Trans Australia Flight 408: The story behind Australia’s first plane hijacking

A file photograph of a Trans Australia aircraft. Source: Aviation Museum

Over 50 years ago, Australia was rocked by news of the first terrorist hijacking of a local airline. A man with a bomb had smuggled it on board a Trans Australia Airlines flight and threatened to detonate it if his demands were not met. However, the crisis was averted thanks to the bravery of the co-pilot…

The incident took place on the evening of July 19, 1960. Flight 408 was being operated by a Lockheed Electra Mk 2 for the last Sydney to Brisbane flight for the day. On board the plane: 43 passengers and 6 crew members.

The terrorist was a Russian man named Alex Hildebrandt, who was armed with a fully loaded sawn-off .22 calibre rifle. He was also carrying a bomb that, although primitive, had the power to blow apart the aircraft fuselage killing everyone one on board. He later explained his reasoning for the hijacking was that he was ‘sick of the capitalist government’ in Australia and wanted to return to Russia, or another communist-ruled nation.

Hildebrandt had suspended a bare wire over a torch battery attached to a detonator linked to two sticks of explosives, and another wire attached from the explosives to the battery. He held the bomb as he began reciting his demands, one of which was for the plane to be redirected to Singapore.

As the hijacking commenced, co-pilot Tom Bennett approached Hildebrandt attempting to talk to him and calm him down. This was met by a warning shot from the hijacker that hit the aircraft ceiling, narrowly missing Bennett’s head.

The co-pilot then reacted in a way that most men can only hope that they would, but will thankfully never have to find out. He punched Hildebrandt clean in the face and then ripped the wires from the bomb he was holding, disabling it.

Captain Dennis Lawrence then intervened to assist Bennett. Together they subdued and completely disarmed the hijacker, who was restrained and secured with handcuffs carried on the aircraft.

The plane landed in Brisbane with all 43 passengers unharmed. Tom Bennett was awarded the George Medal for his actions and Captain Lawrence was commended for his part in subduing the hijacker. These were the heroes of Trans Australia Airlines Flight 408.

Hildebrandt, who was born in Russia in 1938, faced serious charges of attempted murder, having an explosive detonating device with the intention of destroying the aircraft and having explosives capable of causing injuries to persons on board.

Hildebrandt was sentenced to three years in jail for attempted murder, ten years for attempting to destroy the aircraft and two years for the explosives charge. However, he successfully appealed the sentence in the Queensland Criminal Court as he argued that the aircraft – which was thirty five minutes into the flight – was over New South Wales when he armed the explosives in the aircraft toilet.

He served only a three-year sentence in Brisbane; however after his release he was immediately arrested by detectives from New South Wales. He faced court again and was convicted on the charge of attempted destruction of an aircraft and sentenced to seven further years in prison in New South Wales.