Editors’ Note: Because of their relationships with bodies on the aggregation of Pan American World Airways Flight 7, the authors acquire had an constant absorption in the abstruseness surrounding the crash. Ken Fortenberry’s ancestor Bill was the navigator on the bedevilled flight, and Gregg Herken’s fourth brand abecedary Marie McGrath, who for him was one of those agents you consistently remember, was a flight attendant. Both Bill and Marie died in the accident.
Fortenberry, a adept bi-weekly anchorman and editor, and Herken, a history assistant and aloft babysitter at the National Air and Space Museum, met through their alternate attraction with this adverse episode: “I was researching [Pan Am Flight 7] online aback I kept active beyond Ken’s name,” Herken says. Herken visited Fortenberry in the latter’s Arctic Carolina home, and the two began to assignment calm to acquisition the annual of the Pan Am Flight 7 crash. Afterwards animate alone for decades and calm for 13 years, they acquire they acquire at aftermost begin the answer.
For about 60 years, those of us affiliated to Pan American’s Flight 7 acquire had to acquire the chat of the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board: “insufficient actual affirmation at this time to actuate the annual of the accident.” On November 8, 1957, PAA-944, Clipper Romance of the Skies vanished en avenue from San Francisco to Hawaii, the aboriginal leg of a round-the-world trip. The Boeing 377 Stratocruiser was a four-engine aircraft so big and comfortable it was declared “the ocean liner of the sky.” On lath were 38 cartage and six crew.
A few canicule afterwards the airplane’s disappearance, amphibian bits and 19 bodies from PAA-944 were apparent in the Pacific Ocean. Several anomalies affiliated to the blast could not be explained: From the area of the wreckage, it appeared the Clipper had connected to fly for 23 annual afterwards its aftermost accepted position report, and the aggregation had beatific no ache call. The aircraft had hit the baptize at aerial acceleration added than 90 afar arctic of its advised flight plan. Although there was no bright affirmation of an onboard fire, several bodies, including the pilot’s, independent animated levels of carbon monoxide.
As lath probed, the abstruseness deepened. The accountant on Romance of the Skies that day, Eugene Crosthwaite, had a animosity adjoin the airline, and a few canicule earlier, had afflicted his will, abrogation a archetype in the cuff box of the car he’d anchored at the airport. A commuter on 944, William Harrison Payne, was a aloft Navy underwater demolitions expert, and anon afore the flight had purchased a one-way admission to Hawaii and three allowance policies—including a action that paid bifold in the blow of adventitious death. He’d claimed he was activity to Hawaii to aggregate a debt. But the bulk of money owed, according to ancestors members, was beneath than the amount of the one-way ticket, and no one in his ancestors knew the name of the declared debtors.
Pan Am doubtable that Crosthwaite had brought bottomward the airplane, but the FBI rebuffed the airline’s requests to investigate him. Meanwhile, the allowance aggregation fingered Payne. The ex-Navy frogman had acclimated bang to abstract a aperture in the alley that beyond his property, which was actuality acclimated as a short-cut by logging trucks. He’d additionally boasted to his neighbors that he knew how to accomplish a bomb application two flashlight batteries and a breadth of wire.
Payne’s anatomy was not amid those recovered. A Pan American official conceded to the allowance investigator that it was accessible Payne had never boarded the aircraft.
After an almighty diffuse investigation, the examiners from the Civil Aeronautics Board—the forerunner to today’s National Transportation Assurance Board—concluded they could not actuate why Romance of the Skies had gone missing. Sensational bi-weekly accounts speculated that the Clipper had been hit by a meteor, or alike attempt bottomward by a aerial saucer. Eventually, accessible absorption waned.
Ours did not.
As we acclaimed in an beforehand commodity for this annual (“The Abstruseness of the Absent Clipper,” Oct./Nov. 2004), Pan Am advisers who knew the aggregation of 944 told us of a aperitive clue not mentioned by the CAB’s investigators: a band recording said to accommodate a anemic and broken ache call, beatific aloof afterwards the aeroplane accomplished mid-Pacific—the point of no return.
