Michel Bacos, a French pilot who refused to abandon the Jewish passengers of his hijacked plane when they were taken hostage at the Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976, an ordeal that ended with one of the most daring rescue missions ever undertaken, died March 26 in Nice, France.
He was 95, according to the Associated Press, which reported his death citing an announcement by the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi. No cause was given. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, whose older brother Yonatan was killed while serving with the Israeli commando unit that freed the hostages, wrote on Twitter: “I bow my head in his memory and salute Michel’s heroism.”
Bacos, a veteran Air France pilot, was sitting in the captain’s seat when Flight 139 took off on June 27, 1976, en route from Tel Aviv to Paris. What began as an ordinary flight, with magical views of the Mediterranean Sea, turned terrifying shortly after the plane made a scheduled stop in Athens.
“Eight minutes after the takeoff from Athens, I heard noise in the passenger cabin, then screams,” Bacos recounted shortly after the events, according to an account published in the New York Times. “First I thought there was a fire on board. The chief engineer opened the door of the pilot’s cabin and found himself nose to nose with the chief hijacker,” who was brandishing a pistol and a grenade.
A group of guerrillas associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and a radical German group had boarded the plane in Athens. One of them pointed a gun at Bacos’ head. “Every time I tried to look in a different direction, he pressed the barrel of his gun against my neck,” Bacos later told Ynetnews, a news site affiliated with the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.
Aboard the airplane were more than 240 passengers and the 12-member crew. Bacos, who was unarmed and would at some point lose his glasses amid the upheaval, had no choice but to submit to the hijackers’ demands.
On their order, he piloted the plane to Benghazi, Libya, for refueling. From there they flew to Entebbe, where the passengers and crew were taken hostage in an old, empty terminal, where they would endure six days of captivity.
Among the passengers, who had been on their way to vacations, family visits, weddings and bar mitzvahs, was at least one Holocaust survivor. According to published accounts of the event, their terror escalated when their captors separated the Jews and Israelis from the rest of the group, a move that recalled the selections conducted in Nazi death camps.
“I’m responsible for all of the passengers and demand to be able to see all of them – be they Israeli or not – at any given moment,” Bacos recalled demanding. The terrorists assented, he told Ynetnews, and he “was able to go from one hall to the other without receiving permission, every time.”
When the roughly 150 non-Jewish hostages were released, Bacos and his crew were invited to go with them but declined.
“There was no way we were going to leave – we were staying with the passengers to the end,” he told Ynetnews. “This was a matter of conscience, professionalism and morality. As a former officer in the Free French Forces, I couldn’t imagine leaving behind not even a single passenger.”
The crisis ended when dozens of Israeli commandos stormed the airport by night, arriving in a motorcade disguised to look like that of Ugandan leader Idi Amin. Three hostages, seven terrorists and 20 Ugandan soldiers were killed in the operation. Another hostage, who had been taken to a Ugandan hospital, was later murdered.
While returning to Israel, the commandos found Bacos seated next to the body of Yonatan Netanyahu. Such was their admiration for the pilot that they called him forward on the plane. “Your place is not here,” he said one of them told him, “but in the cockpit.”
Bacos was born in Egypt, where his father worked at the Suez Canal. He became a pilot after serving in the Free French forces under Charles de Gaulle during World War II.
In the early years of his flying career, when the Iron Curtain divided Germany, Bacos flew between West Berlin and West Germany, according to Ynetnews. His wife, Rosemary, was a German flight attendant. Besides his wife, survivors include three children.
Upon his return from Entebbe, Bacos said that he took two weeks of vacation, then insisted that his first flight be to Israel, to see if he was “still afraid.” He was not, and continued flying until his retirement in 1982.
His honors included the Legion of Honor, his country’s highest decoration, awarded for his courage in Entebbe. It would have been “impossible for me to leave my passengers,” he once told the BBC. “Unimaginable.”
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Emily Langer