THIRTY YEARS AGO this week, TWA flight 847 was hijacked on a flight from Athens to Rome.
The plane was commandeered by militiamen from Hezbolla and Islamic Jihad, armed with grenades and pistols. The purloined 727 then embarked on an incredible, 17-day odyssey to Lebanon, Algeria, and back again.
Save for the September 11th attacks, the story of flight 847 stands as the single-most dramatic and unforgettable airliner hijacking in history. Yet most of us have forgotten about it. Younger people have likely never heard of it. Which is why I’m bringing up the anniversary: for the sake of perspective. Our politics and culture have become preoccupied with the specter of terrorism, an obsession that is felt acutely by those of us on the front lines of commercial air travel. Yet ironically, whether because or in spite of this fixation, attacks against civil aviation targets don’t happen nearly as often as they used to. Few people know or recall how deadly previous decades were. The 1970s and 1980s in particular were rife with hijackings, bombings, airport shootings and so on.
Maybe this is healthy, to some extent? We can view it, perhaps, as an expression of resilience, a cultural acknowledgment that hey, we all face certain risks, and even the most calamitous front-page tragedies eventually give way to the march of time as people go on living their lives. At the other extreme, we can see it as ignorant, or even dangerous: valuable historical context obliterated by an age of hysterical news coverage and a general hypersensitivity to pretty much everything.
I don’t know which of those, if either, is a correct diagnosis, but try to envision, for a moment, the flight 847 saga happening today. Imagine, if you possibly can, how berserk the media would be. Mind you, flight 847 was the third hijacking to occur in the region that week in 1985! Earlier, a Jordanian 707 and a Middle East Airlines 707 had been taken. Those first two had been dramatic enough, but this was a hijacking that the boldest Hollywood script couldn’t have improved upon: A U.S. Navy diver named Robert Stethem would be murdered and his body tossed onto the tarmac. Other passengers and crew were beaten multiple times. Passengers were removed, split into groups, and held captive in downtown Beirut, including a group of Jewish passengers eventually freed by U.S. Delta Force soldiers. At the airport in Algiers, one of the flight attendants charged 6000 gallons of jet fuel to her personal credit card after Algerian officials refused to provide fuel without payment. On its third landing in Beirut, the jet nearly ran out of fuel and crashed. And so on. The photograph of TWA captain John Testrake, his head out the cockpit window, collared by a gun-wielding terrorist, was broadcast worldwide and became an icon of the siege.
Remarkably, Robert Stethem would be the only fatality. The remaining crew and passengers were eventually let go. The Israeli government later released 700 Shiite prisoners. Though this had been among the hijackers demands, Israel denied any connection.
In Perspective: The Golden Age of Air Crimes
1970: A Pan Am 747 bound for New York is skyjacked after takeoff from Amsterdam. The flight is diverted to Cairo where all of the 170 occupants are released. Radicals then blow up the plane.
1970: In what were known as the Black September hijackings, five jets, including planes belonging to TWA, Pan Am, and Israel’s El Al, are commandeered over Europe during a three-day span by a group called the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). After all passengers are freed, three of the five planes are diverted to a remote airstrip in Jordan, rigged with explosives and blown up. A fourth is flown to Egypt and destroyed there.
1971: A man using the name DB Cooper skyjacks and threatens to blow up a Northwest Orient 727 flying from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle. Over southwestern Washington he parachutes out the back of the plane with a hefty ransom and is never seen or heard from again
1972: A JAT (Yugoslav Airlines) DC-9 en route from Copenhagen to Zagreb explodes at 33,000 feet. The Ustashe, a.k.a. Croatian National Movement, admits to the bombing.
1972: Explosion aboard a Cathay Pacific jet flying from Bangkok to Hong Kong kills 81 people. A Thai police lieutenant is accused of hiding the bomb in order to murder his fiancée.
1972: In the arrivals lounge of the Lod airport near Tel Aviv, three men from the Japanese Red Army, recruited by the Palestinian PLFP, open fire with machine guns and grenades, killing 26 people and injuring 80.
1973: As passengers board a Pan Am 747 at the airport in Rome, terrorists spray the plane with gunfire and toss grenades into the cabin, killing 30.
1973: Eighty-one perish as an Aeroflot jet explodes over Siberia during an attempted skyjacking.
1974: A TWA 707 flying from Athens to Rome falls into the sea near Greece, the result of an explosive device hidden in a cargo compartment.
1974: A man detonates two grenades aboard an Air Vietnam 727 when the crew refuses to fly him to Hanoi.
1976: A Cubana DC-8 crashes near Barbados killing 73. An anti-Castro exile and three alleged accomplices are put on trial but acquitted for lack of evidence.
1976: Air France Flight 139, bound from Tel Aviv to Athens to Paris, is hijacked by a combined force of PFLP and Revolutionäre Zellen (RZ). The plane is diverted first to Benghazi, Libya before continuing to Entebbe, Uganda. At Entebbe, 105 hostages are held until the plane is raided by commandos from the Israel Defense Forces. During the raid, three passengers, seven hijackers, one Israeli and approximately forty Ugandans are killed.
1977: Both pilots of a Malaysian Airline System (today called Malaysia Airlines) 737 are shot by a skyjacker. The plane crashes into a swamp.
1977: Lufthansa flight 181, on a scheduled flight from Mallorca to Frankfurt, is hijacked by four members of the PFLP. Over the next six days the plane is taken to Rome, Larnaca, Dubai, Bahrain, Aden, and Mogadishu, Somalia. Captain Jürgen Schumann is murdered during the stop in Aden. The remaining hostages are freed in Mogadishu after a daring rescue by German commandos. Flight attendant Gabriele von Lutzau, known as the “Angel of Mogadishu” for her role in the hijacking and rescue, would o on to become a world-renowned sculptor.
