Sabena pilot Captain Reginald Levy dies at 88

‘His whole life was flying,’ says daughter Linda Lipschitz.

August 5, 2010 03:29
An El Al Boeing 767-200 (El Al)

el al 311. (photo credit: El Al)

Reginald Levy, the brave British captain who flew the Sabena plane hijacked by Palestinian terrorists to Israel in 1972, passed away in his native England on Sunday at the age of 88.

A decorated airman in the RAF during World War II, Levy had a long and successful career as a pilot, mostly for the Belgian airline company.

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“His whole life was flying,” his daughter Linda Lipschitz, who lives in Jerusalem, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. “He didn’t like to talk too much about the hijacking. He said that he was just doing his job. I think his war experiences taught him to be calm. He was extremely calm during the whole affair.”

Following a 23-hour ordeal on May 9, 1972, a dozen Israeli commandos, who included Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, stormed the Belgian plane, shot dead two male hijackers, captured two female ones and rescued 140 people on board.

It had been Levy’s 50th birthday and his wife, Dora, had accompanied him on the flight so they could have a celebratory dinner in Tel Aviv.

The Boeing 707, which flew from Vienna and stopped in Brussels on the way to Tel Aviv, was hijacked by four Black September terrorists demanding an Israeli prisoner release.

“Two of the men burst into the cockpit and said they were taking over the jet,” Levy recalled later. “Every one of us is lucky to be alive.

I have had some tough times, but this was my toughest.”

Lipschitz remembered how Black September had terrorized her father after the rescue.

“My dad’s instructions were to do what the hijackers demanded, but he said he realized that to save his passengers he had to go with the Israelis. That was his best chance and that was what he did,” she said. “Unfortunately, he got blamed for helping the Israelis. Black September threatened the family and we moved to South Africa, but after 18 months, he went back to Brussels.”

After more than three decades of flying for Sabena, which he joined in 1952, Levy retired in England, settling down in Dover.

“I was one of the lucky 30 who were taken on [by Sabena] and I flew 30 years with them on practically all their aircraft from DC3s, Convairs to 707s, DC10s and 747s,” Levy wrote. “Over 50 types of aircraft and a total of 25,100 flying hours.”

Levy received a letter from President Shimon Peres, dated July 20, wishing him well after his recent diagnosis with cancer.

“We have not met for quite a long time, but you are always present in our hearts,” Peres wrote. “I am sorry to hear you have been unwell.”

Lipschitz said her father had befriended Peres and Barak over the years following the Sabena hijacking.

“He came here for Peres’s 80th birthday. He had met Ehud Barak here when Sabena celebrated 40 years of being in Israel, and after that, whenever he came to Israel, he would meet with Peres and Barak,” said Lipschitz.

“He was so appreciative of Shimon Peres’s letter.

Lipschitz said her father’s life was “definitely worth a book, if not a movie. He always wanted to write a book, and even started one.

“He was shot down during the war and escaped. After the war, he was awarded the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross). He was trained in America, in Georgia, and in 1952 we moved to Belgium because he wanted to work in civil aviation. Before that, he was on the Berlin Airlift, stationed in Hamburg and flying oil into Berlin, and served as an instructor for Air India.”

Levy had four children, nine grandchildren and four greatgrandchildren.

His grandson Yaron Lipschitz recently moved to Jerusalem with his wife and two sons.

“He was a wonderful dad.

He loved his kids, loved his family,” said Lipschitz. “As he said, ‘I’ve had a wonderful life, a wonderful wife and family,’ and he was ready to go.”

In recent years, he had shared his war experiences on an Internet forum for RAF veterans.

“Although he was a voracious reader, he was finally persuaded to use a computer, and within a day was on the simulator flying and learning how to use e-mail,” Lipschitz said. “That opened up so many new horizons for him. He loved it. The site he was on, a forum with other World War pilots, is fascinating to read.”

During a chat on the forum two years ago, Levy was asked by a comrade if there were ever times when he was convinced that his end had come.

“In an emergency, you are always too concerned about what you must do to think of the consequences,” he replied. “It all happens very quickly. When the trees were coming through the windscreen of my crashing Mosquito a brief, ‘I hope that my watch doesn’t break,’ flashed into my mind but was put away.

“Above all you must have and show to your crew the willpower and the determination that you and they are going to survive, whilst taking all the possible and, sometimes, impossible, actions to ensure this. I refer to such possibilities as a long drawn out return over the sea with engines out and/or crew injuries or even a hijacking.”

In a message posted a day after his death, a friend named Andy wrote the following moving obituary: “I learned late last night that my dear friend [and best friend] Reg selected 15 degrees flap, put the engines on full power and made just the most perfect takeoff, undercarriage up and soaring up into the night sky for a never-ending flight. He took off at approximately 20.30 hrs Sunday 1st August, according to the nurse who was with him. He looked out of the window and up into the sky. What a great aviator.

“His family has allowed me to let you know that his funeral will be held at 11 a.m. on 11th August at St. Mary’s Church, Dover.”

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