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Remember # Pan Am Flight 103 / Lockerbie Air Disaster

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

Pan Am Flight 103 was a regularly scheduled Pan Am transatlantic flight from Frankfurt to Detroit via a stopover in London Heathrow and in New York JFK. The transatlantic leg of the route was operated by "Clipper Maid of the Seas", a Boeing 747-121registered N739PA. Shortly after 19:00 on 21 December 1988, while the aircraft was in flight over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, it was destroyed by a bomb that had been planted on board, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew in what became known as the Lockerbie bombing. Large sections of the aircraft crashed in a residential street in Lockerbie, killing 11 residents. With a total of 270 fatalities, it is the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of the United Kingdom.



The aircraft operating Pan Am Flight 103 was a Boeing 747-121, registered N739PA and named Clipper Maid of the Seas; prior to 1979, it had been named Clipper Morning Light. It was the 15th 747 built, and was delivered in February 1970, one month after the first 747 entered service with Pan Am. In 1978, as Clipper Morning Light, it had appeared in "Conquering the Atlantic", the fourth episode of the BBC Television documentary series Diamonds in the Sky, presented by Julian Pettifer.


Pan Am 103 originated as a feeder flight at Frankfurt Airport, West Germany, using a Boeing 727. Both Pan Am and TWA routinely changed the type of aircraft operating different legs of a flight. PA103 was bookable as either a single Frankfurt–New York or a Frankfurt–Detroit itinerary, though a scheduled change of aircraft took place in London's Heathrow Airport. On arriving at Heathrow Terminal 3 on the day of the disaster, passengers, their luggage, and unaccompanied interline luggage on the feeder flight were transferred directly to Clipper Maid of the Seas, whose previous flight had originated in Los Angeles and arrived via San Francisco. The plane, which operated the flight's transatlantic leg, pushed back from the terminal at 18:04 and took off from runway 27R at 18:25, bound for New York JFK Airport and then Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. Contrary to many popular accounts of the disaster (though repeated, with reference, below), the flight, which had a scheduled gate departure time of 18:00, left Heathrow airport on time.

After the bombing, the flight number was changed, in accordance with standard practice among airlines after disasters. Within days, the Frankfurt–London–New York–Detroit route was being served by Pan Am Flight 3

Loss of contact

At 18:58, the aircraft established two-way radio contact with Shanwick Oceanic Area Control in Prestwick on 123.95 MHz.

The Clipper Maid of the Seas approached the corner of the Solway Firth at 19:01, and crossed the coast at 19:02 UTC. On scope, the aircraft showed transponder code, or "squawk", 0357 and flight level 310. At this point, the Clipper Maid of the Seas was flying at 31,000 feet (9,400 m) on a heading of 316° magnetic, and at a speed of 313 kn (580 km/h; 360 mph) calibrated airspeed. Subsequent analysis of the radar returns by RSRE concluded that the aircraft was tracking 321° (grid) and travelling at a ground speed of 803 km/h (499 mph; 434 kn).

At 19:02:44, Alan Topp, the clearance delivery officer at Shanwick, transmitted its oceanic route clearance. The aircraft did not acknowledge this message. The Clipper Maid of the Seas' "squawk" then flickered off. Air traffic control tried to make contact with the flight, with no response. Then a loud noise was recorded on the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) at 19:02:50. Five radar echoes fanning out appeared, instead of one. Comparison of the CVR to the radar returns showed that, eight seconds after the explosion, the wreckage had a 1-nautical-mile (1.9 km) spread. A British Airways pilot, flying the London–Glasgow shuttle near Carlisle, called Scottish authorities to report that he could see a huge fire on the ground.


Flight 103 was under the command of Captain James B. MacQuarrie (55), a Pan Am pilot since 1964 with almost 11,000 flight hours, of which over 4,000 had been accrued in 747 aircraft. He previously served three years in the U.S. Navy and five years in the Massachusetts Air National Guard, where he held the rank of major. First Officer Raymond R. Wagner (52), a pilot with Pan Am since 1966 with almost 5,500 hours in the 747 and a total of nearly 12,000 hours, had previously served eight years in the New Jersey National Guard. Flight Engineer Jerry D. Avritt (46), who joined Pan Am in 1980 after 13 years with National Airlines, had more than 8,000 hours of flying time, with nearly 500 hours in the 747. The cockpit crew was based at JFK.

Six of the 13 cabin crew members became naturalised US citizens while working for Pan Am. The cabin crew was based at Heathrow and lived in the London area or commuted from around Europe. All were originally hired by Pan Am and seniority ranged from 9 months to 28 years.

The captain, first officer, flight engineer, a flight attendant and several first-class passengers were found still strapped to their seats inside the nose section when it crashed in Tundergarth. A flight attendant was found alive by a farmer's wife, but died before help could be summoned. Some passengers may have remained alive briefly after impact; a pathologist's report concluded that at least two of these passengers might have survived if they had been found soon enough.

All 243 passengers and 16 crew members were killed, as were 11 residents of Lockerbie on the ground.



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