Romance of the Skies
On Thursday, November 8, 2007 it was 50 years since the disappearance of the Pan American Stratocruiser Romance of the Skies, on a flight from San Francisco to Honolulu.
The following Nov. 4, 2007 San Francisco
Chronicle news story appeared concerning the ongoing search, 50 years
after the fact, to solve the mystery of the Nov. 8, 1957 crash of Pan
Am flight 7.
For those interested, the formal CAB Report can be found at the bottom of this page.
Romance of the Skies plane crash haunts pair 50 years later
By Kevin Fagan, Chronicle Staff Writer
Somewhere below the ocean waves, probably about 2,000 miles west of the
Golden Gate Bridge and 15,000 feet deep, lies a pile of cold metal that
may yield answers to a mystery that has agonized two men for most of
That pile is the wreckage of the Romance of the Skies, a Pan Am luxury
airliner that left San Francisco International Airport 50 years ago
this week en route to Hawaii - and vanished.
Investigators eventually found a handful of bodies and a few bits of
wreckage floating a hundred miles north of the flight path - but nobody
has ever figured out why the plane crashed, exactly where it crashed,
or even whether all 44 people who were booked for the flight were
actually on board that day.
What the disappearance left behind is a whodunit worthy of Agatha
Christie, only real.
It involves two suspected onboard bombers, the possibility that the
propeller assembly was so bad it shattered, and a missing flight tape
recording - which, if found, could be processed through modern
machinery to finally reveal what manner of chaos was going on in those
final moments before death.
Did fire bring down the Romance? Mechanical malfunction? Sabotage by
bomb or poison gas? All are possibilities.
The questions haunt Ken Fortenberry, 56, and Gregg Herken, 60. They are
determined to never rest until they get answers.
Fortenberry's father, navigator Bill Fortenberry, was on the flight,
and his body has never been found. Fortenberry was 6 and living in
Santa Clara when the Romance disappeared, and for the next seven years
he was convinced his father was stranded on a desert island and would
one day come striding through the front door with a smile. His hunt for
the truth drove him to become a news reporter and editor - and to file
hundreds of requests for records with the federal government over the
past four decades.
Herken's connection is less direct, but nonetheless intimate. His
favorite elementary school teacher in San Mateo, stewardess Marie
McGrath, was also on the flight and never found, and the shock of this
news to his 10-year-old heart never left him. The airliner mystery is
partly what pushed him to become a historian, and years later when he
was hired as a director at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space
Museum, the first thing he did was dig for clues to the Romance crash -
to no avail.
Today, Herken is a history professor at UC Merced and lives in Santa
Cruz. Not a day goes by that he doesn't think about the crash, he said.
Fortenberry says the same thing. The urgency in his voice sounds as if
his father mounted the airliner's staircase just yesterday.
"I owe it to my dad, and I tell you this: I am not giving up,"
Fortenberry said by phone from his home in Denver, N.C., where he
publishes the News@Norman newspaper. "If I leave this world without an
answer, I'm sure I'll get it on the other side.
"But I want the answers now."
The flight on Nov. 8, 1957, was supposed to be a routine run for the
four-engine Stratocruiser, then the biggest and most posh airliner in
Booked for the trip were six crew members and 38 passengers, including
honeymooning couples, the vice president of Renault Auto and the
general manager of Dow Chemical -the kind of people who could afford
the then-whopping one-way ticket price of $300. They lifted off at
As far as anybody knows, the trouble began around 5 p.m., right after
the crew radioed its last all-is-well message to a Coast Guard cutter.
It was just as the passengers were settling in for the caviar and
Champagne that would start their seven-course gourmet dinners, catered
by Maxim's of Paris. They would have been leaning back in seats so
spacious you could stretch out full-length, or perhaps sharing drinks
on the cushy couches in the cocktail lounge located in the belly of the
The only way investigators know the trouble began around then is
because the wristwatches still attached to a few of the 19 corpses
pulled from the ocean a week later were all stopped at the same time:
Among the bodies, and the 72 tiny bits of debris floating with them,
was a sprinkling of tantalizing clues.
Some metal had burn marks. Several people, including a stewardess still
strapped to her seat, wore life vests, indicating that the plane was
heading down in distress but not spinning out of control. Some bodies
contained abnormal amounts of carbon monoxide, meaning the cabin may
have been contaminated.
"These things were interesting, but in the end they didn't solve a
thing," Herken said in an interview at his home while he pored over the
3-foot-high stack of records he has accumulated. "What we really need
is the wreckage itself. We can guess what area of the ocean it's in,
but nobody knows exactly where the pieces are."
The most promising leads emerged months later. That's when
investigators, rummaging through the histories of those on the
airliner, came across that old standby of flight disaster movies:
potential madmen who changed insurance policies or wills just before
boarding the plane.
The strongest suspect was 46-year-old purser Eugene Crosthwaite.
He had a suicidal persecution complex and bickered bitterly with his
bosses. Police in his hometown of Felton (Santa Cruz County) were so
concerned about his treatment of his stepdaughter that they called him
"psycho." And, most telling of all, he showed a relative some blasting
powder a few days before the flight - and changed his will to cut his
stepdaughter out of direct benefit just one hour before the plane's
"The purser angle never made the light of day anywhere in the papers,"
said Fortenberry. "We only found out about it when we searched through
the Pan Am investigation records, but he had everything - motive,
opportunity, materials. He was the perfect suspect."
Except, that is, for the ex-Navy frogman passenger who was an expert in
demolition, desperate to pay off a debt, and who bought two gigantic
insurance policies on himself three days before the flight.
