This yarn begins in midweek over 55 years ago (May 6, 1964) at the San Francisco airport, where a man, described later by acquaintances and family as debt-ridden and erratic, purchased two life insurance policies with a value of over $160,000 from an airport vending machine, naming his wife as the beneficiary. To add relevance to that figure, I’d guess that 80 per cent of the homes in Reno could be bought 50 years ago for under $25,000. He flew Pacific Air Lines to Reno and knocked around most of the night in the casinos. And, in the laissez-faire world of the early 1960s, he was able to both purchase a Colt .357 on-the-spot from a downtown Reno hock shop, and to board San Francisco-bound PAL flight #773 in Reno early the next morning, carrying the gun aboard. [Follow-up correspondence – unconfirmable – speculates that he bought the gun not in Reno, but in his Bay Area home town. Were that the case we could surmise that he boarded an airliner not once but twice with a gun.]
PAL 773 was under the hand of Captain Ernest Clark, a 22,000-hour commercial and Army Air Corps pilot with 3,000 of those hours in the Fairchild F-27 in use that day – the plane a twin-turboprop favorite workhorse of short- and medium-range regional carriers. The flight stopped briefly in Stockton, and passengers who deplaned in Stockton recalled the man seated in the front row, behind the open cockpit door.
Departing Stockton, the flight was on schedule over the East Bay on a long final approach into San Francisco International Airport when a frantic voice broke over the SFO arrival traffic frequency “PAL seven-seven-three, Skipper’s shot…we’ve been shot…trying to help” – the voice of 6,000-hour co-pilot Raymond Andress. One account suggested the phrase “…passenger in the cockpit” followed by a gunshot. Medical examiners would find the pilot and co-pilot shot in the backs of their heads, and all six rounds of the revolver fired.
Investigators speculated that the F-27, trimmed for landing, would, if left unattended, maintain level flight for a while, and that the hijacker must have exerted considerable pressure on the yolk to start the plane into the near-vertical dive that eyewitnesses on the ground reported seeing. The plane impacted on a grassy hill near San Ramon, which on that early hour of May 7th of 1964 was just a wide spot in the road in Contra Costa County.
The incident had worldwide repercussions, inasmuch as it was the first intrusion by an armed passenger into a commercial airliner cockpit. And the PAL 773 hijacking became even more heinous by the catastrophic loss of life. Living in San Francisco at the time, I was amazed and amused, but saddened to see my ‘lil ol’ hometown making the news so often for days and weeks – the “Reno hijacking” this and “Gamblers’ Special” that – (which it wasn’t). The flight originated in Reno with only one Nevadan aboard, with an intervening stop in Stockton and ended in San Ramon, all by a plan premeditated by a San Francisco resident, but around the nation’s newsrooms the unheard-of first-ever hijacking had to be an only-in-sin-city-divorcin’ and gamblin’-Reno occurrence. The siege of take-me-to-Cuba diversions and D. B. Cooper’s stunt would come in years to follow. (And none originated in Reno.)
The fatal flight’s occupant manifest listed 44 souls, inclusive of the pilot and co-pilot, 30-year-old stewardess Marjorie Schafer, the skyjacker (thanks, Herb Caen, for that slang), 39 mostly-Bay Area residents, and …Roger Brander, 34, gnrl. mgr. KBUB-AM radio, Reno, Nev
Endnote: Slain pilot Ernest Clark’s daughter, Julie Clark, who was 15 at the time of the tragedy, went on to buy an ex-Navy T-34 trainer (think Beechcraft Bonanza with tandem seats and a conventional tail) that she flew to numerous international aerobatic championships and demonstrated at the Reno Air Races…