Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. Image: Pan Am post card
On November 8, 1957, the Clipper Romance of the Skies, or Pan Am Flight 7 took off from San Francisco International Airport at its regularly scheduled time of 11:51 AM. The Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, carrying 36 passengers and 8 crew members, was on the first leg of its westerly voyage to almost completely circumnavigate the globe, with a final destination of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. First stop for the silver transport was to be Honolulu in the Territory of Hawaii.
But Flight 7 never arrived.
Last contact with the aircraft occurred approximately half-way between the mainland and Honolulu, where a U.S. Coast Guard cutter on radar surveillance duty in the Pacific and the Pan Am pilot shared a routine radio transmission. When it became apparent that the plane was missing, the Coast Guard dispatched a search plane and placed two cutters on alert status. The U.S. Navy diverted its two closest vessels, submarines Cusk and Carbonaro, to also search for survivors or debris.
Ultimately, the largest peace-time search operation since the disappearance of Amelia Earhart was combing the Pacific for any sign of the Stratocruiser or its passengers and crew. Finally, on November 14th, the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Philippine Sea spotted small pieces of floating identifiable wreckage from the aircraft – and bodies.
Prototype flight data recorders, or “black boxes”, were under development in 1957, but weren’t commonly installed in civil aircraft until the 1970’s. Pan Am Flight 7 had no such device and the definitive cause of its tragic descent into the sea has never been determined. Bodies recovered at the scene were clothed with life jackets but had still sustained significant injuries which were horrifying to many rescue workers involved. Later toxicological testing also revealed carbon monoxide poisoning in some of the crash victims.
Every one of the lives lost left behind loved ones and friends. Newspaper publisher Ken Fortenberry lost his father, second officer and navigator Bill Fortenberry. History professor Gregg Herken lost his beloved fourth grade teacher. Together they were haunted for years by the ghost story of Flight 7, and set out to see what they could learn.
They were intrigued by the following: the ship sent out no decipherable distress call; the wreckage debris was on a path both far off course and headed away from a Coast Guard vessel; and the presence of elevated levels of carbon monoxide found in recovered bodies could not be explained. They went on a detective mission and wrote about what they found in the Smithsonian’s September 1, 2004 edition of Air & Space Magazine. They conclude that we may never really know what happened, but their article makes for fascinating reading.