8 Nov 1957
Enroute from San Francisco, CA to Philadelphia, PA w/enroute stops at Honolulu HI, Tokyo, Japan, Hong Kong & Rangoon, Burma. Pan Am Flight 7 departed San Francisco International Airport at 1151 for the first leg of an around-the-world flight with several scheduled stops & its last stop at Philadelphia, PA. The pilot was last heard from at 1604 when he made a routine radio transmission to the USCG weather ship Pontchartrain (WHEC-70) performing radar surveillance duty at Ocean Station November, at the approximate halfway point (point of no return) between the mainland & the island of Oahu. The cutter fixed the location of the airliner by radar, about 10 miles E of the weather ship. The aircraft never arrived in HI. That same day at about 2130, a passing MATS air transport reported seeing a blinking light on the ocean about 120 miles from the airliner’s last reported location. The transport crew signaled back, got no response & flew on to HI.
The search was coordinated by the US Navy’s HQs, Hawaiian Sea Frontier at Pearl Harbor, HI & the 14th USCG District’s RCC at Honolulu, HI. It developed into one of the largest & costliest peacetime searches ever conducted in the Pacific Ocean. When the airliner failed to arrive, the USCG immediately sent an aircraft to perform a route search from HI to the last reported location. Meanwhile, the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor was instructed by the USCG to have 8 vessels moored there to turn on search lights to serve as a beacon for the missing airliner. Three searchlights were also turned on at Kaneohe. The USCG cutters Bering Strait (WAVP-382) & Minnetonka (WPG-67), the buoy tenders Balsam (WLB-62) & Blackhaw (WLB-390) were immediately sent from Honolulu to search the area along with a 95 ft patrol boat from Hilo. In addition, the submarines USS Cusk (SS-348) & USS Carbonero (AGSS-337) enroute from San Diego to Pearl Harbor were already conducting training near the area & were diverted to perform a search. The merchant tankers SS Monmouth & SS Avila & the luxury ocean liner SS Matsonia were also diverted to the search area. 4 USAF & USCG aircraft & 2 Pan Am DC-7s were sent to search the area as well.
By 12 Nov, the expanded search included 44 USCG & USAF aircraft, 12 helicopters & 21 ships. The aircraft included 17 USAF MATS transports, 11 USN A/S P2Vs & 7 USN W2V AWACs aircraft. An additional 41 A/S helicopters & aircraft from the anti-submarine aircraft carrier USS Philippine Sea (CVS-47) joined the search, which departed Long Beach on 9 Nov & reached the search area on 11 Nov. 5 RAF Coastal Command Shackleton patrol bombers joined the search while flying enroute from Christmas Island to Europe. Eventually, additional USCG cutters to include the weather ship Matagordo (WAVP-373), buoy tenders Ironwood (WLB-297) & Planetree (WLB-307), the USS Renshaw (DDE-499) & USS Epperson (DDE-719), USNS General Daniel I. Sultan (T-AP-120)plus6 merchant ships participated in the search. A 215 mile wide corridor was searched starting just W of the missing airliner’s last reported location. However, no trace of the missing airliner could be found.
Numerous leads were reported by passing aircraft. On 10 Nov, a passing USAF C54 pilot reported spotting 6-8 orange & yellow objects in the ocean, 80 S of the missing airliner’s last location. The USCG cutter Minnetonka was sent to investigate but found no trace of the objects. That same day another USAF C-124 acquired a clear & strong 45 min distress signal that “definitely came from a Gibson Girl” emergency transmitter. However, the USCG discounted the signal as coming from somewhere on the mainland. That same day a USN R6D pilot spotted a yellow dye marker, 94 SW of the airliner’s last location & about 30 miles N of its route. The USCG cutter Minnetonka & the USS Carbonero were sent to investigate, but found nothing. A USCG R5D spotted an oil slick 474 miles SW of the airliner’s last location & 11 N of its route. Other search aircraft were sent to investigate, but found no debris. On 11 Nov, an RAF Canberra enroute from Christmas Island to Honolulu was assisted by search aircraft when its radar system failed. On 13 Nov, a passing Pan Am airliner spotted an un-inflated life raft & a dye marker about 135 miles SSW of the last reported location & about 150 miles off course. After circling the object & dropping an improvised smoke pot, the airliner pilot reported the location. The USS Renshaw & the merchant ship Hillyer Brown were sent to investigate, but found nothing. On 11 Nov, a USCG navigation station on Hawaii detected a “weak, very weak” SOS signal that faded before it could be fixed. That same day a passing Qantas airliner reported spotting objects 30 miles E of the missing airliner’s last location that was investigated by a Pan Am DC-7 search plane. The USCG determined the objects were 2 whales.
