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Feature: Hijack Part I

One of the most terrifying experiences the passengers and crew of an aircraft can undergo is to be hijacked by terrorists. Terrorism directed towards an aircraft has been a part of the history of aviation since the 1930s. Hijackers and bombers can either be politically or financially motivated, or just simply mentally unstable. Politically, hijackers can gain international publicity, infamy, and ultimately notoriety by hijacking an airliner. In the late 1960s early 1970s, most hijackings were attributable to Arab terrorist organizations, but with airline security improvements being made continuously, hijackings are slowly taking a back seat.

Commercial flying wasn't very old before the first aircraft was seized. On Feb. 21st 1931, Byron Rickards took off from Lima, the capital of Peru, to fly to the southern city of Arequipa. His Panagra Ford Tri-motor was surrounded by soldiers as he landed, and he was told it was to be detained for the use of would be revolutionaries and that he was to fly to their orders. He simply refused, and went on refusing until March 2nd, when his captors informed him that their revolution had been successfully concluded, and that he was free to return to Lima so long as he took one of the Junta with him.

There were no more hijackings or acts of aggression until after World War II, when it became an accepted way of escaping from the new communist Eastern-bloc, and then there was another short break before Cubans trying to escape the wrath of Castro decided to play the same game. Kennedy's government was desperately worried about the presence of a Communist state just 60 miles of its shores, and was prepared to go to any lengths  to win propaganda victories. It saw the hijacking of a Cuban aircraft as just such a victory, welcoming the perpetrators with open arms and allowing American courts to distribute the seized aircraft to companies and individuals who were owed money by Cuba. Condoning air piracy was almost incredibly stupid, like many American reactions to Cuban affairs, and it is fair to say that had the US Government`s reaction been different, hijacking would probably never have become the effective terrorist act it is today. It certainly didn't do Byron Rickards much good. Thirty years after he became the world's first hijacked pilot, it happened to him again.

This time he was the victim of a father and son team, who tried to hijack a Continental Boeing 707 from El Paso to Cuba. The hijackers were not politically motivated. They were hoping Castro would reward them for bringing him a $3.3 million airliner. But by this time the US Government had changed it`s tune: as the aircraft set off down the runway, it was chased by four cars full of FBI agents and police who shot the tyres off. Two hours later the two amateur hijackers were overpowered. That scenario - one or two men taking control of an aircraft without any real preparation or planning - was repeated time and time again throughout the 1960`s. It wasn`t until the last years of the decade that the rachet was cranked up another few notches, when disaffected Palestinians started to sieze airliners as part of their war against the Israelis. Only 20 years after Israel`s foundation, it`s national airline EL AL, was successful enough to be a tempting target. It owned seven Boeing 707`s, and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader George Habash determined to hit them hard, to deter people from flying to and from Israel in them.

Enter the PLO

On July 23 rd 1968, in the middle of the "summer of love," three PFLP guerillas took control of an EL AL Boeing bound for Tel Aviv from Rome and diverted it to Algiers. The Algerians weren't expecting them, but as they as they were among Israel's strongest denouncers, the hijackers, choice of destination wasn't too surprising. Algiers has since become the place to take the hijacked aircraft, and the Algerian government has developed a great deal of expertise in dealing with them. The PFLP now changed tack a little, and started shooting up airliners as they started there take-off run.  In Athens and again in Zurich they were only marginally successful, killing one Israeli in each attack. But five Palistinians were captured and held in European jails, and that was to spur their PFLP colleagues to great lengths to get them released. One of those colleagues was a twenty-five year old girl name Leila Khaled, who was to go onto greater things.  She and Salim Essawi seized a TWA 707 (EL AL by this time had fitted locked, armoured cockpit doors to its aircraft, and was carrying armed guards on every flight). Going, once again, from Rome to Tel Aviv. They did indeed go to Israel, but only to circle the airfield and flaunt themselves before the Israel people. Then it was onto Damascus. Khaled had promised that the passengers would all be released, regardless of nationality. She wanted only to destroy the aircraft - but the syrian Goverment had other ideas. They imprisoned the six Israelis aboard, though released four women just two hours later, and traded them for thirteen Syrians held in Israeli jails. Khaled did try to blow up the aircraft, but bungled the job. It was repaired, and used to fly out the two Israeli hostages on their release.

Plans for the future

There were now seven Palestinian commandos in custody, and they were soon to be joined by eight more after attacks on an aircraft and the EL AL office in Athens, and an abortive hijack attempt at Munich. The first step in the attempts to free them involved six Palestinians taking over an Olympic Airways Boeing 727. The Greek Goverment swapped its forty-eight passengers and eight crew for the seven Palestinians it held, but there were still those in Swiss and German jails to be considered. The PFLP leadership decided that what it really needed was an airfield of its own, where captured aircraft could be held without outside interference. It found a place Ga`khanna in Jordan, which the RAF had used as a landing strip. The RAF named it Dawsons Field, after the local commander, but to the Palestinians it became Revolution Airstrip, the scene of the most spectacular hijack yet.

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