Captain Jürgen Schumann and Flight 181

Captain Jürgen Schumann’s death….

The 1970s was a politically charged and often violent decade, kidnappings, bombings and murders were commonplace during a time seemingly ruled by ideals based on Socialist/Marxist principles and the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 and the murder of the pilot by the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine in 1977 was one of many bloody examples of politics by the bullet.

Jürgen Schumann was the captain of Landshut, the Boeing 737 scheduled to fly to Frankfurt from Palma de Mallorca on Thursday 13th October 1977. As the plane with its eighty six passengers flew over Marseilles four terrorists, all in their early twenties, took control of the flight with pistol in hand and set about issuing Schumann with their instructions.

Schumann’s co-pilot, Jürgen Vietor was summoned to sit with the rest of the passengers whilst Schumann was instructed to fly to Cyprus. But fuel levels meant Schumann had to land in Rome where it was refuelled and the terrorists demands were issued. Those demands were the release of eleven RAF (Red Army Faction) prisoners along with two Palestinian guerrillas imprisoned in Turkey and fifteen million dollars. The Italians decided against taking action and the plane took off without clearance from the airport and flew to Cyprus.

Schumann, his crew and passengers must have been terrified, in typical plane hijacking style the terrorists did not envisage being denied safe haven and Schumann, having been told to fly to Beirut was told the airport was blocked along with Damascus and Kuwait before landing briefly in Bahrain and then Dubai. Their intended stop in South Yemen was, to their shock, blocked but they managed to make an emergency landing for fuel before being forced to take off again in what was a major setback for the terrorists. After landing in Aden they allowed Schumann to leave the plane to inspect the landing gear following a rough landing. The leader, Mahmud, was incensed when Schumann was late returning for reasons never truly clarified, without chance to explain the Captain was forced to kneel down in front of the passengers before being shot in the back of the head. On October 17th they finally landed in Mogadishu, the Somali capital where Schumann’s body was dumped on the runway.

The siege was finally brought to an end by the storming of the aircraft by German special forces on the orders of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. All of the hostages were freed safely, two of the terrorists were shot dead and one other died later from his wounds, it was a resounding success for everyone but Captain Schumann.

Schumann, born in Colditz in 1940 was married with two sons, he was posthumously awarded the German Federal Cross of Merit as was his co-pilot who survived the hijack but would return his medal in protest of the release of Christian Klar, a member of RAF who had been convicted for his part in the 1977 kidnap and murder of German businessman Hanns Martin Schleyer. I often believe that history in cases such as these focus less on the innocent dead than that of the instigators. Schumann was an innocent man caught up in an ideological conflict being played out thousands of miles from the source of the issue; Palestine. Innocent men, women and children have been murdered in both sides of the Arab-Israeli war but somewhere in Germany there is a widow and two fatherless sons whose lives were shattered for a foolhardy hijack that was always going to end badly. Let history remember Captain Schumann.


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