On on the early hours of this day in 1977, members of the Grenshutzgruppe 9 (GSG-9) storm Lufthansa 737 jetliner Flight 181 Landshut in the Somali capital of Mogadishu and freed 86 hostages. Three of the hijackers were killed during the assault; the fourth, a woman, was wounded. The hijackers murdered the aircraft pilot Jürgen Schumann (age 37) three days prior.
At 11:00 am on Thursday October 13, 1977, Lufthansa Flight LH181 "Landshut", a Boeing 737, took off from Palma de Mallorca en route to Frankfurt with 86 passengers and 5 crew, piloted by Jürgen Schumann, with co-pilot Jürgen Vietor at the controls. About 30 minutes later as it passed over Marseilles, the aircraft was hijacked by four militants calling themselves "Commando Martyr Halime".
The terrorists were leader Zohair Youssif Akache (23), a Palestinian who adopted the alias "Captain Martyr Mahmud"; Suhaila Sayeh (22) a Palestinian; Wabil Harb (23) and Hind Alameh (22), both Lebanese. Akache (Mahmud) burst into the cockpit with a loaded pistol in his hand and ordered Vietor to join the passengers, leaving Schumann to take over the flight controls. Mahmud ordered Schumann to fly to Larnaca in Cyprus but was told that they had insufficient fuel and would have to first land in Rome, Italy.
The hijackers, acting in concert with the Red Army Faction group Siegfried Hausner Commando, who had kidnapped West German industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer 5 weeks earlier, demanded the release of ten Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorists detained at the Stuttgart-Stammheim prison plus two Palestinian compatriots held in Turkey and US$15 million.
Lufthansa Flight 181 changed course and landed in Rome for refueling. After the aircraft was refuelled, Mahmud instructed Vietor (who had been allowed back into the cockpit on the ground) to take off for Larnaca at 5.45pm without even obtaining clearance from Rome air traffic control.
After landing in Larnaca, Cyprus, a local PLO representative arrived at the airport and tried to persuade Mahmud via radio communication to release the hostages. This provoked a furious response from Mahmud who started screaming at him over the intercom in Arabic until the PLO representative gave up and left. The aircraft was then refueled and Schumann asked flight control for a routing to Beirut. Being informed that Beirut airport was blocked and closed to them, Mahmud said they would go to Damascus instead. Flight 181 took off at 10:50 pm; after also being denied landing permission in Damascus, Baghdad and Kuwait they headed for Bahrain.
Schumann was told by a passing Qantas airliner that Bahrain airport was closed. He radioed flight control and told them they had insufficient fuel to go elsewhere and despite being told again that the airport was closed he was suddenly given an automatic landing frequency by the flight controller. They finally landed in Bahrain at 1:52 am the following morning. On arrival the aircraft was immediately surrounded by armed troops; Mahmud radioed the tower that unless they were withdrawn he would shoot the co-pilot. After a standoff with the tower, with Mahmud setting a 5 minute deadline and holding a pistol to Vietors head, the troops were subsequently withdrawn. The aircraft was then refuelled and they took off for Dubai.
Approaching Dubai they were once again refused landing permission. Overflying the airport in the early light of dawn they could see that the runway was blocked with trucks and fire engines. Running short of fuel Schumann told the tower that they would have to land anyway and as they made a low pass over the airport they saw that the obstacles were being removed. At 5:40 am Vietor was able to make a normal landing on the main runway.
In Dubai the terrorists asked the tower to supply water, food, medicine and newspapers, and to take away the garbage. Captain Jürgen Schumann was able to communicate the number of hijackers onboard via a note placed in the garbage. In an interview with journalists, this information was revealed by Dubai's Sheijk Mohammed, then Minister of Defense. The hijackers learned about this - possibly from the radio, causing Mahmud to threaten to kill Schumann. The aircraft remained on the ground at Dubai all through the day and night and the following morning. Mahmud threatened to start shooting hostages if the aircraft was not refueled, and the Dubai authorities finally agreed.
In the meantime both Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski, the German minister responsible for handling the hijacking, and Colonel Ulrich Wegener, commander of the elite German anti-terrorist squad GSG 9, arrived in Dubai to try to get the government to agree to let GSG 9 commandos into Dubai to storm the aircraft. This was refused, with Sheijk Mohammed stating that any military action would have to be undertaken by his troops. While Wegener was examining that option, the Landshut was being refueled and at 12:20 pm it took off, heading for Salalah, Oman, where landing permission was once again denied. A course to Aden, Yemen, at the limit of their fuel range, was established.
In Aden, Yemen they were denied landing permission and the two main runways were blocked by vehicles. The plane was running low on fuel so the pilot Vietor had no choice but to make an emergency landing on a sand strip almost parallel to both runways. The Aden authorities told the hijackers that they would have to leave but the two pilots were skeptical over the condition of the aircraft after an emergency landing on sandy ground. Mahmud consequently gave Schumann permission to leave the aircraft in order to check the condition of the landing gear following the rough landing, and the engines. However, Schumann did not immediately return to the plane after the inspection, even after numerous attempts to recall him or even a threat to blow up the aircraft on the ground. The reasons for his prolonged absence remain unclear and some reports suggest that Schumann asked the Yemeni authorities to prevent the continuation of the flight and to accede to the terrorists' demands.
