The 1973 Rome airport attacks and hijacking

The Clipper Celestial after the firebombing.
The Clipper Celestial after the firebombing.

The 1973 Rome airport attacks and hijacking were a set of Palestinian terrorist attacks originating at Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino International Airport in Rome, Italy, resulting in the deaths of 34 people. The attacks began with an airport terminal invasion and hostage-taking, followed by the firebombing of Pan American World Airways Flight 110.

Pan Am Flight 110 was a scheduled Pan American World Airways flight from Rome, Italy to Tehran, Iran by way of Beirut, Lebanon. On 17 December 1973, shortly before takeoff, the airport terminal and the flight aircraft were invaded and the aircraft was set on fire by armed Palestinian gunmen, resulting in the deaths of thirty persons on the plane and two in the terminal.

Following the aircraft invasion, the gunmen hijacked a Lufthansa airliner and killed two more people before being taken into custody by the State of Kuwait.


Since the ousting of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Jordan, following the Jordanian-Palestinian civil war, the Palestinian military organizations made South Lebanon into its headquarters, enlisting militants from Palestinian refugee camps. South Lebanon was also referred to as Fatahland, due to the almost complete control of Fatah and other military Palestinian organizations over this officially Lebanese area, which they used to stage attacks against Israel, mainly targeting civilians, and to engage in international airflight terror campaign.

Terminal invasion and firebombing of Pan Am Flight 110

On 17 December 1973, Pan Am Flight 110 was scheduled to fly from Leonardo da Vinci International Airport in Rome to Beirut International Airport in Lebanon and then on to Tehran, Iran. At the controls of the Boeing 707-321B (registration N407PA, name Clipper Celestial) were Captain Andrew Erbeck, First Officer Robert Davison, and Flight engineer Kenneth Pfrang.

At approximately 1:10 PM (13:10) local time, just as Flight 110 was preparing to taxi, between six and ten Palestinian people made their way through the terminal building, armed with automatic firearms and grenades. The terrorists removed submachine guns from hand luggage bags and began firing throughout the terminal, shattering windows and killing two. Crew in the cockpit of the aircraft were able to observe travelers and airport employees in the building running for cover. Captain Erbeck announced over the plane’s public address system that there was some commotion in the terminal and ordered all on board to get down on the floor.

Several of the gunmen ran across the tarmac toward the Pan American jet, throwing at least two phosphorus incendiary hand grenades through the open front and rear doors of the aircraft. The explosions knocked crew and passengers to the ground, and the cabin filled with thick, acrid smoke from the resulting fires. Flight attendants were able to open the emergency exit over the wing on one side of the plane; the other was obstructed by gunmen. The crew attempted to evacuate as many passengers as possible through the available exit, but twenty-nine passengers and Purser Diana Perez died on the plane, including all eleven passengers in the first class section. Four Moroccan officials heading to Iran for a visit, and Bonnie Erbeck, wife of the captain, were among the dead. Captain Erbeck survived the attack. Also killed were fourteen Aramco employees and employee family members. The aircraft was destroyed.

Lufthansa hijacking

Other gunmen took several Italian hostages and Lufthansa ground crew members into a Lufthansa Boeing 737 (registration D-ABEY) waiting to depart for Munich. An Italian customs officer was shot dead on the ground after resisting. The plane, containing Captain Joseph Kroese, the first officer, two flight attendants, two ground crew, and eight Italian hostages, took off for Athens, Greece on the orders of the five terrorists also on board.

A Lufthansa Boeing 737, similar to the aircraft involved in the hijacking.
A Lufthansa Boeing 737, similar to the aircraft involved in the hijacking.

– Athens stopover

Upon landing in Athens, the terrorists demanded by radio the release of two Palestinian gunmen responsible for a previous attack on an Ellinikon International Airport (Athens) terminal lounge. They claimed to have killed five hostages, including the plane’s first officer. The terrorists also threatened to crash the jet in the middle of Athens if their demands were not met. In reality, only one Italian hostage had been killed and one wounded. The plane took off again from Athens after sixteen hours on the ground and after the gunmen had released the wounded hostage and dumped the body of the dead hostage onto the tarmac.

– Damascus stopover

The plane next headed for Beirut, where Lebanese authorities refused to allow landing, and blocked the runway with vehicles. Cyprus also refused to allow landing. The guerrillas on board finally ordered the plane to be landed in Damascus, Syria, allegedly because the plane was running low on fuel. In Syria, Air Force Commander Major General Naji Jamil attempted to persuade the Palestinians to release the hostages, but they refused. The Syrians provided food and refueled the plane. They also treated a head injury suffered by one of the hijackers. The plane took off again after about two to three hours.

– Landing in Kuwait

The commandeered jet next headed for Kuwait, where Kuwaiti authorities refused to allow it to land. Captain Kroese was ordered by the terrorists to land anyway on a secondary runway. An hour of negotiations between the Palestinian gunmen and the Kuwaiti authorities ended with the release of all twelve remaining hostages in exchange for “free passage” to an unknown destination for the hijackers. The terrorists were permitted to retain their weapons and made a V-for-victory sign with their hands upon leaving the plane.


It was reported that Kuwaiti authorities later took the hijackers to an air base for interrogation purposes. Kuwait announced that it had no intention of putting the hijackers on trial, and initially considered releasing the hijackers to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In March 1974, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt agreed to allow them to come to Cairo under the responsibility of the PLO, which said the men would be tried for carrying out an “unauthorized operation”.

The five terrorists were later released under negotiations during another hijacking that took place on 21 November 1974, but were then returned to the custody of the PLO. It is unclear what happened to them after their return to the PLO.



  1. My parents and I were next to this plane as we were on an El Al flight from Rome to Israel after emigrating from the USSR. I was a small child but my parents saw everything from our plane as we were next to it on the tarmac. My parents saw dead bodies still seated in the plane from the windows in our plane. After the attack our plane took off to Israel escorted by 2 Israeli fighter planes. We eventually emigrated to Canada where my dad did an interview with a local newspaper about the event. I have the newspaper clipping. So much death was caused via terrorism and it changed nothing other than taking innocent lives.

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