The Interception of EgyptAir 2843

On the morning of Thursday, October 10th, 1985, Oliver North was advised by Israeli Major General Uri Simhoni, the military attaché at the Israeli embassy in Washington, that the four Palestine Liberation Front terrorists, whom, only days before, had hijacked the Italian MS Achille Lauro cruise ship off the Egyptian coast, and responsible for the cold-blooded killing of wheelchair-bound, Jewish American tourist, Leon Klinghoffer, were located at the Al Maza airfield near Cairo, and that Egypt was planning to transport the Palestinian terrorists out of the country at night, presumably to Tunis, as passengers aboard an EgyptAir airliner.

Admiral James R. Stark USN proposed that due to conflicts Egypt had with Libya, and Chad, the EgyptAir flight would most likely fly over the Mediterranean Sea which would put it over international waters, and within the reach of the United States Navy.
Stark applied an old wartime tactical maneuver, where WWII American fighters in the Pacific Theatre of Operations, fast acting on intelligence received, were able to successfully intercept Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Stark proposed the interception, then diverting the airliner to a NATO base at Sigonella, Italy.
President Ronald Reagan gave the green light as he was returning to Washington on Air Force One. The Pentagon was alerted, and orders were quickly transmitted across the Atlantic to the USS Saratoga, to make ready for the intercept.
At 4:15 p.m EST, the EgyptAir 737 took off from Cairo for Tunisia, with the four hijackers, accompanied by Abu Abbas, Mohammed Oza – Chief of PLF military operations and a PLO official, and several members of Egypt's counterterrorism unit - Force 777.
The flagship of a Sixth Fleet taskforce, The USS Saratoga, under the command of Rear Admiral David E. Jeremiah, had reversed her course and was now tasked with stopping the airliner.
Mission preparation commenced with loading seven F-14 Tomcats from VF-74 Be-Devilers, and two belonging to VF-103 Sluggers with tracer bullets. One Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye from VAW-125 Tiger Tails was tasked with being the intercepting aircraft’s eyes. Two Grumman A-6 Intruders from VA-85 Black Falcons, and one Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler (belonging to VAQ-137 Rooks). In addition, three more Tomcats, another E-2C, and two electronic intelligence aircraft (a Boeing RC-135 and a Douglas A-3 Skywarrior) joined the mission. 
At this time, Israeli intelligence agents discovered and relayed the information that the EgyptAir Boeing 737 they were looking for, was flight 2843, along with its tail number, and departure time. The Israelis immediately passed on the information to Oliver North, who relayed it to the Pentagon, then to the Sixth Fleet, then to the Saratoga, and finally to the Hawkeye crew sitting on the catapult. 
The commanding officer of the Hawkeye, Ralph Zia, and his crew tracked radar contacts flying west out of Egypt, presumably towards Tunisia, but could be certain which aircraft was theirs. Zia would direct Tomcats to visually determine if the contact was the EgyptAir 737. The Tomcats would approach the contact from their blind spot, lights out, and get close enough to visually ident the aircraft type by its silhouette light by starlight. If the shape was similar to a 737, then they would get closer to see carrier or national markings. 
Two of the contacts checked on by the Tomcats turned out to be U.S.A.F. Starlifter transport planes flying without lights. These transports happened to be carrying Major General Stiner and his special operations troops who had been originally set to storm the Achille Lauro, now moved to Sigonella to capture the hijackers should the Navy succeed in their mission. 
After multiple unsuccessful attempts at locating the airliner, Steve Weatherspoon, and William Roe "Skid” Massey in the second F-14, were vectored by the Hawkeye to approach another contact at 5:30 p.m. EST. Once in visual range, “Skid” confirmed that this contact was a 737. Pushing closer to the airliner lights out, his Radar Intercept Officer(RIO), Dennis "Doc” Plautz, was able to make out an EgyptAir logo. Then Massy, closing to 15 feet, shining a flashlight on the fuselage, made out the tail number "SU-AYK”, and transmitted it back to the ship. The Saratoga confirmed that this was their aircraft.
At this time, the crew of the EgyptAir Boeing 737, in radio communication with Tunis were denied permission to land, as was their second request for Athens. The crew of the Hawkeye directed additional F-14s to position themselves around the airliner, still completely enshrouded by darkness, then the Hawkeye contacted the EgyptAir 737 on a VHF frequency and demanded their immediate diversion to Sigonella, Italy. The Captain of the EgyptAir 737 refused to comply.
