In this special two-part episode 87, Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast explores the bombing of Pan Am 103 on December 21, 1988, over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 259 people onboard and 11 more on the ground. In part one, we explore the investigation, including how authorities in the US and Scotland traced a Samsonite suitcase and Toshiba radio used to hide the onboard bomb back to two suspects. Ultimately, only one suspect, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, was found guilty of murdering all 270 people in 2001, in a trial based on questionable eyewitness statements. This verdict left many families – and even some intelligence communities – questioning whether more individuals had a hand in the bombing. Then, in 2020, a startling new charge was announced against suspected bomb maker Abu Agela Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi, who was connected to the bombing through the investigative work of a family member of one of the Pan Am victims.
Debris from Boeing 747 Rains Down onto Lockerbie Scotland, Destroying Homes
It’s just four days before the Christmas holiday in 1988, and police constable Tom Gordon is chatting away on his home phone. It’s evening time, and outside, he can hear the westerly winds gaining strength. And when he hears a distant rumble, he thinks, a storm must be coming: some wild, winter weather that sometimes creeps into the village this time of year where he lives, in Lockerbie, Scotland.
But unlike thunder that eventually fades out, this sound gets bigger and bigger until it crescendos into what sounds like the screaming engines of a fighter jet, getting closer and closer. Then, in the distance, Tom watches mysterious black objects begin to rain down all over the streets below. His house, which sits atop a hill overlooking Lockerbie, begins to shake and vibrate. And in an instant, as he’s staring out his window, he watches as a fireball careens toward the village. When it smashes into the street and nearby homes, it does so with such force and violence that Tom feels the tiles on his own roof lift apart, and the phone lines go dead. This event would later register on the Richter scale as a 1.6 seismic event. Now, the once peaceful town of Lockerbie is on fire.
Tom quickly shakes out of his shock. He’s a police constable and used to reacting in times of danger and emergency. He tries to telephone for help, but his phone line is dead. So, he does the only thing he can do – he runs into the town below to see if he can help anyone who may be injured.
But instantly, Tom realizes that whatever has fallen from the sky has completely vaporized several homes and buildings. Fires blaze everywhere – across houses and lawns, even on the street itself. Little did he know at that moment, but Tom is looking at pieces of the wreckage from a Boeing 747 passenger jet known as Pan Am 103.
Pan Am Flight 103 Departs London Heathrow with 259 People Onboard Traveling for New York
Pan Am Flight 103 was the airline’s third daily scheduled transatlantic flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Detroit, Michigan, with connections in London's Heathrow International Airport to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. The Boeing 747 aircraft was named "Clipper Maid of the Seas”, and it is one of the oldest planes in the entire 747 fleet worldwide.
Getting ready to command the flight this evening is Captain Jim MacQuarrie and Co-Pilot First Officer Raymond Wagner. Both pilots have been with Pan Am for most of their commercial careers, Captain MacQuarrie having celebrated his 25th year with Pan Am and Co-Pilot Wagner preparing to retire after 22 years. Both men are looking forward to this flight because as soon as they touch down at JKF airport in New York, they can both make their way home to New Hampshire and New Jersey, respectively, and nestle in with their families for the quickly approaching Christmas holiday. In fact, this is a lucky break for co-pilot Wagner – he had originally been scheduled to fly this evening to South America, which would have delayed his arrival home, but at the last minute, he switched with another pilot so he could make it home sooner. Joining the two pilots in the flight deck is Flight Engineer Jerry Don Avritt.
Inside the airport at Heathrow’s Terminal 3, 243 passengers line up at Gate 4, ready to board Flight 103. Among the passengers, 190 are American citizens, 43 are British, and the remainder come from 19 different countries. Thirty-five of the passengers are students from Syracuse University in New York state returning home for Christmas following a semester studying in London at Syracuse’s London campus.
