In June 1985, a notorious hijacking left a TWA aircraft abandoned at Beirut’s airport — its insides partially gutted, barely able to fly. After weeks of sensitive negotiations, the airline and US officials sent a pilot and two crew members on a secret mission to retrieve the plane.
And that’s how Richard Vaux — a TWA pilot then living in Danvers — found himself that August in the plane’s cockpit on a Beirut runway, staring at two gun barrels, wondering if he’d survive the next few moments.
The airport’s control tower had just cleared him to take off with the battered plane, but an armored personnel carrier drove onto the runway and cut him off. “It grinds to a stop by my window, and there’s a guy on the roof with a twin-barreled 40mm cannon pointed at my face,” he wrote in a memoir published this year.
Mr. Vaux, who was 85 when he died July 18 of congestive heart failure, was among a few TWA pilots who volunteered to retrieve the plane, if negotiations were successful. He had only learned he was chosen a couple of days earlier, just hours before being sent overseas.
The militia group on the runway wasn’t the first threat he faced in Beirut, and he managed to dispense with those men politely: He opened his window and saluted, they saluted back, and he went on his way.
Earlier, Mr. Vaux and his two crew members were each assigned a “bodyguard” upon boarding the graffiti-covered hijacked plane.
“Mine is a nervous 14-year-old kid with a pistol in one hand and a machine gun in the other,” he wrote. “I’m not sure who he’s supposed to be ‘protecting,’ but it’s my head at which he’s pointing the pistol.”
Their success escaping unharmed and flying the plane to Cyprus and then to Rome brought the crew top honors from TWA.
And the event became a storied moment in an era when hijackings dominated the news. Camera crews descended on Danvers as Mr. Vaux was interviewed by TV networks, the Globe, and other media outlets.
This year, working with writer Brad Kuhn, Mr. Vaux published “Dirty Work: The Untold Story of my Secret Mission to Steal Back TWA Flight 847 from Hezbollah.”
“I wanted to help get the airplane back,” he told the Globe in August 1985, after returning to Danvers.
The mission, he added, “was exciting and interesting and I probably won’t get to do anything similar for the rest of my career.”
“Exciting” was probably an understatement. Mr. Vaux recalled that when he and his crew landed in Beirut to retrieve the hijacked plane, men with rifles on the ground and on rooftops began shouting.
“When you don’t understand the language, you’re hoping it’s friendly — especially when they’re waving guns,” he told the Globe.
The plane they retrieved had been hijacked after taking off from Athens on June 14, 1985.
The hijackers demanded that Israeli forces release hundreds of prisoners. Over the following days, the hijackers released some passengers while beating and threatening others — forcing the crew to fly the plane back and forth to Algiers.
At one point, the hijackers shot and killed Robert Stethem, a US Navy diver who was among the passengers, and threw his body out the plane at Beirut’s airport.
An enduring news image was Captain John Testrake, the TWA pilot, leaning out his cockpit window as the plane sat on a Beirut runway. He was giving an interview to reporters at the airport when a hijacker suddenly began waving a pistol around his head.
The hijacking ordeal lasted more than two weeks until the last of the hostages was released.
On the day Mr. Vaux was sent to retrieve the plane, he was in Danvers, about to leave on a fishing trip with his teenaged son, Glenn — the only other one home that day.
To avoid work calls, Mr. Vaux had told Glenn to not answer the phone. But Glenn was expecting word from a friend and answered what turned out to be the crucial call from TWA headquarters.
Because it was a secret mission, Mr. Vaux could only tell Glenn that he was leaving for several days. “He said, ‘I’m going overseas and I can’t tell you more than that. If anything happens to me and I don’t return, just remember that I wanted to do it,’ ” Glenn recalled.
One of two siblings, Richard Alden Vaux was born in Swampscott on Jan. 10, 1934, and grew up in Danvers, the son of Robert Vaux and Carolyn Dudley.
He graduated from Holten High School — now Danvers High — and received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine Orono.
“My father was a piano teacher who worked seven days a week to make ends meet,” Mr. Vaux wrote in his memoir. “My mom was a schoolteacher, so it was pretty clear that if I wanted to attend college, I’d have to earn the money myself.”
He recalled selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, delivering dry-cleaning, building fish-runs for Maine hatcheries, and working at a pulp mill.
After college, along with working for TWA for 30 years as a pilot, he served and flew for many years in the Massachusetts Air National Guard and the Maine Air National Guard.
Mr. Vaux “was known as a very likable, very gregarious, fun-loving guy — a very dependable individual,” said Al Mundo, a longtime friend and retired TWA captain who also flew with him in the military.
“Dick was just an amazing guy,” said Major General Will Hessert, a retired Air Force deputy inspector general who had been a Maine Air National Guard leader.
“I had so much respect for him,” Hessert added. “He was a fantastic pilot and was good to everybody. He was one of those rare, rare people you were just fortunate to know.”
Mr. Vaux’s first marriage, to Julie Faulkner, ended in divorce.
He subsequently married Cynthia Burke Mackintosh, who died in 2010.
Mr. Vaux, who divided his time between Hampton Falls, N.H., and Port Charlotte, Fla., was an avid outdoorsman, fishing near Moosehead Lake in Maine, and a car aficionado. More than 50 years ago, he worked for a time for Studebaker.
“He’d never pay anyone to fix a car. He’d pull an engine out of the car and swap in a new engine,” said Glenn, who also lives in Hampton Falls. “He had every tool in the world.”
In addition to Glenn, Mr. Vaux leaves two daughters, Margo Tolosko of Houston and Melanie of Quincy; and his former wife, Julie Vaux of Exeter, N.H.
Family and friends will gather to celebrate Mr. Vaux’s life at 4 p.m. Sept. 8 at the Breakfast Hill Golf Club in Greenland, N.H.
In his pilot days, Mr. Vaux liked to get on the public address system and tell passengers about landmarks they were flying over. In any situation, entertaining came naturally. “He told great stories, many times over,” Margo said several days after her father died. “Everyone I talked to this week said, ‘He was the best storyteller, and boy, could he tell stories.’ ”
His greatest story, though, was Beirut. “I’m just so proud that he finally got it in a book,” Margo said.
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.