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Turbulence Ahead

Machla Abramovitz

Thirty-eight years ago, Michel Bacos took the controls of Air France flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris. Landing in Entebbe was not on the flight plan.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

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n June 27, 1976, during a routine flight from Tel Aviv to Paris, Palestinian and German terrorists stormed the cockpit of an Air France Airbus A300 and commandeered the plane to Entebbe, Uganda. At the time of the hijacking, which occurred just after a short stopover in Athens, there were 246 passengers and 12 crew members on board.

Eight days later, on July 4, Israel launched Operation Thunderbolt, the famed mission that resulted in the rescue of over 100 hostages, the majority of whom were Jewish.

It’s been 38 years since the hijacking, but Air France pilot Captain Michel Bacos, 90, still remembers that horrendous week as if it were yesterday. Speaking from his home in Nice, France, Bacos comes across as charming and friendly, with a wry sense of humor. A hero in his own right, he was awarded France’s highest decoration, the National Order of the Legion of Honor, for refusing to abandon his post and standing by his plane and its passengers.

A bomber pilot during World War II, he saw action over the skies of North Africa, fighting for France’s Forces Françaises Libres. At the time of the hijacking, Bacos had clocked 32 years of flight time. Married, with three sons and many grandchildren, he has the greatest admiration for one particular Israeli commando, Sorin Herschu, who was paralyzed from the neck down after being struck by a Ugandan bullet during the operation. He and his family have visited Herschu often over the years. Occasionally, Bacos even receives an e-mail. Herschu manipulates the keyboard through a tiny stick that he places in his mouth.

Since Entebbe, and especially after retiring in 1984, Bacos has become a sought-after speaker and addressed many forums. In 1977, at the request of Air France, he recounted his experiences in front of an assembly of aviation specialists interested in revamping aviation laws dealing with security issues. The Israel government and many Jewish organizations have recognized Bacos for his bravery.

Is there any event from that fateful week that especially stands out in his mind? “When the shooting began, I remember thinking, ‘Tzahal is here to rescue us. Who else but the Israelis could it be?’ ”

 

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e were seven minutes out of Athens and I had just turned off the seatbelt sign, when I heard a loud commotion coming from behind the cockpit. Fearing it might be a fire, I quickly instructed my flight engineer, Jacques Lemoine, to check it out. He had barely opened the door when he came face to face with a man brandishing a gun and a grenade. The man quickly pushed Lemoine back inside while wielding his weapons at my copilot Daniel Lom and me.

Instantly, our hands shot up into the air, as if we were under arrest. “No, please, please,” we cried out.

“You,” yelled the man later identified as Wilfried Böse, pointing at Lom, “Get out now. I don’t want to look at you. We don’t need you.” He then turned to Lemoine and ordered him to sit beside me at the controls.

Böse grabbed hold of the mike. “Don’t touch anything on the controls without asking me,” he commanded in heavily accented English. He then instructed me to make a 180-degree turn due south, to Benghazi, Libya.

Instantly, the control panel lit up: Athens noted the sudden change in direction. Without my mike, I couldn’t respond to their repeated requests for clarification. Within moments, the operator understood that something had gone terribly wrong. Israel, Italy, and France were immediately alerted that Air France Flight 139 had just been hijacked.

Throughout the flight, Böse continually held a gun to the back of my head, occasionally poking me with it. We didn’t speak, except for him giving me instructions. Meanwhile, the other German, a woman named Brigitte Kuhlmann, and two Arab terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP] were pistol-whipping the passengers, declaring the flight now under their command. Böse and Kuhlmann were members of the extreme left-wing German Baader-Meinhof terrorist group. But neither I nor my flight engineer had any idea who they were or what they wanted. There was also no communication between us and the passengers; I feared terribly for their welfare.

Two and a half hours later we arrived at the Benina International Airport in Benghazi, Libya, with only 20 minutes of fuel left in the tank. We were expected there: The control tower operator welcomed us in President Gaddafi’s name. The heat was oppressive. One of our passengers, Patricia Martel, feigned a pregnancy and a miscarriage. She was released and flown to Paris, where she would later identify the terrorists from among intelligence photos.

More terrorists boarded the plane. It took a couple of hours for us to refuel. I insisted that Lemoine oversee the process. The Airbus was new and the Libyans did not know how to handle the refueling properly. We didn’t leave, though, till 10 p.m., hours later. When I asked where we were headed, Böse responded that it was none of my business. I was instructed to fly at an altitude of 29,000 feet due south. We flew over Egypt. I gave the German our positions, which he immediately conveyed to Cairo. It was clear that we were being followed from point to point.

