Michel Bacos, the pilot of the Air France flight from Tel Aviv which was hijacked in 1976 and landed in Entebbe, has died at age 95.
Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice, where Bacos lived, announced the news on social media on Tuesday.
“He refused to abandon his passengers, who were taken hostage because they were Israeli or of Jewish origin, risking his own life,” Estrosi wrote. “Michel bravely refused to surrender to antisemitism and barbarism and brought honor to France.”
President Reuven Rivlin said Wednesday that Bacos was “a quiet hero and a true friend of the Jewish people. May his memory be a blessing.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that the pilot “stayed with the hostages through all their hardships, until IDF soldiers – led by my brother Yoni z”l – freed him in a daring operation. I bow my head in his memory and salute the Michel’s bravery.”
On June 27, 1976, Bacos was the captain of Air France Flight 139, from Tel Aviv to Paris, with a stop in Athens. After the plane departed Greece, four hijackers took control of the cockpit and forced Bacos at gunpoint to head for Benghazi, Libya, and then Entebbe, Uganda.
The terrorist “sat behind me with his gun pointed at my head,” Bacos told Ynet in 2016. “Every time I tried to look in a different direction, he pressed the barrel of his gun against my neck.”
Several days later, the terrorists split up the hostages between those who were Israeli or Jewish and those who were not. Bacos demanded the hijackers give him access to both groups.
“‘I’m responsible for all of the passengers and demand to be able to see all of them – be they Israeli or not – at any given moment.’” he recounted to Ynet. “I insisted, and the Germans agreed. I was able to go from one hall to the other without receiving permission, every time.”
A few days after that, the hijackers were planning to let Bacos, the rest of his crew and the remaining non-Jewish hostages go. But he refused.
“I gathered my crew and told them there was no way we were going to leave – we were staying with the passengers to the end,” he said. “The crew refused to leave, because this was a matter of conscience, professionalism, and morality. As a former officer in the Free French Forces, I couldn’t imagine leaving behind not even a single passenger.”
After the successful rescue by the IDF, Bacos was repeatedly honored for his heroic actions. That year he was awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest decoration. In 2008 he was honored by B’nai Brith International, and in 2016 by the American Jewish Committee. Bacos visited Israel several times after the incident, attending memorial ceremonies for Lt.-Col. Yoni Netanyahu, who was killed in the operation.
Bacos continued to fly with Air France for six more years, before retiring in 1982 at age 58. He is survived by his wife, Rosemary, three children and several grandchildren.
Tributes to Bacos began to pour in on Wednesday as news of his death spread.
“He refused to leave the Jewish passengers behind and stayed with them until they were rescued by the IDF,” wrote Dani Dayan, the Israeli consul-general to New York. “He passed away in France at the age of 95. We salute you, Captain.”
AJC said that it was “saddened to learn of the passing of Michel Bacos, the Air France pilot who heroically refused to abandon Jewish hostages after his plane was hijacked to Entebbe. We honored him with the AJC Moral Courage Award at Global Forum 2016. May his memory be for a blessing.”
The Israeli Airline Pilots Association wrote that “this dear man passed away today after a long life. The pilots of the State of Israel salute Captain Bacos.”