HIJACKING OF THE BRITISH PILOTS WHO FLEW MOISE TSHOMBE AND OUR HIJACKING
On many occasions after our hijacking I was asked, “How did you feel?” I was asked if I was stricken with fear or dread, if I was terrorized or shocked. It was an interesting question. I thought many times about the first few seconds of this hijacking and of what and how I felt during the minutes that followed: What went through my head, what was my reaction and what decisions, if any, did I take. My memories always come back to me loud and clear, which is quite surprising.
When the two hijackers burst into the cockpit with branded pistols, I was stricken with a terrible anger which turned immediately into a controlled wrath. This anger had two reasons: First, I was frustrated by the injustice of the situation. Again, I was the one who had been assigned the most unfortunate flight! As if there had been no other El-Al pilot available! The second reason was the vacation which I was about to embark on with my wife and daughters the next day. This second thought flashed through my brain like lightning: These dirty bastards ruined our vacation! I was mad mainly because of my daughters. I knew how disappointed, afraid and worried they would be. I knew that my wife, Ines, had a strong character and that bad fortune would only toughen it, even if deep within she would be very worried and miserable. All of this passed through my head within seconds; these feelings and thoughts were the cause of my rage when I turned my head towards the hijackers and shouted at them with a strong, commanding voice.
As soon as they stopped hitting Poraz, I made a decision based on the actual situation: They had caught us with our pants down. They were armed and we were not. Our only goal was to survive. We needed to do everything within our power to prevent them from opening fire, at least not as long as we were in the air. Look how tense and excited they are, I thought. The goon’s hand quivered and his forehead was covered with perspiration, even though it is quite cool in the cockpit. I had to calm them and bring this flight to its new destination with all its passengers and crew safe and sound. But then something new worried me: Where did they finally want to bring us? I was familiar with the stories of all our prisoners of war and had all the information on how our enemies treated them–in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. The thought that we would finally end up in Syria troubled me greatly. I knew that I would have to make some very hard decisions if this happened. The heading which I had received from the skyjacker was southerly and not easterly. The heading gave me hope that I was not headed to an Arab country in the Middle East, but I was still worried: Lybia was no paradise either. And so when I proposed to the fellow who seemed to be running the show that we should take a more South-Westerly heading, I had an ulterior motive: I wanted to get away from Lybia.
I was very relieved when that fellow told me that our destination was Algeria, until I remembered the story of another hijacking which ended up there. A year earlier, in June 1967, the President of Katanga, Moise Tshombe, was skyjacked. Katanga was the south-easterly province of then-Zair and the richest as far as valuable mineral-mines and raw-materials were concerned. Shortly after Zair’s independence, Katanga seceeded and a lengthy and bloody feud went on between the President of Katanga, Moise Tshombe, and the President of Zair. The UN was asked to intervene and sent a few peacemakers and a small military force which was very restricted in its action. The Western Powers who were very interested in all these precious natural resources muddled behind the scenes whilst pushing the UN General-Secretary ahead. The USSR, who as soon as it realized that western imperialism was falling apart in Africa, entered the conflict in its usual secretive and malicious way. Finally, Katanga lost and Moise Tshombe fled and was given asylum in Spain.
On June 30, 1967 Tshombe hired a small twin-engined executive jet airplane (De-Havilland D.H. 125) flown by two British pilots. The airplane was hired, at least according to what was written in the flight-plan, for the purpose of flying Tshombe and his bodyguards from one point to another within Spain. Shortly after take-off, Tshombe’s bodyguards pointed their guns on Tshombe and his two companions, and ordered the British pilots to fly to Algiers. Upon landing at Algiers, Tshombe and his companions were jailed, and his bodyguard-hijackers were released. What was of interest to me in this story was the fact that both British pilots were also jailed. Each one was put in solitary confinement and badly beaten and tortured. They were accused of being Zionists, Israelis and members of the Mosad (Israel’s intelligence agency). This went on for 8 months, during which the airplane was detained as well. Needless to say, these two poor blokes were not even Jewish, much less Israelis, Zionists or Mosad agents and did not even understand what these accusations meant.
Both the British Government and the UN immediately requested the release of the pilots and airplane, but the Algerians refused. The USSR was right behind the Algerian government, and this whole deal was a Soviet “pot-stew”. At the end of 8 months, the British government cautioned the Algerian government (with a copy to the Soviet government), that unless its citizens and airplane were released forthwith, the British government would be forced to consider the hijacking an act of Algerian hostility toward the UK. The next day, the British pilots and the airplane were released.
Although these two unfortunate pilots were not members of the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) since they were not employed by an airline, IFALPA (the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations) organized a welcoming party for them in London. The Presidents of all the member associations of IFALPA were invited. Eight years earlier, I organized and founded, together with Captain Colman Goldstein, the Israel Airline Pilots Association IALPA. I was elected as the first President and as such I was invited to that party. I attended it, and there met these two pilots and heard their story. Now, being skyjacked myself, within seconds I remembered this whole story and concluded that if I were to expect similar treatment to theirs, then we were in for long and hard period of suffering, for we were indeed Jewish, Israelis, Zionists, and, worse, reserve-pilots of the same Israel Air Force which only a year ago handed the Arab armies and air forces a most degrading defeat.
