History-making hijacking

Bloody 1961 attempt—the first ever on U.S. soil—earns Chico a place in history

It’s a couple of sentences buried near the end of online encyclopedia Wikipedia’s entry on Chico, in a section titled “Miscellaneous”: “On July 31, 1961, the first-ever aircraft hijacking attempt on United States soil occurred at the Chico Municipal Airport. Two men were critically wounded and the hijacker was sentenced to more than 30 years in prison.”

What? You had no idea?

Unless you read the original front-page story in the Aug. 1, 1961, issue of the Chico Enterprise-Record featuring a photograph of the hijacker face-down on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back, or the 45th-anniversary piece the paper ran in 2006, you likely had no way of knowing that Chico earned its place on the aviation-history map in such a notorious way.

As E-R writer Greg Welter pointed out in his 2006 article, “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. … It might have been different if Britt had been successful, or if it had occurred in San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York.”

This is what happened: On the evening of July 31, Britt—a man from Smackover, Ark., who was working in Corning on a gas-line project—boarded a 7:20 p.m. Pacific Air Lines flight out of Chico that was heading for San Francisco. He carried a concealed snub-nosed .38-caliber revolver in his overnight bag. He had no ticket, but had simply dashed across the tarmac and onto the plane, followed by a pursuing ticket agent, a Chico man named William H. Hicks, who told Britt he had to get off the plane.

As Hicks turned to leave, Britt pulled out his gun and shot him in the back. A second shot at Hicks missed, sending a bullet into a bulkhead. Britt then tried to gain entry into the cockpit, threatening to shoot passengers one at a time until the pilot and co-pilot let him in. Britt then fired at one of the passengers, an attorney from San Francisco; that shot also missed its target.

Britt went back to the cockpit, shouting, “Take off, or I’ll take over.” The pilot, Capt. Oscar Cleal, taxied the plane down the runway, but did not take off, which angered Britt, so Britt shot Cleal in the face. The co-pilot managed to disarm Britt, only to have him pull a knife. Three passengers, including the attorney, helped subdue Britt.

In the meantime, Hicks had alerted law enforcement who arrived and arrested Britt.

As Welter reported, Hicks recovered and lived to the age of 82. He died in 2006. Cleal was not so lucky—his wound left him blinded for life.

Why did Britt commit such a seemingly senseless, brutal crime?

Britt told authorities at the time that he had no money and wanted to fly back to Arkansas to visit his wife and 7-month-old son. He also said that he had been reading about recent in-flight hijackings of planes to Cuba, and “I thought it was a good idea.”