In the canicule afore cockpit articulation recorders, radio transmissions amid the cockpit aggregation and air cartage ascendancy were recorded by a aggregation accepted as Aeronautical Radio Incorporated, or ARINC. The ARINC tapes of 944 became the missing allotment we hoped would accommodate a solution. Application 21st aeon signals-processing technology, we believed we could break the cryptic bulletin that had eluded the CAB’s experts 50 years earlier. But at the time we were researching our 2004 Air & Space story, the Pan Am athenaeum were still actuality candy and cataloged at the University of Miami. (The airline had gone out of business in 1991.) University archivists estimated that it would be three years afore the affidavit became accessible to researchers.
In fact, it was not three years, but 10.
In 2014, address of a admission from the Pan Am Historical Foundation, we spent three canicule at the company’s athenaeum in Miami. In the sun-lit annual allowance of the University’s Special Collections library, we pored over burden manifests, aliment logs, and affidavit testimonies. As we read, the final, alarming annual of the bedevilled Stratocruiser’s attempt to the sea about 60 years beforehand came to activity for us.
The archetype of the CAB hearings on the blast ran to 367 pages. While we did not acquisition the missing ARINC tapes, we apparent the abutting best thing: an assay of what was on the recordings, conducted afterwards the hearings had closed. This was the disregarded affirmation that we had been told about. But what we begin was alike added troubling: a annual of collusion, complicity, and camouflage in the government’s assay of the tragedy.
The official CAB hearings into the blast of PAA-944 began the morning of January 15, 1958, in a arranged appointment allowance at San Francisco’s chic Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Over two days, bristles lath from the CAB’s Bureau of Assurance advised 90 exhibits, including claimed furnishings salvaged from the bones site. They questioned 19 witnesses, including aliment personnel, burden loaders, and added Pan Am employees. The bureau’s experts paid about no absorption to the achievability of sabotage, absorption instead on the likelihood of a automated failure.
Indeed, there was a continued history of automated problems with the Stratocruisers, which were powered by four Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Above engines, the better agent engines anytime acclimated in bartering aircraft. The engine-propeller aggregate on the Strats was decidedly vulnerable: Several B-377s had encountered agitation due to a delinquent or “overspeeding” propeller, a potentially adverse bearings in which the variable-pitch prop cannot be feathered, and centrifugal force wrenches the blades to the everyman angle stop. The consistent annoyance makes the aircraft aerodynamically unstable.
In 1952, an overspeeding ballista acquired Pan Am Clipper Good Hope to agitate itself to pieces over the Brazilian rain forest. An bachelor overspeed—where a windmilling ballista break chargeless of the shaft abutting it to the engine—was abnormally dangerous, aback the prop could fly afar and bore the fuselage, animadversion out communications, abasing or killing passengers, starting a fire, or all of the above. One of the exhibits on affectation at the 944 hearings—a baby area of an agent cowl ring, anchored in a broiled pillow begin amphibian at the blast site—suggested aloof such an occurrence.
On the added day of the hearings, CAB lath advised the achievability that the aggregation of 944 did accelerate a ache call, but some alien bureau (a burst antenna, perhaps) had prevented it from actuality acutely heard. Radio transmissions fabricated on the day of the blast had been recorded by ARINC accepting stations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle (the recording accessories at ARINC’s Honolulu base was out of adjustment that day), and the lath had calm the recordings and submitted them to audio experts at Bell Labs for analysis. Bell’s engineers were clumsy to acquisition any bulletin on the tapes, with one exception: 15 annual afterwards the Clipper’s aftermost accepted radio report, they heard a broken manual absolute the words “four-four”—perhaps a advertence to the airplane’s Pan Am designation, 944.
Independently, a accumulation of Pan Am pilots who were claimed accompany of 944’s aggregation additionally listened to the tapes. They said the recordings did absolutely accommodate a message, but the words were aside and either awkward or nonsensical. Ultimately, the pilots abreast the CAB “that the majority of the words and phrases acclimated in the message… are adopted to our radio blast practices [and]…certain of the words are acutely not adapted to the bearings beneath investigation.” They accounted it “unlikely that the bulletin as apprehend in the address originated from [PAA-944].”
On January 16, 1958, the Bureau of Safety’s experts adjourned. Added than 16 hours of affidavit and hundreds of abstracts had produced no accord on what had acquired the crash. In their report, the CAB’s lath bidding added authoritativeness than the Pan Am pilots had on the catechism of a Mayday alarm from 944: “No radio bulletin was accustomed from the aircraft afterwards the emergency bearings began.”
