In 1980, Operation Eagle Claw is aborted after a fatal helicopter crash, with the U.S. Delta Force evacuating to their C-130 transports. Among them is Captain Scott McCoy, who, against orders, rescues his wounded comrade, Peterson, from the burning helicopter before the team finally evacuates. McCoy expresses his disgust for the politicians and the military hierarchy that forced the mission to launch despite the risks, and announces his resignation.
Five years later, in 1985 a group of Lebanese terrorists hijack American Travelways Airlines Flight 282, a Boeing 707 flying from Cairo to New York City via Athens and Rome. Taking all 144 passengers and crew hostage on the Athens-Rome leg, the pro-Khomeini New World Revolutionary Organization (based on Hezbollah), led by two terrorists named Abdul Rafai and Mustafa, force Captain Roger Campbell and his crew to fly the 707 to Beirut, where they make demands to the United States government that, if not met, will result in the death of each of the hostages. During the crisis, they segregate the Jewish passengers from the Americans by forcing a reluctant flight purser of German heritage named Ingrid Harding to identify them. A Catholic priest, William O'Malley, joins the Jews in solidarity. Unbeknownst to the authorities, the Jewish hostages are then taken off the plane and transported to a militant-controlled area of Beirut, while a dozen additional henchmen are brought on board.
The flight departs for Algiers, where the terrorists release the female hostages and children. Meanwhile, Delta Force, led by Colonel Nick Alexander and a recalled-to-duty and newly promoted-to-Major McCoy are deployed to resolve the crisis. Once the female hostages are evacuated, they launch their assault, only to discover too late that there are additional hijackers on board. When the Delta Force blow their cover, Abdul kills a U.S. Navy Diver named Tom Hale. He then forces the pilots to return to Beirut and takes the remaining male passengers with him.
Upon returning to Beirut, the terrorists transport the passengers to a separate location, while the pilots and two male flight attendants remain in the 707. Working with a sympathetic Greek Orthodox priest, Israeli Army Intelligence prepares an operation to free the hostages. McCoy and Peterson are able to enter into Lebanon disguised as a Canadian television crew. In a prolonged campaign against the terrorists, the Delta Force bide their time to identify the terrorist leaders and locate the hostages. Once the hostages are located, Delta Force assaults the terrorist holdouts, freeing the hostages and evacuating them to the airport. During the battle, McCoy, Peterson, and their team hunt for Abdul and the Jewish hostages. They kill most of the militants but Abdul gravely injures Peterson and flees. While the commandos tend to Peterson, McCoy chases Abdul and tracks him down to an abandoned home. He then engages him in a vicious hand-to-hand fight, breaking Abdul's arm. As the terrorist leader prepares to shoot McCoy, he is killed when McCoy launches a rocket into his car.
With the hostages and rescue teams secured, the team seizes Flight 282 by secretly infiltrating the airfield through a cotton plantation. Using silenced weapons, Alexander and the Delta team kill the terrorist guards and save the crew. They board the 707 with all of the hostages, taking off to Israel just as McCoy storms the runway on his motorcycle; managing to board after destroying several terrorist jeeps. On board, the team tends to the wounded passengers and the dying Peterson. After having confirmed the hostages are safe and en route home, Peterson says his farewells to McCoy before succumbing to his wounds. In the main cabin the ex-hostages and Delta commandos join together in a rousing rendition of "America The Beautiful", not knowing about Peterson's death, except for Alexander, Bobby, McCoy, and O'Malley. In Israel, the Boeing 707 lands safely and the hostages are greeted by their families, while Delta Force disembarks with Peterson's body in tow to their C-130. The team concludes their operation and departs for the United States amidst celebrations by the people.
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