Francis Xavier Riley had survived attacks by Japanese fighters during World War II, but nothing could prepare him for his date with history.
Riley, at 43, was the pilot of the first American airliner to be hijacked to Cuba, on May 1, 1961. A World War II hero, Riley died on Memorial Day, May 25, in Fort Lauderdale at 97.
“Every time I get on an airplane and go through security I tell them how my dad was the first one to get hijacked and I always get a smile from the TSA people,” said his daughter, Patricia Riley. “I think today how flying in the old days was so different.”
By the fall of 1961, Congress passed a bill making air piracy a capital crime. Security screenings began.
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“This character came into the cockpit and put a knife to my throat. In his other hand he held a gun. He said, ‘If I don’t see Havana in 30 minutes we’ll all be dead,’” Riley told the Miami Herald at the time.
Antulio Ramirez Ortiz, who booked his ticket under the name of “Elpri Crofesi,” taken from a buccaneer in the early 19th century, seized Riley’s National Airlines Convair 440, with its eight passengers, over Marathon. Ortiz wanted to alert Fidel Castro of a potential assassination attempt.
Riley took evasive actions by zigzagging out of Florida in hopes of attracting attention. Alas, officials initially believed the wayward aircraft was lost at sea. Instead, Riley and his craft were soon over Cuba’s air space — and the Cubans threatened to shoot down the plane.
“They said National Airlines didn’t have any flights scheduled for Havana and that if we didn’t go away, they were going to shoot us. I didn’t tell them this man had a gun on me but I did tell them it was an emergency and that I had to land,” Riley recounted in a Miami Herald story.
Once in Havana, “they treated us very politely and fairly,” Riley told the Herald in 1961. “They took Crofesi away and that’s the last I saw of him.”
As the ordeal unfolded, Riley’s wife, Helen, a National flight attendant he married in 1949, had taken their 4-year-old daughter Patricia and 2-year-old son Jim to visit her mother in El Portal. There, she heard a disturbing TV newscast.
“They started talking about a missing airliner, and boom, it hit me, my husband was the pilot,” she said in a 1961 Miami Herald article. “For two hours we waited and worried. I knew he would pull through because he had some pretty close calls before.”
Indeed, Capt. Riley, who was born in Jersey City, had over 30,000 flight hours from World War II, the Korean War and his years as a pilot for Santa Fe. He flew for National Airlines until his retirement in 1977 as a DC-10 captain.
He was a war hero for his flights to U.S. ally China as a member of the Air Transport Command mission during World War II. At 10, in 1927, Riley was enthralled with the news of Charles Lindbergh’s historic transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. He knew he, too, was destined to fly.
For the Army, Riley flew B-24 bombers that were converted to carry troops along with cargo like gasoline and explosives on treacherous missions to China from the U.S. over the Himalayan Mountains — “The Hump.” When attacked by Japanese fighters, Riley’s only escape was to dive into the clouds with his giant B-24, his daughter said. Riley was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross three times and the Chinese Medal of Honor for his 168 flights over the “Hump.”
Later, while Riley was living in Southern California, RKO Pictures approached him to appear in the movies because of his rugged good looks. He declined. Flying was his passion, his daughter said.
“As devastated as I am to lose my wonderful father, I am proud that he served the armed forces and had a good long life in Miami, living to almost 98. He loved Miami and was part of its history. He was a wonderful father and a wonderful pilot. Just a great man from the greatest generation.”
In addition to his daughter, Riley is survived by his wife, Helen Blasiak Riley, his son James Barrett Riley, and seven grandchildren. Services will be private. Donations may be made in his name to Veterans of Foreign Wars at www.vfw.org.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.