In 1957 A Pan Am Plane Mysteriously Disappeared – And People Are Still Trying To Solve The Case

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It’s November 8, 1957, and Pan Am’s luxurious Boeing aircraft, Clipper Romance of the Skies, embarking on a round-the-world trip. The journey is set to take the plane westward from San Francisco all the way to Philadelphia with stops along the way. But the Clipper will never arrive at its first destination, Honolulu – and even decades later, no one will have ever figured out why.

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Just as World War II came to a close, the aircraft manufacturer Boeing realized a potential for profit: many of its military designs could do double-duty as commercial aircraft. After all, the large, long-range planes would work just as well 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 between 1945 and 1968, William Allen, ordered 50 of the newly designed airplanes, which were called Stratocruisers. He did so in spite of an economic depression and without a single order for the craft from an airline. Apparently, the aviation boss hoped that the customers themselves would boost demand for the planes, being intrigued by the one-of-a-kind flying experience.

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And sure enough, 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, the deal 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 at the time, Juan Trippe, had great faith in the Boeing planes and their promise. He had, after all, witnessed the success of the 314 Clipper – another of manufacturer’s aircraft. Plus, the Stratocruiser promised to be the most luxurious and largest airplane of its time, which undoubtedly interested Trippe.

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

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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, resulting in 139 deaths. The Stratocruiser often experienced in-flight emergencies, too.

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However, one of the Stratocruiser’s worst – and certainly the most mysterious – incidents occurred on November 8, 1957. Pan Am pitched the trip, which they dubbed Flight Seven, as an around-the-world trek from San Francisco that would fly westbound and complete its journey in Philadelphia. And the crew’s first stop would be in Honolulu.

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The lengthy journey aboard this Pan Am Stratocruiser, which was named Clipper Romance of the Skies, didn’t attract the average passenger, either. 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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Among the wealthy passengers of the Clipper, then, was the vice president of Renault Auto at the time, Robert LaMaison, and his wife. Their fellow travelers included: surgeon William Hagan and his partner; Dow Chemical Tokyo’s then-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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Also on board the Romance, meanwhile, was Air Force Major Harold Sunderland, who had a mysterious mission ahead of him. You see, he boarded the plane with a carry-on that was stuffed with classified documents. Thomas McGrail also had government business to do and was heading to Burma to work within the American embassy. And William Deck had bought a ticket to Kyoto to marry a local whom he had 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, on hand. Meanwhile, flight attendants Yvonne Alexander and Marie McGrath oversaw the cabins.

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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, offering up 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. And he declared that all was well. Indeed, the plane had 1,160 miles to go until it reached Honolulu, and the skies ahead looked serene. Soon, though, everything would change.

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Minutes after the captain’s report, the Romance vanished. No one from the plane radioed in a distress call, and the aircraft was nowhere on its intended flight path. An enormous search-and-rescue effort subsequently commenced. And days after the disappearance, investigators found some remnants of the luxurious craft as well as the bodies of 19 of the people on board.

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Some of the floating bodies still had on watches, which gave investigators an interesting clue. You see, three timepieces were all frozen at 4:26 p.m. – just 22 minutes after Captain Brown had reported the plane’s location to the Pontchartrain. And so, the plane seemed to have flown severely off-course. The wreckage, in fact, appeared to be some 1,000 miles to the northeast of its intended destination, Honolulu.

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But the recovered remains had more of a story to tell. Apparently, several bodies were discovered with life preservers but no shoes, indicating that these passengers may have prepared for a water landing. The broken bits of plane, meanwhile, suggested that the vessel had hit the ocean with its right wing and nose slightly lowered. And many of the corpses seemed to show signs of impact trauma, too.

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However, most of the passengers had apparently not died from these injuries – 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 authorities took to mean that the vessel had burst into flames after it had crashed.

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All of this evidence led both F.B.I. investigators and Pan Am to believe that this was no accident. In fact, they were convinced that foul play had brought the Romance down. And autopsies of the recovered bodies only boosted their suspicions. You see, the captain and several passengers had large amounts of carbon monoxide in their systems, suggesting that gas had somehow wafted throughout the plane.

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

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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. And while both Pan Am and the C.A.B. contested, 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.

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Finally, after more than a year, the C.A.B. revealed the results of its investigation: the board didn’t find any likely cause for the Romance’s crash and officially stopped the inquiry into the incident. This left many people – especially those with ties to the passengers and crew – unsatisfied. And as a result, two men went on to seek answers of their own.

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History professor Gregg Herken has never forgotten his teacher in the fourth grade. That’s because the woman just so happened to be Pan Am flight attendant Marie McGrath, who perished in the 1957 crash. And as Herken explained in a 2004 article for Air & Space Magazine, her strange death stayed with him. “Whenever an airplane went down under ‘mysterious circumstances,’ I would think of Romance of the Skies and McGrath,” he wrote.

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Captivated by the mystery of the crash, then, in 2002 Herken began a more in-depth investigation into the event. An internet search of the plane’s name took him to a website that had been put together by Ken Fortenberry. This man’s father, Bill, had served as second officer on the doomed flight – and his remains had never been located. Fortenberry, who had only been six at the time of the disaster, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he used to believe his dad had been living on a deserted island and would one day come home.