As Flight 103’s passengers make their way onto the airplane, they place bags and gifts for family and friends into overhead bins. Waiting to help all passengers settle into their seats are 13 cabin crew members, including 2 pursers and 11 flight attendants.
At 6:04 PM local time, the plane moves away from the gate and begins to slowly taxi towards Heathrow’s runway 27R. About twenty minutes later, in the darkened flight deck, Captain MacQuarrie opens the throttles of the four engines and the 330-ton jet begins to move down the runway. Soon, Pan Am 103 is passing through thick cloud into the darkening night sky.
At 6:58 PM, the cabin crew begins serving drinks and handing out headphones for the in-flight movie, Crocodile Dundee II. In the cockpit, the pilots level off at a smooth cruising altitude of 31,000 feet (or about 9500 meters). As the plane crosses over into Scottish territory, Captain MacQuarrie makes the customary contact with air traffic control at Prestwick and says, “Good evening, Scottish. Clipper One Zero Three. We are level at three one zero.”
Controller Alan Topp replies back, “Good evening. Route direct to five nine, north, one zero west.” He watches the 747 move across his radar screen as a bright green cross. Flight 103 is now just six miles (or 9.65 kilometers) above the Scottish border. Then Co-Pilot Wagner, now working the communications, says, “Clipper 103 requesting oceanic clearance,” which is a clearance request to begin the scheduled flight over the Atlantic Ocean to New York.
Pan Am 103 is Blown Out of the Sky, Raining Down Debris Around Lockerbie, Scotland
Then, at 7:02 PM and 50 seconds, everything changes for the people onboard Flight 103. An explosion rips through the plane, creating a 20-inch (or 50.8 centimeters) hole in the fuselage. Massive cracks instantly appear along the fuselage’s aluminum skin, which starts to peel off. The lights in the cabin go out, and the plane instantly de-pressurizes. Then, the 747 begins to tear itself apart. The flight deck recorder captures the sound of the nose section breaking away, taking with it the flight crew and several rows of first-class passengers still inside. As it breaks away, the nose section is blown back, hitting the right wing and smashing off one of the engines, then the tail section.
Without the flight deck still attached to the fuselage, the main cabin is now momentarily exposed to the freezing, star-filled night sky.
As the plane continues to disintegrate, most of the passengers are thrown from the fuselage into temperatures of -46 degrees Celsius (or -50.8 degrees F), rendering them unconscious due to lack of oxygen. Anything not fixed down is thrown from the plane and out into the freezing night sky.
As the main cabin section sails downward towards 19,000 feet (or almost 5800 meters), it drops vertically and then accelerates. Only about 15 rows of seats remain fixed to a section of floor. One of the plane’s wings, 200 feet (or 61 meters) long and containing 20,000 gallons of fuel for the engines, is falling fastest at a speed of around 500 mph (or 804 kmh). Forty-six seconds after the inflight explosion, the wing hits Sherwood Crescent in the village of Lockerbie, 6 miles (or 9.65 kilometers) below on the ground, disintegrating on impact and leaving a crater more than 150 feet long and 30 feet deep (or 45 meters long by 9 meters wide), vaporizing a row of nearby homes.
The engines are still running in air as they fall earthward, and the number three engine is burning fuel as it falls, making it look like a fireball sailing through the night sky. As the engines slam into the ground, they create an even bigger fireball that shoots 300 feet (or 91 meters) into the air and spreads towards the nearby A47 dual carriageway, scorching cars heading south. Drivers swerve to avoid the wreckage. Meanwhile, in the air, a British Airways pilot, in the middle of flying the London–Glasgow shuttle near Carlisle, calls Scottish authorities to report that he can see a huge fire on the ground.
