Pan Am flight 103: 30 years since the Lockerbie disaster

The disaster aircraft - Boeing 747-121, Clipper Maid of the Seas, N739PA. Photo: © Kambui

30 years ago today, at 19:02:50 local time, Pan Am flight 103 exploded in mid air over the small town of Lockerbie in the Southwestern Scottish lowlands. The aircraft, ‘Clipper Maid of the Seas’ was the 15th 747 ever built; an 18 year old Boeing 747-121, with 259 people on board, was en route from London’s Heathrow to New York’s JFK Airport. The disaster took the lives of all 259 souls on board and a further eleven on the ground.

The disaster

Pan Am 103 was cruising at 31,000 feet when a Toshiba radio cassette player packed inside a brown Samsonite suitcase containing 450g of high explosives tore the aircraft into five pieces. It took 46.5 seconds for the 747 to fall to the ground, where its debris covered an area of approximately 800 square miles/1,280 square kilometres.

The flight was a service from Frankfurt to New York, with a stopover in London. The suitcase was loaded aboard a Boeing 727, flying as Pan Am 103 from Frankfurt to London, where the baggage and passengers transferred to Clipper Maid of the Seas for the second leg to New York, taking over the same flight number.

It took three days after the accident before pieces of wreckage were discovered with tell tale signs of damage caused by explosives. In a turn of tragic bad luck, it was discovered that the suitcase containing the bomb was randomly placed in the forward cargo hold, where an explosion could cause the most amount of damage in a Boeing 747.

Investigation

In 2003, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi accepted responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am 103, and paid millions of dollars in compensation to the victim’s families.

It was eventually discovered that the bomb was planted by a Libyan intelligence officer, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. He was captured in 1999, and eventually sentenced to life in prison in 2001. In one of the most controversial legal decisions in recent times, al-Megrahi was released in 2011 on compassionate grounds after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. Both UK Prime Minister, David Cameron and US President Barack Obama publicly condemned the decision of his release. He flew back to Libya where he died in 2012.

Consequences

The ripples from the Lockerbie disaster last to the present day, and have transformed the aviation industry. It was a large contributing factor in the downfall of Pan American World Airways; one of the worlds pioneering airlines from the start of commercial aviation. The airline was also partly responsible for the creation of the Boeing 747, amongst many other aviation feats.

After the downing of Air India flight 182 in 1985 (a 747 which was blown out of the sky by a bomb just off the coast of Ireland), it was a requirement that all luggage must be accompanied by the passenger who checked it in. As the bomber of Pan Am 103 checked the bag from Malta to JFK via Frankfurt and London, whilst ultimately not being on board N739PA when it exploded, Pan Am was found guilty of wilful misconduct in breach of security procedures.

“The World’s Most Experienced Airline” filed for bankruptcy on the 8th January 1991, and ceased to exist on 4th December of the same year. The dawn of baggage screening technology, which scans luggage for its contents and is able to detect explosives also came as a result of the Lockerbie disaster. It’s now possible for trace elements of explosives to be identified in checked bags before they make their way to the aircraft.

Blast resistant baggage containers were also developed in the wake of Pan Am 103, but due to the enhanced security measures ensuring that a bomb doesn’t make it one board in the first place, these have not been implemented.

Legacy

The haunting image of the nose of the downed Pan Am 747. Photo: © AAIB

Other than a small number of memorials to the victims, the everlasting image of the intact nose of the downed 747 lying on a hillside like a slain animal are all that are left to remind us of the terror attack that took 270 lives 30 years ago. Abdelbaset al-Megrahi has so far been the only person ever convicted over the bombing of Pan Am 103. The investigation has never been formally closed and the remains of the 747 are reconstructed in a hangar at the AAIB (Air Accident Investigation Branch) in Farnborough.

More history: Concorde last flew passengers 15 years ago

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