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However, Fortenberry’s dad never returned. And his need for answers inspired him to pursue a career as a journalist. After becoming a reporter, Fortenberry was equipped with tools that he believed could help him uncover the truth about his father’s mysterious death. He was, for instance, able to submit hundreds of record requests with the American government about the case. Then, he began working with Herken to sift through the evidence.

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So, Herken and Fontenberry got to work. Their joint investigation began with a couple of websites that were helmed by former staff of Pan Am, which had shut down in 1991. The duo posted inquiries on each site, asking if any one-time employees knew anything about the Romance’s crew. And to their surprise, they received dozens of responses – and a potentially vital clue.

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Shockingly, some of the former flight attendants, pilots and engineers apparently replied that Pan Am had suspected the crash had been an inside job. The airline, you see, had reportedly entertained the possibility that one of its own employees had caused the disaster. The man in question’s name was Eugene Crosthwaite, and he had served as the Romance’s purser – or chief flight attendant.

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Apparently, Crosthwaite had earned himself a questionable reputation at Pan Am long before the Romance went down. “Crosthwaite 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,” Herken explained. The attendant, it seems, also felt animosity toward his employer. You see, he allegedly believed that his time spent as purser on one of Pan Am’s flying boats had left him with tuberculosis.

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

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Then came another shocking development. Pan Am believed that the “smoking gun,” as Herken put it, boiled down to Crosthwaite’s disdain for the teenager. On the morning of the doomed flight, you see, the purser had reportedly amended his will so that Tania would not receive a penny – unless she began living a “moral and upright Catholic life.” And it’s said that Crosthwaite had placed the document inside his car’s glove box, where someone would be sure to find it.

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

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All of this circumstantial evidence, however, wasn’t enough to prove Crosthwaite’s involvement. What’s more, a new suspect emerged just as Pan Am execs were honing in on Crosthwaite. The second potential culprit went by the name of William Payne, who had been recorded among the ill-fated flight’s passengers. And yet authorities never found his remains – just one of the suspicious facts about the former Navy demolitions expert.

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Payne, who was 41 years old at the time of the disaster, owned a hunting lodge. But his debt on the property had reportedly begun to rack up; he’s believed to have owed $10,000, in fact. And yet in the midst of his financial crisis, he had purchased an expensive one-way ticket to Honolulu. Even more questionably, Payne had apparently taken out two life insurance policies – of which he had a total of three – just days before flying. According to Herken and Fortenberry’s article, one of these would have compensated a hefty amount if he had died accidentally.

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When Payne perished on the Pan Am flight, then, his widow, Harriet, apparently received a $125,000 payout. And according to Fortenberry, this raised alarm bells. Russell Stiles, who worked as an investigator for one of the insurance companies, allegedly implored his employers not to honor Payne’s policy. Stiles, you see, seemingly believed that the lodge-runner had somehow managed to cause the crash – and had never actually been on board himself.

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Apparently, Fortenberry tried to schedule an interview with Stiles in the 1970s, but he refused to speak about Payne. The insurance investigator’s daughter, however, reportedly told Fortenberry something incredible. It seems that that her father had so strongly believed that Payne had been responsible for the crash – and was in fact still alive – that he had spent his own money in order to keep the investigation going.

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However, neither Crosthwaite nor Payne ever became official suspects in the case of the Romance. And in the meantime, the C.A.B. focused on a third potential culprit: the airplane itself. The Stratocruiser’s four engines, you see, were apparently so strong that they had a tendency to burst the plane’s propellers in the middle of a journey.

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Thankfully, Pan Am had come up with a fix to this problem, instructing that mechanics fortify and stabilize the propellers with better attachments between the oil tubes and the propellers’ housings. Allegedly, however, the Romance hadn’t undergone this maintenance. And even if it had, the plane may still have been doomed. “Even after those fixes, [Pan Am’s aircraft] still had problems,” Herken told SFGate in 2007.

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And yet none of this information has been enough for anyone to feel certain about what happened to the doomed Romance of the Skies. More clues are needed, it seems. Herken and Fortenberry, for their parts, hope that a recording of radio transmissions detected in the area of the crash on that fateful day is one of them. That’s because, according to their Pan Am contacts, the tape allegedly contains a faint Mayday message. Could this hold the key to the mystery?

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Well, unfortunately, the recording has apparently yet to be located since being entered into evidence in 1958. And equally suspiciously, it seems as though the debris collected by investigators in 1957 has also disappeared. While Miami University has all of the now-defunct Pan Am’s records, and South Florida’s Historical Museum has its most important artifacts, no one knows who has the wreckage. Plus, the rest of the Romance’s remains are still on the ocean floor. Herken believes that modern miniature submarines have the capacity to dive far enough down to examine it – but such an investigation seemingly shows so signs of taking place.

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Of course, for Fortenberry, the ongoing search remains a personal one. 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 he has been focusing on the man who he believes is responsible: former Naval officer Payne.

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