After this Schumann voluntarily returned to the aircraft to face the wrath of Mahmud, who forced him to kneel on the floor in the passenger cabin and then shot him in the head without giving him a chance to explain himself.
The plane was refuelled at 2:00 a.m. on October 17 and, coaxed by co-pilot Jürgen Vietor, it slowly and laboriously took off from Aden on course for the Somali capital of Mogadishu.
At around 6:22 am local time, Lufthansa Flight 181 made an unannounced and perfect landing in Mogadishu, Somalia. The leader Mahmud (Akache) told Vietor that he had provided a super-human performance and that he was consequently free to leave the aircraft since they were not planning to fly elsewhere. However Vietor opted to remain with the onboard passengers and crew. Schumann's body was thrown on the tarmac and an ultimatum was set for the RAF prisoners to be released by 4:00 pm or the aircraft would be blown up. After pouring the duty free spirits over the hostages in preparation for the destruction of the aircraft, the hijackers were told that the German government had agreed to release the RAF prisoners but that their transfer to Mogadishu would take several more hours, so they agreed to extend the deadline to 2:30 am the next morning (October 18).
The Landshut at Mogadishu Airport, on October 18, 1977.
Meantime, while German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt attempted to negotiate an agreement with Somali President Siad Barre, special envoy Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski and GSG 9 commander Ulrich Wegener arrived at Mogadishu airport from Jeddah in a Lufthansa aircraft.
In Germany, a team of 30 GSG 9 commandos under their deputy commander Major Klaus Blatte, had assembled at Hangelaar awaiting instructions. There is some controversy over whether members of the British SAS were directly involved in the operation. The commandos had already taken off from Cologne-Bonn Airport on a Boeing 707 on Monday morning (October 17) planning to fly to nearby Djibouti while Schmidt negotiated with the Somalis. Finally, whilst still in the air over Ethiopia, agreement was reached and permission was given to land at Mogadishu. The Boeing 707 landed at 8:00 pm local time with all lights out to avoid detection by the hijackers.
After four hours to unload all of their equipment and to undertake the necessary reconnaissance, Wegener and Blatte finalised the assault plan, scheduled to start at 2:00 am local time. They decided to approach from the rear of the aircraft in its blind spot in six teams using black-painted aluminium ladders to gain access to the aircraft through the escape hatches under the fuselage and via the doors over the wings. In the meantime a fictitious progress report on the journey being taken by the released prisoners was being fed to Mahmud by the German representatives in the airport tower.
Just after 2:00 am Mahmud was told that the plane carrying the prisoners had just departed Cairo after refuelling and he was asked to provide the conditions of the prisoner/hostage exchange over the radio.
At 2:07 am local time, GSG 9 commandos blew open the emergency doors, Wegener, at the head of one group, opened the forward door, and two other groups, led by Sergeant-Major Dieter Fox and Sergeant Joachim Huemmer stormed the aircraft over the wings. Shouting in German for the passengers and crew to hit the floor, the commandos shot and killed three of the terrorists (Zohair Akache, Wabil Harb and Hind Alameh), and wounded the fourth (Suhaila Sayeh), who was hiding in the toilet. Three passengers and a flight attendant were slightly wounded. An American passenger aboard the plane described the rescue: "I saw the door open and a man appears. His face was painted black and he starts shouting in German 'We're here to rescue you, get down!' and they started shooting."
The GSG 9 did not use SAS-supplied flash/stun grenades inside of the cabin, as often reported, because after a test in Dubai they were ruled out due to a high phosphor portion.
The emergency escape chutes were deployed and passengers and crew were ordered to quickly evacuate the aircraft. At 2:12 am local time, just 5 minutes after the assault had commenced, the commandos radioed "Springtime, Springtime," which was the code word for the successful completion of the operation. A few moments later a radio signal was sent to Chancellor Schmidt in Bonn: Four opponents down - hostages free - four hostages slightly wounded - one commando slightly wounded.
The rescuers escorted all 86 passengers to safety, and a few hours later they were all flown to Cologne-Bonn Airport, where they landed in the early afternoon of Tuesday October 18, and were given a hero's welcome.
Freed hostages and their GSG-9 rescuers disembarking Lufthansa jetliner “Stuttgart” at Cologne Bonn Airport, October 18th, 1977.
News of the rescue of the hostages was followed by the deaths of RAF members Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe in an apparent suicide pact at JVA Stuttgart-Stammheim. RAF member Irmgard Möller survived her injuries. On Wednesday October 19, the body of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, who had been kidnapped by the RAF 5 weeks prior to the hijacking, was found in the boot of a car in a Mulhouse side street after the RAF heard of the deaths of their comrades and contacted the Paris newspaper Liberation. A post-mortem indicated that he had been killed the previous day.
After the Mogadishu crisis, the German government stated that it would never again negotiate with terrorists. German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was widely praised for his decision to have the plane stormed. While the hijackers had control of the plane it traveled over 6,000 miles.
The song '122 Hours of Fear' - inspired by the hijacking - was recorded by The Screamers in 1978.
A lifetime membership to Team STORMBRINGER to anybody who can come up with a copy of that song - S.L.