Infamous flights

July 28, 2009 by Tim McAdams

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.


  • Filip Defoort

    Couple of things that are really interesting to me re. the recent case in Belgium:

    1/ the helicopter pilot was able to squawk 7500. Good thinking and brave considering the gun to his head!
    2/ the helicopter pilot refused to take off after the three inmates had boarded his aircraft because of weight issues. So after some back and forth between them, they decided to leave the man that came to rescue them behind in the prison courtyard (where he was promptly arrested — but I guess one serves less time for hijacking than for murder).
    3/ some red lights really should have gone off at the FBO when the couple insisted on flying over Bruges at exactly 4:30 in the afternoon. Obviously hindsight 20/20, but I guess something to keep in mind for FBOs.

    – Filip

  • Ehud Gavron

    I guess it should be part of each preflight passenger briefing to explain that a rough weights&balances calculation has been performed, and that if any passenger has “falsely indicated” a weight that doesn’t represent his or her portion, the envelope is in danger. That might alert would-be hijackers to the “Oh shoot, we need to tell him we’re going to be picking up three escaped prisoners after we’ve consumed fifteen gallons of fuel” part.

    You’re taking off on a cross-country flight lasting thirty or more minutes. On board you have 100 gallons of JetA. You intend to overfly a prison at exactly 1630. Which of the following is true:
    A. We are within the weight tolerance and in CG
    B. We are within the weight and CG tolerance but we’ll pick some guys up and they’ll stare out the left windows so we’ll be at close lateral CG limits.
    C. We are outside tolerances
    D. We will be removing hardened criminals from custody and hijacking the aircraft. We don’t need no stinking W&B CG calcs

    If they answer B or D prior to a flight, that’s as good as a clue…



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