Pacific Airlines Flight 773 Crashes After the Pilot and Co-Pilot are Shot

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.

In terse, flat language, a Civil Aero nautics Board investigative report last week laid down its chilling conclusion: "The total evidence clearly indicates that the captain and first officer of Flight 773 were shot by a passenger. As a result, the uncontrolled aircraft began the descent which ended in impact with the hill."

Forty-one passengers and a crew of three, on Pacific Air Lines Flight 773 bound from Reno to San Francisco, had died in a pyre of flaming gasoline on the morning of last May 7, when the plane plunged into a hill near San Ramon, Calif. Amid the wreckage, investigators found a .357 Smith & Wesson Magnum revolver containing six empty cartridges. Soon they learned that the weapon had been purchased in San Francisco the night before by Francisco Paula Gonzales, 27, a San Francisco warehouse man long besieged by marital and financial problems.

A search of the wreckage area disclosed the presence of a .357 Smith and Wesson Model 27 Magnum revolver containing six empty cartridges which had been fired by the weapon. The gun with ammunition and a cleaning kit had been purchased by a passenger, Mr Gonzales on May 6, 1964. He had advised both friends and relatives that he would die on either the 6th or the 7th of May. He boarded Flight 756 on the 6th with a return reservation for Flight 773 on the following morning. Shortly before boarding the flight to Reno, Gonzales displayed the gun to numerous friends at the airport and told one person he intended to shoot himself. He also purchased two insurance policies in the total amount of $105,000. Investigation revealed that he was disturbed and depressed over marital and financial difficulties. On the return flight to San Francisco he gained access to the flight deck and shot both pilots.

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 displays.

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 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.