Hijacking is the term applied to the unlawful seizure of an aircraft by a person or persons. While not new (the first recorded event is from 1931) the end of the 1960s saw a large increase in the number of hijackings worldwide. The main reasons at that time were political and the VC10's history shows five events where persons have taken control of a VC10 for their own purposes.
Now colloquially known as the Dawson's Field hijackings, the events between 6 September 1970 and 28 September 1970 would for a long time be known as 'the blackest day in aviation'. This epithet has now shifted to the 11 September 2001 events but in 1970 no one could see how far this practice would evolve.
The background for Dawson's Field lies in the Arab-Israeli conflict, a group known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) had already gained notoriety for several earlier hijackings in support of a free Palestine. On 6 September they attempt to hijack four airliners, three of which succeed. Under PFLP control the airliners set course for Dawson's Field, a desert airstrip in Jordan and by the end of the day a TWA 707 and a Swissair DC-8 are parked in the desert with 310 hostages. The third airplane lands in Beirut to refuel but as the Pan Am 747 is too large for the desert strip it flies to Cairo instead where it is blown up (fortunately empty) shortly after landing.
After three days, on 9 September, the British government confirms that there are no British citizens among the hostages taken. Shortly after lunchtime this becomes a moot point as three Palistinians take control of BOAC flight 775 between Bahrein and Beirut while underway from Bombay to London. These terrorists were no part of the original plan but acted in support of the PFLP to pressure the British government in releasing Leila Khaled, who was taken prisoner in the failed hijack attempt three days earlier. After refuelling in Beirut Super VC10 G-ASGN is the third airplane to end up at the Jordanian desert airstrip.
The 105 passengers and 9 crewmembers join the rest of the hostages and can only await their fate. Over the next days some hostages are moved to a hotel in Amman while others are released. The hijackers demand the release of several prisoners from different countries and to put pressure on the different governments they keep 56 hostages amongst which the flight crews and Jewish passengers. In anticipation of a strike they leave Dawson's field on 12 September and destroy the three airplanes with explosives. The BOAC VC10 is the first to be blown up with the 707 and DC-8 to follow. Images of these explosions and their aftermath are shown on television screens around the world. On this page Chris Mitchell explains his mixed feelings as he watched that image.
The PFLP kept the flight crew and passengers, amongst which captain Cyril Goulborn, as prisoners in locations around Amman which were under control by the Palestinians. In a counter strike by the Jordanian forces some of the prisoners were released over the next few days while the last prisoners were let go in exchange for Leila Khaled and three prisoners from Switzerland at the end of the month.
As the VC10 burnt down the tail dropped to the ground but was left relatively unscathed. A team was sent out to retrieve it and this horizontal stabiliser later served as a spare part for the rest of the BOAC fleet, thus enabling a fatigue modification on the stabiliser to be carried out without major downtime of any airplane.
More details about this event are on the 'Incidents and Accidents' page.
This clip from British Pathé shows the BOAC VC10 during its brief stop in Beirut on the way to Dawson's Field
Images have been sourced from various sites on the internet, please contact me in case of copyright issues
In 1971 a short-lived coup had taken place in Sudan. The two leaders of the coup who had been out of the country were heading back to Khartoum on BOAC flight BA045 when the aircraft was asked by Libyan air traffic control at Benghazi to land at that airport "for the safety of the souls on board". According to BOAC the captain, Ray Bowyer, asked for a clearance back to Rome from the Maltese controller who was nominally directing the flight at that point. Having turned the aircraft around and just minutes away from leaving the Libyan FIR the Maltese controller revoked the clearance and repeated the earlier request from the Libyan authorities, ordering them to land at Benghazi.
The aircraft had to circle the airport for a while to burn off fuel and the Captain used this time to speak to the two Sudanese men on board. They insisted that the Captain should take no action which would endanger the other passengers. After the landing at Benghazi the two Sudanese were removed from the aircraft by the Libyan authorities. The other passengers and crew remained on board for almost 90 minutes after which they flew back to London.
There were rumours of threats by the Libyans against the VC10. Although no passengers or crew saw anything, and the state of the Libyan Air Force fighters made it unlikely, there could have been an interception or the threat of one. Because of this the decision by the Captain was sensible. The outcome however was tragic. The two men, Majour Farouk Hamadallah and Lt Col Babakr El-nur Osman, were handed over to the restored regime in Sudan and were executed within a day.
