27 years ago today, the Achille Lauro incident: when the U.S. Navy forced an Egyptair Boeing 737 off course

Oct 10 2012 - 10 Comments

In the night between Oct. 10 and 11, 1985 a scarcely known mission took place in the skies above the Mediterranean Sea.

That night, several combat planes belonging to the Carrier Air Wing 17 (CVW-17) lauched from USS Saratoga (CV-60) to intercept the Egyptair Boeing 737 which was carrying the terrorists who had hijacked the Achille Lauro liner off Egypt.

On October 7, 1985, four PLF militants men had hijacked the cruise ship. Holding the passengers and crew hostage, they directed the vessel to sail to Tartus, Syria, and demanded the release of 50 Palestinians then in Israeli prisons.

After two days of negotiations (and the killing of Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish retired businessman who was in a wheelchair) the terrorists agreed to abandon the ship in exchange for safe conduct and were flown towards Tunisia aboard an Egyptian commercial airliner.

On Oct. 10, while the Boeing 737 was taking off from Cairo, the “Super Sara” catapulted four F-14A (two belonging to VF-74 Be-Devilers and two belonging to VF-103 Sluggers), one E-2C (belonging to VAW-125 Tiger Tails), two KA-6D (belonging to VA-85 Black Falcons) and one EA-6B (belonging to VAQ-137 Rooks)  that had the task to intercep the airliner which transported the Achille Lauro hijackers.

Another E-2C, three more F-14s and two electronic intelligence aircrafts (one EA-3B and one RC-135) took part in the mission planned by the CAG (Commander Air Group) of the CVW-17, Robert “Bubba” Brodzky.

The mission was planned to be a night, lights out interception. The F-14s were vectored to the Boeing 737 by the E-2C and one VF-103’s Tomcat, exactly the BuNo 160904 side number 205, approaching the 737 from rear and below, was able to made the positive identification getting very close to airliner (about fifteen feet!!) to read its registration.

The E-2C vectored five more Tomcats (even though some sources say that there were only three) to join the lights out formation just above the island of Crete. From that moment on, each communication with the Egyptian Boeing was done by the E-2C which used a VHF frequency to transmit the order to divert to Sigonella, in Italy.

Only when the liner refused to comply with the order to divert, the E-2C ordered “LIGHTS ON, NOW!” that lit up all the F-14s surrounding the Boeing 737. The Hawkeye told to airliner crew that in one way or another they had to reach Sigonella and the 737 had to proceed to the airbase in Sicily.

Once on the ground, the Tomcats closed the airspace overhead for all incoming aircraft, except two USAF C-141 cargos which were carrying Navy SEALs team. As the American forces surrounded the Boeing , they were surrounded by the Italian military security (belonging to the Air Force and Carabinieri – the Military Police) forces that claimed Italian territorial rights over the base.

The diplomatic crisis was resolved after five hours of negotiations. The hijackers were left to the Italians that had to bring them to Rome with a special flight whereas the other passengers on the plane (including the hijackers’ leader, Muhammad Zaidan) were allowed to continue on to their destination, despite protests by the United States.

At around 22.00 local time, on Oct. 11, the Egyptair B737 took off from Sigonella to Rome Ciampino airport. The special flight got a special escort by two F-104S Starfighter of the 36° Stormo (Wing) from Gioia del Colle, later joined by two additional F-104s from Grazzanise airbase.

The 737 with its escort flight were later joined by some unknown aircraft, most probably U.S. F-14s, that approached the F-104s from behind. Although what happened next has never been fully disclosed, a sort of dogfight is believed to have taken place in the Tyrrhenian Sea while an EA-6B was jamming Italian radars.

As the formation approached Rome, the USN fighters turned back.

Even thought the events influenced the US-Italian diplomatic relations very negatively for quite some time, most probably, the night intercept was, until then, the most complex aerial anti-terrorist mission ever planned.

The Be-Devilers of VF-74 were disbanded on 28 april 1994 after they spent their last days as Adversary Squadron simulating aircrafts as MiG-29, MiG-31 and SU-27. Instead in the 1995 the Sluggers of VF-103  taking the skull and bones  left by the disbanded VF-84 and changed their name into Jolly Rogers.

Dario Leone for The Aviationist.com

Image credit: U.S. Navy

 

  • Bao Pham

    This was a fun article. Thanks for sharing :]

  • Bill G.

    This is back when we were a country with balls and didn’t need to bow at the altar of the U.N. to carry out effective foreign policy. Nowadays, we have 0bama, who doesn’t dare put out a negative press release against terrorists.

    • Peter J Yianilos

      Bill, your ignorance is breathtaking. Thankfully your finger is obviously not on a button of any consequence.

      • mike D

        Mr. Yianilos, I pray that you are never in a hostage situation. If you are, I pray that our country will come to your aid. BTW I was part of the terrorists capture. 2 Americans were murdered, one Mr. Klinghoffer was thrown overboard. He was a Jewish American. And the PLF (splinter group of PLO) were proud of themselves. One went on to plan attacks on US Soil, including 9/11. Just wanted to share.

  • Mr B.

    Thanks to bettino craxi, the corrupt and vile prime minister of the time. He thought he was very intelligent, negotiating with terrorists. In change Italy was spared from palestinian terrorism (remember the attacks at fiumicino arport a few years before).
    Typical italian behavior: betraying allies when there was a convenience.
    craxi finished his days in hammamet (Tunisia) from where he dared not return to Italy since he was accused of corruption.

    • Ano N. Ymous

      And the USA was any better exactly how? Remember the Suez!

  • jkm

    Read in a Navy Seal memoir that they planned for boarding the ship but never got the go ahead. When returning to the US the Navy Seals were diverted to handle this new opportunity with taking down the plane from Egypt. When landed the plane mistakenly stopped on the Italian side of the Sigionella base resulting in a stand-off between the Navy Seals and the Italians. The US plan was to detain the hijackers and bring them to the US for trial.

  • xdapao3

    As an Italian, I am deeply ashamed of and incensed at the actions of the then government. This is oh so typical of the way of thinking prevalent in contemporary socialist, third-worldist, politically correct, depressing Europe…

  • Dario Leone

    Hi guys thanks to everyone of you for reading my article and obviously for your comments! I try to write interesting stories and I really hope you like my posts!

  • James W McCarthy

    I never knew F 14s were dispatched a second time with a dog fight..no less.