58 November is a documentary about America’s first fatal airplane hijacking. It’s also a story of how the FBI bungled an operation that left two innocent people dead. It’s a story about how a bureaucracy more intent on preserving its reputation stonewalled investigators for over forty years, despite having a slogan of “Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity.”
It’s also the story of a man, Andy Downs, who was less than a year old when his father was gunned down and how Andy has fought for the truth since that day on the tarmac in Jacksonville, Florida.
When Downs was 17, he found a box in the attic containing the clothes his father was wearing when he was killed. Through tears, he committed himself to one day finding out everything he could about his father’s death. The documentary is the result of that 17 year old crying in his room even as he held the bullet-riddled and bloody shirt that belonged to his father.
Downs has spent over 20 years following in his father’s footsteps. He now teaches and speaks to universities, hostage negotiation teams and other law enforcement groups, educating them on how to avoid repeating the tragedy that happened to his dad.
The past six years, Downs has been researching his father’s murder. He has collected over 11,000 documents from the FBI, National Archive and Federal Courts. He has even been able to obtain the actual audio of his father talking to FBI agents just seconds before being killed.
Downs says, “The FAA was not only a defendant in the civil case Downs vs US 522 F.d2 990, but they were involved in the hijacking, as well as testified during the trial. The FAA also has a mandate to track all aircraft incidents and accidents, of which hijackings are included.”
“When my government can erase my father’s death from its history, we have a serious problem in this country.”
The facts he has uncovered have been hidden from the public for over 40 years, and some of the best people in the industry have stepped forward to help him complete the documentary.
Early on the morning of October 4, 1971, Commander 58 November was hijacked. When the plane landed in Jacksonville on its way to the Bahamas, the FBI was waiting. As it was coming to a full stop on the tarmac, the FBI opened fire, prompting the hijacker to murder everyone on board before committing suicide.
Janie Downs, the pilot’s widow, filed a wrongful death suit against J. Edgar Hoover. The resulting trial was heard by a judge. Being a former FBI agent, he refused Janie a jury trial. History would be made from the legal battles that followed. At times life would become unbearable for Janie, the mother of two young sons. Senator Fred Thompson would see his legal and political career launched as a result of the hijacking and followup.
Although the FBI was ordered to turn over documents to the Federal Court, Director J. Edgar Hoover and U.S. Attorney John Mitchell conspired to keep secret the documents which would have proven fatally damaging to the FBI’s defense.
Janie Downs was the target of attempted intimidation and a smear campaign by the FBI. Her husband, Brent Downs, had been the pilot of the Commander. The FBI filed a countersuit charging that the pilot “…failed to disarm his passengers prior to boarding the plane…”
The hour-and-a-half-long documentary includes interviews with people involved in the hijacking and subsequent investigation. Also included are newscasts, the undisclosed files the FBI maintained and the audio tape of the pilot speaking with the FBI repeatedly imploring them not to fire.
The incident with 58 November and its aftermath brought turmoil to the Downs family. His mother lost trust in friends and people and was unable to sleep at night.
“She may have problems sleeping at night and trusting those closest to her in the world. The government that did that to her sleeps just fine. That is why The Day We Fight Back is so important,” says Downs.
By Jerry Nelson