EAL Radio Show Interview of Former Eastern Airlines

Captain Robert m. Wilbur Jr. and Anita Wilbur

By EAL Radio Show Producer, Former Eastern Captain Neal Holland


Former Captain Robert M. Wilbur Jr. agreed to give a personal interview to Neal, Saturday, September 24, 2016 while being honored at the 2016 2nd Annual Eastern Airlines Retirees Reunion and Celebration.

Neal began by introducing Bob Wilbur as the former Eastern Airline Pilot who was hijacked aboard the Eastern Flight 1320 on March 17, 1970. Neal asked Bob to tell a little about himself.

Bob said he was interested as a teenager flying model airplanes. Graduated to the airport in 1955 and got his wings and permission to actually fly in 1955. Again in 1965 flying C119 and C130 in Tennessee for a year. I was over in France for 3 years, hauling mail and cargo. Got out in June 1959 and went to Plant City, FL.

I went down to Miami August 17, 1959 for a short stint. Worked for EAL 30 years. Enjoyed it very much. Actually started with EAL at JFK (Idlewild at that time), then a temporary short stint in MIA. I flew on the Martin 404, and then on the Constellation, Electra, and did some work on the 727, and the DC-9 as Captain. Flew the 727 and the 80-300 and the L1011 aircraft. Retired in March 30, 1994 - not with EAL. After EAL closed I went to Saudi Arabian Airlines for 4 years. It was entirely different flying 1011s, as they had the Pratt Whitney engines, not EAL’s Rolls Royce engines.

Captain Wilbur said that after EAL closed their doors he, to quote a few folks “joined”, Saudi on temporary duty that got his foot in the door. Then Saudi gave him a contract the winter of 1989-1990 and wanted me to fly for Royal. Anita and I had just enough of the desert and wanted to come home even though we had a good repoire with the Saudi Arabians. It was common back then of Sheiks having a lot of money in oil; royal family had a private airplane that they even had it outfitted with the best emergency for inter-breeding, for medical was not worth anything, for lack of a words.

Neal began to ask about the Hijacking and said to Bob Wilbur that he understands how difficult it is to speak on this.

Captain Wilbur began with the day this occurred. He and First Officer, James Hadley agreed to split the legs. They were on the leg EWR/Boston when the F/A called on the intercom and told Captain Wilbur that she had a passenger that wanted to speak to him. Captain Wilbur said “I can’t talk now”. F/A said, “Captain you don’t understand, he has a gun.” Captain Wilbur had the F/A bring back the hijacker to the cockpit. Captain Wilbur explained that in ground school they were taught to bring the hijacker back to the cockpit, and do what he says. So the first words I said are “Where are we going?” Devivo said, “Fly East until you run out of gas.”

Just then the tower called and said 27 west. Captain Wilbur answered back, unable to turn west we are now flying east; we have a problem here (not knowing if this was this guy’s idea of suicide). He disconnected with Traffic Control and Jim Hartley grappled for Divivo and gunshots were heard, and then it went off again. Bang! Bang! Bang! He felt numbness in his arms. Hartley disabled the hijacker and grabbed for the weapon. He took the gun and put it on console.

Captain Hartley said I got back on the radio and called Traffic Control and said we need a speedy handling, Co-Pilot shot, need doctor. Landing at Gate 12. Made a soft turn a mile out, but the guy wakes up; I took the gun and hit the guy over the head. We were making our Final Approach and I landed the airplane.

FAA did a wonderful job. Hijackers kicked open the door before he went down, and we got the passengers attention then.  I said, “Get that guy out of here and to the hospital.” Captain Wilbur said it was expedient handling in Boston. 35-45 minutes. Then Captain Wilbur ended the interview and said, “I remember Gate 12.” He turned to Neal and said, “You’re right, I don’t like talking about it at all.”


Awarding a Hero

Captain Wilbur was proclaimed a hero March 24, 1970 by the U.S. Senate who passed a resolution commending both he and F.O. James Hartley for their “extraordinary heroism and competence,” for their bravery in the Hijacking of Eastern Flight 1320 on March 17, 1970.

The Daedalian Trophy is an award that is presented annually to the Captain and/or crew of a United States certified commercial airline that has, in the opinion of the Daedalian Awards Committee and based on recommendations from the Airline Pilots Association, the Air Transport Association, the Allied Pilots Association and the Southwest Pilots Association, who has demonstrated the most outstanding ability, judgment and/or heroism above and beyond normal operational requirements during the preceding calendar year


In addition, Eastern Airlines Captain Robert M. Wilbur, Jr. was presented the Federal Aviation Administration award for Extraordinary Service by the Secretary of Transportation, John A. Volpe at a Boston hospital. 

The award was presented for Wilbur’s efforts in landing an airliner with 71 Passengers despite being shot and wounded in both arms. The First Officer, James E. Hartley died from wounds received in the hijacking. 

Captain Robert Wilbur Jr. received the Distinguished Achievement Award, the DaedalianTrophy (shown above) in 1970.