The pilot and co-pilot of the Pacific Airlines DC-3 could be forgiven if they were confused when the gunman burst through the cockpit door that July evening in 1961. No one had ever attempt to hijack a plane in California before. No one had ever attempted to hijack an airplane anywhere in the United States before.
The gunman, on the other hand, was perfectly clear about what he was doing. He had already shot and seriously wounded one airline employee. He had then threatened to kill all the passengers one at a time, if his demand wasn't met. Now in the cockpit, he was ready to issue his demand. Inspired by recent news accounts of passenger planes in other countries that had been hijacked to Cuba, the gunman leveled his pistol at the pilot's head and barked out his instructions. Take this plane, he told the pilot, take this plane to... Arkansas!
If the hijacker's intended destination seems unlikely, so does the scene of the crime: the municipal airport at Chico. The first attempted hijacking, which occurred 45 years ago today, was not, it seems, the stuff of a blockbuster movie.
The Chico Enterprise Record sounds a little defensive in its story on the anniversary of the event, implying that the world doesn't pay enough attention to events in Chico.
Much of what happened that day seems lost to history. There is no mention of the hijacker, Bruce Britt, Sr., then 40, among chronicles of worldwide airliner hijackings. In fact, the event is hardly mentioned. It might be different if Britt had been successful, or if it had occurred in San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York.
But then, it's not just the non-Chico parts of the world that forgot about Britt. As the Enterprise Record story notes: "many reporters were stunned when a reader reminded us recently that on July 31, 1961 -- exactly 45 years ago today -- the first attempted hijacking of an airliner on U.S. soil took place at Chico Municipal Airport."
Britt, a native of Smackover, Arkansas (a wide spot in the road near the Louisiana-Arkansas border), had been working on a gas pipeline in Corning, and was desperate to get back to his wife and child in Smackover. He was broke– he later told the police he was owed back pay– but he did have a car and a gun. Now, some might wonder why, if he had a car and a gun, he decided to hijack a plane. Surely, even if he had been successful, he would have been arrested in Arkansas. Instead, he could have used the gun in a robbery to get gas money. Or, if he didn't feel like driving, he could have stolen enough money for a bus ticket. But no– inspired, he would later claim, by reports of international hijackings, he decided forcing the 7:20pm Pacific Airlines flight from Chico to San Francisco to detour to Arkansas was the best solution to his problem. Why? "I thought it was a good idea," was the explanation he offered the police.
Britt almost missed his opportunity, he got to the airport late. Despite doing 120mph on Highway 99– with the Highway Patrol in pursuit part of the way– he still would have missed the plane, if the flight hadn't been late in leaving.
At the airport, Britt ran to the plane, and took a seat by the cockpit door. A ticket agent who had seen him board, tried to remove him, for not having a ticket.
"This is my ticket," Britt said, pulling out his gun and shooting the ticket agent in the back. He then fired a shot at a stewardess– he missed– and announced that he would beginning killing the passengers unless the pilot did as he said.
"You are first," Britt said, as he turned the gun on a nearby seated passenger and fired. Again, Britt missed. He then headed for the cockpit.
With Britt standing over them, the pilot and co-pilot taxied the plane onto the runway. Then, no doubt in an attempt to separate Britt from the passengers, the pilot told Britt that the plane could not take off until the cockpit door was closed. Confused or angry (or both), Britt shot the pilot in the head. The co-pilot knocked the gun from Britt's hand. Britt then pulled out a knife, but was quickly overpowered by three passengers.
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When the police arrived, Britt was arrested and charged with three counts of attempted murder. Both men he shot survived. The ticket agent made a full recovery. The pilot's wound left him blind.
Britt was convicted and... that's where the story ends. This remarkable local anniversary didn't stir anyone at the journalistic juggernaut that is the Chico Enterprise Record to do much research beyond flipping through a couple of old editions of the paper. The best Chico's Paper of Record can offer regarding the fate of Bruce Britt is what it learned from Sally Hicks, the widow of the ticket agent Britt shot. (William Hicks, the ticket agent, died last year at the age of 82.)
Sally Hicks said Britt was sentenced to prison, but believes he may have been released. If he's still alive, he'd be 87.
A rather damp squib of an ending for what should be an important story. A story that reminds us during these times when are we constantly pushed to be fearful of swarthy foreigners, that one of the most dangerous things you'll ever encounter in this country– home of Timothy McVeigh and the KKK, as well Bruce Britt, Sr.– is a delusional redneck with a gun.