Thursday, October 13, 1977, began as just another routine trip for the crew of Lufthansa Flight 181, as the Boeing 737 departed the island of Palma de Mallorca bound for Frankfurt Germany. On board, 86 passengers and 5 crew members went about their business, while the coast of mainland Europe slipped by below them. Little did they know that they would never reach their destination.
Some 30 minutes into the flight, 2 men and 2 women wearing Che Guevera T-shirts rose from their seats brandishing pistols and hand grenades, while shouting commands to the passengers. They called themselves Commando Martyr Halime, and their leader, a Palestinian with the alias ‘Martyr Mahmud‘, forced his way into the cockpit and ordered the copilot to join the passengers.
Jurgen Schumann, the pilot, listened as Mahmud told him to set course for Cyprus. Schumann countered saying they didn’t have enough fuel and would have to land in Rome first. It was here that a conspiracy revealed itself.
Siegfried Hausner Commando, a faction of the German pro-communist terrorist organization known as the Red Army Faction, had allied themselves with the hijackers and demanded the release of ten RAF compatriots from a German prison, along with two Palestinians held in Turkey. In addition, they wanted 15 million dollars or all the passengers would die. Germany began negotiations, and at 5:45 P.M., the jet lifted off without clearance and headed for Cyprus.
On the ground in Cyprus, a representative from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) arrived and attempted to negotiate the hostages’ release. Mahmud yelled at him over the radio and the man eventually gave up. At 10:50 P.M., the aircraft departed Cyprus and found itself being denied landing rights in Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Kuwait. The only remaining airport was Bahrain, which they received word was closed. Schumann informed them they had to land again because of low fuel. A flight controller relented and they touched down at 1:52 A.M., only to have troops surround them, then withdraw after Mahmud held a gun to the co-pilot’s head and threatened to kill him. They refueled and left Bahrain, this time for Dubai.
Dubai ordered the runways blocked with vehicles, but as the plane made a low pass, Schumann pleaded with them to let them land as they once again were at their fuel limit. The vehicles, at last, raced away and they touched down in the morning light.
The terrorists ordered food and water be brought, as well as removal of garbage. Seizing on the opportunity, Schumann proceeded to throw cigarette stubs out the hatch which informed the Germans on-site as to the number of terrorists. The information made its way to the Dubai authorities, who in turn gave an interview to journalists. The terrorists found out and Mahmud threatened to kill Schumann if refueling didn’t begin. What the terrorists didn’t know is that the Germans belonged to a unit that arrived in Dubai shortly after Flight 181’s landing, led by a 48 year old Oberleutnant( Lieutenant Colonel) named Ulrich Wegener, a man who founded and commanded Grenshutzgruppe 9 (Border Guard Group 9), better known as GSG-9, Germany’s police counter-terrorist unit.
GSG-9 came about after the German police’s bungling of the 1972 Munich Olympics, in which Palestinian terrorists slaughtered Israeli hostages on a runway tarmac while being engaged by ill-trained sharpshooters. Determined not to repeat the past, Germany decreed the creation of a police counter-terrorist unit and soon thereafter on April 17, 1973, GSG-9 was born.
In Dubai, the unit was accompanied by two British Army Special Air Service (S.A.S) members, Barry Davies and Alistair Morrison, when they received permission to assault the plane, and even practiced on a 737 a short distance from flight 181. However, to their surprise the Dubai government later permitted the flight to depart, and the jet traveled to Yemen where worst fears became reality, when Mahmud permitted Schuman to check the plane over on the tarmac. He left and attempted to contact the Yemen authorities who sent him back, only to be executed by Mahmud in front of the passengers. Ordered to take off, the copilot was told to head for Mogadishu, Somalia.
After Arrival, Schumann’s body was thrown to the tarmac and the captors bound the hostages and sprinkled Schnapps wine spirits over them saying they would ‘burn better’ once they blew up the plane the next day. At 4:00 P.M., negotiators reestablished contact, notifying that the prisoners would be released but that they needed more time. The deadline was extended to 2:30 A.M., October 18th.
The German’s knew it must end. It had been 4 days since the hijacking, and Operation Fire Magic, the assault plan formulated with the help of the two S.A.S, was again underway, and soon, as night fell, a blacked out Boeing 707 touched down and taxied toward the rear of the Lufthansa plane.
Wegener, his 29 men along with Davies and Morrison, all dressed in casual attire, checked their weapons: MP5 submachine guns with flashlights mounted, and pistols. They crept both underneath the rear and to the left side of the plane carrying ladders. A rear hatch opened near the tail and operators entered, ready to shut off the power.
Suddenly a huge explosion boiled up a hundred yards in front of the plane. The Somali’s started a fire to distract the terrorists. After a few seconds passed the signal was given to cut the power.
“I threw a stun grenade over the wing and another over the cockpit,” Davies recounted.
Brilliant flashes thundered over the plane.
“Go! Go! Go!” came the shout.
Men sprang up the ladders jettisoning the twin hatches and swarmed for entry. Lights shown on one of the female hijackers at the back and a quick burst jolted her body to the deck. The team rushed over her yelling “Heads Down!” Lights crisscrossed the aisle freezing on a male terrorist a few meters ahead.
“The number 3 terrorist was coming down the aisle with two hand grenades in his hand,” Wegner said.
9mm rounds tore into his body and the two grenades detonated in a dull explosion.
“One of the Stewardesses was slightly wounded, and that was it,” he added.
They moved toward the cockpit. Mahmud threw open the door and fired a pistol. An MP5’s muzzle flashed, and he slumped to the ground. They motioned for the passengers to exit the plane and they fled through every opening they could to the safety of the tarmac, the last one gone when the team found the 4th hijacker coming out a closet and shot her.
The assault lasted only 5 minutes, and apart from Schumann’s death, no passengers died, one received light wounds, and 3 of the 4 terrorists were killed, with one of the women hijackers surviving her wounds. One team member was slightly wounded.
Since that fateful night of October 17, 1977, Fire Magic has been studied time and again by the world’s counter terrorist units as the textbook takedown of a hijacked airliner, and GSG-9 continues to covertly participate in missions the world over.
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