On this day in 1988 the aircraft bearing tail-number N739PA, operating the transatlantic leg of Pan Am Flight 103, was destroyed by a bomb killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew aboard; included on this manifest were 35 Syracuse University students returning home for the holidays. In what became known as the Lockerbie bombing, large sections of the aircraft also rained down onto residential areas of Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 11 additional victims on the ground.
Pan Am Flight 103 was a regularly scheduled transatlantic flight from Frankfurt to Detroit via London and New York. Authorities accused Islamic terrorists of having placed the bomb on a plane at the low-security airport in Malta, with it transferred to Flight 103 in Frankfurt, Germany. In London, passengers and luggage were deplaned and transferred in turn to the Clipper Maid of the Seas, a 1970-manufacture 747.
Investigators apparently believed the attack was in retaliation for either the 1986 US bombing attack on Libya , or a 1988 incident in which the US killed 290 passengers when it mistakenly shot down an Iran Air commercial flight over the Persian Gulf. The plot was ultimately traced to Libya, and in 2001, Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was jailed for life after being found guilty of 270 counts of murder in connection with the bombing. In August 2009, he was released by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died in May 2012, the only person to be convicted for the attack.
In 2003, Muammar Gaddafi accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and paid compensation to the families of the victims, though he maintained he had never given the order for the attack. During the Libyan Civil War in 2011, a former government official claimed that the Libyan leader had personally ordered the bombing, though this was later denied.