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A Madman or Malfunction – What Brought Down the ‘Titanic’ of the Skies?

Stefan Andrews
Photo by: RuthAS CC BY 3.0
Photo by: RuthAS CC BY 3.0

The last time the pilot reported the position of the Clipper Romance of the Skies, an aircraft described as the biggest and most luxurious of its time, the clock showed 16:04 Pacific Standard Time. The date was November 8, 1957. When a week later some of the victims bodies’ were retrieved from the ocean waters, wristwatches still found intact on some of them showed 17:25 PST.

What happened in the 81 minutes in between the last radio signal from the plane and the instant the watches stopped, has persisted as an unresolved mystery for six decades now.

The Clipper, a World Airways Boeing 377 Stratocruiser 10-29 aircraft, was supposed to complete a flight around the globe, departing from San Francisco and with the first stop at Hawaii. Also known as Pan Am Flight 7, the airliner, registration N90944, departed some 20 minutes before noon that day and carried prominent guests and business people on board, 36 passengers in total and eight crew members. Is it possible that some madmen boarded the craft too? Later screening of the passenger profiles by investigators certainly led some people to believe so.

Two names to remember: William Payne and Eugene Crosthwaite, either of whom could have been responsible for whatever happened in the air, an incident which must have occurred shortly after a scheduled meal at around four o’clock.

The first of the two, Payne, came from the small town of Scott Bar in California and was said to have arranged last-minute insurance policies in case of an accident before he boarded the airliner. He was 41 at the time. It was later revealed he owed a debt of $10,000 on a hunting lodge and might have desperately needed a way to pay his loan. The trickier part is that if his loan was so serious, why he would have purchased a ticket for such an expensive flight?

Some of the insurance that Payne had arranged ahead of the flight would have issued a total $125,000 to his spouse, and he arranged the whole thing just three days before the plane’s departure. Not to mention that Payne had formerly worked as a Navy frogman and possessed dangerous knowledge of demolitions. Some investigators who worked solely on Payne’s case believe he never got on the plane, that he blew the plane up remotely and lived on for years.

The biography of Eugene Crosthwaite sounds even more notorious. A man who in his hometown of Felton in Santa Cruz County had even been called “psycho,” and for good reasons. The 46-year-old had raised concerns in his community for the way he treated his stepdaughter and for his continuous quarreling with superiors at his job. Allegedly, he even showed blasting powder material to a close member of his family a couple of days before the flight. Even stranger, just one hour before the plane took off on its ill-fated journey, Crosthwaite also changed his will and omitted benefits for his stepdaughter from it.

Could Crosthwaite have been the one to blast the plane? Maybe. Unlike Payne’s, Crosthwaite’s story was never featured in newspapers at the time, and the information about him has been retrieved in later skimming through Pan Am accounts of the incident.

Some of the debris in the ocean included burned pieces of metal, investigations revealed. Another theory of what caused the disaster, if it wasn’t a staged blast by the two men, is that it could have been the propeller. It is said that this Boeing 377 Stratocruiser had such powerful engines that they could have caused the propellers to shatter mid-flight. At maximum speed, the craft would have reached a remarkable 350 mph.

It appears that some period before this tragedy happened, the airliner company requested maintenance on all its Stratocruisers in order to strengthen their propellers. According to accounts, there is nothing which proves this had been done for the Romance. It might not be men, but an engine that was too powerful at fault. However, this line of inquiry did not bring any conclusive answers either.

While the case has been dropped by officials such as the FBI, there are at least two known amateur detectives who have put in tremendous efforts in unraveling the mystery of what brought the airliner down in the Pacific. Their names are Gregg Herken and Ken Fortenberry, both of whom were children at the time of the accident and have been deeply impacted by it.

Herken, a Professor Emeritus of the University of California, lost a teacher on the plane; Fortenberry had a more personal loss, his father. Both have at least partially been pushed into their career choices because of this airplane crash, with Herken devoting himself to history and later becoming a curator of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Fortenberry, on the other hand, went into news reporting and publishing and he is noted for making numerous requests of authorities to get some answers on the case.

In the span of several decades, the pair have probably scrutinized each piece of information that exists concerning Pan Am Flight 7. In articles and interviews, they comment on details, such as the fact that some corpses were found with life vests on, one hint that there had been a level of control as the plane was going down. Furthermore, significant carbon monoxide amounts have been identified in some of the bodies retrieved, giving more clues  that the craft was possibly contaminated.

In an interview for the SFGate in 2007, Herken remarked that all these clues are interesting, however, in the end “they didn’t solve a thing.” He also commented on the importance of the wreckage itself, saying “we can guess what area of the ocean it’s in, but nobody knows exactly where the pieces are.”

The wreckage could indeed provide many sought-after answers, but it was never found, though that may not be a mission impossible to modern-day submarines. As both Herken and Fortenberry wrote for a September 2004 issue of the Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine, their “next best hope” for concluding what happened with the plane was finding an audio tape, which as they note, “has become the Holy Grail” of their quest.

Sources previously affiliated with Pan Am have reportedly informed the pair that there should be a tape recording of a radio transmission from an aircraft flying above the Pacific during the day of the tragedy, a tape which supposedly includes one last hopeless “Mayday,” likely emitted by the Romance of the Skies.

Such a tape could have survived in the archives of Pan Am, materials which have been claimed by the University of Miami following the company’s shut down in the early 1990s. If not the tape, then thousands of boxes archived there may contain other valuable data, such as Pan Am’s internal inquiry on the Crosthwaite case, or perhaps maintenance records for the airliner, Herken and Fortenberry wrote for the Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine.

Sadly, there seems to be no information on whether any such records have resurfaced in the recent years.

Related story from us: In 1985, four passengers miraculously survived the horrible crash of the Japan Airlines Flight 123

The Romance of the Skies is not the only airliner incident of the Pan Am company. A year before that, in 1956, another Stratocruiser Clipper, designated Sovereign of the Skies, had ditched in the waters of the Pacific shortly after its departure from Honolulu. But in this case, luckily, the 31 passengers were all saved.