Skyjack!: The Story of America’s First Murder in the Skies

Earnest Pletch

9/11 changed America in many ways, from the coffer draining wars, to the Patriot Act, to severely advanced airport screenings. Other than the 9/11 terrorists, few hijackers other than D.B. Cooper have really stuck in the nation’s mind on a long-term basis. This includes the man responsible for the first aircraft hijacking that led to a murder in the airways of the United States.

Earnest Pletch was from a well-off family and fancied himself a mechanic and an inventor; he also was very much interested in becoming a pilot. He begged his father to buy him an airplane, as he wanted badly to earn the right to fly an airplane on a solo basis. Once his father denied him this, he bucked his family and became a farm hand and mechanic over the next few years to make ends meet. Along the way he married and left at least three to four different women.

Eventually Pletch joined a traveling carnival and left home for several years. He did eventually come back, and it was then that he decided to test his skills that he had learned from reading about piloting airplanes. Pletch accomplished this by stealing an airplane and taking it on a seventy-five mile trip before landing in a field. It was the first time he had ever been behind a real aircraft’s controls.

Now emboldened and figuring that the plane would be reported stolen, Pletch decided to keep the plane while remaining on the run. He flew to Illinois and set up an impromptu business where he portrayed himself as a trained pilot willing to take people on thrill rides for fast cash. This scheme may have worked for a bit had Pletch not fallen head over heels with a 17-year-old girl who he attempted to woo into marriage while taking her on a five-day plane ride rendezvous around the state. She ultimately refused all his offers, and Pletch ended up stranding her in a random field and flying away.

The gal’s parents had been desperately seeking her whereabouts, but they decided not to press charges after hearing about what a good time their daughter had prior to the abrupt ending of the courtship. The police were less lenient and they tracked down Pletch and placed him under arrest. He was released on bond, and preceded to get himself in far more trouble soon after.

Pletch found himself a job back with the carnival and he found himself in love yet again. This time around he quickly married a woman he had met in Missouri. The marriage only lasted a few days and his wife ran off. Pletch borrowed a car and went off after her, ending up in a small Missouri town where he met flight instructor Carl Bivens. The two arranged for Pletch to start taking formal flying lessons.

The two men took to the air on October 27th of 1939, on their third dual flight when Pletch suddenly produced a revolver from his pocket and shot his flight coach in the back of the head while both men were aloft 5,000 feet in the air.

Pletch proceeded to land the plane, took Bivens’ body and dumped it in a thicket, robbed the corpse, then made his way back into the plane and flew off. He headed towards his home state, with the plan racing in his head to crash into his estranged father’s barn in a suicidal finale.  He eventually decided against that and simply landed the plane several times over the next day. By the time he landed the final time, Bivens body had been found and the plane was known to be missing.

Pletch landed in a small farming town, and was met by a crowd of gawking locals. Pletch had to explain away his bloody overalls as being from a nosebleed. He then requested to be directed to a place to eat. By then an alert local woman told the police that the radio had spoken of a pilot being murdered nearby, and this led to Pletch being arrested. He still had the murder weapon on him.

Once he was apprehended, the court system had a number of headaches to deal with. Firstly, they could not verify where Bivens had been killed since the flight went over several Missouri counties. On top of that, the law books had no special rules or clauses on a mid-air murder in place either. Several district attorneys attempted to claim Pletch’s case for themselves, but it was ultimately handed to the county where Bivens and Pletch had flown over the longest.

The actual trial was rushed into court due to fears of the public lynching Pletch, and only a few days after his arrest Pletch plead guilty. Bivens widow petitioned the court to remove the gas chamber from the list of possible penalties, in exchange for Pletch agreeing to never ask for a pardon or parole. He was thusly sentenced to life in prison.

An unforeseen twist of fate made the widow’s deal null and void as Pletch had his sentenced commuted to a twenty-five year sentence in 1953, and was released outright in March of 1957 due to prison overcrowding and his own good behavior. Pletch ended up finding work as a pilot, among other things. He also remarried several times and ended up with sixteen grandchildren by the time he died in June of 2001.

His reasons for killing Bivens were never made clear. Pletch gave conflicting stories upon his arrest, but the most probable excuse seems to be that he decided to once again steal an airplane and he was willing to kill to achieve his goals. Much of his life after his prison stint is poorly documented, and a true answer is not on the official record.

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Written by Andrew Lutzke

The grumpy old man of culturecrossfire.com, lover of wrasslin' and true crimes.