The Pan Am Series – Part IV: The Karachi Hijacking

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Pan Am Flight 73, a Boeing 747-121, N656PA, Clipper Empress of the Seas, was hijacked on 5 September 1986 while on the ground at Karachi, Pakistan (“KHI”) by four armed men of the Abu Nidal Organization. The aircraft, with 360 passengers on board, had just arrived from Mumbai, India, and was preparing to depart for Frankfurt and continuing on to New York.

The incident began as passengers boarded the aircraft.  The four hijackers were dressed as Karachi airport security guards and were armed with assault rifles, pistols, grenades and plastic explosive belts. At about 6:00 a.m., the hijackers drove a van that had been modified to look like an airport security vehicle through a security checkpoint up to one of the boarding stairways to aircraft.  The hijackers stormed up the stairways into the plane, fired shots from an automatic weapon, and seized control of the aircraft. Flight attendants were able to alert the cockpit crew using intercom, allowing the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer to escape through an overhead hatch in the cockpit, effectively grounding the aircraft.

During the following 16 hours, Zayd Hassan Safarini, the Jordanian leader of the hijackers, demanded the return of the flight crew to fly the aircraft to Larnaca, Cyprus, where he wanted to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners being detained in Cyprus. During negotiations between Safarini and Pakistani authorities, Safarini threatened to kill all passengers. Four hours into the hijacking, one of the passengers was shot and pushed out the door onto the tarmac below. As nightfall arrived, the hijackers herded the passengers and crew members into the center section of the aircraft. The four hijackers opened fire on the passengers and crew, and threw grenades among them, killing almost 20. Most of the survivors escaped through two doors of the plane which were forced open when the firing began.

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Pan Am Captain Hart Langer was in Hamburg at the time of the hijacking and received word that the hijackers were demanding a crew to fly them anywhere they wanted to go.  Below are his recollections of what happened in excerpts from his essay “Karachi Hijacking – Rescuing a 747” in the book Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People, published by BlueWaterPress.

” * * *  A 747 without a crew was useless to the hijackers, and they demanded that Pan Am provide an Arabic-speaking crew to fly them where they wanted to go.  Captain Jim Duncan (System Chief Pilot), through his contacts in IATA, called Captain Jazza Ghanem, the Vice-President of Flight Operations at Saudia (Saudi Arabian Airlines) to see if they could help out.  Captain Ghanem was willing, but unfortunately was overruled by top management at Saudia.

“As a result, the consensus at System Operations Control at JFK (New York), was that if Pan Am could find a volunteer crew, negotiations with the hijackers would hopefully get them to release all of the passengers in return for flying them to some other location.  Captain Duncan wanted to know if Captain Ed Cywinski and I could head to Karachi and fly the 747 to wherever the hijackers wanted to go, in return for releasing all 390 passengers.  We agreed.  Bob Huettl, a check Flight Engineer who was laying over in LHR (London), also volunteered. * * *

“As it turned out, the APU (Auxiliary Propulsion Unit) that was supplying electrical power to the 747 in KHI had a small oil leak, and the Tech Center at JFK had predicted exactly when it would shut itself down and stop providing power to the 747.  When it finally happened, the airplane went dark, and the hijackers thought that they were under attack.   They herded all the passengers into the overwing area, began shooting people at random, and set off numerous explosive devices.  At that point, the Pakistani army did indeed attack the airplane and finally overpowered the hijackers.

“All of this happened while we were en route to KHI.  Captain Duncan was able to get in touch with the Swissair DC-10 using a phone patch and HF radio, and informed us that the hijackers had been arrested.   When we arrived, we had a chance to inspect the airplane.  The carnage was unbelievable * * *   Pan Am dispatched a crack team of mechanics from LHR to KHI, and in five days they had the airplane in a flyable condition – which is remarkable considering that there were fifty-seven bullet holes in the fuselage.   Ed, Bob, and I flew the airplane back to JFK with a fuel stop in Frankfurt.  * * * “

In a related story, former Pan Am flight attendant Liz Morris tells about her volunteer work on Pan Am’s Care Team after the Karachi hijacking to assist families from that flight.   In her story, excerpted below, also from Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People, she tells about a special passenger she cared for who was on the Clipper when it was hijacked:

“At that time – before Federal law required airlines to establish Care Teams to assist families and survivors of crashes and other disasters — Pan American used a one-on-one process to assist such survivors.  I was selected as one of 50-100 volunteers to meet the Boeing 747-121 upon its arrival with some 300 survivors at John F. Kennedy Airport, New York.  We were instructed to stay with our designated passenger or family and do everything possible to assist them with ground transportation, telephone communications, re-bookings, etc. (All immigration formalities had been attended to, via passenger listings, before the aircraft’s arrival, we learned.)

