On July 11, Mexican cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera escaped from what was considered to be the most secure prison in all of Mexico using a mile-long tunnel.
Guzman’s escape was especially audacious. Tunnels are expensive, conspicuous, and time-consuming; El Chapo’s tunnel may have cost as much as $US50 million in labour, building material, and bribes. It isn’t within everyone’s means to obtain aircraft for a prison escape, but it’s easier to get out of prison by air than underground: Over the past 40 years in particular, there has been trend of convicts and their partners on the outside busting out from high security facilities in hijacked helicopters.
Not every attempted helicopter escape has been successful, and most convicts were caught within 24 hours even if the helicopter breakout part of the plot ended up working. There are exceptions, though. Here are 8 of the most impressive helicopter escapes in which the convicts were not immediately caught after breaking out of prison.
A helicopter painted in similar colours to that of Mexico's attorney general's landed in the courtyard of Mexico City's Acatitla prison on August 19th, 1971. Almost immediately, New York businessman Joel David Kaplan and Venezuelan counterfeiter Carlos Antonio Contreras Castro boarded the chopper and made their way to the US.
Kaplan had been imprisoned for the murder of his business associate in Mexico City in 1962, a charge he had always denied. He had been named in a Congressional investigation as a facilitator of CIA assets in Latin America in 1964.
During one of the violent periods of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) escaped from the neighbouring Republic of Ireland's largest prison during a 1973 escape.
IRA forces hijacked a helicopter and landed it in the exercise yard of the one of the jail's wings. The escape was followed by huge celebrations in Belfast and Northern Ireland and a national manhunt outside of Dublin.
After the escape, the IRA released a statement saying: 'Three republican prisoners were rescued by a special unit from Mountjoy Prison on Wednesday. The operation was a complete success and the men are now safe, despite a massive hunt by Free State forces.'
The escape was later the subject of a song by the Irish folk band The Wolftones.
A woman hijacked a chartered helicopter with a pistol and forced the pilot to land within the perimeter fence of the South Carolina prison.
Amid a hail of gunfire the helicopter was able to take off from the prison after picking up three prisoners serving decades-long sentences for various violent crimes, according to the Los Angeles Times. During the escape, a prison guard was shot in the mouth but no one aboard the helicopter was injured.
After flying away from the prison, the woman and the three prisoners had the pilot land about four miles from the prison. The four criminals then sped away in a car leaving the helicopter pilot behind.
The escape, which the woman had planned with the aim of freeing a prisoner with whom she had struck up a long-distance romantic relationship, was short lived: the group was found 5 days later asleep in a stolen car in a rest stop in Georgia and charged with air piracy.
In 1986, bank robber Michel Vaujour conducted perhaps the most famous helicopter escape in French history. In a closely coordinated effort, his wife Nadine Vaujour flew a rental helicopter through Paris and picked her husband off of an unsecured prison roof.
Hovering over the prison, Nadine dropped a rope down to Michel who managed to climb aboard the helicopter. The couple then flew to a nearby soccer field where the abandoned the aircraft and completed their escape on the ground.
They were free for a few months -- Nadine was eventually found hiding in a villa in the south of France, while Michel lapsed into a coma after being shot in the head during his arrest.
In a particularly daring escape, two gunmen hijacked a Red Cross helicopter and forced the pilot to fly towards Rebibbia Prison.
The helicopter then hovered above the prison courtyard while the hijackers laid down suppressing fire with semi-automatic weapons. During the jailbreak, two convicts managed to escape -- a French-Tunisian murder and an Italian arms dealer.
After the escape, the helicopter was made to land in a soccer field in Rome. The hijackers and convicts then stole two cars consecutively to cover their tracks. The two criminals were caught a month later in France.
Two men who had chartered a helicopter from San Juan, Puerto Rico to the city of Ponce hijacked the helicopter near the Las Cucharas prison and forced the pilot to land on a roof inside the complex.
While at the prison, the helicopter picked up five convicts who were each serving multiple life sentences for murder and other violent cro,es. After picking up the convicts, the hijackers then made the pilot fly towards a remote mountainous region in central Puerto Rico where the group proceeded to flee on foot.
All five were caught within a month of the escape.
On July 14, 2007, Pascal Payet earned the dubious honour of escaping from prison via helicopter for the second time.
Payet, a convicted murderer, first escaped from prison in 2001. Then, in 2003, he helped organise another helicopter prison escape for three other inmates in another French prison.
In the 2007 escape, four armed men hijacked a helicopter and landed it on the roof of the Grasse Prison. After Payet's successful escape, the group then flew 24 miles to the city of Brignoles on the Mediterranean Coast. He was captured in Spain three months later.
A Greek bank robber and an Albanian hitman successfully escaped from Greece's largest high security prison in Athens by air. It was their second escape from the facility.
Towards evening, a helicopter landed on the roof of the Korydallos prison. The two convicts quickly boarded the helicopter and escaped to a nearby cemetery. After landing, the convicts continued their escape on motorcycles.
Alket Rizai, the Albanian, was recaptured, but the Greek, Vassilis Paleokostas, is still on the run and is widely considered to be a folk hero in his own country.
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