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Nation

Pinoy pilot lives to tell 1952 sky drama

- Ben Bernales -
Fifty years ago yesterday, an intrepid commercial pilot figured in a five-hour, hair-raising airline hijack that left his fellow pilot dead by gunfire in what is now described as the first of its kind in Asia, if not in the world.

Capt. Felix Gaston, 78, now a widower residing in Ayala Alabang, had then been in the service of Philippine Airlines for just three months after a stint at the Philippine Air Force, when the hijack took place.

In the incident, the hijacker killed Gaston’s fellow pilot, Capt. Pedro Perlas, and the plane’s purser, Esteban Diago, and Gaston himself was shot at by thousands of Nationalist Chinese soldiers who mistook him for being a part of a communist invasion of their territory when his plane landed on Quemoy Island.

Recalling the events, Gaston told The STAR that all throughout the harrowing ordeal "my balls were in my throat."

Gaston, then 28, was assigned as Perlas’ co-pilot in a Manila-Laoag-Aparri-Manila flight on Dec. 30, 1952 with seven passengers, including the hijacker. The plane took off at 10 on that fateful, not-so-sunny morning.

The hijacker, a Chinese named Ang Cho Kio, about 22 or 23 years old, entered the cockpit when the aircraft was airborne after take-off from Laoag, pointed a caliber .45 pistol at Gaston and shoved a piece of paper with the words "I want to go to Amoy" to the pilots.

That note was shown to Perlas, who maneuvered the plane to gain altitude and speed in a bid to foil the plans of the hijacker who was discovered to be fleeing after killing his girlfriend and a policeman, Gaston said.
Gunshots
Two shots rang out. Gaston said he thought he was hit but "I didn’t feel anything." However, he saw Perlas stiffen and slump from his seat. "I reached over and pulled him back to his seat."

Gaston took control of the plane. Diago knocked on the door while Perlas tried to stand, but two shots rang out, directly hitting Perlas, and two more shots hit the purser.

Ang showed Gaston a map indicating where to land, and thrust a wad of dollar bills in his hand.

Meanwhile, the Bacolod-born pilot sighted a plane bearing the Nationalist Chinese emblem cruising beside his, "probably to intervene." He signaled with his wings that "I am friendly and I want to land."

In a while, Gaston became aware he was almost just a minute away from landing on Amoy (now known as Xiamen) and remembered that he was still carrying his PAF ID so he could be mistaken by the communists to be on an unfriendly mission. Thus, he flew higher right away to look for the cruising National Chinese aircraft.

Luckily, it hove into sight and guided him to a safe landing on Quemoy Island.

Upon alighting, he saw "thousands of soldiers" advance toward him menacingly with fixed bayonets and some thrust at his breast. Shots were also fired, fortunately missing him by a hairline.

It was about three in the afternoon when Gaston knew the ordeal was over.

Gaston and Ang stayed overnight in a nearby farmhouse for interrogation. The following day, PAL sent a plane to take him home. Authorities detained Ang to answer for the murder of Perlas and Diago as well as for killing his girlfriend and a policeman.

Gaston said the hijack ("It was termed skyjack at that time") was the first involving a scheduled flight in the Philippines, if not in Asia or in the world.

The Philippine government, then headed by President Elpidio Quirino, awarded him the Legion of Honor, officer class, with then Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay doing the honors. PAL gave him an expensive and elegant Tissot watch which, Gaston quipped, could probably have been bought with the dollars from the hijacker that he had surrendered to the airline.

Fifteen days after the hijack, Gaston’s wife delivered their first child, Felix Jr. nicknamed Chiqui, who arranged a gathering of friends yesterday to mark the incident that hogged headlines half a century ago.

Another hijacking later took place when a group of student-activists from the University of the Philippines hijacked a commercial plane to bring them to Beijing (then known as Peking). The group included Chito Santaromana and Jaime FlorCruz, who subsequently served as a correspondent of Time magazine for sometime before joining CNN.

AMOY

ANG CHO KIO

AYALA ALABANG

CAPT

GASTON

NATIONALIST CHINESE

PERLAS

PLANE

QUEMOY ISLAND

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