Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
On the night of November 22/23 1986 an American Boeing 707 took off from the West German airport in Frankfurt am Main and took a course east. Soon it entered the air corridor to West Berlin – an aerial route guaranteeing all Allied Forces machines safe passage over the territory of German People’s Republic, or the DDR.
Only US, UK and French aeroplanes could land in West Berlin at the time – the Berlin Agreement, signed by all four Occupational Forces, including the USSR, banned West German planes from landing in the divided capital. The ban included, of course, Germany’s most famous airline, Lufthansa, which despite having its roots in Berlin, after the Second World War had its main seat in the West (after a long post-1945 ban, Lufthansa was re-born in 1953).
The machine heading for West Berlin that night was registered as a US one and was piloted by a US crew. At first glance there was nothing unusual about the flight: all paperwork was in order, the plane stayed within the corridor and the DDR air-control authorities had no reason to take a closer look at the Boeing 707-430 or its behaviour. Which they most certainly regretted the next day when it turned out that the machine flew under a false flag and was, in fact, a Lufthansa plane with its marking hidden under a layer of white stickers.
In the morning the machine received an enthusiastic reception from West Berlin’s dignitaries, including the city’s Governing Mayor, Eberhard Diepgen, who – neither surprised nor embarrassed – arrived at the Tegel airport. The whole plot was, allegedly, a brainchild of Boeing and Lufthansa: the machine, a former Israeli El Al passenger jet, was a present from the former to the latter to celebrate Lufthansa’s purchase of their 200th Boeing plane.
The machine was most probably a write-off anyway, having transported passengers for El Al and then Arkia (both Israeli airlines) from 1961 until June 1985. And since Berlin was only a year away from celebrating its 750th birthday, both sides of the city were eager to outdo the other in the Surprises-and-Celebrations department. Landing a Lufthansa machine in West Berlin right under the nose of the East German authorities seemed like an amusing yet not exactly innocent prank. Possible consequences of which could have meant, among others, another serious political crisis between West and East Berlin.
Luckily, however, apart from the traditional ritual growls the DDR bear remained silent. So much so that none of the leading East German newspapers seems to have mentioned the incident. The machine landed in West Berlin, the stickers were removed, the machine was named “Berlin” (after another, older Boeing model 707-400 known as D-ABAC and flying for Lufthansa until 1977), everyone got some cheers and then it all went quiet again.
And remained quiet for the next 31 years: apart from an occasional failed attempt at finding a new home and/or use for the old El Al machine, the only movement in the matter was one caused by yet another re-positioning of the disused plane: out of the way and out of sight at the far end of the Tegel Airport grounds. Despite initial plans to have it displayed at the historic Tempelhof Airport – the machine was donated to Berlin’s Museum of Technology and technically became part of their collection – nothing happened. Its disassembling and transport would have cost the museum more than buying an identical model from one of the African countries and having it brought to Berlin on top. Plans to convert it into a restaurant or bar failed, too.
For years it served as a training ground for Berlin’s fire brigades as well as anti-terror squads (allegedly as we could not have that information confirmed). Should the latter be true, however, then they would not have been the first anti-terrorists, or come to that terrorists, on board of that plane. For although, admittedly, this old wrack rotting somewhere at the back of the Tegel airport never had anything to do either with Berlin or even with Lufthansa (it never flew for the airline), it does have a pretty fascinating past. It was one of the four machines hijacked in 1970 by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. And the only one of the four whose skyjacking could be stopped.
On September 6, 1970 what is now the old Tegel wrack started as El Al Flight 219 from the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Its destination was New York. The man “behind the wheel”, captain Uri Ben-Lev, was not only a pilot with twenty years of experience but he was also a big fan of his Boeing 707-430. During his training he asked all sorts of questions about its construction and abilities. The teacher, a Korean War veteran, was happy to answer all of them. Including the one about the plane’s limits – he explained to Ben-Lev that the machine was much more robust than appeared to the eye and as such was capable of sustaining significant pressure.
Israeli airlines were aware of the threat which hijackers posed to their flights and their passengers. That is why two undercover Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) agents were present on board of the plane to New York that day. Despite security precautions, however, and in spite of preventing two persons with suspiciously-looking Senegalese passports from taking the flight (the two turned out to have been part of the plot), two other terrorists managed to get on board.
