The Pan Am Flight Attendant Who Gave Her Life Saving Passengers on a Hijacked Flight 33 Years Ago

Neerja Bhanot was a flight attendant who gave her life saving hundreds during a hijacking 33 years ago.

Pan Am flight 73 flew from Mumbai to the U.S. with a stop in Karachi, Pakistan on September 5, 1986. It was hijacked by four Palestinian Abu Nidal Organization terrorists who wanted to use the Boeing 747-121 to free prisoners in Syria and Israel.

There were 380 passengers and 13 crew on board the aircraft. All but 22 survived, and much of the credit goes to the flight’s purser, 22 year old Neerja Bhanot who died near the end of the standoff.

This was not supposed to be an easy plane to hijack. There were armed guards near the aircraft. Hijackers showed up dressed as though they were airport security, and they drove a vehicle disguised as airport security as well – through a security checkpoint and right up to one of the boarding stairs for the Pan Am 747.

  • Neerja Bhanot reacted to being boarded by using the hijack code to alert cockpit crew. The flight engineer, co-pilot, and pilot all escaped from a hatch, leaving terrorists with no one to fly the plane.

  • The hijackers demanded passengers’ passports. Flight attendants collected them. Neerja Bhanot, realizing that Americans would be most at risk, disposed of many American passports hidden under seats and down the trash.

  • She removed a page out of the flight manual that described procedures for aircraft door 3R. She gave it to a passenger hidden inside a magazine. This showed how to open the exit door and deploy the slide.

neerja bhanot flew pan am boeing 747
Pan Am Boeing 747 Operated Flight 73, credit: via Wikimedia Commons

She “continued serving people refreshments throughout the entire ordeal.” After 17 hours, and with the aircraft out of power, hijackers became frustrated and resolved to kill all of the passengers. Their plan to use explosives failed in the darkness and they began shooting.

Passengers went for the exit. Neerja Bhanot stayed back to help passengers escape, and was shot “while shielding three children with her own body.” She didn’t survive.

With the hijackers out of ammunition, the Pakistani military stormed the aircraft and seized the hijackers who were tried and sentenced to death – but had their sentences commuted to life in prison. Four of the prisoners eventually ‘escaped’, one believed to have been killed in a drone strike in Pakistan in 2010. A fifth wound up in the custody of the United States (either turned over by Pakistan or escaped and captured, it’s never been clear). That hijacker, Zayd Hassan Abd al-Latif Safarini, is currently serving a 160 year sentence in federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The 2016 film Neerja was made about the incident and heroic flight attendant.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. After Israel’s El Al 707 was hijacked in 1968, not another plane was hijacked. With a thorough pre-boarding process established and armed air marshals on board, no further El Al flights were hijacked. Of course, this required shootouts during take-offs with pro-Palestinian thugs who attacked at Zurich; attempted missile shoot down in Italy, Kenya, etc.

    The question is why did what became so obvious against El Al take so damn long to be digested by other airlines and their governments?

    Who could forget the 3 flights (TWA, BOAC, Swissair) hijacked to the desert and blown-up by “Black September” in 1970?Remember how the TWA flight was attacked on its leg between Cairo-Rome-Athens? Also, terrorists hit the Air France flight out of Athens from Tel Aviv to Paris? Plus the Pan Am flight bombed by Libya in 1989.

    So honorable was this purser at Pan Am; yet, had India and Pakistan been on top of their game, her life and the others would not have been so needlessly lost. Bottom line, we cannot ever relax again, as air traffic will always be an attractive target, as we learned with 9-11 coming upon us.

  2. Great story. Didn’t know this one personally. May her soul rest in peace together will all victims of senseless islamic / pan-arab terror.

  3. Not sure if the news spread globally in 1986. The movie , therefore must be made 8n all languages and publicised in all countries.
    Security at ticketing and boarding must be as strict as possible.
    Let us all look forward for flights free from hijacks.

  4. I was a flight attendant for Pan Am at the time and remember the incident also happened on my birthday, so I can never forget it. I did not know her because she was one of our Indian flight attendants based in Bombay as they use to call is Mumbai now. I do know that she was well loved by everyone who knew her and I believe she had a pet name of “Sunshine “. Her personality preceded her.
    After flying for 44 years..I retired six years ago. Safety was always paramount with Pan Am and I imagine now with all of the major airlines. I do not understand the general public now and the way they act on an aircraft. For what we put up with..flight attendants are over worked and many, underpaid. This flight attendant gave her life to save three children….People ask me if I miss it and I must say that I do..but to go through the incidents that seem to be happening on a regular basis, is outrageous.
    Our main job was the safety of our passengers. A flight attendant is a mother, a sister, a psychologist, a nurse, an entertainer, but most of all…a safety expert. She/He will get you out of that aircraft in an emergency…passengers should remember that and treat them with more respect.

  5. Thank you for calling attention to this brave woman and her heroic acts. I only hope NetFlix will
    start showing this movie so the world will know her story.

  6. I had never heard this story. Thank you for sharing it and putting this brave lady’s name out there.

  7. I was unfamiliar with this story, but I will repeat it many times now that I know it. What an amazing, selfless young lady! May she rest in peace and her story inspire others to do the right thing.

  8. Thanks for remembering a hijack that took place 33 years ago. I was on that plane and was shot in the chest, arm and leg. I lost my left leg above the knee. I am thankful for heroes like Neerja.
    I was 17, the ordeal has helped to not take life for granted and live for a higher purpose. I became a Christian after the incident and appreciate God’s plan in my life.
    I still love to fly and travel the world. Reading your blog helps me achieve that. Thanks

  9. Hi Gary
    If you cannot find the Bollywood made Neerja, let me know…….I will try to find one for you.

    Small world, some months after the hijack I was traveling from Mumbai to JFK on the upper deck J. The flt attendant during the flight pointed out a repair “smudge” on the ceiling and told me that is where one of the bullets hit!

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