In April 1968 three gentlemen from the General Security Service (Shabak) met with El-Al’s* management. The purpose of their visit was to inform El-Al that information was received from reliable sources indicating that certain Arab terrorist organizations intended to skyjack El-Al airplanes in-flight.
PVP Benny Davidai instructed VP OPS Captain Tom Jones and Director of Ops. Captain Zvi Tohar to advise station managers and aircrew accordingly and take all possible precautionary measures to prevent such occurrences.
In May 1968, Captain Zvi Tohar issued the directive (to all flight-ops.–directives in El-Al at that time were issued in English), ” The cockpit-door shall remain locked on all flights east of Athens.”
WE ARE SKYJACKED TO ALGERIA. TRAINEE-PILOT SLAPAK ALMOST KILLS US
In 1968, I spent much of my free time gliding and soaring. In Israel, I flew out of the Aero Club Gliding Center of Megido. Meanwhile, on one of my flights, I discovered a gliding and mountain-soaring school at the foot of the Swiss alps, south of Zurich. Not far from there, on the shore of a beautiful lake and near a charming village, I found an excellent hotel. I was granted one month’s leave, reserved rooms at the hotel and prepared my wife, Ines, and our girls for a flight from Lod** to Zurich on the 23rd of July. I also hired a car at the Zurich airport for our arrival. Unexpectedly I received a request from the Manager of Crew Assignement, Baruch Tirosh, to perform a short flight to Rome and back on the 22nd. This flight was scheduled to depart in the morning and return in the afternoon and my flight with my family was scheduled for next morning. But as things turned out the airplane which was scheduled to perform the flight to Rome arrived from its previous flight with a faulty engine which had to be changed and so instead of my departure for Rome in the morning my departure was delayed until evening and we arrived in Rome at night.
We remained on the ground in Rome exactly one hour during which the entire routine was carried out: The passengers, cargo and mail from Lod were offloaded, the cabin was cleaned, the mechanics and the flight-engineer checked the airplane and fueled it for the return flight to Lod and the departing passengers were boarded whilst baggage, cargo and mail were loaded. I received the met-folder, flight-plan, checked and signed the weight-and-balance sheet and started the engines exactly one hour after our arrival. I taxied to the take-off runway. The time according to Rome and Tel-Aviv was 25 minutes past midnight which meant that we were already in the 23rd. Our flight-time to Lod was to be 3 hours so I had just enough time to be driven home, collect my family and baggage and drive back to the airport for our flight to Zurich. This was going to be a sleepless night for me.
Many passengers who were to fly on our flight left many hours before that and took Alitalia’s flight to Lod which departed on time and landed at Lod before we took-off from Rome. We were left with 38 passengers only. We had a group of Italian pilgrims, some Canadian and American tourists, one Italian passenger and a small number of Israelis. Amongst these were 7 service-passengers of El-Al: One of them and his wife just came back from their honeymoon and the other had his wife and three sons with him. When i finally came back to Israel from this tantalizing flight I was told, among many other interesting details, that the Italian passenger who did not belong to the group of Italian pilgrims was the Chief of the Rome police force who was traveling to Israel on a non-official visit as a guest of the Chief of the Israeli police force. He wore civilian clothes and had his personal pistol on him. He was a skillful witness to all that happened in the passenger cabin during this flight and during the day that followed and when he returned to Rome two days later he reported in detail the trials and tribulations of this flight to the Italian authorities and the Israeli Embassy in Rome. The last 3 passengers on the list possessed an Indian passport and two Iranian passports.
We had a crew of 10. The service crew in the cabin were six: One Purser and two Stewards and three Stewardesses. The operating-crew in the cockpit were four: Flight-Engineer Yonah Lichtman, First-Officer Maoz Poraz, Trainee-Pilot Avner Slapak and I. Avner Slapak was accepted by El-AL about 6 months earlier. After completing his ground-school training at the El-Al Training School at Lod he was assigned to Training-Captain Colman Goldstein for training to First-Officer. Captain Goldstein went on leave after they performed a few training flights and Slapak was transferred to me. This was our first flight together. In 707 airplanes during training flights the Trainee sat in the left-hand seat and the Training-Captain sat in the right-hand seat. Since the Trainee-Pilot was not checked-out as yet and to make the flight safe and legal, a First Offficer joined these training flights. On our flight it was Maoz Poraz who sat in the Nav/RO seat and was reading.
