Pilot who buzzed Cuba had a veiled past
Ly Tong, the daredevil pilot who buzzed Havana on New Year's Day,
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
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
Cuban MiG fighter aircraft scrambled and one F-16 fighter responded
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
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
urging Cubans to overthrow Castro.
When Tong landed back at Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport, he
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
In 1992, he tried to commandeer a Thai air force plane to bomb
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
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.
'U.S. RECORD CLEAN'
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
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