Pan Am Flight 103 Explodes over Lockerbie Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Libyan-sponsored terrorists planted a bomb on a civilian jet, killing 270 people and prompting a long investigation and legal process that finally brought one of the perpetrators to justice.

Summary of Event

The downing of Pan Am Flight 103 on December 21, 1988, with the subsequent death of 270 people, was the worst aviation disaster in British history. The hunt for the perpetrators of the bombing took three years, and an additional eight years were required to bring them to justice. The one suspect found guilty, Abdulbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, attempted to appeal his conviction. The bombing was also the first time in history that a country admitted liability for the acts of its agents in an act of terrorism and paid compensation. Terrorist acts Pan American Flight 103 Airliners, attacks Lockerbie disaster [kw]Pan Am Flight 103 Explodes over Lockerbie (Dec. 21, 1988) [kw]Flight 103 Explodes over Lockerbie, Pan Am (Dec. 21, 1988) [kw]Explodes over Lockerbie, Pan Am Flight 103 (Dec. 21, 1988) [kw]Lockerbie, Pan Am Flight 103 Explodes over (Dec. 21, 1988) Terrorist acts Pan American Flight 103 Airliners, attacks Lockerbie disaster [g]Europe;Dec. 21, 1988: Pan Am Flight 103 Explodes over Lockerbie[07060] [g]United Kingdom;Dec. 21, 1988: Pan Am Flight 103 Explodes over Lockerbie[07060] [g]Scotland;Dec. 21, 1988: Pan Am Flight 103 Explodes over Lockerbie[07060] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Dec. 21, 1988: Pan Am Flight 103 Explodes over Lockerbie[07060] Megrahi, Abdulbaset Ali Mohmed al- Fhimah, Al Amin Khalifa Qaddafi, Muammar al- Black, Robert Swire, Jim

Police and investigators study the remains of Pan Am 103’s flight deck on the field in Lockerbie, Scotland.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Pan Am Flight 103 was a regular scheduled flight from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. It had a feeder service, Flight 103A, from Frankfurt, Germany. Passengers who were continuing to New York changed planes at Heathrow, their baggage transferred directly to the waiting plane. There were 244 passengers on board the flight, 47 of whom had transferred from the feeder, and 15 crew. The plane was an old Boeing 747, with a history of faults, named Clipper Maid of the Seas. It departed at 6:25 p.m., twenty-five minutes late because of congestion, and took a northerly route, passing over the Solway Firth, the border between England and Scotland, at 7:00 p.m. at a cruising height of thirty-one thousand feet. Suddenly, at 7:02 p.m., radio contact with Scottish Air Traffic Control at Prestwick was lost, and the plane appeared to drop off the radar screen, reappearing as four or five discreet objects.

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The plane had exploded just west of the small Scottish town of Lockerbie, some fifteen miles north of the English border, in the Dumfries and Galloway region. One-hundred-knot westerly winds carried the parts of the plane, as it broke up in the air, onto the town and over to the east of it. When the wings, laden with aviation fuel, hit a small road in town, Sherwood Crescent, the impact created an enormous crater; several houses were destroyed, and others were irreparably damaged. The ensuing fireball completely incinerated the starboard wing, the houses, and their inhabitants, spreading to the nearby interstate and setting several automobiles on fire. Other parts of the plane hit a garage or passed over the town, landing in fields or the surrounding moors. Some mailbags that had been on the plane were found forty miles away. Debris was scattered over one hundred square miles. Eleven inhabitants of Lockerbie were killed, bringing the final death toll to 270. Bodies from the plane were scattered everywhere, as were thousands of pieces of wreckage and baggage.

The town hall was immediately turned into a mortuary, and the local school, Lockerbie Academy, was used as a control center. Those made homeless in the town of three thousand found refuge in the school, community centers, and hotels. Troops of the Highland Infantry were dispatched to search for bodies and to locate wreckage. They were soon joined by others, but the bodies and debris had to remain in situ until forensic teams could gather data. Six hundred officials and investigators, and then many relatives of the dead, descended on the small town over the next few days. High-ranking officials also visited the site. A memorial service, presided over by the moderator of the Church of Scotland, was held on Wednesday, January 4, in Dryfesdale Parish Church and attended by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the U.S. ambassador, some two hundred relatives of the dead, Pan Am staff, and many from the town.

