21st December 1988

Pan Am flight 103 bombed over Lockerbie

Pan American Airlines flight 103 was a regular, scheduled service plying the route between Frankfurt and Detroit. The service wasn’t direct, and required passengers to change planes in London. Here, they left the Boeing 727 that had carried them from Germany and boarded a larger 747-121 called Clipper Maid of the Seas. This would undertake the trans-Atlantic leg of the journey, and call at New York on its way to Detroit.

Memorial to the victims of the Lockerbie bombing
Memorial to the victims of the Lockerbie bombing

Final flight

Clipper Maid of the Seas took off for the final time just after 6pm on 21 December 1988, and made its last contact with air traffic control just under an hour later. As the plane passed over Lockerbie, 58 minutes into its flight, a bomb exploded in a suitcase, which had been packed into the cargo hold. The aircraft was destroyed, and its 243 passengers and 16 crew, plus 11 residents of Lockerbie, were killed as it crashed to the ground.

The disaster was front page news around the world. The following morning’s Daily Mirror ran the headline “Jumbo crashes on town: 300 die in fireball”, explaining that “the crashing plane demolished two rows of houses in the sleepy border town”, and that “eye-witnesses said the jumbo… broke into two parts, scattering wreckage over 18 miles before the front fuselage and wings plunged into a housing estate… the aircraft smashed down houses and then skidded along a road for at least half a mile into the town, carving out a huge crater.”

Explosion analysed

Subsequent analysis revealed that the explosion had opened a 50cm hole in the aircraft’s fuselage. A hole of that size would have caused the cabin to immediately depressurise at high altitude.

Three seconds later, the front section of the aircraft broke away from the rest of the fuselage. The plane began a sharp descent that became steeper and steeper until it was vertical. There is speculation that some passengers might still have been alive when it hit the ground, despite falling from 31,000ft.

The wreckage was scattered across several thousand square kilometres, but much of the aircraft was reconstructed in an effort to find out what had brought it down. It was eventually determined that it had been a bomb in a radio, which had been packed in a suitcase and transferred onto the Clipper Maid of the Seas, most likely at Heathrow.

Investigation and trial

An investigation was immediately launched by the FBI, in partnership with Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary, which concluded three years later that the bomb had been planted by two Libyan nationals, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah. They were handed over for trial, and al-Megrahi was found guilty and jailed.

Several permanent memorials to the victims of the Lockerbie bombing have been erected, including one at Dryfesdale, close to Lockerbie, bearing the names of those who lost their lives both on the aircraft and in the town.



Other events that occured in December

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