This Week in History: Israeli commandos retake Flight 571

Israeli commando team including Barak, Netanyahu and Yatom launched a daring operation to rescue passengers on highjacked Sabena Flight.

sabena 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
sabena 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On May 8, 1972, four Palestinian terrorists from Black September boarded Sabena Flight 571 from Vienna to Tel Aviv. Twenty minutes after taking off from a scheduled stop, the hijackers took control of the flight and instructed the captain to continue as planned to Israel’s Lod Airport (now Ben Gurion International Airport).  Less than 24 hours later, Israeli commandos, among them today’s most prominent Israeli leaders, launched a daring operation to rescue the flight’s passengers and retake the plane.
Soon after realizing the gravity of the situation, English-born Captain Reginald Levy radioed ahead to Israel to notify authorities of the terrorist plot flying towards them at hundreds of miles per hour. Then-defense minister Moshe Dayan immediately began organizing a response, a perhaps far-fetched plan to rescue the passengers.
In initial contacts, the hijackers made their demands: They would free the passengers and crew in exchange for the release of over 300 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
After nightfall, hours after the plane had parked near Lod Airport’s lone terminal, Israeli forces carefully snuck under the plane to deflate its tires and disable its hydraulic systems. In an attempt to calm the terrorists after they discovered the plane had been disabled, Captain Levy kept them occupied through the night with constant chatter, discussing “everything under the sun … from navigation to sex,” he later recalled.
In the morning, the hijackers sent the plane’s captain to show the Israelis that they indeed possessed adequate explosives to destroy the plane. Levy, realizing that the only hope for him and the passengers (one of whom was his wife) lay in the hands of the Israelis, provided them with detailed about the hijackers’ whereabouts and the layout of the plane.
Armed with a better understanding of what they were up against, 16 commandos from the elite Sayeret Matkal unit disguised themselves as airplane mechanics. The team was commanded by current Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Other members of the team included current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, former MK and Mossad chief Danny Yatom and former MK Uzi Dayan. The commandos approached the plane and pretended to examine the equipment on its underbelly.
Having successfully reached the plane without raising suspicion, the commandos quickly removed the Boeing 707’s emergency exit doors and immediately engaged the terrorists. “It was over quickly, in seconds,” former Sayeret Matkal soldier Eliezer Sacks recently recalled to The Jerusalem Post. Hours after being freed from the hijacked jetliner, one passenger told Channel 1, “We saw what appeared to be an ElAl crew approaching, within one minute [they] broke into plane. Within two minutes it was all over.”
Another passenger described the firefight, saying that first shots fired by the commandos hit one of the female hijackers in the rear of the plane who was gripping a hand grenade. The man, excitedly recalling the events to Channel 1, said he immediately grabbed the grenade and held the spoon down to stop it from exploding.
Two of the terrorists were killed in the raid and two others, females, were captured. One passenger was killed in the firefight and six passengers were wounded. Netanyahu was also shot during the operation, reportedly by friendly fire.
In a touching close to the story, 35 years after the Sabena crew and passengers were rescued, one of the commandos who took part in the raid returned Sabina Captain Reginald Levy’s captain hat to his daughter, Linda Lipschitz, then an editorial assistant at The Jerusalem Post. Levy, who remained in contact with Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres for the remainder of his life, passed away last year at the age of 88.
Along with the Entebbe Operation four years later, the rescue of Sabena Flight 571 remains one of the most daring Sayeret Matkal operations known to the public. The operation has been studied and greatly praised by security forces the world over for its efficiency and success.

Steve Linde contributed to this report.The original Mabat television report on the hijacking from May 9, 1972: