Resilience and the Pan Am Flight 73 Hijacking

A couple summers ago I had the incredible opportunity to attend a one week Dynamics of International Terrorism course with the Air Force Special Operations.  I’m still not sure how I had the good fortune to attend.  We heard from military, law enforcement, and security officers who were on the ground during many of the high profile terrorist attacks from the last few decades, such as the Khobar Tower bombings, the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, the Mumbai hotel attacks, and the kidnapping of General Dozier by the Italian Red Brigade (presented by General Dozier himself).

Pan Am flight 73As enthralled as I was with the presentations, one poignant leadership lesson stood out which I knew I’d have to eventually share.  It came from a story Richard Melhart relayed to us.  Melhart was an American survivor of the Pan Am Flight 73 hijacking in 1986 in Karachi, Pakistan which resulted in 22 fatalities and over 150 casualties.  It was a horrific ordeal and ended with the passengers fleeing the plane through emergency exits as the four hijackers began an all-out assault following failed negotiations to acquire a new pilot for the grounded aircraft.

According to Melhart, the survivors stayed in the airport until the next morning when they were boarded onto a new flight since the one that had been hijacked was a connection for most of the passengers.  Imagine getting back on a plane that soon after such an experience!  After the passengers were reboarded, a group of mental health professionals entered the aircraft to deliver a message, and that is what I want to share with you because it has such a huge implication for resilience in the face of tragedy.  Here are the four things they shared, with my commentary:

The responsibility for recovery is your own. You have the power to overcome.

When adversity strikes (as it does for all of us), many times we have a tendency to focus on what happened to us instead of what we can do about what happened to us.  The ability to overcome isn’t out there.  It’s in here, where we control our response.  This is where I’m reminded of Viktor Frankl’s immortal words: “between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.”

Get back to normal quickly.

Taking time off can allow emotional trauma to fester.  This is one of the unfortunate realities we see with soldiers returning from tough overseas employments who are expected to immediately use all the leave time they’ve accrued and can’t find a productive way to employ their abundance of free time.  Activity aids the healing process.

Tell your story often and as soon as possible. Then write it down. In this way you will treat yourself.

When we recount and record our experience, we are forced to interpret it in our own words.  We openly acknowledge the damage that was done – perhaps to others, but more importantly, to ourselves.  We cannot change or heal what we do not acknowledge.

Realize there will be a way to use this situation positively at some point in the future.

Once again, this is speaks to the heart of Viktor Frankl’s message in his book Man’s Search For Meaning, which he wrote upon surviving the atrocities of the holocaust in Auschwitz.  Frankl believed that life is not primarily a quest for pleasure or power, but a quest for meaning.  Meaning can be found in many places, including (and sometimes especially) tragedy.  What a waste of an experience that was acquired at a high price if it cannot be employed to benefit others!

In no way do I want to hold myself up as an expert in overcoming tragedy.  My experience is nothing like the experience of anyone involved in the Pan Am flight 73 hijacking (or any other hijacking).  But it is a fact of life that everyone will experience adversity at some level.  As a leader, your ability endure to the end depends on your ability to overcome.  There are many examples of “one and done” leaders who eventually broke under the pressure of adversity.  The resilient ones are the ones who carry on despite the scars.

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, speaker and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective with Leadership-in-a-Box.

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9 thoughts on “Resilience and the Pan Am Flight 73 Hijacking

  1. Wow, that must have been a pretty incredible talk. I’ve never gone through anything that traumatic, but I could find many of the recovery tips resonating with me as I thought about how to overcome the trials that I have faced in life. I think the part about activity aiding in recovery is particularly true of me. I find myself slipping into a pattern of just wallowing in my situation – and that only makes it worse.

    • It was an incredible talk and was still difficult for Melhardt even though it was 25 years later. Apparently there is a wide difference in ability to cope among the other survivors (esp. among the flight personnel) all these years later, which highlights even further the principle that “it’s not what happens to you, but what you do about what happens to you.”

  2. Good article, Nathan! It sounds like you attended one of those life learning sessions that never leave us. Strategy 1 really rings true. Whenever we have challenges in life, our recovery is our own responsibility. We just have to make it happen.


    • You’re right, Robert. It’s not the good times that test our mettle, it’s the tough ones! It was a great course – the kind of experience you are just thankful to get to be a part of.

  3. Great post Nathan. I’ve never been in a situation as traumatizing as the one you mentioned but have had to heal and overcome some bad things that have happened to me.

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  5. Nathan I just came across this. I was on this plane when I was 7 years old. Even after 27 years I am still haunted the events that occurred that day. Even though my mind has chosen to block this ordeal my body does not seem to agree. I can still feel what I felt that day but can’t seem to put the pieces together. It’s like looking for lost pieces of a puzzle. As I grow older I am starting to remember more and it’s getting harder to forget. People say that it is a good thing that my mind blocked out the memory but I think it is harder to not to know what happened. It’s hard to put something together when you can only find little bits of the pieces. When I was young I had a lot of help from stranger and family members, i learned how to talk again, walk again, and not be afraid of people. I am so grateful for the people that helped me and I am even more grateful to my mother that carried me and my sister out of that plane. Without these individuals in my life I don’t think I would have survived.

    • Mona, it’s incredible to me that 27 years later you found this post online. I’m not sure if you were on the next flight with the psychologists who delivered the message shared in this post. If so, it may not have made much sense given your age at the time. Thank you for adding to the discussion in a big way. I’m glad you’ve had support in the aftermath. From your experience (if you’re up for it), are there additional things a parent or adult should do to help a child recover from a traumatic experience?

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