The true story behind this VF-103 F-14’s TARPS IR photo showing Egypt Air Boeing 737 carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers after landing at Sigonella

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The story behind this VF-103 F-14’s TARPS IR photo showing Egypt Air Boeing 737 carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers after landing at Sigonella

‘As the Boeing 737 landed, two lights out USAF C-141s landed behind him and turned their lights on as they rolled out ,’ Larry Neal, former VF-103 F-14 Tomcat Crew Member

Taken in 1985 by a TARPS (Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System) equipped VF-103 Sluggers F-14 Tomcat the main image of this article is an IR photo showing the Egypt Air Boeing 737 carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers after landing at Sigonella.

As we have recently reported, during CVW-17’s August 1985-1986 Med deployment, CVW-17’s aircraft were responsible for the successful intercept and forced landing of the Egyptian airliner carrying the infamous Achille Lauro ship hijackers.

More details on the operation are featured in Mike Crutch’s book CVW: US Navy Carrier Air Wing Aircraft 1975-2015.

As Crutch explains in fact, CVW-17 embarked aboard USS Saratoga (CV-60) entered the Sixth Fleet’s area on Sep. 2, 1985, and air wing Tomcats met their first Soviet Tu-95 BEAR three days later west of Gibraltar. During this period, VF-103 sent their TARPS F-14As on a long range recce mission to photograph ships of the Soviet battlecruiser Frunze surface action group.

The story behind this VF-103 F-14’s TARPS IR photo showing Egypt Air Boeing 737 carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers after landing at Sigonella

After turnover with USS Nimitz (CVN-68, with CVW-8 embarked) on Sep. 13, the ship and air wing returned to the massive, ongoing NATO wargames and took part in Exercise DISPLAY DETERMINATION ’85. It was as the final phase of that exercise ended – on Oct. 8 – that the Italian passenger liner MS Achille Lauro was hijacked by Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) terrorists off the Egyptian coast. As contingencies were drawn up by the Pentagon, Saratoga sailed eastwards from the Ionian Sea that same day – promptly running into two prowling Soviet Il-38 MAYs operating out of Syria, both of which were intercepted by F-14s. The following day, Saratoga was southeast of Crete and launched S-3 Vikings from VS-30 Diamond Cutters to locate the cruise liner, only to receive word that evening that the Achille Lauro had made Port Said in Egypt at the orders of PLF leader Abu Abbas. After the ship docked, the terrorists fled in one of the harbour vessels, and the Achille Lauro’s crew and passengers were free to disembark; the brutal murder of passenger – and US national – Leon Klinghoffer some hours beforehand was not apparent to Italian and US government officials until later that night.

Despite intelligence to the contrary, the Egyptian government stated that the terrorists had already left the country and no prosecutions would be possible. President Ronald Reagan was not going to let a second American’s murder at the hand of Middle East terrorists go unpunished, as had the killing of Navy diver Robert Stethem – a passenger aboard hijacked TWA Flight 847 earlier that year at Lebanon’s Beirut airport.

The story behind this VF-103 F-14’s TARPS IR photo showing Egypt Air Boeing 737 carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers after landing at Sigonella

US intelligence – almost certainly aided by Israel’s Mossad – soon learnt of the Egyptian government’s deception and that Cairo’s Almaza airbase would be the point from which the terrorists would depart the country. An Egypt Air Boeing 737 (registration SU-AYK) was observed making an unusual positioning flight for such an airliner to the base from Cairo’s main airport, and a flight plan filed with a destination of Tunisia – a country with close Palestinian connections and known haven for Abu Abbas’ PLF terrorists.

At the direction of the National Command Authority, Commander Sixth Fleet in Naples was ordered to intercept and divert the Boeing to the US base at Sigonella, Italy where US forces would take the terrorists into custody. On course for a port call in the Yugoslav city of Dubrovnik, Saratoga was tasked to carry out the intercept; CAG of CVW-17 – CDR Bob Brodsky – planned to launch seven F-14s (drawn from both VF-74 and VF-103, including a TARPS bird from the latter), supported by KA-6D tankers of VA-85 Black Falcons and three E-2Cs of VAW-125 Tigertails. Knowing that the Boeing would route around Libyan airspace to the north, an airborne ‘gate’ was established south of Crete through which all traffic was monitored. The CO of VAW-125 – CDR Ralph Zia – was airborne in one of the E-2Cs, callsign TIGERTAIL 603 (BuNo 161547), and led the efforts to identify all airborne contacts. One VF-74 Tomcat pilot would later remark “It was amazing how many aircraft were flying without lights over the Mediterranean that night – from Russian Il-76 transports to even a pair of USAF C-141s that we later realised had onboard members of the special ops teams waiting to capture those onboard the 737.” Intelligence assets had reported that around 2200hrs local time, the Egypt Air Boeing 737 had taken off from Almaza (using the callsign EGYPTAIR 2843) and had set course for Tunisia as flight planned.

