Neerja Bhanot: A Remarkable Tale of Bravery and Selflessness

Flight attendants have to put up with a lot during their job. From dealing with unruly passengers to managing emergencies, they often have to go above and beyond to keep everyone happy.

In the case of Neerja Bhanot, a flight attendant serving on Pan Am Flight 73, her dedication and commitment to the well-being of those on board went far beyond the call of duty.

On September 5th, 1986, Pan Am Flight 73 was waiting on the runway at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, Pakistan when it became the target of a hijacking. The four armed hijackers belonged to the Abu Nidal organization; a Libyan-backed Palestinian terrorist organization. 

During the 17-hour ordeal, Neerja displayed incredible courage and resourcefulness. She managed to open an emergency exit, allowing several passengers and the flight crew to flee the aircraft. 

This act of bravery effectively grounded the plane and thwarted the hijackers’ plans. Tragically, this selfless act cost Neerja Bhanot her life.

Neerja Bhanot 2004 stamp of India created to honor her bravery

Early Life and Career of Neerja Bhanot

Neerja was born on September 7, 1963, in Chandigarh, India, to a loving and close-knit family. She spent her formative years in a nurturing environment that instilled in her the values of kindness, compassion, and a strong sense of responsibility.

Neerja’s choice of a career in aviation was driven by her passion for exploration and her desire to make a difference in the world. This aspiration led her to pursue a career as a flight attendant at Pan Am, the most dominant airline at the time. 

Her training took her to Miami, Florida, in 1985, where she embarked on her journey as a flight attendant. By the time she joined Flight 73, she had risen to the position of head flight attendant.

The Hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73

On September 5th Pan Am Flight 73 was flying its scheduled route from Bombay to the United States with layovers in Karachi, Pakistan, and Frankfurt, Germany. 

The aircraft was carrying 380 passengers and 13 crew members when four armed men from the Abu Nidal organization took control of the plane. Their goal was to force the pilot to fly to Cyprus where they would use the plane as a bargaining chip in the release of Palestinian prisoners. 

Bhanot acted quickly and warned the cockpit crew that hijackers were boarding the plane. The pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer managed to escape undetected through an overhead hatch in the cockpit. 

Pan Am flight 73

This act alone saved countless lives that day by grounding the plane and preventing the terrorists from carrying out whatever plans they had once they got to Cyprus. 

To show the passengers that they meant business, they killed an Indian-American citizen. The hijackers instructed Bhanot to gather the passports of all passengers so they could weed out all the Americans on board. 

American prisoners were seen as very valuable bargaining chips to terrorist organizations like Abu Nidal. They knew that America would always negotiate for American citizens and these negotiations usually benefited the terrorists. 

Bhanot had other plans. She conspired with the other flight attendants to conceal the passports of the remaining 43 American passengers. Passports were secretly hidden under seats, while others were thrown down a garbage chute.

Seventeen long hours into the hijacking, the terrorists became fed up with delays and resorted to violence. They began opening fire and detonating explosives they had brought with them. 

Amid the chaos and danger, Neerja Bhanot managed to open one of the airplane doors, but instead of jumping out and saving herself, she focused her efforts on helping other passengers escape. 

While Neerja was helping three unaccompanied children, the terrorists seized her by her hair and shot her. She was just two days away from her 23rd birthday.

Recognition and Awards 

In her home country of India, Neerja Bhanot was posthumously awarded for her bravery onboard Flight 73 with the Ashoka Chakra award in 1987. This is India’s highest civilian decoration for acts of extraordinary courage and sacrifice. 

Over the years since the hijacking, Neerja Bhanot has been awarded and recognized by many different countries and entities including: 

Tamgha-e-Pakistan, 1987: Awarded by the Government of Pakistan for demonstrating incredible human kindness during the Pan Am Flight 73 hijacking.

Flight Safety Foundation Heroism Award, 1987: Presented in the United States in acknowledgment of her heroic actions during the hijacking.

Justice for Crimes Award, 2005: Granted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, United States, in recognition of her dedication to justice and humanity.

Special Courage Award, 2006: Conferred by the United States Department of Justice, United States, in honor of her remarkable bravery.

Civil Aviation Ministry Award, 2011: Acknowledged in India for her outstanding contributions to civil aviation.

Bharat Gaurav Award, 2016: Presented at the House of Commons, UK Parliament, on July 2, 2016, as a tribute to her legacy and inspirational impact.

Neerja Bhanot’s Legacy and Inspirational Impact 

In 2004, the Indian Postal Service paid tribute to Neerja Bhanot’s heroism by producing a commemorative postage stamp in her honor. This stamp serves as a symbolic representation of her extraordinary courage and the impact her actions had on society. 

Neerja’s story continued to resonate with people across India. The stamp provided a tangible means of honoring her memory and ensuring that her legacy would endure.

One of the most significant acknowledgments of Neerja’s heroism came in 2016 when a biographical film titled “Neerja” was made, chronicling her life and the events of the Pan Am Flight 73 hijacking. 

The film, starring actress Sonam Kapoor in the lead role, garnered widespread critical acclaim and captured the hearts of audiences worldwide. It not only paid a moving tribute to Neerja’s bravery but also brought her story to a new generation of viewers.

Remarkably, one of the child survivors from the very flight, who was only seven during the ordeal, went on to become an airline pilot for a major airline. He has stated that he owes every day of his life to Bhanot’s act of courage and it has inspired him to pay it forward.


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