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The Christmas Eve Hijacking of 1999: What Happened on Indian Airlines Flight 814?

The Christmas Eve Hijacking of 1999: What Happened on Indian Airlines Flight 814?


Aviation is considered the world's safest transportation since plane crashes are rare. Although there have been flight hijackings in the years since the September 11 attacks in 2001, the sheer devastation of 9/11 forced the aviation industry to rethink its operations entirely.


Photo: Sunil Gupta | airliners.net


Indian Airlines Flight 814


The hijacking of a flight in India became a notable event in the country's aviation history. Indian Airlines Flight 814 (IC 814) was flying an Airbus A300 aircraft from Tribhuvan International Airport (KTM) in Kathmandu to Indira Gandhi International Airport (DEL) in Delhi on December 24, 1999. Unfortunately, the Indian Airlines flight did not land in Delhi as planned. Five terrorists from the Pakistani militant group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) hijacked the aircraft once it entered India. 


Everything operated normally on the 180-person flight when it departed from Kathmandu. However, a man wearing a ski mask approached a flight attendant about the plane being hijacked and there being a bomb onboard. The hijackers told the captain to fly west towards Pakistan instead of landing in the intended destination of Delhi. The men attempted to land the aircraft at Allama Iqbal International Airport (LHE) in Lahore, but Pakistani air traffic control refused to give the flight permission.




Amritsar, India


The terrorists did not give up despite the aircraft being denied from landing in Lahore. Instead, they allowed the captain to land the flight at Sri Guru Ram Das Ji International Airport (ATQ) in Amritsar, India, since the aircraft needed more fuel to travel a longer distance. Indian Air Traffic Control (ATC) contacted the flight at 6:04 p.m. local time, with the captain mentioning the fuel issues. However, the captain requested that Indian ATC contact Pakistan to allow the flight to land there. Although it made more sense to land in Amritsar due to its location near the Pakistani border, the terrorists threatened to execute ten hostages if the aircraft landed in India.


Pakistan denied the request even after India contacted them at 6:30 p.m. As a result, IC 814 continued towards Amritsar and eventually landed there. IC 814 refueled after an approximately one-hour delay that the captain requested in coordination with Indian authorities to prevent the plane from departing again. However, this delay angered the terrorists, and they started attacking and killing hostages onboard as a result.




Indian authorities attempted to thwart the flight's departure by sending a fuel truck to block the aircraft's path. The hijackers later noticed a suspicious vehicle going towards the plane and ordered the captain to take off immediately. The aircraft almost collided with the fuel tanker on the runway before departing Amritsar at 7:49 p.m. Passengers onboard were kept in poor conditions since the terrorists tied the hostages' hands together and threatened to execute them if the plane did not depart.


Lahore, Pakistan


IC 814 flew towards Lahore despite not receiving more fuel in Amritsar. The captain attempted to crash land the aircraft after Pakistani ATC denied the aircraft permission to land. This decision made it unsafe for IC 814 to land because ATC turned off the airport's lights and navigational aids. Pakistani ATC eventually allowed the flight to land in Lahore with navigational aids at 8:07 p.m. India sent diplomats to Lahore to assist Pakistan with preventing the plane from departing. Pakistani authorities turned off the runway lights and surrounded the aircraft with military personnel. The officers also attempted to convince the terrorists to release the passengers onboard the flight but failed.


Photo: Daniel Mena | AeroXplorer


These events happened while the plane was being refueled. Pakistani authorities eventually allowed IC 814 to leave Lahore. India's role in this situation mostly involved confirming if there were any deaths involving passengers. Pakistan claimed that passengers died but did not provide confirmation to India.


Dubai, United Arab Emirates


The flight was again in limbo, but this time in the Middle East. The hijackers unsuccessfully attempted to land the flight in Oman and at Dubai International Airport (DXB). Although Oman rejected IC 814 entirely, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) allowed the aircraft to land at Al Minhad Air Base (NHD) instead of in Dubai. NHD is a military installation operated by the UAE Air Force. The terrorists released 27 passengers with assistance from Emirati authorities. 




Kandahar, Afghanistan


The hijackers decided that Kandahar International Airport (KDH) in Afghanistan would be their final destination. The Taliban, which had indirect connections to HUM through Osama bin Laden, offered to host negotiations between Indian authorities and the terrorists. Hostage negotiations proved to be difficult since many countries, including India, refused to work with the Taliban's repressive regime.


The Taliban placed its soldiers around the plane to discourage the terrorists from further hurting the flight's passengers. The hijackers doing so would have caused the talks to collapse. Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) worked with the hijackers to coordinate the release of the hostages through complex negotiations. The hijackers allowed the passengers to leave safely, with the aircraft's engine staying on to accommodate them amid Afghanistan's cold winters. Officials from India's Intelligence Bureau later claimed they could have solved this crisis if Pakistan had not been involved.




The passengers in Afghanistan received some essential items, such as food, as hostage negotiations continued. The hijackers surrendered their weapons and allowed the passengers to leave the plane entirely. Talks between Indian authorities and the Taliban were complex, but they succeeded. The Airbus A300 aircraft returned to Indian Airlines in January 2000 before its retirement in early 2001. Finally, a criminal investigation in 2008 found three men guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment.




Other criminal investigations into the incident occurred in the coming years, with the most recent one leading to a man's acquittal. The hijacking of a flight in 1999 makes one wonder how far aviation has come in the past two decades. One must always consider the past regarding innovations in the aviation industry, especially regarding safety.

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