SANTA CRUZ (KPIX) — It reads like a thriller: a luxury airliner, called the Clipper Romance of the Skies, disappeared 60 years ago, halfway from San Francisco to Hawaii.
The Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, the fastest commercial plane of its time, was dubbed the “ocean liner of the sky” and featured seven-course gourmet dinners and champagne in the cocktail lounge.
But, on Nov. 8, 1957, Pan Am Flight 7 disappeared with 44 people on board.
The flight left San Francisco International Airport for Hawaii on the first leg of a round-the-world trip.
Days later, 19 bodies and floating debris were found hundreds of miles east of Honolulu and 90 miles off course.
Gregg Herken of Santa Cruz has been investigating the mystery.
“It appeared there had been an attemped ditching of the plane and the ditching would have been almost survivable except that the plane came in at too steep and angle and too high a speed,” he said.
The plane itself never turned up.
The government investigation showed no distress call and no fire but that didn’t explain high levels of carbon monoxide in several of the bodies.
Newspaper headlines blamed a meteor or an explosion plot but the government could draw no conclusions on what caused the accident.
Herken’s favorite fourth grade substitute teacher, Marie McGrath of San Mateo, died in the accident.
As a tribute to her, the retired history professor has been studying the case, along with retired newspaper editor and publisher Ken Fortenberry, whose father was the flight’s navigator.
Using a grant from Pan Am’s Historical Foundation, Gregg and Ken reviewed the airline’s archives.
Here are three leading theories:
“There was the possibility that the purser had brought it down — the suicidal purser. There was the passenger who had all the life insurance policies,” Herken said. “And there was the issue of mechanical failure.”
In the 1950s, there were no black boxes to shed light on the crash but there was an audiotape of radio transmissions between the cockpit and air traffic control.
Experts in advanced technology deciphered garbled messages.
“The tape was the Holy Grail of the research. We didn’t find the tape but we found the transcript,” Herken said. “Whoever was broadcasting had said what about number 3 engine?”
Was there a fire? An explosion? We may never know.
Herken is hoping a robot will someday scan the wreckage in the Pacific, some 12 to 14 thousand feet deep, and solve the mystery of Pan Am 7.
He says the technology is available but would cost $10,000 a day.
He is also hoping that he and Fortenberry will find the audio tape of the radio communications with the cockpit.
If they do — and find new evidence — there is a chance the National Transportation Safety Board could re-open the investigation.