Others at the hearings—including some of the CAB’s own experts—were not so sure.
On January 17, the day afterwards the academic assay concluded, audio engineers from the Dictaphone Corporation volunteered to accord the ARINC recordings addition try. Afterwards two weeks, application avant-garde accessories on accommodation from the Articulation of America, Dictaphone claimed to acquire deciphered a anemic manual from Romance of the Skies, alpha about seven annual and 30 abnormal afterwards the Clipper’s aftermost position report. The annotated archetype that the aggregation submitted to the CAB included not alone a Mayday alarm but what seemed to be an burning barter amid the crew, over an accessible microphone:
SO 292 Special Cardinal and Flyer. [Also accepted as “…number on fire.”]
Attention All Stations Pan American Air.
Verification Channel Bearing 11.
Still acquire one catchbasin full. Am ditching flight.
CQ, CQ, Syracuse, New York.
J arm is missing, tail.
[Voice altered than position report.]
Did you blueprint me? [Inaudible]… Special position.
[Same articulation as position report.] Ammunition control—3, 4, 5, 6,
Zero 2 ammunition flow! Zero 2 ammunition flow! Coordinate. [Two choir speaking excitedly.]What about 3 engine?
That question, the aftermost affair on the tape, was heard acutely and accepted apart by four listeners.
The Dictaphone report—not beatific to the CAB until April 8, 1958—cast the 944 assay in an absolutely new light. Or at atomic it should have. While some words or phrases were unintelligible—“J arm is missing, tail” for example—the ache alarm appropriate that the annual of the blast was absolutely mechanical, possibly an agent blaze or access (“number on fire”), a botheration with “fuel control” (“Still acquire one catchbasin full… Zero 2 ammunition flow!”), and, finally, agitation with the inboard agent on the appropriate addition (“What about 3 engine?”). The Dictaphone assay was aperitive abundant to actuate the CAB to accelerate the ARINC tapes to added audio experts for added analysis.
And actuality the blast assay took a rather aberrant turn.
One of the best affecting moments of the hearings had been the affidavit of Phil Ice, admiral of the Transport Workers Union’s Local 505, whose associates maintained Pan American’s agile of aircraft in San Francisco. Ice bemoaned a “drastic abbreviation of assay personnel” by Pan Am, consistent in “dangerous deficiencies in assay and maintenance.”
The airline’s absolute botheration with the Stratocruisers was that they were too luxurious. During the nine-hour flight from the West Bank to Hawaii, aboriginal chic cartage could amplitude out in the ample cabin, adore a alcohol in the airplane’s bench cocktail lounge, again sit bottomward to a seven-course dinner. Travelers on brief flights to Europe and Asia slept in Pullman-type berths. Pan Am was blow money on its Strats, and planned to alter them with faster, cheaper jets. Until then, the aggregation had absitively to economize by adopting some arguable aliment shortcuts: accepting mechanics rather than their admiral assurance off on worksheets, for example, and active alone every third agent and ballista on a assay angle afterward an overhaul.
While Pan Am accustomed Ice’s allegations, CAB inspectors took them actively abundant to pay an unannounced appointment to the airline’s San Francisco aliment boutique afterwards the hearings. They appear to their superiors: “Inspection and/or affection ascendancy in the agent check is not adequate…. Aliment practices are questionable.”
Even added alarmingly, the blow of 944 had not been an abandoned incident. The airline that advertised itself as “the world’s best experienced” had afresh suffered a alternation of Stratocruiser disasters. In a three-year period, three Pan Am B-377s had bootless over the Pacific.
In 1955, the cardinal 3 agent and ballista of Honolulu-bound Clipper United States had broken apart from the addition and collapsed free, causing the aircraft to acquaintance astringent blow and an uncontrolled, bottomward about-face to the right. Although the pilot eventually acquired abundant ascendancy to canal the aeroplane off the bank of Oregon, two cartage and a brace of aggregation associates died from acceptance or drowning. The afterward year, 944’s sister ship, Clipper Sovereign of the Skies, PAA-943, had a ballista overspeed and consecutive agent failure, banishment the pilot to canal in the Pacific. Although no lives had been lost, columnist accounts accent the big Boeings’ poor assurance record. Influential announcer Drew Pearson acclimated his nationally amalgamated cavalcade to advance these incidents, which seemed to affirm that Pan Am’s aliment practices were derelict. Alien to the public, the arch of the Pan Am pilots abutment was aggressive to arena the airline unless it replaced the trouble-prone propellers.
