SIA flight SQ117 was shockingly hijacked 26 years ago in an act of terror. Here's what happened.

It was an incident that Singaporeans never imagined would happen.

Joshua Lee | March 26, 2017, 02:30 PM

In light of the recent London terror attack, many a minister has sounded cautionary warnings over the need to be vigilant and prepared in the event of a terror attack here as well.

In remarks he made on the incident, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also stressed that such acts of terror could absolutely happen here too.

Incidentally, Mar. 26 marks a major terror incident in Singapore's past.

26 years ago, on Mar. 26, 1991, Singapore Airlines flight SQ117 was hijacked by four members of the Pakistan People’s Party.

The whole ordeal occurred over nine and a half hours, before SAF's Special Operations Force (SOF) commandos clinically eliminated the hijackers and freed the hostages in the early hours of Mar. 27, 1991.

We walk you through the SQ117 hijacking as it happened. The following accounts are factually derived from actual records and news reports of the incident, supplemented by fiction for dramatic effect.

9.25pm, Mar. 26, 1991

Subang International Airport, Kuala Lumpur

The flight was delayed.

Four Pakistani men exchanged furtive glances as they quietly filed past the flight attendants into the Airbus A310, joining the 100-plus passengers on SQ117.

Captain Stanley Lim settled into his pilot seat and wiped beads of perspiration from his forehead. It was an unnaturally hot evening. The flight had not even begun and his shirt was already damp despite the air conditioning.

"Never mind, just need to tahan for 50 minutes," he told himself. "50 minutes and we'll be back in Singapore".

9.38pm, Mar. 26, 1991

Subang International Airport, Kuala Lumpur

SQ117 took off at 9.38pm. As the aeroplane zoomed off the tarmac, the 114 passengers and 11 crew members felt the familiar G-force pressure pushing them into their seats as the plane took off.

Somewhere onboard, a Pakistani man slipped a butter knife into his pocket and, together with his three compatriots, squeezed into the toilet.

9.50pm, Mar. 26, 1991

Somewhere over Kuala Lumpur

Chief steward Phillip Cheong was about to stand up to do his rounds when suddenly he heard a commotion coming from the back of the plane.

Peeking out from the cabin area, he spotted the four Pakistani men brandishing butter knives, as well as canisters that looked like explosives.

"Hijack! Hijack!" the men shouted. "Nobody move or we blow up this plane!"

As the other passengers sat in stunned silence, Sahid Hussain Soomro, the leader, barged into the cockpit.

"Don't land in Singapore. Take us to Sydney," he demanded. "Take us to Sydney or we'll blow up this C4 charge," waving the bomb and a cigarette lighter in his hands.

Captain Lim replied that the plane did not have enough fuel to make a detour to Sydney.

Angry, Sahid shouted, "Take us to Sydney or I will blow up this plane!"

Captain Lim eyed the C4 charge warily and repeated his answer.

"Fine! We land in Singapore but we will fly to Sydney after that!" Sahid snarled, before waving the C4 charge dangerously close to Captain Lim's face and releasing a stream of expletives.

Unknown to Sahid, Captain Lim had earlier managed to radio air traffic controllers about the hijacking after hearing from Cheong about the hijacking commotion.

10.24pm, Mar. 26, 1991

Singapore Changi Airport

SQ117 landed and taxied down the runway smoothly, cutting through the darkness before coming to an abrupt halt.

Sahid instructed Captain Lim to stop the plane in the middle of the runway and make sure no one approached it.

He also issued the terrorists' demands: They wanted to contact the Pakistani ambassador in Singapore as well as former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Their message: Release 11 of their comrades from various prisons in Pakistan.

Last of all, they also ordered the flight crew to add sufficient fuel for a trip to Sydney. If their demands were not met, they would kill every hostage on board.

Time was ticking.

The actual Airbus A310 that was hijacked, snapped in 1999. Image via Wikipedia.

10.30pm, Mar. 26, 1991

Temporary Crisis Room, Singapore Changi Airport

Superintendent Foo Kia Juah sat with an interpreter and tried to negotiate with the terrorists.

At the same time, the SOF commandos were assembled in an empty Airbus A310 at Changi Airport, rehearsing for a raid that was tentatively codenamed Operation Thunderbolt.

All that was needed was the go-ahead from then-Law and Home Affairs Minister S Jayakumar.

3.40am, Mar. 27, 1991

Inside SQ117

Although negotiations were proceeding slowly, Sahid felt he was gaining ground. The negotiators had just delivered the first load of petrol. It wasn't enough to travel to Sydney yet, but he was still biding his time, albeit a little impatiently.

By then, two crew members had already been pushed out of the plane. The rest of the crew were huddled together with the passengers, shaking from fear and hunger.

6.45am, Mar. 27, 1991

Temporary Crisis Room, Singapore Changi Airport

Superintendent Foo Kia Juah was exhausted. The terrorists refused to budge on their demands.

Suddenly, his walkie talkie crackled to life again with Sahid's voice. This time, he was snarling and spitting his words in rapid-fire fashion.

Superintendent Foo's interpreter listened carefully and said, "They are tired of negotiating. They are giving us five minutes to fulfil their demands or they will kill one hostage every 10 minutes. Their countdown starts now."

6.47am, Mar. 27, 1991

An empty Airbus A310, Singapore Changi Airport

Halfway through their umpteenth rehearsal, the SOF received the go-ahead for Operation Thunderbolt. They gathered their equipment and stole into the night air.

Special Operations Forces personnel storming SQ117. Image via Pinterest.

6.50am, Mar. 27, 1991

Inside SQ117

Sahid glanced at his watch. The five-minute deadline was up, but the rest of the fuel was not delivered yet. Did the Singapore government think he was joking with them?

Marching out from the cockpit, he made his way angrily towards the back of the plane when the plane doors were blasted open with a loud bang.

Caught off guard, Sahid reached for his knife (some hijackers were using the plane's butter knives as weapons) but was instantly blinded by a series of flash-bangs.

Within the span of 30 seconds, Sahid and his comrades were fatally shot.

The passengers and crew of SQ117 were rescued, and would live to see another day.


Top image via ConnexionSG

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