After 30 years, the man who pulled off the only successful airplane hijacking in Canadian history was sentenced to three years in jail on Wednesday.

Patrick Critton, 54, was sentenced in a Brampton, Ont. court for the 1971 hijacking of an Air Canada flight from Thunder Bay to Toronto.

Justice Casey Hill knocked two years off a five-year sentence for time served. He also recommended accelerated parole meaning Critton could be free in less than a year.

"I think (Critton) was very elated," said defence lawyer Irving Andre. "I think the judge was reasonable, he was fair, and the sentence he gave quite frankly reflects the circumstances of the case."

Critton pleaded guilty to kidnapping and extortion for the Boxing Day hijacking, in which he ordered an Air Canada jet to take him to Cuba.

He was arrested in September in Mount Vernon, New York, where he had been living the life of a model citizen under his own name since 1994. Peel Regional Police found him using an Internet search engine.

From black radical to community leader

In the late 1960s, Critton was involved with radical black activist groups. He thought police in the U.S. were looking for him so he fled to Canada.

He boarded an Air Canada flight in Thunder Bay armed with a handgun and a dummy grenade. Just before landing in Toronto, he entered the cockpit and took control of the plane.

After allowing all the passengers to disembark without the slightest knowledge of the hijacking he ordered the plane refuelled and flown to Cuba.

The lack of violence in the hijacking and the life Critton led in the ensuing decades led Hill to impose a lenient sentence, even though the charges are among the most serious in the Canadian Criminal Code.

By the 1990s, Critton had become a community leader. That, his lawyer told CBC Newsworld, had to be taken into account.

"To what extent do you throw the book at someone who has so fundamentally changed his life?"