The story of the Sabena pilot hijacked en route to Israel

Reginald Levy, a British pilot for a Belgian airline, tells a real-life tale of terrorism and heroism.

Reginald Levy (right) and Shimon Peres in 1993. (photo credit: SCOOP 80)
Reginald Levy (right) and Shimon Peres in 1993.
(photo credit: SCOOP 80)
On May 8, 1972, Reginald Levy – a British pilot for the former Belgian airline Sabena – was celebrating his 50th birthday with his wife, Dora, on board his Boeing 707 – Flight 571 from Brussels via Vienna to Tel Aviv – when he was hijacked by four Black September terrorists. His dramatic recollection of the hostage saga that ensued reflects his calm, cool and ultimately heroic handling of a historic moment.
“We had just passed over the reporting point of Sarajevo when I heard a scream behind me from the entrance to the cockpit,” he writes in his book From Night Flak to Hijack: It’s A Small World. “One of the stewardesses had been pushed out of the doorway and two Middle Eastern looking men burst into the cockpit. One held a pistol to my head and the other pulled the pin out of the grenade he was holding and threw the pin to the floor. They were both in a highly nervous state, the hand holding the pistol to my head was shaking violently. My only thoughts were, how do I calm them down?” What happened next is part of the annals of Israeli history, and reading it from the point of view of the hijacked pilot is riveting.
“Right from the beginning I had felt coldly and deeply angry that my command had been threatened,” he says. “I was concerned for my passengers only and had no wish to be embroiled in the bitter battle that was going on between the State of Israel and the Arabs who were bent on its destruction. I am British and despite my Jewish background, had no connections whatsoever with Israel. My responsibility was to my passengers and to Sabena, my employers.”
“As you can see, we have friends on board,” he announced to his 90 passengers, while he chatted about everything from navigation to sex with the terrorists to keep them calm as Israeli commandos planned their rescue mission.
The story, superbly told in this autobiography – which the pilot’s youngest grandson, Alex Schiphorst, published five years after Levy’s 2010 death – is gripping reading that could serve as the basis of a fascinating film.
Levy was a Royal Air Force veteran who had taken part in strategic bombing missions over Germany during World War II, as well as the Berlin Airlift. He joined Sabena in 1952 and retired 30 years later.
But the most memorable moment in his career of over 25,000 flying hours was the hijacking of Flight 571, he once told me.
“My 15 minutes of fame,” he quipped.
We spoke during a visit he and his wife made to Israel, where his daughter Linda Lipschitz, a Jerusalem Post employee, was living with her family In the book, Levy recounts the brilliantly conceived Israeli rescue mission at what was then called Lod Airport. Supervised by then-defense minister Moshe Dayan, it comprised a team of 16 Sayeret Matkal commandos dressed as mechanics in white overalls. Among them were two future prime ministers: Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu. After convincing the terrorists that the jet needed repair, the team of commandos, led by Barak, stormed on board and took control of the aircraft in just 10 minutes, killing both male hijackers and capturing their two female accomplices.
Levy – whom the hijackers had dispatched to convey their demands that the Israelis release 315 terrorists being held in prison in Israel – had been advised by Dayan to “calm down.”
“Remember, you are a captain and I am a general,” Dayan had said jokingly.
In the end, though, it was Levy’s incredible calmness under pressure that saved the day. He remembers his sense of relief after all the passengers were rescued, with a typical touch of humor: “Moshe Dayan was waiting for me as I came off the plane with Dora. ‘I told you that everything would be alright,’ he said. I introduced him to Dora. ‘Mrs. Levy,’ he said, ‘I want you to have dinner with me tonight.’ ‘But I haven’t anything to wear,’ she replied!” Levy and his wife were later feted by the entire Israeli leadership, including then-prime minister Golda Meir, foreign minister Abba Eban and transportation minister Shimon Peres, with whom they forged an enduring friendship. Meir even hosted a party at Tel Aviv’s Dan Hotel to honor Levy for his role in helping to bring the passengers to safety.
“I was called upon to make a brief speech and caused a laugh when I told the guests what, in the aviation world, the acronym ‘SABENA’ jokingly stood for and how appropriate it was in present circumstances: ‘Such A Bloody Experience Never Again!’” The book includes a riveting transcript of a tape recording Levy made soon after the hijacking. It is a detailed, accurate account of exactly what transpired, and is a historical document that anyone interested in what is now known as the Sabena Hijacking should read.
In the book’s epilogue, Schiphorst provides a thoughtful assessment of his grandfather’s place in history.
“My grandfather is a piece of history within history, and I like to think that he touched, shaped, saved and made a difference, by chance, unknowingly and even if to a small extent, to many of the events and the lives of countless people, some of whom he knew and many of whom he did not. His family is the living proof of his mark upon us and history.”
Levy’s last visit to Israel was in 2003, when he was among 400 guests of honor – including Bill Clinton, F.W. de Klerk and Mikhail Gorbachev – at Peres’s 80th birthday.
The highlight for him was Clinton stealing the show by jumping on stage and playing the guitar while singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
But perhaps the most powerful lines in the book come in a letter he wrote shortly before he died: “I make no apologies for dropping names. I found more pleasure from meeting people that I have never dreamed of meeting, some of them boyhood heroes, than dropping bombs. Another side of meeting them was to make me realize that they were, after all, ordinary human beings with good and bad sides to them and they woke me up to the fact that I was as capable as they were in my own sphere of activity. Meeting with certain types boosted my own self-confidence.
“I thank God every day for my good luck in being able to do most of these things and pay homage to all those far worse off and those who are no longer here but who did so much to make it possible. C’est la vie and I am the last one to moan, having had such a wonderful life.”
Indeed, reading about Levy’s life in his own words can only be described as a wonderful experience.