Lockerbie at 30

December 21, 2018

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 21st, is the winter solstice and either the shortest or longest day of the year, depending on your hemisphere. It also marks the 30th anniversary of one of history’s most notorious terrorist bombings, the 1988 downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Flight 103, a Boeing 747 named Clipper Maid of Seas, was bound from London to New York when it blew up in the evening sky about a half-hour after takeoff. All 259 passengers and crew were killed, along with eleven people in the town of Lockerbie, where an entire neighborhood was virtually demolished. Debris was scattered for miles. Until 2001, this was the deadliest-ever terror attack against American civilians. A photograph of the decapitated cockpit and first class section of the 747, lying crushed on its side in a field, became an icon of the disaster, and is perhaps the saddest air crash photo of all time.


The investigation into the bombing — the U.S. prosecutorial team was led by a hard-nosed assistant attorney general named Robert Mueller — was one of the most fascinating and intensive in law enforcement history. Much of the footwork took place on the Mediterranean island of Malta, where the explosive device, hidden inside a Toshiba radio and packed into a suitcase, was assembled and sent on its way. The deadly suitcase traveled first from Malta to Frankfurt, and from there onward to London-Heathrow, where it was loaded into flight 103’s baggage hold.

Among the security enhancements put in place after the bombing is the now familiar requirement that passengers and their checked luggage travel together on the same flight. (“Bag pulls,” as we call them, are a common occurrence on overseas flights when passengers — but not their bags — miss their connections, frequently resulting in delays.)

Robert Mueller, assistant attorney general, circa 1990.

Two Libyans, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, were later tried in the Netherlands for the bombing. Fhimah was acquitted (a verdict that generated plenty of controversy), but al-Megrahi was convicted and sentenced to life.

Both al-Megrahi and Fhimah had been employees of Libyan Arab Airlines. Fhimah was the carrier’s station manager in Malta. During my vacation to the island a few years ago, it was a little eerie when I found myself walking past the Libyan Airlines ticket office, which is still there, just inside the gate to the old city of Valletta.

In 2009, in a move that has startled the world, Scottish authorities struck a deal with the Libyan government, and al-Megrahi, terminally ill at the time, was allowed to return home, to be with his family in his final days. He was welcomed back as a hero by many.

The FBI’s investigation into the bombing remains open. It’s possible, if unlikely, that other individuals could someday be held accountable.

There’s lots to read online about flight 103, including many ghastly day-after pictures from Lockerbie. But instead of focusing on the gorier aspects, check out the amazing story of Ken Dornstein, whose brother perished at Lockerbie, and his dogged pursuit of what happened. (Dornstein, like me, is a resident of Somerville, Massachusetts, and he lives within walking distance.)

The Libyan government of Mohammar Khaddafy was also held responsible for the 1989 destruction of UTA flight 772, a DC-10 bound from Congo to Paris. Few Americans remember this incident, but it has never been forgotten in France (UTA, a globe-spanning carrier based in Paris, was eventually absorbed by Air France). A hundred and seventy people were killed when an explosive device went off in the forward luggage hold. The wreckage fell into the Tenere region of the Sahara, in northern Niger, one of the planet’s most remote areas. (Years later, a remarkable memorial, incorporating a section of the plane’s wing, was constructed in the desert where the wreckage landed.)

Khaddafy eventually agreed to blood money settlements for Libya’s hand in both attacks. The UTA agreement doled out a million dollars to each of the families of the 170 victims. More than $2.7 billion was allotted to the Lockerbie next of kin.


Related Stories:


Back to the Ask the Pilot Home Page Visit the Blog Archive Back to Top!

Leave a Comment

Maximum 1500 characters. Watch your spelling and grammar. Poorly written posts will be deleted!

15 Responses to “Lockerbie at 30”
You are viewing newest comments first. Click to reverse order
  1. Rapier says:

    346 died in the 737 Max crashes. Boeing stock touched 15% lower but has recovered somewhat. The CEO may, just maybe, get a smaller bonus this year. Let us pray he does not suffer too much.

  2. Mike K says:

    He had a miraculous recovery once home in Libya.

  3. Richard says:

    In early 1989, just weeks after the bombing, we flew from London to Singapore on Royal Jordanian Airlines, via Amman (then with Qantas back to Perth). I was 6, and I remember feeling the tension that my mum – travelling with two young children – felt until we arrived at Changi (to this day, my favourite airport, not just because of this trip).

    At Amman, our flight was delayed by around 8 hours. We waited and waited, in an uncomfortable airport, given some very basic food (to be fair, still better than Ryanair), uncertain of what would happen. We eventually boarded our 747 bound for Singapore. The flight to Singapore is not a short one, but within the range of a 747 – and it was scheduled as a non-stop flight.

    So it was surprising when it was announced about an hour into the flight that we would be landing – for “refuelling”. We landed somewhere in the middle of the desert. My mum and I both keep a list of all the airports we’ve been to. But both of us have a blank entry for this one – to this day we don’t even know what country it was in, and almost certainly never will.

    My mum later found out from another passenger that “something large” was offloaded, before we departed and continued to Singapore…

    • Richard says:

      I still remember the relief felt at arriving at Singapore. I didn’t understand why, but I could feel my mum relaxing, knowing the rest of the journey would be with Qantas to the sleepy little airport of Perth. Of course, Changi helps a lot with that. Carpets throughout, soft classical music, information available easily, friendly staff, great children’s play areas, an airport that does not (or didn’t) hide the planes from you – seeing gate after gate of the magnificent 747, and watching them gracefully take off every couple of minutes – will help even the most frustrated passenger think it’ll be ok.

