80s History – 12/21/1988 Pan Am Flight 103 Bombed/Disaster

December 21, 1988 is an unforgettable and tragic day in our history. Here’s a timeline of what happened:

  • December 5, 1988. The US government sent out a memo known as the Helsinki Warning, after a threat was received by the US embassy in Helsinki, Finland. The memo warned airlines, airports and embassies in Europe that a bomb attack may be attempted on a Pan American World Airways flight leaving Frankfurt, Germany.
  • December 21, 1988, 6:25 PM. Pam Am Flight 103 took off from London Heathrow Airport, en route to New York JFK airport. The original flight plan was supposed to go over the midlands in Ireland, but the plan was altered due to weather and air traffic.
  • Same day, 7:02 PM. The clearance delivery officer at the Shanwick Oceanic Area Control in Prestwick transmitted its oceanic route authorization. But it was not acknowledged by Flight 103. A few seconds later, the single radar echo of the aircraft was replaced by 5 different ones over a 1-mile spread.



A British Airways pilot flying near Carlisle called the authorities in Scotland, and reported a huge fire on the ground.



  • Subsequent investigations discovered that a bomb exploded in the aircraft hold, which tore a 20-inch hole in the left side of the fuselage.
  • The wreckage of the plane landed in Lockerbie, Scotland. More than 200,000 pounds of jet fuel ignited, resulting in a huge fireball and a large crater in the center of the town.
  • The disaster killed a total of 27o people from 20 different countries, including 243 passengers, 16 crew members, and 11 Lockerbie residents on the ground. US casualties were the highest at 178, with 43 others hailing from the UK.
  • Among the casualties were 35 students of Syracuse University. The casualty list also includes at least 4 US government officials, a UN commissioner, and the CEO of Volkswagen America. Rumors persist of a 5th US government official.
  • It was considered the deadliest act of terrorism against the US at the time.
  • November 13, 1991. After 3 years of investigations, indictments for murder were issued for 2 Libyan nationals. One was an intelligence officer, and the other was a station manager in Luqa Airport, Malta.
  • April 5, 1999. After 8 years of negotiations with Muammar Gaddafi, the two suspects were handed to Scottish authorities. The trial was set in the Netherlands as a neutral venue.
  • January 31, 2001. Only the Libyan intelligence officer was convicted of murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He served 8½ years in prison, due to cancer. He was released on August 20, 2009. He maintained his innocence throughout his life.
  • 2003. Gaddafi accepted responsibility for the attack. Though he paid out compensation for the surviving family members of the victims, he maintained that he did not give the order for the attack.
  • 2011. A former Libyan government official said that Gaddafi personally ordered the bomb attack.

The Pam Am Flight 103 bombing demonstrated just how unfriendly the skies can get.



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