Flight Plan

A December 24 hijack that's fresh in memory, 20 years later

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on December 24, 2019 Published on December 24, 2019

Capt Devi Sharan recalls that fateful Friday when an Indian Airlines flight between Kathmandu and Delhi was hijacked

Even though 20 years have passed, every follower of aviation will remember the words “IC 814” and “hijacking”.

The Indian Airlines flight flying between Kathmandu and Delhi was hijacked on Christmas eve in 1999 and taken to Kandahar where the passengers were released after a week, on December 31, after India agreed to release some terrorists in exchange for the passengers. This was the last major hijacking of an Indian aircraft.

For Captain Devi Sharan who was flying the aircraft, the memory of the hijacking is still as fresh as it must be for the 178 passengers and 11 crew members on the flight.

“I started at 6 a m in Hyderabad on December 24 and the flight ended at 8 or 9 a m. Afghanistan time, on December 25. I was in command for almost 28 hours,” he told BusinessLine.

Recalling that fateful Friday, Captain Sharan added that the hijacking occurred about 40 minutes into the flight when the aircraft was “close to overhead Lucknow.”

The hijackers had rudimentary knowledge about flying and asked Captain Sharan what alternative landing site he had for Delhi. When he told them it was Mumbai they asked him to fly the plane to Lahore as it was closer.

Lahore did not allow the plane to enter Pakistan airspace, so the aircraft landed in Amritsar instead. However, Captain Sharan was forced to take off after the hijackers started killing passengers. In all, the hijackers, who were later identified as being from the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen group, killed one passenger.

“At that time the operational manual was clear that if an aircraft was hijacked, you had to follow the hijackers’ instructions. I could also not argue with them. Negotiations had to be done by the government,” Captain Sharan pointed out.

A short flight saw them over Lahore where more drama followed.

“Lahore made it clear that it did not want us. They even shut off the runway lights. Eventually I had to tell Air Traffic Controller Lahore that I will have to crash the plane as I was low on fuel after which they got the lights on and allowed us to land,” recalled Captain Sharan.

After a few hours on the ground, the aircraft took to the skies again and headed for Kabul which declined it permission for landing saying that an aircraft as large as the Airbus A-300 could not land there. It was then decided to fly to Dubai.

In Dubai, the hijackers released women, children and elderly people. The aircraft then moved to its final destination Kandahar. When the hijack ended on December 31, Captain Sharan flew back on one of the two relief aircraft sent from Delhi to get the passengers and staff.

The hijacked aircraft arrived the next day flown by Captain JRD Rao, another senior IA pilot.

A day after arriving in Delhi, the Captain and crew were ushered into the Prime Minister’s Officer for a meeting with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Everyone was praised for their brave efforts in saving the lives of over 150 flyers.

However, no one has still answered questions about why nothing was done to capture the hijackers when the aircraft was on the ground in Amritsar for 49 minutes. Another point that remains is that the Indian government did release several terrorists, including Maulana Masood Azhar, something that no country wants to do.

Four of the cabin crew stopped flying after the hijacking though Captain Sharan was back in the cockpit four days later. “I flew back several times on the same route. I was not able to operate a flight to Kabul as an Airbus A-320 is used on that route,” he said. Captain Sharan was an Airbus A-300 pilot with Indian Airlines. Though retired, he continues to fly on contract with Air India and now operates the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Published on December 24, 2019
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