Pilot recalls hijacking of CP Air Flight 71
40 years on, memories remain fresh
SASKATOON — Bob Pitcairn had no choice.
The 737 pilot wasn’t supposed to leave the cockpit unless it was absolutely necessary. But as the aircraft neared Saskatoon, Pitcairn worked his way to the back of the plane, where a hijacker was holding a knife to the bloodied throat of a flight attendant. It has been 40 years since the most stressful day of his career — a day that ended with a hijacked airplane landing safely in Saskatoon.
On Nov. 29, 1974, CP Air Flight 71 takes off from Montreal with planned stops in Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton. Among the passengers is a man who has paid cash for a one-way flight.
Crew member Gayle Fortt approaches the cockpit, telling Pitcairn she is suspicious of Naim Djemal, saying he is agitated and sitting with a view of the cabin. “That’s where they normally sit,” says Pitcairn, then 36 years old.
The plane takes off from Winnipeg, climbing to 10,000 feet. Djemal repeatedly makes brief trips to the restroom.
His target, Pitcairn says, is Lena Madsen, at five feet tall the smallest member of the flight crew. She is working out of the back galley.
Djemal waits for the meal service, when trays are down and in the way.
Above Yorkton, Sask., he makes his move and grabs Madsen in the galley.
He demands to go to Cyprus, Pitcairn says. She tries to negotiate with him but he refuses and hits her with a knife.
Only six months before, Pitcairn had taken a two-day course on what to do during a hijacking, where he learned that the captain can’t get involved unless absolutely necessary. “If you expose yourself to these people and they don’t accept it, that’s your last line — you’re in big trouble,” he says.
Nonetheless, Pitcairn approaches the back of the plane, but Djemal doesn’t allow him to get too close.
“Take this plane to Cyprus and go f--- yourself,” Pitcairn says Djemal told him.
Djemal keeps hitting Madsen with a knife, and her face is bleeding, Pitcairn says.
Djemal says his two brothers have been killed in Cyprus and he wants to go there to avenge their deaths.
From his training, Pitcairn knows to keep the hijacker confused, to ensure he has minimal control. Pitcairn tells Djemal he’ll take him to Saskatoon, refuel the plane and carry on. “That (seems) to quiet him a bit,” Pitcairn says.
Pitcairn returns to the cockpit and radios Saskatoon, arranging for the RCMP to meet the aircraft. “During the descent, (Djemal hits) Lena again a few times. He (bends) the knife at about a 30-degree angle ... just above (her) eye. Had he hit her eye, he would have killed her.”
Madsen hasn’t flown since, Pitcairn says. “She was so traumatized by it.”
On The Ground
Making the emergency landing in Saskatoon, the pilot positions the plane so it faces the late November sun. Passengers fleeing the hijacker could “run toward the terminal building” into the glare. “If he (is) behind them, he’d have trouble seeing them.
These are the things that roar through your mind,” Pitcairn says.
After the plane stops, Pitcairn goes to the galley, surprised that Djemal has given up. When the hijacker puts the knife down, Pitcairn notices it is a piece of the plane’s silverware.
Pitcairn escorts the hijacker to the terminal across the empty tarmac. Against the terminal building he sees a baggage tractor with three men sitting on it.
“As soon as we (walk) by them, three guys in white coveralls with Air Canada badges (jump) the guy. They turned out to be RCMP. He (is) arrested and out of my life at that point, for the moment,” Pitcairn says.
The airline offers Pitcairn and his crew a free first-class trip to Honolulu.