As the heavy wreckage of Flight 103 continues to fall, many passengers are caught in a strong wind and carried eastward, many of them still helplessly attached to their seats, which have ripped away from the fuselage. Some regain consciousness as they reach more breathable air. Alive and helpless, they stream toward the earth, and their bodies join the debris that rains down all over Lockerbie. Most experts now believe that many passengers and crew were alive as they fell to the ground, with one rescuer later finding a female passenger’s body with mud and grass in her clenched hands, as if she had moved after plummeting to a complete stop. Another was found clutching a crucifix. Among the plane debris, Christmas presents, Bibles, money, toys and suitcases are tumbling through the night sky. The smell of aviation fuel is everywhere.
At Prestwick Air Traffic Control, controller Alan Topp stares in disbelief at his screen: the single green cross that symbolizes Pan Am 103 has transformed from one green blip into five. At 7:20 PM, the phone rings in the Heathrow office of Pan Am duty flight controller Brian Hedley. Air traffic control tells him that Flight 103 is lost. Hedley immediately alerts his colleagues at JFK Airport.
Pan Am Flight 103 Becomes One of Scotland’s Biggest Crime Scenes
By 7:30 PM, authorities in and around Lockerbie know they are dealing with a suspected plane crash. What happens next becomes one of the largest recovery operations in Scotland. Over the next several hours, working around-the-clock, over 1,000 police and 600 members of the military descend upon the tiny village and surrounding areas with the mission of finding survivors and as many pieces of the plane as possible. It soon becomes evident that the line of ambulances waiting to provide aid are not needed. None of the 243 passengers or 16 crew members have lived. Later, authorities would discover that 11 people on the ground had also been killed by falling debris, bringing the final death toll to 270 souls.
Investigators from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (or AAIB), led by lead investigator Mick Charles, arrive on scene just hours after the first piece of debris fell on Lockerbie. They are being aided by agents from the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (or FBI).
One of the very first things authorities must do is understand the scale and scope of the debris field. Several investigators join police in a Royal Air Force helicopter and surveil the enormous, scattered path of wreckage. Once in air, the devastation becomes starkly clear. The debris field fans out in a cone shape, starting at the center of Lockerbie, and then expanding out from there the further the distance from town. Ultimately, the wreckage is spread over an area that is bigger than the size of London itself – an area of more than 2000 square feet (or 609 square kilometers). It’s clear to investigators that Pan Am 103 has broken apart in air, and this enormous debris field is evidence of the devastation that happens when a 747 jet with over 6 million separate components is torn apart at altitude.
Crews Focus on Recovering Plane Wreckage from Enormous Debris Field
Despite the anguish the first responders and investigators feel at knowing this was not a survivable event, they press on to do the jobs they were meant to do. Because the goal is to identify as much of the plane as possible, they bag and tag everything they find, including things that may or may not be a part of the plane. As one police chief told his crews, “If it’s not a rock, bag it.”
Two-and-a-half miles (or 4 kilometers) east of the town in a farmer’s field, they locate the remains of the torn off flight deck, which looks like it was simply chopped off from the main cabin. Inside are the lifeless bodies of the pilots and several first-class passengers. Investigators with the AAIB immediately examine the pilots’ control panels for clues as to what may have been happening at the moment of breakup. But the control panel is configured for a cruising flight, and the oxygen masks are still stowed away. This means the flight crew was operating the aircraft in cruising flight and not responding to an emergency. Whatever happened had occurred without warning and with no time for the flight crew to respond.
Back in the town of Lockerbie, investigators identify even more parts of the main fuselage. Both wings and the middle structure of the cabin have all fallen onto the town. It’s no wonder that so many structures on the ground are completely destroyed: when those plane parts slammed into the town, they did so with a weight of about 150 tons and at a speed of over 500 knots (or 575 mph). When they hit, the massive energy wave sent 1500 tons of rock and earth blasting back out of the ground, creating a crater that tore through the southern edge of the town.
Because Pan Am Flight 103 was such an aged 747 aircraft (it was by then 18-years-old and had over 75,000 flying hours), investigators must rule out the possibility of any maintenance issues that would have caused an inflight breakup. But they rule this possibility out quickly when a break in the investigation leads them toward a much more sinister cause: sabotage, and specifically, a bomb.
