It was 1:50 a.m. over the Gila River Valley, and the big Boeing 707 jetliner was just 16 minutes out of El Paso on a routine Continental Airlines run from Los Angeles to Houston. In the darkened cabin, most of the passengers dozed in their seats. "I was about half asleep," recalls Air Force Recruit Robert Byington, "when I saw one of the stewardesses being pushed up the aisle by a young guy about 17." Byington did not see the revolver pressed against the girl. "She didn't look like she was scared, and I thought this fellow was just fooling around." But in the cockpit. Captain Byron Rickards got the message instantly, as the plane's two stewardesses edged through the door followed closely by two gunmen. The elder of the two pistol toters, a wiry, balding man, held his .38 against the head of Stewardess Lois Carnagey and announced to the pilot: "We are going to take this plane to Cuba. Alter your course 45° to the south."
Chillingly Familiar. The two hijackers had hardly been noticed when they boarded the plane in Phoenix, an hour earlier, One was Leon Bearden, 38, an unemployed auto salesman from Coolidge, Ariz. The other was his tousle-haired son, Cody, 16. The elder Bearden had a 20-year criminal record, had served prison terms for robbery, forgery and grand theft. In 1955 he spent a month in a Phoenix mental hospital. A chronic malcontent, Leon Bearden nursed a large grudge against the U.S. He and his son, he said, just wanted to go to Cuba and renounce their American citizenship. Lacking the air fare, they had decided to commandeer the $5,400,000 jet. But, he insisted, they had no connection with Fidel Castro or any of his Cuban skywaymen.
For Pilot Rickards, a leathery South Dakota-born veteran of 33 years with the airlines, the experience was chillingly familiar: in 1931, as a young Panagra pilot, he and his plane were captured and held for several days in Arequipa, Peru, during an uprising. Rickards began to play for time. With the responsibility for the lives of 73 persons aboard the plane, it was a perilous game. Rickards blandly told the gunmen that the 707 did not have sufficient fuel to reach Havana and that he would have to make a refueling stop in El Paso. Leon Bearden readily agreed to make the landing, and moments later the El Paso tower got its first inkling of the drama in the skies, when Rickards radioed a terse message: "We want gas to go to Cuba."
"On to Havana." By the time the big plane eased down on the runway, word had flashed across the U.S. that another U.S. airliner had been captured by Cubans. In El Paso, police, FBI agents and border patrolmen scrambled out of their beds and hurried to International Airport. From Denver, Continental Airlines President Robert Six issued an order: "Stall in any way, as long as possible." Two Air National Guard F-100 fighters whooshed out of Albuquerque's Kirtland Air Force Base, headed for El Paso.