Dutch airline KLM celebrates turning 100 years on Monday, a significant milestone for what is officially the world's oldest airline.

One event that is hardly being mentioned in celebrations, however, is how Maltese Prime Minister Dom Mintoff saved it from what could have been the darkest chapter in its history – the hijacking of a jumbo jet with 247 passengers on board in November 1973.

The Boeing 747 was flying from Amsterdam to Tokyo with a stop in Beirut when it was hijacked over Iraq by three young Arab men. It was the beginning of a nightmare crisscross flight above the Middle East.

Since no country would grant them landing permission, the hijackers threatened to blow up the plane.

"That the (Dutch) capital escaped from this disaster was only thanks to the fact that the Arabs finally gained landing permission on the island of Malta," the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf reported many years later.

It was claimed at the time, however, that no landing permission had actually been granted by Malta. That is likely, since the only runway Malta had at the time was too small to handle jumbo jets.  That the aircraft managed to land here was something of a feat in itself. 

The giant aircraft was parked a few hundred metres from the terminal building, drawing many aviation enthusiasts to the airport.

Dom Mintoff went to the control tower and personally handled negotiations with the hijackers, who were demanding fuel and threatening to kill passengers.  

He also told them that he had spoken to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who told him they did not represent anyone and were just young people acting on their own.

"You have no friends, and I am your only friend at the moment. I am trying to help you out but now I am determined to help you only as much as you help me," Mr Mintoff was heard to say on two-way radios.

At this juncture, an interpreter told Mr Mintoff that he would not repeat certain words he had told the hijackers because he feared the gunmen would get furious.

The gunmen did get furious when Col Gaddafi was mentioned. They said the Libyans had treated them badly "not like you."

Mintoff agreed to give the hijackers half of the fuel they had requested once they released half of the passengers on board. Once that fuel was pumped on board, the hijackers released the remaining passengers and the remaining fuel was given to them.

The hijackers also asked for an Egyptian consul to replace the passengers as a hostage, but the KLM senior vice president for operations, A.W. Witholt, offered himself as hostage and was allowed on the aircraft.

The passengers, mostly Japanese, were released during the night between November 26-27 - coming down chutes from the plane because Malta did not have aircraft stairs high enough for a Boeing 747.

They were taken to the Verdala Hotel to rest and recover from their ordeal.

Mr Mintoff was later praised for the tough way he had negotiated with the hijackers.

At one time, after the hijackers had agreed to release the passengers, he also requested the release of the air hostesses.

He was heard on the radio telling the hijackers that the hostesses were only of use to them to make tea.

Eventually the hijackers relented, telling Mr Mintoff that in view of his invaluable help, they were overlooking everything, including their instructions not to release the hostesses, and they were also allowed to disembark.

Mr Mintoff then demanded to be told where the hijackers intended to go. They refused, but eventually agreed to tell him in confidence and he told them he would see to it that they reached their destination in safely.

The aircraft left Malta early on November 27.

It flew to Dubai where the hijackers handed over the plane and their remaining hostages in return for safe passage out of the country.