On March 15, 1962, Guam International Flight Service Station attempted to make radio contact with an outbound aircraft that had left several hours ago. The operator received no response. The plane in question was carrying troops to Vietnam. What could have happened to it?
The US military had chartered a plane from the Flying Tiger Line to transport Army Rangers and Vietnamese soldiers to Saigon. It would be a long flight with several stops to refuel. It was during the leg between Guam and the Philippines that contact with the aircraft was lost.
When the plane disappeared it triggered what was at that point the largest search and rescue operation in history. Theories abounded about exactly what could have happened. There was a thorough investigation, but many questions remain over Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 and its passengers and crew.
There have been many famous airplane disappearances over the years. For instance, Amelia Earhart was the first woman pilot to traverse the skies over the Atlantic and became one of the most famous flyers in history. Yet she vanished without a trace on an attempted round-the-world flight in 1937. It’s now more than 80 years later but her fate, and that of her navigator Frederick J. Noonan, is still unknown.
Another famous disappearance was the plane carrying musician and bandleader Glenn Miller in 1944. More recently, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 made headlines around the world in 2014 when it vanished flying between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. The scale of the hunt for the missing plane reminded some of the long-ago search for Flying Tiger Line Flight 739.
The Flying Tiger Line was the first airline in the US to run scheduled flights for cargo, using planes bought from the U.S. Navy. The pilots and ground crew of the fledgling service couldn’t afford to launch an airline on their own. Happily however, oil magnate Samuel B. Mosher stepped in to match their investment and get the airline off the ground.
The Flying Tiger Line took its name from a unit of fighter jets in the Second World War. Flying Tiger pilots were a mixture of Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel who rapidly became famous for the shark-face motifs that adorned the noses of their aircraft. And when 10 pilots from this outfit set up the cargo business after the war, the name came with them.
Although initially Flying Tiger Line’s main business was flying cargo domestically across America, it also made some longer flights. US troops were still occupying Japan, so the firm began to fly trans-Pacific routes to deliver supplies. The plane used on the fateful trip in March 1962 was a Lockheed Super Constellation.
Flying Tiger Line had owned the four-engine plane since 1957 and it had flown over 17,000 hours with no problems. It was just over 113 feet long and had a wingspan of 123 feet. When empty, it weighed about 73,000 pounds, but it could bear almost its own weight again in cargo. On the day it vanished, it was carrying 25,552 pounds of gasoline.
During a normal flight the plane would travel at about 260 knots – roughly 300 mph. It could go quicker if it was flying under 11,000 feet in altitude, and it could reach a maximum height of 25,000 feet. The longest non-stop journey it was able to make was 4,140 miles.
By 1962, Flying Tiger Line had been running for nearly 20 years. On March 14, one of its planes took off from Travis Air Force Base in California, bound for Saigon in Vietnam. The routine long-haul flight would require several fuel stops en route, namely in Honolulu, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines.
Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 was a Lockheed Super Constellation with room for up to 106 passengers. On the day in question, 96 people were traveling alongside the two flight crews and four members of the cabin crew. The flight crews included the Captain, First Officer and Second Officer as well as two navigators and a pair of engineers.
The 48-year-old captain, Gregory P. Thomas, had a reputation as a “colorful and heroic flyer”. Of his impressive 19,500 hours in the air, 3,562 were in a Lockheed L-1049H. He’d worked for the Flying Tiger Line since 1950 and had his Airline Transport Pilot Certificate. Overall, he was an experienced and well-qualified pilot.
His First Officer, Robert J. Wish, was also aged 48. His flight hours were slightly fewer than the captain’s (17,500 with 3,374 on the Lockheed), but he was still an experienced flyer who had worked for Flying Tiger Line since 1951. While the captain lived in New Jersey, he was based in California.
The Second Officer was 39-year-old Robbie J. Gayzaway (sometimes spelled Gazaway or Gazzaway). Another Californian, he’d been working for Flying Tiger since 1953. Of his 5,000 hours, only 900 were in the Lockheed. He had his ATP certificate, but was not qualified on as many types of aircraft as his senior colleagues.
Both flight engineers also hailed from California. George Nau, aged 38, had started working for Flying Tiger in 1956. He had an F.A.A. Flight Engineer Certificate and 1,235 hours of experience in the Lockheed. His fellow engineer, Clayton E. McClellan, also had upwards of 1,000 hours’flight time in the aircraft.
William T. Kennedy and Grady Burt, Jr. were both navigators and had radio operator licenses as well as their navigator credentials. Kennedy was 45 and had begun working for Flying Tiger Line in 1962. Burt had been hired a year later, in 1963. The crew was completed by Senior Flight Attendant Barbara Walmsley, and her fellow cabin staff Patricia Wassum, Hildegard Muller and Christel Reiter.
The plane’s passengers weren’t just ordinary civilians. The aircraft had been chartered by the Military Air Transport Service and 93 of those on board were Army Rangers. They’d been specially trained in the jungle and most were experts in communications and electronics. In addition, there were three Vietnamese service personnel.
The ill-fated flight left Travis Air Force Base at 05.45 GMT on March 14. At first, everything went like clockwork. The plane reached Honolulu as planned at 17.44 GMT. There was a slight hold-up while on-board rest facilities were checked after concerns were raised by the crew, but at 20.40 GMT they were in the sky again. There were absolutely no concerns over the aircraft’s fitness to fly.
With the flight still proceeding as expected, the plane continued to Wake Island. After landing at 03.54 GMT on March 15, a new cabin crew replaced the original four and the aircraft was serviced. Again, only minor maintenance was carried out. And when the plane reached Guam at 11.14 GMT the plane needed nothing more than servicing and refuelling before continuing on its journey.
