On This Day in Aviation History

December 11, 2009

On This Day in Aviation History: December 11th

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By: Phil Derner Jr.
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Initial planning of the Lufthansa Heist occurred during a meeting at the Airline Diner near LaGuardia Airport on Astoria Blvd. Today known as the Jackson Hole Diner, the landmark neon Airline Diner sign still stands.
Initial planning of the Lufthansa Heist occurred during a meeting at the Airline Diner near LaGuardia Airport on Astoria Blvd. Today known as the Jackson Hole Diner, the landmark neon Airline Diner sign still stands.
1978 - The Lufthansa Heist: A crew of armed men under the direction of Lucchese crime family associate Jimmy Burke storms the Lufthansa hangar at JFK Airport in a well orchestrated robbery, hauling off over $5 million in cash and nearly $1 million in jewelry—making it the largest robbery in U.S. history at the time.

The caper was initially hatched by Louis Werner, a degenerate gambler employed as a cargo supervisor for Lufthansa who was $16,000 in debt to his bookie, Martin Krugman. Once a month, West Germany’s Commerzbank would ship millions of dollars in U.S. bills used by currency exchanging tourists and servicemen to Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. The shipment would normally be moved from the hangar to the bank via armored car, but would sit in the hangar for a period after being removed from the plane.

Krugman, a hair salon owner and Lucchese associate, suggested the plan to a Lucchese soldier, Henry Hill to put the wheels in motion to actually executing the plan. Hill subsequently talked to Jimmy Burke, who approved it and spent several weeks planning the heist and painstakingly selected the crew.

Many of those involved, however, were unable to resist the urge to spend their epic score right away, buying new cars and expensive gifts, despite Burke’s warnings to keep a low profile so as not to attract attention from law enforcement. As journalist John Miller described the Lufthansa robbers, “These weren’t Harvard faculty. When you think of organized crime, a lot of people harken back to the images that they know: Images from The Godfather, that these are men of honor, they’re fairly sophisticated, somewhat Machiavellian. But a lot of these guys were just plain morons.” As a result, Burke ordered the murders of over a dozen people directly and indirectly connected to the heist, including Krugman, whose body was never found.

The incident is quite accurately portrayed in the Martin Scorcese film Goodfellas.The movie’s character Jimmy Conway, played by Robert DeNiro, is meant to portray the real life Jimmy Burke.

1998 – Thai Airways Flight 261, an Airbus A310-300 registered HS-TIA, stalls on its third approach to Surat Thai Airport and crashes, killing 101 of the 146 on-board. The crash would be attributed to spatial disorientation.

1994 – Philippine Airlines Flight 434, a 747-200 registered EI-BWF, has a bomb go off in-flight while flying to Tokyo. The bomb was placed by Ramzi Yousef, who was also the man who planted the bomb in the World Trade Center in 1993. He planted it in a lifejacket below seat 26K, timed to go off on the aircraft’s next leg, for which he would not be present. When it blew up, it only killed the one passenger that was sitting in that seat, and though crippled, the aircraft managed to divert to a nearby airport by using the same throttle-control techniques at United 232 in Sioux City.

1967 – The prototype for the Concorde is displayed in France for the first time.

1917 – Katherine Stinson, the fourth woman to obtain a pilot’s certificate, sets a new American non-stop distance record by flying 606 miles from San Diego to San Francisco.