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.”

To learn more about the history of this pioneering airline, click on the title below for preview of

Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline Second Edition

This book is available on eBay .

Another excellent book is Pan Am – Personal Tributes to a Global Aviation Pioneer, which was published to commemorate the 90th Anniversary of Pan Am’s founding. It contains more than 80 stories written by former Pan Am employees and international media friends who had personal experience with many of Pan Am’s key events during its history. It is the perfect companion to Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline Second Edition and can be purchased on Amazon.

Preview Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People, which is available on Amazon.

For further information about the history of Pan American World Airways, visit: Pan Am Historical Foundation