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Skyjacking in Vietnam: P3 – Tracking down perpetrators of 1978 DC4 hijack

Tuesday, November 28, 2017, 11:26 GMT+7

An investigation uncovered the mastermind behind the attempted hijacking of a commercial plane as well as his accomplices.

>> Skyjacking in Vietnam: P2 – 52-minute life-and-death ordeal

>> Skyjacking in Vietnam: P1 – First hijackers

Following a 52-minute ordeal on June 28, 1978, in which crew members, flight attendants and guards resisted the plane’s hijackers, four of the men were killed, before the plane landed at Da Nang Airport.

Chau Dinh Dung died on the spot after the grenade he had thrown at the cockpit door bounced back and detonated next to him.

As the plane approached Da Nang Airport to land, realizing their plot had failed, two of the hijackers, Tran Van Thao and Chenh Senh Cong recklessly jumped from the exit door of the jet.

Perhaps intending to make their escape via the Cam Le River, they ended up dead on Cam Le Bridge instead.

Another hijacker, Chau Dinh Kinh, jumped to his death on the runway at Da Nang Airport as the plane was taxiing after landing.

Earlier, upon receiving the captain’s hijack alert and emergency request for permission to return to Da Nang Airport, the combat force, officers and canine police from the municipal Department of Public Security lay in wait.

As soon as the jet came to a complete stop, the rescue squads moved in.

“Hijackers! Drop your weapons if you want to spare your lives. Raise both hands and walk down one by one,” they urged on loudspeakers.

The perpetrators then silently walked down and accepted their fate.

The injured were rushed to hospital while local police gathered evidence for their investigation. 

“One of the hijackers, who held me at gunpoint, was a frequent flyer who had secretly observed the crew and midair guards before,” Huynh Thu Cuc, one of the two air hostesses on the flight, said.

While feigning unconsciousness on the floor, she heard the voice of another hidden hijacker telling his underlings to coerce Ngo Kim Thanh, the other stewardess, into getting the cockpit crew to open their door.        

Cam Le Bridge in Da Nang as it is today, where two of the hijackers jumped to their deaths from the seized jet on June 28, 1978, Photo: Tuoi Tre
Cam Le Bridge in Da Nang as it is today, where two of the hijackers jumped to their deaths from the seized jet on June 28, 1978, Photo: Tuoi Tre

Who was the mastermind?

Colonel Nam Ha, now 89, former deputy director of the Department of Public Security in then-Quang Nam-Da Nang Province, said that he had led the investigation into the unprecedented case.

An important clue lay in a plaster statue of late President Ho Chi Minh.

No one aboard the seized flight admitted to taking the statue there, until a boy aged seven or eight said that the object was his.

The boy’s testimony shed light on multiple questions surrounding the case.

He was the son of Nguyen Van An, a sapper captain under the former Saigon regime who resided in Cam Le District.

A thorough check of the list of passengers on the flight revealed that a man named Ly Quang, who lived in Hoa Vang District, was on board at the time of the hijacking.

However, Quang stayed home that day as he had lost his papers.

Col. Ha and his team subsequently reached the conclusion that An had used the papers he had stolen from Quang to board the flight.     

When the grenade was detonated on An’s command, several passengers, including An himself and his three children, were injured.

From An, investigators established links to his accomplices, including Suong – An’s wife, Hue, Mai and Son.

An later admitted to conspiring to hijack the plane and attempting to force them to divert to Hong Kong to gain political asylum, according to Col. Ha.

An met Chau Dinh Kinh in early June, 1978, and the two agreed on a plot before luring potential accomplices.

An cut a plaster statue of late President Ho Chi Minh in half and hid a pistol inside it, writing the following words on its outside: “Fragile. Handle with Care. Quang Nam-Da Nang Education Department to Ho Chi Minh City Academic Affairs Office.”

An then gave the statue to his son, who brought it on board.

“The country’s civil aviation sector was in its infancy at that time. Security guards checked the figurine featuring Uncle Ho casually and let the boy go through,” Cuc said.

In September 1978, the Central Military Procuracy began legal proceedings against An and his accomplices.

One month later, the Military Tribunal sentenced An to death and handed down jail terms of two to eight years to each his underlings.

A merit certificate is presented to Huynh Thu Cuc, one of the brave air hostesses on the hijacked flight. Photo: Tuoi Tre
A merit certificate is presented to Huynh Thu Cuc, one of the brave air hostesses on the hijacked flight. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Bizarre coincidence

The DC4, numbered 501, also had a bizarre fate.

The day An, the conspirator, was executed, Pham Duc Nam, the captain of the hijacked flight, was steering the plane loaded with relief rice to Pakse, in the heart of Champasak Province in Laos.

“As we were approaching the Vietnam-Laos borderline, the jet inexplicably burst into flames,” Nam recalled.

The crew sought permission to return to and land in Da Nang City within around 15 minutes.

“Realizing we wouldn’t make it to Da Nang Airport, the crew decided to make an emergency landing on a paddy field on an islet on the Thu Bon River, whose water level was high at the time,” Nam said.

With the plane failing to drop its landing gear, the crew had no choice but to perform a belly landing.

“We made our escape as soon as the jet hit the ground. The government later allowed residents to disassemble it for scrap metal,” he added.

Tragically, the crew failed to spot a woman and her son on the paddy.

The jet crushed the mother to death but spared her son’s life.

“We weren’t aware of the heartbreaking story until one day later. The incident has troubled us ever since,” Nam said sadly.

The surviving son grew into adulthood, but was killed during military service some years later.

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