On 12 Nov, the search force began a last ditch effort to find any trace of the missing airliner by following the presumed route from Ocean Station November W to HI. Led by the USS Philippine Sea, it launched its S2F Tracker aircraft to search a 172 mile wide corridor. On 14 Nov, S2F aircraft from the USS Philippine Sea finally spotted bodies & debris floating in the ocean, 940 miles E of Honolulu & about 90 miles N of the intended flight track.USCG cutters & USN destroyers converged on the area to begin recovery operations. A/S helicopters from the aircraft carrier spotted & marked debris & bodies with floating smoke pots so that sailors on ship’s boats from the USS Renshaw & USS Epperson & the USCG cutter Minnetonka could perform the recovery.Debris & 19 bodies were recovered during the subsequent search of a 33 square mile area of ocean. Some of the bodies were found still strapped to their seats. Only fragments of the fuselage, an engine cowling, interior trim, equipment & numerous mail bags were recovered; no major components of the airliner were found. Watches on many of the recovered victims were found to have stopped at about 1627, about 13 mins after its last location report. The search was suspended 15 Nov after the USS Philippine Sea reported it had exhausted all possibilities of finding survivors. The search covered 268,217 square miles - an area larger than France. Over 125 aircraft & 36 vessels (including 15 merchant vessels) participated. The aircraft carrier sailed back to Long Beach Naval Base with debris & 19 bodies & arrived 18 Nov. The remains were carried off the ship on stokes litters by sailors without ceremony. Only the ship’s Marine Detachment stood at attention as they were taken ashore. 16 boxes of debris were also off loaded.
The missing airliner was the 3rd mishap involving Pan Am on this route. Two previous Pan Am airliners had been forced to successfully ditch in 1955 & 1956, but with little loss of life. It was reported the missing airliner was carrying an unusual amount of mail – over 3500 lbs in 122 sacks & 8 parcels, most destined for HI. Almost all of it – 3295 lbs - was lost. On 2 Dec, the CAB revealed it was investigating reports that Flight 7 had sent out a weak, garbled distress signal prior to crashing. An initial review of tapes by investigators failed to hear one, so the CAB sent the CAA’s tape to Bell Telephone Laboratories for a thorough electronic analysis. After 3 months the lab stated no such transmission was detected during an analysis of the tapes. On 30 Dec, the L.A. Times published an interesting article of how the US Navy’s Hydrographic Office at Wilmington, CA assisted searchers in locating the main debris field of the missing airliner. There was never any hope of diving for wreckage since the airliner was resting in 15,000 ft of ocean.
The CAB conducted hearings in San Francisco that concluded 16 Jan 1958. Investigators explored several potential causes of the crash. One possible cause investigated was a runaway propeller. The Boeing 337 had a history of problems with the hollow core steel propellers that sometimes became imbalanced causing pieces to fly off or to start engine fires. It was believed a runaway propeller may have slashed into the fuselage or tail causing Flight 7 to crash. Flight 7’s sister ship was forced to ditch in 1956 while flying the same route when an over-speeding propeller & engine failure had forced down the airliner.Another Pan Am Boeing 337 crash in Brazil in 1952 was caused by a lost propeller shaking the aircraft apart. Over a month after the Flight 7 accident, on 26 Dec 1957 a BOAC Boeing 337 made an emergency landing at Nova Scotia due to an engine fire when the propeller spun loose & fell into the Atlantic Ocean. And finally, it was reported that Flight 7 experienced a runaway propeller on a flight to HI on 18 June 1957 that forced the airliner to turn back to San Francisco.
It was found that 14 of the remains recovered were wearing life vests indicating the occupants knew in advance they were going to crash. All bodies recovered were shoeless & had external injuries & multiple fractures. Toxicology results performed under the auspices of the L.A. County Coroner's Office showed higher than normal levels of carbon monoxide in the pilot & 4 of the remains who were seated at the rear of the airliner. Debris recovered showed indications of fire damage, but no evidence of an in-flight explosion or fire. But there was not enough evidence to point to a cause of the crash.
