Pan Am Flight 7
A Pan Am Stratocruiser similar to the accident aircraft
|Date||November 8, 1957|
|Summary||Crash, cause undetermined|
|Site||Pacific Ocean |
|Aircraft type||Boeing 377 Stratocruiser 10–29|
|Aircraft name||Clipper Romance Of The Skies|
|Operator||Pan American World Airways|
|Flight origin||San Francisco International Airport|
|Destination||Honolulu International Airport|
Pan Am Flight 7 was a westbound around-the-world flight originating in San Francisco that crashed in the Pacific Ocean on November 8, 1957, while flying to Honolulu, Hawaii. The aircraft assigned to the flight was a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser named Clipper Romance Of The Skies, and the crash killed all 36 passengers and 8 crew members. No radio reports of any emergencies were ever received from the crew of the flight, and the fate of the flight was not known until about nine hours after its last known radio transmission, when the plane, if it had still been flying, would have exhausted its fuel. Under the assumption that the plane could have survived a controlled landing on the ocean surface, the United States Coast Guard launched a massive search for the plane and any potential survivors. The week-long hunt became the largest search and rescue operation in the Pacific Ocean at the time. The bodies of 19 of the victims and pieces of the plane were eventually recovered from the ocean about 900 miles (1,400 km) northeast of Honolulu.
Multiple investigations into the cause of the crash were inconclusive. Despite some theories that the plane may have been the victim of sabotage, poor maintenance, or in-flight fire, investigators could not find enough evidence to support any definite conclusion. The final report from the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), who conducted the investigation, stated, "The Board has insufficient tangible evidence at this time to determine the cause of the accident."
In 1947, Pan American World Airways offered the first regularly scheduled around-the-world flights that flew westbound from the west coast of the United States or eastbound from the east coast, stopping in multiple cities over the course of several days before ending the trip on the opposite coast. Passengers on these flights had the option to include extended stopovers in any of the cities along the way until a later flight departed the city. In November 1957, Flight 7 was the flight number assigned to one of the company's westbound round-the-world flights, which departed San Francisco on Friday mornings and included 15 intermediate stops before eventually arriving in Philadelphia on the following Wednesday.
At 11:30 a.m. on November 8, 1957, Pan American Flight 7 left San Francisco on the first leg of the trip, to Honolulu, Hawaii. The trip was expected to take ten hours and fifteen minutes and was flown on one of the company's long-range double-decker Boeing 377 Stratocruisers, named Romance of the Skies. The flight carried 36 passengers and 8 crew members. The plane had enough fuel for approximately thirteen hours of flight, and was loaded to its maximum takeoff weight of 147,000 pounds (67,000 kg).(p1) The flight plan called for a cruising altitude of 10,000 feet and an airspeed of 226 knots (260 mph; 420 km/h).(p15)
At 5:04 p.m., the captain made a routine position report while the flight was 1,028 miles (1,650 km) east of Hawaii. He said the plane was cruising at an altitude of 10,000 feet and was encountering headwinds of approximately 14 miles per hour (12 kn; 23 km/h). He was due to make his next position report at around 6:00 p.m., but there were no communications from the flight. At 6:42 p.m., Pan American notified the Coast Guard that it had not heard from the plane in more than ninety minutes, which was considered unusual, but not necessarily alarming. More than 90 minutes later, at 8:11 p.m., when communications had still not yet been received, the Coast Guard dispatched the first search planes.
Four surface vessels, submarines USS Cusk and USS Carbonero, and a number of aircraft from Honolulu conducted the search on the first day, and military authorities were asked to prepare additional planes and ships to join the search at dawn. The searchers were unable to locate the missing flight; authorities held on to the hope that the flight's radio was just malfunctioning. To address the possibility that the missing flight's navigation equipment had failed, the Coast Guard ordered all ships at Pearl Harbor to shine their lights into the sky, so that they could be seen by the flight and used as beacons if needed. A military air transport plane reported spotting lights on the water, which caused a burst of activity, but it was later determined to be only the lights of a ship. At 3:00 a.m. on November 9, when all of the fuel aboard the plane would have been consumed, Robert Murray, Pan Am's executive vice president of the Pacific Alaska Division, declared that the plane was presumed to be "down" somewhere over the Pacific.
