Hawaii-bound plane crashed into the ocean in 1957, killing 44 – and we still don’t know why

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Pan Am Flight 7: Hawaii airliner down, 44 aboard

Massive air-sea search underway — Pan-America still hopeful

HONOLULU, HAWAII — The Air Force, Coast Guard and Navy launched a massive sea and air search today for the airliner “Romance of the Skies,” which was presumed to have gone down in “perfect weather” in the Pacific with 44 persons aboard.

Eight Coast Guard vessels, two Navy submarines, two merchant ships, 19 military aircraft and half a dozen commercial planes crisscrossed a 100,000-square mile area in search for the missing Pan American World Airways Stratocruiser.

November 1957 Hawaii newspaper headlines - Pan American airliner crash (3)
The mystery of Pan Am Flight 7, airliner registration N90944 – Named “Romance of the Skies”

Missing [plane] had no hint of trouble

The double-decked luxury craft last reported its position at 5:04 pm (PST) Friday en route from San Francisco to Honolulu, Hawaii, a little past the “point of no return” of the 2,400 mile flight.

At that time, the pilot, Capt. Gordon H Brown, Palo Alto, Calif., radioed:

“Clipper 944 2920 north 14135 west at 0104 flight flight flight level 100 on top estimating 2735 north 14510 west plus four missing plus 370.”

Pan-Am’s pilots normally report their position every half hour. The message, which in technical language gave the plane’s position and its altitude (10,000 feet, on top of clouds) and the temperature, gave no hint that the plane was in any trouble.

A Pan American spokesman, asked if there was any possibility of sabotage, replied: “We just will not speculate on what happened to the aircraft. You are going to hear a lot of rumors that there was an explosion, or sabotage, but we just do not know what happened.”

Captain Gordon H Brown - Pilot of the Romance of the Skies flight 7

People killed in crash of Pan Am flight 7 in 1957

Past endurance point

The plane was scheduled to arrive at Honolulu at 9:45 pm (PST) Friday. The plane had enough fuel to keep it afloat until 3 am (PST) today.

In San Francisco, Robert B Murray Jr., executive vice president of Pan American’s Pacific-Alaska Division, told reporters early today:

“We are now past the gasoline endurance point, and the aircraft must be presumed to be down somewhere in the Pacific. The crew is experienced and well-trained and we are still hopeful.”

Another Pan-Am spokesman said other company pilots returning to San Francisco reported that seas, in the area were calm and skies were clear out of Honolulu. He called it “perfect flying weather.”

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November 1957 Hawaii newspaper headlines - Pan American airliner crash (2)

Coast guard Rear Adm. Stephen H Evans, who is coordinating the search effort, said “time ran out” after the plane had been missing some 14 hours. He immediately launched massive air and sea search which will cover a 100,000 square mile area between Honolulu and 1.100 miles to the East toward San Francisco.

The Coast Guard at San Francisco identified the submarines as the USS Cusk and USS Carbonero which were cruising in the area.

The flying “A” tanker SS Washington and the Matson Freighter SS Hawaiian Refiner were diverted from their courses to help, the Coast Guard said. It added that a total of 19 military aircraft were making sweeps over the area.

At the time of the pilot’s last radio message, 5:04 pm (PST) the plane was 100 miles southwest of the Coast Guard weather ship Minnetonka, stationed about halfway between San Francisco and Honolulu. The Minnetonka left its station to join the search.

Nov 11 1957 search for missing aircraft

Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force planes from Hawaii were pressed into the search, and Pan American sent planes from both Honolulu and San Francisco. Two submarines and eight coast guard cutters were dispatched to the area and all surface vessels in the vicinity were alerted.

The Navy search rescue center at Pearl Harbor confirmed a report that a Military Air Transport Plane spotted blinking lights on the air route the missing plane would have taken, but search planes found nothing in the area It was reported that the lights may have been those of a passing ship.

The last report from the plane came at 3:04 pm HST, when the captain radioed he had passed the point of no return 1,160 miles from Honolulu.

This was near the area where on Oct. 16, 1956, another Pan American plane developed trouble and ditched at sea. All 31 passengers aboard were saved when pilot Richard Ogg circled four hours on two engines to reduce the fuel load and then ditched near a Coast Guard weather ship.

Although the tail broke off on the impact, everyone aboard scrambled into life rafts, and were picked up within minutes by the crew of the coast guard ship.

MORE: See an airplane emergency info booklet from this actual plane, the year before the crash

Weather clear

Scripps-Howard Washington reporter Henry N Taylor, a passenger aboard a Qantas airliner en route to San Francisco from Honolulu, said his plane joined in the search for the missing airliner but found nothing.

“We were flying about 15,000 feet when we got word of the missing plane. Capt. Max Bamman dropped down to 5,000 feet and followed along the track of the plane’s last reported position for about 200 miles.

“The weather was clear and there was a full moon. But no sign of the plane.”

Scene of massive search map - 1957

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Life rafts spotted – presumed from Pan Am Flight 7

San Francisco — Pan American Airways reported today yellow objects “believed to be life rafts” were seen in the ocean near the last known location of the missing Pan American plane. The report came from the coast guard in Honolulu, PAA said.

An air force pilot radioed the location as 28 degrees 11 minutes north latitude, 142 degrees 45 minutes west longitude. The report did not say whether survivors were sighted.

A coast guard cutter was sent to the spot and should arrive about 12:45 PM PST, PAA said.