Investigators Announce Pan Am 103 Crash Due to Bombing
Just days into the investigative efforts, markings consistent with a detonation are found on pieces of the plane’s metal baggage compartment rails, which are the compartments in the baggage hold that store passengers’ checked luggage while in flight. And when a second, even larger, piece of rail is found and tested in a British forensics lab, they find two chemicals on it that are consistent with bombs. On December 28, investigators hold a press conference and announce their findings to the world: Pan Am 103 was blown out of the sky by a terrorist’s bomb that detonated while the plane was at cruising altitude.
While the public was shocked and outraged to learn of a bomb, it was not a complete shock to intelligence communities around the world. Within 24 hours of the crash, several terrorist groups had claimed responsibility for the crash, heating up the investigation.
On December 5 (just 16 days prior to the attack), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a security bulletin saying that, on that day, a man with an Arabic accent had telephoned the US Embassy in Helsinki, Finland and told them that a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt to the US would be blown up within the next two weeks. Taking this seriously, the State Department notified dozens of embassies while the FAA sent it to all US carriers, including Pan Am. The airline seemed to be prepared – it had already put in place a $5 security surcharge on every passenger ticket, promising a “program that will screen passengers, employees, airport facilities, baggage and aircraft with unrelenting thoroughness”. Yet, despite any security measures being taken, this threat had materialized after all – many of the passengers who boarded Pan Am 103 in London on its way to New York had made their connection in Frankfurt.
Immediately, the criminal investigation seeks to understand how a bomb came to be placed on the flight, where it came from, and who was responsible for putting it there. And these turned out to be straightforward questions with extremely complex answers.
Investigators analyze the passenger manifest to identify any passenger who may have been the target of the bomb or responsible for bringing a bomb onboard. Two passengers catch the attention of the FBI, but they find no evidence that either passenger was the target or that either passenger had intentionally or unintentionally brought a bomb onboard. These conclusions lead the FBI to focus instead on how the bomb was made and where on the plane it had detonated.
Investigators Identify Source and Location of Pan Am Flight 103 Bomb Detonation
While carefully and diligently reassembling the plane using all the found fragments of debris, investigators discover that the blast that created the first hole in the fuselage had come from the forward luggage compartment, in a luggage container labeled AVE 4041. Based on the damage done to the luggage container, investigators deduce that the bomb was placed inside of a suitcase stored on the middle rack of the container.
Investigators next find remnants of a hard-sided Samsonite suitcase in the debris that shows evidence of being the origin of the blast. After following a trail of evidence related to baggage records, investigators trace the suitcase back to the tiny island of Malta, where it was first put on a plane to Frankfurt. Once in Frankfurt, it was then put on the same luggage container (AVE 4041) to London, where it was then placed onto Pan Am 103. The suitcase was also the only bag aboard Flight 103 that investigators could not tie to a specific passenger. And, to add to the mounting list of evidence and facts, this type of hard-sided suitcase had only been sold in the Middle East.
And then investigators find more evidence. Miles outside Lockerbie, they find a tiny fragment on the ground, no bigger than a thumbnail, that came from the circuit board of a radio/cassette player. Another small fragment, found embedded in a piece of shirt, helped identify the type of timing device used in the bomb. This evidence helped establish that a shirt had been wrapped around the radio containing the timing device. Then, the radio had been placed inside the shirt and put into the Samsonite suitcase, which in turn, was placed in the luggage container.
Pan Am Flight 103 Investigation Leads to Libyan Connection Based on Witness Accounts
Investigators trace the label on the shirt fragment to a shop in Malta, where the owner of the shop, Tony Gauci, recalls the man who bought the shirt just before the bombing. These pieces of evidence lead the FBI to suspect an alleged Libyan intelligence officer named Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, who had been in Malta the day before the blast. Al-Megrahi was also a security officer for Libyan Airlines at the airport in Malta, where the bomb suitcase originated from.
