Timeline: The golden age of air crimes

A look back at some of the worst airline-related terrorism of the '70s, '80s and '90s

Published August 28, 2009 10:10AM (EDT)

Despite what many young Americans seem to think, aircraft sabotage did not begin with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It has been with us for decades. Here is a list of some of the worst air-related terrorist acts of the '70s, '80s and '90s.

An earlier version of this list appeared here.

1970: A Pan Am 747 bound for New York is skyjacked after takeoff from Amsterdam. The flight is diverted to Cairo, where all of the 170 occupants are released. Radicals then blow up the plane.

1970: In the so-called "Black September" hijackings, five jets, including ones belonging to TWA, Pan Am and Israel's El Al, are commandeered over Europe over a three-day span by a group called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Three of the five planes are diverted to a remote airstrip in Jordan, rigged with explosives and blown up. A fourth is flown to Egypt and destroyed there. All passengers had been freed before the aircraft were demolished.

1971: A man using the name D.B. Cooper skyjacks and threatens to blow up a Northwest Orient (Northwest Airlines nowadays) 727. He parachutes out the back of the plane with a hefty ransom and is never seen again, dead or alive.

1972: A JAT (Yugoslav Airlines) DC-9 en route from Copenhagen to Zagreb explodes at 33,000 feet, killing 27 people. The Ustashe, aka Croatian National Movement, admits to the bombing.

1972: Explosion aboard a Cathay Pacific jet flying from Bangkok to Hong Kong kills 81 people. A Thai police lieutenant is accused of hiding the bomb in order to murder his fiancée.

1972: In the arrivals lounge of the Lod airport near Tel Aviv, three men from the Japanese Red Army, recruited by the Palestinian PFLP, open fire with machine guns and grenades, killing 26 people and injuring 80.

1973: As passengers board a Pan Am 747 at the airport in Rome, terrorists spray the plane with gunfire and toss grenades into the cabin, killing 30.

1973: Eighty-one perish as an Aeroflot jet explodes over Siberia during an attempted skyjacking.

1974: A TWA 707 flying from Athens to Rome (part of Tel Aviv-New York service), falls into the sea near Greece, killing all 88 aboard, the result of an explosive device hidden in the aft cargo compartment.

1974: A man detonates two grenades aboard an Air Vietnam 727 when the crew refuses to fly him to Hanoi. Seventy-five people, including the bomber, are killed.

1976: A Cubana DC-8 crashes near Barbados, killing 73. An anti-Castro exile and three alleged accomplices are put on trial but acquitted for lack of evidence.

1977: Both pilots of a Malaysian Airline System (today called Malaysia Airlines) 737 are shot by a skyjacker. The plane crashes into a swamp. All 100 people aboard die.

1985: The Abu Nidal group kills 20 people in a pair of coordinated ticket-counter assaults at airports in Vienna and Rome.

1985: Shiite militiamen armed with grenades and pistols overtake TWA Flight 847 traveling (again) from Athens to Rome. The purloined 727 then embarks on a remarkable 17-day odyssey to Lebanon, Algeria and back again. At one point passengers are removed, split into groups and held captive in downtown Beirut. The sole casualty is a U.S. Navy diver who is shot in the temple and dumped on the tarmac. All remaining hostages are eventually released, but not before the Israeli government agrees to free more than 700 Shiite fighters captured in southern Lebanon. The photograph of TWA captain John Testrake, his head out the cockpit window, collared by a gun-wielding terrorist, was broadcast worldwide and became an unforgettable icon of the siege.

1985: An Air India 747 on a service between Toronto and Bombay is bombed over the North Atlantic by Sikh extremists. The 329 fatalities remain history's worst single-plane act of terrorism. A second bomb, intended for another Air India 747, detonates prematurely in Tokyo before being loaded.

1986: As TWA flight 840 descends through 10,000 feet toward Athens, a bomb goes off in the cabin. Four people die when they're ejected through a tear in the 727's fuselage.

1986: At Karachi international airport, a Pan Am 747 is preparing for departure when four heavily armed members of the Abu Nidal group seize the aircraft. When Pakistani forces storm the plane, the terrorists begin shooting and lobbing grenades. Twenty-two passengers are killed and 150 are wounded. Although all four terrorists are captured and sent to prison in Pakistan, they're released in 2001.

1987: A Korean Air Lines 707 explodes over the Andaman Sea en route from Baghdad to Seoul, killing all 115 aboard. One of two Koreans suspected of hiding a bomb commits suicide before he's arrested. His accomplice, a young woman, confesses to leaving the device -- fashioned from both plastic and liquid explosives -- in an overhead rack before disembarking during an intermediate stop. Although condemned to death, the woman is pardoned in 1990 by the president of South Korea.

1987: A recently fired employee, David Burke, sneaks a loaded gun past security in Los Angeles and boards a Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) jet on its way to San Francisco. During cruise, he gains access to the cockpit and shoots both pilots and himself, the latter after aiming the plane toward the ground in a vertical dive. All 43 people on board are killed.

1988: Pan Am Flight 103 to New York disintegrates about a half hour out of London. The majority of the wreckage falls onto the town of Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on the plane and 11 more on the ground.

1989: One hundred seventy people from 17 countries, including seven Americans, are killed when an explosive device goes off in the forward luggage hold of a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 on a flight from Brazzaville, Congo, to Paris on the French airline UTA.  The wreckage fell into the Tenere region of the Sahara, in northern Niger, one of the planet's most remote areas.  

1989: In an attempt to kill police informants, members of a cocaine cartel blow up Avianca Flight 203 bound from Bogota to Cali. There are no survivors among the 110 crew and passengers.

1990: A young man claiming to have explosives strapped to his body forces his way into the cockpit of a Xiamen Airlines 737 and demands to be flown to Taiwan. Running out of fuel, the crew attempts a landing at Canton (Guangzhou), when a struggle erupts. The plane veers off the runway and collides with two stationary aircraft, killing 128 people.

1994: Riding along as an auxiliary crewmember, Auburn Calloway, an off-duty Federal Express pilot scheduled for termination, attacks the three-man crew of a DC-10 with a spear-gun and hammer, nearly killing all of them. His plan, before he's finally overtaken by the battered and bloodied pilots, is to crash the huge airliner into FedEx's Memphis headquarters.

1994: An Air France A300 is stormed by a foursome of extremist Muslims in Algeria. The plane is forced to Marseilles, where seven people die when French troops rush aboard for a rescue. An Air France pilot is seen hurling himself out of a cockpit window while an explosion flashes behind him.

1996: An Ethiopian Air Lines 767 is skyjacked over the Indian Ocean. The jet runs out of fuel and heads for a ditching off the Comoros Islands. Skyjackers wrestle with the pilots, and the plane breaks apart upon hitting the water, killing 125.

1999: A deranged 28-year-old forces his way onto the flight deck of an All Nippon Airways 747 carrying 503 people and stabs the captain to death with an 8-inch knife.

1999: Air Botswana captain Chris Phatswe steals an otherwise empty ATR commuter plane and slams it into two parked aircraft, killing himself and destroying virtually the entire fleet of his nation's tiny airline.

And not to forget, of course, what might have been. Once again I'll remind you of Ramzi Yousef, al-Qaida conspirator linked to the 1993 World Trade Center prelude, and master mixer of hard-to-detect liquid explosives. Yousef's chemistry projects were part of so-called Project Bojinka ("Big Bang"), a plan to blow up a dozen jetliners simultaneously over the Pacific Ocean. Before he was apprehended in Pakistan in 1995, Yousef completed a test run on a Philippine Airlines 747, killing a Japanese businessman with a small under-seat bomb.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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