RTÉ One, Thursday, 7.00pm

Scannal - Aer Lingus Hijack

Post 9/11 the issue of airline security is nothing new. But back in 1981 it was a different world and although Ireland would have been in the middle of the northern troubles nobody seemed to have ever dreamed that terrorism would take to the skies here and certainly not in an Aer Lingus plane.

But on May 2nd 1981 the national airline's flight EI164 from Dublin to London was to burst that particular bubble when it hit the headlines by being hijacked with 113 passengers and crew on board. The dramatic events could have at any moment turned to disaster.

The Boeing 737 captained by Eddie Foyle, with first officer Frank Thompson and cabin crew Deirdre Dunphy, Marie McGlinchey and Mary Murphy was on a regular hop to Heathrow with a mixture of business passengers connecting with onward flights as well as tourist and emigrant traffic. Flying in the 1980's before the advent of "no frills" airlines still had a cachet and a price tag to match, but the only thing that seemed unusual on this flight was that they'd made the crossing in double quick time and were on an early approach to Heathrow when one of the cabin crew preparing for the landing, noticed a passenger darting into the toilet after the "fasten seatbelt" sign had been switched on.

"When I got up and turned around this passenger was there and he was covered in petrol...and he had two little vials and said they were cyanide gas..that was the start of it." Deirdre Dunphy - Cabin Crew

Very quickly the fuel soaked man was in the cockpit and demanded that they could not land in England - he wanted to be taken to Teheran. While Capt. Foyle dealt with the Hijacker - Co-pilot Thompson was taking control of the aircraft and the cabin crew kicked into automatic to look after the passengers and ensure they remained calm.

"We didn't tell them at any stage that we were being hijacked some of them obviously realised and one man said to me are we being hijacked and I just nodded to him.but we never actually used the word.Hijacked."
Deirdre Dunphy - Cabin Crew

But the H-word was to be splashed all over the Sunday Papers - once the word was out it became a media frenzy.

"I arrived out at Dublin airport, it was all fairly chaotic, nobody knew what to do, nobody was very sure about what was going on - Some fella had lifted the plane, he had hijacked the plane -why had he hijacked the plane? usually people have a reason, they're looking for something in return, to set them free and so forth. Nobody knew anything and I don't honestly believe that the authorities knew very much either at that time." Sam Smyth - Journalist (then Sunday World)

When the identity of the hijacker became known - Laurence Downey - an Australian former trappist monk and it became clear that this was no ordinary terrorist when he demanded the publication of the 3rd Secret of Fatima!

"The Minister, who was obviously concerned for the crew and the passengers on the plane, also had a very real concern for the aircraft because Minister Reynolds would turn to me from time to time and say "That's our bloody aircraft" he says, "We have to get that aircraft back.that's Aer Lingus' plane" "
Sam Smyth - Journalist (then Sunday World)

Reynolds took personal charge of the operation - although as the plane was on french soil by this stage - he had no actual control over events. But that did not stop the Minister for Transport taking off in a 2nd Aer Lingus jet to be on the spot in France when the french special anti-terrorist squad stormed the plane. The passengers, however, even after their 12 hour captivity, had to wait some more, until the Minister came aboard, to meet, greet and liberate them. Reynolds emerged down the aircraft steps with the passengers behind him to the waiting international media!

Scannal - looks back on the strange case of the "holy hijacker" for the first time members of the crew toegether with passengers from the ill fated flight recall their ordeal.

But was this a case of "alls well that ends well" - what lessons if any were learned? If international aviation security measures had been tightened after Downey's successful hijack 20 years before 9/11- might history be different today?

Research and reporting by : LAURA Ní CHEALLAIGH
Series Producer & Directed by KEVIN CUMMINS

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