The Fate Of The Pan Am Plane That Went Missing In 1957 After Leaving San Francisco Remains Unknown

Image: NASM via Air and Space

Pan Am’s luxurious Boeing aircraft, the Romance of the Skies, took off on November 8, 1957, embarking on a round-the-world trip. The journey would take the plane westward from San Francisco all the way to Philadelphia, with stops along the way. But the craft never arrived at its first destination, Honolulu – and no one has ever figured out why.

Image: National WW2 Museum

Just as World War II came to a close, the aircraft maufacturer Boeing realized something. Many of its military designs designs could do double-duty as commercial aircraft. Indeed, the large, long-range planes could work just as well as carrying passengers around the world, and the company’s engineers could outfit the vessels for luxurious long-haul treks.

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The President of the Boeing Company, William Allen, ordered 50 of the new airplanes, called Stratocruisers. He did so in spite of an economic depression and without any orders for the craft from an airline. Indeed, the aviation boss hoped that customers themselves would boost demand for the planes, intrigued by the one-of-a-kind flying experience they offered.

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Allen’s plan paid off in November of 1945, when Pan American World Airways – often shortened to Pan Am – purchased 20 of the new Stratocruisers. At the time, it stood as the largest order of commercial planes ever, costing the airline $24.5 million for all of their new aircraft.

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But Pan Am’s President, Juan Trippe, had great faith in the Boeing planes and their promise. Indeed, he had witnessed the success of the 314 Clipper, another of manufacturer’s aircraft. The Stratocruiser also promised to be the most luxurious and largest airplane of its time, which undoubtedly interested him, too.

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The Stratocruiser, in fact, boasted a slew of amenities that hadn’t always come as standard in transport aircraft. Namely, the plane had a pressurized cabin. That allowed the craft to fly higher without any adverse health effects for the passengers and crew. The Stratocruiser also boasted a double-deck layout with space for 100 passengers above and 14 below, sleeping berths, dressing rooms and even a cocktail lounge.

Image: San Diego Air/Space Museum Archives

Pan Am’s first Stratocruiser took off in April of 1949, making the nearly 2,400-mile flight from San Francisco to Honolulu. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the aircraft – 13 accidents occurred with a 19-year span of service, causing 139 deaths. The Stratocruiser often experienced in-flight emergencies, too.

Image: Facebook/Romance of the Skies

A Stratocruiser flight that took off on November 8, 1957, counts among the worst incidents involving the aircraft. Pan Am pitched the trip, known as Flight Seven, as an around-the-world trek from San Francisco that would fly westbound and complete its journey in Philadelphia. Its first stop would be in Honolulu.

Image: San Diego Air/Space Museum Archives

And the lengthy journey aboard one of Pan Am’s Stratocruisers, named Romance of the Skies, didn’t attract the average airplane passenger. After all, the Honolulu leg alone cost $300. An around-the-world fare, meanwhile, cost $1,600 per ticket – about $10,500 with today’s inflation.

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The vice president of Renault Auto, Robert LaMaison, and his wife boarded the Stratocruiser to reach their overseas vacation destination. Their co-passengers included surgeon William Hagan and his wife; Dow Chemical Tokyo’s general manager, H. Lee Clack, and his family; fashion designer Soledad Mercado; and spice company sales manager Edward Ellis, who planned to tour plantations abroad.

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Then, there was Air Force Major Harold Sunderland, who had a mysterious mission ahead. Indeed, he boarded the Romance with a carry-on stuffed with classified documents. Thomas McGrail also had government business to do, heading to Burma to work within the American embassy there. William Deck bought a ticket to Kyoto to marry a local he met while on a tour of duty with the U.S. Navy.

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The eight-strong crew of Pan Am Flight Seven had the responsibility of carrying all 36 passengers safely from San Francisco to their worldwide destinations. Gordon Brown, the captain, helmed the journey, with first officer Bill Wygant, second officer Bill Fortenberry and Al Pintara, the flight engineer. Meanwhile, flight attendants Yvonne Alexander and Marie McGrath oversaw the cabins.

Image: San Diego Air/Space Museum Archives

The Romance took off at 11:51 a.m., beginning the nine-hour flight from San Francisco to Hawaii. On board, passengers lounged in seats that fully reclined, or they grabbed drinks at the airplane bar. Around 4 p.m., flight attendants would begin dinner service, a seven-course meal that included champagne and caviar.

