Friday, March 21, 2014

Missing Aircraft in the Pacific Ocean - A Historical Perspective

Updated July 2015

The complete disappearance of aircraft is mystifying but not unprecedented.  In this posting, I'll look at two American flights that disappeared with no trace in the south Pacific Ocean.

On March 22, 1957, a United States Air Force Boeing C-97C Stratofreighter went missing somewhere between Wake Island Airport and Tokyo, Japan after originating at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield California.  There were 10 crew aboard and 57 passengers, all missing and presumed dead.   Even though nearly 6 decades have passed since the disappearance of the C-97, this is still the sixth worst air accident over the Pacific Ocean and was the worst accident at the time that it occurred.  It was also the worst accident with a Boeing C-97.

Here is a video showing the C-97 from a promotional movie in 1945:


The first flight of a C-97 took place in November 1944; between 1944 and 1958 when production ended, 888 C-97s were built by Boeing.  The four engine plane was designed for a wide variety of uses including in-flight refuelling, cargo transportation and was used to evacuate war casualties.  The C-97 was used during the Berlin Airlift in 1949 and during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.  Top speed was 375 miles per hour and cruising speed was 300 miles per hour with a ceiling of 35,000 feet and a range of 4300 miles.  The C-97 could carry up to 82,500 pounds of cargo.

Here is a map showing the approximate route of the flight at the approximate crash location in red:


The total flight distance between Wake Island Airport and Tokyo-Yokota Air Force Base is 2011 miles or 3218 kilometres.

The cause of the mishap has never been determined but it is known that there were severe storms in the area at the time of the disappearance.  

On March 16, 1962, a Lockheed L-1049H Super Constellation carrying 107 passengers and crew disappeared on a flight between Guam's Naval Air Station and Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines after originating at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California.  The flight was operating as a Military Air Transport Service charter flight by Flying Tiger Line.  Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 was carrying 93 American soldiers and 3 South Vietnamese to Saigon along with 11 crew members.   Even though over 50 years have passed since the disappearance of Flight 739, this is still the 3rd worst air accident over the Pacific Ocean.   A massive search, one of the largest to take place in the Pacific Ocean at the time, covered 144,000 square miles and involved 48 aircraft and 8 surface vessels but no trace of the airplane was found. 

Here is a video showing a Super Constellation at the Paris Air Show (time - 1:16):


The first flight of a Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation took place in July 1951.  A total of 579 Super Constellations were built between 1951 and 1958 with 320 going to the United States military.  The four engine plane had several variants and was used for both freight and passenger loads for both the military and civilian population.  It was used for trans-Atlantic flights in the early 1950s and with refuelling stops, was used for trans-Pacific flights as well.  In the early 1960s, many operators retired their fleets of L-1049s as jet engine driven aircraft took over.  The plane had a top speed of 330 miles per hour, a cruising speed of 300 miles per hour with a ceiling of 25,700 feet and a range of 5150 miles.  It could carry up to 51,000 pounds of cargo.  

Here is a map showing the approximate route of the flight between Guam and the Philippines:


The total flight distance between Guam's airport and Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines is 1626 miles or 2602 kilometres.

Again, the cause of the mishap has never been determined although the crew of a nearby supertanker noted that there was a mid-air explosion in a position that could have been along the flight path of Flight 739.  As well, the plane did have minor maintenance completed on engines 1 and 3 while refuelling at both Honolulu and Wake Island.  At the time of the crash, the weather was clear and seas were calm.


As we can see, while aircraft completely disappearing are relatively uncommon, over the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean, it is very difficult to locate any wreckage and ultimately, determine the cause of the incidents.  Even after decades have passed, some air accidents are never resolved.  Hopefully in the case of MH370, modern technology will assist the families involved in gaining closure by allowing searchers to recover the aircraft involved.

6 comments:

  1. Not applicable. Modern planes don't sink. They float. The composites float forever, same with seat cushions. Unless vaporized as in the world trade center flights, components are found.

    Further, there was no satellite, no gps, no transponder radar in these old missing situations. Also the constellations had tail sections that broke off unexpectedly and they were ultimately removed from service.

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    1. It seems to me that only a tiny portion of Air France 447 was found on the surface. The remainder was located on a massive debris field on the ocean floor including a large part of the fuselage.

      Apparently, modern planes do sink.

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  2. Please get some people to look into any connection with the mysterious death (apparently heroin drug overdose) of 2 former Seals who were accompanying shipload of lithium batteries (or something more sinister) on Maersk Alabama - google to read of their deaths! This shipment apparently arrived in Mlaysia port and then the lithium batteries were loaded onto MH370 for China...this was later confirmed by Malaysian authorities. And is there an US base in South Indian Ocean on an atoll,like diego Garcia? Any chance MH370 landed intact there? What's the activity there, like medical crew flying there over these last 2 weeks??

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    1. I too feel something is amiss. There was a report of a plane flying very low over the Maldives - he could see the windows. Flying below radar I suspect. Seems to me Somalia is withing range.

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  3. A colossal cover up by governments I suspect. We have no idea how dark and malevolent secret ops can be and many brave servicemen have been murdered to cover the tracks - think 911.

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