Pan Am’s Flight 7 was known as the Clipper Romance of the Skies, an around-the-world flight that originated in San Francisco and flew west, eventually arriving in Philadelphia. The plane itself was a Boeing B-377 Stratocruiser. Introduced in 1947, the aircraft was the biggest, the fastest, and the fanciest, called “the ocean liner of the air.”
Pullman-style sleeping berths, separate men’s and women’s dressing rooms, a cocktail lounge in the belly of the airplane, reclining seats that offered 60 inches of something they used to have called legroom. Seven-course dinners, with champagne and caviar, catered by Maxim’s of Paris. This you could happily go through searched luggage and patdowns for, but there weren’t any.
Of course it was expensive – a $1,600 round-the-world fare (equivalent to $10,500 today).
When the November 8, 1957, flight left the gate shortly before noon for its first leg, the nine-and-a-half-hour flight to Honolulu, 38 passengers were aboard. They included the vice president of Renault Auto, a French flying ace, the general manager of Dow Chemical in Tokyo, a well-known Phoenix dress designer, a Louisville surgeon, a spice company honcho, and a U.S. Air Force major on a mysterious mission to southeast Asia with a briefcase full of classified documents.
At 4:04 p.m., the flight captain radioed a routine position report from an altitude of 10,000 feet to the Pontchartrain, a Coast Guard weather ship stationed in the Pacific. Romance of the Skies had just passed the point of no return, on course and on schedule, 1,160 miles from Honolulu and about 10 miles east of the Pontchartrain. The skies were clear and the seas calm, the sun low in the western sky. The plane was never heard from again.
The biggest air-sea search since the disappearance of Amelia Earhart ended 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. There had been no distress call; the location of the debris showed that the Clipper was well off course; and, finally, elevated levels of carbon monoxide were found in several of the recovered bodies.
The definitive cause of the accident has never been determined. Speculation includes a malfunctioning engine, a disgruntled flight crew member, and insurance related fraud that involving an explosive device. And then there’s that mysterious major.