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Airline hijackings were not a new phenomenon in 1970; the first skyjacking had occurred four decades earlier, and in 1969 alone, 71 planes were hijacked. But airport security remained patchwork at best, and on September 6, 1970, the flight crews of the four affected airplanes paid the price.
The first recorded skyjacking occurred in 1930 and involved Peruvian activists who commandeered an F-7 airplane and used it to drop propaganda booklets over their country. The skies were relatively quiet for the next 30 years, but in the 1960s, numerous American planes were hijacked and diverted to Cuba. Skyjacking soon spread to the Middle East; determined to gain attention for the Palestinian cause, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an El Al flight from Rome to Tel Aviv on July 23, 1968, diverting it to Algiers. At the time, flight personnel were instructed to obey hijacker demands and focus on keeping passengers safe; as the El Al pilot later said, "If an eighty-year-old woman had pointed a gun at me and demanded that I land in her son-in-law's garden in Algeria, I would have complied."
The July 1968 hijacking did not prompt any general improvement in airport security, and one year later the P.F.L.P. seized a TWA flight from Rome to Tel Aviv. In a 2000 interview, skyjacker Leila Khaled recalled, "There were no security measures like now. It was just very easy to go ... no searching, nothing ... you just show passport and you pass by." Airports at the time lacked metal detectors, and airlines set their own security procedures, with widely varying results. On September 6, 1970, that disparity would have dramatic consequences.
El Al Security
The P.F.L.P. attempted to hijack four airplanes that day: one each belonging to El Al, Pan Am, TWA, and Swissair. Of those, only El Al had responded to the wave of skyjackings with significant security changes; its flights now featured armed guards and armored cockpit doors. That day the four P.F.L.P. members were flagged as suspicious because they had shown up for their tickets at the last minute. The two whose Senegalese passports had consecutive numbers were removed from the flight, while Khaled, who had undergone plastic surgery to conceal her identity, and her comrade Patrick Arguello were allowed to stay. Twenty minutes later they drew concealed pistols and grenades and tried to commandeer the flight, but Captain Uri Bar Lev thwarted them. Lev put the plane into a sharp dive, knocking the hijackers off their feet, and Khaled was overpowered by a number of passengers. For his part, Arguello shot steward Shlomo Vider and was then mortally wounded by the armed guard on the plane. The flight soon landed in London, where Vider underwent emergency surgery (he would recover from his wounds), Arguello was pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital, and Khaled was arrested.
The hijackers on the other flights were more successful; they seized the Swissair and TWA planes without any resistance, and both were diverted to "Revolution Airport" in the middle of the Jordanian desert. Meanwhile, the two P.F.L.P. guerrillas turned away from El Al managed to get on board a Pan Am plane, where they again aroused suspicions. Unfortunately, the Pan Am captain who searched them did not detect the pistols and grenades they concealed. But Captain John Priddy was able to convince the hijackers that his airplane was too big to land on the desert airstrip in Jordan; after refueling in Beirut, the plane proceeded to Cairo, where the flight crew hustled off all the passengers, and the hijackers then blew up the aircraft. They were subsequently arrested by Egyptian authorities.
Incomplete Security Improvements
The multiple hijackings sent shock waves around the world, but its impact on airport security was not enough to prevent P.F.L.P. sympathizers from skyjacking yet another plane on September 9. This joined the others at Revolution Airport, where they were blown up by the P.F.L.P. on September 12. During their period of captivity, the flight crews endured the difficult conditions with calm and even a sense of humor; when asked about any shortages, the TWA flight engineer told reporters, "We're about out of jokes. ... Know any new ones?" But back in America the mood was increasingly serious, and President Richard Nixon decided something had to be done about airline security. He ordered an initial group of some 100 federal agents to begin serving as armed air marshals on U.S. flights, and the program would be expanded in the days to come. An international convention aimed at combating skyjacking assembled later that year, and countries began coordinating security measures and stiffening criminal penalties. By the end of 1972, the Federal Aviation Administration had ordered all U.S. airlines to start screening every passenger and piece of luggage. These efforts were aided by the introduction of the first airport metal detectors, then called magnetometers. But airline hijackings did not disappear in the years after 1970, and gaps in American airport security remained. Those gaps would be exploited most tragically some 30 years later, on September 11, 2001.