DALLAS – A plane hijacking is a situation that no airport station manager wishes to encounter, but he or she has to know how to control the crisis.
June 30, 1982, was a day like any other at a Southeast Asian airport. It is about 2:00 am local time. The night is hot, the weather is fair, and the flight is on-time to depart from the Indian airport for a three-and-a-half-hour flight to its next destination.
Everything looks normal, with coffee time set to chase what is left of sleep and get ready for a 50-minute turn-around for a Boeing 747-200 on a long run from Europe to Japan via India, Thailand, and Hong Kong.
It is at this moment when the call that no station manager ever wishes to receive comes in: “This is Air Traffic Control. Your flight has squawked 7500. It has been hijacked but the hijacker wants the aircraft to land at its normal destination.”
The first question that pops into one’s mind is: why hijack an aircraft to have it land at its scheduled destination?
Organization is Paramount
There is nothing better than a cup of coffee to wake you up and send your adrenaline skyrocketing.
You have two hours to organize operations, call in staff, obtain a temporary radio frequency – so to avoid all Avradio geeks becoming aware of the situation and storming the office, get local telecoms to open a direct line with Flight Operations at headquarters, inform the hierarchy, the embassy, deal with the airport authority and the military, as there is an air force base inside the airport and the police have no jurisdiction.
Luckily enough, and thanks to the efforts deployed by all those involved, everything has clocked in perfectly and the station is ready to handle the emergency; the situation room is open, all involved are present and the operations to come are discussed and set, awaiting the flight to land and to know what the hijacker demands.
The first information comes directly from the flight deck. No hijacker is present since there is only one element who carries a bomb vest and menaces to blow up the aircraft if his demands are not met.
Questions start piling up. How did he pass security at the Indian airport with a bomb vest? Is he really alone, or are there accomplices on board? The hijacker had claimed he had six accomplices among the passengers, but no one in the cabin ever came forward or did anything suspicious.
The flight lands without incident and is taxied to a remote position for the long wait and extended negotiations to begin. The flight Captain relays the request from the lone hijacker: he wants to be reunited with his estranged wife and child living in Italy, be given safe passage to Sri Lanka, his home country, along with a ransom of US$300,000.
All attempts to have the hijacker surrender are met with refusal and a reiterated threat of blowing up the aircraft and the passengers if demands are not immediately met.
The military wants to storm the aircraft. The ambassador is willing to authorize the operation, while the Station Manager is strongly advising against it since this would involve extreme risks for passengers and crew as no one knows if the bomb menace is real or not.
Moreover, a shootout in an aircraft cabin generally ends with casualties amongst innocent people who had no say in the matter.
Station Manager in Command
A heated discussion follows and, thankfully, waiting instead of storming the aircraft prevails. This is due to the fact that, as per the Italian Air Navigation Code, when the aircraft is on the ground, the command is transferred to the Station Manager.
after a long 40-hour ordeal, the wife and child finally arrive and are reunited with the hijacker.
The local government has accepted the safe passage request and the airline has secured US$300,000 in cash thanks to the cooperation received by the country’s national bank, the only one able to reunite the sum in such a short time.
And so, the hijacker decides to turn himself in and free the passengers and crew left on board. Two had fled on their own by jumping from the Boeing 747, at the cost of a broken leg for one of them.
On the evening of July 1, the hijacker is escorted by the airport police and the local foreign minister to the stairs of the aircraft flying him and his family to Colombo (CMB).
Maybe some feel the instinct to jump at him at this moment but that would mean getting into serious trouble with the local authorities, so the only thing to do is look and regret it.
The hijacker gets a hero’s welcome at CMB, but, thanks to the actions of the Italian government, he is finally arrested on July 3 and goes to trial for air piracy in May 1983. The perp is sentenced to five years in prison, a late but welcome verdict.
Here ends the story of a day in the life of an airport station manager.
Featured image: al-airliners.be