Nearly 24 years ago on a December 24 evening, a passenger aircraft was cruising at 26,000 feet enroute from Kathmandu to Delhi when the captain noticed a person onboard wearing a monkey cap and holding a hand grenade and a revolver in his hands. From then, most of the nearly 180 passengers of the ill-fated plane had a harrowing time for eight days as the aircraft stopped at Amritsar, Lahore, Dubai and Kandahar. And one of the passengers was also killed. In the words of Devi Sharan, the captain of the Indian Airlines flight IC814 that was hijacked on December 24, 1999, “I had to live to save others” and that he dealt with terrorists who were well versed with aviation terminologies.
Recalling his experience at a briefing on Monday, Sharan said the flight took off from Kathmandu at around 4 pm and at around 4:40 pm when it was cruising at 26,000 feet, he knew something was wrong. As one of the senior-most flight personnel was going back from the cockpit after serving tea, Sharan saw a person with a monkey cap on, one hand grenade and one revolver in his hands.
“Immediately, I knew something was wrong,” he said and added that hijackers were well-read about Indian aviation as they could recognise the call sign of then Indian prime minister’s aircraft, which was in the vicinity. The hijackers wanted to land the aircraft at Lahore but Sharan told them that it cannot go there. Then, one of them, asked which was the alternative airport and when Sharan told it was Mumbai, then the hijacker asked, “If you can go to Mumbai, then why can’t you go to Lahore, which is closer to Delhi”.
“I could understand that making fool of them was very difficult because they knew a lot of things, using words of aviation,” Sharan recalled. However, Sharan said he managed to convince them and landed the aircraft at Amristar. But as the hijackers, who had satellite phones, knew that a plane has taken off from Delhi with commandos, they wanted to fly out from there as they wanted a “heroic death and crash into Pakistan territory”, according to Sharan.
After calculating the available fuel, the nearest airport the plane could fly to was Lahore. However, Sharan said that Lahore ATC had switched off all lights and he decided to crash land the plane on a road but then the ATC communicated saying the runway is open. Sharan noted that there was a transponder in the cockpit that gave details to the ATC without any lights being on the runway.
After refuelling, the aircraft took off and landed in Dubai where few children, ladies and senior citizens were offloaded. The dead body of Rupin Katiyal, who was killed onboard, was also deplaned. On December 25, 1999, the plane landed at Kandahar and Sharan said, “There was no food coming, toilets (in the aircraft) were full and people were not eating at all”.
Finally, all were released on December 31. As Anil Sharma, who was the head of the cabin team on the IC814 flight, said at the briefing, this gentleman, referring to Sharan, was holding the aircraft for more than 24 hours. The five Pakistani hijackers were identified as Ibrahim Athar, Shahid Akhtar Sayed, Sunny Ahmed Qazi, Mistri Zahoor Ibrahim and Shakir.
They succeeded in their plans and secured the release of terrorists Maulana Masood Azhar, Sheikh Omar and Mushtaq Zargar in exchange for those onboard IC814. Sharan and Sharma shared their experiences at an event at the BCAS office in the national capital to mark the Aviation Security Culture Week that is being celebrated from July 31 to August 5.
A lot has changed since the 1999 hijacking of the plane and in the last nearly 24 years, there has been no incident of hijacking of an Indian aircraft. “Aviation security rules are important… We cannot afford a mistake,” the chief of the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) Zulfiquar Hasan said.
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