Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

The PFLP Hijacking of Five Planes

(September 6, 1970)

On September 6, 1970, El Al Flight 219 originating in Tel Aviv was bound for New York City. It had 138 passengers and 10 crew members aboard. Four hijackers planned to seize the plane, but two were prevented from boarding by Israeli security during a stopover in Amsterdam. Traveling under Senegalese passports, the two terrorists purchased tickets on Pan Am Flight 93.

Posing as a married couple, Patrick Argüello, a Nicaraguan American, and Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terror group, were allowed to board using Honduran passports. Once the plane was approaching the British coast, they drew guns and grenades and approached the cockpit, demanding entrance. According to Khaled:

So, half an hour (after takeoff) we had to move. We stood up. I had my two hand grenades and I showed everybody I was taking the pins out with my teeth. Patrick stood up. We heard shooting just the same minute and when we crossed the first class, people were shouting but I didn’t see who was shooting because it was behind us. So Patrick told me “go forward I protect your back.” So I went and then he found a hostess and she was going to catch me round the legs. So I rushed, reached to the cockpit, it was closed. So I was screaming “open the door.” Then the hostess came; she said, “She has two hand grenades,” but they did not open (the cockpit door) and suddenly I was threatening to blow up the plane. I was saying “I will count and if you don’t open I will blow up the plane.”

After being informed by intercom that a hijacking was in progress, Captain Uri Bar Lev decided not to accede to their demands:

I decided that we were not going to be hijacked. The security guy was sitting here ready to jump. I told him that I was going to put the plane into negative-G mode. Everyone would fall. When you put the plane into negative, it’s like being in a falling elevator. Instead of the plane flying this way, it dives and everyone who is standing falls down.

Bar Lev put the plane into a steep nosedive which threw the two hijackers off-balance. Argüello reportedly threw his sole grenade down the airliner aisle, but it failed to explode, and he was hit over the head with a bottle of whiskey by a passenger after he drew his pistol. Argüello shot steward Shlomo Vider and, according to the passengers and Israeli security personnel, was then shot by a sky marshal. His accomplice Khaled was subdued by security and passengers and the plane made an emergency landing at London Heathrow Airport. Vider underwent emergency surgery and recovered from his wounds; Argüello died in the ambulance taking both him and Khaled to Hillingdon Hospital. Khaled was then arrested by British police.

The same day, TWA Flight 741 carrying 144 passengers and a crew of 11 was flying from Tel Aviv to Athens, then to Frankfurt with a final destination of New York. During the Frankfurt-New York leg, the plane was hijacked by a man and a woman who announced the flight had been taken over by the PFLP. They forced the pilot to land at Dawson’s Field in Jordan.

Swissair Flight 100 carrying 143 passengers and 12 crew from Zürich to New York was hijacked over France minutes after the TWA flight. A male and a female terrorist seized the plane, also announcing they represented the PFLP. It too was diverted to Dawson’s Field.

On September 9, Pan Am Flight 93 was carrying 152 passengers and 17 crew from Brussels to New York, with a stop in Amsterdam. The two hijackers bumped from the El Al flight boarded and hijacked the plane. Flight director John Ferruggio recalled:

We were ready for takeoff in Amsterdam, and the aircraft came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the runway. And Captain Priddy called me up into the cockpit and says, ‘I’d like to have a word with you.’ I went up to the cockpit, and he says, “We have two passengers by the name of Diop and Gueye.” He says, “Go down and try to find them in the manifest, because I would like to have a word with them.” ... So, Captain Priddy sat them down at these two seats over here. He gave them a pretty good pat. They had a Styrofoam container in their groin area where they carried the grenade, and the 25-Cal. pistols. But this we found out much later.

The plane first landed in Beirut, where it refueled and picked up several associates of the hijackers, along with enough explosives to destroy the plane. It then landed in Cairo after uncertainty whether the Dawson’s Field airport could handle the size of the new Boeing 747 jumbo jet. The plane was blown up at Cairo seconds after it had been evacuated. The hijackers were arrested by Egyptian police.

Also, on September 9, a fifth plane, BOAC Flight 775, flying from Bombay (now Mumbai) to London via Bahrain and Beirut was hijacked after departing Bahrain by a PFLP sympathizer who ordered the pilot to land at Dawson’s Field. The terrorist planned to hold the passengers hostage to pressure the British to free Khaled.

On September 9, the United Nations Security Council demanded the release of the passengers, in Resolution 286. The following day, fighting between the PFLP and Jordanian forces erupted in Amman at the Intercontinental Hotel, where the 125 women and children were being kept by the PFLP, and the Kingdom appeared to be on the brink of full-scale civil war.

While the majority of the 310 hostages on the planes at Dawson’s Field were transferred to Amman and freed on September 11, the PFLP segregated the flight crews and Jewish passengers, keeping 56 Jewish hostages, while releasing the non-Jews. Six hostages were kept because they were men and American citizens, not necessarily Jews: Robert Norman Schwartz, a U.S. Defense Department researcher stationed in Thailand; James Lee Woods, Schwartz’s assistant and security detail; Gerald Berkowitz, an American-born Jew and college chemistry professor; Rabbi Abraham Harrari-Raful and his brother Rabbi Joseph Harrari-Raful, two Brooklyn school teachers; and John Hollingsworth, a U.S. State Department employee. Schwartz, whose father was Jewish, was a convert to Catholicism.

The PFLP issued a 72-hour deadline for the release of seven terrorists, including Khaled, being held by Switzerland, Britain and Germany. On September 12, prior to their announced deadline, the PFLP, fearing a rescue effort, released the remaining hostages and blew up the empty planes. A spokesman for the PFLP said the destruction of the planes was meant as a warning to the governments holding the terrorists.

On September 13, the UK announced it would release Khaled in exchange for the hostages. Thirty years later the world learned the UK had given in to U.S. pressure to make the trade. It was also revealed that Husssein had appealed through Britain’s ambassador in Amman “for an air strike by Israel” following the hijackings.

The destruction of the aircraft highlighted the impotence of the Jordanian government, which was unable to control the Palestinians who had created a state within the state and threatened King Hussein’s regime. Jordanian forces were sent to end the revolt. During the fighting, thousands of Palestinians were killed and forced to flee the country in what later became known as Black September.

The swift Jordanian victory was followed by a deal on September 30 in which the remaining hostages were released in exchange for Khaled and three PFLP members in a Swiss prison.

Click here to read related State Department documents.

Sources: “Dawson’s Field hijackings,” Wikipedia.
“1970: Hijacked jets destroyed by guerrillas,” BBC, (September 12, 1970).
“Leila Khaled freed after US pressure,” The Guardian, (January 1, 2001).