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The Heroic Pilot

Stayed cool under pressure.

Captain Reginald Levy was piloting Sabena Flight 571 when it was hijacked by terrorists in 1972. His extraordinary calmness and courage under pressure saved the lives of his passengers.

Reginald was born in Portsmouth, England and served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. He survived intense enemy fire while bombing Hamburg and Berlin. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism.

After the war, Reginald kept flying, first with AirIndia and later with Sabena, a Belgian airline. May 8, 1972 was Reginald’s 50th birthday and he wanted to do something special. He was scheduled to fly from Brussels to Lod airport in Israel, with a stop in Vienna, and he invited his wife Dora to join the flight and they’d have a special dinner in Tel Aviv, a foodie mecca then and now.

There were 90 passengers on Sabena flight 571 and the beginning of the flight was uneventful. Dora was enjoying the perks of first class and the airline was cruising at 30,000 feet when the unthinkable happened. Twenty minutes after taking off from Vienna, Palestinian terrorists wearing stocking masks broke into the cockpit with firearms and a grenade. In the main cabin, two female terrorists with explosive belts told the passengers they’d blow up the whole plane if their demands were not met. They went row by row through the plane to identify Jewish passengers, then separated the Jews and sent them to huddle together in the back of the plane.

In the cockpit, one terrorist put a gun to Reginald’s neck while the other held a grenade to the co-pilot’s face. Reginald had a dry sense of humor (he was Jewish and British) and refused to panic. He made an announcement over the intercom which was startling in its calmness. “As you can see,” Reginald told the passengers, “we have friends aboard.”

The terrorists, part of the Black September group, threatened to blow up the plane unless 317 Palestinian prisoners were released from Israeli jails. Amazingly, even with a gun to his head, Reginald was able to send a coded message to Israel flight control letting them know what was going on. He also got word to the flight crew not to let anybody know his wife was on board.

In Israel, defense minister Moshe Dayan kicked into high gear. It was arranged that the plane would land at a remote airfield in the dead of night while negotiators communicated with the terrorists. Once the plane landed, Israeli and Belgian authorities disagreed about the next step. The Belgians, desperate to save the passengers, wanted to offer a large ransom to the terrorists but Moshe Dayan absolutely vetoed the capitulation. As the plane sat on the tarmac, two saboteurs sent by Dayan secretly snuck under the plane, disabled the plane’s hydraulics and deflated the tires.

Once the hijackers realized the plane was disabled, they announced they were going to blow everybody up and started kissing each other goodbye. Reginald calmly reassured them that the prisoners would be released. He de-escalated the situation and spent the entire night talking with the hijackers, desperately trying to keep them engaged and prevent them from using any of their weapons. He later remembered, “I talked about everything under the sun, from navigation to sex.”

The next morning, the hijackers sent Reginald into the airport terminal with samples of their explosives to prove their deadly intent. He gave Dayan detailed descriptions of where the hijackers were on the plane, and where the black purses with the bombs were. Reginald went back into the plane and informed the hijackers that Dayan had agreed to free the prisoners. He said some mechanics were going to look at the engine and that once the plane was fixed, they were free to fly to Cairo.

Onboard the plane, the heat was stifling, and Reginald persuaded the terrorists to crack open the emergency doors. Meanwhile, two trucks arrived carrying 18 “mechanics” in white overalls. In fact, these men were members of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, led by Major Ehud Barak. They climbed onto the wings and  burst onto the plane. With the information Reginald had given them, the commandos killed both male terrorists less than 10 seconds after entering the plane. There was return fire from the terrorists, which wounded six passengers (sadly, one of them later died.) One of the commandos was injured as well – Benjamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister of Israel. Within a minute both female hijackers were neutralized.

Throughout the ordeal, Reginald was determined that the hijackers shouldn’t know that the woman in 1C was his wife, so he and Dora were not able to communicate with each other at all. They did have a belated birthday dinner in Tel Aviv the next night – with Prime Minister Golda Meir.

After the hijacking, members of Black September threatened Reginald and his family, and he had to leave the UK for several years, moving to South Africa. Eventually he returned to England to retire. Reginald Levy died in Dover in 2005 at age 88.

For saving the passengers of Sabena flight 571, we honor Reginald Levy as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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