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Pan Am Flight 73

Coordinates: 24°54′24″N 67°09′39″E / 24.90667°N 67.16083°E / 24.90667; 67.16083
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Pan Am Flight 73
N656PA, the aircraft involved in the hijacking, in May 1983
DateSeptember 5, 1986
SiteJinnah International Airport, Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan
24°54′24″N 67°09′39″E / 24.90667°N 67.16083°E / 24.90667; 67.16083
Aircraft typeBoeing 747-121
Aircraft nameClipper Empress of the Seas
OperatorPan American World Airways
Flight originChhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport
Mumbai, India
StopoverJinnah International Airport
Karachi, Pakistan
Last stopoverFrankfurt am Main Airport
Frankfurt, West Germany
DestinationJohn F. Kennedy Int'l Airport
New York City, United States

Pan Am Flight 73 was a Pan American World Airways flight from Bombay, India, to New York, United States, with scheduled stops in Karachi, Pakistan, and Frankfurt, West Germany.

On September 5, 1986, the Boeing 747-121 serving the flight was hijacked while on the ground at Karachi by four armed Palestinian terrorists of the Abu Nidal Organization. The aircraft, with 360 passengers on board, had just arrived from Bombay.[2] A grand jury later concluded that the militants were planning to use the hijacked airliner to pick up Palestinian prisoners in both Cyprus and Israel.[3]

More than twenty passengers were killed during the hijacking, including nationals from India, the United States, Pakistan, and Mexico. All the hijackers were arrested and sentenced to death in Pakistan. However, the sentences were later commuted to life in prison. Neerja Bhanot, head attendant on the flight, was shot dead and posthumously received the fourth highest civil award, the Tamgha-e-Pakistan from Pakistan as well as India's highest peacetime award for bravery, the Ashok Chakra Award, for her efforts to save passengers' lives.[4]

Hijacking at Karachi[edit]

Pan Am Flight 73 originated in Mumbai and stopped at the Karachi airport for a scheduled stopover at 4:30 a.m. It was carrying 394 passengers and 9 infants, an American flight crew and 13 Indian flight attendants. A total of 109 passengers disembarked at Karachi. The first busload of fresh passengers from Karachi had barely reached the aircraft standing on the tarmac when the hijacking began to unfold.[5]

Two hijackers dressed in the sky-blue uniforms of the Pakistan Airport Security Force drove up to the aircraft in a van fitted with a siren and flashing lights. They rushed up the ramp, firing shots into the air. Another two hijackers joined the first two men, one of them dressed in Pakistani shalwar kameez and carrying a briefcase full of grenades. There was also gunfire outside the aircraft reported around this time, which killed two Kuwait Airlines staff members working on an aircraft nearby. The hijackers fired shots at the feet of a flight attendant forcing him to close the door. Another flight attendant, Neerja Bhanot, was out of sight of the hijackers and relayed the hijack code to the cockpit crew, who subsequently exited the aircraft through the overhead emergency hatch, via the Inertial Reel Escape Device.[a][b] After about 40 minutes from the landing of Flight 73, the airliner came under the control of the hijackers. The exit of the pilots immobilised the aircraft.[c][5][8][7][9]

The four hijackers were dressed as Karachi airport security guards and were armed with assault rifles, pistols, grenades, and plastic explosive belts. The hijackers drove a van that had been modified to look like an airport security vehicle through a security checkpoint up to one of the boarding stairways to Pan Am Flight 73.[7]

The four hijackers were later identified as Zayd Hassan Abd al-Latif Safarini (Safarini, alias "Mustafa"), Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim (alias "Fahad"), Muhammad Abdullah Khalil Hussain ar-Rahayyal ("Khalil"), and Muhammad Ahmed Al-Munawar (alias "Mansoor"). Pakistani authorities also identified another accomplice Wadoud Muhammad Hafiz al-Turki ("Hafiz") and arrested him a week later.[7][10]

Demand for pilot[edit]

Within a short time after seizing control of the aircraft, the lead hijacker Safarini realized that the cockpit crew had escaped and therefore he would be forced to negotiate with officials. First and business class passengers were ordered to go towards the back of the plane. At the same time, passengers at the back of the plane were ordered forward. Since the aircraft was nearly full, passengers sat down in the aisles, galleys and door exits.