Once up in the air, as the plane was still gaining altitude, the two tried to take control of the machine by terrorising passengers and a member of the crew. They demanding access to the locked cockpit. The captain refused. Knowing that giving up control of the machine would pose much bigger a threat to those on board, he issued a quick warning about his intentions to one of the agents he demanded stayed in the cockpit throughout the flight and then performed what feels like an impossible manoeuvre. He nose-dived his Boeing at the speed of 10,000 metre per minute in what is known as a negative G-force dive. It was not, as many sources like to repeat, a “parabolic flight”, where zero gravitation occurs and objects and people begin to more or less gently float in the air, but one where they lose contact with the ground (and in the latter’s case often consciousness as well) as the falling object – in this case an aeroplane – accelerates during the dive (the best way to test it is to take a ride on an accelerating-while-diving roller-coaster like, for example, “Airtime”).
The captain of Flight 219 was hoping to reduce the risk of the plane bursting should one of the hand grenades carried by the attackers explode (the smaller the altitude, the less it is likely to happen) and to make both terrorists, the man and the woman, fall over and lose control. The 138 passengers were safe, still being strapped in for ascend.
The ordeal lasted less than three minutes: as soon as the captain pulled his machine out of the dive, Uri Kol, the security agent whom Ben-Nev forced to stay in the cockpit and whom he quickly explained his plans prior to the dive, opened the door and shot at the male terrorist killing him on the spot.
The woman, who later turned out to be Leila Khaled, a hijacker sought by international security forces, passed out during the dive and lay there unconscious. The hand grenade she had been threatening to explode (she had already removed the pin) was laying intact next to her. After securing the grenade, the crew and the agent arrested the terrorist. Another myth that grew out of this incident was purported by Khaled herself who later claimed that the grenade had been forcefully removed from her after several passengers had prevented the terrorist from dropping it by not allowing her to unclasp her hands. Uri Ben-Lev confirmed, however, that the woman fainted during the accelerated dive and did not regain her consciousness until later.
The machine landed safely in the UK. The only victims were the PFLP-supporter and Nicaraguan-Sandinista terrorist, Argüello (dead) and Shlomo Vider, chief flight attendant, who had been shot and wounded while charging the attackers. Khaled, who was arrested by the British police but had to be released only several days later: on September 9, 1970 another, this time British, machine was hijacked on its way from Bombay to London over via Bahrain and Beirut.
It landed in Jordan instead where it joined two of the three other successfully skyjacked planes: a TWA flight from Frankfurt am Main to New York, the Swissair machine from Zürich. The Pan Am flight from Amsterdam to the Big Apple was taken to Egypt. They landed in Jordan in what is known as Dawson’s Field, former Royal British Air Force field – hence the name of the incident in history, “Dawson’s Field Hijackings”.
The terrorists released the majority of hostages (mostly women and children), moving them to a hotel in Amman but 40 Jewish passengers were locked up at a secret location. After blowing up the three hijacked machines – a dramatic moment captured on film by Jordanian journalists – and having their demands fulfilled (the release of Khaled and several other PFLP members), all remaining hostages were set free, too.
After an interrogation and a little tug-of-war with the British police (for reasons too complicated to explain here Ben-Lev pretended to have known nothing about any Shin Bet agents on board of his plane or, come to that, how the dead terrorist outside his cockpit had died in the first place), the El Al machine returned to Israel. It continued its service for another 15 years until it was decided it would be flown to Frankfurt am Main and then taken – geschminkt (German for “made-up”, “in camouflage” – to West Berlin.
Knowing all this it is, indeed, hard to understand all the reasons behind the machine’s presence in Berlin and, what is even more important, behind its current dismal condition. Its arrival was given a very much symbolic dimension (forget the slightly puerile tinge which it had, too). The plane was named to honour the city and its new home. Since then it has been disintegrating somewhere on the edge of an airfield while politicians, city authorities, museums and private investors keep occasionally discussing its fate and then conveniently forgetting all about it again.
In 1927 Bernard von Brentano described Berlin as „a foundling, an orphan, a Cinderella, Metropolis, nourished by few, loved by no-one but the Baltic Sea winds”. The fate of “those mountains of brick houses” which “have grown for no-one but themselves” sounds strangely like that of the abandoned “Berlin” from Tegel today. Like the city itself, dressed in fake livery and pretending to be what it no longer is, it is still held by many to be the real thing.