We reached the coast of Tunis and I selected the frequency of Tunis Control on the VHF selector, letting the fellow who was indeed leading the show talk to Tunis in Arabic. The fellow and the controller exchanged greetings and as soon as the controller heard the story of the successful skyjacking of “El-jabaah”, one could hear loud cries of joy from the control-tower. I told the fellow to ask the Tunisian controller to call the Algerian controller on his direct phone line and advise him of our arrival. I did not want additional surprises. The fellow agreed. Before we reached Tunisian airspace, both fellows kicked Maoz Poraz and Yonah Lichtman out of the cockpit and into the cabin so that they would not have to watch four men continuously. I was glad that Maoz Poraz was in the cabin and could get some first-aid from the cabin-attendants for his bleeding head. Meanwhile the temperature in the cockpit dropped and it became cold. I told our hijacker that he should bring back the flight-engineer in order to warm up the cockpit, but he said that he would do it himself, and, without my help, he reached for the temperature control on the F/E panel and turned it up a few degrees. Interesting. I deduced that this man, before he went on this operation, received a full check-out on this cockpit, its systems, and instruments. I thought it would be interesting to know if he was an aircrew or pilot and what was the level of his knowledge and experience. Anyhow, despite his apparent knowledge, he and his partner made no attempt at any stage of the flight to replace me or Slapak and fly the airplane themselves.
As we entered the Algerian airspace I selected the VHF frequency of Algiers Control and our hijacker called the Algerian controller, who, having already spoken to the Tunisian controller by phone, was expecting us. He was much more reserved. No cries of joy were heard in the background. After exchanging a few words in Arabic with our hijacker, the Tunisian controller gave me instructions regarding the flight in English. We were getting close to Algiers and had to start our descent. I told our hijacker that I needed Lichtman at his F/E’s control-panel for the descent and landing. This time he did not say that he would do everything himself, but instead told his partner who was standing by the cockpit door to bring Lichtman back to the cockpit. Yonah came back and we started our descent according to the controller’s instructions. When we got close to Algiers airport and the controller instructed me to switch over to the VHF frequency of Algier’s control-tower, I told our hijacker that it would be better if I resumed the VHF communication, since I was not familiar with this airport and I did not have any approach charts or let-down plates for it. The airport, which the French had named “Maison Blanche”, was now called “Dar-El-Beida”. Our hijacker, who since breaking into our cockpit excitedly only 90 minutes or so ago had become quite relaxed, agreed to my suggestion. At this point, I had already assessed this fellow’s flying experience: He was probably a pilot with less than 1000 hours flying-time in single and twin engine airplanes, and must have flown mainly as co-pilot. I called Dar-El-Beida control-tower and they gave me landing instructions and the runway-in-use. I requested the ground temperature and asked if our landing-runway had an ILS. They said it did and gave me the frequency. I made an ILS approach and landed from the right-hand seat. The landing was smooth.
I taxied the airplane according to the controller’s instructions, to a well-lit parking area in front of the terminal building. I was told where to park my airplane and stopped there, shutting all 4 engines. As soon as we reached the parking area, the airplane was surrounded by 10 uniformed men armed with automatic-rifles and sub-machine-guns. The time in Algiers was 35 minutes past 2 AM, Wednesday the 23rd of July 1968. The flight from Rome to Algiers had taken 2 hours and 10 minutes.
A ladder was brought to the front door and it was opened from the outside. The man who opened the door went back down. At the foot of the stairs stood a small group of people. The two hijackers who had been in the cockpit stood at the door and spoke in Arabic with the people in this group. I rose from my seat and approached the place where we hung our jackets. I put my tie and jacket on, as well as my hat. While dressing, I approached the cockpit door and looked into the cabin where I saw the third hijacker, who was a big and heavy man, bald headed, and with a sort of stupid face. He was still holding his gun in one hand and the hand-grenade, which seemed to me to be a British Mills grenade, in his other hand. After a short conversation in Arabic with the group downstairs, the three hijackers went down and entered a vehicle which looked like a police vehicle for detainees (nicknamed “black Maria”). The vehicle departed immediately. One of the men who stood downstairs went up two to three stairs and told me in English to please come down. I asked him if he wanted us to disembark the passengers first and he said no, they request that the whole crew disembark first, and they, the Algerians, would disembark the passengers. I instructed the crew to leave the passengers in their seats and to disembark themselves. I went down first.
The crew started disembarking slowly, one-by-one. I saw that they were not properly dressed. Some of the men did not wear ties, some held their jackets instead of wearing them, and some did not even wear their hat. The three stewardesses came down disheveled without their hats and scarves. It didn’t look good at all. The crew looked beaten, tired, frightened–utterly shocked. I did not want the crew to disembark looking like this and for them to give the impression of war-beaten civilians. Before the first one got to the middle of the stairs, ordered all of them to return back to the airplane, comb their hair, put some make-up on, and put their uniforms on exactly as dictated by the company’s directives. I asked Maoz Poraz if he could wear his hat and he said yes. I told them to be quick about it. The man who was downstairs ahead of the small group was alarmed when he saw the crew returning into the airplane and asked me what was happening. He asked me in English and I answered him in perfect French, telling him not to worry, that I just sent the crew back to dress properly.
Algeria was a French colony for 150 years and French was their second official language. The man knew French as well as English, but the fact that I answered him in perfect French surprised him. I decided before we landed that I would try to maintain good communication with the Algerians, and since I do not speak Arabic, I would speak French, which I knew well.