It’s 1964 and a young Dutch guy called Theo van Eijck is up to no good. He’s in the Dutch Navy and had been right on the cusp of qualifying as a pilot. But thanks to his disciplinary transgressions, he’s been thrown off his flying course. So he decides to take matters into his own hands by stealing a plane. This surely is an escapade too far – and one that cannot possibly end well.
Van Eijck had dreamed of being a pilot since childhood. Indeed, he’d begun to feel that flying was the future for him at the age of just seven. He was born into a large family, one of 12 children. And his burning ambition to become an airman continued right through his teen years.
But there was a problem, one that could potentially stymie Van Eijck’s aspirations. Academically, he wasn’t that brilliant. And the Royal Netherlands Air Force demanded a high level of academic qualifications for those who entered its trainee pilot program. Sadly, though, Van Eijck’s grades fell short of these requirements.
However, Van Eikck subsequently got wind of a possible solution to his problem. The Royal Netherlands Navy had its own course for would-be fliers. And you could secure a place on that by first spending some time as an apprentice electrician. The 19-year-old Van Eijck had the right academic record to qualify for that route, and so he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
Of course, it wasn’t becoming an electrician that fired Van Eijck’s enthusiasms. It was the fact that if a trainee electrician made a good impression, he could qualify to train as a pilot with the Dutch Navy. As a result, he agreed to an eight-year stretch with the navy.
Speaking to the BBC in 2019, Van Eijck, now 76, remembered the time when he’d first signed up with the Royal Netherlands Navy. “Oh, it started well,” he said. “I got selected for the pilot scheme, and I loved it.” So, Van Eijck had impressed his superiors enough during his electrician training to be moved on to the cadet pilot scheme.
It looked like Van Eijck’s dream of being a flier was now within touching distance. But then there was a hiccup. As of the early part of 1964, Van Eijck’s conduct in the Navy had been impeccable. And what’s more, he now had 40 hours of flying experience under his belt. So things were looking good.
At that point, however, the young sailor, aged 21, went to a party at his barracks. The drink there flowed freely and Van Eijck, it seems, may have had rather more of it than was entirely wise. One of the guests at the gathering was Van Eijck’s commanding officer. He asked Van Eijck what he thought of the flight training program.
The senior officer, apparently also somewhat under the influence of strong drink, encouraged Van Eijck to speak with complete candor. The youngster was told that his words would be treated confidentially. Unfortunately, the trainee took his superior at his word, and Van Eijck needed no further encouragement to speak his mind.
Van Eijck subsequently launched into a diatribe about how useless the training aircraft were. Instead of flying those, he said, cadets should be learning to fly the Grumman Tracker planes, which were designed specifically for anti-submarine warfare. These were modern aircraft that active-service Royal Netherlands Navy pilots were flying at the time.
The Grumman S-2 Tracker, to give it its full name, had originally been used by the U.S. Navy in 1952. At the time, it was the only plane to have been specifically designed to hunt and destroy submarines. The aircraft was a twin-propeller machine with wings that could be folded to make for easy storage onboard aircraft carriers.
The Grumman Tracker supplanted the Grumman Guardian. The latter was actually two different planes that flew in tandem: one carrying detection equipment and the other armaments. The Tracker superseded this rather unwieldy arrangement with a single aircraft fulfilling both purposes. The plane was designed to take off from carriers with catapult assistance and was flown by a four-strong crew.
Built by the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, the Tracker was used by navies around the world including those of Brazil, Australia, Turkey and, of course, the Netherlands. The Netherlands Naval Aviation Service took delivery of 28 of the planes in 1960. Seventeen more that had previously seen service with the Royal Canadian Navy then arrived a little later.
The Grummans helped the Dutch to fulfill their commitments as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This was the alliance of Western nations that that went toe-to-toe with the Soviet bloc of communist countries during the Cold War. The anti-submarine planes were mainly based at Valkenburg Naval Air Base and aboard the aircraft carrier HNLMS Karel Doorman.
But let’s get back to the party that the young trainee airman Van Eijck attended in March 1964. The scene of the get-together was an airbase in the Netherlands. We left Van Eijck while he was telling his commanding officer exactly what he thought of the training program he was on. And you’ll remember that the officer had invited him to be as frank as he liked.
As we heard earlier, Van Eijck proceeded to do just that – with gusto. He told the officer that the program was sub-standard and that it should include instruction in flying Grummans. Remembering this conversation years later, Van Eijck told the BBC that he’d said the training regime was “quite frankly crap.” After all, the officer had asked for Van Eijck’s true opinion.
That, Van Eijck must have thought, was the end of the matter. He’d been asked for his frank opinion, and he’d given it. But it turned out that his true thoughts were apparently more than this commanding officer could stomach. As we’ve heard, up until the fateful evening of that boozy party Van Eijck’s service record had been without blemish.
But just a day after the party, Van Eijck discovered that there was now an orange mark against his name on his assessment papers. When he saw this, Van Eijck was consumed with rage – this symbol was a serious matter. It meant that he was on the very brink of failing to get his wings. In other words he was near to being thrown off the flying course.
What’s more, Van Eijck now did something else that was distinctly unwise. While sitting in the classroom awaiting the arrival of the course tutors, he decided to scribble a somewhat uncomplimentary comment about the program on the blackboard. And the authorities took such a dim view of this that they confined him to barracks for a few days.
Evidently determined to get into even more trouble, Van Eijck subsequently escaped from his locked barracks room by somehow popping the bolt on the door. Someone soon noticed that he’d disappeared, however. And the upshot was perhaps only too predictable: to forfeit his place on the trainee program.
