PERSPECTIVE: On Mar. 26, 1991, Singapore Airlines (SIA) flight SQ117 was hijacked by four passengers, who claimed to be members of the Pakistan People's Party.
They wanted to contact the Pakistani ambassador in Singapore, as well as former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in order to demand the release of 11 political prisoners in Pakistan.
The entire ordeal lasted over nine-and-a-half hours, until commandos from the Singapore Armed Forces' Special Operations Force (SOF) stormed the plane and killed the hijackers, freeing the hostages in the early hours of March 27, 1991.
Ted Ang, the most junior crew member onboard the plane, was only 23 years old when the hijacking took place. He had only been working as an air steward for SIA for one year, and had just joined SIA's Airbus fleet one month prior.
30 years later, Ang is now working as an interior designer, and reflects on the fateful events of that night.
By Ted Ang, as told to Jane Zhang
This happened when I was 23 years old — my first year of flying, first month on the Airbus. I felt that life is not fair.
Start of flight, late passengers
It was the last sector of the flight, for my duty.
On the way back from Kuala Lumpur, there were some slight delays. The captain was expecting some passengers who were held up, late at the gate boarding.
They were actually the four hijackers that were the last to board the airplane.
The flight took off, and one of the passengers requested for a glass of milk that I went to the back of the galley to prepare for her.
At that same time, I saw two of the passengers [who turned out to be the hijackers] were getting into one toilet, while the other pair went into the other toilet on the right hand side.
When they came out from the toilet, they were holding some kind of items in their hands. And they were shouting at me, "This is a hijack! Don't move!"
And the funny thing — I think we now can laugh about it — was, well, I thought they were drunk.
So, I gave a smile, and I said, "Sir, would you like to head back your seat?"
It happened so fast, I remember there were some punches, some kicks. I was being kicked in the stomach, and then I landed at the back of the galley.
And at the same time, I was asking myself, "Is this real? You might be kidding." I was in a state of shock, because I couldn't believe why they would want to hijack Singapore Airlines.
It was a moment of denial, I would say. It was completely out of the blue. During my days of training, I don't remember coming across any training on hijack situations. We were only trained how to handle plane crashes.
Demanded to fly straight to Sydney
They walked around the cabin and then announced to the whole aircraft that they were taking over the airplane.
Nobody screamed or shouted.
As the hijackers were walking around aircraft announcing it was a hijack, [chief steward] Philip Cheong had gone to inform the captain that there was a possible hijack scenario, so Captain had to lock his cockpit door.
So the captains informed the control towers that there was a possible hijack happening on the aircraft. And that's when the control centre started preparing for the crisis.
By then, all the crew — the stewardesses and the rest of the guys and myself — gathered at the back of the galley.
The hijackers started demanding for the flight not to land in Singapore. They were saying, "No, do not land in Singapore. We will blow the aircraft."
They demanded to speak to the captain, and they wanted the plane to fly direct to Sydney. We were trying to tell the hijacker that we are not able to fly to Australia and that we didn't have enough fuel.
It was a very short flight, around 40 minutes. So if you minus 10 or 15 minutes for takeoff, and 10 to 15 minutes for landing, it leaves you only really 20 minutes for your meal service.
By the time anything could happen, the plane actually landed in Singapore already.
Landed in Singapore
I think Captain Stanley took the initiative to land because if they didn't, we were going to miss the landing strip, I think. So, it was inevitable that we would have to land in Singapore.
After we landed, the hijackers took control the aircraft.
They gathered all of the passengers to be seated in economy class. The female stewardesses were asked to sit in the cabin together with the passengers.
They had two guys looking after all the passengers. The leader, Shahid, was walking up and down, and then there was another guy that was watching over us.
In my opinion, all the passengers and the stewardesses were all well-treated. They were not harassing the passengers. They did allow them to go to the toilet, telling them, "Go toilet, raise your hand, and then you're allowed to go."
Pushed two crew members off plane
Next, they took a white packet substance from their bag, and they were asking for water. Initially, I thought they wanted to take some medication or something like that.
So, we filled up water for one of them, and then he actually put the white powdered substance into the drink. And then he asked one of the crew, Bernard, to drink it.
