Just recently (July 23, 2009) a couple booked a sightseeing tour of the Bruges region of Belgium. In flight, one of the passengers pressed a gun to the pilot’s temple. He then took away the pilot’s headset and ordered him to land at a nearby prison. Once on the ground, three inmates climbed on board the helicopter. Forcing the pilot to land near Bruges, the escapees carjacked a vehicle and drove away. They remain at large.
Using a helicopter to escape from prison is nothing new. The first known case happened on August 19, 1971, in Santa Martha Acatitla, Mexico. New York businessman Joel David Kaplan was convicted of killing his business partner, Louis Vidal Jr., in Mexico City. Catching the guards by complete surprise, a helicopter landed in the prison yard where he and fellow inmate Carlos Antonio Contreras Castro, a Venezuelan counterfeiter, escaped prison and the country of Mexico.
Kaplan maintained his claim of innocence. Whether he killed his business partner or not is hard to know as much controversy and unanswered questions surrounded his trial. He went on to write a book about his experience, The 10-Second Jailbreak. The 1975 action film Breakout starring Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, and Robert Duvall was based on his escape.
Since then, prison escapes by helicopter have become quite popular, especially in Europe. Worldwide since 1971 there has been 24 attempts (5 in the U.S.) to break out of prison using a helicopter. Of those, 19 were successful; however, most were recaptured sometime later. In 23 of these the prisoner(s) attempted to escape by getting onboard the aircraft. In the other one, guns and bulletproof vests were dropped to inmates who were then able to take three guards hostage. Twenty-four hours later they surrendered.
The most common method of acquiring a helicopter for a jailbreak is having an accomplice highjack one with a professional pilot. However, that’s not always the case.
In France a woman known by the flight school as Lena Rigon started taking helicopter flight lessons. Many at the flight school admired her for her strong dedication while also raising two kids without a father. However, that opinion changed when they learned that she was in fact Nadine Vaujour, wife of one of France’s most guarded prisoners, Michel Vaujour, who was in incarcerated for attempted murder and armed robbery.
On May 26, 1986, Vaujour made his way to the prison roof by threatening guards with a fake pistol and nectarines painted as grenades. Once on the roof, his new helicopter pilot wife picked him up. They landed at a nearby soccer field and fled using a waiting car. Later that year Nadine was found hiding at a villa in southwestern France and arrested. Shortly after her arrest, Michel was shot in the head and lapsed into a coma during a failed bank robbery.
Another inmate from France holds the record for planning the highest number of escapes by helicopter. Pascal Payet gained notoriety in 2001 for using a helicopter to escape from Luynes prison in southern France. Then in 2003, while still on the run, he organized another escape for fellow inmates from the same Luynes prison. He was eventually captured, but then escaped for the third time from Grasse prison using a helicopter that was hijacked by four masked men. Payet and his accomplices then fled the scene and the pilot was released unharmed.
Obviously, police departments are not alone in recognizing the advantages of helicopter air support.