Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Bob Wilbur, Eastern Arilines Captain, and his first officer, James Hartley, were true heroes

It was a regular day in March, on a milk run shuttle flight from Newark to Boston, Eastern Airlines flight 1320.  At the controls was Captain Bob Wilber, a good friend of my father’s, a fellow Eastern pilot who visited us often to play golf.  Many years later, his arms still show two large scars from his hands to his elbows, a lasting reminder of multiple gunshot wounds he survived.

Normally, gunshot wounds to the arms would not put you in grave danger. Not unless you happen to be the captain of a commercial flight at 5,000 feet altitude after your co-pilot was mortally wounded and a hijacker was in the cockpit with a gun intent on killing you and crashing your airplane. This was the situation Captain Wilber faced on St. Patrick’s Day, Tuesday, March 17, 1970.

John DiVivo boarded the flight at Newark Airport bound for Boston’s Logan airport, with 72 other passengers and a crew of five. Everything was normal until passing over Franklin, Ma. About 30 miles south of the airport. At that time passengers paid in flight for the shuttle and were guaranteed a seat, without a reservation.  If more passengers showed up that the plane held, they would pull out another plane. When the flight attendant asked for the $15.75 one-way fare, DiVivo said he didn’t have it and pulled out a .38 caliber revolver.  He demanded to be brought to the cockpit. Captain Wilber told the flight attendant to tell the passengers they were being diverted but everything would be fine. The pilots expected him to demand to be taken to Cuba “That was the destination of choice” said Wilber. This was long before the suicide hijackers of today. But DiVivo  said “take me east.”

He then made his intentions clear that he wanted the pilots to fly until they ran out of fuel and crash the plane, so the co-pilot, James Hartley, grabbed  for the gun and a struggled ensued.  Hartley was shot in the chest, mortally wounding him and he collapsed. DiVivo then shot Captain Wilber in each arm, causing him to bleed profusely. Even in his critical situation, Hartley suddenly arose and was able to wrestle the gun away from DiVivo and shoot him three times before relapsing into unconsciousness.   But it was not enough. Although wounded and slumped between the two pilots, Divivo arose after passing out and began crawling at Captain Wilber, attempting to force a crash. The gun had fallen on the center console and Wilber was able to retrieve it and hit DeVivo over the head, finally knocking him unconscious for good.

Hartley had died from his wounds, and Divivo was slumped over, hampering Wilber’s ability to fly the plane. It is amazing how some people can overcome almost impossible odds in a critical situation. Wilber was bleeding profusely and his arms severely damaged and weakened by the bullets, with one slug remaining in his arm. Despite his severe injuries, he managed to remain conscious, declare an emergency with ATC and land the plane safely at Logan. 

A reporter at Boston.com said, “that was one hell of a piece of flying," an understatement if there ever was one. Once on the ground, Wilber keyed the mic and said to the tower “My pilot is shot-shot.  Where the hell do you want me to park this thing?”   He never mentioned that he was shot.

Wilber had extensive damage to his arms with tendons and muscles severed and much loss of blood.  He spent almost a month in the hospital. Devivo was immediately arrested and eventually hung himself with a necktie in his jail cell awaiting trial.

Other than some major scarring, Wilber regained use of his hands and arms over time, and I can attest to the fact that he could hit a golf ball pretty well when I played with Bob and my father years later.

It certainly was a tragedy that James Hartley lost his life in an effort to protect the passengers and crew aboard flight 1320.  He was the first person to be killed in a hijacking in the United States.  James Hartley and his captain were proclaimed heroes and the Senate passed a resolution that commended them both for “extraordinary heroism and competence.” Wilber said that he was only doing his job. No training or simulators can prepare a pilot for what they went through, and I can only imagine that the 73 passengers are glad that these two pilots were at the controls

Bob Wilber is retired now and lives in Florida– he said “I don’t think about the flight that often” “But when I do think about it, I think about Jim Hartley, he was absolutely a hero.” Eastern renamed their training center in Miami “The James Hartley Training Center” and installed a bronze plaque detailing his heroism.

We throw around the word hero frequently today, and it has lost some of the original meaning. But Bob Wilber and his co-pilot, James Hartley, were truly real heroes.