When the Boeing 737-F-104 formation approached Rome, it suddenly sighted shadows of two F-14 Tomcat fighters approaching through the darkness from the rear…
While most stories about the Achille Lauro Affair usually end after the two USAF C-141s carrying the SEAL Team Six flew away from Sigonella, the drama surrounding the Egyptian Boeing 737 SU-AYH actually went on. Around 0550 on Oct. 11, the four hijackers finally emerged out of the aircraft and surrendered to the Carabinieri and the Italian Judge Roberto Pennisi. However, PLF-leader Abu Abbas and PLO representative Hani el-Assan remained on board, together with 17 Egyptian crew and soldiers. After negotiations that lasted for most of the day, and in the light of Egyptian authorities officially requesting the return of the airliner while threatening not to release Achille Lauro, which was still docked at Port Said, the decision was taken to let the Boeing 737 return to Cairo.
As told by Tom Cooper, Albert Grandolini and Arnaud Delalande in their book Libyan Air Wars Part: 2 1985-1986, the airliner took off from Sigonella around 2155, followed by a Piaggio PD.808 carrying Admiral Martini. Suspicious about US intentions, Martini requested a fighter escort — and was soon proven right.
A North American T-39 Sabreliner of the USAF that had remained at Sigonella took off from there around 2204 — without authorisation from the Italian flight control. After a few minutes, it caught up with the airliner carrying the hijackers and began shadowing it from a very close position, apparently calling the crew and trying to divert the Boeing to a USAF base in Spain. Only the arrival of two F-104S Starfighters from the XII Gruppo/36th Stormo, scrambled from Gioia del Colle AB, saved the situation, forcing the Sabreliner away.
The Egyptian pilot meanwhile turned his aircraft east and into Italian airspace, and only then continued north again. Minutes later, the Boeing was joined by a pair of F-104s from the X Gruppo/9th Stormo, scrambled from Grazzanise AB. When this formation of six aircraft approached Rome, it suddenly sighted shadows of two additional unknown fighters approaching through the darkness from the rear. One of the Italian pilots involved later recalled:
“It was dark but there was enough residual light to see for a few hundred metres. Two F-14 Tomcats appeared from the rear with their navigational lights out. One passed by me and took a position very close to the Boeing 737. We called them on the radio, several times, warned them, and wiggled with our wings to attract their attention to us: I gave the front Tomcat hand signals to distance. But its pilot reacted with [a] sharp turn to the side and positioned behind our Number 4 Starfighter. As the Number 4 turned to the side, I’ve heard Number 3 calling, ‘This Zombie is still behind you and doing so as if he can’t hear us, that idiot!’ The other American exploited this confusion and attempted to get close to the Boeing, but I manoeuvred my Starfighter inbetween him and the airliner. He evaded to the side and accelerated. [I’d] had enough, and screamed on the radio in English: `Get lost before we collide, you piece of shit!’”
This time there was an immediate answer from the Americans:
“You damn sons of bitches! This aircraft is mine. Do you understand? Mine! Get out of my way!”
Meanwhile, all eight aircraft approached within about 40km of Rome and the Egyptian pilot of the Boeing 737 began to descend for landing. Realising the Italian Starfighter pilots would not give up, the two Tomcats descended too; accelerating away at very low altitude, they disappeared under the radar horizon of the Italian flight control — supposedly with the help of electronic countermeasures.
SU-AYH landed safely at Ciampino IAP around 2306 local time. Only seven minutes later, a T-39 Sabreliner — apparently the same that took off from Sigonella and shadowed SU-AYH on the first part of her trip to Rome — appeared over Ciampino, as recalled by the same Italian pilot:
“The American demanded permission to land, but his request was turned down. Then he declared [an] emergency and turned off his radio. He landed and rolled towards the Boeing with [no regard] for everybody else, prompting [the] local authorities to temporarily close the airport. Finally, he stopped close to [the] Egyptians but by then Carabinieri were in position: they surrounded the Sabreliner, and the crew was taken away. I don’t know what happened to them, but guess that affair was quickly swept under the carpet.”
Although US officials presented recordings to Craxi of intercepted radio messages between Abu Abbas and the hijackers while the latter were still onboard Achille Lauro on the morning of Oct. 12, the suspicious Italian Prime Minister declared them insufficient to prosecute Abbas and el-Assan. On the contrary, the Boeing 737 was quickly refuelled and transferred to Fiumicino IAP near Rome, where the two Palestinians boarded a Yugoslavian airliner for Belgrade under false names. The EgyptAir airliner was left to return to Cairo, where the pilots received a hero’s welcome.
Libyan Air Wars Part: 2 1985-1986 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy Mike Freer Via Wikipedia