by Richard Lee ('58)
My family bid me farewell at LAX in Nov. 1984. I began a 4-day business trip to Saudi Arabia. I flew Pan Am to London’s Heathrow International where I checked into a hotel to freshen up before my next flight to Riyadh several hours later. I returned to Heathrow and boarded Saudia Airlines flight 040. The flight was long due to flyover restrictions that routed us south to the Mediterranean and east to Jeddah. We landed on a scheduled stop, deplaned and proceeded through customs prior to re-boarding for the balance of the flight to Riyadh. As I was walking around the secured gate area I saw a fellow passenger whom I mistook for American. I greeted him, and though he spoke English well, he was Swedish. We exchanged small talk and wished each other well. As we re-boarded, 2 hijackers from North Yemen joined us. One passed a loaded automatic pistol around the metal detector by slipping it into a pair of his shoes and handing them to a security employee (accomplice?).
The plane was not full as I sat in a section behind 1st class. As we took off I looked around the cabin. I saw mostly western dressed passengers. A man to my front right was Arab dressed. Shortly after takeoff, this man got up and returned in western clothes. The stewardess served a snack at 10:30pm. Not long after that, the man’s seat was empty. He had gone up front, held the gun to the stewardess’ neck and quietly forced his way into the cockpit. Once there, he held the crew at gunpoint for 10 hours.
The passengers were unaware the flight had been taken over. As the time for landing in Riyadh came and went, the passengers around me began talking. We asked the stewardess, who was acting a bit stressed, about the delay. We were told that sand storms were the reason. As time passed, we grew increasingly skeptical of her story. She continued to serve tea and snacks.
Some 3 hours into the flight we felt the plane reducing altitude and we thought, “Finally, we’re here!” There was a black military F4 fighter flying so close to our left wing we could see the cockpit glow, but could not make out any markings. I thought of the Korean Airliner shot out of the sky a few months earlier by the Russians when it crossed into their air space, and I felt my first fear of this ordeal. There would be 2 more points of high fear level before this was over. (I would like to say that fear reaches a peak level, but you continue to function, with high awareness.)
We heard later that the pilot was radioing the nearby airports, saying that we were very low on fuel and was actually declaring Mayday-Mayday, as Tehran was refusing to allow a Saudi aircraft entry.
We began to review the flight map in the Airline Magazine, estimating our possible location. We drew a circle to estimate the distant traveled in the time elapsed. No one thought of Iran as a possibility.
We landed in the dark at a partially lit airfield with a few parked airliners. None of the markings were familiar or readable enough to clear up where we were. There we sat as the dark night sky began to lighten. As we watched F4 fighters take off over our nose, no one was sleeping and many were praying.
As the sun began to lighten up the barren hills, 1 passenger said it looked like Israel. Others had different ideas. None were right. We could see that we were at the end of the runway, no terminal was in sight, and there were people in uniforms carrying automatic rifles; and military vehicles at a distance from the plane. I took pictures as we waited to see what was next.
Negotiations continued. All of a sudden the plane lurched and rolled in a twisting motion. My initial thought was they were pushing us off the runway with a bulldozer! Not so. The TriStar L1011 has electric brakes. Because the fuel tanks were dry after running the generator turbine to keep the air conditioning running, the batteries were dead and the brakes released. So as the plane rolled off the runway and into gravel under 1 wing wheel, the other wing wheel continued to roll and damaged the nose wheel strut, bending it to the side as the wide-body plane crushed the chain link fence at the side of the runway. The overall effect was spine tingling.
As the sun began to rise, a flight officer that was deadheading back to Riyadh took a seat behind mine. I asked if he knew what was going on. As others in earshot gathered around he explained our problem. He had been seated in a jump seat in the cockpit when the gunman entered. He said the pilot had had the gun pointed at his head since that time. The hijacker had issues with the Saudi government and wanted $500 million, some prisoners released, and Iranian asylum. Evidently he thought if he brought them a Saudi airliner they would see things his way. They didn’t. We were only allowed to land because we were about to fall from the sky on empty fuel tanks.
Bargaining went on for hours with no change in positions. A man in 1st class had a health problem. The front door was opened and he was carried out. The door was resealed and more time passed. As everyone was tired and the seats were turning to granite beneath each of us - Tariq Altaieb, the 1st Officer, convinced the gunman he should leave the cockpit and get some blankets and pillows for the Pilot and Co-pilot (both Americans), reasoning that it might take a long time before reaching a settlement.
