On November 9, 1957, Pan American Airways Flight 7, operated by PAA-944, a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser named Romance of the Skies, departed San Francisco
for Honolulu, on the first leg of an around the world journey. At 4:04 PM, they radioed their position to the Pontchartrain, the Coast Guard weather
ship stationed between the West Coast and Hawaii. They were on course, approximately 1,160 miles from Hawaii. At 4:26 PM (based on several watches
found on passengers that stopped at that time), the aircraft impacted the water, slightly nose and right wing low.
Three days later, after a massive search effort, 19 bodies of the 44 souls on board were found. Many of them were wearing life jackets, and had
removed their shoes. The body of flight attendant Yvonne Alexander was found strapped to her seat, wearing a life jacket over her serving apron.
Several of the bodies showed impact trauma from the crash, but most were found to have died by drowning after the crash. There was evidence of a post
impact fire, but nothing was immediately apparent as to the cause. After autopsies of the Captain and several passengers found elevated levels of
carbon monoxide, both Pan Am and the FBI began to suspect foul play. The bodies were from different parts of the aircraft, from nose to tail.
The FBI left the investigation after a fight with the CAB over jurisdiction. An investigation by both Pan Am and the CAB turned up three
The first was the Purser, Eugene Crosthwaite. He had repeatedly been in trouble with Pan Am, and blamed them for catching tuberculosis before the war
among other things. His wife had passed away from cancer, leaving him with her 16 year old daughter. He had problems with her, and called her a
demon at one point. His father-in-law remembered Crosthwaite showing him some blasting powder a few days prior to the flight, but when they searched
his house afterwards, there was no sign of it. The day of the flight he amended his will so that his stepdaughter was left with nothing, unless she
"lived a moral and upright Catholic life". The will was found in the glovebox of his car.
Ten months into the investigation, a new suspect entered the investigation. William Harrison Payne was travelling to Hawaii to collect a debt worth
less than the cost of the plane ticket there. He was a diver during the war, and had demolitions experience. He owned a hunting lodge that was
losing money, and later burned down, and owed his mother $10,000. Prior to the trip, he took out three life insurance policies, including one that
had double indemnity for accidental death, and two that would pay his wife $125,000.
Payne had previously been in trouble with the law for blowing up a road, after he tried to collect tolls from logging trucks driving on it, as well as
shooting at a business associate.
Seven months later, his wife married a neighbor that was a friend of his. During her honeymoon is when the hunting lodge burned down. Neighbors
reported that they frequently received mysterious packages and letters from overseas, with no return address on them. Payne's body was never
recovered after the crash.
The third possibility was a runaway propeller. The 377 had a history of problems with the propellers. PAA-943 was forced to ditch on the way from
Honolulu to San Francisco. They flew until daylight and landed in the water next to the weather ship, which lifted everyone off to safety.
The FAA issued an emergency AD to check the oil transfer tube and bearing in the prop dome. Instead of bolting it in place, Boeing brazed it. The AD
required inspections and repairs to be completed by May 31, 1957. According to the CAB, 944 never suffered a runaway prop, but in June of 1957, two
weeks after the date of the AD, 944 suffered a runaway prop on the way out of San Francisco. The crew turned around and returned to San Fran, barely
clearing the hills around the airport.
Two amateur investigators, one the son of a crew member, have been doing their best to solve the mystery, but they are three years away from having
access to all the material from the investigation. If they can prove that there is something new in there, the NTSB will reopen the investigation.
All around an interesting mystery, and this might be fun for us to dig into and see what we can find on our own.