However some of Van Eijck’s officers seemed to realize that the young man had the potential to make a really good pilot despite these disciplinary infractions. His misdemeanors were after all fairly minor in the scheme of things. So they urged Van Eijck to launch an official protest against the move to throw him off the course.
The would-be flier then had to sweat it out for three months before the answer to his appeal came back. However, unfortunately somebody had mistakenly handed Van Eijck the incorrect paperwork. And because of the administrative error, his appeal was denied. Even worse than that, there was nothing more that he could do about it because of the amount of time that had elapsed.
Moreover, not only had Van Eijck’s dreams of being a pilot been shot down in flames, but there was also another hard landing ahead of him. He would now be compelled to serve out his remaining six years in the Navy as an electrician. And this wasn’t at all what the young man had planned. Remember, he’d only joined the Dutch Navy so he could have access to the flying course.
“I come from a big family,” Van Eijck told the BBC’s Emma Jane Kirby in 2019. Indeed, we mentioned his 11 siblings earlier. “And in the family, we knew that right was right and wrong was wrong,” Van Eijck added. “And this was wrong. It just wasn’t fair.” So Van Eijck now harbored a deep and bitter sense of injustice towards the naval authorities.
Now that flying with the Navy was no longer an option, Van Eijck set his sights on one thing. He wanted to get out of the service altogether. So, time after time he applied to be released from his eight-year commitment. However, each discharge request was met with a flat “no.” The navy had him – and it intended to keep him.
But Van Eijck wasn’t going to take this lying down. Working in complete secrecy, he now formulated a plan, one that he was sure would get him discharged from the navy. “I told absolutely no-one,” he explained to the BBC. “If I had told someone, it would not have worked.” The first part of his scheme required him to teach himself how to fly a Grumman Tracker.
Van Eijck subsequently got his hands on a Grumman operating manual, which he kept concealed in his barracks. His buddies would go to bars, but Van Eijck didn’t join them. Instead, he got his head down and intensively read his Grumman handbook. He also went out of his way to talk to Grumman pilots and listened intently as they described their flying experiences.
Speaking about the pilots he hung out with, Van Eijck said, “Little did they know why I was interested!” And the reason that he was so obsessed is still astonishing to this day. He’d decided that the best way to force the navy to discharge him would be to steal one of its Grumman Tracker anti-submarine planes.
This scheme, Van Eijck realized, was something that demanded careful consideration. “But from Holland the route was difficult,” he told the BBC in 2019. “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!” Van Eijck continued. So he volunteered for the Malta duty, with his superiors obviously none the wiser about his ulterior motive. Once he was on the island, Van Eijck spent time hanging around the airfields there. He paid special attention to the mechanics attending to the Grummans, watching their every move.
Days before Van Eijck’s time in Malta was to conclude, there was a farewell party at the base. It was a boozy affair, a bit like the party that Van Eijck had first got into trouble at by speaking too frankly. But this time he made sure not to drink at all. Because the very next morning, he had important business to attend to: stealing a plane.
It was time for Van Eijck to put his audacious plan into action. This is how he remembered it in 2019: “The next morning, I got up early and I borrowed a bike and biked to the runway… 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!”
Somehow, Van Eijck also contrived to lock the guard’s gun away and to disable the telephone in the office. This would make it all the more difficult for the man to either stop Van Eijck if he realized what was going on or to summon any help. The young man wasn’t only daring, then, but also methodical.
Van Eijck continued his story in that BBC interview. “So I started the engine, switched the radio on and the control tower started asking who I was, what I was doing,” he recalled. “I didn’t answer. I taxied and then… I was gone.” Incredibly, just as he planned, the young man had managed to steal an aircraft from the Dutch Navy.
Of course, that was hardly the end of Van Eijck’s troubles. In fact, it would be just the beginning. But in the meantime he was traveling over the Mediterranean at a low altitude of 5,000 feet to maximize the use of his fuel supply. “It was the best thing ever,” Van Eijck said. “You’re doing something that everyone says can’t be done and it’s all you.”
“All you in this big machine, and you’re more powerful than anyone else, all lonely in that big sky and…” added Van Eijck. The BBC journalist reported that at this point in his tale, emotion overwhelmed the Dutchman and he broke down in tears. Recovering, he continued, “No-one can take it away from you. It was marvelous, so powerful. I can still feel it now. And I was totally convinced I can do this.”
Van Eijck stayed in the air for more than five hours, eventually landing the plane at Benghazi in Libya on the southern coast of the Mediterranean. The airfield he spotted there was little more than a single strip with a few shacks and rather too many sheep. Fortunately, the critters hightailed it as he came into land, a task that he accomplished perfectly. All those hours poring over that Grumman Tracker manual had paid off.
By an extraordinary stroke of luck, the first person Van Eijck came across at the airfield was a fellow Dutchman, albeit an astonished one. Van Eijck explained what he’d done and outlined his plans to leave the navy and return to civilian life. However, his compatriot gently explained to him that he was actually in deep, deep trouble. No navy in the world would just shrug off having one of its planes stolen.
The airfield Dutchman told Van Eijck to give himself up to to the Libyan authorities. He further advised him to claim political asylum. This he did on the spurious grounds that he disagreed with liberal Western attitudes towards gays and females. But this charade had to come to an end, and Van Eijck finally made a deal with the Dutch ambassador.
And all things considered, it really wasn’t such a bad deal. Van Eijck would serve one year in a Dutch prison as punishment for desertion, followed by an honorable discharge from the Royal Netherlands Navy. Of course, getting out of the navy had been the young man’s aim all along. In 2019 Van Eijck emphasized that point. “I got what I wanted! I wanted to get out of the bloody Navy and I got that. And I still don’t regret what I did… I still can’t believe sometimes that I bloody did it!”