“I was first in the line to receive my special passenger or family – perhaps because of my 20-year seniority and/or because I worked in Special Services, which dealt with such situations.  I assumed I would be assigned the first passenger out of First Class – a celebrity or VIP of some kind.  Imagine my surprise when, as we lined up in the large and spacious JFK arrival hall to greet the traumatized passengers of Flight 73, I suddenly saw a skinny young  Pakistani teenager break from the oncoming crowd and run toward me shouting “Mrs. Morris, Mrs. Morris…”   * * *

“As he approached me, I recognized him.  Through several preceding years he had come to my office as the unaccompanied minor VIP son of an influential Pakistani family.  The first time he was brought to me he was a sad little boy weeping profusely.  * * *

“Now, on that fateful September day 25 years ago, as the young man ran up to me – still small and slender – I immediately recognized him as my young friend but couldn’t comprehend that he had been on Pan Am Flight 73.”

Bill Lange, then General Manager of Pan Am System Control, was also involved in this event from the Emergency Command Center in New York.  Here are his recollections:

“At the time, I was Gen Mgr of Pan Am System Control and thus ran the Emergency Command Center (NYCOZPA) dealing with this flight.  I well remember Hart Langer and Ed Cywinski agreeing to go to Karachi to fly the aircraft out with the hijackers if that became necessary, a decision on their part that cements them in my mind as the bravest people I’ve ever personally known.  They were, in fact, both in New York and I believe we got them last minute seats on as Swissair flight to Zurich with a connection from there to Karachi, although my memory on the particular flights involved may be fuzzy. 

“With the Command Center up and running, we were tied into the US Government Emergency Operations Center in Washington and also with Pan Am stations throughout the region.  We also had a direct link to Karachi via an open phone link into the Lufthansa (I think) station manager’s office because that office had windows overlooking the aircraft on the tarmac.  We were in direct connection through that office though the entire event and got the word first hand when the APU died and the aircraft went dark, leading to the explosions and shooting onboard.  During the hours of stand-off, Pan Am station and operating management were dispatched to each of a large number of airports around the region that we thought the hijackers, if they ever got airborne, might choose as a destination.  We also were back and forth with the US State Department and Military at the US Government Emergency Operations Center, providing information that was to be used to prepare a Delta Force team if the decision was made to try and free the hostages.

“It was a long night and next day at JFK and many pieces of it remain in my head in only fuzzy fashion, but one part that I do remember was after the aircraft was retaken and as the passengers were being given treatment and otherwise helped, we arranged the flight of two Pan Am 747 aircraft into Karachi to bring the passengers and crew members back to the US via Frankfurt.  During the Frankfurt stop, the badly injured passengers and crew were brought to the US military hospital there for treatment.  As these flights were being prepared and boarding priorities were being established, I took a call over the US government connection from the head of the FBI team that was just starting to investigate the who, what, why and how of the hijacking.  The first words out of his mouth were about how the FBI was commandeering the upper deck lounges on both aircraft and how their teams planned to board both aircraft in Frankfurt and use the lounge to conduct interviews of all of the passengers and PA 73 crewmembers on both flights during their passage back to the US.  He wanted names and details and directed that Pan Am set up interview schedules for everyone interviews and, essentially, provide staff service to the FBI throughout the flights.  I quickly said no, that the passengers had been through serious trauma and anguish and we were not going to add to that as we brought them home.  Further, the well-being of those passengers was the first and only priority of the Pan Am staff on those aircraft.  The conversation then through several stages of increasing noise and argument leading to my final phone statement that Pan Am would prevent the FBI agents from even getting either of the flights to pester our passengers and that they (the FBI) could meet with the passengers after we had brought them safely to the US – upon saying which, I hung up the phone.  In the end, no FBI interviews took place onboard, although we did tell passengers of the FBI interest in speaking to them and helped some volunteering passengers to meet with the FAA at a JFK hotel after their arrival.  I must admit to worrying for some time after PA73 whether I had that night put myself on an FBI list somewhere for special treatment should I ever happen to stumble in their direction.

