(MUST READ) R.I.P. Reginald Levy, Dead at 88; Hero Helped Israeli Commandos in 1972 Hijacking

Reginald Levy at end of hijacking ordeal
Reginald Levy, who as captain of a hijacked Belgian airliner in 1972 was hailed as a hero for enabling Israeli commandos to storm the plane and rescue all 100 passengers and crew members, died Sunday at a hospital near his home in Dover, England. He was 88.

The cause was a heart attack, his daughter Linda Lipschitz said.

Sabena Flight 571 from Brussels to Tel Aviv was 20 minutes out of Vienna on May 8, 1972, when four Arabs waving pistols rushed the cockpit. “As you can see,” Captain Levy calmly told the 90 passengers, “we have friends aboard.”

The “friends” were members of Black September, a terrorist organization that grew out of the Palestinian defeat in the 1970 Jordanian civil war and was responsible for the killing of 11 members of the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics four months after the hijacking.

The hijackers — two men and two women — ordered Captain Levy to land at Lydda Airport (later Ben-Gurion International Airport), where they threatened to blow up the plane unless 317 Palestinian guerrillas were released from Israeli prisons.

Within an hour of the radio message from Captain Levy reporting the hijacking, Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Dayan, was at the airport to deal with the crisis. After dark, Israeli saboteurs crept under the parked plane, deflated the tires and disconnected hydraulic equipment.

At the hijackers’ request, International Red Cross teams were summoned to carry messages between the plane and Mr. Dayan. After presenting their demands, the hijackers were alarmed to discover that they could not take off again. Captain Levy started a conversation to calm them down, and kept on chatting through the night. “I talked about everything under the sun,” he said later, “from navigation to sex.”

The next morning, to demonstrate their intentions, the hijackers sent Captain Levy to the terminal with a sample of the explosives they had on board. He told the Israelis much more, describing the hijackers, their positions and the black bags in which they were carrying explosives. He also told them, significantly, that there were no seats blocking the emergency doors.

Mr. Dayan promised to repair the plane and bring the Palestinian prisoners to the airport. Bogus prisoners were shown to the hijackers from a distance, and another plane was taken out to a runway, supposedly to fly them to Cairo.

Twenty-one hours after Captain Levy’s plane had been hijacked, two trucks carrying 18 men in the white overalls of mechanics drove up to the jetliner. They milled about the plane, supposedly checking the tires and other equipment. Suddenly they tore open the emergency exits above the wings and opened fire inside the cabin.

The fusillade from the men in overalls — in reality members of the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal — ended within 90 seconds. The commandos were led by Ehud Barak, now Israel’s defense minister, and among them was Benjamin Netanyahu, now the prime minister.

The two male hijackers, who had returned fire, were killed. Another hijacker, a Jordanian woman, was not injured. The fourth, also a woman, was seriously wounded, as were several passengers. Tearful passengers and crew members slid off the wings and were bused to a terminal into the arms of ecstatic relatives.

Several days later, Prime Minister Golda Meir held a dinner for those involved in the rescue. She kissed Captain Levy and cried, “We love you.”

To criticism that the operation had endangered innocent people, she said, “When blackmail like this succeeds, it only leads to more blackmail.”

Reginald Levy was born in Blackpool, England, on May 8, 1922, the son of Cyril and Ann Constant Levy. The hijacking took place on his 50th birthday. His wife, Dora Shawcross Levy, was on board; they were planning to celebrate in Tel Aviv.

Besides his daughter Linda, Captain Levy is survived by another daughter, Susan Schiphorst; two sons, Peter and Anthony; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Captain Levy joined the Royal Air Force when he was 18, flew bombing missions over Germany and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1944. After the war, he took part in the Berlin airlift and, in 1952, joined Sabena. He retired in 1982.

In 2007, Eliezer Sacks, one of the Israeli commandos, arrived at the offices of The Jerusalem Post and handed Ms. Lipschitz — then an editorial assistant at the paper — the blue Sabena captain’s cap that her father had left on the plane. He gave her a letter he had written to Captain Levy.

“I want to apologize for the long time — 35 years — that I forgot to give your hat back,” it said. “I hope the hat will find its way back to your head.” It did. -NY TIMES

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