The Mystery of the Lost Clipper
The Civil Aeronautics Board and the FBI abandoned the case 47 years ago, but two amateur detectives are still searching for the cause of the crash of Pan Am 944.
- By Gregg Herken with Ken Fortenberry
- Air & Space magazine, September 2004
NASM (SI Neg. #00129509)
(Page 2 of 7)
In command of 944 that day was 40-year-old Captain Gordon Brown, a 15-year veteran of the airline. Bill Wygant, the first officer, had been with Pan Am for more than a dozen years. The young flight engineer, Al Pintara, was taking night courses in electronics at a community college in anticipation of promotion. The senior flight attendant, Yvonne Alexander, was a statuesque blonde who also took care of her ailing father in San Francisco.
Ken’s father, navigator Bill Fortenberry, 35, was an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed taking his young sons to Yosemite on weekend hiking and fishing trips. Abandoned by his mother while in his teens, Bill had been taken in by a South Carolina farm family and originally planned to be a minister, but he had a yearning to fly, so he took a part-time carpentry job after college to pay for the lessons. He was a religious man, and his sons remember him telling them that once a man has flown over the clouds and gazed upon the Earth below and the heavens above, he could never doubt the existence of God.
Stewardess Marie McGrath, 26, was an energetic brunette whom friends would remember as “pretty” and “pert.” Even while she was attending Keuka College in upstate New York, Marie had dreams of someday flying for Pan Am. Under her graduation picture in the college yearbook is the inscription “Wanderlust...air-minded...California.”
During her three-week layovers between round-the-world flights, Marie worked as a substitute teacher at my elementary school in San Mateo, California. When our regular teacher went on maternity leave, our class came to know and love Miss McGrath, who one day held a “luau” for us kids. We were all secretly sad when our regular teacher returned to work and Marie went back to flying.
At 4:04 p.m. local time, from an altitude of 10,000 feet, Captain Brown radioed a routine position report to the Pontchartrain, a Coast Guard weather ship stationed in the Pacific to assist over-flying aircraft. Romance of the Skies had just passed the point of no return and was on course and schedule, 1,160 miles from Honolulu and about 10 miles east of the Pontchartrain. The skies were clear and the seas calm, with the sun low in the western sky. Onboard the Clipper, Yvonne Alexander and Marie McGrath had just started serving hors d’oeuvres when something terrible happened. Twenty-two minutes later—wristwatches found on three recovered bodies had stopped at 4:26 p.m.—944 hit the water.
Debris from 944 was eventually found 90 miles to the north of the flight’s intended track, suggesting that the airplane continued to fly for some time after the mysterious incident occurred. Fourteen of the 19 bodies recovered were wearing life vests but no shoes, indicating that some preparations had been made for ditching. (Yvonne Alexander’s body was found still strapped to its seat, a life vest carefully fitted over her serving apron.) Floating fragments of the fuselage and cabin indicated that the airplane hit the ocean with the nose slightly down and the right wing lowered. Although several of the recovered bodies exhibited “impact trauma,” according to the CAB report, the fact that most died from drowning suggests that 944’s final plunge into the sea was not completely uncontrolled. The wreckage had burn marks; these were above the waterline, indicating a post-crash fire, but there was no evidence of an inflight conflagration.
Pan Am and the FBI suspected foul play. Suspicions grew when autopsies uncovered high levels of carbon monoxide in four bodies. The gas was found in the bloodstreams of Captain Brown and passengers who had been seated in the front as well as the rear of the airplane, suggesting that the carbon monoxide had been widely distributed.
For years afterward, whenever an airplane went down under “mysterious circumstances,” I would think of Romance of the Skies and Marie McGrath. On my first day at work at the National Air and Space Museum, in 1988, I asked my new colleagues in the aeronautics department about the B-377 and its reputation. But my job as chairman of the department of space history left me little time for research. In 2002, shortly before I left NASM, I finally began to seriously investigate the incident.