Mark Washburn

30 years later, captain to repeat hijack drama for court

Before we get to the part about how he gets a free trip to Miami courtesy of the FBI, there’s something you should know about Capt. Carl Gamble.

March is a lousy month to fly with him.

Growing up in Madison, Ala., Gamble was fascinated by the training jets from Craig Air Force Base in nearly Selma. He told his mother he was going to be a pilot one day, and that’s what he became.

On March 1, 1968, Gamble was piloting an Air Force C-47, dropping propaganda leaflets over the A Shau Valley of Vietnam, when a 50 mm anti-aircraft gun ripped into the left wing. It ruptured a fuel tank and soon the engine was ablaze.

Rather than bail out over enemy territory, Gamble and his crew of three aimed for Da Nang Air Base, about 25 miles away. Despite a couple more explosions in the aircraft, they made it. Seconds after abandoning the fiery plane, it blew up.

Gamble remembers dashing through the foam gushing from crash trucks, a foul mixture that included fish blood. “Took two weeks to get the smell off,” says Gamble, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Another flight in March

Fifteen years later, on March 27, 1984, Gamble was piloting Piedmont Flight 451 between Charlotte and Miami. He was on final approach to Miami at 3:43 p.m. when a flight attendant rang him on the intercom.

“She said, ‘We have a gentleman back here who wants to go to Cuba,’” Gamble, now 71, recalls. “‘He says he’s prepared to blow up the airplane.’”

Gamble asked the flight attendant to leave the hijacker in the back of the plane and bring up the note he’d given her.

“Lt. Spartacus, a soldier in the Black Liberation Army,” said the note. “I don’t want to land in Miami. I want to go to Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. There are two explosive devices aboard the plane that I and two comrades have planted aboard the aircraft.”

Gamble wanted to talk to the man, but didn’t want him on the flight deck. He asked the flight attendant to put him on the intercom. Thirty years later, Gamble remembers the conversation vividly.

Sent the code ‘7500’

“I asked him, ‘Sir, I’d like to know if this is a hoax or a joke? Because we could land in Miami and deal with it there.’ He said, ‘I can assure you, captain, this is no hoax or joke. If we land in Miami, the passengers’ lives will be on your hands.’ ”

Through the plane’s transponder, the pilots sent a code 7500, signaling air controllers that the plane was being hijacked. And thus began the first successful hijacking of a Piedmont airliner.

Gamble and co-pilot Ben Griffin, now an American Airlines pilot living outside Raleigh, began digging through their briefcases in search of landing directions for Havana. At Piedmont, experts calculated whether the Boeing 737 had enough fuel to make it and concluded it did.

‘Unscheduled landing’

As the jetliner turned south, Gamble informed the passengers they would be making an “unscheduled landing.” It was the era of air piracy and he thinks most passengers knew what was up when they saw the ocean.

Passengers remained calm, Gamble recalls. And while it was against company policy, the liquor cart made one more trip down the aisle.

Unknown to the pilots, two C-130 Air Force transports pulled in behind their plane. Their job was to render assistance and fix a position if the jetliner exploded. They peeled off when Gamble’s plane entered Cuban airspace along a narrow corridor set aside for hijacked planes.

A reclusive hijacker

In the rear of the cabin, Lt. Spartacus – later identified as William Potts Jr. of Paterson, N.J. – locked himself in the bathroom for the remainder of the flight.

Piedmont 451 landed in Havana at 4:24 p.m. and was directed to the end of the runway and then surrounded by 100 Cuban troops. All 52 passengers were ordered to get off, followed by the crew. Cuban authorities then notified Potts he needed to surrender. He did so, at the top of the stairs, with his hands behind his head.

That was the first and last Gamble ever saw of him. Normal looking guy, Gamble recalls. Nothing special.

Passengers were taken to the terminal, where they were free to shop for cigars and rum while the military searched the jetliner for explosives. They found none, nor did they find any of the accomplices that Potts had claimed to have.

Then the Cubans sold Piedmont 10,000 gallons of aviation fuel, and passengers were told they could climb back aboard. Gamble remembers one woman who had apparently availed herself of the cheap rum in the duty-free shop. She stumbled memorably during re-boarding.

Note on the door

Piedmont 451 landed in Miami at 6:59 p.m., where the FBI was waiting. In a search of the plane, agents discovered that Potts had scrawled a message on the lavatory door:

“This was necessary,” it read. “I would not have hurt anybody at this point. But the time will come when we will meet as enemies. I’m sorry for this. I have responsibilities and duties. I am a soldier.”

Agents removed the door and showed it off at a press conference.

After debriefing, Gamble and crew went to a Miami hotel where they were told by Piedmont that whatever they wanted was theirs. Gamble ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon and a New York strip, medium rare. By the time they arrived, Gamble was having a delayed attack of nerves.

“I didn’t eat the steak and I didn’t like the champagne,” he says. “I just called everyone I knew and told them I’d been hijacked to Cuba. Nobody believed me.”

Prison awaited Potts

Hijackings to Cuba spiked in the 1970s, and Cuban authorities were tired of the nuisance by the time Potts arrived. It was generally known that hijackers faced harsh sentences on the island nation, and Potts spent about 14 years in prison there.

After his release, he lived another 15 years in Cuba. It wasn’t the paradise he thought it would be. He got married there and his two daughters moved to the United States. Calling himself “the homesick hijacker,” Potts, now 56, returned to Miami in November and was put in federal detention to await trial for air piracy.

That’s when Gamble got a call from the FBI. They invited him to Miami to testify against Potts. A tentative trial date is set for April 14. Potts has indicated through his court-appointed attorney that he hopes for a plea deal that would credit him for time served in Cuba.

Gamble has long since moved on from the hijacking. He and his wife, Elaine, have two grown children and live in Matthews. He retired from Piedmont’s successor airline, U.S. Airways, on Jan. 5, 2003, as a captain on international routes. His pension was wiped out in the airline’s bankruptcy proceedings later that month. If he’d retired five days earlier, it would have been protected.

Gamble says it isn’t up to him whether Potts should get more punishment. That’s up to a federal judge, he says.

He can tell you one thing, though: That little boy peering at the sky in Alabama picked out a mighty interesting career.

“There’s an old saying: There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old and bold pilots,” Gamble says. “I can also tell you that there are pilots who have been shot down, and there are pilots who have been hijacked. And I’m the only one.”

Observer researcher Maria David contributed.