In the following article, which appears in Robert L. Lawson’s book Carrier Air Group Commanders, Capt Robert G. “Bubba” Brodsky, US Navy (Ret), tells the story of the Achille Lauro hijackers’ intercept by CVW-17 aircraft. During CVW-17’s August 1985-1986 Med deployment, CAG Brodsky was responsible for the orchestration of CVW-17’s successful intercept and forced landing Egyptian airliner carrying the infamous Achille Lauro ship hijackers.
“From a purely military standpoint, it was a fairly simple mission—intercept and force down an Egyptian airliner carrying the terrorists who had hijacked the Achille Lauro and murdered an American citizen. Although the successful capture of the terrorists was not wrought with danger in the traditional sense—no one got shot at—there were several individual ‘heroes who performed magnificently in the face of a complex politico-military tasking that had numerous opportunities for failure.
The Achille Lauro, a 633-foot Italian luxury liner, had left Alexandria, Egypt, on the morning of 7 Oct 1985 after dropping off most of its 750 passengers for a bus tour of the Pyramids. The ship was scheduled to meet these same passengers that evening in Port Said before continuing on to a port visit in Ashdod, Israel. Remaining on board were a hundred or so passengers, most of them elderly, who had decided to skip the rigors of the tour.
Also on board were Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) terrorists, in the guise of tourists, armed with automatic weapons, hand grenades, and explosives. They seized control of the ship prior to docking at Port Said and ordered the ship’s captain at gunpoint to sail for Tartus, Syria.
In a fit of rage following refusal by the Syrian government to allow the ship to dock, the hijackers senselessly murdered 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer, a retired Jewish-American who was confined to a wheelchair. Klinghoffer’s body was callously thrown overboard.
Syria continued to refuse to allow the ship to dock, and another American victim was selected from among the passengers. Before they would kill the second passenger, however, the terrorists received a radio message from the PLF leadership directing them to head back to Port Said.
The government of Egypt and the PLF leadership ultimately agreed to freedom for passengers and terrorists alike after the Achille Lauro docked in Port Said. Despite U.S. objections, the terrorists had been promised safe passage—a solution acceptable to the Egyptians and Italians partly as a result of the Achille Lauro captain’s ship-to-shore communication (made with a gun at his head) that `everybody is in good health.’ It wasn’t until he personally boarded the ship that evening that the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Nicholas Veliotes, found out about Klinghoffer’s murder. He immediately demanded that the Egyptian government ‘prosecute the sons of bitches.’ While this (attitude) was to be widely echoed in world opinion, the Egyptians claimed it was too late—the terrorists had already left the country.
Although heavily involved in conducting a major NATO exercise in the Central Mediterranean, RADM David E. Jeremiah, Commander Task Force 60 embarked in Saratoga, had watched events unfold from the beginning. Actual reconnaissance of the Achille Lauro was considered risky since any visual sighting of American tactical aircraft could place the hostages in jeopardy. Nonetheless, a wide spectrum of possible contingency operations was on everyone’s mind during the tense period following the hijacking. When word was eventually received that the hostages had been freed and the terrorists granted safe passage, a sigh of relief was felt, and Saratoga directed its energy to other events.
After completing the exercise, Saratoga, commanded by CAPT Jerry Unruh, was steaming northward through the Adriatic Sea toward a port call the next morning in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. Aircraft and aircrew had been postured in an ‘Alert 60′ status, when an unusual ‘secure voice’ telephone query came from Sixth Fleet head-quarters in Gaeta, Italy, asking for the exact location of each ship in the battle group. Sitting idly in his war room, Admiral Jeremiah joked with his watch officer that the magnets holding the ships must have fallen off the Sixth Fleet staff plot board.
What had actually transpired was some clever intelligence work which indicated to the National Security Council (NSC) staff that the hijackers were still in Egypt and about to be transported out on an Egypt Air 737 jetliner. They were, at that moment, at the Al Maza Air Base near Cairo, waiting to be flown to Tunisia.