After Bernard drank it, he became kind of weak and unconscious.
We were surprised, as the hijackers had been assuring us, "You're my brother, my sister. Don't worry, we will not harm you."
Soon after, they dragged Bernard and Phillip to the front of the cabin. And from where we were seated, we could hear the sound of the door being opened. You know the aircraft door, once it has been opened it — "pshhh", that kind of vacuum sound? So we heard the sound, and we didn't know what happened.
After that, Shahid came back and said, "I'm sorry. I killed one of your friends."
I had only just met Bernard for the first time, and it was my first time working and flying with the rest of them. But it really saddened me to know that one of my colleagues has been killed, or presumed killed...
I didn't know what happened to Bernard from where I was sitting at the back of the galley. I had a hopeful thought that maybe they were just trying to lie to us and kept him inside the toilet instead.
That was a very mixed feeling, I would say. And I was just wondering who would be next.
SQ service even amidst hijacking
I think about one or two hours later, negotiations were going on between the hijackers in the cockpit, and the control tower.
We were told by the hijackers to serve drinks and give blankets to all the passenger who felt cold. That's what our SQ service is all about, even in a hijack scenario (laughs).
We didn't know what was happening. We were not panicked, I think. I think we were still in a state of denial and thinking what we were going to do next.
Then we heard another sound of the aircraft door being opened. Philip was thrown out. This time around, Shahid came back to us saying the same thing: "I'm sorry, I killed another friend."
We found out later that Bernard and Philip were both not killed, but injured from the fall after being pushed off the plane.
I remember Philip telling me [later] that when he landed on the tarmac, I think he broke his ankle, but that pain didn't come to his thoughts because he just ran away from the aircraft.
It wasn't until the medic came to him then he realised that he was injured. Philip was able to give quite a bit of information to the on-ground people, such as how many hijackers there were.
Conversation with young hijacker
Of the four hijackers, two of them — the leader Shahid and another guy — were pretty rough and pretty fierce. Whereas the other two — I remember one with a big tummy and rabbit teeth and then the other guy was a young chap — I could tell that they were just followers.
They were just basically following the orders. I remember I was having a small chat with the young chap.
I asked him, "After you do this, do you go back to Pakistan?" Then he said, "No, no, no." He said he was prepared to die actually.
He said even if he died, he's got no worries because his family would be taken care of.
And of course, I asked him, "Why do you want to go to Sydney, of all places?"
He was telling me that he found that Sydney is nice, and that Australia is a good country because the Chinese, Indians, and Malays all live together.
So I told him, "We do that here in Singapore!" Then he said, "Oh, I want to go to Singapore."
I was sitting just inside the galley with Gordon, another steward. I asked the hijacker, "Hey, can I smoke? Since, if I'm gonna die, can I at least have a cigarette?" Then he said, "You can smoke."
Having a cigarette in the back of the galley (laugh). I had become friends with the hijacker!
Almost thrown out
I think it was about three or four in the morning. when there was a sudden change of behaviour with the leaders.
The second-in-command came to the back of the galley, and then he pointed at me and dragged me out of the galley. He ordered me to open the door, the last door on the left hand side of the aircraft.
And that's when he put a knife around my neck. And I was telling myself, "Oh, gosh. I'm next."
I was telling myself, sh*t I'm going to die. Because I didn't know what happened to Philip and Bernard.
And then Shahid came back and they had some argument in their language, which I couldn't understand.
The second-in-command put down the knife and then ordered me to close the door. With that, he kicked me back into the galley.
I remember Gordon was asking me, "Bro, bro, how? You okay anot?" So I told Gordon, "Don't talk about it. I'm f*cking scared."
Everyone would be released... except Ted and Gordon
Then the moment came — I think that was about four plus or five in the morning — whereby the hijackers ordered all the passengers to bring down all the window shades.
That's when I heard a lot of noise outside the aircraft. I thought it was the refuelling trucks to refuel the aircraft.
The leader was very happy. He came back and said that after the plane was refuelled, all of the men and women will be released.
