History In The Headlines

History’s Missing Passenger Flights

By Christopher Klein
When Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 suddenly vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, it set off a frantic search for the Boeing 777 carrying 239 people. The story has captured worldwide attention, but it’s not the first time that a passenger plane has been lost at sea. Take a look back at six other times when airliners mysteriously disappeared over water.

Students walk past a mural dedicated to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. (Credit: Ted Aljibe/Getty Images)

Students walk past a mural dedicated to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. (Credit: Ted Aljibe/Getty Images)

1. British South American Airways Star Tiger (January 30, 1948)
The waters of the Atlantic Ocean in what would be dubbed the Bermuda Triangle had already been the scene of a mysterious aviation incident in 1945 when five American torpedo bombers on a routine training mission all mysteriously vanished off the Florida coast. A seaplane with 13 aboard also disappeared in the rescue mission. Three years later, the Star Tiger, with 31 people aboard, maintained normal radio communication shortly before entering Bermuda airspace on a flight from the Azores. The plane, however, never landed, and no distress message ever emanated from the Avro Tudor aircraft. A five-day rescue effort located no wreckage, and investigators concluded the fate of the airliner was “an unsolved mystery.” According to the official investigation report, “It may truly be said that no more baffling problem has ever been presented for investigation.”

2. British South American Airways Star Ariel (January 17, 1949)
Less than a year after the Star Tiger vanished in the Bermuda Triangle, another British South American Airways flight also disappeared in the same region en route from Bermuda to Jamaica. Although the pilot reported fine weather conditions, radio contact with the Star Ariel suddenly ceased an hour after the flight departed. British investigators could not find the wreckage of the Avro Tudor Mark IV or any sign of the 20 people on board. Without evidence, investigators were forced to conclude that the cause of the accident was unknown.

3. Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 2501 (June 23, 1950)
As the pilot of the DC-4 prop plane carrying 55 passengers and a three-person crew approached Lake Michigan around midnight, a powerful line of squalls loomed ahead. The storm’s severe turbulence and frequent lightning had already caused pilots of three other westbound flights to turn around. Near Benton Harbor, Michigan, the pilot of the Northwest airliner requested permission to lower altitude from 3,500 feet to 2,500 feet without stating a reason, but air traffic controllers denied the request because of other planes in the area. The pilot’s acknowledgment of the denial would be the last transmission received from the plane that was en route from New York to Seattle with stopovers scheduled for Minneapolis and Spokane, Washington. Minutes later, witnesses on the ground heard a sputtering aircraft “like a stock car with a blown head gasket” and saw a “terrific flash.” The U.S. Coast Guard discovered oil slicks in Lake Michigan near Milwaukee and focused the initial search there. However, two days later search parties discovered blankets with the Northwest logo, foam rubber cushions and human remains 10 miles offshore of South Haven, Michigan, and the responders realized they had been looking in the wrong area of the lake for the plane. With visibility less than eight inches in the murky lake bottom, divers could not locate the plane, and the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board could only conclude that the cause of what at the time was the deadliest commercial airliner accident in American history was “unknown.” Over the past decade, sonar exploration of 300 square miles of the lake bottom near the suspected crash scene has identified 14 shipwrecks, but no sign of Flight 2501.

4. Canadian Pacific Air Lines (July 21, 1951)
As the Korean War raged, a Douglas DC-4 took off from Vancouver, Canada, on a flight to Tokyo, Japan, to assist in the Korean Airlift. Carrying 31 passengers and a six-person crew, the Canadian Pacific airliner encountered rain, low visibility and icing conditions as it approached Anchorage, Alaska, for a refueling stop. The plane reported no issues as it checked in near the Alaskan panhandle about 90 minutes from arrival. It would never be heard from again. American and Canadian rescue teams searched for months but found no traces of wreckage.

5. Pan Am Flight 7 (November 9, 1957)
The Boeing 377 Stratocruiser that took off from San Francisco to Honolulu with 36 passengers and 8 crewmembers on the first leg of an around-the-world flight was the lap of luxury. Passengers aboard the “ocean liner of the air” enjoyed 60 inches of legroom, reclining sleeper seats, a horseshoe-shaped cocktail lounge and seven-course dinners that included caviar and champagne. The Clipper Romance of the Skies was about halfway through the flight when radar contact was suddenly lost without a distress call from the plane. After a five-day search, a U.S. Navy carrier spotted floating debris and recovered 19 bodies nearly 1,000 miles east of Honolulu. Most of the victims were wearing life vests, indicating that the plane had been prepared to hit the Pacific Ocean. The aircraft and the remaining 25 people aboard were never found. Although testing revealed elevated levels of carbon monoxide in several of the recovered bodies, the Civil Aeronautics Board found “no evidence of foul play or sabotage.”

6. Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 (March 16, 1962)
Chartered to transport military personnel during the Vietnam War, the Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation took off from Guam with 93 U.S. Army electronics and communications specialists, 3 members of the South Vietnamese military and 11 crewmembers aboard. Although flying conditions were ideal and no distress signal was ever received, the plane never arrived at its intended destination—Clark Air Base in the Philippines. The disappearance sparked the largest peacetime air-and-sea rescue mission in the Pacific Ocean since Amelia Earhart vanished in 1937. The 1,300-person search party scoured 144,000 square miles and turned up nothing. An Italian crew aboard an oil super tanker reported seeing an “intensely luminous” explosion in the sky and two flaming objects plunging to the ocean around the location of the plane when it disappeared. Since another Flying Tiger plane had crashed in Alaska only hours earlier, killing one of the seven people aboard, sabotage was considered, but the Civil Aeronautics Board ultimately could not determine a probable cause because of the lack of any recoverable evidence.

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Categories: Aviation, Disappearances