S’pore Airlines first hijacking on March 26, 1991 lasted 9 hours
It was an incident that Singaporeans never imagined would happen.
March 26, 1991 has gone down as a day of infamy for Singapore and Singapore Airlines.
On that day, the first-ever hijacking of a Singapore Airlines aircraft in Singapore took place.
The silver lining was that the crew and passengers were all rescued.
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.
It ended when the Singapore Armed Forces’ Special Operations Force (SOF) commandos clinically eliminated the hijackers and freed the hostages in the early hours of March 27, 1991.
The following accounts are factually derived from actual records and news reports of the incident — with details added for dramatic effect.
9.25pm, March 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 endure for 50 minutes,” he told himself. “50 minutes and we’ll be back in Singapore”.
9.38pm, March 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, March 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, March 26, 1991 Singapore Changi Airport
SQ117 landed and taxied down the runway smoothly, cutting through the darkness before coming to an abrupt halt.
Sahid had 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.
10.30pm, March 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, March 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, March 27, 1991 Temporary Crisis Room, Singapore Changi Airport
Superintendent Foo was exhausted. It’s been more than six hours and 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, March 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.
6.50am, March 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.
Before he could reach for the butter knife in his pocket, Sahid was instantly blinded by a series of flash-bangs.
Several shots were fired and within the span of 30 seconds, Sahid and his comrades were down.
The passengers and crew of SQ117 were rescued, and would live to see another day.
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