October 13, 1977: Hijacking of Lufthansa flight 181

In 1977 PFLP terrorists hijacked Lufthansa flight 181, killing the pilot before German anti-terror commandos stormed the plane.

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA – Somalia crosses our radar a lot for terrorism today but more than 40 years ago it was on the receiving end, in a way

In the 1960s and 1970s, when airline hijackings were much more common – today, security measures are much, much better – the line “Take this plane to Cuba!” became almost a joke. Why anyone would want to go to Cuba at that time – lousy service, lousy food (hmm, not much has changed over 50 years, has it?) beats me.

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After Cher left him Sonny Bono turned to hijacking

Ordering a plane to head somewhere other than its planned destination could be driven by a number of considerations. Maybe the new heading was seen as more sympathetic to the hijackers. Maybe the local security forces were not very good at rescue operations, giving the terrorists more time to have their demands met. Maybe the airport was the closest one to land safely (especially if the aircraft was running out of fuel).

What, then, is up with ordering a plane to fly to Somalia?

As it turns out, the whole thing was complicated. On this day in 1977, Lufthansa flight 181 was hijacked by terrorists affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), allied with the German terrorist group Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF), sometimes known as the Baader-Meinhoff Gang, while overflying Marseilles. The pilot was killed shortly after the takeover

The terrorists wanted the release of incarcerated RAF terrorists. In the next several hours the plane landed in Rome and Cyprus for refuelling, and made emergency landings in Bahrain, Dubai, and Aden before ending up in Mogadishu (the capital of Somalia).

Five days later a German anti-terror commando squad stormed the plane in what was codenamed Operation Feuerzauber (fire magic) and rescued all 90 hostages, while killing three terrorists and wounding one. Four hostages were slightly wounded.

The commandos stormed in, one yelling in German “Heads down, where are the pigs!?”, and riddled all four hijackers with bullets, killing three and badly wounding a fourth. Those German words were the best thing I heard during the entire hijacking.

Juergen Vietor, former co-pilot

All in all a successful operation with minimal casualties – if you don’t count the terrorists. Hijacking seems to be a thing of the past: let’s hope it stays that way.

Phil Gurski

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