By then, it was the middle of the night and outside it was coal black. Over the desert there was no radar control to direct the plane. Our landing lights were off. I was flying blind. It wasn’t until 20 minutes before arriving at Entebbe that I was told that this was to be our final destination. Frightened that the plane might have to land in absolute darkness and too exhausted to attempt to do that, I insisted that my copilot take over. Böse agreed and Daniel Lom was brought back into the cockpit, where he took control of the plane. Böse then contacted East African Airways, who gave us precise directions on where and how to land. This was fortunate, since the Entebbe control person who later guided us in spoke a mixture of Swahili and English and I didn’t understand a word he said.

Entebbe Airport’s landing lights were thankfully on. I saw other planes landing in the near distance. At 3 a.m., we were finally permitted to land, but with strict instructions to remain on board. Except for Böse who quickly left, none of us moved. Outside, there were guns on the ground as well as terrorists and Ugandan soldiers standing on guard. As morning broke, dozens of additional troops gathered on the tarmac. This was our welcoming committee. We were given breakfast and by midday were herded off the plane, with Ugandan guns pointed at us.

 There were two terminals — an old one and a new one. We were shepherded into the old terminal, which was located 100 meters from the plane and was then being used as a warehouse. It was filthy and dilapidated, with inadequate facilities for 258 people. There were mattresses on the floor. These were still in their wrapping papers — gifts from the Canadian Red Cross. We slept two to a mattress: The bedbugs were vicious. There were a number of bathrooms with showers in the back. The toilets kept clogging and backing up and there were few towels. Many of us shared the same one. We did our best to accommodate each other.

Later that day Ugandan dictator Idi Amin paid us a first visit. He was resplendent in his army fatigues and extremely welcoming. Upon seeing him, some Israelis applauded, thinking he had come to our rescue. Idi Amin had been on good terms with Israel in the past. They were disillusioned soon enough. After bidding us “Shalom” and telling us he was our friend, he blamed Israel for our troubles and threatened to have us killed if our governments did not comply with the hijackers’ demands.

Those demands were revealed soon enough. The terrorists wanted the release of 53 Arab and German terrorists, 40 of whom were held by Israel and the rest by West Germany, Kenya, France, and Switzerland. If they weren’t released by 2 p.m. Israel time on Thursday, they would begin executing the Jewish passengers. Of course, we didn’t know any of that then. We had no contact with anybody. The terrorists weren’t talking to us. What we did know was that they were preparing for something dreadful. Kuhlmann, who hated Jews, began separating them from the other passengers.

Some since claimed that not all the Jews were included, that it was the Israelis alone who were isolated. That’s not what I saw. An American named Cohen was included among the Israelis, as were others. They placed them in an adjacent room. They told us they had to do that because there were too many people in the main hall, but as a World War II veteran I well understood what this meant.

On Wednesday, 47 hostages were freed. Many were French citizens, including Arabs who boarded in Athens. The crew and I were given the option to leave with them. That’s when I took a principled stand. I told my crew that it is our moral and professional duty to remain with the passengers until the end, no matter what happens. Even during the war, no crew member was permitted to leave their passengers alone, whatever their nationality. I was staying, I told them, but whether they did or didn’t was up to them, although I made it very clear what I expected of them. Everyone, without exception, agreed. They were happy they stayed; they were able to calm the passengers. The passengers were scared. We were scared. None of us knew what to expect. But it was our job to comfort them.

It was excruciatingly hot and we were listless. We had no energy to do anything. Despite that, parents kept the children still and stopped them from running out. There were 100 Ugandan soldiers surrounding the terminal. If anyone stepped outside, for even a second, they would be shot. There was no place for the children to play. There was no music, no radio, absolutely nothing. We talked to each other. The Israelis were convinced that Israel would not abandon them, that they would come to their rescue. That’s why when the shooting started early Sunday morning, I was only half surprised. I had also been waiting for the Israelis to come. But at that point in time, all we could do was hope that discussions between the PFLP representatives and the various governments would prove fruitful.

By Thursday morning, 101 prisoners were released. A big tactical mistake, because later they would describe the terrorist positions to the Israeli rescue mission. By now only we and the 98 Jewish hostages remained. The Jews once again joined us in the main hall. We didn’t know that Israel had fallaciously agreed to the hijackers’ demands and that Idi Amin, who was in a rush to attend the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Mauritius, of which he was president, convinced the PFLP representatives to extend the deadline for executing the Jews by 72 hours.

What we also didn’t know was that the Israelis were carefully interrogating the released hostages who were back in Paris. What they discovered was that there were ten terrorists with machine guns and explosives guarding us and that they worked in shifts; two were resting in the adjacent VIP lounge at any one time. They also determined that at midnight we were ordered to lie down on our mattresses and that by 1 a.m. we were usually asleep. This was important information. The only ones standing up would be the terrorists. They also had the blueprints of the old terminal; Israeli architects and construction workers had designed and built it years before.

