A man stole a small aircraft at gunpoint Sunday and flew it over downtown Frankfurt, circling skyscrapers and threatening to crash into the European Central Bank. He landed safely after two hours and was arrested.
While two military jets and a police helicopter shadowed the plane, the hijacker told officials and journalists in contact with him by radio and cell phone that he wanted to call attention to Judith Resnik, a U.S. astronaut killed in the 1986 post-launch explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
Thousands of people were evacuated from the city's main railway station, two opera houses and several skyscrapers.
Police identified the man as a 31- or 32-year-old from Darmstadt, 25 miles south of Frankfurt. TV and radio stations identified him as Franz-Stephan Strambach, a student.
"I want to make my great idol Judith Resnik famous with this," he said in a call from the plane to a TV station. "She deserves more attention. She was the first Jewish astronaut, and maybe that's why she isn't really considered."
Although the military jets following the plane were armed, Germany has no legal mechanism that allows the chancellor, or any other government official, to order a shoot-down of a hostile civilian aircraft, officials said. The government recently set up an airspace security working group to examine the issue.
Though the man told TV he didn't want to harm anyone, he threatened to commit suicide once his fuel ran out. He finally landed at Frankfurt's international airport, where flights were halted during the drama.
The man stole the plane from an airfield in Babenhausen, southeast of Frankfurt. He threatened a pilot at gunpoint, said Axel Raab, a spokesman for the German air safety agency.
Strambach's name appears as the Web master of an Internet site devoted to Resnik, with links documenting her career, death and efforts to remember her, including the position of an asteroid named after her.