The possibility of sabotage was suspected from the very beginning & was on the top of the list of probable causes. The pax list was scrutinized for any suspicious passengers. Several insurance policies with large amounts were investigated, but nothing suspicious was uncovered. Much later, it was found that one of the passengers took out 2 life insurance policies totaling $125,000 shortly before his flight. Insurance investigators found that he was a former USN frogman & demolitions expert who had pervious run ins with the law over the use of explosives & other incidents. He was heavily in debt & was enroute to HI to collect a debt to pay off the others he owed. Because the FBI’s unwillingness to investigate, the insurance company reluctantly paid out the insurance though the lead investigator was convinced the pax never boarded the airliner & was still alive.
Years later it was revealed the airline suspected the purser who was known for his erratic & bizarre behavior. He had blamed his employer for health issues & other misfortunes & was depressed over the recent death of his spouse. Having domestic issues with his stepdaughter, he amended his will the morning of the flight disinheriting his step daughter, leaving the will in the glove compartment of his car parked at the airport. Airline investigators performing a follow up on this lead later found the purser was in possession of blasting powder before the flight that was never found.
It was reported that there was a dockside dispute between CAB representatives and FBI agents concerning who had jurisdiction in the case. This allegedly blossomed into a full-fledged feud between the agencies. In retaliation, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover washed his hands of the investigation. Ignoring pleas from both the airline and the head of the CAB, Mr. Hoover left the question of determining whether a crime had been committed up to Pan Am and the board, whose investigatory capabilities were considerably less than the bureau’s.
Despite all the evidence, the CAB determined, "The Board has insufficient tangible evidence at this time to determine the cause of the accident. Further research and investigation is in process concerning the significance of evidence of carbon monoxide in body tissue of the aircraft occupants."
As of 2007 families, friends & former Pan Am employees are still seeking the cause of the crash. Private investigations have followed up on the leads developed in 1957-1958 & they are hoping that advances in investigation technologies will someday lead to an answer. The NTSB has expressed willingness to re-open the investigation if sufficient evidence is found to warrant this.
Crew: *Pilot Captain Gordon H. Brown, 40 with 11,314 flight hrs, First Officer William P. Wygant, 37 with 3755 flight hrs, Second Officer-navigator William H. Fortenberry, 35 with 2683 flight hrs, flight engineer Albert F. Pinataro, 26, *purser Eugene Oliver Crosthwaite, 36, stewardesses *Yvonne L. Alexander, 26 & Marie L. McGrath, 26 & flight service supervisor John Elvins King, 42.
Passengers: *Dr. William H. Hagen, 36 & his spouse Norma Jean Perkins Hagen, Marian Barber, 45, Mr. Robert La Maison was general manager for Renault Autos of America & spouse *Nicole Madeline La Maison, *Edward Ellis, 42, Frederick Choy, 31, David Hill, USN CDR Joseph Vincent Jones Jr., 36 was to be married 16 Nov, William Harrison Payne, 45, Helen Roland, 60, Louis Rodrigues, 55, *Robert Halliday, 38, Hideo Kubata, *Toyoe Tanaka, 50, *Robert Alexander, 38 Pan Am employee with spouse *Margaret Alexander, 33, children *Judy Alexander, 4 & David Alexander, 11, *Tomiko Boyd, Melih Dural, 25, *William Deck, 24, Soehartijah Derbijl, Hugh Lee Clack was general manager for Dow Chemical in Tokyo with spouse *Anna Clack, 35, children *Scott Clack, 6, Bruce Clack, 9, Kimi Clack, 7 & Nancy Clack, 2, Soledad Mercado a fashion designer known as “Soledad of Arizona”, USAF MAJ Harold Sunderland, *Philip Beach Sullivan, 59 & his spouse Bess Sullivan, *Ruby Quong, 52, *USN LCDR Gordon Cole, 36 & *Thomas Henry McGrail, 52.
Registered to Pan American World Airways Inc of New York, NY. Cancelled 10 Feb 1970. Flight 7 was also known as Clipper Romance of the Skies. * indicates remains were recovered.