Why America's 1st Hijacker Killed a Man at 5K Feet Earnest Pletch shot the pilot at close range By Neal Colgrass, Newser Staff Posted Aug 9, 2015 5:00 PM CDT 11 comments Comments (Shutterstock) (Newser) – America's first hijacker gunned down a pilot at close range, yet lived much of his life a free man—apparently thanks to the pilot's wife. Indiana man Earnest Pletch wandered during his younger days in the 1920s and '30s, working for a traveling show and marrying at least three times. But most importantly he became aviation-crazed in the era of Charles Lindbergh and claimed he learned to fly by reading books, the Smithsonian reports. "I would rather fly than eat," he once said. He even ran his own thrill-ride service for a time out of Illinois. Then came 1939, when Pletch asked Missouri pilot Carl Bivens for flying lessons. The third time up, Pletch shot him in the back of the head at 5,000 feet, making Pletch America's first mid-air killer. Pletch quickly ditched the body in a pasture and flew the yellow monoplane back home to Indiana. Pletch apparently considered a suicidal slam into the barn of his father, a county legislator and moneyed farmer, but after circling above, he opted for a burger in the town of Clear Creek—where residents spotted blood on his overalls and got him arrested. Pletch gave authorities multiple accounts of the killing, even citing self-defense, and ended up pleading guilty. But lady luck came along when Bivens' wife told the judge she wasn't seeking the gas chamber. Pletch then got life in prison without parole and was presumed to have died there, per a 2009 report in Bloom, but it turns out he served just 20 years on good behavior. Seems he died a free man in 2001, leaving behind 16 grandchildren and 22 great grandchildren—all because he was shown "mercy by a woman to whose husband he had shown no mercy at all," Smithsonian says.