The pilot of the Egyptian airliner carrying the hijackers of the Achille Lauro tried to radio home for instructions after being surrounded by U.S. F14 fighters, but a Navy jamming plane waiting in ambush blocked out his voice, Pentagon officials disclosed yesterday.
When he could get no instructions from higher authority, the pilot took the safe way out and agreed to land his 737 airliner at Sigonella air base on the Italian island of Sicily, rather than continue on to Tunisia or fly back to Cairo, defense officials said.
"He didn't have the quarter he needed to call home," one administration official joked.
Defense officials painted a picture of a harried Egyptian pilot switching from one channel to another trying to find one clear enough to reach Cairo through Athens or any other relay facilities.
The pilot managed to get some communications out over his radios at the first stage of the interception, but officials speculate that the jamming added to his perplexity as he sat in the cockpit while the F14 Tomcats ganged up on him in the darkness last Thursday night.
Neither Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger nor his spokesmen named the jamming aircraft when listing the planes involved in the intercept last week. The unheralded plane was the Grumman EA6B Prowler from the carrier USS Saratoga, defense sources said. The EA6B carries long "canoes" full of jamming equipment under its belly.
The EA6B ordinarily carries a crew of one pilot and two electronic countermeasures officers, called Ecmos, who not only jam target aircraft and missile sites but also eavesdrop on radio communications. The Ecmos in the EA6B sent up from the Saratoga to help carry out the intercept tuned in on the radio frequencies the Egyptian pilot was using and sent out bursts of energy to jam them, officials said.
In addition to blocking or distorting communications from the airliner, such jamming sent radio squeals into the Egyptian pilot's ears, sources said. The semi-official Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram said the 737 pilot had radioed Athens at ll:55 p.m. Egyptian time (5:55 p.m. EDT) that he had been intercepted by fighter planes. Athens relayed the message to Cairo, according to Al Ahram, and then communications from the 737 stopped. According to two Israeli airline pilots flying in the area at the time, the Egyptian pilot's message was: "Two military jet fighters are intercepting us and directing us toward Italy."
The Saratoga's F14 pilots were under orders not to take any hostile action if the airliner refused to follow them but to wait for a second set of orders that would come to the carrier from Washington.
In another bit of electronic gamesmanship, a radio ham operator snared part of a conversation between President Reagan and Weinberger while they were aloft on Thursday afternoon in separate planes. They were talking about about the advisability of conducting the intercept of the Egyptian airliner. Their conversations were not scrambled, as is the usual practice.
Pentagon officials said yesterday the scrambling equipment on Reagan's plane was not broken, but could not explain why Reagan and Weinberger talked in the clear.
"This will destroy our relations with Egypt," Weinberger warned Reagan, according to a quote from that radio conversation reported by Newsweek magazine.
The Pentagon refused to deny or confirm the authenticity of that quote. It issued this formal statement about the conversation between Reagan and Weinberger: "The secretary provided the president his advice, both pro and con, prior to the president making the decision. The secretary was in full agreement and carried it out without reservation."