The French pilot who became a hero at Entebbe

Air France pilot Michel Bacos had just commenced on the second leg of a flight from Tel Aviv to Paris on June 27, 1976, when the unthinkable happened. Eight minutes after taking off from Athens, Bacos heard screams coming from the passenger cabin. At first, he thought there was a fire on board, but when the chief engineer opened the cockpit door to investigate, he found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. Two Palestinian and two far-left German hijackers forced Bacos to fly the plane and its 248 passengers and 12 crew members to Benghazi, Libya, and then on to Entebbe, Uganda, where they were held in a decrepit airport terminal. Three days later, the hijackers released 150 passengers, but kept the Israelis and those with Jewish-sounding surnames captive. Bacos and his crew were told they could leave, but they refused. “This was a matter of conscience, professionalism, and morality,” Bacos said. “I couldn’t imagine leaving behind even a single passenger.”

Bacos was born in Port Said, Egypt, where his father worked at the Suez Canal, said The Times (U.K.). At age 17, he joined the Free French Forces battling the Nazis and was stationed in Morocco as a naval aviation officer. During the Cold War, Bacos regularly flew supplies and passengers between West Berlin and West Germany, where he met his German-born wife, a flight attendant. She was a member of the cabin crew during the Air France hijacking.

When the terrorists ordered the Jews separated from the rest of the passengers during that crisis, Bacos insisted on being allowed to move between the two groups, said The Washington Post. “I’m responsible for all the passengers,” he told the militants, “be they Israeli or not.” Bacos and the remaining captives were freed after six days in a daring raid by Israeli commandos, said The New York Times. Three passengers died during the operation as well as an Israeli soldier, Lieut. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the elder brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On the flight back to Israel, the soldiers honored Bacos by inviting him to sit in the cockpit. He was later decorated by both France and Israel for his bravery, but always insisted he had simply done what was right. “I fought the Nazis,” he said. “I knew precisely what fascism was all about.”