At an abandoned airport in Berlin, a derelict Boeing 707 airliner tells a story of Cold War intrigue, international terrorism, and the changing fortunes of the German capital. But time is now up for the decaying jet, and the excavators have moved in to begin breaking up this historic aircraft.
At first glance, you might think the 707, sitting forlornly at the edge of a forest, in a remote corner near the perimeter of the former Berlin Tegel Airport, could be a wreck used for training firefighters, or some kind of museum exhibit, but it’s been inaccessible for several years. Although long since faded by the effects of weather and decay, the blue and yellow colors formerly used by the German airline Lufthansa still adorn the airliner’s hulk.
Look closely, and you’ll see the German registration D-ABOC, too, as worn by one of Lufthansa’s first 707s, the airline’s first jetliner, which propelled it into post-war modernity beginning in the late 1950s. The registration is a fake, however, and this particular aircraft never flew for Lufthansa — or any other German airline, for that matter.
Its story began in May 1961, when it was rolled out at Boeing’s Renton, Washington, factory with the manufacturer’s serial number 18071. The airliner, a 707-458 powered by four Rolls-Royce Conway turbojets, had been ordered a year earlier by Israel’s national airline El Al. It made its first flight in June 1961 and entered service with the Israeli flag carrier later that month with the registration 4X-ATB.
The airliner’s fortunes changed forever in September 1970, when it suddenly became a center of worldwide attention, in a series of events that would become known as ‘Black September,’ a name that would later be revived by a terrorist group. It also came amid a veritable pandemic of airline hijackings that year.
Three years earlier, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a part of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), an umbrella group of militants then fighting to abolish the state of Israel and restore the nation of Palestine, had begun its campaign of hijacking airliners. Its first victim being a different El Al 707 that was diverted to Algiers in July 1968. The last hostages on board that flight were released after 39 days and the incident helped make the revolutionary organization a household name.
So began an airliner hijacking spree to bring their cause to a wider audience. This PFLP strategy reached its climax on September 6, 1970, when three aircraft from different airlines were hijacked almost simultaneously before a fourth was added to this ignominious collection days later.
Of the first three, 4X-ATB had been en route between New York City in the United States and Tel Aviv, Israel, as El Al Flight 219, with 148 passengers and 10 crew aboard, when two terrorists, the Palestinian Leila Khaled and Nicaraguan Patrick Argüello initiated the hijacking. Khaled had already successfully commandeered another airliner, a TWA 707, in August 1969, taking it to Syria, where she was later released without charges. Since then, she had received cosmetic surgery to disguise her now-notorious identity.
The El Al 707 had just departed Amsterdam, where it had made a brief stop, allowing the hijackers to board. “At Amsterdam airport, my comrade Patrick and I were stopped by Israeli officers,” she later recalled. “They searched our bags very thoroughly, but they didn’t find anything in there, because the grenades were in my pockets. We had passports from Honduras.”
Drinks were being served when Khaled pulled out her two hand grenades and headed toward the cockpit, together with Argüello. The airliner was approaching the British coast and, as the pair began banging on the door to the cockpit, flight attendant alerted the flight crew to the situation.
“Sit down, we are not going to be hijacked!” the pilot, Uri Bar-Lev, shouted to his co-pilot. Improvising a way out of the situation, Bar-Lev forced the airliner into a steep dive, resulting in brief zero-G conditions. Passengers vomited, while luggage, drinks, and personal effects were thrown around the cabin.
Amid the chaos, the hijackers were thrown off their feet. Khaled was overpowered and pinned to the cabin floor. Argüello, also armed with a gun, lobbed his single grenade down the aisle, but it failed to detonate. He was hit over the head by a passenger with a whiskey bottle and then fatally shot by an Israeli sky marshal. Khaled, who had threatened to remove the pins from her two grenades with her teeth, was also hit over the head and knocked unconscious. One of the aircraft stewards had also been badly injured by a shot fired by Argüello. Nevertheless, this part of the hijacking plan, at least, had ended in failure, and the 707 touched down at London’s Heathrow Airport soon after, where Khaled was detained.