Flight International called it "an unprecedented act of government-sponsored piracy" and ICAO expressed "grave concern". While hijackings were not uncommon in those days this was the first time that a government not only condoned an act but actually openly contrived it. Questions were also asked about the Maltese involvement but the article in Flight International did not have the answers at that time.
Source: Flight International, 29 July 1971.
The 3rd March 1974 would be a date to be remembered in the aviation world. Not because of the DC-7 Freighter that upon landing at London Luton couldn’t get its props in the reverse range and which burst all its main gear tires trying to slow down on the emergency brakes. It ended up overrunning the runway, fortunately with only the aircraft achieving damage. The Turkish DC-10 that taxied out from Paris-Orly at 12:24 bound for London would not be so fortunate. 10 minutes after taking off one of the cargo doors burst open, causing rapid decompression and part of the floor to collapse. With the control cables and lines through this floor severed the airplane went out of control and crashed 37 km NE of Paris. The airplane carried 335 passengers, many booked on this flight because of a British Airways strike, and 11 crew members, all perished. At the time this was the largest air disaster ever and what made it even more poignant was that a previous accident with another DC-10 had highlighted all the same risks which were at the source of this crash.
Later that afternoon flight BA771 takes off from Beirut on the last leg of a flight from Bombay via Bahrain and Beirut to London. On board are 90 passengers, 10 crew members and 2 hijackers. Two hours after take-off a businessman in the front of the plane observes two men walking towards the cockpit, one of them returning a few minutes later with the captain to announce that the plane has been hijacked. All the passengers are then relocated to the back of the aircraft and there they are to remain for the rest of the flight, during the next three hours observing one of the hijackers placing what appear to be explosives around the aircraft, focusing on the doors and the luggage bins.
The crew consists of Captain Colin Harrison, Co-pilot Geoffrey Crawford, third pilot D.A. Warren and Flight Engineer William 'Bill' McCracken. At the time of the hijack the Captain had just finished his dinner at the Navigation station and third pilot Warren is in the lefthand seat. The hijackers mistake Warren for the Captain and order Captain Harrison and F/E McCracken off the flight deck. Third pilot Warren is kept at gunpoint during the remainder of the flight but together with Co-Pilot Geoffrey Crawford they continue to steer the aircraft towards the UK as the flight progresses. The hijackers are two young men (23 and 21 years old) who call themselves Abu Ali and Abu Said but their real names are different. They had met in a Palestinian refugee camp in January 1974 and were given some military training there. After an illegal border crossing to Syria they spent five days in a camp near Damascus learning topographic facts about Europe but also studying photos of the cabin and flight deck of a BA VC10. From there they were sent to a camp near Beirut and on 3rd March they reported to an unknown man at the Beirut airport and were told that they were going to hijack the BA VC10, receiving tickets and being escorted through customs. Once seated on the airplane they find two weapons under their seatrow where an accomplice left them earlier, as well as two hand grenades, detonators and fuse cord.
At 17:16 (GMT+1) the aircraft contacts the Schiphol air traffic controller who receives the message that the aircraft has been hijacked in retaliation for the UK's aid to the 1973 Yom-Kippur war. This message is also picked up by a radio amateur in Hilversum (40km East of the airfield) who quickly notifies the police. Schiphol is told that the aircraft is low on fuel and although the ATC is not very enthusiastic about the plane landing there they eventually clear the aircraft to land on runway 19R. At 17:40 with the hijacked VC10 about 30 Nm North of the airfield Schiphol airfield is closed for all traffic, causing other flights to enter holding patterns or divert to Rotterdam. The aircraft lands on the assigned runway at 18:06 and after that there is no more communication between the aircraft and the tower. The aircraft backtracks along the runway and using reverse thrust, turns around again so that it is positioned ready for take off on runway 19R.
