up to “living the dream” of being one of their International pilots by the end of the 80s.
Then, his life changed forever on April 7, 1994, when Sanders, then 49 years old, and his crew of Jim Tucker, co-pilot 42, and, Andy Peterson, flight engineer who was 39 years old, literally fought for their lives and saved those of many others back on the ground of the Memphis airport when they thwarted an attempted hijack of their fully-loaded DC-10.
In 1994, seven years before the terror attacks of 9/11, being hijacked by a fellow employee intending to kill you and fly your fuel-laden airplane into the Federal Express Memphis headquarters building in a suicidal attack, was not a big consideration for this experienced flight crew.
In true Southern story-telling fashion, with no Power Point or other visuals, David Sanders kept the NASAO audience on the edge of their seats as he described that horrific day on Flight 705. Because the “regular” crew was only ONE minute over their crew day, Captain Sanders and crew were called in for this routine Memphis to San Jose flight loaded with electronics. Who can say what might have happened had the original flight crew taken their scheduled flight that day.
Auburn Calloway, the hijacker, had carefully planned for his result. According to Wikipedia, he intended to kill the crew using blunt force hammers to their heads so their injuries would appear consistent with those they would sustain in the explosive airplane crash. As a former Navy pilot and martial arts expert, he carried two claw hammers, two sledge hammers, a knife and a spear gun hidden in a guitar case on board to carry out his plan to inflict maximum damage on his employer, Federal Express.
As a Federal Express employee “innocently” killed in an airplane accident, Calloway’s family would be eligible for $2.5.MILLION in company life insurance and, the possible dismissal hearing for lying about his previous flying experience, which was already scheduled for April 8, would be long forgotten in the aftermath of the devastating crash.
Maybe he might even be portrayed as a “victim” because he was “just an innocent jump seat passenger.” According to Captain Sanders, it all began at 18,000 feet on one of those glorious CAVU days which pilots love, as they climbed out of Memphis International Airport airspace.
“I head a strange metallic sound from the back where the bad guy went. I turned to my right to see him holding a 20 ounce framing hammer which he used to hit me in the head three times. Later, dazed, I tried to get out of my seat belt to confront him. He was standing in the door way with the loaded spear gun. He said, ‘Get back in your seat. This is a real gun and I will kill you!’ which was recorded on the cockpit voice recorder, thought to have been disabled by the hijacker. But, Jim Tucker had fixed it earlier. This evidence proved to be very important in his 1995 air piracy trial. “I instinctively dived on the floor when Andy Peterson grabbed the spear gun from him.”
“I did not know that the bad guy had already struck Jim in the skull so hard some of his skull fractured. Jim’s injuries were so serious he could not use his right arm, hand or leg. Jim still took over the flight controls. When the bad guy hit Andy in the head, his temporal artery was severed. Andy was slowly bleeding to death. We had no idea how badly we were wounded,” Sanders shared with the crowd.
You could have heard a pin drop in the now deafening silent luncheon room as the crowd waited for Captain David Sanders to continue. “Our blood was every where as we fought with the bad guy. Jim, with only one hand, used the only weapon he had, our airplane. Jim pulled up the nose and rolled the airplane in a 135 degree bank, disconnected the autopilot and rolled out of 13,000 feet with no severe damage to the airplane.
“Andy and I were literally in hand-to-hand combat with the bad guy, rolling all around the cargo area. I was hit by this bad guy in the head three more times with a hammer. I was blacking out. I realized this guy was going to kill us. I grabbed a hammer and hit him in the head twice. He seemed to quiet down and be subdued.
“I asked Jim Tucker to put back on the autopilot and help Andy while I took over the controls and landed the plane. Unfortunately, the bad guy waited for that opportunity. The fight in the back now continued for the full 25 minutes it took me to land back at Memphis.
“Committed to land, I had to fly the airplane. I flew the airplane as fast as I could safely. All my training told me to fly below 210 knots. But, not knowing how the hand-to-hand fighting would come out, I knew I was coming in high. I only heard one warning alarm in those final minutes because I was focused on getting us all down safely. If you listen to the cockpit tapes today, warning alarms are blaring. The controllers had given us runway 9.
“Heavily loaded with fuel and cargo with lots of airspeed, I requested the longer 36 runway. They gave it to me. After we landed, the emergency responders had to climb into the airplane via the escape ladder and emergency slide. It took them a while to get on board.
“After they finally got in, they asked me, ‘Who is the bad guy?’ I pointed to Calloway. They hand cuffed him and asked me to stand on the chain so they could take care of Jim and Andy. Andy had no pulse and was near death from blood loss.
“After they got Andy and Jim in ambulances, I went into the cock pit. I found my glasses which were only slightly damaged. I put them in my pocket, just in case the FAA asked me to sign something! When I got down from the plane, I was about to get into the ambulance…they asked me to give it to the hijacker.
“You know they say how you deal with change is a measure of character. To be part of Federal Express and an aviation team is to be bigger than you are. It enhances your life. It is a life changer,” Sanders concluded.
Additional information compiled from Dave Hirshman’s book, Hijacked: the True Story of the Heroes of Flight 705, “The Flight than Changed their Lives Forever” in Tennessee Aviation, and “Trauma of Flight 705 bonds three survivors” published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, indicates hijacker, Auburn Calloway, was unsuccessful at a “mental health defense.” He was subsequently convicted of multiple charges, including attempted murder and air piracy. He is serving two consecutive life sentences in a Federal Prison.
He fractured both Peterson’s and Tucker’s skulls. Tucker’s jaw was dislocated. Tucker had multiple cuts because Calloway had tried to gouge out one of his eyes and stabbed his right arm. In addition to the multiple injuries to his head, David Sanders suffered several deep gashes. Doctors had to sew his right ear back into place.
Due to the extent and severity of their injuries, none of the brave flight crew has been able to medically return to commercial aviation. However, Jim Tucker took advantage of the Light Sport regulations. He taught his son, Andy, to fly in a Luscombe 8A.
The DC-10 sustained about $800,000 in damage. As of January 2011, it still flies in the Federal Express fleet with tail number N306FE. David Sanders is sure one awesome pilot.