 

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peration Thunderbolt was one of the most audacious rescue missions ever carried out. The plan called for Israeli Lockheed C-130 Hercules air transports to land undetected in Entebbe under the cover of night, and for commandos to get from the airport to the terminal building unchallenged. At midnight Uganda time on July 4, the first Hercules landed. It was flown by Lt. Col. Joshua Shani and carried 72 tons of hardware. Lieutenant Colonel Yoni Netanyahu, the second-in-command, was on board.

Within moments, paratroopers from the Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s elite counterterrorism unit, jumped out to install landing beacons in case the terminal lights were turned off. They then made for the old terminal, to deal with the soldiers on guard outside. Meanwhile, a black Mercedes limousine drove out, carrying a cardboard license plate and tiny Ugandan flags that flapped in the wind. The Mercedes was followed by two Land Rovers, the whole procession simulating a presidential escort. Riding in the Mercedes was Deputy Commander Moshe “Muki” Betser with an additional eight commandos. It was their job to rescue the hostages. Driving at a steady 40 miles an hour, the Mercedes and Land Rovers drove right past the Ugandan guards, unchallenged. It was when another guard suspected a problem and raised his gun to stop the escort, 70 meters short of the terminal building, that shooting erupted. There was then a mad dash over the remaining stretch, with gunfire resounding from all directions.

Meanwhile, two other C-130s packed with 27 additional commandos and paratroopers descended onto the tarmac, guided by the beacons. Their task was to deal with the Ugandan soldiers, the Ugandan Air Force MiG-17s and MiG-21s, and to seize the new terminal and control tower. A fourth transport arrived shortly afterward.

Of course, we knew none of that. Hunkering down for the night, we sensed a tension in the air. The terrorists appeared agitated. We soon heard shooting outside. The German standing beside Lemoine’s mattress yelled at him to “stay down.” Another threatened to kill us all should anyone come to our rescue. It was light inside, but outside it was pitch black. The German ran outside and started shooting, but couldn’t see what he was shooting at. There was much confusion. Within seconds, the Israelis burst into the room, killing the terrorists. They came in two groups. One group closed the back doors to keep the Ugandan soldiers out, and the other helped the prisoners. “Stay down. Stay down,” they rapidly commanded in Hebrew. Two prisoners who stood up were tragically shot. The Israelis assured us that it would all be over within half an hour. We could hear the gunfire outside; Ugandan soldiers were returning fire.

 

Right on schedule, the Israelis secured the two terminal buildings and the control tower. Idi Amin and his senior officers, thinking that this was a coup, took shelter. We were told to leave all our belongings behind and were quickly rushed onto a waiting Hercules that had taxied up to the old terminal. The whole operation, from start to finish, took 53 minutes, according to Israeli Chief of Staff General Mordechai Gur, two minutes under its rehearsal time. In all, seven terrorists were killed, 20 Ugandan soldiers, and tragically, three hostages, as well as Lieutenant Colonel Netanyahu, who was shot outside the terminal. Dora Bloch, an elderly hostage who was hospitalized in Kampala, would later be killed by Amin’s thugs in retaliation for the raid. As well, four Ugandan flight attendants were executed for failing to see the approaching C-130s.

On board the plane, emotions ran high. There are no words to express our gratitude and relief. We could not believe it was over. We stopped in Nairobi, Kenya, for refueling for about an hour, where we were welcomed as any regular flight. The wounded were hospitalized there; my friend Sorin Herschu, one of the most courageous men I know, was among them.

Our flight back was uneventful. To keep off the Egyptian, Sudanese, and Saudi Arabian radars, the Hercules flew at less than 100 feet above the surface of the Gulf of Suez. We were later met en route by Israeli fighters who escorted us to Tel Nof Air Base near Rehovot. There we rested and were given clothes and shoes, some of us having arrived in slippers. Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin greeted us, as did Defense Minister Shimon Peres. They thanked me and the crew warmly for how we behaved throughout the ordeal.

We were debriefed and then flown to Tel Aviv, where we were ecstatically greeted by thousands of Israelis. After a quick meal in a hotel with the French ambassador to Israel, we flew back home. The reception there was not as warm or as animated as in Israel. The minister of transport was too busy playing bridge to show up, and another minister sent his assistant in his stead. Air France, though, came through beautifully. That entire week, they continually kept in touch with my wife, keeping her updated on whatever information they had.

I wasn’t traumatized by what happened. We were given 15 days leave to recuperate and after returning to work, I asked that my first flight be to Tel Aviv. I needed to know how I would feel, and I felt fine. Those horrifying seven days are still with me. It’s not something one ever forgets. But I rarely think about them now. The experience has made me a lot more philosophical. I don’t take problems to heart as much as before. I try to remain happy and composed, reminding myself that it could always be worse. It’s an attitude that continues to serve me well. 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 516)

 

 

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