Tariq collected blankets and pillows, returned to the cockpit, and when the moment presented itself he forced this collection against the hijacker’s gun and away from the pilot’s head. The gun went off, blowing a hole in the roof of the cockpit. The pilots leaped to their feet rolling the gunman to the floor just in front of the 1st Class passengers. A Saudi doctor joined the mayhem as Tariq fought for the gun. The terrorist was tough, fighting the 3 flight officers and the doctor. Seeing things were not getting better, the doctor broke into the fire axe box. He wielded the axe toward the hijacker’s head. Still the man held the gun, even after multiple surgical cracks to the head. Then he struck a blow to the hijacker’s gun hand, which he had been protecting beneath his body. The man released the pistol.
While all this was going on, the airline crew opened all the doors, popped out the inflated slides and the 100+ passengers bailed out. I sat there thinking about the American hostages held in Iran released just 4 years earlier when Regan replaced Carter. I didn’t think about it for long, as the 2nd hijacker (who knew?) yelled, “I’ve got a bomb.”
I removed my shoes, put my camera case strap across my chest and jumped trampoline style down the slide. I found plenty of rubble and piles of dirt to duck behind. There was no bomb. The 2nd hijacker was brought to the floor by a Texan. The Iranian military and police came aboard and hauled the 2 gunmen out.
We seemed to be in a position to relax. Busses were sent to pick us up. We began our wait. We were all exhausted. Two American news crews showed up. CBS and NBC TV had sent teams over to Tehran to cover the 4th anniversary of the 444-day hostage release. It was Tues., Election Day in the U.S. Reagan was running for his 2nd term. I was filmed sitting in the clothes I left LAX wearing on Sun. My wife, Karen saw me sitting in the terminal. She said I looked forlorn. She had been calling elected officials to see what they knew, and soon found out she knew more than Washington’s lead clerk of the “Saudi Working Group” in charge of this issue. They couldn’t even get my name right.
After being served sandwiches and tea, they delivered our shoes to us in a pile. We rummaged around until we found a pair that matched. We were then bussed to the Tehran Hilton. We gathered around the front deck and restaurant area. I asked to make a long distance call, but was denied because as an American I was not recognized, nor was my AMX card, VISA, MasterCard, Cash in Pounds, Saudi riyals, or US$.
The Iranian hotel staff was kind and friendly; with a strange fear in their eyes, as if they had to look over their shoulder for someone may be watching. To me, it was the absence of liberty. At this point, let me thank the Spanish Embassy in Tehran for being there to help us Americans through it all.
We 11 Americans were asked to pair up so the Swedish fellow I met in Jeddah and I paired up. They asked for our Passports to hold as they gave us the room key. I objected but was convinced it was standard practice. We retired to our room and my “neutral” roomy got on the phone to his wife. I wrote him a note to ask his wife to call the US Embassy in Sweden so they could contact my wife and tell her how thing were progressing. It worked.
That evening we all returned to the front desk to board busses and return to the airport. The announcement was made that they would hold all our passports for the ride to the airport. I made my opinion known, that I wasn’t going for a ride through Tehran traffic without my passport in my possession. After some debate the passports were returned to each of us. The others seemed to appreciate it.
We arrived at the airport to meet a special Saudia Airline Airbus to take us to the Riyadh King Khaled International Airport. Prior to boarding we each had to go through a private security search in a draped cubical with an Iranian soldier. I actually felt I was in charge of the search, showing him what I thought he should be examining (camera bag, my pocket contents). Then we walked to claim our baggage. We were instructed one at a time to walk to our bag, pick it up and carry it across a yellow line. Only the bag belonging to the man that had the heart attack early in the day was left. He was brought to the plane and carried aboard after a lengthy wait for all of us that had previously boarded. I actually dosed off for the 1st time in a day and a half. I felt all the danger was behind us.
Upon arrival in Riyadh we were presented with a rose and a special sit down dinner. My companies Middle East Salesman was beside himself, after having invited me to travel with him, and then this happened. I could see him outside the secured baggage claim area. He looked like he had been awake for the duration.
After a few hours at the airport, my baggage and I were on the way to the Saudi Arabia Marriott. The room was 1st class and the shower was calling my name. I called home and told Karen I would be extending my trip because of the lost time. This didn’t go over very well. Next I shed my Sun. morning clothes, stepped into the shower, and nearly fainted, so I crashed on the bed. It was Wed. and after a few hours of sound sleep, I got my wake up call at 1:00pm. It was a working lunch, but filled with questions about this experience. Each customer visit and meal was part business and more questions. I drank camels milk and ate from other’s plates while sitting on fine Persian rugs. The food was prepared behind doors and drapes so the women were never seen. We purified ourselves with water and incense before eating. It was suddenly the 1st century. In a few days I was on my way home, after a life changing experience
(not actual photos from event)