Inside the aircraft the hijackers tell the passengers to take off their shoes and line up in the aisle of the aircraft. Shortly afterwards the front (galley) door on the righthand side is opened, the slide is extended by the flight engineer and the passengers and crew leave the airplane. Just after the last person is out of the VC10 the hijackers set fire to the aircraft before leaving themselves. With smoke emerging from the aircraft the fire department kicks into gear but can only fight the fire from the outside as they know that there may be bombs on board. A small explosion which is heard only serves to reinforce this. Once the fire in the fuselage is somewhat under control Flight Engineer William 'Bill' McCracken (who had volunteered for this task) steps inside the airplane and shuts off the engines which were still running. Later on during the evening he re-enters the aircraft with the explosives experts to point out where the bombs are, one being positioned on the F/E's table on the flight deck and another one in the cabin next to several items which look like bombs, having been fashioned out of carry-on luggage, fuse cord and other supplies.
The passengers are quick to point out the two hijackers to the police, being in the middle of an airfield they didn't have many places to go to anyway, and they are quickly arrested. In the meantime the airport is still sealed off for all traffic but even without this it would be impossible to get there as all the roads around the field are gridlocked with many curious onlookers who flock to the scene of the incident on this Sunday evening. It takes hours to get all the traffic moving again, even though all they can see is some lights and vehicles far away on the runway.
The aftermath of this event is less spectacular than the day itself. In the end there were no further explosives found on board, the explosion that was heard was caused by a fire extinguisher bursting. Most of the passengers traveled on to London on Standard VC10 G-ARVH the next day and after a long day of emptying the cabin of G-ASGO the fire department, working with explosives experts, announced the aircraft safe. After spending some time parked on the east side of the airfield the airframe was broken up, repairs being too costly, with the small fuselage panel ending up with the then Aviodome museum. I've been unable to find out the fate of the hijackers but apparently they were the first to be tried for the crime of hijacking in The Netherlands.
There is a memorial to the victims of the Paris DC-10 disaster in the woods of Ermenonville, 37 km NE of Paris.
More details about this event are on the 'Incidents and Accidents' page.
This clip from a Dutch news broadcast shows the aftermath of the hijack at Schiphol Airport, including the soaked luggage being returned to passengers.
On the evening of 21 November 1974 captain Jim Futcher and his crew were at Dubai Airport awaiting the inbound flight from London to continue the BA870 schedule to the Far East. During the refuelling stop four men disguised as airport workers left the passenger lounge and ran towards the aircraft firing guns. Nirmala Subba, one of the stewardesses standing near the rear steps, was hit in the back but fortunately survived. On board the hijackers realised that the captain was not there and they demanded that he should come to the airplane or they would start shooting passengers.
Captain Futcher did not hesitate and made his way to the aircraft despite the airport's security officer urging him to stay out of sight. As he entered the aircraft he was met by a terrorist holding a gun to the head of a young New Zealander who greeted him with "Thanks for coming aboard Skipper". The aircraft took off with 27 passengers, 8 airport workers who had been cleaning the interior and 10 crew members.
As the authorities had closed off the airport at Beirut where the hijackers wanted to go to, the VC10 refuelled at Tripoli before landing at Tunis where it was surrounded by troops. The hijackers decided to stick to their demand for the release of 7 Palestinians held in Cairo and Holland. They set a deadline 24 hours away and promised to execute a passenger for every two hours past that time. On the second day, with no progress visible on their demands, they suddenly murdered German banker Werner Kehl, his body falling to the ground from the aft passenger door.
During the fourth day, negotiations resulted in the Cairo-held hostages being brought to the plane in exchange for seven hostages. When the other two prisoners from Holland arrived the remaining passengers and crewmembers were also released, leaving captain Futcher, first officer Mike Wood and flight engineer Frank Sharples on board. Meanwhile the hijackers had been informed that their action had been condemned from all sides and their request for asylum in Tunis was also denied. Captain Futcher did his best to reason with them amidst their statements that they were willing to die for their cause. Time passed and deadlines went but the crew was still held inside with various explosives set around the cockpit. After an ordeal totalling 84 hours a gunman came to the cockpit but instead of the message the crew was dreading, he informed them that they had decided to surrender.
Captain Futcher was extensively recognised for his heroism in this case and awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal. He passed away in 2008 aged 86.
Source: Telegraph Obituary for Jim Futcher, Josie Payne
On this day a Gulf Air flight, who by that time operated five Standard VC10s, was hijacked by a Lebanese male armed with a pistol and two grenades. The flight operated from London to Dubai and Muscat but landed at Doha airport, Quatar. It is not known if this was a planned stop or at the request of the hijacker. At Doha the hijacker was overpowered by troops.
I do not have any more information about this incident at this time.