The Mystery of Flying Tiger Line flight 739

30 Sep 16 11 Comments

On the 16th of March, 1962, a Lockheed Super Constellation airliner disappeared over the Pacific.

The Flying Tiger Line was the first scheduled cargo airline in the US. It was named after the Flying Tigers fighter unit, a World War II group of pilots from the US Army, Navy and Marine Corps whose shark-faced fighter jets became an iconic symbol of World War II combat aircraft.

The Flying Tiger Line started after the war, with ten former Flying Tiger pilots, flying freighters they purchased as war surplus from the US Navy. The pilots and two ground crew provided half of the initial investment; oil tycoon Samuel B. Mosher funded the rest. They offered cargo services throughout the US and carried supplies across the Pacific to US Troops during the occupation of Japan.

Two decades later, Flying Tiger Line flight 739 was a charter flight operated by Flying Tiger Line on behalf of the Military Air Transport Service. The aircraft was Lockheed model 1049H registered as 6921C. The Lockheed Super Constellation transport airliner required four crew and could carry 47-106 passengers.

Flight 739 was scheduled with two flight crews (Captain, First Officer, Second Officer, two Flight Engineers and two Navigators), four cabin crew and 96 passengers for a flight from Travis Air Force Base in California to Saigon in South Vietnam, with refuelling stops in Honolulu, Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippines.

Ninety-three of the passengers were jungle-trained Army Rangers, primarily highly trained electronics and communications specialists. The other three were members of the armed forces of Vietnam. The flight crew, five men and four women, were all civilians.

The cargo consisted only of passenger baggage: personal articles and clothing.

The flight departed Travis Air Force Base at 05:45 GMT on the 14th of March 1962 and proceeded normally for the next twelve hours, arriving in Honolulu at 17:44 GMT. All times are given in GMT except where otherwise noted.

The aircraft went through minor maintenance. No issues of concern were found. The departure flight was delayed by half an hour after the cabin crew raised concerns about the crew rest facilities on the aircraft. The issues were resolved and the flight departed Honolulu at 20:40.

The next leg proceeded normally and flight 739 arrived at Wake Island at 03:54 on the 15th of March. Again, minor maintenance was required. The aircraft was serviced, the four cabin crew were replaced, and the flight departed for Guam at 05:15. This leg was six hours and the flight arrived in Guam at 11:14.

At Guam, the aircraft was serviced and refuelled. No maintenance was required. The next leg, to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, was estimated at six hours and nineteen minutes. The aircraft held enough fuel for nine hours and thirty minutes of flight.

The aircraft departed Guam at 12:57. Guam Air Route Traffic Control Centre established radar contact soon after take-off. The flight crew then contacted Guam International Flight Service Station to request that their departure message was relayed to the Flying Tiger Line offices.

At 13:25, the flight crew contacted Guam International Flight Service Station again to request a change in cruising altitude from 10,000 feet to 18,000 feet. No reason was given for the request and the flight crew were advised to contact Guam Centre. Guam Centre approved the request.

At 13:28 the flight crew reported climbing through 11,000 feet. Guam Centre advised the flight that it was 100 miles west of Guam and that radar services were being terminated.

At 13:33 the flight crew reported to Guam International Flight Service Station that they were 100 miles out and cruising at 18,000 feet.

The last transmission from the aircraft took place at 14:22. The flight crew contacted Guam International Flight Service Station and reported cruising over the clouds (“on top”) at 18,000 feet, along with their position from 14:16 and their current estimated position. They expected to arrive at Clark Air Force Base at 19:16 and said that they had 8 hours and 12 minutes of fuel remaining. All of the radio calls were completely routine: there was no indication of any problem or difficulties.

A little over an hour later, Guam International Flight Service Station suffered heavy radio static while speaking to another flight en route to Okinawa. At 15:39, the operator attempted to contact flight 739 in order to receive the now-overdue 15:30 position report. He was unable to establish radio contact.

At 16:00, Guam Centre declared the flight to be in an uncertainty phase (INCERFA) in line with Oceanic Emergency Procedures. This means that there is concern about the safety of an aircraft or its occupants.

At 16:33, after attempts to contact the aircraft had failed for over an hour, the status was upgraded to alert phase (ALERFA). This means that there is apprehension about the safety of an aircraft and its occupants.

The distress phase (DETRESFA) was initiated at 19:33 after continuous attempts to contact the aircraft by all stations and aircraft in the area had failed.

The distress phase means that there is reasonable certainty that the aircraft and its occupants are threatened by grave and imminent danger, including lack of contact and the risk of fuel exhaustion. Search and Rescue operations were initiated from Guam and the Philippines.

At 22:27, by which the time the aircraft would have exhausted all of its fuel, Tiger Flying Lines flight 739 and all of its occupants were declared lost.

The fate of the aircraft was unknown but then a call came in from a super tanker at 21:05, while the search and rescue operations were in progress. The shipboard lookouts had seen a mid-air explosion at 15:30 (1:30am local time).