The next stop on the journey was meant to be the Philippines. The plane would need about six and a third hours for this leg and as it had fuel for over nine hours of flying, that shouldn’t have been a problem. Traffic controllers established radar contact with Flight 739 soon after take-off, so things still looked okay.
There was one strange moment at 13.25 GMT. The plane radioed back to Guam to say it wanted to raise the height at which it was flying, but no reason was given. It got permission to climb from 10,000 feet to 18,000 feet. A few minutes later, the plane was out of range of Guam’s radar and continuing on its journey. By 13.33, it radioed its position as 100 miles distant.
Another transmission was received at 14.22 GMT and everything still appeared in order. There was still plenty of fuel. The crew told Guam that they were still at flying 18,000 feet and above the cloud cover. They stated their current position and gave an estimate for the time they would arrive at Clark Air Force Base. That ETA was 19.16. It was the last contact anyone would have with the plane.
Later that day, Guam International Flight Service Station started having trouble with its radio transmissions. It wasn’t when talking to Flight 739. It was communicating with a different plane that was on its way to Okinawa in Japan, but there was heavy static over the airwaves. Then, when the operator tried to contact Flight 739 for an overdue status report, it received no response at all.
It was at 16.00 GMT that the first stage of emergency procedures was instigated. INCERFA, or a state of uncertainty, was declared. It meant that worries about the plane and the people on board were official, but not yet serious. Further attempts were made to contact Flight 739 but they continued to be unsuccessful.
The INCERFA status was upgraded to ALERFA, or an alert phase, at 16.33 GMT. Worries continued to rise, and with no further news at 19.33 DETRESFA was declared. This distress phase meant the missing plane and its passengers and crew were in immediate and severe danger. Search teams were launched from both Guam and the Philippines.
The initial search found nothing, but the authorities were contacted by a supertanker at 21.05 GMT. Its crew had spotted something strange back at 15.30 (01.30 on March 16 local time). The sky had been mostly clear and the moon bright when a vapor trail appeared in the sky. This was followed by an “intensely luminous” explosion behind clouds.
According to the descriptions of the ship’s crew, the explosion had come in two flashes that only lasted a couple of seconds each. A reddish-orange rim had surrounded a bright white center. Further trails of reddish-orange had expanded outwards. As the crew watched, two differently-sized objects appeared to fall burning into the sea.
Looking at the ship’s radar, one of the crew members saw it marking a target 17 miles away. When the captain reached the bridge in time to see the second object fall, he made note of where it was relative to a star. The ship had the information it needed to head towards the source of the explosion.
Except when they reached the supposed site of origin, they found nothing but empty sea. The tanker spent more than five hours searching the area and didn’t even find debris. With no radio contact with either Guam or Manila, they decided to write it off as some kind of military exercise. The tanker moved on with its scheduled journey.
Later, it was calculated that the explosion would have been roughly where Flight 739 had been, but that still didn’t help find it. The plane simply could not be located. It was officially declared lost at 22.27 GMT, the point at which it would have had no fuel left. There was still no shred of evidence of either the aircraft or its crew.
During the search, 1,300 people, 8 surface vessels and 48 aircraft together covered 144,000 square miles of territory. The searchers spent 3,417 hours in the air, flying 377 separate sorties. In its day, it represented the most extensive search ever conducted in aviation history.
Investigators still wanted to figure out happened to the plane, but there was no conclusive evidence. The only quirk in its history had been a brief power loss a few weeks previously more than three hours into a flight, but the single engine affected was soon fixed. There had been no problems on the day of the plane’s final flight, and it had been certified safe.
With mechanical failure seeming unlikely, a new theory became popular. Many people began to believe the plane must have been sabotaged, and the idea was not implausible. Flight 739 had stopped at Honolulu, Wake Island and Guam, all of which had low runway security. It would have been relatively easy for an outsider to access the plane.
If someone had snuck aboard to sabotage the plane, it was probably at Guam. Not only did the airfield reportedly lack much security but it was said the plane had been left unattended. Lighting around the aircraft was also described as poor. Given the accounts of an explosion on the plane’s predicted flight path, foul play seemed a credible explanation.
According to an executive vice president of Flying Tiger Line at the time, the only certainty was that something violent must have caused any explosion on the otherwise safe Lockheed Super Constellation. Additionally, it was likely that whatever occurred, happened quickly. If not, the crew could have radioed for help.
It wasn’t a good day for Flying Tiger Lines. Flight 739 was not the only plane to be lost in mid-March, and that seemed a suspiciously large coincidence to those who suspected sabotage. The second plane was also a Lockheed Super Constellation, and it also had taken off from Travis Air Force Base on March 14. According to some, its cargo was some kind of military secret.
Captain Morgan W. Hughes was piloting N6911C from Travis Air Base to Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan. It was due to land on Adak Island, in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, but something went wrong. Its runway approach was too low and the seven separate warnings given by air traffic controllers were ignored.
The plane was just over 300 feet short of the runway when its wheels struck rocks. It skidded along the runway for 2,000 feet, catching fire as it slewed to a halt. Flight engineer James M. Johnson was killed and six other crew members were injured. The crash was later blamed on “misjudgement of distance and altitude.”
To this day, however, the fate of Flight 739 is still considered a mystery. The Civil Aeronautics Board concluded that the explosion seen by the supertanker was probably the plane, but that doesn’t explain how or why it happened. With no wreckage to examine to prove theories of failure or sabotage, the episode seems destined to remain an enigma.