44 Years On: The Hijack Of Lufthansa Flight 181

It has now been 44 years since the hijack of Lufthansa flight 181. Considered to be one of…

44 Years On: The Hijack Of Lufthansa Flight 181

It has now been 44 years since the hijack of Lufthansa flight 181. Considered to be one of the defining events of the so-called ‘German Autumn,’ the five-day ordeal saw one of the German flag carrier’s Frankfurt-bound Boeing 737s taken to Mogadishu, Somalia.

The hijacked aircraft was a seven-year-old Boeing 737-200. Photo: Dean Morley via Flickr

The German Autumn – a brief background

To understand the context within which Lufthansa flight 181 was hijacked, it is important to establish the tense political climate in which the incident occurred. Late 1977 saw a series of events take place known as the German Autumn. These were characterized by attacks carried out by a radical left-wing group known as the Red Army Faction (RAF).

Born out of the 1968 student movement in Germany, the RAF targeted high-ranking political and financial figures. The group was driven by a feeling of frustration regarding older generations’ lack of action when it came to addressing the country’s dark history during the Nazi era (1933-1945), particularly during the Second World War.

The hijack of Lufthansa flight 181 came about following the arrests of several key RAF members. It was hoped that the event could be used as a means of leverage to secure their release. However, the result was instead the end of both the German Autumn and the first generation of the RAF’s leadership. Let’s examine how exactly the hijack panned out.

Lufthansa Boeing 737-200C
Lufthansa operated both the standard and convertible (pictured) 737-200. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

An ordinary flight and aircraft

Lufthansa flight 181 was very ordinary in nature, to begin with. The service originated in Palma de Mallorca, and its destination was Frankfurt. This remains a key route today, with the Spanish island being a popular holiday destination among German tourists. Indeed, Mallorca has even become known unofficially as the 17th German state for this reason.

The flight took off on October 13th, 1977, at 14:00 local time. It had 90 passengers and five crew members (two pilots and three flight attendants) onboard. The aircraft operating it bore the registration D-ABCE, and the name Landshut, after a Bavarian town.

According to data from ATDB.aero, this was one of six convertible Boeing 737-200C aircraft to fly for Lufthansa. The airline also flew 44 examples of the standard passenger-carrying 737-200. D-ABCE had joined the German flag carrier on January 12th, 1970

Lufthansa Boeing 737-200 Model
A model of D-ABCE, featuring the distinctive cheatline of Lufthansa’s old livery. Photo: aceebee via Flickr

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The hijack begins

While the flight was cruising over Marseille, France, four militants from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine began the hijack. One entered the cockpit while the others remained in the cabin, where they instructed passengers and crew to put their hands up.

Among those in the cabin was the flight’s First Officer, Jürgen Vietor. He had been removed from the cockpit by hijacker Zohair Youssif Akache, who took his place to coerce Captain Jürgen Schumann to divert away from Frankfurt and head to Larnaca, Cyprus. This required a midway fuel stop in Rome, where the aircraft landed that afternoon.

D-ABCE Hijack Map
The aircraft diverted significantly from its planned course. Photo: Devilm25 via Wikimedia Commons

It was at this point that the hijackers made their demands. Specifically, they asked for $15 million ($68 million today), as well as the release of 10 detained RAF members and two fellow Palestinians that were in Turkey at the time. Italian authorities elected not to act, instead ridding themselves of the issue by allowing the aircraft to take off that evening.

Over the next few days, the aircraft made several stops as it journeyed through Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. A two-and-a-half-hour stop in Larnaca saw the plane refuel once again, before continuing its journey. Landing clearance in several Middle Eastern locations was denied, but it eventually touched down in Bahrain in the early morning of October 14th.

Lufthansa Boeing 737-200
The aircraft stopped in Bahrain, Dubai, and Aden along the way. Photo: Rob Hodgkins via Flickr

Into the Middle East

Local troops surrounded the aircraft upon its arrival in Bahrain. However, they withdrew following a threat from the hijackers that they would shoot co-pilot Jürgen Vietor. This allowed them to get the plane refueled and depart again at 03:24 local time. The plane’s next stop was Dubai, where the aircraft had to land due to it running low on fuel.

This happened despite attempts to block the airport’s runway to prevent the hijacked jet from touching down. The aircraft remained on the ground in the UAE for more than two days, during which a rescue attempt was considered. However, the German special forces instead to undertake practice exercises ahead of the real thing, and trained for 45 hours.

The aircraft eventually took off again just after midday on October 16th, 1977. Its next destination was Aden in Yemen, where the plane had to touch down on a sandy surface owing to being refused permission to land on either of its actual runways.

Lufthansa Boeing 737-200
Lufthansa later flew 737-200s in the new livery under the Express brand. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

This prompted Captain Jürgen Schumann to undertake an inspection of the aircraft before continuing. He did so with permission from the hijackers, but, after he didn’t return as quickly as the militants had wanted, he was fatally shot in front of the passengers.

Following this, First Officer Vietor was made to take control of the aircraft. After refueling, the flight took off once again just after two in the morning on October 17th. The departure is said to have been rather slow, and even dangerously so. Flight 181 made its final touchdown in Mogadishu, Somalia, at around 06:34 local time on October 17th.

The rescue operation

Upon landing, the hijackers actually gave Vietor permission to flee following a textbook landing. However, he elected to remain onboard with the flight’s passengers and crew. Meanwhile, the hijackers set a 16:00 deadline for the release of the RAF prisoners.

