Reginald Levy
Reginald Levy Photo by AP
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It was his 50th birthday but he was on duty, flying the Brussels-Tel Aviv route.

"So what will you do to celebrate?" his daughter Linda Lipschitz had asked him a day before, over the phone. He had gotten permission to take mom along for the ride, he told her, and the two would then go out for a birthday dinner on the beach. She had never been to Israel, so it would be an adventure.

As it turned out, Sabena Airlines captain Reginald Levy and his wife Dora found themselves on an adventure neither could have predicted. The date was May 9, 1972, and his Boeing 707 was hijacked by Palestinian Black September terrorists. The ensuring rescue operation, in which Sayeret Matkal commandos dressed as airplane mechanics stormed the aircraft and rescued all 90 passengers, has become part of Israeli lore and made heroes out of many on that team, including now-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who led the assault, and now-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was under his command.

That day also changed Levy's life, turning him into a hero for some and a villain for others. In Israel and Europe he was hailed for keeping his cool under immense pressure, negotiating calmly with the terrorists and helping pull off the rescue operation, but for some Palestinian groups he became an enemy, and he was sent so many death threats that his whole family was forced to relocate from Belgium to South Africa.

Levy died earlier this month at age 88. He was buried Wednesday in Dover, England beside Dora, who passed away five years ago. The last time Levy's daughter Linda spoke with him, a few days before his death, he told her he had just received a letter from President Shimon Peres, who had heard he was unwell and wanted to wish him good health.

"We have not seen each other for a long time," wrote Peres, who had been the communications minister at the time of the Sabena hijacking. "But you are always in our hearts."

Did Levy act with particular heroism that day because of he had a special connection to Israel? Linda once asked him. Did he feel something because he himself was born a Jew?

"Not really," she admits he replied. "He was just doing his job. He had a responsibility toward the passengers and it did not matter what country he was in. It was just another's day work."

Flying was Levy's work but also a great love. He grew up in Lancashire, England, where his father managed cinemas. At age 18 he left home to volunteer for the Royal Air Force. There, he flew bombers during World War II, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross, and met Dora, who was also in the service. The two married in 1943 and had four children. They did not raise the children Jewish (Dora was not Jewish ), but one of his daughters, Linda, later married an Israeli, converted to Judaism and now lives in Jerusalem.

After he left the military, Levy joined Sabena, where he worked for almost 30 years. He retired in 1981, but always missed flying, says his family. A few years ago, at age 86, he got his first computer and set up a flight simulator. "I'm flying over Brussels now ... Now I am heading over to France," he would joke with his grandchildren over the phone, as he sat at his desk.

On the fateful day of the hijacking, Levy left Brussels, made a scheduled stop in Vienna, and was at 33,000 feet when two men burst into the cockpit. One held a pistol to Levy's head, the other had a primed grenade. Back in the cabin were two female terrorists, who had brought on explosives in their toiletry bags, in days when security checks were far less thorough.

The terrorists ordered Levy to transmit a message to the control tower and lay out their demands - that 317 Palestinian prisoners be released, or else they would blow up the aircraft. Negotiations went on throughout the night and into the next day, after the plane landed in Israel. Meanwhile, the Israelis stalled for time and secretly planned their operation, covertly sending commandos under the aircraft to deflate the tires. At one point, Levy was allowed to disembark and get instructions from the Israeli delegation, led by Moshe Dayan, then Israel's defense minister. Levy gave the Israelis detailed descriptions of the attackers' weapons and positions and, importantly, told them that there were no seats blocking the emergency doors. He then returned to the plane with a message from Dayan. The defense minister had accepted their demands, he told the excited terrorists, and gave them a radio, on which a voice speaking Arabic, purporting to be one of the released prisoners, assured them this was the case. The person behind the voice was actually a Bedouin officer in the Israel Defense Forces.

"He always said to me that when he saw Dayan, he knew the operation would be successful," recounts his daughter. "He was impressed by him. By his strength and his calm. He thought he was an impressive man."

The Israelis, in turn, were impressed by Levy. The pilot who calmly announced over the speaker system that "as you can see we have friends aboard," when the terrorists barged into the cockpit, never buckled, even as he whispered to his crew to not let anyone know his wife was on board, lest she be taken as a hostage.

The plan soon unfolded, as 18 "mechanics" in white overalls climbed onto the wings purportely to service the airliner, instead kicking down the emergency exits and opening fire, killing the two male terrorists and capturing the two women in all of 90 seconds.

"I think it was all his experience in World War II ... that ability to be calm under pressure served him very well during that hijacking. He was totally in control," says his daughter.

As the 23-hour ordeal ended, the passengers were taken off - some injured and crying, but many, Levy noted wryly, nonetheless clutching their duty-free purchases. This is Israel after all. That evening, after it was all over, Levy and his wife finally celebrated his birthday at Dayan's home, and the next day, they celebrated again, this time at the home of Prime Minister Golda Meir, who reportedly kissed the captain and cried, "We love you."