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 looking for the cause of the Pan Am 944 crash

Twenty-five victims were never found, including Bill Fortenberry. For years, his son Ken believed the navigator was awaiting rescue on a desert island. (NASM)
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THIS IS A GHOST STORY. FOR THE PAST 46 YEARS, the two of us—Ken, a newspaper publisher, and me, a history professor—have been haunted by what happened to Pan American Airways Flight 7 early in the evening of November 9, 1957. The airliner, Clipper Romance of the Skies, was on the first leg of a round-the-world journey that began earlier that day in San Francisco. Its next stop was to have been Honolulu, but the Boeing 377—known by the airline as PAA-944—never arrived. It crashed in the Pacific, killing 44 people, including Ken’s father, second officer and navigator Bill Fortenberry, and flight attendant Marie McGrath, who had been my fourth grade teacher.

Our class was told that the big four-engine Boeing Stratocruiser had simply vanished, but the biggest air-sea search since the disappearance of Amelia Earhart would end just days later with the discovery of 19 bodies and floating wreckage about 1,000 miles northeast of Honolulu. And the little that was recovered from the flight only deepened the mystery.

Three anomalies confounded Civil Aeronautics Board crash investigators: There was no decipherable distress call received from 944; the location of the debris showed that the Clipper was well off course and headed away from a Coast Guard ship that could have helped; and, finally, elevated levels of carbon monoxide were found in several of the recovered bodies. Further inquiry by authorities implicated three suspects in the loss of the aircraft. The mystery of Romance of the Skies was, in effect, an airborne Agatha Christie thriller—Murder on the Orient Express at 10,000 feet.

In January 1959, after an unusually long investigation, baffled CAB officials found “no probable cause” for the crash, and formally closed their inquiry. Informally, Ken and I have reopened it, with the hope of bringing 21st century technology to bear upon this nearly-50-year-old mystery, and to finally discover what happened to a father, a favorite teacher, and the 42 other souls on board Clipper Romance of the Skies.

Like the fabled B-314 flying boat that preceded it, the Stratocruiser was an aircraft unmatched in size, speed, and luxury when Boeing introduced it to the world’s airlines in 1947. Dubbed “the ocean liner of the air,” the B-377 featured Pullman-style sleeping berths, separate men’s and women’s dressing rooms, and a horseshoe-shaped cocktail lounge in the belly of the airplane. Reclining seats doubled as sleeperettes and offered an amazing 60 inches of legroom. Seven-course dinners, beginning with champagne and caviar, were served on china. Meals for first-class passengers on transatlantic flights were catered by Maxim’s of Paris.

Even laden with heavy appointments, the “Strato-clipper” was faster than its two commercial rivals, the Douglas DC-6 and the Lockheed Constellation. Four Pratt & Whitney R-4360 B6 Wasp Major engines—the biggest piston engines ever put into production—gave it a top speed of 350 mph and an unmatched capacity for payload, as much as 30,000 pounds. When 944 left the gate at San Francisco’s International Airport shortly before noon for the nine-and-a-half-hour flight, its cargo hold was stocked with luggage, mail, movie film, radioactive medicine, and a new IBM computer.

The 38 passengers aboard the Clipper reflected the socioeconomic status of those who could afford the $300 ticket to Hawaii or the $1,600 round-the-world fare (equivalent to $10,500 today). Robert LaMaison, the vice president of Renault Auto and a World War II French air ace, was on vacation with his wife Nicole. William Hagan, a prominent Louisville surgeon, and his wife Norma Jean were on their way to a medical conference in Honolulu. H. Lee Clack, the general manager of Dow Chemical in Tokyo, was headed home with his wife Anna, sons Bruce and Scott, and two adopted daughters, Kimi and Nancy. Edward Ellis, the vice president and general sales manager of a spice company, was beginning a tour of his firm’s overseas plantations. Soledad Mercado—a Phoenix dress designer better known as “Soledad of Arizona”—hoped to find new customers abroad.

Those on Romance that day also included the mundane—and the mysterious. A deadheading Pan Am pilot, Robert Alexander, had planned a fishing trip to the islands with his wife and their two children. Twenty-four-year-old William Deck was en route to Kyoto to marry a Japanese woman he had met while in the U.S. Navy. Foreign service officer Thomas McGrail was bound for Rangoon, Burma, and an assignment as cultural attaché at the American embassy there. U.S. Air Force Major Harold Sunderland’s final destination remains somewhat unclear. Sunderland belonged to the 1,134th Special Activities Squadron and was on an undisclosed mission to southeast Asia with a briefcase full of classified documents. The Air Force would later describe Sunderland in a press release simply as an “information gatherer.”

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.


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