The Hawkeye then gave the command to the Tomcats "Lights on, now!” 
Instantly, the crew of the Egyptian Airliner became acutely aware of the now fully observable United States Navy F-14 Tomcats surrounding their aircraft. The Hawkeye then relayed to the Egyptian Airliner the warning that one way or another, they must reach Sigonella.
The crew of the Egyptian airliner willingly complied and diverted to Sigonella, flanked by F-14 Tomcats on each wing. EgyptAir Flight 2843 touched down at 6:45 p.m. EST, and minutes afterwards, the two United States Air Force C-141 transports arrived with counter-terrorist members of SEAL Team Six, who quickly surrounded the 737 at the airstrip as it rolled to a halt, while overhead, the F-14s closed the airspace.
The American forces who had surrounded the airliner, soon found themselves surrounded by Italian military security, insisting that Italy had territorial rights over the base and jurisdiction over the hijackers. A tense standoff commenced between both the United States and Italian armed forces. Twenty Carabinieri, and 30 Vigilanza Aeronautica Militare demanding control of the aircraft from the 80 armed operatives of the U.S. Delta Force and SEAL Team Six. These two contesting groups were soon surrounded by an additional 300 armed Italian military police, who had simultaneously blocked off the runway with their trucks.
Finally, after five hours of negotiations, and with the knowledge that the Italian troops had orders (confirmed by President Francesco Cossiga) to use lethal force if necessary to block the Americans from leaving with prisoners, the U.S. conceded the Italian claim of jurisdiction over the terrorists with assurances that the hijackers would be immediately arrested, and tried for murder.
Both Abbas and Badrakkan refused to leave the plane claiming diplomatic immunity as representatives of the PLO and Arafat. Learning of this the Egyptian government changed its position, declaring that the two were on board an Egyptian aircraft on a government mission. The four hijackers were eventually removed from the 737, arrested by the Italian Carabinieri at Sigonella, taken to the air base jail, and then transferred to a local prison. EgyptAir 2843 would then be allowed to depart for Rome with Badrakkan and Abbas still aboard.
U.S. Major General Stiner, in command of the American Special Operations Forces at Sigonella did not trust that the EgyptAir crew would not attempt to turn back for Cairo instead. Stiner decided to shadow the 737 en route to Rome in a T-39 Navy jet, along with other American Special Operations personnel. However, when the two aircraft taxied out for departure, and the 737 was cleared for take off at 10:00 p.m., the General's T-39 was holding short, and was not granted clearance from that runway. In response, the American T-39 started its take off roll on a runway alongside the active, without receiving proper ATC clearance to do so.
In response to the unauthorized departure, Italy directed two Italian Air Force F-104S Starfighters, from 36° Stormo (Wing) from Gioia del Colle, and two more inbound Italian F-104s from Grazzanise airbase. In response to the Italian response to the American response, to the Italian response, unknown aircraft, presumed to be additional USN F-14 Tomcats, but never publicly identified, came up behind the Italian Starfighters. Italian jets were suffering from radar issues above the Tyrrhenian Sea, and It is assumed that the culprit behind the malfunctions were a busy Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler that was having some fun at the expense of the Starfighters... all the while the frequency-filled with the pilots of both sides attempting “foreign relations” via verbal unpleasantries, colorful epithets, comments on family heritage, and sexual preferences, which at the time was being simultaneously relayed to the White House Situation Room.
Once the EgyptAir 737 began its approach into Rome, the formation of US Naval fighters, broke off and headed back for carrier, leaving only the T-39 to continue into Ciampino airport. The Italian air traffic controllers at Ciampino then denied the T-39 permission to land, but the US pilot quickly declared an "inflight emergency” and legally completed his approach to the airport along with the 737.
The American violation of operating military aircraft in Italian airspace, and landing in a Roman airport without any overflight, or landing permissions, negatively influenced diplomatic relations between the countries for some time afterwards...


1 comment

  • Gary Lockhart

    Registration of the EgyptAir 737 was SU-AYH. Same aircraft was later damaged beyond repair during a hijacking in Malta.

Leave a comment