After our take-off we turned south along the west coast of Italy and climbed to the flight-level which was assigned to us by Rome air control. Upon reaching reporting-point “abeam Naples” we reached our assigned flight-level. We went through the top-of-climb checklist and switched the “seat belts on” sign off. I then asked Flight-Engineer Yonah Lichtman to call the front-galley and order some hot drinks for us, which he did. Several minutes later the cockpit-door flew open and Senior Stewardess Judy Abend appeared holding a tray bearing the requested drinks. Within a second, the tray and Judy flew back violently, and two men, both holding pistols, burst in.
The Trainee-Pilot Avner Slapak pulled the oxygen-mask from its catch and put it on, and, whilst telling the Flight-Engineer to raise the altitude level of the airplane’s interior, disconnected the auto-pilot and grabbed the controls. He had decided to go into some violent maneuvers in order to knock these terrorists off their feet hoping that the raised altitude of the cabin and cockpit would knock them unconscious. Little did he know that raising the cabin and cockpit altitude from 3000 feet to above 12000 feet would take at least 5 minutes during which the two villains, whilst toppling down, would empty their guns magazine contents into our guts. Not only that, but the third terrorist, whom we were as-of-yet unaware of, but who stood in the aisle of the cabin among the passengers and cabin-crew with a loaded pistol in one hand and a hand-grenade with the safety pin already removed… well that terrorist would dispatch every living soul in our aircraft, including himself. In fact, even without the terrorists’ help, had Slapak carried out his intentions, the whole affair would likely have ended tragically and prematurely, with the airplane diving down, uncontrolled, into the Mediterranean Sea.
I immediately ordered Slapak to get the oxygen-mask off his face and switched the auto-pilot and altitude-hold ON simultaneously turning my head backwards and shouting, “Come forward and tell me what you want!” The two villains stopped hitting Maoz on his head and the nearest one, who was of medium height, tanned complexion, dark eyes and hair advanced hesitatingly. He was noticeably very excited. He shoved his pistol at Slapak’s back of the neck assuming that he was the Captain since he was occupying the left seat. Slapak froze, his fantasies finally giving way to the dire reality.
That same fellow handed me a scrap of paper and told me to turn to the heading which was written on it. This heading was only a few degrees more to the south than the south-easterly one which we were already flying. I turned the airplane to the new heading and reached for the microphone in order to report to Rome control that we passed abeam Naples but the fellow snatched the mic from me and started calling Rome in English with a heavy Arabic accent: “Rome, Rome, this is el-jabaah number one, el-jabaah number one!” The Rome controller did not understand who was calling him and asked for the call to be repeated. The fellow repeated his call again–and again–but the Rome controller still did not understand, asking instead, “El-Al 426 did you call me?” The fellow answered impatiently: “El-Al 426 is now El-Jabaah number 1,” but the controller still did not understand the call. The fellow was getting really mad. All of a sudden a strong, clear voice with an American accent was heard saying, “Rome, El-Al 426 has been hijacked and the hijackers changed its call-sign to El-Jabaah number 1!” The caller was the American Captain of an Ethiopian Airlines flight which happened to be flying in the neighborhood, who understood the situation. But the Rome controller was still at a loss and it was only after the American Captain of the Ethiopian flight repeated his message that Rome finally got the picture loud and clear.
I did not like the heading which I was given by this skyjacker. Had we continued on this heading we would cross the Libyan coast, cross Tripolitania and end our flight without a drop of fuel in the Sahara desert, where, if we were not killed during the belly-landing on the desert sand, then we would certainly die of thirst. I explained my worries to the skyjacker, showing him the Jeppesen airways chart which I had at hand and suggested to him that i turn the flight more westward towards Anaba in Tunis. The fellow agreed. I selected the Anaba VOR and while turning towards it asked the fellow casually and softly: “What is our destination?” His answer was: “Algier!”.
* El-Al is Israel’s national airline, where I was a pilot.
** Lod is Israel’s international airport, since renamed Ben Gurion International airport