By Linda Emley
In 1980, I went to the TWA Breech Academy in Kansas City and started down a road that led to spending the next 28 years working in the airline industry. I worked for Frontier Airlines from 1981-86 and spent the rest of my time working for TWA’s computer company.
The biggest event in my airline career was the Sept. 11 attack on America because it changed the world forever, but it was the hijacking of TWA flight 847 that was my most memorable event because it hit so close to home.
In 1985, I was working for Frontier in Salt Lake City. I spent my weekends in Richmond and flew to Salt Lake every Monday morning. I would fly home every Friday night and start the whole commute over again on Monday. On Thursday, June 14, 1985, I was in Salt Lake and it was a shock when we got word that a plane had been hijacked. When details started coming forward, I was surprised to find that Richmond’s own John Testrake was the pilot.
The next thing I heard was that the co-pilot was Philip Maresca, who was from Salt Lake. Over the next 17 days, I heard the local stories when I was in Richmond, the Salt Lake stories when in Utah and the national coverage every morning and night on the news.
Maresca was always a focus in Utah, but John Testrake was the man who stood out during the hijacking because he was the rock that stood strong and held it all together.
There were many heroes, but John was the person who was in charge. It was his plane, and he stood out because his calm manner helped everyone else hope that things would work out for flight 847. The whole world watched as Capt. John Testrake made us proud to be an American and a Richmondite.
This is one of those stories that most of us remember, but looking back 27 years later, I had forgotten some of the details. That all changed when I found a white box at the Ray County Museum that had “John Testrake” written on the side in red marker. I opened it up and found newspaper articles, magazines and the personal files of Howard Hill.
Howard was the publisher of the Richmond News in 1985 and his collection of letters and other items showed me a whole new side of the hijacking. People from all over the United States sent him newspaper articles and letters telling how proud they were of Testrake.
One letter came from New Richmond, Ohio and was dated Sept. 5, 1985. “I want Pilot John Testrake to know how proud I was of the way he handled himself during the TWA flight 847 hijacking. Also I was impressed when I saw his mother being interviewed on television. One could tell that she was a women of real strength in difficult times. Your John Testrake interview story was on the front page of our Cincinnati Post. This confirmed what I had previously believed, that is, both Pilot Testrake and his mother are strong people, strong in their faith and all America should be proud to have them as representatives of our country. I ask one favor of you – please forward my remarks to the Testrake family. Thanking you, I am, sincerely, June Gray”.
Another letter was from Larry Moore of KMBC-TV 9 news in Kansas City, thanking Howard Hill for all his help with the coverage of the hijacking.
On Wednesday, July 3, 1985, John came home to Richmond and received a hero’s welcome. I was in Salt Lake City working and missed the big party, but I got to watch it on TV because all the national TV news crews were in Richmond covering his welcome home.
On Friday July 5, The Richmond Daily News gave the highlights of his homecoming. “In the eyes of the world, most of the TWA flight 847 hijacking drama played itself out in Beirut, but Capt. John Testrake, pilot of the seized airliner, revealed in an exclusive interview here Thursday that the Lebanese capital was actually not the intended final destination for the terrorists. The dictum of chance that took the plane to Beirut was an important element in the relatively quick solution to the crisis, Capt. Testrake believes.”
So The Richmond Daily News got the scoop on the real story first hand from the main man.
This was not the first scoop by the Richmond News. “It was during the landing at Beirut that Capt. Testrake’s cool and persuasive instructions to ground control … about the absolute necessary of being authorized to set down attracted the admiration of television viewers everywhere, including Mrs. Hammond, who recognized her customer’s voice and diction. It was Mrs. Hammond’s tip that enabled The Richmond Daily News to scoop all other newspapers in the world with the name of the pilot of the hijacked aircraft.”
This front-page article also had a picture of Mae Hammond giving John a haircut “on the house” because he was in need of a haircut after being gone so long.
A few days after his homecoming, John and his family flew to Ripley, N.Y. to attend John’s 40-year high school reunion. I’m sure this was a reunion that none of them ever forgot. After the reunion, they were scheduled for a stop in New York City, were John was going to be interviewed on some national TV shows.
Capt. John was only 58 when he became the world-famous pilot on the cover of Time. I’m sure when he took off on flight 847 from Athens, Greece heading to Rome, he never dreamed how much his life would be changed forever. This is a good example that we are never too old or too young to affect the world around us.
2nd Class Petty Officer Robert Dean Stethem was only 24 when he was shot by Hezbollah militants on the second day of the hijacking. His death was a tragedy, but he will always be remembered as the sailor that gave his life for his country. Robert was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and the rank of Master Chief Petty Officer. He’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C., and In 1995, the US Navy launched a destroyer, the USS Stethem (DDG-63), to honor this fine young man. Robert’s name will not be forgotten.
There are a few more chapters to this story, so come back for part two where Capt. John and his 727, plane N64339, are reunited.
You can share your historical stories and family tidbits with Linda at firstname.lastname@example.org.