For the passengers and crew of Eastern Airlines Flight 7, February 3, 1969, is a day they will never forget. That was the day they all had a serious brush with disaster, but most of them did not realize it, because they thought they were all part of one of television’s first “reality tv” shows.
The plane was on its way to Miami, Florida. Among those on board that day were two Cuban nationals who planned to take control of the aircraft and divert it to Havana, Cuba, instead. Cuba-related hijackings were common in those days. There had been 24 such incidents in the prior year, and although 1969 was scarcely more than one month old, there had already been nine such attempts for the year already.
When the hijackers struck, fear instantly gripped everyone aboard. One of the men took a flight attendant hostage and held a knife to her throat while the other man barked orders to the flight crew to change course to Cuba’s capital city.
Just as everyone’s emotional limits were being tested, a very unexpected sound cut through the tension: laughter. First one person, and then another started giggling. After some whispered finger pointing, the laughter quickly spread throughout the cabin. Had you been on board, you might have mistaken the sound as evidence of hysteria, until the whispered words reached your ears, telling you that it was all a grand hoax. The evidence for this conclusion was seated just a few rows away from you in the form of a well-known, white-haired, balding man by the name of Allen Funt.
Funt was the host of Candid Camera, a popular television program that Funt began in 1948. It would continue until well after his death in 1999. Candid Camera‘s success centered on secretly filming everyday people and recording their reactions to unusual situations. For over twenty years, the television-viewing public laughed at the site of people getting surprised by talking mailboxes, desk drawers that would spontaneously pop open, and other unexpected scenarios.
Once the passengers recognized Funt’s familiar face, they relaxed into laughter, realizing that the hijacking was all an elaborate ruse. What they didn’t realize was that Funt was just as surprised by the hijacking as they were.
As it turned out, the plane landed safely in Havana, and after a brief delay, they were allowed to return to the United States unharmed.
The next day Funt recounted the events in an interview:
“When the captain of our plane announced that we were going to Havana instead of Miami, at least four people who recognized me pounced on me, certain that it was a Candid Camera stunt. It started out as a combination business and pleasure trip. My wife, Marilyn, and the youngest two of my five children were coming with me as well as a complete camera crew. For 11 hours we were the guests of Mr. [Fidel] Castro. They fed us, guided us and treated us with courtesy, with one exception. If you wanted any information, everybody was suddenly deaf and dumb. There was no telephone, no way to send a wire, no one to talk to except Cubans and they wouldn’t say a word.
Looking back at the experience, the unbelievable thing is the way everybody took it as one big joke. We saw the knife but everybody was cool and calm, just a little annoyed at the delay.
It is strange how you can be so close to danger and not feel it.
The biggest joke for me was how much the whole thing looked like a bad movie. Nobody looked the part. The hijackers were ridiculous in their business suits. The captain with super calm announced that we were going to Havana because two gentlemen seemed to want to go there.”
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