Panorama A hijacker’s memoir: what happens when three teenagers hijack a plane over bad school marks
Fifty years ago today, three boys aged 14 and 15, boarded a regular flight between Prague and Brno. But they had another destination in mind – Munich, in West Germany. With no airport security, one of them had a handgun he had taken from his grandfather, and after some 10 minutes in air, they entered the cockpit and began to act. But the plan went terribly wrong, and they all spent many years in prison. One of them, 65-year-old Michael Procházka, recently put out a book, Confessions of a Plane Hijacker, which recounts the whole story up to his departure to Australia in 1969, where he spent the next 30 years of his life.
But I’d also like to add that at that time – we are talking about the late 1950s – people in the United State would hijack planes from the US to Cuba. In our newspapers of course, they were hailed as heroes. So these were the sources of inspiration.”
I suppose many boys fantasize about travelling the foreign lands but at what point did the fantasy become real? When did you become serious about the plan?
“Well, you know, I had a very strict father. He always wanted us to do well at school but he happened to have a very bad temper and from time to time, he would really get physically aggressive towards us. Just a couple of weeks before we hijacked the plane, something angered him and hit me with his fists, for the first time. He threatened me, and said he would knock out of all my teeth if I didn’t get best marks on my school report.
“That really frightened me; I didn’t know what was going on and I thought he went crazy. So the fantasy suddenly started turning into reality, and I was the one who got scared of my father and I persuaded my brother Martin, two years my junior, and my class mate Václav. I simply panicked and said, Ok, let’s do it. A few days before, I also learnt from my Russian teacher that I was going to get a bad mark on the report. That really scared the hell out of me.”
So then you suddenly found yourself on board of the plane, standing in the cockpit with your grandfather’s gun in your hand, threatening the pilots. Do you remember what you felt?
“Yes, it’s still very vivid. I didn’t feel much, you see, I wasn’t frightened. As I said, I was more scared of my father than of the hijacking. I felt at that time it would have been easy to hijack a plane, you just point a gun at the crews and ask them to change the course, and that would be the end of it.
You write in your book that you were unprepared for any resistance on the side of the crew. Were you surprised when they didn’t follow your orders?
“They actually did follow my orders. But when I entered the cabin, I was the one with the pistol in my hands, and I was suddenly confronted with the navigator sitting right behind the door. I couldn’t just walk past him, so I tried to render him unconscious. I used the gun but I was scared I might hurt him, so I hit him on the back of his head very lightly.
“He was sitting on a swivel chair so when he turned around, he suddenly saw a gun pointing at his chest. Instinctively, he tried to pull the gun from himself and towards the floor, and that’s when the gun accidentally discharged. Later, I was of course charged with attempted murder of the navigator but it was an accident.”
At that instant, my friend Václav hit the navigator with the handle of a dagger he was holding, and the navigator collapsed. Mind you, everything happened in seconds. I then move forward and ordered the pilots to change the course to 240 degrees, which was the course Munich. At that point, without any further questions, one of the pilots turned the aircraft. I see now very vividly before my eyes the aircraft turning 90 degrees. At that point, we had everything under control.”
But something went wrong – what happened?
“The second pilot was what we call in English a clever cookie. He realized that a young, frightened boy was standing in front of him. I was pointing my gun at him, and he simply asked me if we had any maps and things like that. At the same time, he put one of his feet alongside his seat as if he was going to jump at me.
“Unfortunately, my friend Václav, who was standing behind me keeping an eye on the navigator, he screamed at me. I turned my head towards him, and at that very instant, the second pilot jumped out of his seat and grabbed my gun, trying to pull it out of my hands. The gun went off again accidentally because my head was turned away from him, and I didn’t notice what was going on. So that’s what happened.”
You eventually got overpowered, the plane returned to Prague, and you were arrested. You were sentenced to 10 years, and served seven. How was it for a 15-year-old boy to end up in jail for such a long time?
“It was a shock. Just two days before, I was still at school. I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I was in prison for political offenders. But my first feeling was a relief that although I had been through an extremely dramatic event, I managed to escape from my father, from his violent temper.
“On the other hand, it started to dawn on me that this terrible thing had happened, and here I was in jail, at the age of 15 and four months. So I was bracing myself for the terrible times that lay ahead for me.”
When you look back at the kidnapping and all the years in jail – how think about it today?
“Well, I could talk about it for hours. I regret one thing – injuring the navigator. That’s what I have regretted for the past 50 years. Today is exactly 50 years since the attempt. On the other hand, that’s done, I can’t go back and change it.
Looking back at my experience, I think it was extremely enriching. It helped me to start a new life, to live a life that reflected my needs to express myself, and to make something, to live a life that reflected my needs to express myself, and to make something out of myself. And I succeeded in doing that. I’m not glad that it that had happened – it shouldn’t have happened – but it did, and that’s a fact. But it was an enriching experience for me. I grew up very quickly, and I learnt a lot from my experience, and I think I became a better person.”
The episode featured today was first broadcast on January 27, 2011.