‘I live in the moment’: Meet the pilot who thwarted Leila Khaled’s hijacking in 1970 — and her recent university speech
The only pilot to have ever foiled the hi-jacking of a plane mid-air is today 89-years-old with a voracious appetite for books and his weekly regimen of Pilates and Chi-Gong, alongside daily walks through the citrus orchards of the Israeli village where he has lived since he was a baby.
Uri Bar-Lev has not flown a plane since he retired from El Al in 1996. But he recalls the events of Sept. 6, 1970 on El Al Flight 219 from Amsterdam to New York as if he was still in the cockpit after the flight attendant announced an armed pair were demanding the pilot let them come in or they blow up the plane.
He heard himself shouting to his co-pilot, “Sit down, we are not going to be hijacked!” But, he says, looking back at what became a defining moment in his life and in aviation history: “I didn’t have any idea how to prevent it.”
The plane had been hijacked by two members of the militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Patrick Argüello, a Nicaraguan-American, was killed during the struggle, but Leila Khaled, a Palestinian refugee who had successfully hijacked TWA Flight 840 on its way from Rome to Tel Aviv the year before, survived.
This September, exactly 50 years later, Bar-Lev rose from his placid retirement to become one of the most powerful voices protesting San Francisco State University’s invitation to Khaled to speak at a virtual event.
“I’m not an angry person, but it’s a big surprise to me that she’s actually in some way admired by other people and gets invited,” he said in a recent interview via Zoom. “She is a terrorist. Why admire terrorists? I ask people if someone who crashed the airplane on 9/11 in Pennsylvania survived, would you now ask him to speak at a university?”
It was not the first time he had spoken out against Khaled. In 2014, Bar-Lev revealed in our interview, he and members of his crew from that fateful flight were secretly flown to Washington to testify to Justice Department officials that Khaled should be banned from entering the United States because she was ultimately responsible for the death of her partner, a U.S. citizen, in the attempted hijacking.
“It’s top secret, I was told not to tell anyone,” he said. (The Justice Department did not respond to inquiries about this.)
The hijacking was a pivotal moment in aviation history as well as in Bar-Lev’s life, though he said it took until 9/11 for international aviation regulations to acknowledge a pilot’s “right” to try to thwart hijackers.
Bar-Lev claims there was a flurry of interest in the 1970 hijacking in the aftermath of 9/11, and that 42 security officials representing airlines from around the world came to Israel to learn directly from him about his experience derailing the hijackers. Their visit was purposefully held under the radar, he said, to explain the lack of media coverage of this at the time.
But he said he tries not to dwell too much on the fact that he was at the center of a significant moment in history.
He sees himself as a forward-looking person, even at age 89, happy to talk about the full life he has on Avihayil, the lush moshav near Netanya that has always been home, taking long daily walks, and plowing through the collection in his overflowing library.
“I like books that make you think and that remain in your thoughts long after you finish reading,” said Bar-Lev, who has five children, seven grandchildren. One daughter and her family live on the moshav.
Diagnosed five years ago with pancreatic cancer, he credits experimental treatment, daily walks and his regimen of Pilates and chi-gong, for saving his life.
“I live in the moment,” he said, before adding, of the hijacking, “but I have no doubt it impacted me.”
‘In my bones, I knew we can make it’
Despite the passage of more than a half century, Bar-Lev recalls the details of the day the plane he was piloting came under attack with extraordinary precision.
By 1970, hijackings had been happening for more than a decade and Bar-Lev’s flight was one of five that were attacked that week in a PFLP plot known as the Dawson Air Field Hijackings, which also targeted TWA, Pan Am and Swiss Air flights. At the time, the rules of the International Air Transport Association dictated that pilots give in to the demands of hijackers in the name of passenger safety.
But in the moment, Bar-Lev said all these years later, he instinctively reacted against those orders. In a split second, he made the call that acquiescing to the attackers’ demands could endanger his passengers more than rejecting them would.
After a light went on that a hijacking was in progress, the flight engineer peered through the cockpit peephole and reported seeing the terrorist later identified as Argüello standing just outside, holding a gun to the head of a flight attendant.
“Then, I had an idea,” recalled Bar-Lev, who had studied physics.
“When I learned to be a pilot and later on when I taught in flight school, we did an exercise,” he said, gliding his hand downward on the screen as we spoke via Zoom. “You can use negative G-force,” referring to the result of accelerating the plane downward, “and it will work like an elevator. Everything cuts out and suddenly there is no floor, you fall until you catch it – this is called the neutral law. I thought if we do this, the pistol will fall, the others will fall down, and the air marshal can jump out and they will be on the floor.”
He reasoned that the passengers would be OK during the 20,000-foot drop because they were strapped in their seats. And he was confident that the Boeing 707 he was flying could withstand such a maneuver, having asked the Korean War veteran in Seattle who trained him to fly that jet if it could withstand such acrobatics.
“In my bones I knew we can make it in this plane,” said Bar-Lev.
He heard himself tell the control tower: “May Day, May Day,” before plunging the plane 10,000 feet a minute for two-and-a-half minutes then stabilizing it again. The maneuver made Khaled, who was armed with two hand grenades, fall to the ground, where she was apprehended. Avihu Kol, one of two armed Shin Bet officers serving as air marshals on the flight, then burst out of the cockpit to kill Argüello.
(Breaking another rule, Bar-Lev had ordered Kol to sit in the cockpit with him after being informed by El Al security in Amsterdam that two passengers flying on Guatemalan passports had been flagged as potentially suspicious).
