Pan Am pilots once used the escape hatch of a Boeing 747 to flee a hijacking

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Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) Flight 73 was a scheduled service from Bombay (Mumbai), India to New York, NY, with stops in Karachi, Pakistan and Frankfurt, West Germany. On September 5, 1986, the plane was hijacked during its stopover in Karachi. Four members of the Palestinian nationalist militant group, the Abu Nihal Organization, attempted to hijack the plane by disguising themselves as ground personnel.

The hijackers managed to control the plane, but the cockpit crew had escaped the plane through an escape hatch. During the 16-hour standoff, the hijackers repeatedly negotiated with the Pakistani government for a flight crew to be sent on the plane, to have the plane flown to Cyprus and Israel to recover Palestinian prisoners.


The Pakistani military sent its Special Service Group (SSG) commandos to storm the plane. Unfortunately, 51 of the plane’s 388 occupants (365 passengers and 23 crew) died as a result of the hijacking – the majority were killed by bullets fired by hijackers.


The Boeing 747 Pan Am (Registration: N656PA, Clipper Empress of the Seas) arrived from Bombay (Mumbai), India at around 04:30 with 394 passengers and 14 flight attendants. One hundred and nine passengers disembarked in Karachi and the plane was about to welcome its passengers for the next leg of the service to Frankfurt.

Just before 06:00, the hijackers approached the Boeing 747 with a van equipped with a siren and flashing light and purporting to resemble an airport security vehicle. The hijackers began firing shots in the air and stormed the plane.

A flight attendant, Neerja Bhanot, relayed the hijack code to the pilots in the cockpit, allowing them to escape through the escape hatch attached to the cockpit ceiling. Boeing’s spokesperson at the time said the escape hatch was “designed for crash, fire, or of course it can be used in an event like this.”


Once the hijackers realized that the cockpit crew was no longer on the plane, they asked the Pakistani government to provide a cockpit crew who could transport them to Cyprus and Israel, otherwise they would kill a hostage. The two sides continued to negotiate, but the Pakistani government did not accept the hijackers’ proposal. At approximately 9:00 p.m., the auxiliary power unit shut down, leaving the cabin in darkness.

One hijacker said his prayers and aimed for another hijacker’s explosive belt, hoping to cause an explosion that would destroy the plane and kill everyone on the plane. The hijacker missed the belt, causing only a small explosion. The other hijackers also started throwing grenades, but due to the darkness they were unable to fully remove the pin from the grenade. Simultaneously, bullets were fired, bouncing off the aircraft’s many surfaces and creating deadly shrapnel. Flight attendants and passengers seated or standing near the exit doors attempted to open the escape doors or arm the slides. This allowed some passengers to get out safely. Pan Am flight attendant Neerja Bhanot was seen helping passengers off the plane and as a result was shot at close range by the hijackers.


After seeing passengers escaping from the plane, the Pakistani military decided to storm the plane. They arrested the hijackers and brought them to justice. On July 6, 1988, the four hijackers and an accomplice were convicted of hijacking and murder and sentenced to death. Their sentences were later changed to life imprisonment.

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