The 1970 Palestinian Hijackings of Three Jets to Jordan

Jets Are Blown Up in the Jordanian Desert

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 hijack three jetliners shortly after they take off from European airports on routes toward the United States. When hijackers on one plane are foiled, hijackers seize d a fourth jet, divert it to Cairo, and blow it up. The two other hijacked planes are ordered to a desert airstrip in Jordan known as Dawson Field.

Three days later, PFLP hijackers seize another jet and divert it to the desert strip, which the hijackers call Revolution Field. Most of the 421 passengers and crew on board the three planes in Jordan are freed on Sept. 11, but hijackers hold on to 56 hostages, most of them Jewish and American men, and blow up the three jets on Sept. 12.

The hijackings--part of 29 hijackings attempted or carried out by Palestinian factions between 1968 and 1977--trigger the Jordanian civil war, also known as Black September, as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the PFLP attempt to seize control of Jordan from King Hussein. Hussein's toppling fails, however, and the hostage crisis is resolved on Sept. 30 when the PFLP releases 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 subdue the hijackers, killing Argüello. The plane lands safely in London. British authorities release 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 rename the plane Gaza One and order it to the Jordanian airstrip. It is blown up on Sept. 12.
  • Sept. 6: Swissair Flight 100 from Zurich to New York, a DC-8 with 155 passengers and crew. It is over France when hijackers seize it, rename it Haifa One, and order it to Dawson Field in Jordan. It is blown up on Sept. 12.
  • Sept. 6: Pan American Flight 93, a 747 taking off from Amsterdam and carrying 173 passengers and crew, is 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 lands at 4:23 a.m. and is 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, tells 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, is seized while flying over Lebanon. (The British Overseas Airways Corporation is the forerunner to British Airways.) PFLP hijackers say they've seized the plane as a ransom for the release of Leila Khaled, the foiled hijacker aboard the El Al plane. The BOAC plane carries 117 passengers and crew. It's allowed to land in Beirut, where it refuels, then flies 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 releases 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.