“I did not feel fear, my mind could not have felt fear and worked at the same time,” Bar-Lev recalled in our interview, speaking in English which he improved when El Al sent him to Cambridge, England in 1960 . “Fear is a bad thing, it changes your behavior.”
Once the hijackers were disabled, Bar-Lev discovered Shlomo Vider, the chief flight attendant, bleeding and gravely wounded. At the beginning of the attack, Vider had tried to charge the hijackers and was shot several times. Although Bar-Lev was ordered to turn the plane around and return to Tel Aviv, he said he decided Vider’s condition was too grave to make the journey home, and landed in London instead.
The plane’s arrival in London set off its own drama, landing as it did with one dead hijacker, one living hijacker, two armed Shin Bet officers and a pilot who had broken multiple aviation rules.
Khaled, a Palestinian who was born in Haifa, but whose family were among those who fled or were forced out during the 1948 Mideast war that won Israel’s independence, was released three weeks later by the British as part of a prisoner swap. The 1970 attack was her second foray into hijacking. In 1969, she and another PFLP member hijacked a TWA flight from Rome to Tel Aviv, diverting it to Jordan. They blew the plane up after it landed, but only after releasing the hostages.
A photograph of her after the 1969 hijacking, smiling and wearing a keffiyah, gun in hand, became iconic, propelling Khaled into the status of a celebrated freedom fighter.
If Khaled’s life, in the eyes of some, reflects the story of the Palestinian struggle for statehood, Bar-Lev likes to say that his life story is the story of Israel, the struggle for a Jewish homeland on the same land. He is the son of pioneers, who arrived in Palestine in 1921 from Ukraine, a man who himself fought in the country’s war of independence at the age of 16.
‘It’s very interesting to know how she thinks’
Bar-Lev is convinced that if he had not thwarted the attack, the plane would have ended up in Syria and he might not have survived. He has followed Khaled’s career, reading her 1973 memoir, My People Shall Live: Autobiography of a Revolutionary. “It’s very interesting to know how she thinks,” he said.
And when he heard this September that she was slated to speak at an event sponsored by San Francisco State’s Arab and Muslim Diaspora Studies Program, he called Anastasia Torres-Gil, an American friend, and a former prosecutor in California, asking her help in making his opposition known. She connected him to organizations that were already fighting Khaled’s participation and secured him an interview with the J Weekly where he spoke out against the talk.
“My intent was to provide an eye witness to her crimes that would tarnish her aura as a celebrity and show her for what she is —an unrepentant terrorist,” Torres-Gil said in a recent interview. “I wanted to help Uri tell his story … it always infuriates me that Khaled is idolized as a celebrity and the person who experienced this and is totally a hero has been overlooked by history.”
The ADL, the university’s Hillel and San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations Council also condemned the invitation, noting that Khaled was representing the PFLP, which has long been designated a terror group by the U.S. government.
But Lynn Mahoney, the president of the university, said that she supported the bringing of controversial speakers to campus and that doing so did not amount to endorsing a “point of view.”
The webinar was originally slated for Zoom, but the platform cancelled it amid the public pressure, citing the terrorist designation. It was moved first to Facebook, which then refused to air it, and then to YouTube, which shut the presentation down after 22 minutes, replacing it with a notice saying, “This video is unavailable.”
“I felt very good,” Bar-Lev said, “because everyone forgets that in the past she was a a terrorist. Instead they portray her as if she has a halo around her as a freedom fighter.”
News organizations over the years have tried to bring Bar-Lev and Khaled together for a joint meeting. Bar-Lev says he would meet her on condition she answers this question for him: would she send her sons to carry out a deadly terror attack in order to achieve a political goal?
He has yet to receive an answer.
Khaled has repeatedly defended her actions. In a 2014 interview with +972 Magazine she said what she did was “not terrorism.”
She said, “I am a victim of oppression and occupation; we, as a people, have the right to resist by all means.”
‘I don’t have enough time now to do everything’
Bar-Lev has beaten so many odds: thwarting hijackers, surviving the deadliest of cancers. Even as he approaches his 90th birthday in July, he says he has a lot left to do.
But there’s a measure of bitterness in his voice when he describes the rocky aftermath of his return to Israel after the hijacking.
The head of the Shin Bet sought to have him fired for breaking the rules even before the attack began, by commanding the air marshal to join him in the cockpit. Protocol called for the undercover air officer to sit in a passenger seat.
Bar-Lev, emboldened by what had initially been a hero’s welcome home, called then-Prime Minister Golda Meir and pleaded with her to intervene and save his job. She complied.
He was, however, advised to take two weeks off to let tensions cool. Bar-Lev flew to Las Vegas, and found when he checked out of the hotel, that Meir Lansky, the legendary mobster, and some of his friends, had covered Bar-Lev’s entire tab. (Two years later, coincidentally, Bar-Lev was the pilot who flew Lansky back to the United States from Israel, where he had sought refuge from prosecution for tax evasion).
Before the pandemic, Bar-Lev had started work developing a film about the hijacking with contacts in Hollywood. But now the project is on hold. “I don’t know if God will wait for me or if Corona will (ever) end,” Bar-Lev said.
He sees the most recent Khaled episode as an unwanted intrusion in his otherwise idyllic and full retirement years. “I’ve learned to paint, watercolors and acrylic,” he said. And I fix everything in the house, but I don’t have enough time now to do everything.”
Dina Kraft is a journalist based in Tel Aviv, and host of “The Branch,” a podcast sponsored by Hadassah that profiles individual relationships between Israeli Jews and Arabs. You can follow her on Twitter @dinakraft.