1985: The Abu Nidal group kills 20 people in a pair of coordinated ticket-counter assaults at airports in Vienna and Rome.
1985: Shiite militiamen hijack TWA Flight 847 on a flight from Athens to Rome, holding hostages for two weeks. See story, above.
1985: An Air-India 747 on a service between Toronto and Bombay is bombed over the North Atlantic by Sikh militants. The 329 fatalities remain history’s worst single-plane act of terrorism. A second bomb, intended for another Air-India 747, detonates prematurely in Tokyo before being loaded.
1986: As TWA flight 840 descends through 10,000 feet toward Athens, a bomb goes off in the cabin. Four people are ejected through a tear in the 727’s fuselage.
1986: At Karachi international airport, a Pan Am 747 is preparing for departure when four heavily armed members of the Abu Nidal group seize the aircraft. When Pakistani forces storm the plane, the terrorists begin shooting and lobbing grenades. Twenty-two passengers are killed and 150 wounded. Although all four terrorists were captured and sent to prison in Pakistan, they were released in 2001.
1987: A Korean Air Lines 707 disappears over the Andaman Sea en route from Baghdad to Seoul. One of two Koreans suspected of hiding a bomb commits suicide before he’s arrested. His accomplice, a young woman, confesses to leaving the device — fashioned from both plastic and liquid explosives — in an overhead rack before disembarking during an intermediate stop. Condemned to death, the woman is pardoned in 1990 by the president of South Korea.
1987: At Los Angeles International Airport, a recently fired ticket agent, David Burke, sneaks a loaded gun past security and boards a Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) jet on its way to San Francisco. During cruise he breaks into the cockpit, shoots both pilots, then noses the airplane into the ground near Harmony, California, killing all 44 on board. (Unbelievable as it might sound, the government’s response to this crime was not to implement checkpoint security screening for ground personnel, but instead for pilots and flight attendants.)
1988: Pan Am flight 103 is carrying 259 people when it disintegrates a half-hour after takeoff from London-Heathrow. The majority of the wreckage falls onto the town of Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 11 more people. The largest section, a flaming heap of wing and fuselage, drops onto the Sherwood Crescent area of the town, destroying twenty houses and ploughing a crater three stories deep. The concussion is so strong that Richter devices record a 1.6 magnitude tremor. Until you-know-what, the destruction of flight 103 represents the worst-ever terrorist attack against a civilian US target. One of the most intensive criminal investigations in history would bring two Libyan operatives, al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah and Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi, to trial in the Netherlands. Fhimah was acquitted. Al-Megrahi was found guilty and sentenced to life. He was released by the British government in 2009, and died in Libya three years later.
1989: Libya will also be held responsible for the bombing of UTA flight 772 nine months after Lockerbie. Most Americans don’t remember this incident, but it has never been forgotten in France. A hundred and seventy people from 17 countries were killed when an explosive device went off in the forward luggage hold of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 on a flight from Brazzaville, Congo, to Paris. The wreckage fell into the Tenere region of the Sahara, in northern Niger, one of the planet’s most remote areas. A French court eventually convicted six Libyans in absentia for the murders, including Mohammar Khaddafy’s brother-in-law.
1989: In an attempt to kill police informants, members of a cocaine cartel blow up Avianca Flight 203 bound from Bogota to Cali. There are no survivors among 110 crew and passengers.
1990: A young man claiming to have explosives strapped to his body forces his way into the cockpit of a Xiamen Airlines 737 and demands to be flown to Taiwan. Running out of fuel, the crew attempts a landing at Canton (Guangzhou), when a struggle erupts. The plane veers off the runway and collides with two other aircraft.
1994: Riding along as an auxiliary crewmember, Auburn Calloway, an off-duty Federal Express pilot scheduled for termination, attacks the three-man crew of a DC-10 with a spear gun and a hammer, nearly killing all of them. His plan, before he’s finally overtaken by the battered and bloodied pilots, is to crash the airliner into FedEx’s Memphis headquarters.
1994: An Air France Airbus A300 is stormed by a foursome of extremist Muslims in Algeria. The plane is forced to Marseilles where seven people die when French troops rush aboard for a rescue. News footage shows an Air France pilot hurling himself out of a cockpit window while an stun grenade flashes behind him.
1996: An Ethiopian Air Lines 767 is hijacked over the Indian Ocean. The jet runs out of fuel and heads for a ditching off the Comoros Islands. Hijackers wrestle with the pilots, and the plane breaks apart upon hitting the water, killing 125.
1999: A deranged 28-year-old forces his way onto the flight deck of an All Nippon Airways 747 carrying 503 people and stabs the captain to death with an 8-inch knife.
1999: Air Botswana captain Chris Phatswe steals an empty ATR commuter plane and slams it into two parked aircraft, killing himself and destroying virtually the entire fleet of his nation’s tiny airline.
And not to forget what might have been. I’ll remind you again of the near success of the 1994 Project Bojinka conspiracy to bomb eleven widebody jets simultaneously over the Pacific Ocean. Bojinka, or “big bang,” was the brainchild of Ramzi Yousef, a master mixer of liquid explosives, and his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The latter would go on to mastermind the September 11th attacks, while Yousef was, at the time, already a wanted man for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center prelude. The bombs, made from nitroglycerin, sulfuric acid, acetone and other chemicals, would be hidden with the under-seat life jackets. In 1995 Yousef completed a successful, small-level test run on a Philippine Airlines 747, killing a Japanese businessman. The plot was broken up after authorities investigated a chemical fire in the Manila apartment of one of Yousef’s accomplices.
THE SKIES BELONG TO US!