1977 MH653 Tragedy

Many Malaysians probably do not remember how deep MH653 flight incident has shaped Malaysian aviation history. Prior to 4 December 1977, Malaysia Airlines Flight 653 is a regularly-scheduled passenger flight from Penang to Kuala Lumpur. However, on that day, the plane was hijacked. It eventually crashed into a mangrove swamp in Johor after failing to land at Kuala Lumpur (Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah International Airport, Subang).

The perpetrators of the hijack have never been identified until today, resulting in MH 653 is one of the greatest aviation mystery of all time.


MH 653 Passengers

A total of 100 lives onboard perished during the crash. Out of 100, 7 of them are crew members and another 93 are passengers. A number of high-profile figures board the plane.

The Aircraft

The aircraft is a Boeing 737-200, registered to Malaysian Airlines System – MAS, bearing the registration number 9M-MBD. The aircraft made its first flight on 12 September 1972.

  • Registration: 9M-MBD
  • Type: Boeing 737-2H6
  • MSN: 306
  • First Flight: 12 September 1972
  • Engines: 2 Pratt & Whitney JT8D-15

The Crew Members

G. K Ganjoor – Captain – age: 43 yrs, married four children. With MAS since MSA days (1971). Trained in Seattle after joining MAS. Total flying hours 15,500.

Kamarulzaman Jalil – First Officer – age: 25 yrs. Single. Joined MAS 4th June, 1974. Promoted to B737 4th October 1976. Trained in Curug, Indonesia. Total flying hours 1,866. With Royal Military College 1970-72.

Karim Tahir – Steward

Onn Jaafar – Steward

Sharifah Sidah Syed Mohamad – Stewardess

Azian Borhanuddin – Stewardess

The Passengers

Datuk Sri Haji Ali bin Haji Ahmad – Agricultural Minister

Tan Sri Mahfuz Khalid – Director-General, Public Works Department

Datuk Haji Khalid Mohamad – Director, Kerja Raya Bahagian Tentera

Abu Bakar Othman Merican – Deputy Director, Fisheries Department

Hood Fadzil – Political Secretary to Datuk Sri Haji Ali

Mario Garcia Inchaustegui and wife – Cuban Ambassador to Malaysia

The Flight

7:21 PM: The aircraft departed from Penang International Airport with its destination set to Kuala Lumpur Airport, Subang. There were 93 passengers and 7 crew members on board.

7:46 PM: The airplane is now at Batu Arang airspace at the height of 4,000 ft.

7:47 PM: The pilot informed Control Tower, “653 going around” and the control tower replied “653 cleared to land, surface wind calm”. The MH 653 pilot then informed “we have a hijacker on board”.

7:49 PM: MH 653: “Maintaining 3,000 coming over Kuala Lumpur (beacon) in 2 minutes, hijacker on board”. The control tower replied, “Cleared to land on Runway 33 with no delay”

Hijacking

Approximately at 7:54 PM, while the aircraft was descending towards Runway 33 of Subang Airport, Subang Tower was alerted about hijacker’s presence on board. The aircraft was descending at an altitude of 4,000 feet.

Emergency preparations were made at Subang Airport, anticipating the worst. However, the aircraft did not land at the airport as the hijacker demanded to be flown to Singapore. Then, the aircraft climbed to 21,000 ft altitude and proceeded towards Singapore.

As the aircraft flies through Johorean airspace, the aircraft disappeared from radar. The hijacker reportedly shot both pilots and then himself.

Data from the cockpit voice recorder shows that there was no sound coming from the cockpit while there is a noise consistent with an effort to break the cockpit’s door.

As the aircraft continues the journey towards Singapore, the aircraft carried out unusual pitch up and pitch down manoeuvres. The aircraft disappeared from radar while en route to Singapore. It crashed at a mangrove swamp area in Tanjung Kupang, Johor.

The aircraft crashed with high-speed at a nearly vertical angle.

Immediate reaction

It was 8:36 PM when the residents of Kampong Ladang, Tanjung Kupang, Johor heard a loud explosion and saw burning wreckage in a swamp.

All remains were scanned with xray to look for any weapon or projectile but none was found.

Aftermath

A report by Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) concluded that the crash happened because the crew members were fatally incapacitated and the aircraft was not professionally controlled afterwards.

The Malaysian government has decided to bury the remains of the victims together in a mass grave. Due to the burial nature, religious figures from various religions were present at the venue. A Jewish rabbi was present too, according to the sources from PPrune. The mass grave is now known as Tanjung Kupang memorial at Jalan Kebun Teh. The memorial is known as Taman Peringatan Tanjung Kupang and it was built by Johor State Government on 8 December 1977, 4 days after the incident.

A dig on the pilots’ network revealed another story regarding the captain and a passenger as told by Captain Wooblah in PPRuNe:

It was a long time ago but if memory serves me correctly there were two separate incidents separated by approximately one year involving the same minister and his bodyguard. In the first incident Babu stood his ground and the flight was delayed approx one hour and the weapon was finally placed in the locker.

Referring to the second fateful incident it was indeed the same passengers inflicting the same problem. And if memory serves me correctly again it was not his Birthday but rather his wedding anniversary hence his reluctance to delay the flight. Further to this I believe that the first incident approx a year earlier was quite ugly and did cause some repercussions to the staff members involved. who, I must add did the right thing.

Possible causes

There are several possible causes. According to the sources, no one can determine the real cause of the crash. While the presence of a hijacker/team of hijackers can be confirmed, their identity remains unknown. Listed below are the theories surrounding the crash:

Involvement of the Japanese Red Army: This theory has been denied by Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie, the Home Minister at that time

Involvement of Vietnamese militants: This theory was proposed because of the apprehension of 3 militant members by Singapore after the hijacking of Air Vietnam DC3 before the MH653 incident. There is a possibility that the Vietnamese militants hijacked MH653 to free the 3 arrested members.

Hijacking by the opposition of Cuban opposition: This is because of the presence of Cuban Ambassador to Malaysia on board. However, this theory does not have a strong ground.

Decades after

On March 31st 2014, Ruth Parr said she has not known the truth. Parr was 19 when her father, Thomas, died in the crash.

Sources have said that the official report of the incident is still available at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Central Library:

Title: Aircraft accident report 1/78 : Boeing 737 9M-MBD report 1/78, accident near Gelang Patah, Negeri Johor on 4th Dec, 1977 / Chief Inspector of Accidents, Civil Aviation Department, Malaysia.
Imprint Kuala Lumpur : Government Printing Dept., 1978.
Call #: TL553.5 Aic

Sources

  1. CNN report written by Pamela Boykoff and Saima Mohsin
  2. ASN page about the aircraft involved, 9M-MBD
  3. The Star article about MH653 Flight Incident memory
  4. Tragedi Tanjung Kupang 1977 – Iluminasi
  5. Tragedi MH653 – sejarah.my
  6. Hijacked MAS flight 653 – PPRuNe
  7. Hijacked airman’s family still suffering 37 years after crash – NZ Herald

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