Life & Culture

Hijacked: Flight 73 review

Horrific tale of what happened when four armed Palestinians boarded a New York-bound Pan Am passenger jet at a Pakistan airport in 1986


Picture released on September 6, 1986 of Pan Am Flight 73, after a 16-hour siege of the Boeing 747-121, hijacked on September 5, 1986, at Karachi airport, in Pakistan, by four armed men of the Abu Nidal Organization, as it headed out of Mumbai to Karachi en route to Frankfurt . (Photo credit should read KRAIPIT PHANVUT/AFP via Getty Images)

Hijacked: Flight 73
Sky Documentaries | ★★★★✩

With its opening shot of a Rubik’s cube, you can guess this Sky Art’s documentary concerns the 80s, that innocent time of disco dancing, malls, and plane hijacking.

Although the title, Hijacked: Flight 73 also gives the game away somewhat.

A not often remarked upon aspect of living in a post-9/11 world, is how with all the extra airport security, those events can seem like a relic of the past.

Through the sepia degraded tones of contemporary news footage there’s even the danger they could appear almost quaint.

Which is why this documentary provides such a necessary jolt to remind us of their utter barbarism.

In September 1986, Pan Am Flight 73 was taking on additional passengers in Pakistan during its India to New York run.

Four Palestinian men forced themselves onto the plane with automatic weapons and grenades, beginning a terrible ordeal for the 379 passengers and crew.

Nearly four decades later we meet some of the people caught up in the horror, as they explain their role in what happened next. Their testimonies are intercut with news footage and a dramatisation of events.

The medium is not rewritten, but every element of this documentary is on point and deployed with such care and artistry that we feel transported into the experience. You can’t but ask: what would I do?

Could I be as brave and quick-thinking as the recently hired, all-Indian cabin crew, hiding passports from the American passengers to protect their being targets?

Would I be as honest as the British man, relieved he’s not American, wrongly believing himself to be less in danger? How would I cope as an unaccompanied minor, returning to parents after a summer away, confused when thrust alone into a life-or-death situation?

Then there are the little details that bring home the surrealism of the atrocity. The boredom of hours spent waiting on the precipice as the terrorists try to negotiate a new flight crew after the pilots escaped. The maddening loop of pre-flight muzak.

An airline hostess was even asked to a disco by one of the terrorists.
The wider political circumstances are also explored.

We are told that the Palestinians received backing from Gaddafi’s regime. The Pakistani authorities are called out as incompetent liars for their part t in how the siege ended, and for releasing the surviving terrorists early into their sentences so that two remain at large today.

With the original plan being to fill the plane with fuel and fly it over Israel to destroy a target, the case is made for this as a potential forerunner for 9/11.

But at the end of the day, it comes down to four men not seeing other people as human beings, but as pawns to be sacrificed for their cause.

And, of course, while we get to hear what was going in the the minds of the survivors, with the British man even reaching for understanding, we cannot peer into the heads and hearts of the 22 passengers so callously and needlessly murdered.

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