M.S. T.L. LENZEN  in 1973. Photograph by Walter E. Frost.  Courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives

The crew said that the night was moonlit and clear, with a quarter of the sky covered by small cumulus clouds, evenly distributed.

They first noticed a vapour trail or something similar overhead and slightly to the north of the tanker, moving in an east-to-west direction. At the time, the tanker was cruising on a heading of 077 degrees. The vapour trail passed behind a cloud and then there was an “intensely luminous” explosion consisting of a white nucleus surrounded by a reddish-orange periphery with radial lines of reddish-orange light. The explosion consisted of two pulses, lasting two to three seconds. The crew believed they saw two flaming objects of unequal brightness and size fall, at disparate speeds, into the sea. As they fell, a crew member noticed a small bright target on the ship’s radar, bearing 270 degrees at a range of 17 miles.

The captain arrived on deck to see the fall of the slower object before it disappeared into the sea. He estimated its position in reference to a star and ordered the ship’s course reversed. They aligned the heading of the vessel with the star and the captain found that the tanker’s heading was now 270 degrees, the same as the bearing of the target seen on radar.

The tanker continued to the position of the radar target but found nothing there. They searched the area for 5½ hours but found no trace of wreckage or debris. The crew were unable to establish contact with the US Navy radio stations at Manila and Guam and eventually decided that the explosion must have been some kind of military or naval exercise. The tanker broke off the search and resumed her course.

The approximate location of the mid-air explosion was confirmed to coincide with the estimated position of the aircraft at that time.

The subsequent search was cited at the time as one of the most extensive ever conducted.

No trace of the aircraft or the occupants was ever found.

No explanation was ever found either. Investigators found that although the aircraft was properly certificated and was in airworthy condition, a few weeks earlier, it had exhibited significant power loss to one of its engines after 3½ hours of flight which had not been explained but after minor maintenance, it appeared to be in good repair. There was no sign that day that there were any mechanical issues with the flight.

As a result, many believed that the aircraft may have been sabotaged.

The investigation found that the flight line and ramp areas at Honolulu, Wake Island and Guam were not secure and anyone could enter and access non-military aircraft parked at the airfields. Specifically at Guam, the last stop, the aircraft was left unattended in a dimly lit area for some time.

The explosion, as witnessed by the tanker, happened at the point when flight 739 should have been radioing in for the next position report. This seems extremely coincidental and is one of the reasons why many believe that the aircraft may have been sabotaged.

In addition, a second Flying Tiger Line flight was destroyed. An identical Lockheed Super Constellation, said to have been carrying secret military cargo, also departed Travis Air Force Base on the same day and encountered difficulties several hours later. The pilot appeared to encounter issues on the instrument approach and crashed short of the runway. The main landing gear was torn off and then the aircraft caught fire; six crew members received minor injuries and one was trapped in the cockpit and died in the fire.

Similar aircraft to the two lost. Photograph taken by Bill Larkins.

Flying Tiger Line stated at the time that sabotage of one or both planes or a kidnapping of flight 739 were possibilities but they had no evidence to back up these theories. The executive vice president told the media that is was impossible for an explosion to occur on the Super Constellation in the course of normal operation: something violent must have happened.

The Civil Aeronautics Board believes that the crew members of the tanker most likely witnessed the explosion of the aircraft. However, they concluded, as no portion of the aircraft was ever recovered, it was impossible to determine whether mechanical/structural failure or sabotage caused the loss of the aircraft.

The original accident report has been scanned and put online as a PDF.

Whatever happened must have happened quickly, as the crew never had a chance to alert anyone that there was an emergency. As no one has ever taken responsibility for sabotaging the aircraft and the wreckage is unlikely to be recovered, this is a mystery that may remain forever unsolved.

11 Comments

  • Sadly, mysteries of this nature, after so many years, are indeed not likely to ever be solved.
    Guesses at the time included cargo, not or improperly manifested dangerous goods, perhaps of a military nature.
    The Flying Tiger Line, in the mid 1980’s, ceased to exist and was absorbed into FedEx.
    A humourous story about ordnance sent by air: During the civil war in Nigeria in 1967 I was a young flight operations dispatcher working for a company called Pan African Airlines of Nigeria. They operated a fleet of cargo aircraft, including a DC6A and a few DC4. The DC4 were brought in to fly humanitarian missions, bringing Red Cross relief goods to the front zone. But the army requisitioned them for the transport of war material.
    This was of course totally unacceptable: to have aircraft with the Red Cross on the tail flying arms and ammunition so the aircraft were grounded.
    The solution was soon found: During the day the DC4 would fly for the Red Cross, after the last flight a man with a bucket of quick drying white paint and a broom would erase the red crosses whilst mechanics would prepare the aircraft for the night shift with military cargo.
    In the morning, the same man, now with a bucket of red paint, would put the red cross back on the tailfin.
    This went on for a while until I had to come to the chief pilot’s office. There had been complaints about my loading schedule and I was given an official reprimand for failing to properly oversee the loading. Perhaps it would not be all that surprising, given that I was on duty early in the morning, did a half day shift, took a few hours rest, came back for the evening shift, took rest again and did the early morning. Six days per week, so it was suspected that I had perhaps been too tired.
    But the real reason was not any wrongdoing from my side: The paint that accumulated on the fin started to have a negative effect on the weight-and-balance, and perhaps the aerodynamics as well.
    So the procedure had to be modified. There were no flights on Sundays, so the fin was stripped of all excess paint on regular intervals.
    After that, there were no more complaints about the aircraft being wrongly loaded and being tail-heavy.
    Sometimes the cargo consisted of bombs or grenades. The fuses were removed for safety reasons and packed separately.
    One day there was a bit of a panic: The fuse of one bomb had not arrived. It was found and shipped on the next flight.
    This caused an even greater panic: the captain was nearly arrested. Reason: On the previous flight a fuse was missing, on the next he was short a bomb.
    The sergeant who had been in charge when they offloaded the first batch had to be recalled, numbers checked and with a few red faces (although, I am not sure if Africans do get red in the face) and an apology the captain was sent on his way.
    Of course, these stories do not shed any light on what happened to the Flying Tiger Super Connie.

