Michel Bacos, the captain of the Air France flight that was hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and diverted to Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976, died on Tuesday at the age of 95.
The pilot gained fame at the time for refusing the hijackers' offer to be released with the other gentiles on the flight, insisting instead on remaining with the Israeli and Jewish passengers who had been separated from the others and remained captive. Bacos was awarded France’s national order of the Legion of Honor and a medal by the prime minister of Israel for his heroism.
In a 2006 interview, Bacos told the Maariv daily that, following the flight’s takeoff from Athens, he heard noise coming from the passenger cabin and thought there was a fire on the plane, but quickly discovered that the flight was being hijacked. One of the hijackers, a German, entered the cockpit with a rifle and a hand grenade. The hijacker aimed the rifle at Bacos and his flight engineer, and put the rifle to the light engineer’s head.
Bacos recounted that the hijackers ordered Bacos to divert the flight to Libya, where four more Palestinian hijackers boarded the aircraft. From there, he was ordered to fly to Uganda.
After the hijackers separated the Israeli and Jewish passengers from the others, Bacos repeatedly demanded to see his passengers, which the hijackers ultimately allowed, after refusing three times before. When the other passengers were released, Bacos and the rest of the crew remained with the Israeli and Jewish passengers.
Bacos tried to engage the German hijacker, Wilfred Boese, in conversation, asking why he and the other hijackers were doing this and why they chose a French plane. Boese replied that France was supplying Israel with arms.
The French pilot had expected the worst amid constant warnings by the hijackers that the captive passengers and crew would be killed if efforts were made to rescue them. When Israeli commandos landed at the airport and freed them, it came as a total surprise, Bacos said. He expected they would only be released after negotiations.
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Israel flew cargo planes and ground forces to Entebbe in the middle of the night to rescue the passengers and crew. The operation was successful, but three of the hostages and the commander of the rescue mission, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were killed in exchanges of fire.
One of the passengers on the ill-fated flight from Tel Aviv to Paris was Benny Davidson. He was 13 at the time, and boarded the plane on a stopover in Athens. In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Davidson eulogized Bacos, whom he hailed for his “leadership, responsibility and heroism."
Davidson noted that Bacos had refused the chance to be freed himself until the last of his passengers were also released. “That’s how I remember him from there,” Davidson wrote in his post, in which he described the Air France captain as calm and pleasant, but a leader “who could be assertive when necessary, compassionate and tender in other moments, seeing to the needs of all of his passengers and insistent with his hijackers."
Davidson called Bacos “a dear man and a great hero from a former generation [who] taught us a chapter in leadership, responsibility and being a role model.” The conduct of the pilot and crew includes personal examples of “the capacity to endure and deal with terror and fear all around, of sanity and routine when everything around is bad,” Davidson wrote.
The Israel Airline Pilots Association posted a statement on Facebook late Tuesday, referencing Bacos’ courage and “exceptional humanity” for refusing to be released without the remaining passengers. “Israel’s pilots salute you, Captain Bacos."
Following the rescue operation, Bacos resumed his work as a pilot. His first flight was to Tel Aviv.