By the next day, the search party had been expanded to at least 30 aircraft and 14 surface vessels. Admiral Felix Stump, commander in chief of the United States Pacific Fleet, ordered the USS Philippine Sea to join the search from the port of Long Beach, California, with its helicopters and long-range radar-equipped anti-submarine planes. A few hours later, the Navy also ordered the USS John R. Craig and the USS Orleck to depart from San Diego to join the search. The Coast Guard enlarged the search area to 150,000 square miles (390,000 km2) of the Pacific Ocean east of Hawaii. Pan American dispatched a sister Stratocruiser from San Francisco, loaded with supplies that it could drop to the ocean surface if needed, and sent a Douglas DC-7 to the search area with enough fuel to stay out 16 hours. The week-long search for the missing plane eventually became the largest search in the Pacific Ocean to date. Pan American officials expressed confidence that if the plane had been forced to land in the ocean and the fuselage had not been punctured, the craft could stay afloat "almost indefinitely".
The most promising sign during the search was that three pilots reported hearing faint radio distress signals from a hand-operated emergency radio similar to the type that would have been taken aboard life rafts. The signals were heard on the 500 kilohertz distress frequency at the Coast Guard station at Upolu Point on the island of Hawaii. There were ten such broadcasts, over a period of 45 minutes. One pilot reported hearing a series of numbers after the distress signals that he thought ended in the numbers "four four", the last two numbers of the missing aircraft's tail number. Ultimately, the Coast Guard concluded that the signal was a false alarm and might have come from the mainland or from an unknown party testing their equipment. Pan Am pilots who were personal friends of the lost crew listened to recordings of the radio transmissions and said it was unlikely that the messages had originated from the missing flight. A Pan American pilot en route between San Francisco and Honolulu also reported seeing a yellow, cylindrical object about 2 by 4 feet (60 by 120 cm), with a dye marker nearby". Three submarines, eight coast guard vessels, and five merchant ships converged on the area, but found nothing.
On November 14, the crew of a Navy search plane observed wreckage and bodies in the water, about 900 miles (1,400 km) northeast of Honolulu, and about 90 miles (140 km) north of the flight's intended track.(p2) One of the victims was still strapped to one of the seats. A total of 19 victims were pulled from the water, 14 of them wearing life jackets, and all of them without shoes, suggesting that the passengers had received some advance warning before the plane had crashed. Three of the victims had watches that had stopped at 5:27, 23 minutes after the plane's last radio report. The Navy reported that all of the victims had external injuries and multiple fractures, concluding that the plane had probably struck the water with tremendous force. Bodies and debris were recovered from a 33-square-mile (85 km2) area of the ocean. Rear Admiral T. A. Ahroon, commander of the Philippine Sea, reported that there was no evidence that a midair explosion had occurred, but the Navy also found that many of the pieces of debris bore distinct evidence of fire damage. Searchers were unable to recover any of the major components of the airliner, and the depth of the ocean in that area was around 16,500 feet (5,000 m), which meant that any wreckage on the bottom would be too deep to locate or recover.
The missing aircraft was a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, serial number 15960, registered N90944.(p15) It first flew on August 30, 1949, as Flagship Ireland for American Overseas Airlines, and was transferred to Pan American World Airways on September 28, 1950, after Pan Am's acquisition of American Overseas Airlines.(p7)(p146) At the time of the accident, the airframe had accumulated a total of 23,690 logged flying hours.(p15) The four engines of the aircraft had total times ranging from 13,459 hours to 16,961 hours, and had been overhauled within the last 1,249 hours of flight.(p15) Investigations by the CAB found that "the aircraft, engines, and propellers had been maintained as prescribed and were within their time limitations."(p15)
The accident was the second worst accident involving the Boeing Stratocruiser. The aircraft type had a long history of mechanical problems. Several of the aircraft had experienced runaway propellers, a situation where the pilots were unable to control the pitch of the propellers and centrifugal force causes the blades to adjust to the lowest pitch, leading to aerodynamic instability. In 1952, Pan Am Flight 202 crashed in the Amazon Basin after its engine and propeller failed in flight. In 1955, Pan Am Flight 845/26 ditched in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Oregon with four fatalities after one of the aircraft's propellers failed and caused the engine to separate from the wing.
