December 17, 1973: Palestinian grenade attack on Pan Am airplane in Rome

On this day in 1973, more than 30 people were killed by grenades and gunfire at the hands of Palestinian terrorists at Rome’s airport.

ROME – Some aircraft terrorist attacks do not involve actually hijacking the plane but can be very deadly.

When we think of aircraft attacks we would I imagine go almost immediately to people on a plane with knives or guns or bombs who take control and threaten to kill passengers. This MO is of course from a different era as, I don’t know when the last time was when YOU boarded a flight, these kinds of actions are a lot harder in light of current airport security.

Still, they were once very popular, so much so that they became a punch line to jokes (“Take this plane to Cuba!”). There was even a cameo by Sonny Bono – yes the less glamorous half of Sonny and Cher – in the 1982 film Airplane II as a hijacker!

The classic aircraft operation was to seize command and force the air crew to fly the plane to a desired location. Hijackers would demand something, often the release from prison of some of their confederates, in exchange for the safety of the passengers. Most standoffs ended as well as possible: some didn’t.

On this day in 1973

So what if an airliner attack DIDN’T involve taking it over? That is exactly what took place on this day in 1973, at least at first.

Arab guerrillas” – that is what the New York Times of the day called them – attacked a Pan Am jetliner in Rome, spraying it with submachineā€gun fire, hurling hand grenades into it and setting it on fire. At least 29 people aboard were killed, and two outside the plane were shot dead.

I had had a seat near an emergency door and thus was one of the first to escape. From the wings, we jumped to the ground while we heard people inside the plane screaming.

One of the passengers aboard Pan Am flight 110

The terrorists then hijacked a West German airliner to Athens with a number of hostages aboard and began shooting them dead, one by one, to back demands for the release of two Palestinian terrorists being held in Greece.

This particular attack reminds us that it is usually a good idea to check our assumptions about terrorism when we try to understand an attack. What we think is taking place may be wrong.

NB Check out the latest Borealis podcast with Canadian scholar Yannick Veilleux-Lepage on the ‘evolution’ of aircraft hijackings.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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