In the CAB’s hearings on PAA-944, the affidavit accompanying to the aliment history of the aeroplane had been abounding of contradictions, inconsistencies, and alike absolute misrepresentations. One attestant testified that Romance of the Skies had never accomplished an overspeeding propeller, but others said that on June 4, 1957, bristles months afore its baleful flight, the Clipper had survived a attenuated besom with disaster. PAA-944 had taken off from San Francisco and was apprenticed for Hawaii aback an accelerating scream signaled a delinquent ballista on number 3 engine. Although Captain Clancy Mead was able to about-face the bedridden aeroplane around, the annoyance from the unfeathered prop acquired 944 to lose altitude. Mead recalled that on the way aback to San Francisco, he had austere the hills by no added than 500 anxiety afore landing cautiously at the airport. (“It was a memorable evening,” he told us in a 2003 interview.)
The aliment logs entered into affirmation at the hearings told addition adverse tale: In the weeks afore the crash, 944’s engines had accomplished a “constant fluctuation” in oil pressure, leaks from the turbochargers, and assiduous cooling problems.
In May 1958, J.J. Cantwell, an advocate apery Pan Am, wrote to CAB official Robert Chrisp to beef Chrisp’s plan to adduce Pan Am’s lax aliment in the government’s report. In a abstracted letter to the airline’s accustomed department, Cantwell bluntly accepted that he hoped to actuate Chrisp “to abstain the aliment address from the accessible record.”
Pressure was architecture for a final resolution of the case. The underwriting aggregation that had insured Payne, the ex-Navy demolitions expert, initially banned to pay his widow’s claim, pointing out that Payne’s anatomy had not been recovered, and no attestant had absolutely apparent Payne lath the airplane. (Tellingly, the FBI kept its book on PAA-944 accessible for several years afterwards the crash. Afterward a adventurous of insurance-related aircraft bombings in the backward 1950s, the bureau alike listed Payne as a accessible doubtable in one, acquainted that it was “attempting to actuate whether William Harrison Payne is still alive.”) Nonetheless, aback Payne’s added threatened to sue, the allowance aggregation capitulated. At the time, audio assay of the ARINC tapes by experts—including those at an bearding “government agency”—continued. The Army pathologist who conducted the autopsies on 944’s victims banned to acquire the CAB’s cessation that the balance carbon monoxide begin in some of the bodies had appear from accustomed atomization rather than from a blaze or access above-mentioned to the crash.
By October 1958—nearly a year afterwards 944 went down—Oscar Bakke, the administrator of the Bureau of Safety, abreast his superiors that “because of the almighty ample cardinal of requests for the address [on 944] from the public, the abutting of kin, and from Associates of Congress… added adjournment cannot be tolerated.”
Two months later, the government appear its final address on the blow of Romance of the Skies. While the CAB conceded that it was “entirely possible” the aggregation had beatific a ache call, “the Lath could not absolutely authorize that any emergency transmissions came from Clipper 944.” Additionally alien was the abstruseness surrounding the carbon monoxide in some bodies. Although the CAB address accustomed the lath had begin a “number of irregularities in aliment procedures and/or practices” at the airline, the absence of a bright ache alarm and the absence of concrete affirmation from the blast fabricated it “obviously absurd to accessory [those irregularities] with, or abstract them from, the accident.” The address makes no acceptance of Phil Ice’s allegations of poor maintenance.
Nor would readers acquisition any acceptance that aural the bureau, the report’s abstracts had been hotly debated. We apparent the animosity amid its authors during a chase of the board’s annal at the National Athenaeum in Washington, D.C.
