Lessons from El Al

September 28, 2001|By Robert L. Pollock

IN THE wake of the horrific events of Sept. 11, there has been a great deal of debate about how to prevent airline hijackings. I decided to seek advice from someone who has done just that -- a retired El Al captain named Uri Bar-Lev.

He was caught up in a mass airline hijacking that occurred exactly 31 years ago to the week before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

In September 1970, the Palestine Liberation Organization seized control of four airliners over Europe, flew them to Jordan and Egypt, and then blew them up.

Fortunately the passengers were released unharmed -- but not before being used as bargaining chips to win the release of PLO terrorists held in European jails.

There was an attempt to hijack a fifth plane that week. But thanks to the bravery and quick thinking of Captain Bar-Lev, who spoke with me by phone from his home near the Israeli city of Netanya, the hijacking was foiled. His experience contains interesting lessons for our day.

Just before the takeoff of his El Al 707 from Amsterdam to New York on Sept. 6, 1970, says Captain Bar-Lev, security agents approached him with the names of four suspicious passengers: two men in first class carrying Honduran diplomatic passports with consecutive numbers, and a blond couple also with Honduran passports in economy.

The captain ordered the two in first class removed from the plane, and the couple searched.

But the search wasn't thorough enough. As the plane approached its cruising altitude of 31,000 feet, the cabin crew rang to alert him to a hijacking in progress.

A man was holding a gun to the head of one stewardess, and a woman had pulled grenades from her brassiere. One steward attacked the male hijacker, who shot him five times.

The terrorists were demanding that Captain Bar-Lev open the cockpit door. One of the cockpit crew suggested he comply, because according to International Air Transport Association rules he was responsible for the welfare of the passengers.

But Captain Bar-Lev quickly decided he would have no control over their destiny if he surrendered. "My reply was, `Sit down, we are not going to be hijacked.' "

Figuring almost everyone but the hijackers would be strapped in, Captain Bar-Lev put the plane into a negative-G dive -- a downward arc often used to train astronauts to experience weightlessness.

Sure enough, the hijackers were thrown from their feet, and the two plainclothes El Al marshals onboard pounced. The male hijacker was killed, and the woman knocked unconscious. After her blond wig was pulled back, they realized she was the notorious Leila Khaled, who had hijacked a TWA plane to Damascus the previous year in an attempt to capture Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel's ambassador to Washington (he had changed flights).

Captain Bar-Lev, knowing he had to get his bleeding steward to a hospital, made for London. He also knew the dead hijacker could mean legal problems. He was right.

On arrival, he and the crew were detained and questioned by police for hours, but all feigned ignorance as to how the hijacker had died.

The marshals, Captain Bar-Lev now reveals, had slipped out a maintenance door on the bottom of his 707 soon after he hit the tarmac in London, and used the same door to enter another El Al plane awaiting takeoff for Tel Aviv.

The two first-class passengers Captain Bar-Lev had ordered off, meanwhile, had boarded and hijacked a Pan American 747, also bound from Amsterdam to New York.

Pan Am sought damages from El Al, and eventually settled out of court. The British government dropped criminal charges only after being assured the hijacker had not died over British airspace.

Israeli law was soon changed to ensure that airplane crews had the legal right to resist hijackings, which, in addition to stringent security checks, is surely one of the reasons the first (and last) successful hijacking of an El AL plane occurred in 1968.

But Captain Bar-Lev says crews throughout the rest of the world still have to worry about prosecution and lawsuits because of actions they might take to resist hijackers.

The laws and treaties governing civil aviation in most countries give pilots a vague responsibility for the "welfare" of their passengers -- an obligation the recent hijackers apparently took advantage of to lure pilots from their cockpits by attacking stewardesses.

Since Sept. 11, the U.S. government has taken important steps such as placing more armed marshals on flights and increasing check-in security.

But a vital last line of defense is to change the law to make resisting hijackings the top priority for airline crews.

"If American aviation wants to fight terror," says Captain Bar-Lev, "first it has to be built into the crew and they need legal tools to be able to fight. It's not enough to hire extra personnel and train them to look at people."

Robert L. Pollock is an assistant editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal, where this article first appeared.

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