TAF Boeing 737-200
The aircraft ended its career at TAF in 2008. Photo: Marcello Casal via Wikimedia Commons

They later extended this to 02:30 on the morning of October 18th, and were soon told that the RAF members had indeed been set free and were in transit to Mogadishu. Meanwhile, an unlit Boeing 707 full of special forces commandos landed in darkness in preparation for the rescue operation. This began at just after two in the morning.

Having first lit a small fire to distract the militants, the special forces stormed the aircraft through its emergency doors. A brief gun battle followed, resulting in the deaths of three of the four hijackers (two immediately and one later). The fourth hijacker was injured, as were three passengers and a member of cabin crew, who were caught in the crossfire.

The operation took just five minutes, concluding at 02:12 local time. With the rescue attempt complete, passengers were evacuated from the aircraft, with all 86 leaving alive. They were then flown to Cologne along with the commandos that same morning.

LH181 Flightpath
Lufthansa now uses the flight number LH181 for a service from Berlin to Frankfurt. Image: RadarBox.com

The aftermath

The survivors and their rescuers arrived back to a hero’s welcome. All in all, their ordeal had lasted just under five days from start to finish. The failure of the hijackers to receive their demands proved to be a defining moment at the end of the German Autumn.

The deaths of three leading RAF members among the prisoners the militants had hoped to secure the release of followed shortly after. These deaths remain surrounded by controversy, and are alleged to have been suicides within the prison walls. This forms a key storyline in director Uli Edel’s 2008 German film The Baader Meinhof Complex.

As for the aircraft, data from ATDB.aero shows that it stayed with Lufthansa until 1985. It continued to fly for several decades, eventually bowing out in 2008 having most recently served Brazilian carrier TAF Linhas Aéreas. As seen in the image above, the flight number LH181 remains active today, albeit for a different route, namely Berlin-Frankfurt.

Did you know about the hijacking of Lufthansa flight 181? What are your memories of this event? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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Japan Airlines Boeing 777 Faces Engine Malfunction After Takeoff

Earlier this week, a Tokyo-bound Japan Airlines Boeing 777 had to return to Los Angeles after departure following…

Japan Airlines Boeing 777 Faces Engine Malfunction After Takeoff

Earlier this week, a Tokyo-bound Japan Airlines Boeing 777 had to return to Los Angeles after departure following an engine malfunction. The incident occurred as the aircraft was climbing out of the Californian air hub, and resulted in flames being emitted from the jet’s right-hand turbofan. Let’s take a closer look at how the incident unfolded.

The flight had to dump fuel following the engine malfunction. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

The flight in question

Japan Airlines (JAL) flight JL15 is a regularly scheduled service that originates at Los Angeles International (LAX) in California. Data from RadarBox.com shows that it runs almost daily. Indeed, it has operated every day this month (and will continue to do so tomorrow) except, funnily enough, today. Its scheduled departure time is 13:45.

The flight’s destination is Tokyo Haneda (HND). Its arrival there is timed to take place at 17:20 the next day, giving a planned duration of 11 hours and 35 minutes. The flight travels westbound across the Pacific Ocean, crossing the date line in the process.

JAL has exclusively deployed the Boeing 777-300ER on this flight in the last month. The Japanese flag carrier faces strong competition on the route, with four other carriers present. These are American Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines.

Japan Airlines Boeing 777-300ER Getty
The Boeing 777-300ER is a fixture on JAL’s Los Angeles-Tokyo Haneda flights. Photo: Getty Images

What happened?

According to data from RadarBox, flight JL15 on Friday, October 15th didn’t get off to the best start, departing almost an hour late at 14:33 local time. However, the flight was about to run into far greater problems. Indeed, The Aviation Herald reports that, while climbing away from runway 25R at LAX, the aircraft experienced a fiery engine malfunction.

The striking nature of the incident is evident in the tweet above. With flames being emitted from the 777’s right-hand GE90 turbofan, the crew declared an emergency. Having stopped their climb at 5,000 feet, ATC instructed them to continue to 6,000 feet to begin the fuel dumping process. This ensured that the plane wouldn’t be overweight upon landing.

Circling to the southwest of the city near Santa Catalina Island, the flight eventually dumped enough fuel to be at a suitable landing weight. It touched back down safely on LAX’s runway 25L, with data from FlightRadar24.com showing that it did so at 15:18 local time, after 45 eventful minutes in the air. A safe taxi back to the apron followed.

JL15 Flightpath 15Oct2021
The flight path of JL15 on Friday, October 15th. Image: RadarBox.com

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The aircraft involved

The Boeing 777-300ER that experienced the fiery engine malfunction bears the registration JA740J. Data from ch-aviation.com shows that it is 13.16 years old, having joined JAL brand-new in August 2008. It seats 244 passengers in a four-class configuration.

The bulk of these make up the 147-seat, nine-abreast economy class cabin. Offering more legroom, there are also 40 eight-abreast premium economy seats, with a generous 42-inch pitch. When it comes to lie-flat comfort, JA740J has 49 business class flatbeds in a seven-abreast setup. Finally, it also has an exclusive eight-bed four-abreast first class cabin.

JA740J remains on the ground at LAX. Simple Flying has reached out to Japan Airlines for more information following the incident. We shall add any extra details upon receiving them.

What do you make of this incident? Have you ever witnessed such a fiery engine malfunction? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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