Terror in the Skies (1/4)

Beginning this week is a drama-documentary series that highlights the heroic work carried out by Britain’s special forces. The first instalment tells the story of the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 in 1977. Using dramatisations and interviews, the film reveals how the Special Air Service stormed the aircraft to take down the terrorists.

On October 13th 1977, a routine Lufthansa flight from Palma de Mallorca was hijacked by four terrorists while en route to Frankfurt. Earlier in the decade there was a spate of air hijackings by activists who cottoned on to this relatively new form of terrorism. Minimal security measures and free reign over international airspace offered an attractive opportunity to militant groups.

Co-pilot Jürgen Vietor recalls the first inkling he had that something was wrong that day. “There was a dreadful clatter at the rear,” he says. Suddenly, aman burst into the cockpit. He called himself Captain Mahmud and said he was representing the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. After Vietor was forced away from his controls, pilot Jürgen Schumann was instructed to fly to Bahrain. The terrorists – two men and two women –were requesting the release of prisoners being held in Germany. If their demands were not met, they told authorities they would blow up the plane.

At a training ground in Hereford, the SAS received word of the attack. Sergeant Barry Davies and Major Alastair Morrison were called upon to lend their expertise to the German police. The pair flew to the GSG9 Special Forces headquarters in Bonn, where they talked tactics with their fellow special agents. Davies produced eight stun grenades, which were the latest technology at the time. The bombs were designed to buy assault teams extra time by emitting a loud noise and a blinding flash of lightwhen activated. “Those two or three seconds can make a big difference,” explains Davies.

On day three of the hostage drama, Flight 181 relocated to Dubai Airport, where it remained parked on the runway. It was here that Commander Ulrich Wegener of GSG9 was able to gather vital intelligence as to what was going on in the aircraft, including the number of hijackers. The pilot dropped four cigars from the plane door onto therunway – two were broken and two were intact. “My explanation for that was that he means two of the terrorists were male and the others were female,” says Wegener.

The following day, Davies and Morrison reached Dubai Airport. Together with the GSG9, they practised their plan of attack. Davies surmised that there would be one terrorist in the galley of the 737, another in the cabin and a third at the top of the aisle. The leader would be in the cockpit. “The plan we had had to be really simple, swift and clean,” says Davies. The assault team was to approach the plane from the back. They would split into two groups, each mounting a wing. Emergency doors above the wings served as an entry point. After a successful training session, the agents were ready. However, news arrived that Flight 181 was departing Dubai. It seemed that the assault team had missed its chance.

On October 17, Flight 181 landed in Mogadishu. The hostage drama was threatening to come to a tragic end, as Captain Mahmud grew impatient. He informed the passengers that if his demands had not been met within six hours, he would detonate a bomb on the aircraft. As the hijackers doused the 92 passengers and crew in alcohol, it seemed that time had run out. “I really thought that the end was coming,” reflects Vietor.

Shortly after midnight, the assault team set its mission into motion. The attack lasted just five minutes and resulted in the slaying of three of the hijackers, the apprehension of a fourth and the rescue of all the hostages. For his bravery, Davies received the British Empire Medal. The hijacking of Flight 181 marked a turning point in airport security and there was a sharp fall in the number of terrorist attacks in the air. “What threatened to become a flood was choked to a trickle,” says military historian Lord Michael Ashcroft.

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