At approximately 10:00, Safarini went through the plane and arrived at the seat of Rajesh Kumar, a 29-year-old Kenya-born Indian resident of Huntington Beach, California, who had recently been naturalized as an American citizen. Safarini ordered Kumar to come to the front of the aircraft, to kneel at the front doorway of the aircraft, and to face the front of the aircraft with his hands behind his head. Safarini negotiated with officials, in particular Viraf Daroga, the head of Pan Am's Pakistan operation, stating that if the crew was not sent on the plane within 30 minutes, then Kumar would be shot.

Shortly thereafter, Safarini became impatient with the officials and grabbed Kumar and shot him in the head in front of witnesses both on and off the aircraft. Safarini heaved Kumar out of the door onto the ramp below. Pakistani personnel on the ramp reported that Kumar was still breathing when he was placed in an ambulance, but he was pronounced dead on the way to the hospital in Karachi.[citation needed]

Safarini joined the hijackers and ordered flight attendants Bhanot, Sunshine Vesuwala,[11] and Madhvi Bahuguna[12] to begin collecting passports. They complied with this request. During the collection of the passports, believing passengers with American passports would be singled out by the hijackers, the flight attendants proceeded to hide some of the American passports under seats, and dumped the rest down a rubbish chute.[13][non-primary source needed]

After the passports had been collected, Bhanot came onto the intercom and asked for Michael John Thexton, a British citizen, to come to the front of the plane. Thexton was returning home to England after visiting Pakistan for a personal pilgrimage to Broad Peak, where his brother, a keen mountaineer, had died of altitude sickness in 1983, and boarded the flight in Karachi to disembark at the Frankfurt stop and connect to another Pan Am flight for London.[14] He went through the curtain into the front of the plane where he came face to face with Safarini, who was holding Thexton's passport. He asked Thexton if he was a soldier and if he had a gun, Thexton replied "No". He ordered Thexton onto his knees. Safarini told the officials that if anyone came near the plane that he would go on to kill another passenger.[13]

Viraf Daroga told Safarini that there was a crew member on board who was able to use the cockpit radio and asked him to negotiate through radio. Safarini went back to Thexton and asked him whether he would like a drink of water, to which Thexton replied "Yes." Safarini also asked Thexton if he was married, and claimed he did not like all this violence and killing and said that the Americans and Israelis had taken over his country and left him unable to lead a proper life.[citation needed] One of the hijackers ordered Thexton to return to his seat.[citation needed]

Thexton had the opportunity to ask his hijacker about this experience forty years later, and ask why he had not been shot. The hijacker explained that when Thexton had told him that his brother had died and he didn't want to leave his mother childless that the hijacker had sympathy for him and let him go.[15]

The hijack stalemate continued on into the night. During the stalemate, Dick Melhart was positioned by the door and was able to unlock it when the firing started.[16] About 21:00 the auxiliary power unit shut down, all lighting turned off, and emergency lights came on. Passengers at the front were ordered toward the back, while passengers at the back were ordered forward. Since the aisles were already full of passengers, those passengers standing just sat down.[citation needed]

With the plane out of power and sitting in near darkness, a hijacker at the L1 door said a prayer and then aimed to shoot at the explosive belt worn by another hijacker near the door. The intent was to cause an explosion massive enough to kill all passengers and crew on board, as well as themselves, but this failed. Immediately the hijackers began shooting their weapons into the cabin at passengers and threw grenades.[8]

Ultimately it was the bullets that created the most damage since each bullet would bounce off aircraft cabin surfaces and create crippling shrapnel. An air hostess at the L3 door opened the door; although the slide did not deploy, several passengers and crew jumped down the fifteen feet or 6m/20 ft.[8] to the ramp.

