The 1970 Palestinian Hijackings of Three Jets to Jordan

Jets Were Blown Up in the Jordanian Desert

Captain Cyril Goulborn is interviewed by journalists
Captain Cyril Goulborn, the pilot of a BOAC VC-10 airliner hijacked by Palestinian terrorists, is interviewed by journalists upon his arrival back at Heathrow Airport.

 J. Wilds/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On Sept. 6, 1970, terrorists belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) almost simultaneously hijacked three jetliners shortly after they took off from European airports on routes toward the United States. When hijackers on one plane were foiled, hijackers seized a fourth jet, diverted it to Cairo, and blew it up. The two other hijacked planes were ordered to a desert airstrip in Jordan known as Dawson Field.

Three days later, PFLP hijackers seized another jet and diverted it to the desert strip, which the hijackers called Revolution Field. Most of the 421 passengers and crew on board the three planes in Jordan were freed on Sept. 11, but hijackers held on to 56 hostages, most of them Jewish and American men, and blew up the three jets on Sept. 12.

The hijackings--part of 29 hijackings attempted or carried out by Palestinian factions between 1968 and 1977--triggered the Jordanian civil war, also known as Black September, as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the PFLP attempted to seize control of Jordan from King Hussein. Hussein's toppling failed, however, and the hostage crisis was resolved on Sept. 30 when the PFLP released the last six hostages it held in exchange for the release of several Palestinian and Arab prisoners held in European and Israeli jails.

The Hijackings: The Five Planes

PFLP hijackers seized a total of five planes during their September 1970 operation. The planes were:

  • Sept. 6: El Al Flight 219 from Amsterdam to New York, a Boeing 707 carrying 142 passengers and crew. It was Hijacked by Patrick Argüello, a Nicaraguan-American doctor, and Leila Khaled, a Palestinian. An Israeli air marshal and passengers on the plane subdued the hijackers, killing Argüello. The plane landed safely in London. British authorities released Khaled on Sept. 30 as part of a deal for the release of hostages held in Jordan.
  • Sept. 6: Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight 741, en route from Frankfurt to New York, a Boeing 707 carrying 149 passengers and crew. Hijackers renamed the plane Gaza One and ordered it to the Jordanian airstrip. It was blown up on Sept. 12.
  • Sept. 6: Swissair Flight 100 from Zurich to New York, a DC-8 with 155 passengers and crew. It was over France when hijackers seized it, renamed it Haifa One, and ordered it to Dawson Field in Jordan. It was blown up on Sept. 12.
  • Sept. 6: Pan American Flight 93, a 747 taking off from Amsterdam and carrying 173 passengers and crew, was ordered to fly to Beirut, even though the international airport there didn't have a runway for 747s. One more PFLP member, an explosives expert, boarded the plane in Beirut. The hijackers then ordered it flown to Cairo, where it landed at 4:23 a.m. and was blown up shortly afterward."The hijackers told us the plane would be blown up, but they said it so politely and with such smiles that we couldn't take this too seriously," Cornelius Van Aalst, the flight's service supervisor, told reporters in Cairo, after the ordeal. The hijackers were very friendly," according to Van Aalst, showing "exemplary manners" and helping to carry an injured woman in a blanket from the plane.
  • Sept. 9: BOAC Flight 775 from Bombay to London, a VC-10, was seized while flying over Lebanon. (The British Overseas Airways Corporation is the forerunner to British Airways.) PFLP hijackers said they had seized the plane as a ransom for the release of Leila Khaled, the foiled hijacker aboard the El Al plane. The BOAC plane carried 117 passengers and crew. It was allowed to land in Beirut, where it refueled, then flew to Dawson Field in Jordan to join the two other hijacked jets there.

Why the Hijackings

PFLP leader George Habash had planned the hijackings with Wadi Haddad, his lieutenant, in July 1970, when Jordan and Egypt agreed to a cease-fire with Israel that ended the War of Attrition that had stretched back to 1967. Habash, whose militants had been taking part in raids on Israel from the Sinai, Jordan, and Lebanon, was opposed to the settlement. "If a settlement is made with Israel," Habash vowed, "we will turn the Middle East into a hell." He was true to his word.

Habash was in North Korea (on his way home from Beijing), on a shopping trip for weapons, when the hijackings took place. That created confusion over what the hijackers were demanding, as they had no clear spokesman. At one point a hijacker on board the Pan Am flight said the PFLP wanted the release of Sirhan Sirhan, the Palestinian convicted assassin of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, and serving a life sentence at the California State Prison, Corcoran.

The PFLP then submitted a formal list of demands that called for the release of Palestinian and Arab prisoners in European and Israeli jails. There were about 3,000 Palestinian and other Arab individuals in Israeli jails at the time. Over three weeks, hostages were released in trickles--and the hijackers' demands were met.

On Sept. 30, Britain, Switzerland and West Germany agree to release seven Arab guerillas, including Leila Khaled, the El Al Flight 219 hijacker. Israel also released two Algerians and 10 Libyans.

The Jordanian Civil War

PLO leader Yasser Arafat seized on the hijackings to go on the offensive in Jordan--against King Hussein, who nearly abdicated his throne. A Syrian military column was on its way toward Amman, the Jordanian capital, in support of the Palestinian assault. But with the backing of the United States' Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean and even the Israeli military, which was ready to intervene on the king's behalf, Hussein mobilized his forces and turned them against Palestinians in a bloody three-week war. Hussein triumphed, severely weakening the hijackers' stance.

A turning point in the battle--and the hostage crisis--was the Jordanian military's rescue of 16 British, Swiss and German hostages held captive near Amman.