Most of the dead were Americans, among them thirty-five students from Syracuse University in New York and four U.S. intelligence officers. A significant number of those who died were British, however, including the daughter of Dr. Jim Swire, who later became actively involved in seeking compensation, as well as high-ranking United Nations and Japanese diplomats.

At first it was not clear whether the explosion had been caused by mechanical failure or a bomb. However, as parts of the plane were taken away and reassembled at nearby Longtown, forensic experts quickly found marks of burns, establishing that a bomb had been placed in the forward baggage hold, right under the nose and the control center of the plane. The plane had been blown apart in seconds. The device had a timer, possibly activated barometrically; Semtex plastic explosive was packed in a radio. All were placed in a Samsonite suitcase. It was thought that the explosion had been timed to go off over the Atlantic, as was the case with Air India Flight 182 in 1985, to leave little evidence.

The investigation was then passed to the local Scottish police force, aided by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Suspicion fell on a number of Middle Eastern terrorist groups, especially those who had cells in Frankfurt, where the West German police had made significant arrests in the months previously. There were also claims that a warning had been given to the U.S. embassy in Helsinki and that relevant authorities had been warned, although this was disputed. Clearly airport security had failed, and a separate investigation into that was set up by the British and U.S. governments.

Significance

In their efforts to track down the terrorists and bring them to justice, police found fragments of clothing in the suitcase that led to the island of Malta. The shopkeeper of one item was able to identify a Libyan purchaser. The Czech government, the manufacturers of Semtex, also pointed to large sales to Libya. The radio and timer again pointed to a Libyan origin, though links with the Palestinian terrorist groups were considered, as were Iranian and Syrian connections. Eventually, two Libyan suspects were named, Abdulbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, and arrest warrants were issued in November, 1991.

When Libya refused to hand over the suspects, the United Nations United Nations became involved, first demanding that they be surrendered and then issuing trade sanctions against Libya in November, 1993, strengthened by further American sanctions in August, 1996. In 1998, the Libyans hinted at a deal. They agreed to a judicial framework, suggested by Professor Robert Black of Edinburgh University, whereby five Scottish judges would hear the case in the Netherlands, without a jury. This led to the lifting of sanctions.

At the trial, which began on May 3, 2000, Megrahi was convicted, but Fhimah was acquitted. Megrahi was given a life sentence to be served in Scotland. The verdict was upheld on appeal on March 14, 2002, and shortly thereafter, the Libyans agreed to a phased compensation package for the victims’ families of some $10 million each, though eventually only $8 million each was paid out.

There was also great concern over airport security. In May, 1990, a presidential commission found the aviation security system to be badly flawed, with the Federal Aviation Authority failing even to implement the rules that were in place. Changes to procedures concerning unaccompanied baggage and security checks were significantly tightened.

U.S. president Bill Clinton dedicated a memorial to the victims in Arlington National Cemetery on November 3, 1995, and memorial windows were placed in several Lockerbie churches. Syracuse University set up an annual scholarship fund for two students of Lockerbie Academy, erected a memorial, and instituted an annual service. The extraordinary kindness of the residents of Lockerbie, who restored every piece of clothing found to the relatives and gave them continuing hospitality, is remembered in ongoing friendships. Terrorist acts Pan American Flight 103 Airliners, attacks Lockerbie disaster

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohen, Susan, and Daniel Cohen. Pan Am 103: The Bombing, the Betrayals, and a Bereaved Family’s Search for Justice. New York: New American Library, 2000. The Cohens are an American couple who, like Jim Swire, lost a daughter on the flight and search for justice and a full account of what happened.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cox, Matthew, and Tom Foster. Their Darkest Day: The Tragedy of Pan Am 103 and Its Legacy of Hope. Berkeley, Calif.: Grove Press, 1992. A number of personal profiles of victims, families, and investigators. Also details government obstructionism and challenges the accountability of the airline.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crawford, John. The Lockerbie Incident: A Detective Tale. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford, 2006. Crawford avoids conspiracy theories to concentrate on the detective side of the investigation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Emerson, Steven, and Brian Duffy. The Fall of Pan Am 103: Inside the Lockerbie Investigation. New York: Putnam, 1990. Account of the people involved and the course of the investigation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matar, Khalil I., and Robert W. Thabit. Lockerbie and Libya: A Study in International Relations. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003. Covers all facets of the incident, especially Libya’s involvement, and places the bombing’s significance within the context of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.

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