I was telling myself, "Oh, good. Game over. Everything came to a happy ending."
But with that, he pointed at me and Gordon, and then he said, "You and you will follow me to Sydney!"
I think that was the lowest point of my life. I felt that if the plane were to take off, it would be the end.
I was thinking that if the plane were to take off, it would be blown up or shot down just to kill all the hijackers. I don't know whether they would go to that extreme, but this is what crossed my mind.
It wasn't the fear of death; but it was the fear of leaving responsibility behind. Like what's going to happen to my wife? What's going to happen to my mum? What will happen to my sister was just studying? What will happen to my dog?
You think back to the things you should have done and not done. For example, I was quite a thrifty person. I always wanted to buy a Louis Vuitton bag but I gave myself a lot of reasons not to. I wanted to buy washing machine for my mother, but I thought, "Well, we can still use [the old one]."
So I told myself, if I survived, then I would go and buy them.
I took the opportunity to write two letters: one for my wife, and then one for my mom.
And then I managed to see one of the stewardesses, so I told her, "If you leave the aircraft before me, please pass these letters to my family."
Where is the rescue?
Around five plus in the morning, the hijackers told Gordon and myself to move into the passenger seats. That was actually the first time I saw what was happening in the cabin.
I didn't see any passengers panicking or crying. Everybody was sleeping or waiting for what was going to happen next.
I remember I was very, very tired. And I did doze off and slept for a short while.
The next moment I remember was I was looking at my watch. I think it was 6:15am in the morning.
And I was asking myself, "Where the hell are all the commandos and SOF (Special Operations Force) guys?" Because this was taught during army training — to attack at dawn, when people are most tired.
The second time I looked at my watch, it was at 6:39am or 6:40am [online sources say they stormed at 6:50am]. I think I could remember the time quite well.
I could hear some noise at the back of the aircraft and what seemed like a door being opened.
In the next moment, I saw a stun grenade being thrown into the cabin. Bam. Bam. And then all the other guys from SOF came in and they were shouting, "Heads down! Heads down!"
So I ducked, of course. I took cover under the seat and told myself, "Oh, thank God. Game over. They're here." Really, that's how I felt.
I heard gunshots, of course with the silencer. It was very fast, very swift, very precise. I think within 15 seconds, it was game over.
And then the commander was saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are from the Singapore Armed Forces. We're here to rescue you. Just follow instructions and do what we say."
When I sat up straight and took a look at the cabin, I remember there were at least about 15 or 20 guys in black suits, ski masks, with the submachine guns. I had one gun pointed at my head. I think every other passenger had a gun pointed at them.
The next thing they did was to identify sleepers. In a typical hijack scenario, sleepers will be the backup plan. That means one of them is actually a hijacker who pretends to be a passenger. So, should the mission fail, they'll be the one to carry out the mission.
After they gave the all-clear, they opened up the door, the slides were deployed, and they were giving strict instructions — just leave everything, do not carry anything, get out of the aircraft.
Once we were out of the aircraft, myself, Captain, and I think Gordon, were taken by another car to the control tower at Changi Airport. That's where we had a debriefing.
I remember the first thing I asked was, "Can I have a cigarette?" Because I ran out of cigarettes. Then everybody was throwing their cigarettes all on the table.
They asked me if I knew the positions of the hijackers and what I saw.
I think they were keeping it quite short and sweet, about 45 minutes to an hour, because they knew that we were so exhausted.
They told us not to speak to any public or to the media. Anything that we say had to go through the company or the public relations and all that.
Aftermath of the hijacking
It was good to be alive. I don't know how to describe that, but it was a very stark feeling.
When your life is being decided by other people, whether you live or die, a lot of things will cross your mind. And then you start to treasure what you have around you.
I think what I took away from the experience is that yesterday is a memory, tomorrow is something to look forward to. Make full use of what you have today.
We always say "tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow", but maybe tomorrow never comes. So I think I cherish what I have at the moment.
The second day [after the hijacking], I went to buy my Louis Vuitton bag and the washing machine for my mother.
Photos courtesy of Ted Ang and by Konstantin von Wedelstaedt via Wikimedia Commons.