According to the BBC article, In 1964 Theo Van Eijck a young sailor who stole a plane from his military base to get out of the navy
During an interview with BBC, Theo Van Eijck Dutch newspaper clippings, with show-stopping headlines reporting the antics of a young sailor who stole a Grumman Tracker propeller plane from his military base in Malta and flew it to Benghazi, Libya.
“It’s me!” laughs Van Eijck, now white-haired and aged 76. “That’s me right there in the photo and I was just 21!”
Back then Theo Van Eijck was just a young man who dreamt of flying. In fact, he’d had fantasies about flying since he was seven years old. He wasn’t, he admits, the greatest student in the world and feared he would never make the grades needed to join the Air Force as a pilot
But then he heard about a scheme in the Dutch Navy whereby a young man could enter the service as a trainee electrician, and if he did well could apply internally for the Navy’s pilot training course. Aged just 19 and full of optimism, Van Eijck didn’t hesitate. He signed up immediately for eight years.
“Oh, it started well,” he agrees when I remark upon how elated he looks in the old print. “I got selected for the pilot scheme and I loved it.”
But in early 1964, with around 40 hours’ flying time-stamped proudly into his logbook, the exhilarated young Van Eijck went to a party at his barracks in Holland and got rather drunk. His commanding officer was at the party and also rather the worse for wear. He suggested to Van Eijck that they should talk frankly about the quality of the pilot training scheme (which was conducted jointly by the Belgian Air force and the Dutch Navy) and he invited Van Eijck to be honest. It was, he assured him, an off-the-record discussion.
And so, perhaps naively, 21-year-old Van Eijck spoke openly. He needed to be trained on a proper plane he insisted, a Grumman Tracker submarine destroyer that would be deployed on naval aircraft carriers, not the twin-engine training planes the Belgians were using to teach them. The planes they were being taught on were (Theo grins self-consciously as he remembers the words he used) “quite frankly, crap”.
Up to that point, Van Eijck had maintained a perfect flying record but the very next day after the party he had his report card marked with an orange warning sign, which meant he was at imminent risk of being failed.
Furious at the injustice, he wrote something cocky about the slowness of the training programme on the classroom blackboard, while waiting for the instructor to arrive. That move saw him jailed at his barracks for a weekend, but seeing a skirting board was loose he managed to use it to slide back the bolt across his cell door and escaped. When his absence was discovered, he was immediately kicked out of the pilot’s scheme.
Van Eijck was encouraged to appeal against the decision by superiors who admired his gumption. But the officers inadvertently gave him the wrong forms to fill in. When he finally got a response, three months later, he was told he had not followed the correct procedure and it was now too late to take further action. He was no longer to train as a pilot and must serve out his remaining six years in the Navy as an electrician.
Depressed and despondent, with his dreams of flying now shattered, Van Eijck pleaded to be discharged from the Navy, but his request was repeatedly refused. So he started plotting to find a way to extract himself from the force once and for all.
Theo van Eijck decided his ticket to freedom was to steal a plane. He found a handbook for a Grumman Tracker plane and hid it in his locker. While his friends went out drinking or headed to bed, Van Eijck secretly studied. He befriended the qualified pilots and chatted to them about instrument flying, about engine start-ups, about take-offs.
“Little did they know why I was interested!” he sniggers. “But from Holland the route was difficult – I didn’t want to end up in East Germany with all that political trouble. And then one day they asked for volunteers to go on a two-month exercise in Malta with the British Navy. And I thought, from Malta I could fly anywhere!”
In Malta, Van Eijck hung around the aerodrome chatting to the aviation mechanics, watching them work. In the early mornings and evenings, he continued to study his now well-thumbed Tracker handbook. On the last weekend before he was due to fly home, he politely attended the farewell party on the base but while his fellow servicemen succumbed to the temptations of the freely flowing liquor, the young Van Eijck was careful to stay completely sober.
“And that’s where my story matches Sgt Paul Meyer’s,” he says. “Because the next morning, I got up early and I borrowed a bike and biked to the runway. Sgt Meyer told the guard his name was Capt Epstein. I told the one guard on duty I was called Jansen – which is like Smith in Dutch – so he had no idea who I was and he helped me open the doors of the hangar!”
Van Eijck had planned his theft meticulously, he says, even locking up the guard’s pistol and bike and removing the microphones from the telephone in his office, to ensure that if he was rumbled too soon, the guard would struggle to get back-up.
Soon he was in the Dutch Navy’s Grumman Tracker submarine destroyer aircraft, armed with two torpedoes and heading for North Africa.
For five-and-a-half hours, 21-year-old Theo Van Eijck flew that plane, wondering where might be the safest place to attempt a landing. At Tripoli the British Army still had a presence and, nervous of trouble, he flew to Benghazi where he saw a landing strip with a few huts on either side.
The strip was full of sheep, he says, and he had to circle low over it a few times to make sure the animals scattered and cleared the runway for him. His landing, he recalls proudly, was immaculate, and he took pleasure in the thought that this would be reported back to his commanding officers.
“I thought, ‘If I can land nicely those Navy guys must-see I can fly!'”
Van Eijck was offered political asylum and protection.
When the Dutch military came to reclaim its AWOL recruit – and of course, to get its stolen plane back – he sometimes refused to see them.
After a week of negotiations with the Dutch ambassador, Van Eijck agreed to a deal. He would return to the Netherlands (a passenger rather than a pilot) and would serve a 12-month jail term in a state prison for desertion. In return, he would receive an honorable discharge from the Navy.
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