Neerja Bhanot saved lives. It’s not a name that many people know. But it belongs to one of the bravest and selfless women ever to get on an airplane. Allow us to introduce you to the heroine who lost her life protecting three children, as they escaped from a hijacked plane.

Neerja Bhanot was the Senior Flight Purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to the United States on the September 5th, 1986. The plane carried 380 passengers and 13 crew members. It started as a flight like any other, but quickly turned into a living nightmare when the plane landed for a scheduled stop at the Karachi airport in Pakistan. While on this scheduled stop, four armed men illegally boarded, and hijacked the plane.

The Hijacking

The armed gunmen belonged to the Abu Nidal Organization, a terrorist group that targeted American citizens. When the hijacking began, the terrorists located one Indian American citizen, and unfortunately, shot him dead. They then demanded that Bhanot hand over all of the passports, so they could identify and kill the remaining American passengers on board. Bhanot, in a courageous act of defiance, grabbed the passports and dropped them down a garbage chute. This way the hijackers could no longer tell which of the passengers were American.

After 17 hours, Bhanot still refused to help the terrorist find the Americans on board. The hijackers became furious, and began to open fire at the passengers. Bhanot acted quickly, opening one of the airplane doors, and escorted almost all of the passengers to safety.

“She was guiding the passengers to the emergency exit. That is when the terrorists were firing constantly fearing a commando attack. They saw Neerja relentlessly trying to help the passengers out and that is when they caught her by her ponytail and shot her point blank.”

( Surviving passenger)

Neerja Bhanot Saved Lives

Only two were lost in the hijacking out of 44 American passengers, . And Neerja’s bravery does not stop there. When the plane was first commandeered, Bhanot realized that if these terrorists could get the plane airborne, they could potentially hurt hundreds if not thousands of people. At the first sign of trouble Neerja risked her life by alerting the cockpit. This allowed the pilots time to evacuate from the plane, and prevented the plane from getting off the ground. During the time of her death, Neerja Bhanot saved lives by using her body to shelter three children from the gunfire. Neerja was recognized internationally as “the heroine of the hijacking.” She became the youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra Award, which is India’s most prestigious award for bravery during peacetime.

The Indian Postal Service created a stamp to celebrate Neerja in 2004. While this was an incredible honor, Neerja’s family wanted to make sure that her courage could go on to inspire as many people as possible. Her family opened up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust, after her passing. This trust presents two awards every year. A flight crewmember from around the world who acts beyond the call of duty was given one. The second, the Neerja Bhanot Award, is presented to an Indian woman who stands strong in the face of social injustice. The Special Courage Award was given to Neerji Bhanot and the rest of the flight attendants, as well as the flight director of Pan Am, by the United States Department of Justice, in 2006.

The Film Production

Neerja was turned into a movie in 2016 because the world was so touched by Bhanot’s story. Written by Saiwyn Quadras, and directed by Ram Madhvani. Sonam Kapoor was filmed in Hindi and held the honor of playing the role of “Head Purser,” Neerja Bhanot. The actress received a special mention, the National Award, for her portrayal in the film in 2017.

What Neerja Bhanot did is nothing short of a miracle. In the face of certain danger, she was able to find the courage to act. Her heroism saved hundreds of people, and has gone on to inspire thousands of more. Neerja Bhanot is proof, that at our best, we are resilient, courageous, and brave. We can beat the odds, and accomplish anything.


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