On May 8, 1972, a Belgian Sabina flight coded Flight 571 set off from Vienna towards Tel Aviv.
But just twenty minutes after takeoff, it was hijacked by four terrorists; two men and two women from the Black September terror group.
And this set off a series of events leading up to Operation Isotope, which was one of the most daring rescue operations in Israel’s history.
The Plane’s Captain Stayed Calm
Twenty minutes out of Vienna, the hijackers rushed the cockpit.
"As you can see, we have friends aboard".
Captain Levy told the ninety passengers on board
Captain Reginald Levy, who piloted the Sabena Flight 571.
While the passengers and the captain waited, hoping that something would happen and lead to their safety, Reginald Levy talked about everything "from navigation to s**" with the terrorists, and unbeknown to the terrorists, Levy’s wife was a passenger on the plane.
Captain Levy secretly sent in distress signals, which were received by Israeli Security Minister Moshe Dayan, and Dayan immediately began negotiations with the terrorists, while simultaneously planning a covert rescue operation: Operation Isotope.
The British pilot, Captain Levy, after flying RAF World War II bombing missions over Germany and taking part in the Berlin airlift, had joined Sabena in 1952. He retired in 1982 and died, from a heart attack, at a hospital near his home in Dover on 1 August 2010.
The hijacking took place on his 50th birthday!
What The Terrorists Wanted
Aboard the plane, the terrorists were demanding the release of 315 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails, claiming they would blow up the plane if their demands were not met.
And soon after the hijacking, the hijackers separated the Jewish hostages from non-Jews and sent the Jews to the back of the aircraft.
The Plane Arrives At Ben-Gurion Airport
The Sabena flight reached Tel-Aviv, landing in Lod Airport, which is now called Ben-Gurion Airport, and Captain Levy was sent out to show the waiting Israelis a sample of the explosives on the plane, to convince them of the threat.
Disabling The Aircraft
The goal of the Israeli operation was to get the passengers safely off the plane before the terrorists could kill them.
During the night, an undercover IDF squad secretly slashed the plane’s tires and disconnected its hydraulic equipment.
Next, Defense Minister Dayan used a bogus group of prisoners to trick the terrorists into believing the negotiated prisoner exchange was taking place.
With the make believe prisoners supposedly headed for Cairo.
After convincing the terrorists that the plane was in desperate need of repairs, a team of sixteen elite commandos, (the Sayeret Matkal) boarded the grounded aircraft in white overalls, disguised as airplane technicians.
The Rescue Operation
Within ten minutes of boarding the plane, the squad of elite commandos managed to kill the two male terrorists, arrest the two female terrorists, and neutralize the threat to the passengers.
Injuries And Arrests
The crew and eighty seven civilians on board were unharmed, and three were injured, one of whom later died from her injuries.
Netanyahu was also shot during the operation, reportedly by friendly fire.
The surviving female terrorists were sentenced to life in Israeli prison, but were later released in the prisoner exchange deal following the 1982 Lebanon War.
Ehud Barak is the third disguised airplane technician from the left holding the handgun, walking off the plane after successfully completing the operation with his team.
Two Future Israeli Prime Ministers
Among the commandos were Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, both of whom eventually became Israeli prime ministers.
The airplane that was victim to the hijacking was flown for an additional five years before being sold to the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and the IAF ended up using it to carry out spy missions.