Gander's Role in the Hijacking of TWA355

by J. Pinsent

September 10,1976, a Trans World Airlines (TWA) flight 355, a B727, was hijacked by five "Fighters for Free Croatia”, a group seeking Croatian independence from Yugoslavia.

The B727 departed from New York's LaGuardia Airport and was headed to O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. The hijackers were Slobodan Vlašić, Zvonko Bušić, his wife Julienne Bušić, Petar Matanić and Frane Pešut. The hijackers claimed to have a bomb as they seized control of the plane in the 95th minute of its flight.

The group redirected the plane to Montreal's Mirabel International Airport where they refueled and told officials that they had planted a bomb in a locker at Grand Central Station giving them information on its location. When New York City police officers went to defuse the bomb it exploded, killing one officer, Brian J. Murray, and blinding another in one eye.

They demanded an appeal to the American people concerning Croatia's independence be printed in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and the International Herald Tribune. The hijackers demanded the flight fly to London and on to Yugoslavia to drop leaflets pleading their cause for Croatian independence.

The TWA crew convinced the hijackers that the aircraft was unable to fly across the North Atlantic due to its lack of navigational equipment plus the B727 didn’t have the range to cross the ocean.

With this information the hijackers permitted the flight to land at Gander with the understanding that TWA would provide a larger aircraft to accompany TWA 355 to provide navigation and radio communications but the route of flight would be via Iceland for further refueling. At first it was anticipated that passengers would be transferred to the larger airplane but the hijackers would not permit this to happen for obvious reasons.

TW355 landed at Gander sometime shortly after midnight and was parked in a secure location to await the arrival of the better navigational & radio equipped airplane to be dispatched out of JFK.

Due to a time factor, the tower controller was tasked by Transport Canada to be a somewhat negotiator, given a script by someone in Ottawa, to be read at various times pleading with the hijackers to surrender or release some of its passengers. The captain explained what was going on aboard the aircraft and the urgency of the situation. He kept asking for updates when the larger plane would arrive. It takes a little over 3 hours to fly from JFK to Gander so he knew he had to wait at least that long before he could get going again. The hijackers came on the tower frequency and accused everyone of stalling. It sure looked like it. There was no word on when this extra plane would leave JFK.

The interesting part of the ongoing situation at Gander was all communications were being broadcast over the tower VHF frequency making it available for the public being able to listen in. It was felt because of the hour it would not be a problem. Meanwhile the airport manager had closed the airport to all normal arrival and departures. A SWAT team comprising of RCMP/RNC officers were flown to Gander from St. John’s in the event immediate intervention was required.

The flight crew was becoming agitated, indicated by their comments to the tower. They advise the hijackers were becoming anxious making the situation more hyperacute with explosives attached to them selves. The availability of another aircraft was given as the reason for the holdup. Airport staff was now aware the situation was getting more serious as the delay became longer. Intentional stalling could no longer be a strategic option.

Not too long later a TWA B707 is on the way. The crew and hijackers settled down hearing this news. The B707 lands after 0500, refuels and both aircraft depart for Iceland in formation flight with the B707 doing the navigation and radio communication. The hijacking incident at Gander airport was now over without consequence.

After departing Keflavik airport in Iceland, the flight was refused landing in London, put down at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris where the hijackers eventually surrendered after some negotiation. The claim of a bomb or other exlosives carried on board TWA355 made by the hijackers was proven to be false.

ED. Note; More detailed info on TWA 355 hijacking https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TWA_Flight_355 also the news reporters memory of that evening


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