View Full Version : Hijack put Jan's flight into history

18th Dec 2003, 00:40
Thurs "The Australian"

Hijack put Jan's flight into history
By Leisa Scott
December 18, 2003

The passenger hit the call button and Janeene Christie, a 22-year-old TAA air hostess, went to help. A sawn-off .22 rifle was thrust at her throat, and the man demanded: "Get the captain."

It was July 19, 1960, and airliner hijacking had arrived in Australia on Flight 408 from Sydney to Brisbane in the form of a confused and out-of-work Russian migrant, Alex Hildebrandt, 22.

So unexpected was the assault - the US's first hijack drama was still a year away - that when Ms Christie alerted Captain John Denton to the demand, he laughed.

The laughter soon died on the John Gilbert, a turbo-prop Electra airliner, when a second hostess arrived in the cockpit to say Hildebrandt had a bomb - two sticks of gelignite attached to a battery.

So Ms Christie's widower of 23 years, John Reinhold, was outraged when The Weekend Australian recently credited the US as suffering the first hijack in 1961. "It does offend me, I know the Americans like to be the first in the world to do anything, but obviously what happened to Jan was before that Miami flight in 1961," Mr Reinhold, 69, said at his home in Ipswich.

In fact, the first hijacking - of sorts - took place in Peru in 1931, but after a 10-day tarmac stand-off the plane never left the ground. And the first commercial aircraft hijacked was on July 16, 1948, when a Cathay Pacific plane crashed into the sea off Macau.

In the Australian hijacking, all 50 passengers and crew on Flight 408 survived, thanks to first-officer Thomas Bennett and an off-duty pilot, Captain Dennis Lawrence.

Without alerting the other passengers, the crew got word to Lawrence and as Bennett spoke to Hildebrandt - who wanted to go to Singapore or Darwin - Lawrence walked up the aircraft, grabbed the emergency fire axe and sat behind the hijacker.

Bennett punched Hildebrandt in the stomach and reached for the wires to the bomb as Lawrence whacked the gunman over the head with the axe. A shot went off, grazing Bennett's shoulder and lodging in the ceiling of the plane.

"Jan said there was one woman counting her rosary beads, and another one looked like she was having a heart attack," Mr Reinhold recalls. "Anyway, they subdued him."

Distressed by the hijack, Ms Christie left the airline shortly afterwards. But years later, when travelling with her husband, they ended up on the John Gilbert. "And there was the hole in the ceiling, covered with a sort of corn plaster," says Mr Reinhold.