The Crash of Pacific Air Lines Flight #773
A Different Time...
The year was 1964. It was a time when getting aboard a commercial airliner was much easier than today. You paid your money, walked through a gate (then often across the tarmac) and boarded the plane. No X-rays, no security check points, no guards. The wave of hijackings to Cuba was still to come, only to be followed by terrorists hijackings and even worse beyond that.
It was a time when we all thought nobody was crazy enough to take a gun aboard a airliner and threaten to kill people, let alone actually shoot someone. Well on Pacific Air Lines Flight 773, that's exactly what happened.
According to newspaper accounts of the time, Francisco Gonzales would constantly threaten people, especially members of his family. He said that they would die alongside him, by his hand.
But what brought about his problems? Gonzales, 27, had been a member of the Philippine yachting team at the 1960 Olympics. However, by 1964 he was having trouble with his wife and also had accumulated a fair amount of debt. Then one day he apparently decided he had finally had enough. But rather than kill those around him as he had threaten, for some unknown reason, he chose to try to help his wife instead.
According to the accident report, FBI investigators uncovered that Gonzales had advised both friends and relatives that he would die either Wednesday, the 6th of May, or Thursday, the 7th of May. He referred to his impending death on a daily basis throughout the week preceding the accident.
Then, on the evening of the May 6th, Gonzales purchased a Smith and Wesson .357 magnum from an acquaintance.
After arriving at the San Francisco Airport, Gonzales took out two insurance policies totaling a $105,000. Then, shortly before boarding the flight to Reno, he displayed his gun to numerous friends at the airport and told one person he intended to shoot himself. He then boarded the flight to Reno, with a ticket to return the next day aboard Pacific Air Lines Flight 773. Newspaper accounts of the time give conflicting total amounts, but Gonzales may have had as much as $160,000 in life insurance at the time of the crash. That was a small fortune at the time especially considering it was an era when an average home in the San Francisco Bay Area could be bought for less than $25,000.
Once in Reno, Gonzales spent the night visiting various gambling establishments. At one place a casino employee asked how he was doing, to which Gonzales replied, "It would not make any difference after tomorrow." Several people recalled seeing Gonzales carrying a small package while in Reno. A janitor at a gambling club where Gonzales was known to have spent a part of the evening discovered a cardboard carton for a Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum revolver and a gun cleaning kit in the wastepaper container. Both of these items were identified later by the seller as part of Gonzales' purchase on the preceding evening.
Then is was time for the return trip. Gonzales went to the airport, and boarded the plane which was headed first for a stop in Stockton, when on to San Francisco. According to witnesses who got off the plane in Stockton, Gonzales was seated right behind the cockpit door.
But Gonzales didn't act immediately. Why didn't he act sooner while the airliner was over the Sierras? Why did he wait until the airliner was almost to San Francisco? We'll probably never know. But about the time the Fairchild F-27A (N2770R) with 43 other souls aboard, started to descend for its landing, Gonzales pulled out his gun and kicked his way into the cockpit. Once in there, he raised the gun and put a bullet into the back of the pilot's head. Ernest Clark, 52, was dead. At 6:48 the aircraft radioed its last message. First officer Raymond Andress was heard saying, "Skipper's shot. We've been shot. Trying to help." There were more shots as Gonzales turned to the co-pilot and shot him.
The twin-engine plane went into a steep, uncontrolled, high speed descent to crash into a hill and explode near San Ramon early in the morning of May 7, 1964. All 44, 41 passengers and 3 crew members, were dead on impact.
There was a large crater with debris spread over a very large area. In the wreckage, along with personal belongings, a bible and papers, investigators found the .357. All six shots had been fired.
|A sheriff deputy looks over a twisted mass of wreckage.||From the top of the wreckage field looking downwards|
The Crash Site Today
According the Civil Aeronautics Board report, the aircraft struck the up-slope of a 25. 2 degree hill at a relative angle of 90.2 degrees. The wreckage was confined to the east slope of the 800 foot hill and strewn 1,050 feet up the slope along a 800 foot width from the main crater. The cockpit area was so completely destroyed by impact that only four small pieces of the instrument panel were retrieved. No single portion of more than eight square inches was recovered.
The report also stated, "The Board and the FBI conducted through screening, vacuuming, and sluicing operations at the wreckage site." Because of this statement in the report, when we went to the site to make our survey, we expected to find little, if anything. However, we were in for a surprise.
While the crash report speaks of the large crater left as a result of the impact of the aircraft, today there is no indication of the impact on the surface.
Our plan was to find an approximate location, then as usual, find and follow the debris field to determine the impact site location.
Unlike searching for sites in the desert, we didn't expect to find and any debris on the surface. After all, the area is pasture land for cattle and nearly 40 years grass growth and cattle traffic can hide a lot.
We asked for and received permission of the current owners of the property, the Sherman Family, to make our survey. They had heard that there was a crash around there somewhere, but believed it to be a small, four passenger private plane. They were very surprised to learn that it was a medium size passenger airliner with 44 people on board when it crashed.
The photo on the left has the approximate location of the crater indicated by the sticks, looking up the hill in the direction of the debris field. On the right is the view from near the top of the ridge, looking back down to the approximate site of the main impact. Near the bottom of the photo is a ground squirrel dirt pile that was full of many pieces of metallic and non-metallic debris.
Although we had our metal detector out searching for any metal fragments (our clues to the debris field) on our way to our estimated position, there were no hits. We also checked any ground squirrel mounds along the way as well and found nothing. Then, within seconds of arriving at our estimated position, our metal detector began to sing. First one, then another, more and more. Much to our surprise the area was rich with fragments just below the surface. And thanks to the ground squirrels who had made their homes in the debris field, we also managed to locate a lot of non-metallic items. Part of belts, plates, fiberglass and a host of other bits and pieces were abundant. Above is a GPS overlay indicating where debris was found. Some points may indicate more then one fragment was found at that location.
The crash of Pacific Flight 773 was discussed in the 1969 book by Robert J. Serling, Loud & Clear - The full answer to aviation's vital question: Are the jets really safe? In Chapter 8 of the book, topics such as vending-machine trip insurance for passengers, secured cockpits, and armed flight crewmembers are covered.