September 25, 2001
'We Are Not Going to Be Hijacked'
By Robert L. Pollock, an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.
In the wake of the horrific events of Sept. 11, there has been a great deal
of debate about how to prevent airline hijackings. I decided to seek advice
from someone who has actually done just that -- a retired El Al captain
named Uri Bar-Lev.
He was caught up in a mass airline hijacking that occurred exactly 31 years
ago to the week before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
In September 1970, the Palestine Liberation Organization seized control of
four airliners over Europe, flew them to Jordan and Egypt, and then blew
them up. Fortunately the passengers were released unharmed -- but not
before being used as bargaining chips to win the release of PLO terrorists
held in European jails.
There was an attempt to hijack a fifth plane that week. But thanks to the
bravery and quick thinking of Capt. Bar-Lev, who spoke with me by phone
from his home near the Israeli city of Netanya, the hijacking was foiled.
His experience contains interesting lessons for our day.
Just before the takeoff of his El Al 707 from Amsterdam to New York on
Sept. 6, 1970, says Capt. Bar-Lev, security agents approached him with the
names of four suspicious passengers: two men in first class carrying
Honduran diplomatic passports with consecutive numbers, and a blonde couple
also with Honduran passports in economy. The captain ordered the two in
first class removed from the plane, and the couple searched.
But the search wasn't thorough enough. As the plane approached its cruising
altitude of 31,000 feet, the cabin crew rang to alert him to a hijacking in
progress. A man was holding a gun to the head of one stewardess, and a
woman had pulled grenades from her brassiere. One steward attacked the male
hijacker, who shot him five times.
Leila Khaled -- Hijacker foiled
The terrorists were demanding that Capt. Bar-Lev open the cockpit door. One
of the cockpit crew suggested he comply, because according to International
Air Transport Association rules he was responsible for the welfare of the
passengers. But Capt. Bar-Lev quickly decided he would have no control over
their destiny if he surrendered. "My reply was, 'Sit down, we are not going
to be hijacked'."
Figuring almost everyone but the hijackers would be strapped in, Capt.
Bar-Lev put the plane into a negative-G dive -- a downward arc often used
to train astronauts to experience weightlessness. Sure enough, the
hijackers were thrown from their feet, and the two plainclothes El Al
marshals on board pounced. The male hijacker was killed, and the woman
knocked unconscious. After her blonde wig was pulled back, they realized
she was the notorious Leila Khaled, who had hijacked a TWA plane to
Damascus the previous year in an attempt to capture Yitzhak Rabin, then
Israel's ambassador to Washington (he had changed flights).
Capt. Bar-Lev, knowing he had to get his bleeding steward to a hospital,
made for London. He also knew the dead hijacker could mean legal problems.
He was right. On arrival, he and the crew were detained and questioned by
police for hours, but all feigned ignorance as to how the hijacker had
died. The marshals, Capt. Bar-Lev now reveals, had slipped out a
maintenance door on the bottom of his 707 soon after he hit the tarmac in
London, and used the same door to enter another El Al plane awaiting
takeoff for Tel Aviv.
The two first-class passengers Capt. Bar-Lev had ordered off, meanwhile,
had boarded and hijacked a Pan American 747, also bound from Amsterdam to
New York. Pan Am sought damages from El Al, and eventually settled out of
court. The British government dropped criminal charges only after being
assured the hijacker had not died over British airspace.
Israeli law was soon changed to ensure that airplane crews had the legal
right to resist hijackings, which, in addition to stringent security
checks, is surely one of the reasons the first (and last) successful
hijacking of an El Al plane occurred in 1968. But Capt. Bar-Lev says crews
throughout the rest of the world still have to worry about prosecution and
lawsuits because of actions they might take to resist hijackers. The laws
and treaties governing civil aviation in most countries give pilots a vague
responsibility for the "welfare" of their passengers -- an obligation the
recent hijackers apparently took advantage of to lure pilots from their
cockpits by attacking stewardesses.
Since Sept. 11, the U.S. government has taken important steps such as
placing more armed marshals on flights and increasing check-in security.
But a vital last line of defense is to change the law to make resisting
hijackings the top priority for airline crews. "If American aviation wants
to fight terror," says Capt. Bar-Lev, "first it has to be built into the
crew and they need legal tools to be able to fight. It's not enough to hire
extra personnel and train them to look at people."
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