The first airplane hijackings occurred not long after international air travel became commonplace. In those days, most hijackers were seeking refuge or riches, not mass murder or global attention for a radical cause. Terrorist hijackings were a later development, but after reaching a grim apex on Sept. 11, 2001, they have become less and less common.
The motivations of the man arrested in Cyprus on Tuesday after he hijacked an Egyptian airliner remain unclear. But when the most recent threats to commercial air travel have taken the form of bombings, missile strikes or rogue pilots, an attempt to commandeer a flight while sparing the aircraft — and the lives of everyone aboard — came as a surprise to many observers conditioned to expect disaster.
It was not so during the Cold War, when hijackings were often desperate attempts at escape across the Iron Curtain. In 1953, for example, Mira Slovak, a Czechoslovak airline pilot, was flying a DC-3 on a domestic route with 25 passengers on board when he suddenly diverted the plane to Frankfurt and requested political asylum. His daring escape was emulated by dozens of others through the early 1970s, including many who commandeered American flights to reach Cuba.
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