Uri Bar-Lev (center) being interviewed by Roy Stein (right) and Hallel Silverman (left) of StandWithUs. (Photo/Courtesy StandWithUs)
Uri Bar-Lev (center) being interviewed by Roy Stein (right) and Hallel Silverman (left) of StandWithUs. (Photo/Courtesy StandWithUs)

El Al pilot’s harrowing tale of outmaneuvering hijacker Leila Khaled

The recent announcement that Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled had been invited to speak at San Francisco State University caught the eye of Uri Bar-Lev, an Israeli retiree just shy of 90.

He has crossed paths with Khaled before.

Fifty years ago this month, Bar-Lev was the El Al pilot who foiled Khaled and an accomplice during a violent midair hijacking attempt on a flight from Amsterdam to New York. According to the Times of Israel, he is the only pilot ever to do so.

Khaled is set to join a Sept. 23 online panel discussion hosted by S.F. State’s Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies program (AMED). The Anti-Defamation League, San Francisco Hillel and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council have condemned the decision to allow the member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, to participate in a university-sanctioned event.

Today, an uncontrite Khaled, 76, sits on the Palestinian National Council. Described in AMED’s event promotion as a “Palestinian feminist, militant and leader,” she frequently does speaking engagements, such as the one at S.F. State.

Bar-Lev isn’t having it.

“In America, if you want Leila Khaled to speak, [then] you forgot the awful pain you had in 9/11 by terror,” he said from his home in Israel. He believes she is unrepentant for her actions.

In a 2014 interview with Mondoweiss, Khaled said, “We cannot say that nonviolent resistance alone will achieve our rights.” And as recently as 2016, she told +972 magazine that she did not see her actions as terrorism. “I am a victim of oppression and occupation,” Khaled said. “We, as a people, have the right to resist by all means.”

Bar-Lev is among the dwindling number of Israelis who have lived through the entire span of modern Israeli history. Born in 1932 on a moshav, Bar-Lev fought during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 when he was just 16. He later joined the Israel Air Force, flying his last military mission during the 1956 Arab-Israeli Sinai War. Soon after he became a pilot for El Al, Israel’s national airline.

Starting in the late 1960s, pro-Palestinian militants began committing terrorist acts, including hijacking Israeli commercial airliners and planes traveling to or from Israel, bombing a Jerusalem supermarket in 1969, and slaying Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

On Aug. 29, 1969, the Haifa-born Khaled was one of two PFLP members to hijack TWA Flight 840 from Rome to Tel Aviv. She commandeered the plane to Amman, Jordan, where it was blown up. No hostages were killed.

Eleven months later, on Sept. 6, 1970, Khaled and a male accomplice, a Nicaraguan American named Patrick Arguello, boarded El Al Flight 219 from Amsterdam to New York. Soon after takeoff, Bar-Lev and his co-pilot got word that two terrorists were hijacking the plane. They had shot and gravely wounded an El Al flight attendant and had put a gun to the head of another, demanding to be let into the cockpit, which Bar-Lev had immediately locked.

The next 2½ minutes were the most momentous of Bar-Lev’s life.

I knew what they would do to me and the crew and the Jewish passengers if we were taken.

“There was no training in Israel against hijacking,” he told J. last week from his home on Moshav Avichayil, north of Netanya. “No method on how to prevent it. You can’t teach it, so nobody taught me, but I was an [Air Force] pilot.”

From the cockpit, he heard the distress from the cabin. “I thought, What can I do? How can I save her?” he recalled, fearing for the flight attendant. “I knew what they would do to me and the crew and the Jewish passengers if we were taken.”

Bar-Lev flashed back to his earliest flight training. In the Air Force, he practiced on a highly maneuverable vintage prop plane, conducting climbing, diving and banking exercises. Some 20 years later, he was in Seattle with El Al colleagues to train on the new Boeing 707 passenger aircraft. He wondered whether the 707 was as nimble as the prop plane.

“I asked [the Boeing trainer], ‘Can you do these [maneuvers] for this plane?” Bar-Lev recalled. “He said yes, if you don’t go over negative-2 G.”

“G” refers to G (or gravity) forces, used to describe the rapid acceleration of an object relative to Earth’s gravity. G-forces can be induced by such movements as a high-speed aerial dive, akin to an express elevator dropping suddenly.

Back on board Flight 219, according to Bar-Lev, Khaled had pulled the pins on two hand grenades. With moments to spare, Bar-Lev put the plane in a steep dive. The aircraft plummeted 10,000 feet in under 60 seconds. He knew his passengers, all seated and strapped in, would be safe. The terrorists were another matter. Arguello and Khaled were thrown to the floor. Khaled passed out, dropping her grenades; they failed to go off.

Once the plane leveled out, one of the two on-board Shin Bet sky marshals shot Arguello dead. Khaled was physically subdued.

Bar-Lev was instructed by his superiors in Israel to fly to Tel Aviv (little did he know, multiple coordinated hijackings were taking place simultaneously). But with his crew member gravely wounded, Bar-Lev knew he had to land quickly. He disobeyed orders and instead requested an emergency landing at London’s Heathrow Airport. The wounded crew member was rushed to the hospital and survived.

Though his quick action was heroic enough, today Bar-Lev says “the best thing I did in my life” was saving the Shin Bet air marshals, who might have been charged with Arguello’s death by British authorities. Thanks to some crafty coordination with another El Al flight on the tarmac, the two marshals slipped out of Bar-Lev’s plane undetected and onto the other Israel-bound flight.

Bar-Lev retired as a pilot in 1974 and lives with his wife, Yona, on their moshav, where he enjoys gardening and spending time with his children and grandchildren. As for Khaled’s San Francisco State invite, he said he believes in free speech, but feels she represents a line not to be crossed.

“There is a limit,” he said.

Bar-Lev has refused offers to meet with Khaled in a public dialogue. He said he might be willing on the condition that he be allowed to ask her one question: What would you say if your children were on a bus targeted by terrorists?

“What will you say now?” he mused. “I didn’t get a reply, and we never met. It was a cynical question.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.