“In the aftermath, there was great concern about the ongoing state of mind of Pan Am crews throughout the system on the new risks of hijacking.  Karachi was possibly the first time that a hijacking raised the possibility of crews and passengers finding themselves on a death flight – something that became all too real on 9/11.  Pan Am thus developed a campaign presenting all Pam Am crews with a detailed story of what the company had done to support the crews taken at Karachi.  A centerpiece of that was a 30-minute video-taped reenactment of the actions taken  at NYCOZ at JFK during the event, narrated various by me, Jim Duncan and Hart Langer.  I still have that tape on a shelf in what my wife calls my personal Pan Am Memorial Shrine, aka my basement office.

“I’m sure that everyone involved in aviation has a host of stories that they could tell about their experiences, but I will always take particular pride in my 19 years at Pan Am and the stories that members of the Pan Am family relate when they get together.  To me, Pan Am was a truly special place and time populated by special people doing amazing things.”

Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People, cover pictured below, is a collection of essays  written by the people of Pan Am, the pilots, the flight attendants, the station managers and other staff who participated in the history making events that arguably made Pan Am the greatest airline that ever was—and certainly the most renowned and celebrated.

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From the preface:

“On December 11, 1934, Pan Am’s founder, Juan T. Trippe in a New York City speech stated:

‘By each successive step, aviation is advancing to that potential ideal of a universal service for humanity.  By overcoming artificial barriers, aviation can weave together, in closer understanding, the nations of the world, and lift for the peoples of the world those horizons which have too long limited the prospective of those who live upon this earth.’

“These words are fulfilled in this book, an anthology of stories written by the people of Pan Am.  They were there at the important and news-making events that shaped the airline’s life.  Many of these events made headlines around the world, such as the carnage at Tenerife or the Lockerbie bombing.   And, with the recent fall of Muammar Ghaddafi, the name Pan American is still commanding space in news publications today.  Other events, among so many, might have just been a small item in the local newspaper or were never reported at all. 

“There were those employees who went beyond the call of duty; others were simply doing their job and in some cases there was loss of life of their dear friends.   The bottom line, big or small, heroic or otherwise, is that the events were important to the airline and its people.  This is the story we have to tell: The historic achievements of Pan Am as experienced and lived by its greatest resource – its people.”

Among the 71 essays are recollections of the inaugural flights of the Boeing 707 and 747, the flight that brought the Beatles to the United States for their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and flights carrying dignitaries such as Winston Churchill and Mother Teresa.  Other stories recall Pan Am’s involvement in the rescue of orphans during the Viet Nam War and the final closing of its Saigon Station.  There are personal recollections of hijackings, Presidential Press charters, the sale of Pan Am’s Pacific routes and the merger with National Airlines.  Finally is the narrative by the pilot who was captain on Pan Am’s last revenue flight on December 4, 1991.

These stories and much more are included in this book and any student or fan of aviation will find a treasure trove of history and memories.

Below are some comments:

From Michael Manning, Broadcast Journalist and Media Consultant,

“[The book takes the] reader ‘inside Pan Am’ relative to its achievements and tragedies from a first-person perspective. * * * [O]ver 70 first-hand accounts . . . that lend authenticity to the human experience shared by employees at all levels of the company.  By the conclusion of the book, what becomes evident is that this unique US institution—long admired as ‘the American Flag’ by many foreign countries—has also come to represent a piece of the USA that has been sadly lost. This wonderful presentation of Pan Am revealed without barriers allows the reader to ponder a company that was only as great as the people who made it ‘The World’s Most Experienced Airline’”.

From Bobby Booth, long time airline consultant and aficionado,

“The stories in this book make up what is essentially one important story – a story of dedication, heroism, and sacrifice – by an airline and its people during an important period of aviation history.  It is a story that needs to be preserved in history for future generations.  This book is an important step in that direction.”  

From Edward S. Trippe, Chairman, Pan Am Historical Foundation,

” . . . is a tribute to the legacy of one of the world’s great airlines and the men and women who for six decades were the soul of the company. * * * [This is] a compelling book, which through the words of its contributors captures much of the joy, adventure and spirit which was Pan Am.”

