A midair guard in Vietnam boldly gunned down four grenade-wielding hijackers, unraveling their entire plan in just two minutes four decades ago.
On the morning of February 7, 1979, Air Vietnam An24 plane 226 captained by Nguyen Van Ton took off from Gia Lam Airport in Hanoi.
Active from 1951 to 1975 with headquarters in Saigon, Air Vietnam was South Vietnam's first commercial air carrier.
Established under the reign of Emperor Bao Dai, the country’s last monarch, the airline flew over one million passengers before national reunification on April 30, 1975.
The An24 plane was bound for Da Nang Airport in the central namesake city where it would let off and pick up passengers, as well as refuel, before making its way to Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat Airport.
Sergeant Nguyen Dac Thoai, then 22, a midair guard from the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam, under the Ministry of National Defense, was tasked with ensuring security for the flight and safety for all passengers and crew members.
Four decades on, Thoai still has a vivid recollection of the ordeal.
Twenty minutes after the small, 50-passenger plane took off from Da Nang Airport, the hijackers took action.
Midair guard Thoai was sitting next to the aisle in the fourth row toward the end of the passenger chamber where he could see most of the plane.
Thoai was in a military uniform and hiding a pistol in his trousers’ waistband.
An air hostess named Vui was preparing a light meal for the passengers when two men seated in the front row sprang to their feet without warning.
One of the men was later identified as Thuc, a UH1 helicopter navigator with the air force under the Saigon regime.
Thoai saw a good-looking woman sneak a milk can to Thuc, who briskly pulled out and revealed an impact grenade hidden inside before growling: “Everyone, sit still! If anyone moves, I’ll remove the pin and we’ll all die.”
His accomplices also sprang from the last row and blocked the aisle.
They overpowered Vui and an officer in an air force uniform on his way back to his unit after work leave, believing they had subdued the midair guard aboard the plane.
As the hijackers attempted to take control of the plane, passengers aboard the flight began to panic.
Thoai, the only midair guard on the flight, scanned the plane to check whether any additional hijackers were hiding amongst the passengers. He then decided on his plan of action.
“I pretended to raise my hands as the attackers commanded but kept my seatbelt unlocked. I noticed the safety pin on the grenade had not been removed,” Thoai recalled.
When the two hijackers in front of him looked away, he seized the chance and drew out his gun.
|Nguyen Dac Thoai gunned down four hijackers on February 7, 1979. Photo: Transport Newspaper|
Noticing Thoai’s sudden move, Thuc dashed toward him with the grenade.
Still seated, Thoai shot him when he was a few steps away.
Thuc dropped dead, his body landing on Thoai’s leg.
The grenade, with the safety pin still in, rolled beneath the seats.
One of Thuc’s accomplices pounced on Thoai, attempting to yank the gun.
It did not take long for Thoai to use martial arts to subdue the hijacker.
Two more hijackers attempted to close in on Thoai, ready to hit him with bottles of wine.
“Vui, the stewardess, was about to take the blow for me, but one of the guys pushed her aside. I tried to shoot him but my gun was out of bullets,” Thoai recounted.
As the attacker smashed the wine bottle over Thoai’s head, glass cut through his scalp and face. Wine pouring over his head and burning his eyes failed to distract Thoai from his mission of saving the plane.
He suddenly remembered he had hidden a handgun in the luggage rack near his seat.
Several of the passengers on the flight who were police and army officers had earlier handed over their weapons to Thoai.
“I put most of the weapons into a locked container, but somehow kept a gun within my reach,” Thoai added.
He immediately pulled out the gun and fired at the attacker, whose body fell atop Thuc’s.
The remaining hijacker was also shot multiple times in the ribs while attempting to attack Thoai.
Thoai promptly moved to his strategic spot at the end of the plane, requesting that all passengers stay put.
As a man in the front row began to stand, Thoai told him to stay put, otherwise he would be shot.
“Everything happened within two minutes,” he added.
Vui, the air hostess, regained her composure and informed the crew members of the hijacking.
Captain Ton decided to land in Pleiku Airport, located in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai.
As the airport security boarded the plane, Thoai asked that they keep a close eye on the man and woman in the front row.
“I was hospitalized for 20 days before being transported to a clinic in Gia Lam District, Hanoi, for recuperation.
Thoai was promoted to second lieutenant and named the deputy of midair teams at the age of 22.
The man in the front row was Son, an officer under the former Saigon regime, while the woman who smuggled the milk can with the grenade was later identified as Thuc’s wife.
The group’s goal was to flee the country.
At the court hearing later, they admitted that the quick-minded guard had taken them completely by surprise.
Son and Thuc’s wife each received jail terms of 15 years.