November 1957 Hawaii newspaper headlines - Pan American airliner crash (1)

Clues bared in airliner crash probe

Seventy-two small bits of metal and wood — the incomplete elements of a jigsaw puzzle that may tell why 44 persons died suddenly and violently — already have told part of their story.

The Civil Aeronautics Board in Washington, DC, announced last night that its investigation of the mid-Pacific crash of a Pan American World Airways Stratocruiser has revealed that:

1: Autopsies on the 19 bodies recovered has shown that 14 of them contained “excessive amounts of carbon monoxide,” a gas generated by incomplete burning — which, doctors say, could only be present if the passengers had inhaled smoke.

2: The battered wreckage recovered from the ocean shows no evidence of cabin fire and that it would have shown it had fire occurred.

3: The fragments show that no bomb or gasoline vapor explosion occurred.

4: There was fire briefly after the huge craft splashed into the sea.

5: None of the passengers carried excessive amounts of insurance, which tended to discount sabotage for personal gain.

6: Study of wreckage has indicated that the plane did not “throw” a propeller, and that the right wing may have dipped into the water while the plane was approaching at a landing angle, not plunging into the water steeply.

1950s Pan Am plane flies over the Presidio - San Francisco
A similar 1950s Pan Am plane flies over the Presidio in San Francisco

An unusual announcement

The CAB’s announcement last night was highly unusual. The agency issued a brief preview statement of the evidence to be explored when a public hearing into the disaster of “The Romance of the Skies” opens Wednesday at San Francisco’s Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

Painstaking scientific detective work has gone into the preparation for the hearing that will attempt to explain just why the $1,500,000 airplane and its human cargo disappeared.

Only 500 pounds of wreckage were retrieved from the sea by Navy crews after one of the largest peacetime fleets in Pacific history searched over a 100,000 square mile area for six days.

A four-by-seven foot section of bulkhead was the largest piece recovered from the giant craft.

“If we find the answer, it will be a product of modern technology and an estimated 9,500 man-hours of plain, hard work,” the CAB said. “If we do not succeed, it will be because the mute evidence of 19 bodies… and 72 pieces of wreckage simply did not tell the story.”

“The Romance of the Skies” was bound from San Francisco to Honolulu and was about midway last November 8 when its skipper, Capt. Gordon H Brown, 40, of Palo Alto, made a routine position report. “Pan Am 944,” he radioed, was at 10,000 feet at 5:34 pm and conditions were normal.

It was not long after — perhaps only a few minutes — that flight of the four-engine craft ended in tragedy.

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Main cabin - Boeing Stratocruiser - 1945
Main cabin – Boeing Stratocruiser, similar to the plane that crashed

Pan Am Flight 7: Ditching procedures were used

Last night’s glimpse of the evidence to which CAB experts will testify indicates that the big craft might have been nearing a successful ditching, or water alighting, when something went wrong.

The complete testimony and its evaluation together may enable a complete reconstruction of those last few minutes, in which passengers wearing life vests waited for life or death. The recovered bodies showed that ditching precautions had been taken before the crash.

Evidence of the carbon monoxide in the bodies of the dead adds further mystery to the investigation. Doctors say that evidence of “excessive amounts” of the deadly gas seems to indicate that the passengers breathed smoke before their deaths.

Part of the effort of determining what happened aboard “Pan Am 944” has been spent attempting to interpret a short length of tape recording with a garbled message, believed to be the last broadcast from the craft.

From the Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances, 1959

On November 8, 1957, an alert was issued on the Pan American stratocruiser, Romance of the Skies, en route from San Francisco to Honolulu with 36 passengers and eight crew members on board. The last word from the plane was received by the U. S. C. G. C. Minnetonka which was occupying Ocean Station November.

There-after ensued the most extensive search that had ever been undertaken in the Pacific, lasting eight days, crossing and crisscrossing a 150-mile wide path 1,000 miles long between Ocean Station November and Honolulu.

It is estimated that 76 land-based planes flew 320,000 miles, 45 carrier-based aircraft and helicopters, 30,000 miles, and 38 assorted surface vessels cruised 30,000 miles. Eight Coast Guard vessels and three aircraft assisted in the search.

By the sixth day, 19 bodies had been recovered, but there were no survivors. 

From the Civil Aeronautics Board final report, 1957

The Board has insufficient tangible evidence at this time to determine the cause of the accident.

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Comments on this story

4 Responses

    1. Thank you for the correction! The word jet was there because it was in the original news story from the ’50s, but I have replaced the word with [plane]. :-)

  1. In 1957 I was working for TWA in Baltimore as a reservationist, and I was pregnant with our son. My husband and I had planned our first trip to San Francisco which we were very excited about.
    While working before out trip a lady made a reservation for the same flight and she was taking
    her cat on to Hawaai. Since she was traveling coach and I knew we would be in first class, I volunteered to take the cat under my name.
    WE departed on the trip and all went well and we landed safely in San Fran. The next morning we picked up the paper to see that the connecting flight on Pan Am had crashed with some of the
    people who had been on our flight, it was devastating and we could hardly get ourselves together
    WE checked every means of travel other than flying but to no avail as my husband as a new engineer had no extra time off. WE took our return flight home and it was very eerie as some of the crew had know some of the crew on Pam Am. It took me quite some time before I could fly again. Very surprised to find this article, it brought back those memories.

  2. I once had a neighbor who flew these Pan Am “Strato Clippers” out of San Francisco International Airport in the 1950s. I was too young at the time to notice if he’d ever spoken of this incident.

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