Pilot's lawsuit grounds Palestinian plane Cecil County resident sues for back pay

November 23, 1996|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,SUN STAFF

Lauri Haavistola was a pilot out of work when the call came. Would he be interested in flying Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat about the world?

Haavistola, a Cecil County resident, signed on and, he says, worked for two years as a flight engineer and pilot aboard Arafat's personal aircraft.

But in October, while a Lockheed Jetstar II flown for Arafat was in Dallas for maintenance work at K.C. Aviation near Love Field, the PLO stopped paying Haavistola's $6,000 monthly salary and expenses, he alleges in a lawsuit filed this week in Dallas County court.

Yesterday, Haavistola, 57, obtained a court order to impound the Lockheed Jetstar II.

"Who cares if it is the PLO?" said Haavistola, who is now working in Delaware. "I just want my money. They told me they don't care what I do -- go to [President] Clinton, go to court. I told them, I'm going to do what I have to do."

Authorities served the papers yesterday, Dallas County Constable James Paschall said. Pending a court hearing, the plane will be secured at K.C. Aviation, where it is incapable of being flown because of the maintenance work.

Paschall said that his deputies once impounded gold coins owned by a Middle Eastern country but that this is the first time they've been asked to seize an airplane.

"This was a big deal, believe me," Paschall said. "If they'd gotten in it this afternoon and taken off, what do you do? You can't shoot it down."

Mike Woods, service manager for K.C. Aviation, declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of clients.

According to the lawsuit, Haavistola is seeking $33,575.91 in back salary and expenses. A Lockheed Jetstar II, a four-engine plane, is worth as much as $2 million if it is in top condition, but is often valued lower.

The lawsuit alleges that the plane is owned by the PLO and that Haavistola flew it to Dallas for maintenance at the organization's request. Haavistola's duties, according to the lawsuit, required him to oversee maintenance of the aircraft. Haavistola said the aircraft has Algerian registry.

The suit names Capt. Omar Halim and Zeyad Ali Bada as local agents of the PLO. The men did not return messages left at their hotel yesterday.

Under Texas law, the court can order that assets be held, pending a hearing, if there is sufficient reason to believe that the defendant may remove the property from the state and thereby avoid payment of a debt.

The court order specifically empowers authorities to hold property of the PLO and Arafat worth the $33,575 debt plus $5,000 in attorney's fees -- far less than the value of the plane. However, it notes that the property seized may include the aircraft.

Haavistola, a Finnish-born naturalized U.S. citizen, worked as a member of Arafat's flight crew from January 1995 until October, flying in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. After other members of the flight crew refused to pay him, Haavistola said, he contacted high-ranking Palestinian officials who assured him that his money would be forthcoming. When the money failed to arrive, Haavistola hired a lawyer.

"There are no hard feelings," said Haavistola. "They don't want to pay what they owe. Well, I'm going to try to get what they owe."

Pub Date: 11/23/96

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