The following adventure took place 30 years ago, involving Mr. John Greif Sr., San Pedro's first airline pilot and father to Tropic Air's Director John Greif III and Sea Gal's Celi Jean Varela. He is a veteran of the L7S armed forces, serving as a fighter pilot in the LTS Army Air Corps during World War II. Mr. Greif introduced many awed, wide- eyed San Pedranos to their first flight in an airplane and for that wonderful experience, he will forever remain ingrained in San Pedro's history. The following adventure is related in his own words, taken from an article that appeared in "Brukdownn - The Magazine of Belize" in 1977.
"Get these people out of the airplane-
out of the airplane-
It was six days be fore Easter 1970, about four- thirty in the afternoon. I had just flown some passengers into Belize Municipal from San Pedro and was preparing to take another load back when this guy came up and said, "Get these people out of the airplane- this is a hi- jack!" I figured he was some kind of nut -and All of a sudden he drew a pistol and fired it into the runway: "OK you mother f#$@, I you get the next one in the head!"
I had an elderly woman on the plane and helped her off. There had been a lot ol people around, but suddenly they just melted away. Then a girl appeared with a double- barreled shotgun pointed at my ribs. The two must have had the weapons hidden because I hadn't noticed them at all. So there we were, the three of us. They exchanged weapons and the guy climbed into the back seat, rested the shotgun on the second seat and nestled it on the back of my head. The girl sat on the right side of the center seat. "OK," I said, "We've got about an hour of daylight and an hour of fuel. Where do you want to go?" He pointed north and said, "Chetumal ... for fuel."
I put the Cessna 180 into the air and we were soon over Mexican territory. I landed and taxied up to the old sheet metal terminal building. When the attendant saw the shotgun he ran back inside and brought out the airport captain ... Verdias, I believe, was his name. He came up to my window and wanted to know what was going on. I asked him for a chart of the Yucatan and Cuba ... that my passengers insisted upon going to Cuba. The next thing I know there are soldiers all over the place with rifles, pistols and submachine guns.
By now lt's beginning to get dark with a light drizzle falling and the girl- her name was Donna- is beginning to get edgy due to all the guns pointed at the plane, and I'm not feeling too good myself with this shotgun on my back. To make matters worse, the hijacker, a twenty-two year old Chinese-American from San Francisco, is as high as a kite on marijuana. Suddenly he got real hyper and ordered me to take off!
It was dark when we returned to Chetumal and we were again met by all the soldiers. Verdias came out, and I told him to get rid of those guns before he got us all blown in two. They started filling the tanks- in those days they still used a fifty-five gallon drum and a funnel- and I asked Verdias for a Cuban chart and a flashlight, as my instrument lights didn't work. He brought me a flashlight and a road map of Yucatan. Verdias also brought with him the Governor of Quintana Roo. He told the Chinaman that as Governor he could give him sanctuary, that it would be better to end the night as his guest and fly tomorrow when the weather would improve. The boy just laughed and said, "If you really want to do something for me, get me some more weed." With that I took off into the darkness.
I flew north along the coast and followed the beach around to Isla Mujeres. I buzzed the field, but when they wouldn't turn on the lights, I landed in the dark. A bunch of people came out and the officials refused to give me gas or a chart. One guy reached down and put a rock in front of the left wheel. Another one ran around the right side to do the same, but the hijacker saw him and fired through the window. The Mexican ran like hell. "Take off," he shouted. "Start the engine and take her up." With one free wheel I managed to turn the plane around and taxi away. "Next stop Cuba," he said.
.....The sky was dark, but I knew that above the overcast the moon was almost full. We broke Out at about five thousand feet and headed for Polaris since I knew the compass wasn't very reliable. After choosing a heading that would take Lis toward Cuba I set the engine real lean to conserve fuel. The closest point in Cuba was about a hun- dred miles from Isla Mujeres, but I knew that there were no airstrips on that southern end of the island. I had been flying since seven that morning, and it ,wasn'E until now -that I realized -how tired I really was. I'd missed lunch, was sleepy, thirsty and out of cigarettes. To keep awake I talked to my captors- tried to convince them into going to Merida- that they could use my American Express card to buy tickets on the regular Cubana flight. He wouldn't listen and only repeated that Mexicans hate Chinese people even more than Americans.
It was then that he laid it on the line: "I've got nothing to lose," he laughed "They want me for killing a cop in Los Angeles, so don't talk to me about second chances. We either all make it or none of us will." I didn't much like our chances under ordinary circumstance-, but in the shape I was in I knew that we'd never make it. I had to close my eyes if only for ten minutes. I explained how to keep the plane straight and level and told the boy that if he had any sense he'd put down that shotgun and come LIP to take the controls. lie did and for the first time all day I relaxed a bit. We flew slowly for maximum fuel economy and after a long time I saw a light in the distance. I headed for it and it was a lighthouse-Bahia Hondo, Cuba.
The next morning we were driven to Havana for interrogation where they took our Pictures and fingerprints. I finally managed to convince the authorities of my innocence, but the young couple was not so fortunate. The boy made the mistake of mentioning the policeman he had shot- that didn't go down to well with the Cubans- and from then on his fate as a common murderer was -sealed. I never saw him again.
They then took me to a tourist hotel and assigned me to a plainclothes Police guard. He said he used to work for the tourist board and his English was excellent. He camped in the hall outside my room while I showered, ate and slept for half the day and the whole next night. The following morning I was given new clothes and shaving gear- they wouldn't let me pay- and we downed a few rum and cokes, or rather rum and Canada Dry as my host pointed out. A man from the British Consulate finally showed up with a cable from the Government of British Honduras that said to be on the lookout for an American pilot in a British registered airplane. By this time it was late in the afternoon. I said,, "Have You notified Belize that I'm here?" "No," he replied, "but I will as soon as I return to the office." fie never did.
The diplomat wanted to know how they had treated me. I said, "Fine, but I ant to get out of here! And how's my airplane?" They'd found a pilot to fly it to Havana and the Englishman told me I could leave that evening. Not anxious to repeat that night flight, I suggested the next morning. By nine o'clock the Cessna was filled up with Russian 100-octane fuel and despite a dead battery, we managed to get her started. This time I procured a proper chart and filed my flight plan to Cozumel. I said my good-byes- my escort invited me back with my wife for a vacation- and took off directly for San Pedro. Except for the excited crowd Of guests at my hotel it all seemed pretty routine.
The governor, Sir John Paul, dropped by to see if all was well and asked why I didn't land at the International Airport as the regulations specified. I told him that I didn't leave by way of International so there was no reason to return there. "Can't say I blame you," he replied.
Mr. John Greif eventually returned to Chetumal where he paid for the gas and returned the flashlight to Captain Verdias. He heard a few years later that the hijacker, Tyrone Wong (he's not totally sure about the name), had committed suicide by failing on his machete at a Cuban prison farm. His girlfriend was about to be released after a great deal of effort on the part of her family and is now likely- in the US. When recalling the series of events which began with pistol shot at the Municipal Airport, John Greif can only shake his head an say, "I was very lucky."