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1960: Australian Pilot Stops Hijack By Punching Terrorist In The Face And Ripping Wires Off Bomb

Culture | August 24, 2019

A Trans Australia Airlines Lockheed L-188A Electra, similar to the plane that a man tried to hijack in 1960. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hijacking planes was a pretty new concept in 1960, but when a bomb-toting freak tried to pull something on a Trans Australian Airline flight, he got a knuckle sandwich from some very brave Ozzies. It's a story that couldn't happen today -- the would-be hijacker's attempt was low-tech, the seurity was clearly lacking, and the pilot who decked him clearly hadn't been bingeing on Homeland. It was simple old-fashioned heroic problem-solving. This is the story of Trans Australia Airlines flight 408.

The Trans Australia Airlines Lockheed Electra (sobify.com)

On July 19, 1960, a 22-year-old Russian-born man named Alex Hildebrant boarded a flight from Sydney to Brisbane armed with a sawed-off .22 caliber rifle and a homemade bomb. The flight time was less than two hours, and the plane was carrying 43 total passengers. Thanks to some fast-acting heroes, this is a story of bravery in the face of pure crazy. 

'Get me the captain'

Flight Attendant Janeene Christie (heraldsun.com.au)

How Alex Hildebrant stowed a sawed-off rifle and the elements to construct a gelignite bomb through security is unknown. We can assume that airport security then wasn't nearly as comprehensive as today. Nevertheless, near the end of the flight, Hildebrant, an unemployed laborer, threatened flight attendant Janeene Christie with his rifle and demanded to see the pilot. 

Fast Thinking

Trans Australia Airlines Lockheed Electra (heraldsun.com.au/)

Christie complied with the madman, telling Captain John Benton the situation. Initially, he didn’t believe her. Undoubtedly, her fear eventually convinced Benton that the situation was very real. Thinking quick on his feet, Benton steered the plane over the ocean and told First Officer Tom Bennett to notify an off duty pilot, Dennis Lawrence, who happened to be on board, of the danger. 

The Standoff

The Hijackers Weapons of Choice in the Paper (news.com.au)

In these intervening minutes, Hildebrant began raving about how he was going to destroy the plane and everyone on it. First Officer Bennett went to confront the hijacker, who demanded the plane change course to Singapore. The bomb was a flashlight battery attached by wire to two sticks of gelignite, a crude explosive device but certainly powerful enough to bring the plane down.

During the confrontation, Hildebrant fired a shot into the ceiling that nearly hit Bennett in the head. Then, in a moment of unbelievable bravery, Bennett punched Hildebrandt square in the face and quickly ripped the wires from the deadly device, defusing it. Together, Lawrence and Bennet subdued and disarmed the hijacker. 

Aftermath

The Next Day's Newspaper (lateet.com)

Initially, Hildebrant was charged with attempted murder and conspiring to destroy an aircraft. Amazingly, he successfully appealed the charges on account of the plane’s location. He argued that because the plane’s location was out of Queensland’s jurisdiction when he armed the bomb, they couldn’t charge him. However, he served three years in Queensland before immediately put under arrest by New South Wales police upon his release. He served another seven in a NSW prison.

Tom Bennett, the courageous pilot with a strong right hand, was awarded the George Medal. 

Tags: 1960s News | Air Travel In The 1960s | Australia | Hijacking

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!