This book is available for purchase directly from the publisher:

http://bluewaterpress.com/Catalog/book_pan_am2.html

More information about Pan American World Airways history can be found on the website of the Pan Am Historical Foundation.

http://panam.org/

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About James Patrick ("Jamie") Baldwin
James Patrick ("Jamie") Baldwin is an author, blogger, lecturer and consultant in air transportation, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Westminster (London) and a Visiting Lecturer at Emirates Aviation University (Dubai). He is also a Contributing Editor to Airways Magazine. Previously at ERAU’s College of Business he taught Business Law, Business Law for Airline Managers, and Airline Management. He was also faculty advisor to Sigma Alpha Epsilon. As a lecturer he coordinates Aviation Law workshops for Aeropodium, a UK-based aviation-related events company and organizes Aviation Law Conferences at his law school, American University Washington College of Law (AUWCL). As a consultant he specializes in start-up airline strategies, airline marketing, regulatory compliance, licensing, aircraft sourcing, strategic planning, contracts, agency agreements and preparing business plans. An avid golfer, Mr Baldwin periodically writes a golf column for the Dorchester Banner. Previously Mr Baldwin served as Deputy General Manager for Legal and Regulatory Affairs of Star Airways, a small Turkish cargo airline of which he was a founder, and prior to that, the US Representative of Tajik Air, the international airline of the Republic of Tajikistan. In the latter capacity, he represented the airline’s interests before the US government, multilateral development banks and private US and international business interests. He also coordinated and prepared on behalf of the government of Tajikistan a request for a grant from the US Trade and Development Agency for a feasibility study on its air transport sector. Mr Baldwin also served as an officer in the US Navy (1974-1978) and the active US Naval Reserve (1978-1994). His latest assignments included service as a Naval Liaison Officer on tanker convoys during the Iran/Iraq War, Officer in Charge of military officers boarding, inspecting and briefing masters of merchant ships delivering military cargo during the first Gulf War and Commanding Officer of a US Naval Reserve unit. He is now retired with the rank of Commander. Mr Baldwin is the author of Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline (BluewaterPress, 2011). He also co-edited, with Jeff Kriendler, former Vice President, Corporate Communications at Pan Am, Pan American World Airways – Aviation History through the Words of its People (BluewaterPress, 2011). He, along with Mr Kriendler, recently published Pan Am - Personal Tributes to a Global Aviation Pioneer. Mr Baldwin obtained an A.B. (Bachelor’s) Degree in International Relations from the University of Southern California (Los Angeles) and a J.D. (Juris Doctor) Degree from the AUWCL (Washington DC). He is a member of the U.S. Naval Institute, the U. S. Golf Association, Cambridge Multi Sport (CMS) and Sigma Alpha Epsilon. He has traveled widely and includes among his interests distance running, golf, hill walking, sailing, model railroading, spectator sports, classical music and writing. He is married and resides in Maryland.

5 Responses to The Pan Am Series – Part IV: The Karachi Hijacking

  1. Doug Miller says:

    Pan Am obviously had a special place in international aviation – not only for its accomplishments, but because it represented the U.S. in such a prominent way for both Americans and those who wanted to attack America too.

    Thank you for keeping the history alive!

    • Thank you, Doug. I have a lot of stories from Pan Amers that I plan to use. The “Snow Leopard” story I am posting is also Pan Am related as it chronicles the Pan Am Spirit in a difficult situation. Part Three is coming out tomorrow.

  2. Jaime..my name is Deborah Deason and I am a UAL flight attendant. I was a service instructor for Pan American based in Bombay from January-June 1986, training and flying with our foreign nationals from India. The crew involved in the Karachi incident were my former students. Coincidentally, I just mailed my pictures of these flight attendants to Romlee Stoughton and he scanned them for my FB account! I have several pictures of Nerja, the lovely purser who lost her life in the tragedy. If you would like any further info, feel free to contact me at Deborah.deason4@gmail.com.

    • Thanks, Deborah. I recently sent you an email about my doing a story in this series about the Indian nationals. Also I was on a flight with Kenyan national as FAs, and could a similar story on them as well..

  3. Reblogged this on On the Bridge and commented:

    Recollections of Bill Lange who ran the Pan Am Emergency Command Center during the incident have been added. Very interesting and compelling.

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