On 7 October 1985 the Achille Lauro, an Italian luxury liner with some 100 mostly elderly passengers on board, was hijacked in Egyptian waters by terrorists representing the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF). The ship's captain was ordered to sail for Tartus, Syria. That night, the hijackers informed Egyptian authorities of their action by radio and stated their demand for release of 50 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. The next day, after being denied docking rights at Tartus by Syrian authorities, the terrorists decided to kill one of their hostages to prove their determination. Pushing the elderly, wheelchair-bound, Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer to the side of the ship, the leader of the terrorists shot him in the head and chest and then threw his body overboard. The Syrians still continued to deny the ship docking rights, but before a second passenger could be killed, the terrorists received a radio message from PLF leaders directing them to leave the passengers unmolested and to head to Port Said, Egypt. Once there, the Egyptian government, unaware that Klinghoffer had been murdered, provided the hijackers with safe passage in exchange for freeing the ship and its passengers.
Once the murder had been dis-covered, the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt demanded that the Egyptian government prosecute the terrorists. The Egyptians, however, reported that it was too late, since the hijackers had already left the country. Through clever intelligence work, the National Security Council staff determined that the terrorists were still in Egypt and were about to be flown to Tunisia on an Egypt Air 737 airliner. They reasoned that, with a lot of luck, the United States might be able to intercept the plane before it reached its destination. Saratoga (CV 60), with Commander Task Force (CTF) 60 on board, was steaming northward through the Adriatic Sea toward a port call at Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, on the afternoon of 10 October, following completion of a major North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) exercise in the central Mediterranean.
Suddenly, the carrier received orders from Sixth Fleet headquarters to reverse course and to launch the alert combat air patrol. Despite the ship's "Alert 60" status, two F-14A Tomcats and an E-2C Hawkeye were airborne within 22 minutes. Apprised of the emerging situation by Sixth Fleet, Rear Admiral David Jeremiah, CTF 60, immediately alerted his staff that Saratoga was going after the hijackers, even though the plane's exact takeoff time from Egypt, the route it was flying to Tunisia and its altitude were unknown.
The plan called for Saratoga's planes to make night intercepts and identifications of air contacts on the airways crisscrossing the central Mediterranean as they flew eastward toward a common airway intersection point south of Crete. On the fourth interception of the night, following two hair-raising, lights-out intercepts of darkened transport planes, the F-14s hit pay dirt. At about 2230, 30 miles southeast of Crete, they closed on an Egyptian 737 airliner showing the tail number 2843-the aircraft they were looking for. After identifying themselves to the airliner's pilot, the American planes eventually were able to convince the 737 to land at the NATO base in Sigonella, Sicily. Upon landing, the airliner was quickly surrounded by American soldiers. The terrorists ultimately were taken into Italian custody.
- Adapted from "Answering the Call: Carriers in Crises Response Since World War II," By Jeffrey G. Barlow NAVAL AVIATION NEWS January-February 1997
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