On Monday morning, April 2, 1956, Northwest Airlines Flight No. 2 departs from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with six crew members and 32 passengers aboard, en route to New York via Portland, Oregon and Chicago. Minutes after takeoff the pilot experiences severe control problems and is forced to ditch the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser in Puget Sound. Most of the occupants successfully evacuate the airliner, but four passengers and one flight attendant are drowned. The Civil Aeronautics Board will investigate the accident and determine it had been caused by an incorrect setting of the engines cowl flaps by the flight engineer.
The Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, manufactured by the Boeing Aircraft Company, was developed shortly after World War II (1941-1945) and first flew on July 8, 1947. It was patterned after the Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter military transport and utilized the wings and empennage (tail) of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The aircraft had a pressurized cabin allowing it to fly above inclement weather at an altitude up to 32,000 feet. The Stratocruiser was 110 feet, four inches long, 11 feet wide, with a wingspan of 141 feet, 3 inches and powered by four turbo-charged Pratt & Whitney R-4360-B6 Wasp-Major 28-cylinder radial piston engines. At a cruising speed of 340 mph, the airliner had a maximum range of 4,500 miles.
The plane's crew comprised two pilots, one flight engineer, and three flight attendants. Its carrying capacity was 75 passengers on the main deck, and a small lower-deck lounge seated 14. The primary carriers using the airliner were Northwest Airlines and Pan American World Airways. The last Stratocruiser was retired from service in 1963, replaced by faster, jet-powered aircraft such as the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8.
At 8:06 a.m. on Monday, April 2, 1956, Northwest Airlines Flight No. 2, a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser 10-30, registration No. N74608, departed the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SeaTac) en route to New York via Portland, Oregon and Chicago. The flight crew consisted of the captain, Robert R. Heard; first officer Gene P. Johnson; flight engineer Carl V. Thomsen; and flight-service attendants Elinor A. Whitacre, Dorothy L. Oetting, and David V. Razey. There were 32 passengers aboard for the short fight to Portland, where Chicago- and New York-bound travelers would board.
Two minutes after takeoff from Runway 20, the pilots became aware of severe buffeting and a strong tendency for the ship to roll left. Captain Heard thought it was due to the wing flaps on one side of the aircraft being retracted while those on the opposing side were partially or fully extended. He reduced power to alleviate the buffeting, but to no avail. He then applied full power, but the ship continued to loose altitude and control was difficult. Captain Heard declared an emergency and was cleared by the control tower to return to SeaTac. The pilot requested clearance to proceed south to McChord Air Force Base in Pierce County due to the control problems. When the trouble worsened and the Stratocruiser continued to loose altitude, he opted to ditch in Puget Sound.
Touchdown was at 8:10 a.m. on smooth water in East Passage off Maury Island, approximately four miles southwest of the airport runway. It was a textbook landing at an airspeed of approximately 120 knots (100 mph) with no abrupt deceleration. Captain Heard and First Officer Johnson conducted a head count of the passengers and had the three flight attendants provide passengers and crew with buoyant cushions from the cabin seats. After ensuring that everyone had evacuated the aircraft through either the main cabin door or emergency exits, the captain and first officer exited through the cockpit windows. Fifteen minutes after landing, the Stratocruiser sank nose-first in 432 feet of water.
U.S. Coast Guard personnel at Point Robinson Lighthouse, as well as other residents of Maury Island, heard and then witnessed the Stratocruiser crash-land in the East Passage. Some islanders with power boats immediately launched and headed toward the downed aircraft to rescue survivors. A U.S. Army Air Force Grumman HU-16 Albatross amphibian seaplane was in the vicinity of McChord Air Force Base when the call was broadcast about a possible downed aircraft in Puget Sound. After receiving clearance to search for the missing plane, the Albatross headed for the Stratocruiser's last reported position. Twelve minutes later, the flight crew spotted the downed airliner and landed in the water aid rescue operations. Another amphibious aircraft at McChord was scrambled and directed to the scene. Shortly afterward, the Coast Guard Cutter CG-83527, based at the Port of Tacoma, arrived in the area to assist in search-and-rescue efforts and mark the spot where the plane sank with a orange buoy.
In the interim, the civilians in their power boats had pulled all of the survivors and the bodies of four who had drowned and ferried them to the amphibious aircraft and Coast Guard cutter. One of the planes transported a group of passengers and two of the deceased to Boeing Field. The rest were divided between the second amphibian and the cutter and taken to Tacoma. Only one person, flight attendant David Razey, was missing and presumed drowned. A search for his body over the next several days proved fruitless.
On Tuesday, April 10, 1956, a salvage crew moved the 60,000-pound Stratocruiser from a depth of approximately 400 feet to a depth of 43 feet near Maury Island. At 8 a.m. on Thursday, April 12, a Foss Launch & Tug Company floating derrick lifted the wreckage from the water and loaded it onto a barge. During the maneuver, the plane's tail was broken off by the lifting cables, but immediately recovered. The left outboard engine was missing from the wing and never found. The wreckage was taken to Tacoma for examination by Civil Aeronautics Board investigators. The plane was unsalvageable and later sold to a scrap-metal dealer.
On Wednesday, November 14, 1956, the Civil Aeronautics Board released a 10-page report detailing the results of its investigation. The investigators concluded the probable cause of the accident had been the improper setting of the cowl flaps on all four engines by Carl Thomsen, the flight engineer. It was found that all the cowl flaps were full open, which caused the buffeting and control difficulty. No failure or malfunction of the airliner or its engines and control systems was found.
Dr. George B. Hook, age 39
Yee Sau Foon, age 4
Tsui Kong Lin, age 37
David V. Razey, age 26
Paul G. Wehrman, age 30