Brent and Janie Downs (Photo submitted)
Editor's note: This is the first article in a three-part series.
What follows is recorded segments of intense negotiations between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a desperate aircraft pilot who had been hijacked two hours earlier at 2 a.m. Oct. 4, 1971, at Nashville International Airport.
“58 November” was the hijacked plane’s tail identification number, an aircraft belonging to the now defunct Big Brother Aircraft company, which was based out of Nashville. The plane’s tail ID number was used instead of addressing by name, the pilot Capt. Brent Downs, 29, a native of Bedford County.
With two armed men having pistols aimed at him, Brent Downs did as ordered as he and a co-pilot entered the cockpit, revved engines and roared off the runway into the dark of the night.
This was as Nashville International Airport security personnel watched helplessly in two vehicles that sped down the runway on each side of the aircraft, in what turned out to be Tennessee’s first hijacked plane in history.
People on the craft were Downs, co-pilot R.G. Crump, former biology professor George Giffe Jr., who hijacked the plane, and his armed associate, Bobby Wayne Wallace, who was a Nashville tavern owner at the time, as well as his estranged wife, Susan Germaine Giffe, who had been kidnapped earlier that night from King of the Road Inn where she was employed.
Initially, George Giffe ordered Brent Downs to fly to Cuba.
Instead, with a cool demeanor, the pilot convinced the hijackers the plane was only capable of flying to the Bahamas and would need to refuel somewhere in Florida before going out over the ocean.
One of the first transmitted radio messages from Brent Downs to the control tower at the Jacksonville Airport in Florida while still airborne, was a request for fuel.
“We will need a refueling truck, 58 November” he said.
“58 November, Jacksonville copied it all. Copied it all,” came the control tower transmission after he had also requested someone provide him a flight plan and map to Freeport, Bahamas.
“All right,” Brent Downs requested. “We need flotation gear. This is, uh, an 8-place (twin-engine) airplane.”
At this point, he was assured his requests would be made from flight personnel on the ground.
“58 November, everything will be ready,” was the next control tower transmission. “Everything will be ready as specified.”
While still airborne, Brent Downs requested: “All right. And, oh, all right, they (hijackers) say to clear the area for at least 200 to 300 yards (around the aircraft).”
“58 November, copied, copied” was control tower response.
In the meantime, George Giffe had been sipping from a flask of booze while in flight from Nashville to Jacksonville.
“Center,” Brent Downs said in his next transmission while still making a landing approach. "Have another unusual request. Uh, two bottles of scotch – Chevis 12.”
A few seconds pass before the pilot inquires: “Has our request been complied with?”
“We’re checking on it for you right now, sir,” advised a flight control person.
George Giffe remained in the rear of the plane, not speaking much, while repeatedly reminding the hostages that he allegedly had plastic explosives in a box on his lap, as it finally touched the tarmac in Jacksonville.
While still airborne, the pilot spotted a car on the ground.
“What’s the car sitting to the right of us (near the runway)?” Brent Downs asked.
Once on the ground, Downs his heard repeatedly requesting the FBI “stay away” from the plane because two armed men were pointing pistols at the back of his head, as he sat in his flight seat.
When instructed it was a vehicle belonging to the FBI, he instructed: “I would appreciate it if you (the FBI) would stay away from this airplane.”
This was mere seconds before the pilot again pleaded with the FBI to refuel the aircraft.
“There will be no fuel,” was the FBI’s recorded response. “Repeat, there will be no fuel.”
That “no fuel” order was a prelude to all hell breaking loose on the tarmac.
FBI field agents were about to be ordered to fire weapons at the aircaft's engines and tires.
Crump had been allowed to leave the plane on the pretense he would negotiate for fuel with the FBI agents. Wallace was told to leave the plane by George Giffe to check on Crump and the fuel.
Tragic aviation history was unfurling, for moments later, Brent Downs was killed.
Two bullets struck him in his back upper and lower torso after the FBI agent in charge had ordered surrounding agents to open fire on the parked aircraft. One of two bullets pierced his heart, making him the first aircraft pilot to perish in a U.S. aviation hijacking.
It happened in an era before the FBI started training sessions for agents to deal with hostage and hijacking incidents.
What had led a former Nashville Peabody College biology professor to initiate a hijacking that ended in a bloody massacre leaving three people dead on flight “58 November?”
After the FBI agent in charge had refused to refuel the plane, he ordered fellow agents to open fire on the aircraft. That’s when George Giffe began emptying his weapon into Susan Giffe and Brent Downs.
Downs was gunned down in the prime of life, leaving an 18-month-old son and wife, Janie Downs, who was pregnant with another child.
Before George Giffe turned a pistol on himself in the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 4, 1971, he pumped three slugs into Susan Giffe, hitting her twice in the upper torso and once in her head after shooting Brent Downs, who had repeatedly pleaded with FBI agents at Jacksonville to refuel the aircraft.
George Giffe was still alive when FBI agents entered the plane, but his two gunshot victims were pronounced dead on the aircraft that had been hijacked approximately three hours earlier in Nashville. He reportedly died shortly after FBI agents boarded the plane.
A subsequent ballistic investigation showed one bullet from George Giffe’s weapon struck the pilot in his back. However, another bullet was found in the pilot’s lower back also.
That second slug remains of mysterious origin, leading Murfreesboro resident Andy Downs, the 38-year-old son of Brent Downs, to suspect the second bullet came from friendly fire from one of the FBI agent's weapons.
“Thirty-eight years later, we’ve asked but not received any official findings from the FBI to determine if the second bullet that hit my father had in fact, been fired from an FBI agent’s weapon,” Andy Downs said in a recent press conference with The Murfreesboro Post and “The Truman Jones Show” on WGNS Radio.
Andy Downs has devoted the last six years creating a documentary he hopes will ultimately air on a national cable TV network.
“I need help with the financing, to help in the expense of interviewing the final seven people who have firsthand knowledge of the hijacking,” he said. “Since those final interviews are with people ranging in ages from their late 70s to early 90s, I need to move quickly to document their testimony.
“I’ve got a request pending under the Freedom of Information Act, trying to get the FBI to release more than 2,000 pages of investigative information pertaining to my father’s hijacking and death. George Giffe made Oct. 4, 1971, a day of U.S. aviation infamy (because) my father was the first aircraft commander to die during an actual plane hijacking crime.”
He currently makes presentations to universities and law enforcement groups about how to deal with hijackings and hostage situations.
Janie Downs was awarded $250,000 after winning a subsequent lawsuit against the FBI.
People wanting more information can inquire at andy@58November.com or call 615-474-0590.