    • Rudy, have you ever considered writing your memoirs? I think you could get a pretty good book out of all the interesting experiences you’ve had in aviation.

  • I don’t think that the timing of the explosion in relation to the next scheduled radio call is relevant, as there wouldn’t be any advantage to a saboteur in preparing a bomb to go off at precisely that moment. As long as it detonated at high altitude when the aircraft was far away from any help that would be enough. There might possibly be a connection if there was an electrical problem that was related to the use of the radio.

    The fact that Guam IFSS reported heavy static on the radio and that the explosion happened while the aircraft was hidden by cloud, as seen from the ground, does raise the possibility of a lightning strike.

    But as you say we’ll probably never know. Even if the wreckage is ever found it probably wouldn’t be possible to tell exactly what happened from whatever scattered and corroded pieces still remain. It’s also possible that the military or intelligence agencies did have evidence of sabotage but chose not to reveal it. They would not gain anything from publicly admitting to a major lapse in security and if the crash was arranged by a foreign intelligence agency they would also keep silent about their activities.

    It’s also possible that the executives of Flying Tiger Line emphasised the possibility of sabotage to deflect attention away from the company. When an operator has two fatal accidents with the same type of aircraft in a short period of time the normal suspicion is that there is something wrong with their crew training, maintenance or operational procedures.

  • I can’t comment with any technical knowledge of FTL flight 739, but I just had to say the Super Connies have to be one of the most beautiful flying machines of all time.
    I don’t know how they handled, but if it’s true that if it looks right, it will fly right, they must of been dreams to fly.
    Not sure if the on board engineers would of agreed with four of those engines powering her.
    Thanks for a great site Silvia.

  • Andrew,
    Lightning strike very rarely causes an aircraft to explode in midair. My own, most dramatic experience was when the Cessna 310 I was flying was hit by lightning. I could see the impact on the left propeller, my passengers saw it exit at the right wingtip. Which also happened to be a main fuel tank. We could see scorch marks in the exterior paint. On landing the aircraft was inspected and a small, neat round hole, approx. 3 mm wide, was discovered in the side of the tank. Yet, there was no fire, no explosion.
    The aircraft at the time was registered PH-STR, later it was sold to the USA as N444ST. I don’t know if it still is around, but if so may well still be flying with a rivet in that tank.
    Lightning strike? Not impossible but also not very probable.
    Your second theory is interesting, still the possibility of not declared military cargo cannot be discounted either.
    The dangerous goods procedures have been much refined since I worked in Africa, everything was covered by a “general declaration” and there were no NOTOCs to tell the captain what he was carrying.

  • ” the Flying Tigers fighter unit, a World War II group of pilots from the US Army, Navy and Marine Corps whose shark-faced fighter jets became an iconic symbol of World War II combat aircraft.”

    My understanding of the sharks mouth motif is that it was actually first used by the British in North Africa and the Flying Tigers emulated them.

  • My uncle was a member of the Army personnel on this flight. My family is trying to find out any information and are in contact with a US Senator from our state.

    Forever Loved and Missed Sp4 Donald Albert Sargent.

  • After just reading this again, February 2017, I realize that i never noticed an error: Sylvia talks about “Shark-faced fighter JETS. They did not fly jets then, their aircraft were Curtiss P40 and they had PROPELLERS.

  • I was suppose to be on that plane but I was home on leave i received a telegram when I arrived home on the 14 my mother gave me a telegram to report back to my unit at Fort Ord California when I got back to my base the CO told me my deployment was canceled 2 weeks later i was called in again an told to get my communications equiptment ready and I arrived in Saigon on tne 16 of April 1962 i’m friends of another soldier that missed that plane in March 1962 his name is Dan Ansensio e lives in Ohio he was a communication specialist as I he left the next day

  • My father, Melvin L. Hatt, from Lansing, Michigan was on that flight. U.S. Army Ranger Special Forces. He left behind a wife, my younger sister, and I. Our mother suffered an emotional collapse, never to recover. We were adopted by family and raised in Michigan.

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