Men In White: The Raid on Sabena Flight 571

What’s so special about Flight 571?

On May 8, 1972, a flight from Belgian airline Sabena set off from Vienna towards Tel Aviv, named Flight 571. Twenty minutes after takeoff, it was hijacked by four terrorists–two men, two women–from the Black September terror group. This set off a series of events leading up to Operation Isotope–one of the most daring rescue operations in the history of Israel.

Following the terrorists’ attempt to break into the cockpit, Reginald Levy, the plane’s captain, kept his cool and attempted to relax his passengers by entertaining them through a loudspeaker conversation with the terrorists, about everything from navigation to sex.

Captain Reginald Levy, Sabena Flight 571

Captain Reginald Levy, who piloted the Sabena Flight 571. "I talked about everything under the sun, from navigation to sex."

Aboard the plane, the terrorists were demanding the release of 315 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails, claiming they would blow up the plane if their demands were not met.

Captain Levy sent in distress signals, which were received by Israeli Security Minister Moshe Dayan. Dayan immediately began negotiations with the terrorists, while simultaneously planning a covert rescue operation: Operation Isotope.

The Sabena flight reached Tel-Aviv, landing in Lod Airport (now Ben-Gurion Airport).  Captain Levy was sent out to show the waiting Israelis a sample of the explosives on the plane, to convince them of the threat. Aboard the plane, passengers were crying or hysterical.

A team of 16 elite commandos (Hebrew: Sayeret Matkal) approached the grounded aircraft in white overalls, disguised as airplane technicians. They convinced the terrorists that the aircraft was in desperate need of repairs.

Sabena Flight 571

Elite commandos disguised as airplane technicians in white attempt to board the aircraft.

Within ten minutes of boarding the plane, the squad of elite commandos managed to kill the two male terrorists, arrest the two female terrorists, and neutralize the threat to the passengers. Nearly all civilians on board were unharmed, except for three, one of whom later died from her injuries. Among the commandos were Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu–both of whom eventually became Israeli prime ministers.

Sabena Flight 571

Ehud Barak, third disguised airplane technician from the left holding the handgun, walks off the plane after successfully completing the operation with his team.

The surviving female terrorists were sentenced to life in Israeli prison, but were later released in the prisoner exchange deal following the 1982 Lebanon War.

Black September members were also involved in the notorious 1972 Munich massacre, where 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and eventually murdered.

Black September Munich Massacre

Black September terrorists during the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of the Israeli Olympic team

Black September operatives were also targeted in Operation Spring of Youth, which involved elite Sayeret soldiers sneaking into Beirut dressed as women.

What happened to the plane after the hijacking?

The same airplane that was victim to the hijacking was flown for an additional five years before being sold to the Israeli Air Force (IAF). The IAF ended up using it to carry out spy missions.

Benjamin Netanyahu Operation Isotope

Current PM Benjamin Netanyahu is congratulated by former Israeli President Zalman Shazar during a ceremony honoring the elite commandos who rescued the hostages from the Sabena Flight 571.

If you found this post interesting, check out more historical IDF operations, or visit our official website. For real-time updates, follow us on Twitter.


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