This connection then led to a second suspect allegedly working with Al-Megrahi at the airport in Malta named Lamen Khalifa Fhimah.
Police raided one of Fhimah’s properties and found his diary with an entry from December 15th (6 days prior to the bombing) that said: “Take tags from the Maltese Airline”. The word tags were underlined twice. He wrote in the notes section of the diary: “Bring the tags from the airport”.
Meanwhile, the FBI sent photographs of the circuit-board fragments to the CIA, who matched the Lockerbie timing device to ones found in 1986 by the CIA in Africa after an attempted coup that Libya was accused of backing. The CIA had established that all these timers had been made by a Swiss man named Edwin Bollier. His company, Mebo Telecommunications in Zurich, made electronic timers that have been used by the Libyan government to trigger explosions.
When questioned by authorities, Bollier confirmed the two fragments of electronic circuit board found in the T-shirt at Lockerbie indeed came from a timer he had sold to the Libyan government. His witness account provided an essential link between the Lockerbie bomb and the Libyans.
To some, this all made complete sense from the perspective of world affairs. In the early 1980s, in response to acts of terrorism sanctioned by the Libyan government, the US froze Libyan government assets and imposed a set of comprehensive trade and financial sanctions. Because of these actions, many felt Libya wanted to seek retribution on the US.
Pan Am Flight 103 Investigation Troubled as Authorities Prepare for the Trial of Two Suspects
Finally, in November 1991, and almost three years after the Lockerbie bombing, the US and Scotland simultaneously indict both al-Megrahi and Fhimah.
But Libya refuses to extradite the two men until they receive a guarantee the men will not be tried in either the US or the UK, and instead, would be tried in a court in a neutral country. Finally, in 1999, after 8 years and much political jockeying, Libya agrees to a trial to be held in a Scottish court in The Netherlands. And with that, the suspects are handed over to Scottish authorities.
But leading up to the trial, doubts surface over whether the detective work that led to the suspects’ arrests is credible enough to result in a conviction because the statements of several key witnesses begin to appear problematic. The first witness was Edwin Bollier, the man who told FBI agents that he had sold the timers to the Libyan government. Bollier allegedly made it clear that he would serve as a witness in court but added that he hoped the US could pay him for his efforts. But by the time of the trial a decade later, Bollier realized the U.S. government had no intention of paying him—and he changed his story. On the stand, he said the circuit board fragment found outside Lockerbie had been doctored to frame him.
The second key witness was Tony Gauci, the shopkeeper in Malta who allegedly identified Al-Megrahi as purchasing the same shirt found in the Pan Am wreckage by the FBI. On the stand, his motivations were questioned as many reported that Gauci had wanted compensation in exchange for his testimony. It later emerged that Gauci and his brother were paid $3m by the US government after he gave evidence – a deal not disclosed during the trial.
Even many of the Pan Am victims’ families felt that while Al-Megrahi may have had something to do with the bombing, they did not believe he acted alone. In fact, some families did not believe he was guilty at all, including Jim Swire, who lost his daughter Flora on Pan Am Flight 103 and became a vehement defender of the Al-Megrahi over time, believing the Libyan was a patsy.
Ultimately, despite the testimony of 235 witnesses and thousands of pieces of physical and documentary evidence, Al-Megrahi was jailed for life in 2001 after being found guilty of 270 counts of murder, while Fhimah was acquitted.
However, the verdict had admittedly been a close call, with the three judges acknowledging that the prosecution's case had "uncertainties and qualifications" and that key witnesses had repeatedly lied.
While Libya Accepts Responsibility for Pan Am 103 Bombing, Intelligence Agencies Point Finger Toward Iran
In 2009, al-Megrahi was released by the Scottish Government on compassionate grounds due to terminal prostate cancer. His release drew both condemnation and approval from the Pan Am families and the people of Lockerbie. Al-Megrahi died at home in Libya in 2012.
