Philippine Airlines Pilot in Historic Hijack Drama Passes Away

A Philippine Airlines pilot at the centre of one of the world's first hijacking dramas passed away on June 4. Captain Felix Corteza Gaston, a former President of the PAL Pilots Association and son of Negros Occidental Governor Emilio Gaston, was involved in a five-hour long hijacking drama sixty two years ago.

pal dc-3
Image Source: Wikimedia
On December 30, 1952, Captain Gaston had just been in service with Philippine Airlines for three months after he left the Philippine Air Force. Gaston had been assigned with fellow pilot, Captain Pedro Perlas to pilot a Philippine Airlines flight from Manila to Laoag to Aparri and back to Manila. The DC-3 aircraft carried a total of seven passengers including the hijacker. 

After take-off from Laoag, the hijacker, a Chinese national named Ang Cho Kio, 23, entered the cockpit and pointed a .45 caliber pistol at Gaston with a piece of paper demanding that the aircraft be re-routed to Amoy. The note was shared with Perlas, who manoeuvred the aircraft in an effort to gain altitude and speed in order to foil the plans of the hijacker, who was later revealed to be fleeing after killing a policeman and his girlfriend. 

In an interview in 2002 with the Philippine Star, Gaston described his fear during the five hour ordeal. "My balls were in my throat," said Gaston. Two shots were fired and Captain Perlas was discovered slumped over the controls. Gaston thought he had also been hit although he did not feel anything. He recalled reaching over and pulling Perlas back to his seat. 

As Gaston took control of the aircraft, the plane's purser Esteban Diago knocked on the door. As Perlas attempted to stand, another two shots were fired directly hitting Perlas, while an additional two more shots hit the purser. Gaston continued to pilot the aircraft as Ang showed Gaston a map indicating where he wanted the aircraft to land, while thrusting a handful of dollar bills at Gaston.

Gaston later spotted an aircraft  bearing a Chinese Nationalist emblem cruising alongside his aircraft. The Bacolod-born pilot believed that the aircraft was there to intervene and so he proceeded to signal with his the aircraft's wings that he was friendly and wanted to land. 

Shortly before realizing that he was close to landing at Amoy, now known as Xiamen, Gaston recalled that he was carrying his Philippine Air Force ID. He was concerned that he could be mistaken by the communists as a pilot on an unfriendly mission. Given the risk, Gaston opted to gain altitude to search for the Chinese National aircraft. 

Upon locating the other aircraft, he was guided to a safe landing on Quemoy Island. As he disembarked from the aircraft, he observed "thousands of soldiers" advancing towards him with bayonets. Shots were fired but missed him by a hairline. He was mistook for being part of a communist invasion of their territory. 

Both Gaston and Ang were forced to stay overnight in a nearby farmhouse where they were held for interrogation. Philippine Airlines dispatched an aircraft the following day to bring Gaston back to the Philippines. However, Ang was detained for the murder of Perlas and Diago, as well as the deaths of his girlfriend and a policeman. 

It was believed that the hijacking incident, referred to as a "skyjack" at the time, was the first involving a scheduled flight in the Philippines and possibly all of Asia. The Philippine government, led by President Elpidio Quirino, awarded Gaston the Legion of Honor. The ceremony was performed by past Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay. Philippine Airlines also purchased an expensive Tissot watch for Gaston. But Gaston suspected that it may have been purchased with the dollars from the hijacker that he surrendered to the airline. 

Captain Gaston was born on October 17, 1923 in Silay City, Negros Occidental. He was the youngest of sixteen siblings. He remained a pilot until the age of 45 when he led a strike against PAL owner Benigno Toda in 1968. He lost the case and was fired along with other pilots that joined the strike ending his career as a pilot. 

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