Operation Isotope (1972)

Sabena Flight 571 was a scheduled passenger flight from Vienna to Tel Aviv operated by the Belgian national airline, Sabena. On May 8, 1972 a Boeing 707 passenger aircraft operating that service, and captained by the Englishman, Reginald Levy, DFC, was hijacked by four terrorists from the Black September organization and landed at Lod Airport(later Ben Gurion International Airport) near Lod, although that was the planned destination anyway.

The attack was planned by Ali Hassan Salameh and carried out by a group of two men and two women, armed with pistols, led by Ali Taha

Israeli commandos disguised as technicians.
Israeli commandos disguised as technicians.

Twenty minutes out of Vienna, the hijackers rushed the cockpit. “As you can see,” Captain Levy told the 90 passengers, “we have friends aboard”. While the passengers and the captain waited, hoping that something would happen and lead to their safety, Reginald Levy talked about everything “from navigation to sex” with the terrorists.

The hijackers demanded the release of 315 convicted Palestinian terrorists who were imprisoned in Israel, and threatened to blow up the airplane with its passengers. Seeing the terrorists crying and hugging each other goodbye, Reginald Levy managed to send a message and ask for help to be delivered as soon as possible. The security minister Moshe Dayan, conducted negotiations with the terrorists while also making preparations for a rescue operation, code-named “Operation Isotope“.

On May 9, 1972 at 4:00 p.m. the rescue operation began: a team of 16 Sayeret Matkal commandos, led by Ehud Barak and including Benjamin Netanyahu, both future Israeli Prime Ministers, approached the airplane. The commandos were disguised as airplane technicians in white overalls, and were able to convince the terrorists that the aircraft needed repair. The commandos stormed the aircraft and took control of the plane in ten minutes, killing both male hijackers and capturing the two women. All the passengers were rescued. Three of the passengers, however, were wounded in the takeover, with one female passenger eventually dying from her wounds.

Commandos storm the Sabena.
Commandos storm the Sabena.

The two female surviving terrorists were sentenced to life imprisonment, but were later freed as part of a prisoner exchange following the Lebanon War.

The hijacked airplane itself continued to be operated by Sabena for another five years before being purchased by Israel Aircraft

Industries. They eventually sold the airplane to the Israeli Air Force, where it served as a spy plane for many years and participated in most of the Air Force’s long range operations.

Captain Levy, having flown RAF bombing missions over Germany and taken part in the Berlin airlift, had joined Sabena in 1952. He retired in 1982 and died, from a heart attack, at a hospital near his home in Dover on 1 August 2010. The hijacking took place on his 50th birthday.

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