Dick Melhart was able to unlatch the door at R3 which was the exit over the wing, passengers jumped out from this exit. A grounds staff trapped on board during the ordeal was responsible for opening the R4 door, which was the only door armed to deploy the emergency slide. Ultimately this slide allowed for more passengers to evacuate safely and without injuries. Bhanot and the other crew members bravely escorted as many passengers as they could first and then evacuated themselves afterwards.[17]

Rescue assault[edit]

The Pakistani unit responsible for taking the plane was the Special Service Group (SSG) which was led by Brig. Tariq Mehmood. The SSG Commandos closed in on the aircraft after the power unit went out but did not begin storming the plane until they heard shots fired from within the plane. By the time the commandos reached the plane, many passengers had already begun escaping.[18]

There are some inconsistencies regarding the Pakistani Army's reported response to the generator dying. This confusion was later attributed to a rush by officials to take credit for a successful assault on the hijackers followed by a walking-back of statements once the death toll of the tragedy became clear.[19]


The 365 total passengers plus crew on Pan Am 73 were citizens of 14 different countries. Citizens of India represented roughly 27% of the people on board the flight, and 24% of those killed. Citizens of three countriesIndia, Italy, and the United Kingdomtogether represented the bulk (71%) of those killed.


[citation needed]

Nationality Passengers Crew Total Victims
Australia 4 0 4 2
Belgium 2 0 2 0
Canada 30 0 30 0
Denmark 8 0 8 2
France 4 1 5 0
Germany 81 3 84 0
India 91 13 104 12
Ireland 5 0 5 4
Italy 27 0 27 13
Mexico 8 0 8 2
Pakistan 44 0 44 3
Sweden 2 0 2 0
United Kingdom 15 4 19 11
United States 44 2 46 2
Total 365 23 388 51

Cockpit crew[edit]

  • Captain William Allen "Bill" Kianka (born June 1, 1934), Age 52, He served in the U.S. Navy from 1952 to 1954 and fought in one tour in the Korean War, and was serving with Pan Am as a Captain since 1954.
  • First Officer Conway Tehan Dodge Sr. (born May 30, 1933), Age 53, He served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1951 to 1955 and fought in two tours in the Korean War, and was serving with Pan Am as a First Officer since 1955.
  • Flight Engineer John Joseph Ridgway (born September 25, 1940), Age 45, He was serving with Pan Am as a Flight Engineer since 1962.


Trial and sentencing[edit]

On July 6, 1988, the five Palestinian men were convicted in Pakistan for their roles in the hijacking and murders and sentenced to death: Zayd Hassan Abd al-Latif Safarini, Wadoud Muhammad Hafiz al-Turki, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, Muhammad Abdullah Khalil Hussain ar-Rahayyal, and Muhammad Ahmed al-Munawar.[20] The sentences were later commuted to life in prison.

According to a CNN report, Safarini was handed over to the FBI from a prison in Pakistan in September 2001.[20][21][22] He was taken to the United States where on May 13, 2005, he was sentenced to a 160-year prison term.[20] At the plea proceeding, Safarini admitted that he and his fellow hijackers committed the offences as members of the Abu Nidal Organization, also called the ANO, a designated terrorist organization.

The other four prisoners were deported by Pakistani authorities to PA in Israel in 2008.[22][23]

Libyan involvement and legal action[edit]

Libya has been accused of sponsoring the hijacking, as well as carrying out the bombings of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 and UTA Flight 772 in 1989.

In August 2003, Libya accepted responsibility for "the actions of its officials" for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, but was silent on the question of the Pan Am Flight 73 hijacking.[24] Libya offered US$2.7 billion in compensation to the families of the 270 victims of Pan Am Flight 103 and,[24] in January 2004, agreed to pay $170 million to the families of the 170 victims of UTA Flight 772.[25] The seven American UTA victims' families refused the offer and instead filed a claim for $2.2 billion against Libya. From 2004 to 2006 the US and the UK jointly opened up relations with Libya, leading to the removal of sanctions imposed and of Libya's inclusion on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

