The Achille Lauro Incident: When U.S. Navy F-14s Forced An Egyptair Boeing 737 Off Course

Achille Lauro Incident
Main image: F-14 of VF-74 landing on USS Saratoga in 1985 (USN). In the boxes: left, the B737 on the ground at Sigonella; right an F-104 of the 36° Stormo (Wing) of the Italian Air Force (image credit: ItAF)

Several things happened on this day in 1985: F-14s intercepted an Egyptair B737 carrying terrorists and forced it to land at Sigonella; after an armed standoff, the B737 took off again to Rome escorted by Italian F-104s and shadowed by USN fighters…

In the night between Oct. 10 and 11, 1985, 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.

In fact, few days earlier, 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 American 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.

Egyptair B737 similar to the one involved in the Achille Lauro incident (Image credit: JetPix via Wiki)

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 Egyptair B737 on the ground at Sigonella.

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.

U.S. Major General Stiner, in command of the American Special Operations Forces at Sigonella, boarded a U.S. Navy T-39 aircraft with other American Special Operations personnel and planned to shadow the 737, as they were not certain the terrorist would be really transferred to Rome. When the Egyptian airliner took off from Sigonella at 10:00 p.m. the T-39 was not granted clearance from that runway and, without a clearance, it departed from the parallel runway.

Shortly after take off, the Egyptair B737 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 of the 9° Stormo 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 while an EA-6B was jamming the Italian radars. Although what happened next has never been officially disclosed and some wild theories suggest the formations clashed in a sort of dogfight, it seems far more realistic that the Italians never engaged the American aircraft but remained in tight formation with the Boeing, with some pretty harsh radio comms being exchanged between the Italians and the Americans.

Anyway, as the formation made by the Boeing, the escorting F-104s and the F-14s approached Rome, the USN fighters turned back, while the T-39 continued to Ciampino. The Italian ATC (Air Traffic Control) did not clear the executive jet to land, but the T-39 declared an inflight emergency and eventually landed on RWY 15/33 at the airport: this unauthorized landing, along with the crisis at Sigonella and the American attempts to divert the B737 negatively influenced diplomatic relations between Italy and the U.S. for some time.

Anyway, despite the diplomatic crisis that followed the incident, 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 Apr. 28, 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  took the skull and bones left by the disbanded VF-84 and changed their name into Jolly Rogers.