VALLETTA, Malta (AP) _ The blood on his jacket barely dry, the pilot of the hijacked Egyptair jet calmly told reporters today how he felled one of the sky pirates with a fire ax.

''It was hell,'' Capt. Hani Galal told a news conference hours after Egyptian commandos assaulted his plane, triggering a bloodbath in which up to 50 people died. ''But our only hope was the storming.''

The Egyptian soldiers blew open two doors of the Boeing 737, on the ground at Valletta's Luqa airport, and swarmed inside. The cornered hijackers tossed grenades in the cabin, touching off fires that destroyed the cabin interior and killed trapped passengers.

''The hijackers were very desperate and bloodthirsty people,'' Galal said. In an even voice, he described the 22-hour hijacking and the bloody commando raid Sunday night that ended the standoff.

The hijackers' ringleader, never identifying himself, kept a revolver trained on Galal throughout the ordeal, joking and laughing after he shot passengers, the pilot said.

When the ringleader realized Sunday evening that Egyptian troops had attacked the plane in a bid to end the hijacking, he hurled a grenade into the passengers' cabin, Galal said.

The hijacker, remembering he had let the captain out of his sight momentarily, spun around and shot at him, but the bullet only grazed Galal's head.

Galal grabbed a fire ax and struck his captor, who fell to the floor. Galal said he thought the hijacker had been killed.

With bloodstains on his navy blue Egyptair pilot's jacket and a white bandage around his head, Galal, 39, told reporters that the hijackers took control of the plane about 10 minutes into the Saturday evening flight from Athens, Greece, to Cairo.

Shortly after the hijack began, a shootout in the cabin killed an Egyptian security guard and wounded two stewardesses and one of the hijackers, Galal said.

Worried that his fuel could run out, Galal said he decided to do as the hijackers demanded and land on Malta.

Galal said that the hijackers seemed to be Palestinians because of their accent. He said they told him if the plane was not refueled they would kill a passenger every 15 minutes.

''After the third execution I was prepared to do anything to prevent more killing,'' he said.

But a Maltese government spokesman said that after word came the hijackers had begun killing their captives, the government decided it would not give in to the demand for fuel.

Reports varied on the number of people injured or killed before the raid, with the Maltese government confirming only one death and injuries to seven people.

The hijackers, who Galal said numbered at least four, gathered all the passports and chose Israelis and Americans ''for execution,'' the pilot quoted the leader as saying.

Galal, who has been a pilot for 15 years, defended the decision to storm the plane. ''You can't guarantee it will be a clean operation. There have to be some casualties,'' he said.