In June 2004, a volunteer group of families and victims from the incident, Families from Pan Am Flight 73, was formed to work toward a memorial for those killed in the incident, to seek the truth behind this terrorist attack, and to hold those responsible for it accountable. On April 5, 2006, the law firm of Crowell & Moring LLP, representing the surviving passengers, estates and family members of the hijacking victims, announced it was filing a civil suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking $10 billion in compensatory damages, plus unspecified punitive damages, from Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi and the five convicted hijackers. The lawsuit alleged Libya provided the Abu Nidal Organization with material support and also ordered the attack as part of a Libyan-sponsored terrorist campaign against American, European and Israeli interests.[26]

British media that was critical of normalisation of relations between Gaddafi and the West reported in March 2004 (days after Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Tripoli) that Libya was behind the hijacking.[27]

As of September 2015 about $700 million of funds that Libya gave the US to settle claims related to Libyan sponsored terrorism has not been distributed to families of victims who were Indian passport holders.[28]

Reward and reported killing of accused[edit]

Zayd Hassan Abd al-Latif Safarini was extradited to the U.S. by the Government of Pakistan.[21][22] He is serving his 160-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The other four prisoners were deported by Pakistani authorities to PA in Israel in 2008.[22][23] On December 3, 2009, the FBI, in coordination with the State Department, announced a $5M reward for information that leads to the capture of each of the four remaining hijackers of Pan Am 73.[20]

One of the four, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, was allegedly killed in a drone strike in Pakistan on January 9, 2010.[29] His death was never confirmed and he remains on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list and the State Department's Rewards for Justice list.[30][31]

In hopes of generating new leads for the alleged hijackers the FBI released new age-progressed images on January 11, 2018. The case is still under investigation by the Washington Field Office of the Bureau.[32]


The aircraft was a four-engined Boeing 747-121 delivered to Pan Am on June 18, 1971, with registration N656PA[33] named Clipper Live Yankee by the airline. It was later renamed and at the time of the incident was named Clipper Empress of the Seas. After the incident the aircraft was renamed Clipper New Horizons. Pan Am sold the aircraft to Evergreen International in 1988 and then leased it back. The aircraft was returned by Pan Am to Evergreen in April 1991. Evergreen scrapped the aircraft in 2015.[34]

In popular culture[edit]

The film Neerja was released on February 19, 2016 depicting the hijacking and the actions of all the flight attendants on the aircraft. Neerja Bhanot was the Senior Flight Purser and the youngest recipient of the highest Indian bravery award, Ashoka Chakra. She also received the United States Special Courage award and the Pakistani Nishan-e-Pakistan.

A documentary about the hijacking, called Hijacked: Flight 73, was released in 2023. (IMDb).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Inertial Reel Escape Device consists of five metal cables attached to the roof of the cockpit. Up to five crew can reach the roof through an emergency hatch and slide down to the ground retarded by the cables.[5][6]
  2. ^ According to an India Today report, Neerja Bhanot, the head purser of the flight, alerted the cockpit crew.[5] But other accounts indicate that she had a gun pointed to her head at that time.[7][8]
  3. ^ The Pan Am executives supported the decision of the flight crew abandoning the plane. Martin Shugrue, the Chief Operating Officer, stated, "In a situation like this, one of our immediate prime objectives (is to) immobilize the aircraft, turn the aircraft into a building."[7]