Credit for the idea to attempt to capture the hijackers should go to a Navy captain on the NSC staff who reportedly suggested, `Why don’t we pull a Yamamoto on these guys?’—the name, of course, being in reference to the Japanese admiral intercepted by American fighters over the Pacific during WWII.
Aboard Saratoga orders were suddenly received from Sixth Fleet to reverse course and to launch the Alert CAP (Combat Air Patrol). ‘Launch the Alert CAP’ was immediately sounded over the ship’s loudspeaker. Even with the lack of amplifying information, a sense of urgency flashed through the ship. Despite the official `Alert 60′ posture, two VF-74 F-14A Tomcats and a VAW-125 E-2C Hawkeye were airborne in just 22 minutes. The answer to ‘what for?’ would come only moments later.
Admiral Jeremiah anxiously pondered the situation in the war room, the secure phone in his hand waiting for another call from Sixth Fleet that would tell us what was happening. Before the call came his face suddenly lit up: ‘The hijackers—I’ll bet we’re going after them…’
Within minutes, confirmation of our mission came from Sixth Fleet. The terrorists were in Cairo attempting to escape by airliner to Tunisia. The exact takeoff time (or had they already taken off?), the route, altitude the hijackers would fly, and the tail number of their aircraft were all initially unanswered questions. Our tasking had all the markings of the proverbial ‘find a needle in a haystack’ drill. How to communicate with the airliner, once intercepted, and how to entice the crew to divert to the NATO base at Sigonella, Sicily, would be the most difficult problems. The first order of business was to assign CAP stations and brief what little information was available to the already airborne F-14s and E-2. It would be an understatement to say Saratoga ‘s combat information center became a beehive of activity, as leadership from the flag staff, the carrier, and the air wing all converged to work the problem. The decision was made to launch additional VF-103 and VF-74 Tomcats, while the E-2 ready room was alerted to man an additional aircraft. Ordnance loads on the F-14s were modified in some instances to include tracer ammunition in their 20mm cannons in case warning shots became necessary. VA-85 KA-6D tankers were put on alert to cover airborne fuel requirements of the F-14s.
Critical to mission success, of course, would be C3 (command, control, and communications) provided by the E-2C. Adequately explaining mission details and all the possible exigencies to the already airborne E-2 mission commander proved extremely difficult, however.
CDR Ralph Zia, commanding officer of the E-2 squadron, widely respected for his airborne professionalism, had been kept abreast of unfolding events almost from the beginning. As much as anyone, he had a clear picture of what we were attempting to do. When directed, CDR Zia personally manned the second E-2 and was launched to assume airborne control of the operation. There wasn’t a better man for the job. His ability to quickly assess the situation and ad lib solutions to each hiccup in the evolution was the key to success.
After initially being assigned CAP stations south of the Greek island of Crete, the E-2 vectored the Tomcats to intercept all contacts that fit the profile of an airliner following the airways between Egypt and Tunisia. We were never given a reliable takeoff time, so there was no assurance that we had set up CAP stations in time. Another possibility was that the Egyptian aircraft may have been routed through Libyan airspace. All Saratoga’s aircraft could do was throw out the net, intercept everything that flew into it, and hope we could sort out the Egypt Air 737 if it came our way.
There was no lack of activity. Despite the pitch-black night, the Tomcats, with their running lights extinguished, made two hair-raising intercepts of large transports, themselves with lights out. While a radar rendezvous on an airliner-size target is a relatively simple evolution, a night join-up of an aircraft with no lights is not. The F-14s crept up slowly from below and aft until they had the transports silhouetted against the limited starlight. Once joined, identification of the transports could he made only by shining hand-held flashlights.
As luck would have it, we didn’t have to wait long for our real prey. On the fourth intercept of the evening, two F-14s pulled up behind an airliner and radioed the markings and tail number-2843—back to Saratoga. That was our man! The Tomcats were ordered to remain in position, keeping their lights out so the Egyptian crew and their terrorist cargo would have no idea they were under escort.
