April 7, 1994
The FedEx base in Memphis, Tennessee is preparing for another unspectacular day of business.
Flight 705, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10, is preparing to make the six-hour flight bound for San Jose, California. The aircraft is full of electrical equipment that would be distributed to the companies of the burgeoning Silicon Valley.
At 3:02pm, Flight 705 departs from Runway 9 at Memphis Airport. There are three crew members on board the routine flight – Captain David Sanders (49), first officer James Tucker (42), and flight engineer Andrew Petersen (39). Auburn Calloway, a 42-year-old flight engineer, is the sole passenger on the flight. FedEx offers free company flights to employees, so Calloway hitches a ride. He boards the plane long before the crew – and he plans to make Flight 705 anything but a routine journey.
Calloway’s FedEx career was on the rocks by 1994. His resume contained several lies regarding both his flying experiences and job roles in the Navy and was subsequently summoned to a disciplinary meeting. Calloway was convinced that the company was singling him out due to his race, and decided to take revenge into his own hands. He knew that after his imminent firing at FedEx his career in aviation was over. Irate, Calloway planned to both humiliate FedEx and cash in on a life insurance policy that would deem his family financially set for life. The policy would award $2.5 million to his beneficiaries – a price that Calloway deemed to be more than his life.
Flight 705 is subject to the usual pre-flight rituals before its departure. Safety checks. Hydraulics. Fuel. All the routine procedures. Flight engineer Petersen notices that the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) is turned off, and, believing it to be his own mistake, switches it back on before take-off. Calloway had switched it off during his early arrival – as the disrupted CVR is a key facet of his plan. He is to murder all the crew members shortly after take-off with a hammer, crash the plane in the wilderness, erase all recorded traces of a struggle, and fool investigators into believing that the hammer blows are actually blunt-force trauma injuries caused by an accidental crash. FedEx would be then forced to pay out the $2.5 million to Calloway’s family – as they, overall, would be responsible.
Twenty minutes after departure, all four occupants on Flight 705 engage in casual conversation. The CVR on board is recording in 30-minute loops. Calloway, noticing the plane has reached cruising altitude, leaves his seat and attends to the guitar case he brought on board – containing his weapons. In addition to the hammer, there are also a speargun and a knife inside the case which are only to be used as a last resort.
Calloway returns to the cockpit, hammer in hand, and repeatedly bashes Captain Sanders over the head with it. He does the same to first officer Tucker. He then strikes Petersen over the head, severing his temporal artery in the process. Sanders and Tucker both receive fractured skulls instantly. Believing all crew members to be dead, he attempts to remove Sanders’s body from his jumpseat and take control of the plane himself.
But the crew aren’t going anywhere for the time being.
Much to his surprise and chagrin, there is not one fatality on board the flight yet. Shocked, a panicked Calloway leaves the blood-soaked cockpit as the reality of what he has just done hits him harder than a hammer ever could. Calloway contemplates retrieving his ace in the hole, the speargun, to finish the job.
The Flight Fights Back
The three dazed crew members, drenched in blood, awake from their initial blows and begin their counterattack. Petersen leaves the cockpit and is confronted by Calloway, who is wielding his speargun. ”Sit back down or I’ll kill you!” he shouts to a bloody Petersen, who, out of instinct, lunges at the speargun with the little strength he has left in his nervous system. He grabs the barrel of the gun, and the two men proceed to wrestle on the floor of the aisle.
The two men in the cockpit are running out of blood as quickly as they are running out of ideas. Behind a haze of blood and murky consciousness, officer Tucker somehow comes up with an idea that would ultimately save everyone’s life. He pulls the yoke of the plane back, sending it into a steep climb, and forcing Calloway and Petersen into the back of the aisle. The speargun goes flying out of their hands, and the two race for the weapon against the forces of gravity.
Calloway wins the race. After all, he is not injured.
Captain Sanders is in better condition than Petersen – although he, himself, is heavily concussed. Calloway grabs hold of the speargun once more but, again, is met with resistance. However, he still has his hammer on him and strikes the Captain’s head once again. In the cockpit, Tucker calls upon his military experience to perform a series of acrobatic moves with the DC-10. After the initial climb, he then pushes the yoke forward to send the aircraft in a steep and barely controlled dive. However, the right side of his body is quickly becoming useless, so he resorts to flying the plane with one hand. The plane approaches maximum speed as he twists and turns the aircraft until the plane is almost fully inverted.
But the struggle is far from over. Calloway manages to strike Sanders yet again in the head. Petersen is on the floor, bleeding profusely. Somehow, Sanders grabs the hammer from Calloway’s hand and strikes him several times until he stops moving. Now, the ground is approaching quickly in the cockpit window. Tucker is unable to get out of the stall. He realizes that the throttle is still on full power – and he is running out of precious seconds to minimize its output. To make matters worse, the throttle is on his now-useless right-hand side. Using his only good arm, he places the throttle in between his knees and uses his left hand to reduce the power. The wind resistance does just enough to slow the plane down to a point where he could recover from the stall. He then radios Memphis Center in slurred speech and requests an emergency landing – with medical personnel waiting on the tarmac. His request is granted, and the plane begins its journey back.
But Calloway is still alive.
Tucker engages the autopilot and runs to the aid of his fallen co-workers. All three men are, somehow, still alive – despite their serious cerebral injuries. Petersen manages to stand up and retrieves the speargun from the ground. But his grip was far from secure. The weapon slips from his hands and into the claws of the now-conscious Calloway. Once again, he demands control of the plane – or else.
With nothing left to lose, the three crew members charge at Calloway and pin him underneath their bodies. Petersen strikes him again with the hammer, as Tucker returns to the cockpit. The plane is far too heavy and is traveling far too quickly for a safe landing. However, attempting a go-around landing would take precious time that the crew simply doesn’t have. Tucker throws caution to the wind and executes a death-defying landing to finish a death-defying journey. The plane violently lands on a much larger runway – with only 900ft of tarmac ahead of it.
Amazingly, there were no fatalities onboard FedEx Flight 705. Petersen, Tucker, and Sanders were all rushed to hospital in critical condition – where they all recovered. However, the aviation careers of all three were over. The plane received damages of over $800,000.
Calloway was immediately arrested and is still incarcerated in Santa Barbara, California – where his insanity plea was dismissed. He is serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole.
The three crew members were all awarded Gold Medals for their heroism by the Air Line Pilots Association – the highest civilian honor. Despite their commercial careers being over, Tucker resumed recreational flying in 2004, ten years after the incident.
Over 25 years later, the heroism, grit, and never-say-die attitude of the crew of Flight 705 are still harrowing. Their story continues to be a perfect exemplar of courage under fire, and their actions on that fateful day in 1994 will always be remembered.