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At the same time, Captain Brown called down to a U.S. Coast Guard weather ship, the Pontchartrain, to report the Romance’s status. He reported that all was well. Indeed, the plane had 1,160 miles to go until it reached Honolulu and the skies ahead looked serene. Shortly thereafter, though, everything would change.

Image: Facebook/Romance of the Skies

Minutes later, the Romance vanished. No one from the plane radioed in a distress call, and the aircraft was nowhere on its intended flight path. Soon, an enormous search-and-rescue effort commenced. Within days of take-off, investigators found some remnants of the luxurious plane, as well as the bodies of 19 of the people on board.

Image: Facebook/Romance of the Skies

Some of the floating bodies had on wristwatches, which gave investigators an interesting clue. Indeed, the timepieces were frozen at 4:26 p.m., just 22 minutes after Captain Brown reported the plane’s location to the Pontchartrain. To that end, the plane seemed to have severely flown off-course. The wreckage, in fact, appeared some 1,000 miles to the northeast of its destination, Honolulu.

Image: Facebook/Romance of the Skies

But the recovered bodies had more of a story to tell. Some had on life preservers but had taken off their shoes, which meant they had prepared for a water landing. The broken bits of plane showed that the vessel hit the ocean with its right wing and nose slightly lowered. Injuries to the found passengers confirmed they, too, had impact trauma.

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Most of the passengers had died not from these injuries, however, but from drowning. This told investigators that the plane had landed in a somewhat controlled manner. On top of that, scorch marks were found on pieces of the wreckage, which they took to mean that the vessel burst into flames after it crashed.

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All of which led both F.B.I. investigators and Pan Am to believe that this was no accident. In fact, they were convinced that foul play brought the Romance down. Autopsies of the recovered bodies only boosted their suspicions, as the captain and several passengers had carbon monoxide in their systems, meaning that the gas had wafted throughout the plane.

Image: Facebook/Romance of the Skies

And yet, officials never found any definitive proof for what happened to the Romance. On November 18, 1957 – just days after the plane had crashed – an aircraft carrier holding the recovered bodies and wreckage arrived in Long Beach, California. The F.B.I. and the Civil Aeronautics Board (C.A.B.) then squabbled over which organization had jurisdiction over the evidence.

Image: FBI

This debate eventually became a bona fide feud, one so contentious that F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover ended the bureau’s involvement with the case. Both Pan Am and the C.A.B. contested, but the Bureau refused pleas for help. So, the C.A.B. helmed the rest of the investigation, despite the fact that they had fewer resources than the Feds.

Image: Facebook/Romance of the Skies

After more than a year, the CA.B. revealed the results of its investigation. In the end, it didn’t find any probable cause for the Romance’s crash, and closed the inquiry into the event. This left many people – especially those with ties to the passengers and crew – unsatisfied. As a result, two men went on to seek answers of their own.

Image: Facebook/Romance of the Skies

History professor Gregg Herken never forgot his teacher in fourth grade. And she just happens to be Pan Am flight attendant Marie McGrath, who died in the 1957 crash. Indeed, as he wrote for Air & Space Magazine, “Whenever an airplane went down under ‘mysterious circumstances,’ I would think of Romance of the Skies and McGrath.”

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In 2002, Herken began a more in-depth investigation into the crash. An internet search of the plane’s name took him to a website put together by Ken Fortenberry. His father, Bill, had served as second officer on the doomed flight. Fortenberry, only six at the time of the crash, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he once believed his dad had found a deserted island and simply holed until he could one day come home.

Image: Joe A. Kunzler

But that never happened, which solidified Fortenberry’s future as an editor and journalist. Indeed, his career would give him the tools he needed to uncover the truth about his father’s death. He submitted hundreds of record requests with the American government in his search for answers. Then, he began working with Herken to sift through the evidence.

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Herken and Fontenberry’s joint investigation began on a couple of websites helmed by Pan Am’s former staff – the company shut down in 1991. The duo posted inquiries on each site, asking if any one-time employees knew anything about the Romance’s crew. To their surprise, they received dozens of responses.

Image: Gregg Herken via SF Gate

And, shockingly, the former flight attendants, pilots and engineers replied that Pan Am suspected the crash had been an inside job. Shockingly, the airline had entertained the possibility that one of its own employees caused the disaster. His name was Eugene Crosthwaite, and he had served as the Romance’s purser, or chief flight attendant.