  1. ^ "Jordanian Hijacker Sentenced in D.C. for 1986 Hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 as Victims from Around the World Recount Horrors" (Press release). Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation. May 14, 2004. Retrieved November 9, 2017.
  2. ^ "Pan Am Flight-73 alleged hijacker 'killed' in drone attack in Pakistan". Asian Tribune.
  3. ^ "United States of America v. Wadoud Muhammad et al Indictment" (PDF). justice.gov. United States Department of Justice. June 11, 2001. Retrieved April 18, 2015.
  4. ^ "24 yrs after Pan Am hijack, Neerja Bhanot killer falls to drone". The Times of India. January 17, 2010. Archived from the original on August 11, 2011.
  5. ^ a b c d Dilip Bobb, M. Rahman, Zahid Hussain, and Ramindar Singh. Pan Am hijack in Karachi: Pakistan security forces handling of situation raises questions, India Today, 1986-09-30.
  6. ^ A video demonstrating the Cockpit Escape Reels on a Boeing 747-300, You Tube video.
  7. ^ a b c d e Ghosh, Flight 73: The Inner Story 2018, Chap. 2.
  8. ^ a b c d Mohan, Megha (March 31, 2016). "Inside a hijack: The unheard stories of the Pan Am 73 crew". BBC News.
  9. ^ "Jordanian hijacker sentenced to 160 years in prison for deadly 1986 hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 as victims from around the world recount horrors". Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Department of Justice. May 13, 2004. Archived from the original on December 26, 2016.
  10. ^ United States of America vs. Zaid Hassan Abd Latif Safarini: Rule 11 Proffer of Facts, US Department of Justice, November 12, 2003.
  11. ^ Leonnig, Carol D. (May 13, 2004). "A Day of Horror in 1986 Is Relived". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved February 21, 2020.
  12. ^ Mohan, Megha (March 31, 2016). "Inside a hijack: The unheard stories of the Pan Am 73 crew". BBC News. Retrieved February 21, 2020.
  13. ^ a b Thexton, Mike (2006). What happened to the hippy man (1st ed.). Great Britain: Lanista Partners Ltd. pp. 48–50. ISBN 0-9553185-0-5.
  14. ^ "Pan Am flight 73 hostage learns from hijacker why life was spared". BBC News. May 2, 2023.
  15. ^ Deborah Linton (April 2023). "I survived the world's most infamous plane hijack – years later, the terrorist told me why". UK.
  16. ^ Markham, James M.; Times, Special To the New York (September 8, 1986). "Jet Survivors Say Army Didn't Help". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 21, 2020.
  17. ^ Shilpa Baburaj (February 18, 2016). "'I saw Neerja being shot in the head' | Bengaluru News". The Times of India. Retrieved December 21, 2020.
  18. ^ Aftab, Mohammed (September 6, 1986). "At least 17 die in hijack in Pakistan" (PDF). Manchester Herald. p. 1. Retrieved March 18, 2023.
  19. ^ Tempest, Rone (September 10, 1986). "Confusion Amid Pan Am Hijacking : Pakistani Rescue Effort: Case of Too Many Leaders". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 18, 2023.
  20. ^ a b c d "Act of Terror: Seeking Information Leading to Those Responsible: Pan Am Flight 73 Hijacking". U.S. Department of State. Retrieved June 25, 2016.
  21. ^ a b "Suspect in 1986 hijacking brought to U.S. for trial". CNN. October 1, 2001.
  22. ^ a b c d "Neerja Bhanot killing: FBI releases age-progressed images of 4 wanted hijack suspects". Economic Times.
  23. ^ a b "FBI releases age-processed pictures of four 1986 Pan Am hijacking suspects". Geo News. January 19, 2018.
  24. ^ a b Arieff, Irwin (August 16, 2003). "Libya takes blame for Lockerbie bombing". Independent Online.
  25. ^ Smith, Craig S. (January 10, 2004). "Libya Will Pay $170 Million In Bombing of French Airliner". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331.
  26. ^ "Victims of September 1986 Hijacking of Pan Am 73 File US$10 Billion... -- WASHINGTON, April 5 /PR Newswire UK/ --". prnewswire.co.uk. CROWELL & MORING LLP. April 5, 2006. Retrieved November 13, 2015.
  27. ^ Revealed: Gaddafi's air massacre plot, The Times, 2004-03-28
  28. ^ "1986 Pan Am survivors pin hopes on Modi". The Times of India. September 29, 2015.
  29. ^ U.S. airstrike reportedly kills terrorist, Los Angeles Times, 2010-01-16
  30. ^ "FBI most wanted terrorist : JAMAL SAEED ABDUL RAHIM". Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
  31. ^ "Rewards for Justice - Wanted for Terrorism - Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim". Retrieved September 10, 2020.
  32. ^ "New Images Released in 1986 Hijacking Case". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved January 12, 2018.
  33. ^ "FAA Registry (N656PA)". Federal Aviation Administration.
  34. ^ "Evergreen International Airlines N483EV (Boeing 747 - MSN 20351) (Ex N656PA ) | Airfleets aviation". www.airfleets.net. Retrieved September 10, 2020.


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