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Jack Ridgway Story - Smokejumper Training Thwarts Hijacking

by Chuck Sheley (Cave Junction '59) |

On September 5, 1986, Pan-Am Clipper 73 was hijacked on the ground in Karachi, Pakistan. Nearly 400 passengers, ground crew and flight attendants spent the next 16 hours as hostages of the gunmen. When the 747's alternate power system failed, the terrorists panicked and opened fire, leaving 21 dead - among them, two Americans.

Among the flight crew was Flight Engineer Jack Ridgway (Cave Junction '60). Even though the hijacking ended with the tragic loss of 21 lives, an even-greater tragedy was averted by the quick and decisive action of the cockpit crew led by Ridgway. The terrorists had eventually planned to destroy the plane, passengers and themselves. Jack says that his smokejumper training 25 years earlier played an important part in his initiating an escape by the flight crew, using an untried escape procedure. The following paragraphs tell this story as recalled by Jack from his home in West Dover, Vt., where he currently is a home builder.

Clipper 73 was scheduled to depart for Frankfurt in the morning hours of September 5. The crew had spent the night in Karachi and were going to the airport to start the pre-flight checks of the aircraft.

On the way to the airport the captain asked Jack if he "heard machine gun fire last night." Political unrest was commonplace and the airport was secured with uniformed armed guards surrounding the plane when the crew started the pre-flight at 3 a.m. As the crew was finishing pre-flight, a flight attendant came to Jack telling him that there was an armed man downstairs. There are no weapons for the crew other than small crash axes to be used to escape from the cockpit.

Ridgway grabbed the crash ax and proceeded down the spiral staircase, expecting to see a passenger with a handgun. Instead he saw a person in a full security officer uniform and an ID badge, armed with an automatic weapon. Due to the unstable political situation in Pakistan, Jack thought that this might be part of a takeover of the country by the military. There were four uniformed and armed men on the plane at this time.

The armed man had not seen Ridgway come down the staircase behind him. Operating under the premise that it was a military coup, Jack retreated quietly up the staircase to the flight deck where he opened one of the cockpit hatches to see if there were any vehicles and activity by the military. There was no activity on the ground outside the 747!

The cockpit of the 747 stood 32 feet off the ground, and could be exited via a small escape hatch which was located just behind and above the captain's seat. There was an escape reel, which was a tension device consisting of a rope attached to a handle. The person exiting the cockpit is supposed to squeeze through the hatch with the handle in hand and leap into space, trusting the escape reel to do its job and prevent a free-fall to the tarmac.

This procedure had been little talked-about and had not been part of any active training by the flight crew. As a matter of fact, it had never been tried at all. There were doubts by the captain and first officer about the advisability of even using this system.

Recalling his smokejumper training some 25 years earlier, Ridgway did not hesitate. He grabbed the handle and exited the cockpit. Jack recalled that the tension device "worked like a charm," and deposited him on the tarmac some 32 feet below the cockpit. From the tarmac, Jack could see another gunman holding a stewardess at the door near the first class section. Again, the gunman did not notice or hear Jack.

Ridgway then made his way to the operations office in the terminal. The pilot and copilot had not exited the aircraft at that time. The operations office couldn\'t contact the plane and had no idea what was going on. At the time, the most-logical possibility was a military takeover of the country by the Pakistani military. The operations people hid Jack in the ceiling as terminal activity increased. Shortly thereafter, the pilot and copilot followed Jack\'s actions and used the same escape method and made their way to the ops office.

During this time it became evident that there was a hijacking in progress and it was not a Pakistani military takeover. After securing the 747, the hijackers went up to the flight deck to finish securing the plane. They were surprised when the cockpit was completely empty of the flight crew. They immediately contacted the operations office and demanded a flight crew or they would start shooting a passenger every ten minutes. One person, an American, had already been killed in the early stages of the takeover.

The FBI arrived on the scene and took the flight crew to the American embassy. By this time some details were surfacing, and more were found out later. The hijackers were Palestinian terrorists armed in Libya. Their mission was to hijack the plane, fly to Cyprus and exchange some of the passengers for Palestinian prisoners.

The most-prominent prisoners in Cyprus were three members of a Palestinian group called Force 17, who had been convicted in the murder of three Israelis in 1985. From there, it was to Beruit to drop off the prisoners and then to Tel Aviv, where the aircraft would be blown up in flight. The escape of the flight crew had thrown a big glitch into these plans.

The hijacking had been well-planned. The four hijackers approached the 747 dressed in Pakistani security uniforms with ID badges and riding in a vehicle with an emergency light flashing. They passed easily through security and rushed the gangway, shooting an employee.

Once aboard Flight 73, they started securing the aircraft and shot an American passenger, throwing him onto the tarmac. They left the securing of the flight deck until last. That, and Ridgway\'s immediate action, was the mistake that probably saved the rest of the passengers and crew.

Communications were established with the hijackers when mechanic Meherjee Kharas (who was later killed) opened the line with the cockpit. Negotiations had continued for 16 hours during which time the auxiliary power unit had been running. Officials knew that when the power unit shut down, all lights, air conditioning and radio communication would be lost. It was only a matter of time before this happened.

When it did happen at about 10 p.m. local time, the nervous hijackers started shooting and threw at least two grenades. There were fatalities. More than 100 were injured, either from the shooting or from their escape from the aircraft, which stood high off the ground. All four of the hijackers survived and were taken as prisoners. A fifth terrorist was arrested two days late; all five were convicted and sentenced to hang after a trial in 1988.

Pakistani newspapers called the action a "daring commando action" by the Pakistani military. Later revelations questioned this headline. When the lights went off in the plane, the runway lights and other airport lights were turned off. The commandos gained control of the aircraft half an hour after the shooting began. They had to wait for a ladder to get into the plane and all the shooting was done by that time. In the 1988 trial of the hijackers, the judge rejected a claim by the defendants that the Pakistani commandos had killed the hostages. Judge Mohammad Babar said the commandos were nowhere near entering the plane when the passengers were killed.

In the words of Pan-Am Vice-Chairman Martin Shugrue, every expert on the subject of hijacking counseled, "Negotiate; negotiate; negotiate. Buy time; buy time; buy time."

The Stars and Stripes reported that a Delta team had been dispatched and were on the way to Karachi at the time "the lights went out."

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India sharply criticized Pakistan's handling of the incident, saying, "I do not believe that fuel for the power unit just ran out. It was a deliberate action to enter the aircraft. Unfortunately, it was bungled and caused the deaths of a number of people."

After reading many newspaper articles and documents provided by Jack, it is evident that the hijackers had planned to end this operation with the destruction of the 747 and all who remained on it. The factor in thwarting this outcome was the escape of the flight crew. The key to their escape was the quick action by Jack Ridgway who didn\'t hesitate to put into action a technique similar to his smokejumper letdown training 25 years earlier in his life.