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Don't mess with Connie

26 May 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

I hadn’t really planned on writing a column today since the NHRA offices are closed, but somehow I just couldn’t resist.

The drag racing message boards are all a twitter – and my e-mail box overflowing – with word that one of Connie Kalitta’s massive jets had a catastrophic airframe failure at a Belgium airport. It made all of the news programs, both local and national, because the Boeing 747 split just behind the front wings. Fortunately, it was during takeoff and before the plane got into the air, and injuries were “slight” to the crew. The plane was headed to Bahrain and makes regular flights out of the Brussels airport.

But for me, of course, that doesn’t make a great story, not as great as one of the other times that Kalitta Air (then known as Kalitta Flying Services) was in the news.

There are fewer great mistakes a man in life can make than to mess with Connie Kalitta, especially 20 years ago, so, as Mr. T would say, “Pity the fool” who tries to hijack one of Conrad’s airplanes … with him at the controls!

It was the first thing I thought of when I first saw the reports from Belgium, and I knew I had some old copies of newspapers from that incident filed away somewhere at work. Of course, finding them in that “somewhere” took a while, but find them I did. Here are the two articles, one from The Detroit News and the other from the Detroit Free Press, both of which put the story on the front page of their metro sections.

It was late on the morning of Oct. 4, 1989, when 41-year-old Allen Stahl walked into Kalitta headquarters at Willow Run Airport in Ypislanti, Mich., and inquired about renting a Lear jet so that he could fly to Washington, D.C., to "visit" the White House.

Stahl suddenly brandished a six-inch butcher knife and forced a female clerk to the floor. Kalitta was in a meeting and was quickly called to the dispatch office.

To defuse the situation, Kalitta, then 51, bravely agreed to fly the man to Washington, but he already had a plan in mind to depressurize the plane at altitude to render the man unconscious.

With the butcher’s knife pressed sharp to his ribs, Kalitta and the hijacker got into a nearby Lear, and while Kalitta was warming the engines, a state trooper, alerted by Kalitta employees, pulled up and blocked the airplane’s route with his cruiser.

“[Stahl] really went crazy” at the sight of Trooper Jerry Cooley, recalled Kalitta, “swinging the knife around” the cockpit and grabbed the engine’s throttle control and began revving the engine up and down.

Well, ol’ Conrad had finally had enough of the whole scene and attacked Stahl. While “the Bounty Hunter” was struggling with the armed man, Trooper Cooley got a mechanic to open the jet’s door and ordered Stahl to drop the knife, then took him into custody.

Kalitta, as seen in the photos that accompany both stories, was cut on his right thumb and left ring finger but not severely injured.

"When you are under pressure, you have to think well on your feet," said Kalitta, who then calmly returned to his meeting. "If you don't, you're in trouble."

Moral of the story: Don’t mess with Connie!