Meanwhile, supporters of Al-Megrahi’s innocence formed the Justice for Megrahi group, which over many years, appealed his conviction through the courts. During the most recent appeals case in January 2021, the Scottish Appeal Court rejected both grounds of appeal, and the appeal of conviction was refused.
In 2003, Muammar Gaddafi, then leader of Libya, accepted responsibility for the bombing and paid compensation to the victims' relatives, although he denied ordering the attack.
And here is where more problems with the investigation begin to come to light. While Libyan intelligence veterans have claimed that Gaddafi was behind Lockerbie and used Al-Megrahi to carry out the bombing, Iranian intelligence veterans just as adamantly pointed the finger at Tehran, Iran.
In fact, many intelligence agencies, including in the National Security Agency (NSA), were completely shocked at the implication of Libya. The NSA would later provide top-secret electronic intercepts which demonstrated that Tehran had commissioned a Palestinian terror group to down Pan Am 103, reportedly for a $10 million fee. Even Bob Baer, the veteran CIA officer, has stated that his agency believed just as unanimously as the NSA that Tehran was behind the bombing, and that within a year of the attack, the CIA assessed that Lockerbie was an Iranian operation executed by Syrian cut-outs. Their conclusions were shared by several allies with solid Middle Eastern insights, including Israeli intelligence. Many more thought the Lockerbie bombing was retribution for the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by a US naval ship in June of 1988, about a half-year before Lockerbie.
The Aviation Security Improvement Act of 1990 Comes from Pan Am 103 Lessons Learned
Despite feeling that not everyone who was involved had yet seen their day in court, the families were able to advocate tirelessly for aviation safety. In August 1989, less than one year following the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, President George H.W. Bush ordered the creation of a presidential commission to evaluate aviation security, beginning with Pan Am Flight 103. Less than one year after the commission was created, its report describes the lapses in security by Pan Am and the FAA. The report contained over 60 recommendations that formed the basis for the Aviation Security Improvement Act of 1990, which was unanimously passed by the U.S. Senate.
In December of 1991, Pan Am filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations. In April 1992, the civil trial against Pan Am by the relatives of the victims began, and in July, a Federal District Court jury finds Pan Am guilty of "willful misconduct".
It was found that, despite the $5 security charge on all passenger tickets to ensure a thorough inspection of all baggage, Pan Am had stopped conducting what is known as passenger/baggage reconciliation. This process made sure that only luggage associated with an actual passenger made its way onto a Pan Am plane that went through Heathrow. But Pan Am had stopped this process at Heathrow, and had done so without notifying the authorities, passengers, or any regulatory body.
Thirty Years Later, Pan Am 103 Victim’s Brother Leads Investigative Crusade to Identify Bomb Maker
And to wrap up, we close out with an amazing update from 2020. Thirty-two years after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, new charges were brought against a man suspected of making the bomb that took down the plane – former Libyan intelligence officer Abu Agela Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi.
And what is amazing about these charges is how they came about: through the investigative work of filmmaker Ken Dornstein whose brother, David, was killed in the Pan Am bombing. Since Lockerbie, Dornstein has dedicated his life to searching for the truth. As a journalist, he pored over travel records and video archives and even went around the world to track down those responsible for his brother's death. In his 2015 Frontline documentary series "My Brother's Bomber," he revealed links that eventually led to the indictment of Mas'ud as the suspected bomb maker.
In an interview with NPR about Dornstein’s investigation, he was asked, if he could get the chance to speak with Mas'ud, what would he say? Dornstein’s reply perhaps reflects why it was so important to so many victims’ families to keep digging for the whole truth. He said: “…I wanted him to know that you couldn't lie and deny forever and that someone would care enough to point out the truth. And I wanted him to know in this case that that was me.”
And THAT is part one of the incredible story of the bombing and subsequent investigation of Pan Am Flight 103.