Image: John Hill

Crosthwaite had a bad reputation at Pan Am long before the Romance went down. According to Herken, “[He] once bragged that he had deliberately dropped a meal on the galley floor before serving it to an unsuspecting captain, who he felt had insulted him.” The attendant, it seems, also had animosity toward his employer. Indeed, he believed his time spent as purser on one of their flying boats left him with tuberculosis.

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On top of that, Crosthwaite had a tumultuous personal life. Although he overcame his tuberculosis, his beloved wife, Julie, had lost her battle with cancer a mere three months before the Romance plunged into the ocean. The purser then gained custody of his 16-year-old stepdaughter, Tania, following her mother’s death. It seems the pair, however, did not get along.

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Pan Am’s “smoking gun,” as Herken put it, had to do with Crosthwaite’s disdain for the teenager. On the morning of the doomed flight, he amended his own will so that Tania would not receive a penny unless she began living what the purser described as a moral lifestyle. Then, he placed the document inside his car’s glove compartment, where someone would be sure to find it.

Image: Gregg Herken via SF Gate

Upon further investigation, Crosthwaite became more and more suspicious to the C.A.B. For one thing, the purser’s father-in-law recalled him having possession of blasting powder in the days prior to the flight. Authorities never located any such a material on his property, meaning he might’ve taken it with him on board.

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And yet, all of that circumstantial evidence proved inconclusive to investigators. But that’s partly due to a new suspect emerging just as Pan Am execs honed in on Crosthwaite. The second possible culprit was William Payne, and he supposedly boarded the ill-fated flight as a passenger. However, authorities never recovered his body, just one of the suspicious facts about the former Navy demolitions expert.

Image: John Hill

Payne, 41, owned a hunting lodge, but his debt on the property had begun to rack up – he owed $10,000. In the midst of this financial crisis, though, he purchased a one-way ticket to Honolulu. Even more questionably, he had taken out two of his three life insurance policies just days before flying, including one that paid double if he died accidentally.

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So, when Payne died on the Pan Am flight, Harriet, his widow, received a $125,000 payout from insurance companies. Russell Stiles, who worked as an investigator for one of those companies, implored his employers not to honor the policy. It seems Stiles believed that the lodge-runner had somehow managed to cause the crash without being on board himself.

Image: Facebook/Romance of the Skies

Later, Fortenberry tried to schedule an interview with Stiles, but he repeatedly refused to speak about Payne. The insurance investigator’s daughter, however, told the editor something incredible. It seems that that her father so strongly believed that the passenger had been responsible for the crash that he spent his own money in order to keep the investigation going.

Image: Facebook/Romance of the Skies

However, neither Crosthwaite nor Payne ever became the clear suspect in the case of the Romance. In the meantime, the C.A.B. focused on what they considered to be the culprit – the airplane itself. After all, the Stratocruiser had a quartet of engines so strong that they had a tendency to burst the plane’s propellers in the middle of a flight.

Image: San Diego Air/Space Museum Archives

Pan Am had come up for a fix to this problem, ordering that mechanics fortify and stabilize the propellers with a better attachment between an oil tube and the propellers’ housings. The Romance hadn’t undergone this maintenance though. And, if it had, Herken said, “Even after those fixes, they still had problems.”

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And yet, none of this information was or is enough for investigators, Pan Am, insurers, Herken or Fortenberry to feel certain about what happened to the ill-fated flight. The latter duo told Air & Space Magazine they hoped to find a recording of the plane’s transmissions that day. Because they have heard that it might contain a faint “Mayday.”

Image: Emiliano Arano

But the tape has yet to be found. To that end, much of the plane’s wreckage remains on the ocean floor. Herken, though, said that modern miniature submarines have the capacity to dive far enough down to examine it. And they might need to. Because it seems the debris collected by investigators in 1957 has disappeared. While Miami University has all of the now-defunct airline’s records and South Florida’s Historical Museum has Pan Am’s most important artifacts, no one has the wreckage.

Image: Facebook/Romance of the Skies

Of course, for Fortenberry, the ongoing search remains a personal one. And he has vowed never to give up on finding out the truth about what happened to his father. He even started a GoFundMe page to raise money for his quest and, as of 2016, was focusing on the man he believes to be responsible – former Naval officer Payne.

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