The aircraft had experienced two incidents shortly before its final flight. On June 18, 1957, it had suffered a runaway propeller as it departed San Francisco.(p146) The crew was unable to feather the propeller and it performed an emergency landing back at San Francisco.(p146) On September 19, 1957, during a flight between San Francisco and Honolulu, the crew heard a loud noise, described as "similar to dropping the navigation stool on the flight deck".(p7) In-flight inspections were performed and the plane landed without incident after the crew found no abnormalities.(p7) A company inspector later investigated and found nothing out of the ordinary, noting in his report "... you could duplicate loud noise by stepping hard on door between cockpit and cargo. Also loud bang could be duplicated by dropping forward toilet lid."(p8)
The aircraft that had been built immediately before the one on the missing flight, the Sovereign of the Skies, Pan Am Flight 6, serial number 15959, had encountered mechanical problems and had ditched in the Pacific Ocean on October 16, 1956, after two of its engines had failed. In that incident, all 31 passengers had been rescued, but the tail broke off on impact and the plane sank only 22 minutes after the forced landing, preventing a detailed investigation into the cause of the engine failures.
Passengers and crew
The flight carried 36 passengers and 8 crew members on the flight to Honolulu.(p1) Upon arrival, 20 of the passengers were scheduled to disembark, while 16 were going to continue onward at least to the flight's next stop in Tokyo. At the Honolulu Airport, 17 passengers were waiting to board the plane for the next segment of the flight. Thirty two of the passengers were from the United States, one was from Australia, one was from Japan, one was from Turkey, and one was from Indonesia.
The captain of the flight was Gordon H. Brown, 40, who had been flying with the company since his 1942 graduation from Northeastern University.(p14) At the time of the flight, he had accumulated 11,314 hours of flight experience, including 674 hours in the Boeing 377.(p14) He was a resident of Los Altos, California, and was married with five children. The first officer of the flight, William P. Wygant, was 37 and had been employed with the company since 1946.(p14) He had a total of 7,355 flying hours, including 4,018 on the Boeing 377.(p14) A resident of Sausalito, California, he was a 1941 graduate of the University of Oregon and was married with three children. His wife, a flight attendant for Pan American Airways, was due to meet up with him in Honolulu during a layover. Second officer William H. Fortenberry, acting as pilot-navigator on the flight, had worked for Pan Am since 1951 since graduating from Spartanburg Community College in South Carolina.(p14) He had a total of 2,683 flight hours, including 1,552 in the Stratocruiser.(p14) A resident of Santa Clara, California, he was married with three children. Flight engineer Albert F. Pinataro, 26 years old, had been employed with the company since 1955, and had a total of 1,596 hours of flight experience, all in the Boeing 377.(p14) He was a resident of Belmont, California, and had served four years in the United States Air Force.
Civil Aeronautics Board investigation
As soon as it was presumed that the missing aircraft's fuel supplies had been exhausted, investigators from the CAB initiated an investigation and began combing through maintenance and operations records of the plane and its equipment. When the wreckage had been located and had been recovered to the aircraft carrier, CAB investigators and pathologists of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology were flown to the carrier, which was still en route to Long Beach, to begin their investigation. By the time the carrier returned to port on November 18, four of the victims had been identified and six had been tentatively identified from their fingerprints and papers recovered from the bodies. None of the victims showed any evidence of being burned.
CAB investigators moved all of the recovered pieces of wreckage to a restricted area at the Pan American overhaul station in San Francisco.(p2) The 500 pounds (230 kg) of material mainly consisted of fuselage secondary structure, interior trim and equipment, and numerous packages of mail. The only non-fuselage part of the aircraft that had been recovered was a section of engine cowl support ring, which had been found embedded in a floating pillow.(p2) Representatives from the airline, the FBI, and Boeing were invited to assist with the investigation. Some of the material bore evidence of fire damage, and CAB investigators determined that the burns had occurred on the portions that had floated on the surface of the water; each piece had a definite waterline below which burn marks were not found.(p2) Investigators found no evidence of an in-flight fire, and laboratory tests of the charred pieces did not find any traces of prohibited or explosive material.