William Payne, of the tiny town of Scotts Bar (Siskiyou County), was
41, and his last-minute insurance buys paid $125,000 to his wife,
Harriet - in addition to a $10,000 double indemnity policy he signed
two weeks prior to the flight. The debt Payne owed was $10,000, on a
Russell Stiles, an investigator for Western Life Insurance of Montana,
became so convinced that Payne was never on the flight and blew up the
plane with a delayed timer that he urged his company not to pay on the
double indemnity policy. He was overruled, but continued to pursue the
case on his own - and then became frightened.
"I first talked to Stiles about this in 1976, and we continued to
correspond until he died," said Fortenberry. "He went to his grave in
1999 convinced that Payne was still around and would do harm to him and
his family if he went public."
Stiles' family refuses now to talk to Fortenberry. Efforts by The
Chronicle to reach them, as well as any relatives of Crosthwaite or
Payne, were unsuccessful.
And finally, there is one more suspect in the case: the propeller.
The Boeing 377 Stratocruiser was driven by four Pratt & Whitney
R-4360 B6 engines, the biggest airplane piston engines ever produced,
and at top speed it went an impressive 350 mph. However, the engines
were so powerful they had a nasty habit of shattering the propellers in
In the months before the Romance disappeared, Pan Am ordered that a key
oil tube to the prop housings on all its Stratocruisers be more firmly
attached to stabilize the propellers. But no records show that had been
done on the ill-fated airliner.
"Even after those fixes, they still had problems," Herken said, shaking
a sheaf of aviation records on Pan Am's fleet. "That engine was just
too big and too powerful."
In the end, after all the clues were combed, the Civil Aeronautics
Board (the now-defunct predecessor to the National Transportation
Safety Board), the FBI and Pan Am all decided there wasn't enough solid
evidence to fix blame on anyone. The inquiry records got shelved.
As for the debris - nobody knows where it is. Not the University of
Miami, which got all of Pan Am's records after the Florida company went
belly up in 1991. Not the Historical Museum of South Florida, which got
all of Pan Am's artifacts, and not the NTSB.
What Fortenberry and Harken want to get their hands on most is the tape
of radio transmissions from the Romance that the Civil Aeronautics
Board pored over 50 years ago. Pan Am pilots who heard it thought they
detected a "mayday" and a reference to a "missing arm," but nothing was
intelligible. Today's digital technology could probably clarify the
But nobody knows where the tape went. It may be in the University of
Miami archives, but the 1,500 boxes of Pan Am records there have yet to
be fully organized, and a preliminary look there by a librarian at The
Chronicle's request revealed no tape.
"I have a feeling that tape and the debris are in some warehouse in San
Francisco that has no key," Fortenberry said. "I have this image of it
being like that last scene in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' - rows and rows
of boxes, with no way to find anything in them."
Without the tape, the best hope of solving anything is to launch an
expedition to find the Romance's wreckage on the ocean floor.
Fortenberry asked Robert Ballard, who located the wrecks of the Titanic
and the German warship Bismarck, if he could help - and was told it
would cost at least $10,000 a day.
"We obviously don't have that kind of money," Harken said. "But I know
if we could just see that wreck, we could see if the problem was the
propeller or a bomb. We would have our answers."
In the meantime, Fortenberry and Harken are about the only people left
who care about the mystery. "The sister of a Navy fellow on the flight
(Cmdr. Joseph Jones) still calls me now and then, wanting to know if I
have any answers," said Fortenberry. "But most everyone else is either
dead or we can't find them."
Another of the few others wanting answers is Bob Nelson Jr. of Sedona,
Ariz., who missed dying on the flight by chance. He had his foot on the
staircase leading up to the Romance's door that day, ready to board
with his sister, Sandy, when a married couple came running onto the
"We were booked on standby because this couple didn't think they'd make
it to the flight, but then they caught a fast taxi and were able to
bump us back off," Nelson, 62, said in a telephone interview. "I was
kind of bummed out, because I was 12 and I was going to get to visit
the captain in the cockpit.
"Then the next morning, we all read the news. Awful stuff. And you
know, many years later I got bumped off a flight again, and people
around me were pissed - but not me. I just said, ' Hey, I could tell
you a story.'
"It was pure luck of the draw, and I've been curious to know what
really happened on that flight ever since."
NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said that if anybody produces solid
evidence of a crime amounting to murder in the case of the Romance, the
agency would reactivate the case and refer it to the FBI for
"You have to remember, though, that a lot of these never get solved,"
he said. Between 1962, when NTSB began keeping track, and 2006 there
were 363 instances of vanished airplanes like the Romance - plus the
one flown this autumn in Nevada by adventurer Steve Fossett - "and
usually they go down over the water," Knudson said.
For Fortenberry, not knowing what truly happened to his father leaves a
part of him that little boy back in 1957, waiting for Daddy to come
home. He'll return Thursday to San Francisco International Airport with
his two brothers to mark the 50-year anniversary by standing near the
runway where their father last took off - but he's expecting it at best
to be "bittersweet."
"I can still remember, clearly, being 6 years old and at the memorial
service," Fortenberry said. "I remember wondering why we were doing
this -thinking, 'There's no body here. Here we were saying goodbye, and
there's nobody to say goodbye to.' "
"There's still nobody to say goodbye to."
Formal CAB Accident Report here
2004 Air & Space Magazine article
- 2008 Robert A. Bogash. All Rights Reserved.
Francisco Chronicle article - Copyright San Francisco Chronicle
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Revised 4 Nov 2007
Revised 20 Dec 2008