Meanwhile, another two airliners that had been successfully hijacked by the PFLP — a TWA 707 and a Swissair DC-8 — had been flown to Dawson’s Field, a deserted military airfield in Jordan now renamed ‘Revolution Airstrip.’ A third, a Pan Am 747, proved too big for the airstrip and was instead flown to Cairo where its passengers disembarked, and it was promptly blown up. Altogether, 315 passengers and crew were now hostages in Jordan. The PFLP made demands for various prisoners to be released, including Khaled, in what was now the world’s biggest hijacking incident.
To gain more leverage with the British authorities, the PFLP hijacked a British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) VC10 three days later and flew it, too, to Dawson’s Field, together with its 114 passengers and crew. Meanwhile, the United States was preparing possible military action to free its hostages, including putting the 82nd Airborne Division on ‘semi-alert’ and deploying transport aircraft to Turkey, while elements of the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet were off the coast of Lebanon.
Video footage of the events at Dawson’s Field, including the stopover of the hijacked BOAC VC10 in Beirut:
On September 12, the governments of Israel, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and West Germany agreed to the PFLP demands, most of the passengers were released, and the three airliners in Jordan were blown up as a spectacle for the media. More than 50 Jewish passengers and all the male crew were kept hostage until all of the detainees, including Khaled, were released. Meanwhile, intense fighting broke out in Jordan between the PLO and the Jordanian Army, as Jordan sought to eject Palestinian militants from its borders. Before the end of the month, Egypt intervened via diplomatic channels to broker a ceasefire.
As a direct result of these combined incidents, commercial airways would be better alert to the dangers of hijacking, introducing new security guidelines, armed police, metal detectors, and other measures.
As for 4X-ATB, this aircraft went back into service with El Al before being leased to another Israeli airline, Arkia, between 1984 and 1986. El Al then sold it back to Boeing in September 1986 and the manufacturer soon decided to donate it to Lufthansa, to mark the delivery of the 200th Boeing (a 737) to the airline the same year as well as three decades of the post-war Lufthansa, for which the 707 had provided vital service. In the meantime, the jet was still in Israel, where it was removed from that country’s civil aircraft register in November 1986, re-registered as N130KR in the United States, and then flown to West Germany.
As explained by the Digital Cosmonaut urban exploration website, the transit of the 707 from Israel to West Germany reflected the strange status of that city during the Cold War. The aircraft had been painted in Lufthansa-style colors in Israel and received the erroneous identity D-ABOC, which, as already noted, referenced one of Lufthansa’s first 707s, delivered in the late 1950s, and named Berlin. However, agreements over the divided city meant no West German airlines were permitted to fly into West Berlin, let alone the communist East.
Since the 707 technically belonged to Lufthansa, the airline’s titles were covered up and the temporary U.S. registration N130KR was applied.
Once in Berlin, ownership of the 707 passed over to the Deutsches Technikmuseum, or German Museum of Technology. Not surprisingly, the actual aircraft’s turbulent history was sidelined.
As it was, the jetliner’s time on public display was fairly short. It was placed next to Tegel’s main terminal in 1987, but by 1991 was shifted to a less visible position close to the taxiways. From 1998 it languished on the edge of the forest on the north of the airport, before being moved to the east of the facility in 2000, inaccessible to the public.
As the aircraft fell into disrepair, Lufthansa demanded their livery be removed and, with the final closure of Tegel Airport in November last year, the fate of the 707 was effectively sealed.
Various plans to move the airliner to Berlin’s historic Tempelhof Airport, to Munich Airport, or even turning it into a restaurant came to nothing. As it is, the aircraft is now being cut up and the pieces are scheduled to be sold at auction.
No doubt, it’s a sad end for an aircraft whose dramatic history deserves to be better remembered.
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