On Friday, Oct. 31, 1969, Bangor was briefly the site of a major international incident — one that began on the other side of the country — and didn’t end until that night, an ocean away.
Fifty years ago, Rafaelle Minichiello, a 20-year-old Italian national, hijacked TWA Flight 85 after it took off from Los Angeles, directing the pilot to take him to Rome. The Boeing 707 didn’t have the fuel capacity to make the 13-hour flight, so it had to make multiple stops to refuel — four in total — including one at Bangor International Airport. It remains the longest distance covered by a hijacking in history, with 6,900 miles flown in total between Los Angeles and Rome.
Bangor historian Dick Shaw was a senior at Bangor High School and was sitting in class that day when word got out that the hijacked plane would be landing in Bangor.
“I remember hearing that people had streamed out to the airport to have a look at the hijacked plane, only to be turned away for security reasons,” Shaw said. “The jet was only on the ground for refueling for 36 minutes before heading across the pond to Ireland, and eventually to Italy, where the drama ended.”
According to a profile of Minichiello published in People Magazine in 1980, his family emigrated from Italy to the U.S. in 1962, settling in Seattle. In 1967, he dropped out of high school to enlist in the U.S. Marines and was later sent to Vietnam.
Minichiello was wounded in Vietnam and sent back to Camp Pendleton in California. While there, he reportedly came to believe he had been shorted $200 (worth about $1,300 in 2019) by his unit. According to an article published by Slate in 2013, one night in May 1969 he got drunk and stole $200 worth of merchandise from the camp’s post exchange.
Arrested and charged with burglary, Minichiello was due to be court martialed, but before his trial he went AWOL, with plans to return to Italy to visit his father, who was reportedly dying from cancer and had returned to Italy to die. Rather than buy a plane ticket to Rome, however, he decided to opt for a much more spectacular way to get back to his home country.
He bought a ticket for an Oct. 30 flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco and packed an M1 rifle and 250 rounds of ammunition in his bag. Shortly after boarding and the plane taking off, Minichiello went into the bathroom, assembled his rifle, pointed it at a flight attendant and demanded to be taken to Rome.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s — before X-rays and metal detectors in airports and the creation of the Transportation Security Administration — aircraft hijacking, or skyjacking, was a much more common occurrence. Since 2010, there have been 15 hijacks or hijack attempts worldwide. Between 1968 and 1972, however, the world experienced 326 hijacks or attempts, a rate of more than one per week.
The hijacked TWA plane stopped in Denver first, where Minichiello released all 39 passengers. The pilot, co-pilot, two crew members and a lone flight attendant remained on board. It then continued to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where FBI agents surrounded the plane. Minichiello fired a round of bullets into the plane’s fuselage. With the FBI sufficiently scared off, the plane took off again — with its next stop being Bangor International Airport.
Ken Buckley was one of several Bangor Daily News reporters who were sent out to BIA — which then was little more than a handful of hangars and other buildings left over from Dow Air Force Base, which had closed the year prior — to report on the hijacking.
“It was a pretty exciting day for us, because to get a hijacking in Bangor, Maine, was really something else,” said Buckley, now retired after a more than 30-year career in newspapers. “At that time, we really knew next to nothing about who he was or why he was doing it. We just knew someone had hijacked a plane and it was going to land in Bangor.”
Onlookers at the airport were kept quite far back from the runway, but Buckley said he could see the jet from his spot and Minichiello in the cockpit.
“The ground crew and the police and the FBI were all just standing around the hangar, all waiting for something to happen,” Buckley said. “But I don’t think this guy wanted to hurt anybody, even if he told everybody that if they approached the plane it would be a calamity. We didn’t know that, though. It was a very tense scene.”
The plane took off again, bound this time for Shannon Airport in Ireland. After Ireland, the plane finally landed in Rome, where Minichiello took an airport police officer hostage and stole his car, driving south to Naples to visit his dying father. On Nov. 2, he was finally arrested.
Rather than being viewed as a criminal, Minichiello became a hero in Italy — the public loved how devoted he was to his father, and women loved his good looks. His service in Vietnam also brought him sympathy, as public opinion in Europe at that time was largely against the war.
Italy refused to extradite him to the U.S. to stand charges stateside, and in the end, Minichiello only served 18 months in prison. Italian movie producer Carlo Ponti claimed he would make a movie about Minichiello titled “Paisà, perchè m’arresti?” — in English, that’s “Countryman, why are you arresting me?” which is what Minichiello supposedly said to the officer who arrested him.
The movie was never made, though, and Minichiello ended up working as a waiter and bartender in Italy. Now 70, he is retired and reportedly still living outside Naples. A few years ago, he uploaded a number of videos to YouTube showcasing his accordion playing.