The story behind this VF-103 F-14’s TARPS IR photo showing Egypt Air Boeing 737 carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers after landing at Sigonella

After a number of intercepts, one of the VF-103 Tomcats (reportedly CLUBLEAF 205 – F-14A BuNo 160904) finally visually identified the Egypt Air Boeing 737 – cruising at 34,000 feet – and confirmed its registration as SU-AYK back to Zia onboard TIGERTAIL 603. They were soon joined by the other F-14As and, after conducting visual intercept manoeuvres to ‘follow me’ as well as a brief radio exchange between Zia and the 737’s captain, all headed for Sigonella.

After some one and a quarter hours under Tomcat escort, the Boeing 737 touched down at 0040hrs local time on 11 October. TARPS imagery (taken from CLUBLEAF 214 – F-14A BuNo 161134) recorded the stand-off on the ground between US special forces – intent on capturing the terrorists – and Italian security forces, who were acting on the orders of their furious government who had received no prior briefing on the USA’s actions and use of Italian territory. The US forces were eventually withdrawn after a long standoff, and the terrorists passed into the hands of the Italian authorities.

The story behind this VF-103 F-14’s TARPS IR photo showing Egypt Air Boeing 737 carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers after landing at Sigonella
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Larry Neal, former VF-103 F-14 crew member whot took part in the intercept, explained to me: ‘The day prior to the intercept, we had in fact tracked down the Achille Lauro and using a stand-off LOROPS TARPS system had imaged the ship in anticipation of a rescue attempt. When the ship pulled in and was surrendered, the rescue mission was canceled and we reassumed Alert 60, and headed to Dubrovnik. Later that day, the 1MC launch order came about 7pm. Crews were scrambling to jets in a “fast as you can get there” mode. There was no brief. All I was told prior to launch was “you’re looking for a civilian airliner and you may be cleared to fire.” As I manned up Hummers and tankers were launching. The first F-14 airborne was a Devil (VF-74), but in their rush to be first, they’d launched without a system. CDC decided they couldn’t participate and parked them overhead for the duration. The next 4 aircraft airborne were Sluggers (VF-103). I was in that bunch and was airborne about 7:25 or so in a TARPS jet. We tanked overhead then proceeded to CAP stations, two aircraft at the eastern end of Crete and two at the western. Several intercepts were made of passing comm air. Two bogies popped up to the east. One Slugger was sent out to id. Midway through the intercept the pilot realized that the bogies had their lights off. Ours were immediately turned off as well. That intercept went as described…lights out. Final id with a flashlight and then using the engines as a distinguishing indicator. Four under the wings. We saw these guys again later. The Slugger was called off and told to return to station. About that time I was given a vector for a bogie climbing NE out of Benina. We were all still midnight. Early contact on the bogey. Id’ed as a Flogger. Ran the intercept to about 35-40 mi, when he turned and RTB’ed. I reset to the western CAP station. We waited a bit. A new contact was detected coming north out of Egypt. It turned west and was immediately joined by a lights out Slugger. The pilot reported the tail number and unusual tail design back to CDC. As the 737 turned and proceeded west, the other three Sluggers all joined up still lights out and basically surrounded the 737. Zia spoke with the 737 on VHF and us on UHF. The conversation and the lights on went as described [in our previous article]. Once the 737 pilot had been convinced to proceed to Sig, it became pretty quiet. One of the Slugger jets had been loaded with 20mm tracers but they weren’t necessary. The Italian controllers did at first refuse entry but one of the Slugger back seaters declared “emergency fuel” as a ploy to get us clearance. It worked. We’d left the descent too long not realizing the limitations of the 737. The 737 was too high on its first approach to the westerly runway (27?) and took it around. Over shot the second approach and finally landed on his third attempt. As he landed, two lights out 141s landed behind him and turned their lights on as they rolled out. I was overhead taking pictures at 4K’. We all rtb’ed. No F-14s landed at Sig. Called Hotshot on the way back…straight in. OK 3 NC. It didn’t count towards the line period because it had officially ended. Pissed me off. 5 hrs of night time.’

The story behind this VF-103 F-14’s TARPS IR photo showing Egypt Air Boeing 737 carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers after landing at Sigonella
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Noteworthy as Crutch points out in his book, some sources paint a picture of another attempt to intercept the 737 – confirmed as carrying PLF leader Abu Abbas – as it positioned to Rome on Oct. 11. Some reports even state that F-14s tried to disrupt escorting Italian F-104 Starfighters in an attempt to secure the Boeing airliner. Saratoga had anchored off Dubrovnik earlier that day, and no other US carriers were in the Mediterranean at the time, so a work of fiction or a still-classified incident involving forces of a fellow NATO member? Perhaps we will never know.

The story behind this VF-103 F-14’s TARPS IR photo showing Egypt Air Boeing 737 carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers after landing at Sigonella

Photo credit: Larry Neal, SRA Chris A. Putnam, PH1 William A. Shayka and Lt. Cmdr. Dave Parsons / U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force

Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com

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