Behind the scenes in Washington, the State Department had already asked Tunisia and other friendly littoral Mediterranean nations to deny landing rights to the terrorists. CDR Zia in `Tigertail 603′ dialed in the Tunis air traffic controllers’ frequencies and listened in on the Egypt Air pilot’s radio communications as they requested and were denied landing clearance in Tunis. The pilot then communicated with the airport in Athens, but was again denied. Knowing the airliner had no choice but to return to Cairo, it was time for the Hawkeye crew to take charge.
`2843, this is Tigertail 603, over,’ CDR Zia radioed.
After several more attempts at communications, the Egypt Air pilot finally acknowledged.
Zia continued, ‘Egypt Air 2843, you are being escorted by two F-14s. You are directed proceed to and land immediately at Sigonella, Sicily. Over.’
The Egyptian pilot was dumbfounded. ‘Say again. Who is calling?’
Allowing the pilot to believe he was talking with one of the F-14 pilots, Zia repeated, ‘This is Tigertail 603. I advise, you are directed to land immediately. Proceed immediately to Sigonella, Sicily. You are being escorted by two F-14 interceptor aircraft. Vector 280 for Sigonella, Sicily. Over.’
After the order was forcefully repeated one more time, advice was passed from Saratoga to have the F-14s turn on their external lights. The Tomcat crews watched as the excited Egyptian crew (and perhaps the terrorists) ran to either side of the airliner to peer out the passenger windows at the U.S. fighters close aboard on either wingtip.
Zia now had the Egypt Air pilot’s undivided attention. He acknowledged his instructions—’Turning right, heading 280′–while at the same time asking a passing airliner to relay news of the intercept back to Cairo. Startled by the close proximity of the Navy fighters, the nervous Egyptian pilot again came on the radio: ‘I’m saying you are too close. I’m following your orders. Don’t be too close. Please.’
`Okay, we’ll move away a little bit,’ Zia responded, still sounding authoritatively as if he were one of the interceptors alongside. The range to Sigonella and then hack to Saratoga was significant, so CDR Zia and his crew vectored four fresh fighters to assume the escort role while simultaneously coordinating airborne tanking of all the Tomcats.
Although Saratoga had been informed that the Italian government had approved the landing at Sigonella, the Italian air traffic controllers had other ideas—vectoring the 737 to land at the civilian field in nearby Catania. The senior F-14 commander, VF-74’s CO, CDR Ken Burgess, then got involved, requesting a vector for the flight to Sigonella. His request was denied. He asked again, more forcefully, but was repeatedly denied. The F- 14 lead then chose his own heading, gave it to the Egyptian pilot, and directed a descent for the 737 and its four escorts into Sigonella.
After a radio-frequency shift to the Sigonella control tower, the escorting F-14 commander requested permission for the 737 to land. When the Italian air controller refused, the Tomcat declared a low fuel emergency and indicated the requirement for an immediate landing.
The unplanned deviation to his original flight plan, inappropriate approach charts for Sigonella, a dark night with 10,000-foot Mount Etna looming just miles to the north, and four F-14 Tomcats on his wing, all proved unnerving to the Egyptian pilot as he attempted to land. After initially settling well below glideslope he decided to wave off his first pass and executed a wide go-around in the dark, with the Tomcats in tow. Everyone breathed easier when he landed successfully on the second pass. The aircraft was immediately surrounded by American troops, who were, in turn, surrounded by Italian troops—hut that’s another story.
The fact that the terrorists were taken into Italian custody did little to diminish the elation aboard Saratoga. (Abu Abbas was flown to Yugoslavia where he enjoyed diplomatic immunity as a member of the PLO Executive Council.) The crew received a congratulatory phone call from President Reagan. Western news media proclaimed a long-awaited victory over terrorism, while appreciative messages and telegrams poured in. Thousands of letters from school children, literally tons of cookies and T-shirts for every sailor aboard were received in the days that followed.
The real reward, however (one every man aboard Saratoga could take with him forever), was the knowledge that they had helped bring these terrorists and cold-blooded murderers of an American citizen to justice. In doing so Saratoga helped lend credence to President Reagan’s declaration to would-be terrorists: ‘You can run, but you can’t hide.'”
Carrier Air Group Commanders is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: 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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