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On the afternoon of 26 May 1971, staff at Qantas House in Sydney received an unexpected telephone call.
At 12:15pm local time, a man identifying himself only as “Mr Brown” advised Qantas that a barometric bomb had been placed on board one of its Boeing 707 aircraft.
The aircraft had left Sydney 45 minutes earlier and was en route to Hong Kong with 116 passengers and 12 crew members.
Mr Brown claimed the bomb would be automatically exploded by a change in air pressure as the aircraft descended from its normal cruising altitude of 30,000 feet to 20,000 feet.
To prove that he was not bluffing Mr Brown advised that a similar bomb had been placed in a locker at Sydney airport. The bomb, made of gelignite with an altimeter-triggered detonator, was located shortly afterwards.
With the second bomb there were three typewritten notes. One written to Qantas General Manager Captain R J Ritche demanded AU$500,000 in exchange for instructions on how to locate and dismantle the bomb on board the aircraft.
To test the veracity of Mr Brown’s threat, the second bomb was diffused. Its explosives were replaced with a light bulb. The diffused bomb was put on board a second Boeing 707. It climbed to 8,500 feet. When it descended back to 5,000 feet the light bulb lit up.
Qantas immediately notified the aircraft’s Captain, William Selwyn. A thorough search of the aircraft was ordered. Passengers were only told that there was a technical difficulty – though many could tell that a bomb was suspected to be on board – and the aircraft would have to circle in the air until it could land in Sydney.
The aircraft returned to the East Coast of Australia and spent three hours circling over Brisbane and a further two and a half hours circling over Sydney.
With the aircraft running out of fuel, Qantas agreed to pay the AU$500,000 ransom. After hurriedly securing funds from its bank, without time to take numbers of the bank notes, a drop off was arranged outside Qantas House. The money was placed in two suitcases and put in the back of a van.
After doing so, Qantas was told there was no bomb on board the aircraft. The bomb threat was a hoax. The aircraft then landed safely in Sydney with just 15 minutes’ fuel left. Military aircraft and navy vessels were deployed by the Australian government in case the aircraft did not land safely.
The event attracted huge media interest in Australia. A manhunt began with a AU$50,000 reward for information. A tip off led to Mr Brown’s accomplice Raymond James Poynting being placed under surveillance. He and Mr Brown, later identified as Peter Pasquale Macari, a 36 year old labourer born in Devon, were arrested in August of that year. (Sydney Morning Herald)
After the arrests, police found AU$138,240 of the ransom money hidden in a bricked-up fireplace in an empty butcher’s shop and residence in the suburb of Annandale in New South Wales. Although the full sum of AU$500,000 was never fully recovered, a further AU$137,000 was found in 1973.
Both men pled guilty to extortion. Peter Macari was sentenced to jail for 15 years’ jail for his part in masterminding the plot. He was deported to England in November 1980 after serving nine years of his prison term – on a Qantas aircraft.
The extraordinary heist recently was the subject of a recent report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s RetroFocus. A short film of archive news footage from the ABC is also available on YouTube.