Hijacked commercial airliners, Dawson Field in Jordan


It seems almost un-American to enjoy delays, and perhaps enjoy is not the best
word, but certainly a delayed flight, if it does nothing else, allows one the opportunity
to make prolonged observations about one’s fellow travelers. ~ Abraham Verghese


September 6, 1970: With only eleven other passengers, I boarded an Olympic Airlines 727 (capacity about 150) at the Athens airport for the last leg of my trip from the US to Beirut, Lebanon. About 30 minutes after takeoff, the plane circled back and landed in Athens again. Something had happened. We knew that. But what?

I later learned that five commercial airliners had been hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). One of the planes had landed in Beirut before going on to Dawson Field in Jordan. Thus, the airport was closed. So no flight to Beirut for us and no sense of when we would fly. We were taken to a hotel near the Athens airport.

In that moment, through this circumstance of the unknown, a bond was formed. Twelve total strangers became, at a minimum, distant friends. The only other woman on the flight was merely passing through Beirut on her way to South Africa to join her fiancé. She and I shared a room. Two of the ten others, brothers, were former students at the school where I was to be a teacher. We were told to stay in the hotel because we would likely receive very short notice of when our flight would leave for Beirut.

Consider: no cell phones, no CNN, no Internet, and no email. Nonetheless, we managed to entertain ourselves. We shared meals together, played cards and charades, completed and then passed our novels around, told stories…. Reflecting, I notice that we had fun. More than we would have had if we’d been glued to ’unfolding events’ over which we had no control anyway. 

A couple of days went by. Then, at 2:00 am of the third night, we got a call telling us to be in the hotel lobby by 3:00 am. We were bussed to the airport where we boarded the plane. We landed in Beirut at sunrise. Even as we were walking across the tarmac toward the terminal and customs, the plane that brought us from Athens took off again. 

“Seen any hijackers lately?” I asked the customs agent with a nervous smile. (It was a different time….) With a laugh and a twinkle in his eye, he said, “Are you kidding? They aren’t even up yet!” With that, I knew I’d be okay.

I smelled the jasmine and felt the early morning heat. The trip had been an emotionally challenging odyssey even before getting to Athens. So it was comforting to finally be arriving in my new home! Every time I traveled over the next two years, I returned to the beautiful smell of jasmine. It became a sign, an affirmation, that I was home.

In terms of my companions on our fearless adventure, even with all that we that we had experienced and shared together – the immediacy and intimacy, the anxiety and anticipation – we went our own ways. I never saw anyone with whom I shared this unforgettable and unique experience ever again.


Wild jasmine in Lebanon