VIDEO VAULT | The unsolved mystery of the 1972 bombing at McCarran airport

Explosion RJ Photo 3 8 72.jpg

When you go to the airport these days and stand in the TSA lines, the main concern is terrorism. When security first became a major part of commercial air travel in the early 70s, it was more as a deterrent to hijacking. Or in one notorious case that affected Las Vegas directly: Extortion.

"[The extortionists] called in a bomb threat," says Mark Hall-Patton. "Said to go X locker in the terminal. They went to the locker. There was a note in there. It said there will be a bomb going off in six hours on four TWA jets unless you pay X amount of money."

Hall-Patton is Curator for the Clark County Aviation Museum, and says the threat was nationwide.

"TWA started checking all the jets and they found a bomb in one of the jets in New York, twelve minutes before it was supposed to go off."

Scary, but that was the only bomb found. The TWA fleet also included a Boeing 707 with the tail number N761TW.

"Interestingly, they did actually use that plane in a PR shot on an Arthur Fielder Boston Pops record," side-tracks Hall-Patton. "You see this album and it's 'Up, Up and Away'. And it's got that plane on the cover."

But after the New York bomb discovery, would this other TWA jet be cleared go up, up and away again?

"They searched this plane. Let it fly. It flew from New York to Las Vegas. It had ten passengers on it. We wouldn't do that today very often."

The 707 landed safely at McCarran, taxied in, and the travelers deplaned. But authorities were still wary.

"They searched it again here and didn't find anything," says Hall-Patton. "But they put armed guards around it. There were armed deputy sheriffs watching the plane. "

Despite those precautions, at 3:50 on the morning of March 8, 1972 an explosion rocked the tarmac.

"It's the only time that a bomb has ever gone off at McCarran International Airport."

Amazingly, no one was hurt. Had the bomb gone off in flight, the results would have been catastrophic.

"It just peeled back the skin of the plane right behind the cockpit. It's not a good place to have a large hole in your plane," muses Hall-Patton.

Soon after, a report from the Federal Aviation Administration recommended some of the security precautions that have been refined to what we know today.

"Every time you get an incident like this, things get a little tighter throughout the system, but it gets much safer."

TWA never paid the extortion money and the demands stopped. No one was ever charged, and the mystery of the 707 explosions at McCarran airport 45 years ago remains unsolved today.

Several pictures are courtesy the Aviation Safety Network.

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