Peter Gallant was a poor boy determined to become a pilot and he made his dream a reality, his sister said.

Gallant, a Portland native who passed away last week at his home in Florida, always said he would be a pilot, said Bernice O’Leary, and after he did, his career included a hijacking and guiding a small plane to safety.

Gallant, who was 79 when he died, grew up during the Depression, O’Leary said, so it seemed as if a career as a pilot was out of the question. But he served two years on the USS Midway aircraft carrier and with the GI Bill and his mustering out pay, was able to afford to take lessons with Maine Flying Service.

His lessons weren’t uneventful – one time he had to land on a golf course in Portsmouth because of bad weather – but he earned his commercial pilot’s license, flying first for Northeast Airlines – originally Boston-Maine Airways – and then United Airlines, where he eventually become senior captain.

Gallant was the pilot of a United flight that originated in Cleveland and was hijacked to Cuba on March 10, 1970. There was a rash of airline hijackings to Cuba in the late 1960s and early 1970s and Gallant told his family that he took the incident in stride.

“He figured it was about his time to get hijacked because all his buddies had been hijacked,” O’Leary said. The hijacking of Gallant’s flight was one of 13 to Cuba in 1970.

Gallant told his family that the most nerve-wracking time was when he had to land the plane in Atlanta to refuel before continuing onto Cuba. The hijacker, he said, was adamant that no one get near the plane’s doors while it was on the ground.

Once in Cuba, the hijacker got off the plane with a woman and four children, believed to be his family, and was arrested by Cuban authorities. The hijacker was reportedly shot three years later while attempting to escape from a Cuban prison.

While in Cuba, Gallant and the 93 remaining passengers and six other crew members were given a good meal and put up for the night before they flew back to the U.S. the next day, along with four other Americans whose small plane was forced to land in Cuba a few days earlier because of bad weather.

After Gallant got back, O’Leary talked to her sister-in-law, who said, “Here I am, worried sick about my husband, and they were treating him like a king.”

Later that year, Gallant testified about his experience before the Federal Aviation Authority, which was investigating the hijackings and looking at ways to prevent them, O’Leary said.

The other major incident of his 45-year career as a pilot was when he heard an SOS from a small plane over the Gulf of Mexico. Gallant, on a flight to Florida at the time, flew until he found the plane and then led it to Tampa, where it landed safely, O’Leary said.

Gallant never lived in Maine permanently after he turned 18, O’Leary said, but came back often to visit and hosted his family at his Florida home.

“We were very proud of what he did with his life,” O’Leary said. “He was a kid who would just say, ‘I’m going to be a pilot,’ and by gosh, he did.”

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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