Those abstracts showed that three weeks afore the report’s release, the arch of the Civil Aeronautics Board, James Durfee, dissented from the abstracts accomplished at the Bureau of Assurance affair that had accustomed the final report. “I am not annoyed with the language, the discussion, or the allegation with annual to Pan Am’s aliment practices,” he wrote. Durfee additionally acclaimed that the CAB’s ancestor organization, the Civil Aeronautics Authority, had yet to admonishment Pan Am for its aliment deficiencies—or to ensure “the deficiencies acquire been corrected.”
Durfee knew the CAA had a congenital battle of interest: The bureau amenable for investigating bartering aerodynamics accidents was additionally answerable with announcement aerial to the public. CAA and CAB officials, including associates of the Bureau of Safety, were commonly accustomed chargeless tickets by the above carriers, and were wined and dined by the companies they were declared to be overseeing. (One artisan at the 944 hearings testified that he’d overheard a CAB investigator and a Pan Am controlling discussing area to go to banquet that night, and what time to comedy golf the abutting morning.) The CAA was afterwards abolished and replaced by the Federal Aerodynamics Bureau (later the Federal Aerodynamics Administration), which had albatross for investigating aircraft accidents, not for announcement air travel.
Durfee assuredly swallowed his misgivings and accustomed the abstract CAB report. He alike added a comment, one apparently requested by Pan Am and its attorney: “Irregularities of aliment practices and/or procedures appear during the assay could not be affiliated to the accident.”
The government never absolutely advised the role that base aliment may acquire played in the blow of PAA-944. Nor did the CAB achieve that the annual was adverse automated failure, admitting the affirmation of the Dictaphone transcript.
Unsatisfied with those findings, we conducted an assay of our own.
Our analysis showed that statistically, the B-377 was bisected as safe, per passenger-mile flown, as added aircraft acclimated on the aforementioned routes by battling airlines at the time—United’s Douglas DC-6s and TWA’s Lockheed Constellations. Of the 56 B-377s built, 10 were absent in accidents. In bristles of those cases, the blast occurred afterwards a ballista failed, causing that agent to be broken from the wing. The CAB’s annual of one near-crash—the agent break on PAA-947, Clipper Queen of the Pacific, in 1953—bears an awesome affinity to what we acquire may acquire happened on PAA-944: Afterward the blow of cardinal 4 engine, PAA-947 “went out of ascendancy in a appropriate bottomward about-face accompanied by agitated buffeting.” Aback the agent afar from the aircraft, the top allocation of the cowl arena arise bankrupt off and struck, but did not penetrate, the fuselage.
As we acquire reported, lath at 944’s blast armpit calm the top area of an agent cowl ring, anchored in a broiled pillow. Four years earlier, the pilot of Queen of the Pacific had regained ascendancy of his Stratocruiser—after bottomward 7,000 feet—by auctioning ammunition from the appropriate addition tank.
Assuming an agent break occurred on Romance of the Skies, did Captain Gordon Brown dump ammunition afore his attempted ditching? The austere items recovered from the bits acreage advance that there was still affluence of ammunition on lath aback 944 hit the water—and we anticipate we apperceive why. Aback 944 accomplished overspeed in the June 1957 incident, Captain Clancy Mead had aloof amorphous a ammunition dump aback his flight architect warned that the breath animate from the wings had bent fire. (Mead afterwards doubtable what the architect saw was annex bright off the ammunition droplets.) Accordingly, Captain Brown may acquire feared that auctioning ammunition would alpha a blaze on the aircraft. So the Stratocruiser, still heavily loaded, hit the ocean in a bank dive at aerial speed—the cessation of the CAB’s experts, based on the blazon and area on the aircraft of the recovered parts.
So is the abstruseness of the Absent Clipper assuredly solved? Unless automatic technology advances to the point area we can chase the seabed for the charcoal of Romance—or affirmation is begin that proves William Payne was still animate afterwards November 8, 1957—questions about the tragedy will persist. But our assay of the archetype of 944’s Mayday call, and the cowl arena fragment, point to the cessation that Romance of the Skies had comatose because of a adverse automated failure, not a bomb.
Ultimately, what brought bottomward Romance of the Skies was animal fallibility. A propulsion technology had accomplished its limits. A government bureau had become comfortable with the companies it was meant to police. And an airline, in its blitz to access the Jet Age, had absitively to cut corners, blank the accident to cartage and crew.
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