Pacific Air Lines Flight 773 was a Pacific Air Lines Fairchild F-27A airliner that crashed at 6:49 a.m. on May 7 1964 near San Ramon, California, USA. The crash was likely the first instance in the United States of an airliner's pilots being shot by a passenger as part of a mass murder/suicide; Francisco Paula Gonzales, 27, shot both the pilot and co-pilot before turning the gun on himself, causing the plane to crash and killing all 44 aboard.
Events preceding the flight
A former member of the Philippine
sailing team at the 1960 Summer Olympics
, Gonzales, now a warehouse worker living in San Francisco
, had been "disturbed and depressed" over marital and financial difficulties in the months preceding the crash. Gonzales was deeply in debt and nearly half of his income was committed to various loan payments, and he had advised both relatives and friends that he "would die on either Wednesday, the 6th of May, or Thursday, the 7th of May." In the week preceding the crash, Gonzales referred to his impending death on a daily basis, and purchased a Smith & Wesson
handgun through a friend of a friend. Before boarding a flight to Reno, Nevada
the evening before the crash, he had shown the gun to numerous friends at the airport and told one person he intended to kill himself. Gonzales gambled in Reno the night before the fatal flight and told a casino employee that he didn't care how much he lost because "it won't make any difference after tomorrow."
The plane, a twin-engine turboprop
Fairchild F-27, registration N2770R, was a U.S.-built version of the Fokker F-27 Friendship
airliner. It was manufactured in 1959, and had accumulated about 10,250 flight hours up to its final flight, with Pacific Air Lines as the sole owner and operator.
The F-27 took off from Reno at 5:54 a.m., with 33 passengers aboard, including Gonzales, and a crew of three, bound for San Francisco International Airport
, with a scheduled stop in Stockton, California
. The crew consisted of Captain Ernest "Ernie" A. Clark, 52, pilot in command, First Officer Ray Andress, 31, copilot, and Flight Attendant Margaret Schafer, 30.
After crossing the Sierra Nevada, the plane arrived at Stockton, where two passengers deplaned and ten boarded, bringing the plane’s total to 41 passengers. It was about 6:38 a.m. when Flight 773 lifted off and headed towards San Francisco International.
At 6:48:15, with the aircraft approximately 10 minutes out of Stockton, the Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center
(ARTCC) received a high-pitched, garbled radio message from Flight 773, and the aircraft soon disappeared from the center’s radar
After attempting unsuccessfully to contact Flight 773, Oakland ARTCC asked another aircraft in the immediate vicinity, United Air Lines Flight 593, if they had the plane in sight. Flight 593's flight crew responded that they did not see Flight 773, but a minute later they reported: "There’s a black cloud of smoke coming up through the undercast at ... three-thirty, four o’clock position right now. Looks like (an) oil or gasoline fire." Oakland ARTCC realized that the smoke spotted by the United air crew was likely caused by the crash of Pacific Air Lines Flight 773.
Flying at its assigned altitude of 5,000 feet, Flight 773 had suddenly gone into a steep dive. It crashed and exploded into a rural hillside (location ), in southern Contra Costa County. Flight 773's last radio message, from First Officer Andress, was deciphered through laboratory analysis: "Skipper’s shot. We’ve been shot. (I was) tryin’ to help."
The official accident report stated that witnesses along the flight path and near the impact area described "extreme and abrupt changes in attitude of Flight 773 with erratic powerplant sounds" before the plane hit a sloping hillside at a relative angle of 90 degrees.
Investigators from the Civil Aeronautics Board
(CAB) found in the mangled wreckage a damaged Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum
revolver, holding six spent cartridges. The Federal Bureau of Investigation
soon joined the CAB in a search for evidence so that the apparent criminal aspects of this case could be pursued. Investigators found that when Gonzales left San Francisco for Reno the day before the fatal flight, he was carrying the .357, and that he had purchased $105,000 worth of life insurance
at the airport, payable to his wife.
The probable cause stated in the CAB accident report was "the shooting of the captain and first officer by a passenger during flight", and the FBI determined that the suicidal Gonzales was the shooter.
Civil air regulation amendments became effective on August 6
, that required that doors separating the passenger cabin from the crew compartment on all scheduled air carrier and commercial aircraft must be kept locked in flight. An exception to the rule remains during takeoff and landing on certain aircraft, such as the Fairchild F-27, where the cockpit door leads to an emergency passenger exit. The amendments were actually passed by the Federal Aviation Administration
prior to the crash of Flight 773, but had not become effective yet.
In another murder/suicide incident with similarities to Pacific Air Lines Flight 773, PSA Flight 1771 crashed on December 7, 1987 into a rural area near Cayucos, California, killing all 43 on board. The plane went out of control after a passenger shot both pilots. Both crash sites were on sparsely-populated grassy hillsides used for cattle ranching, contributing to the lack of ground casualties.
Julie Clark, one of three daughters of the murdered Captain of Pacific Air Lines Flight 773, and orphaned at the age of 15 by her father's death, grew up to become a commercial airline pilot for Northwest Airlines, and performs aerobatic displays at airshows.
Steven Andress, only son and fourth child of co-pilot Ray Andress, attended the U.S. Air Force Academy and went on to fly with Alaska Airlines.
- Serling, Robert J. Loud and Clear: The Full Answer to Aviation's Vital Question-Are the Jets Really Safe? Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969