Submitted by Karl Breckenridge
Our Saturday morning yarn begins in midweek at the San Francisco airport 56 years ago last Thursday – May 7, 1964 – 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 percent of the homes in Reno could then be bought 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 revolver on-the-spot from a downtown Reno hockshop, and to board San Francisco-bound PAL flight #773 in Reno early the next morning, carrying the gun aboard.
[Follow-up unconfirmed correspondence speculates that he bought the pistol not in Reno, but in his Bay Area home town. From that we could surmise that he boarded an airliner twice with a gun, not once.]
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 tower arrival 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 back of their heads, and all six rounds of the revolver fired.
NTSB investigators speculated that the F-27, trimmed for landing after lowering the landing gear, 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 in 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’s cockpit. And the PAL 773 hijacking became even more heinous by the catastrophic loss of life. Living in San Francisco then, I was amazed and amused, but saddened to see my li’l 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.
Four years before, adman Roger Brander had been named the Reno City Council’s liaison to the 1960 Winter Olympic Organizing Committee. And according to his friends, he was a hell of a nice guy. [Brander’s family still resides in Reno.]
And that’s the way it is, This is Reno readers, May the 9th A.D. 2020 – we get cut loose from our house arrest later today, sort of, but let’s take it slow – and still be safe, huh?
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Karl Breckenridge is slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally and loves to yak it up with friends…now sitting six feet apart.
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