Lockerbie: 33 years on from Britain’s worst terrorist incident

The cockpit on Tundergarth Hill, Lockerbie

33 years today at 19:02 local time Pan Am Boeing 747 crashed into the small Scottish borders town of Lockerbie killing 270 people. This was no accident though and even today questions are still being asked about who really brought down Flight 103.

The aircraft, Boeing 747-100 N739PA “Clipper Maid of the Seas” departed London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR/EGLL )at 18:35L for its transatlantic flight to New York’s JFK airport (JFK/KJFK).

As it climbed out across England it reached its cruising altitude of 31,000ft just south of the Scottish border.

The last contact with the aircraft was on the radar at 19:02L where it showed at FL310 (31,000ft) on a heading 316°(m). It was at this time when a bomb exploded in the cargo hold blowing a 20″ hole in the front left of the aircraft fuselage.

Due to the explosion happening in a pressurised environment the effects of the bomb were enhanced and just 8 seconds after the explosion the aircraft was in a flying debris field over a mile wide.

The flight deck of Pan Am 103 being inspected by Investigators
The flight deck of Pan Am 103 being inspected by Investigators

The aircraft itself broke into four main sections. the nose and forward cabin of the aircraft sheared off and remained largely intact until it hit the ground Tundergarth Hill just outside the town of Lockerbie.

The tail section broke off and disintegrated and caused what was known as the southern wreckage trail. The section between the tail and wing box cause the northern wreckage trail. These stretched almost to the east coast of England.

The central wingbox section and fuselage was the deadliest for the town of Lockerbie. The fuselage to the rear wingbox containing three of the main landing gear units landed on houses in Rosebank Crescent causing massive damage.

The wingbox and wings, containing most of the aircraft’s fuel, landed on Sherwood Crescent. On impact, it exploded vaporising houses in a large impact crater and killing 11 people.

All 259 people on board the aircraft were killed as well as the 11 Lockerbie residents.

Sherwood Crescent, Lockerbie
Sherwood Crescent, Lockerbie

Many people suspected that the atrocity was carried out by Iran in a revenge attack for the shooting down of an Iranian airliner early in the same year but after years of investigation charges were laid against two Libyan men who were members of Libyan Intelligence.

The trial of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah began 2000 with both men protesting their innocence.

Fhimah was acquitted in 2001 but al-Megrahi was found guilty of the murder of 270 people and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 27 years.

n the period following his conviction al-Megrahi continued to claim he was innocent and a series of independent investigations raised serious questions over the safety of the conviction and even the evidence used to convict him.

In 2007 Information obtained for review made by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) saw the matter referred to the high court after it discovered serious issues with the safety of the conviction including withheld evidence.

Al-Megrahi was released in 2009 on compassionate ground after he had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. As a result, his 2nd appeal was withdrawn.

He died in 2012.

Rows of passenger seats collected in Lockerbie
Rows of passenger seats collected in Lockerbie

Appeal by al-Megrahi Family

The SCCRC has now said that the al-Megrahi family may launch a posthumous appeal based on the evidence in its report which showed that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred.

Al-Megrahi has also had the backing and support of many of the families of the victims of Pan Am 103, particularly Dr Jim Swire whose daughter Flora was killed in the tragedy.

A panel of five judges at Edinburgh’s High Court considered the appeal and in January this year, ruled that Al-Megrahi was properly convicted.

Al-Megrahi’s family asked for leave to appeal the matter further before the UK Supreme Court but in April, this was rejected with Lord Carloway, the Lord Justice General, saying that the court “has had some difficulty in understanding the exact nature of the challenge”.

He added, “Although the case is clearly one of public importance, the proposed grounds of appeal do not raise points of law of general public importance.”

“The principles of law which the court applied were all well known, settled and largely uncontroversial in the appeal.

“For these reasons, the court refuses permission to appeal to the UK Supreme Court.”

New Suspect

In December 2020, the US State Department announced new charges against another Libyan national, Abu Agila Mohammad Masud who it says made the bomb that destroyed the aircraft.

As of today, Masud has not been arrested or extradited and no serious effort has been made to obtain his detention.

Memorial at Lockerbie Cemetery
Memorial at Lockerbie Cemetery


The wreckage of Pan Am 103 still lays in a scrapyard in Lincolnshire where the owner is paid a fee to store the wreckage by the insurance companies.

The wreckage of Pan Am 103
This article was originally written in 2020 but has been updated for 2021.
About Nick Harding 1948 Articles
Nick is the senior reporter and editor at UK Aviation News as well as working freelance elsewhere. He has his finger firmly on the pulse on Aviation, not only in the UK but worldwide. Nick has been asked to speak in a professional capacity on LBC, Heart and other broadcast networks.

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