This is an unsolved Bay Area mystery you might not be aware of but it’s one that could be worthy of a novel.
Pan Am Flight 7 was an around-the-world flight that originated in San Francisco. It was a luxury airliner known as the Clipper Romance Of The Skies, which featured seven-course gourmet dinners, spacious seating, and a cocktail lounge in the belly of the plane. A one-way ticket price from SFO to Hawaii in 1957 ran you $300, which was pretty expensive then and would translate into over $2,600 today.
So what caused the disappearance of this flight on its first leg from SFO to Honolulu on November 8, 1957? That’s where things get really interesting.
Mid-flight, right around the time when champagne and caviar were being served to the 38 passengers, something went wrong that led to the flight’s demise. Some debris and 19 bodies were found in the Pacific Ocean, but the plane itself and the rest of those on board were never recovered.
Why did the flight go down? That’s still not known for sure, but there’s a few passengers that might have played a part. The most likely suspect being 46-year-old Eugene Crosthwaite of Felton, California.
Crosthwaite had a “suicidal persecution complex” and had been called a “psycho” by the police department in his hometown. He also reportedly showed a relative some blasting powder days before the flight. Most telling of all, he cut his step-daughter out of his will just one hour prior to the plane’s departure.
The other potential culprit was 41-year old William Payne of Northern California town Scott Bar. Payne had been a demolition expert in the Navy & was desperate to pay off a $10,000 debt he owed on a hunting lodge. He bought massive last-minute insurance policies just days before the flight, which paid his wife $125,000 upon his death and he took out $10,000 double indemnity policy (an accident policy where the insurance company agrees to pay double the face amount in the contract in case of death by accidental means).
A worker at the company Payne bought the insurance from was so certain that Payne never got on the flight that he urged the company to not pay out on the policies. The worker, Russell Stiles, believe Payne had blown up the plane with a delayed timer and was never actually on board.
The last remaining possibility is that a common propeller malfunction on that model of plane led to its crash.
What is known is that passengers and crew had time to put on life jackets before they hit the water, but abnormal amounts of carbon monoxide were found in the recovered bodies leading investigators to believe that the cabin might have been contaminated. Burn marks on the debris also proved to be suspicious.
Ultimately, no cause has ever been determined and the plane has not been found. You can read more about it in a 2007 piece from SF Gate marking the 50th anniversary of Pan Am Flight 7’s disappearance here.