In their investigation, CAB officials considered the hazardous materials that were known to be in the cargo hold of the flight.(p3) The forward cargo compartment contained a shipment of one and a quarter pounds (1 kg) of sodium sulfide, which is a chemically reactive flammable solid material that would release hydrogen sulfide gas if it had been exposed to moisture. Investigators concluded that the material was securely packaged in sealed glass containers within a wooden crate, and that the gas, which has a strong, foul odor, would have been detectable by the crew well before its concentration would have become dangerous.(p3) All tests for its presence on the recovered debris came up negative. The cargo also contained a package containing a small amount of radioactive medicine which had also been packaged according to regulations, and several shipments of cellulose acetate movie film.(p3) Even though none of the cargo items had been recovered, investigators eventually concluded that there was no reason to believe that any of the items had contributed to the accident.(p3)
CAB investigators also probed the maintenance history of the aircraft. Earlier in the year, the plane had been involved in two separate "hard" landings that had been reported by crews.(p8) In the first, certificated mechanics performed a visual inspection of the aircraft, but the maintenance records showed that one of the most time-consuming steps of the inspection, the inspection of the wing spar webs, had been skipped.(p8) In the second incident, the inspecting mechanics did not make a written report of the inspection.(p8) The CAB concluded that the somewhat cursory investigations performed by airline mechanics in these and other cases suggested that "the maintenance and airworthiness of the aircraft cannot be accepted as being normal in all respects," and recommended a reassessment of the airline's maintenance practices in the future.(p12)
Pathological examination of the victims that had been recovered revealed "possibly disabling" levels of carbon monoxide in 14 of the 19 bodies. Investigators conducted a study to determine how high concentrations of the gas could have become present in the fuselage, and identified several possible ways it could have happened.(p6) Pathologists were uncertain whether the presence of the gas in the bodies could have been a result of decomposition that had occurred after the crash.(p6) Investigators concluded that one probable source of the gas was an unexpected failure in one of the engines, such as one that released all or part of one of the propellers or turbocharger disks into the fuselage.(p11) Such a failure could have easily caused a fire, disabled the radios, and caused serious flight control difficulties.(p11) The investigators concluded that such a scenario fit the known circumstances better than any of the other scenarios.(p11) Another possibility that they considered was that pure carbon monoxide had been maliciously introduced into the flight cabin, which would have been undetectable and could have incapacitated the crew, resulting in the crash.(p11) Another possibility was the acetate film in the cargo hold could have released carbon monoxide if it had been subjected to extreme heat. Investigators determined that five of the victims died from physical injuries received when the aircraft crashed, and most of the others died from drowning, possibly after being knocked unconscious or stunned by the crash.
Contrary to initial assumptions, the CAB investigators concluded that the aircraft did not strike the water at a steep angle, but that it was almost a successful ocean landing that only led to a crash when the starboard wing dragged in the water.
Ultimately, the investigators could not determine the cause of the crash with any certainty, stating in their final report:
The Board has insufficient tangible evidence at this time to determine the cause of the accident. Further research and investigation is in process concerning the significance of evidence of carbon monoxide in body tissue of the aircraft occupants.— Civil Aeronautics Board final report.(p13)
Insurance officials also conducted an investigation to determine whether or not any of the passengers had purchased large insurance policies before boarding the flight. In 1955, Jack Gilbert Graham was convicted of planting a bomb in his mother's suitcase aboard United Airlines Flight 629 after purchasing a life insurance policy at the airport. In 1949, Albert Guay had planted a bomb aboard Canadian Pacific Air Lines Flight 108 in a plot to kill his wife and collect the insurance money. With that in mind, investigators searched to see whether any passengers had purchased any unusual amounts of insurance. Mercury Insurance reported that it had carried a total of $230,000 in insurance policies (equivalent to $2,100,000 in 2019) for passengers on the flight, and said that the amount was not unusual. CAB investigators dismissed the possibility of insurance-motivated sabotage by reporting that "no untoward amount" of life insurance had been taken out on any of the occupants of the plane.
The following year, it was revealed that the Western Life Insurance Company of Helena, Montana had refused to pay off a $20,000 life insurance policy on one of the passengers that had been purchased shortly before the flight. The passenger, William Payne, 41, of Scott Bar, California, had also purchased two air trip policies at the airport totaling $125,000 (equivalent to $1,100,000 in 2019). Payne's body was not one of the 19 recovered from the crash scene and the insurance company contended that there was no evidence that he was actually a passenger on the flight or that he had died. At the time of the crash, Payne was heavily in debt and the company claimed that the reasons he gave for his trip to Honolulu did not justify the expense involved. Payne was an honorably discharged Navy veteran with 22 years of service and was an explosives expert. His widow, Harriet Payne, had also filed a $300,000 damage suit (equivalent to $2,700,000 in 2019) against Pan American Airways earlier that year, and denied the assertion that her husband was not aboard the plane when it went down. She filed a lawsuit against the insurance company to compel it to pay off the policy. CAB investigators said that laboratory examination of the plane's wreckage had ruled out the possibility of a bomb explosion of any kind aboard the aircraft. Pan Am investigators later admitted that they had been investigating Payne because of his past explosives experience, the amount of insurance purchased, and the fact that he had purchased a one-way ticket to Honolulu at a time when he was heavily in debt.
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