The hijacking of charter plane 58 November in October 1971 from the Nashville airport left three people dead, to include the pilot, and many questions unanswered. To the son of the murdered pilot, those questions will hopefully be answered soon.
Andy Downs was 18 months old when his handsome father, charter pilot Brent Downs, left the Nashville home he shared with his pregnant wife and their son. “I’ll be home before the sun rises,” he told them, walking into the cool night air. He and his copilot, best friend Ray Tines*, waited at the Nashville airport hangar for their client, a successful, popular business entrepreneur named George Giffe.
In reality George Giffe was neither a businessman nor an entrepreneur. He was a schizophrenic alcoholic who manipulated the upper crust of Nashville: the families of his students at Vanderbilt, where he once taught Biology. His doctors had him on “tranquilizers,” a euphemism for who knows what in the 1970’s. Giffe took the drugs, drank heavily, always carried one of his many guns, and was being monitored by the FBI. He had divorced his wife and left her with his children, all of whom he terrorized and abused, to marry a student named Susan. Giffe raged from alcoholic personality to paranoid delusional; in between, he physically and emotionally abused Susan. She finally gave up on him and the marriage, fleeing to take a nighttime job at the popular King of the Road Motel on Murfreesboro Road. Nine days later, she agreed to meet Giffe “just one more time” hoping he would finally leave her alone. A man named Bobby Wayne Wallace agreed to be the go-between in the meeting.
Bobby Wallace owned a club called The Labris Lounge. George Giffe had promised a personal investment that would assist Wallace in opening up other clubs in other cities. Giffe easily convinced Wallace. On Sunday, October 4, 1971, he drove with Giffe in a new gold Cadillac to pick up Susan and make amends. Along the way Giffe gave him a 9mm handgun.
Brent Downs and his copilot waited for their 1:00 a.m. scheduled flight to Atlanta. Their client, Giffe, would call to keep the plane on hold. “If he doesn’t show up in the next ten minutes, we’re going home,” Downs told Tines. A few minutes later a gold Cadillac, bearing two men and a screaming woman, pulled up. Downs requested Giffe wait for the police to arrive; Giffe flashed a pistol. Holding his estranged wife by the hair and waving his gun, Giffe ordered everyone on the plane. Wallace had a gun out. Giffe also had a metal box he claimed was a bomb. 58 November’s tires left the tarmac at 1:59 AM CST.
Giffe decided they would go to the Bahamas; Downs explained they would have to land in Florida for fuel and charts. By now he was radioing control towers at the Jacksonville airport. As he explained the situation, Downs repeatedly told the tower, “No one around the plane except the fuel truck and the person fueling. I repeat, no one else around this plane.”
FBI Agent O’Connor was the second in command in the Jacksonville, airport area jurisdiction. He dispatched FBI officers to the airport, then departed home with his personal weapon, no radio, and no plan of action. He gave no instructions where to meet or what to do upon arrival.
58 November touched down at Jacksonville Airport approximately two and a half hours after departing Nashville. Again, Downs repeatedly told officials, “No one around the plane except the fuel truck and the person fueling.” O’Connor refused to comply, telling Downs the airplane was to be stopped and no one would be departing. Because the pilots did not wear headphones in the 1970’s, everyone in the plane – hostages Downs, Tines, and Susan Giffe; hostage takers Giffe and Wallace – heard the discussions between the FBI and Downs. The hijackers were demanding fuel, charts, and bottles of scotch. Down’s voice can be heard, nervous but in control, on the audiotapes seized years later. He again explains no one needed to approach the plane.
Two vehicles and several agents now surrounded the plane. The FBI refused to negotiate with Giffe. “You are,” Downs told them, “endangering lives.” Against policies and procedures, against aviation rules and policy, the FBI officers surrounded the plane and made demands. O’Connor ordered the officers to shoot out the engine. Officers ran circles around the airplane, shooting at random. Bullets whizzed past the plane, past the officers, and into everything except the targets. Then it was over as quickly as it begun.
Official reports state Giffe shot Pilot Downs twice. Giffe shot his estranged wife three times, then Giffe placed the gun to his right temple and pulled the trigger. All three were dead in seconds.
No autopsies were performed. No ballistic tests were done. A request by the FBI lab to the officers for their weapons went unanswered. Brent Downs’ body was placed on a metal gurney. A few photos were taken. They covered him with a white sheet and set him aside.
There are many unanswered questions in the case of 58 November. Andy Downs has spent years requesting over a million pages of documents, photographs, recordings, and more. “I’m not out to harm anyone, or prove anything,” he says. “I just want the truth.”