      But I digress. We’ve had three main theories for the reason for the landing.

      1) We actually had to refuel. The flight is a long one, but a 747 could do it. Maybe it wasn’t fully fuelled at Amman, so didn’t have the range – bu why weren’t we told about the need to stop until we were descending? Or a bad headwind? I wouldn’t have thought it would be enough to require re-fuelling. And why was something offloaded? Personally, I think this one is pretty unlikely.

      2) The plane was being used to carry weapons. A bit conspiracy-theory. But my mum said it felt very much as though we’d landed at a military airport, and it was a large crate that was offloaded. Royal Jordanian was government owned, so COULD have been used by the government to transport something. While possible, I think this one is probably unlikely…

    • Richard says:

      3) This is my own “theory” (guess). On a 747, luggage is all stored in large crates. What if Royal Jordanian received news that they had an unattended bag on board?
      – The rules were in place that aircraft should not carry unattended bags, but were not well enforced (at least that’s my understanding from documentaries about Lockerbie)
      – Just weeks earlier, the lack of enforcement resulted in Lockerbie. Airlines were scrambling to improve their processes in this regard
      – It would be possible to realise after departing for an airline to realise they had loaded a passengers bags who didn’t end up boarding
      – If they decided to land to search for the luggage as a precaution, they probably wouldn’t tell us, given the current situation
      – It would have required crates to be unloaded to find the bag(s) in question, so would have looked like “something large” was being offloaded (even though it would have been reloaded, we only heard about it from another passenger, so the details may not have been accurate).

      I’d be interested to hear other theories.

      • Rod says:

        Really not a great deal of information to go on here. I’ve flown Royal Jordanian Amman-Bangkok and back on an L-1011, not as far as Singapore but, as you say, these aren’t short distances. I agree, Singapore ought to be a cinch for the 747s of the day.

        Seems to me that if it really was an hour into your flight and a luggage scare they would have returned to Amman. AND dumped fuel, obviously. This would have been visible from the window seats.
        If they Didn’t dump fuel, then the stop was planned beforehand.

        WHY would they put a piece of luggage on that didn’t belong to anyone if the result would be all that hassle? Major booboo? Expensive one.

        Many sinister things happen in that part of the world. The Iran-Iraq War was over by then. The Kuwait adventure had not yet begun. But why use a commercial aircraft full of passengers for some Dodgy Ops? I mean, it sounds like the last BA flight into Kuwait in early ’91, if you know that story.

        Anyway, all in the realm of speculation now. Dozens of “other theories” possible. How to know?

  4. Speed says:

    From WIRED

    Pan Am Flight 103: Robert Mueller’s 30-Year Search for Justice

    “The Scotbom task force had been allotted three tiny windowless rooms with dark wood paneling, which were soon covered floor-to-ceiling with 747 diagrams, crime scene photographs, maps, and other clues. By the door of the office, the team kept two photographs to remind themselves of the stakes: One, a tiny baby shoe recovered from the fields of Lockerbie; the other, a picture of the American flag on the tail of Pan Am 103. This was the first major attack on the US and its civilians. Whoever was responsible couldn’t be allowed to get away with it.”

    Yes, that Robert Mueller.

  5. Speed says:

    Flight International account of the tragedy published January 7, 1989.

    Bomb destroyed Pan Am 747

    When the 747 went down there was no emergency radio message or transponder selection. The aircraft had been transferred normally from London Air Traffic Control Centre to Scottish, and then to Oceanic, with no indication of any problem. Then the flight’s transponder return simply disappeared from the controller’s radar screens.

  6. Jim says:

    AlMegrahi, the coward, got to say good bye to his friends and die in his bed. Too bad his victims didn’t.

  7. Ridge Taylor says:

    Remarkably, the UTA 772 Memorial is visible using Google Earth.

  8. James Wattengel says:

    Thanks to the update of last year’s article.

    That night will always be etched in my memory: My family and I flew from GRU to MIA that night on a PAN AM 747 with a continuation flight on the same plane to LAX that morning. When we disembarked the plane at 4 am for a 3 hour layover it was unusually quiet even for that time of the morning; many of the PAN AM folks were in tears. It took a few minutes for us to find out what had happened.

    The continuing flight was subdued to say the least. And one of the pilots walked the whole length of the plane to talk to the passengers.


  9. Kevin Brady says:

    This tragic event basically sealed the demise of a Pan Am. While Pan Am was roundly blamed, they were also a victim of 103. The security at Heathrow, Frankfurt and Malta airports was not handled by Pan Am, but outsourced third party airport security, Further, baggage was not examined at that time and as Patrick notes, passengers did not have to travel with their baggage, as they do today.

    Having worked for Pan Am in the eighties, and still in contact with many ex-Pan Am people today, it was indeed the a very sad moment in the history of an iconic airline.

    • Rod says:

      (serious question) What was Pan Am BLAMED for? Having luggage on board that didn’t match with a passenger on board? Was that a concern at the time?

      As for outsourcing airport security, that’s a failing of lean’n’mean government, which wants your security looked after by people earning minimum wage.
      How could that be the fault of an airline?

  10. DV Henkel-Wallace says:

    Is that Mueller in the photo???