Moment of Indiana History

Out of the Clear Blue Sky

The annals of air travel in the Hoosier State would not be complete without mention of an unlikely episode from the summer of 1972.

Its aeronautical record peppered with such names as Octave Chanute, Wilbur Wright, Amelia Earhart, and Gus Grissom, Indiana has played a significant role in the history of flight.

But the annals of air travel in the Hoosier State would not be complete without mention of an unlikely episode from the summer of 1972.

Farmer Lowell Elliott was out tending his soybean crop on the 119-acre farm he owned near Peru, when he came upon a sealed canvas mailbag, slightly sunken into the earth. Although it was first mistaken for a groundhog, closer inspection revealed a 45-pound American Airlines bag containing $500,000 in cash.

Five hours later, Ronald Miller was applying liquid nitrogen to a nearby cornfield when his tractor blade struck a Spitfire machine gun.

The gun and the mailbag had been jettisoned in the course of the sky-jacking of an American Airlines flight.

The Boeing 727 had been commandeered en route from St. Louis to Tulsa, then returned to St. Louis for retrieval of the ransom funds, and eventually rerouted to Canada.

Pilot Leroy Berkeville later said he’d shown the hijacker that the plane’s speed was too fast for a successful parachute jump. Nonetheless, around 3 am on June 24, at an altitude of 10,000 feet, Berkeville noticed a change in air pressure indicating that the hijacker had made his getaway.

The plane landed at Chicago, hostages unharmed.

Joining the manhunt four days later, the pilot claimed the bandit had “no chance of surviving the jump.”

Later that evening, the FBI arrested the perpetrator in front of his home in Wyandotte, Michigan. Martin Joseph McNally was convicted of aircraft piracy and sentenced to two concurrent life sentences.

American Airlines offered Lowell Elliott a trip to the destination of his choice for having recovered the money bag. “My wife will not fly a crop-dusting plane to the next county,” Elliott claimed, “much less a 747 to Honolulu,” and requested a cash reward.

When offered a $10,000 check, Elliott denied the gift, claiming he might consider a five per cent take of the loot.

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