The Miami Herald
January 3, 2000

Pilot who buzzed Cuba had a veiled past


 Ly Tong, the daredevil pilot who buzzed Havana on New Year's Day, received
 a private pilot's license despite a 1992 hijacking conviction, because he didn't
 disclose this detail to his flight school and the Federal Aviation Administration
 doesn't conduct criminal background checks of prospective pilots.

 The FAA checks potential pilots' medical histories and requires that they report
 whether they have had any drug or driving under the influence convictions but not
 specifically if they have commandeered a plane.

 Kathleen Bergen, an FAA spokeswoman, said that if a prospective pilot
 acknowledges a drug or DUI conviction, the license application could be denied.
 But, she added, before a pilot is licensed to take to the skies, the FAA does not
 ask police whether the applicant has run into trouble with the law.

 ''Does the motor vehicles department do a criminal check before giving a driver's
 license? Bergen asked.

 Tong's hijacking of an Air Vietnam Airbus 300 as it flew over Ho Chi Minh City in
 Vietnam eight years ago has emerged as one of the most intriguing angles in the
 weekend drama that took the Vietnamese refugee on a daring flight over Havana
 on Saturday.

 Cuban MiG fighter aircraft scrambled and one F-16 fighter responded from
 Homestead Air Reserve Base as Tong flew a rented plane from Key West to
 Cuba, circled over Havana and dropped leaflets advocating rebellion against Fidel

 One of the key questions was how someone who had hijacked an airplane and
 spent six years in prison for the action would be given a pilot's license or training
 in the United States.

 ''If she [knew], she would not let me study there, Tong said of Alex D. Farkas,
 owner of Kendall ADF Airways, where Tong trained and rented the plane for his
 flight to Cuba. Tong got a 120-day pilot certificate two weeks ago and was still
 awaiting a permanent license.

 Tong created international trouble when he dropped 50,000 leaflets over Havana
 urging Cubans to overthrow Castro.

 When Tong landed back at Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport, he was detained
 and questioned for five hours and voluntarily surrendered his license.

 The FAA is still investigating whether he broke any federal laws, Bergen said.


 Tong, a former South Vietnamese fighter pilot, has a past with planes -- beyond
 the hijacking.

 In 1992, he tried to commandeer a Thai air force plane to bomb Vietnam. Tong
 said he was thwarted when the plane's engine didn't start.

 A few months later, he successfully hijacked the Air Vietnam Airbus 300 on a
 flight from Bangkok, Thailand, to Ho Chi Minh City.

 Tong tied up a flight attendant and demanded that he be allowed to drop
 anti-communist leaflets from the cockpit.

 After completing the mission, Tong strapped on a parachute and jumped -- but
 was captured on the ground.

 He was released from prison six years later on his birthday, Sept. 1, 1998.

 The FAA's application form for a private pilot certificate asks only this about an
 aviator's criminal past: ''Have you been convicted for violations of federal or state
 statutes pertaining to narcotics, drugs, marijuana or depressants or stimulant
 drugs or substances?

 Tong answered no.


 Even if the FAA had checked Tong's past, his troubles might not have emerged. A
 51-year-old New Orleans Ph.D. student, Tong says his U.S. record is clean. His
 prior troubles with the law are all in Vietnam, he said.

 Despite his jail time, he doesn't consider himself a criminal.

 ''I never commit any crime. I am a freedom fighter, Tong said Sunday. ''We
 distinguish between freedom fighter and terrorist. I'm not a terrorist. I never did any
 harm to any property. I just bluff them to get my way so I can drop leaflets to urge
 people to overthrow communism.

 Farkas, the ADF Airways owner, was not amused by Tong's flight to Cuba.

 It put her at financial risk. The school is not insured for flights over Cuba, and had
 he crashed the single-engine Cessna 172, ADF would have lost $35,000, Farkas

 Besides, she said, she felt deceived.

 ''He betrayed me so badly. He doesn't have any respect for me. He told me lies,
 Farkas said. ''If I had had the least suspicion, I wouldn't have given this guy a
 plane. I respect his ideals, but why not buy your own plane and run your own

                     Copyright 2000 Miami Herald