Born to poor Jewish parents in South Philadelphia, Byck dropped out of high school in the ninth grade in order to support his impoverished family. He enlisted in the US Army in 1954, was honorably discharged in 1956, married shortly thereafter, and had four children. In 1972, Byck began to suffer from severe bouts of depression after his wife divorced him and after experiencing many business failures. Due to his depression, he admitted himself to a psychiatric ward where he stayed for two months.
Byck began to harbor the belief that the government was conspiring to oppress the poor.
Byck first came to the notice of the Secret Service in 1972, when he threatened Nixon, whom he had resented ever since the Small Business Administration had turned him down for a loan. Byck also had sent bizarre tape recordings to various other public figures including scientist Jonas Salk, U.S. Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, and conductor Leonard Bernstein; and had tried to join the Black Panthers. However, the Secret Service considered Byck to be harmless, and no action was taken at this time.
In early 1974, Byck made his decision to assassinate Nixon. He planned to do so by hijacking an airliner and crashing it into the White House on a day when Nixon would be there. It has been suggested (for instance, by the 2004 film dramatization of his life) that Byck was inspired by news reports of the February 17, 1974 buzzing of the White House by Army PFC Robert K. Preston in a stolenhelicopter.
Since Byck was already known to the Secret Service, and because legal attempts to purchase a firearm might have resulted in increased scrutiny, Byck stole a .22 caliber revolver from a friend of his to use in the hijacking. Byck also made a bomb out of 2gallon jugs of gasoline and an igniter. All through this process, Byck made audio recordings explaining his motives and his plans; he expected to be considered a hero for his actions, and wanted to fully document his reasons for the assassination.
On February 22, 1974, Byck drove to the Baltimore/Washington International Airport. He shot and killed Maryland Aviation Administration Police Officer George Neal Ramsburg before storming aboard a DC-9, Delta Air Lines Flight 523 to Atlanta, which he chose because it was the closest flight that was ready to take off. After pilots Reese (Doug) Loftin and Fred Jones told him they could not take off until wheel blocks were removed, he shot them both and grabbed a nearby passenger, ordering her to “fly the plane.” Jones died as he was being removed from the aircraft after the event was concluded; Loftin survived the attack. Byck told a flight attendant to close the door or he would blow up the plane. Anne Arundel County Police officers attempted to shoot out the tires of the aircraft in order to prevent it from taking off. However, the .38 caliber bullets fired from the Smith & Wesson revolvers issued to the officers at that time period failed to penetrate the tires of the aircraft and instead ricocheted off, some hitting the wing of the aircraft.
After a standoff with police, Charles Troyer, an Anne Arundel County police officer on the jetway, stormed the plane and fired four shots through the aircraft door at Byck with a .357 Magnum revolver taken from the deceased Ramsburg. Two of the shots penetrated the thick window of the aircraft door and wounded Byck. Before the police could gain entry to the aircraft, Byck committedsuicide by shooting himself in the head.
According to a special on the History Channel, he lived for a few minutes after shooting himself, finally dying after saying “help me” to one of the police officers who entered the plane after he had been shot. A briefcase containing the gasoline bomb was found under his body. The plane never left the gate, and Nixon’s schedule was not affected by the assassination attempt.
It was subsequently discovered that Byck had sent a tape recording detailing his plan, which he called “Operation Pandora’s Box“, to news columnist Jack Anderson. A review of records disclosed that Byck had been arrested twice for protesting in front of the White House without a permit, and that he later dressed in a Santa suit for another protest. The flight’s captain recovered and resumed flying airliners three years later.
In 1987, an FAA document entitled Troubled Passage: The Federal Aviation Administration During the Nixon-Ford Term 1973-1977was produced, which mentioned Byck’s failed hijacking: …though Byck lacked the skill and self-control to reach his target, he had provided a chilling reminder of the potential of violence against civil aviation. Under a more relaxed security system, his suicidal rampage might have begun when the airliner was aloft.
After Byck’s failed assassination attempt and subsequent death, his attempt faded into relative obscurity. While the news mediareported on Byck’s actions, they did not disclose the reason why Byck attempted to hijack the plane for fear that it might inspirecopycat crimes. As a result, Byck and his assassination plot remained relatively unknown, except among members of the United States Secret Service and of analogous security organizations in friendly countries.
As a direct result of the assassination attempt by Byck, it is believed that the Secret Service immediately took steps to provideMANPADS to its rooftop observation teams, and that the necessary preparations for using them are kept up-to-date today, with theFIM-92 Stinger once having been the weapon selected for this purpose. Then as now, however, it is privately acknowledged that MANPADS cannot instantly obliterate large-mass aircraft making suicidal attacks from close range. At the very best, a hit by a MANPADS would turn one large incoming object into a number of only slightly smaller incoming objects, which would only serve to enlarge the area of damage and, possibly, cause more deaths than the original attack.
Byck is also one of the (failed) assassins portrayed in Sondheim‘s and Weidman‘s 1991 musical, Assassins. His role in the musical is built largely around the tapes sent to Leonard Bernstein and other famous public figures, which he “records” during two scene-length monologues, the first addressed to Bernstein and the second to Nixon himself.
A movie based on his story, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, was released in 2004. The film starred Sean Penn as Bicke (the surname spelling was changed.) The History Channel also ran a special on Byck entitled, “The Plot to Kill Nixon.”
The 9/11 Commission Report also mentioned Byck’s attempt to fly a plane into the White House. On page 561 in note 21, it says: