The history of aviation is full of tragic stories. One that comes to mind is that of the restored Boeing Stratoliner 307, tail number N19903, which crashed as a result of a “fuel problem” in 2002 according to the Boeing Company. Thankfully there were no fatalities, but first, let’s look at the history of the Boeing Stratoliner 307.
In the 1930’s aircraft designers realized that flying higher altitudes would provide a much better flying experience for the passengers with higher speeds and therefore longer range. Individuals, military and the airlines had already worked on this idea and started looking for a plane that would fill their needs. All major aircraft manufactures’ responded with some sort of design in one way or another. All of these flying designs came together in the late 30’s.
One of these planes was the DC-4E which was a four engine design. At first most of the airlines where onboard but before she flew, the airlines started to back out due to performance issues and high operating costs. Curtiss Aircraft came up with a twin engine plane designated the CW-20 later known as the C-46 Commando. Other aircraft designs considered included a civilian / transport version of the B-17 bomber. The Boeing 307 was a smaller plane than the DC-4E with smaller wings which came from the B-17 along with the main and tail landing gear. However, the aircraft had a much larger, mostly aluminum alloy pressurized fuselage then the B-17. Boeing started receiving orders for the 307 in 1937, which totaled 10 in all. PPA ordered four, while TWA placed an order for five. The tenth was ordered by Howard Hughes who purchased the 307 in order to break his own round the world record of 91 hours 14 minutes. The aircraft with experimental license NX19904 was fitted with extra fuel tanks and more powerful engines. Howard Hughes was set to take to the air when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, and the attempt was canceled. The cost for each 307 Stratoliner aircraft was $250,000 delivered ($3,968,253.97 in today’s dollars).
The first 307 flew on December 31, 1938. The prototype, NX19901 (for PAA) crashed in March, 1939 while doing a demonstration flight for KLM. The pilots shut two engines down on one side and applied maximum rudder to counter the yaw. This resulted in “rudder lock” (hinge prevents the rudder to be centered) and the aircraft went into a spin and crashed. Wind tunnel test indicated that a dorsal fin ahead of the vertical tail would prevent this from happening again and this was added in future designs. The first pressurized flight in the 307 (NC19902 for PAA) was done on June 20, 1939. First operational service included Miami, Brownsville, New Orleans, Mexico City, Central and South America. The aircraft boasted a wide 12 foot main cabin (3 feet wider than the DC-3) with an altitude ceiling of 20,000 feet. With 5 crew members and 33 passengers, the aircraft was truly a step up in airline comfort. A flight from New York to Los Angeles took only a little over 12 hours. Current flight times in a Boeing Jet are between 6 to 7 hours at 40,000 feet. A 12 hour flight wasn’t too bad considering the alternatives of the day.
With this short history of the 307 behind us, let’s jump to March 28, 2002. The Boeing Aircraft Company had painstaking refurbished a Stratoliner which they had taken from the Pima Air Museum in Arizona. Boeing S-307 Stratoliner, N19903 which was registered to the National Air & Space Museum, and operated by The Boeing Company conducted a 14 CFR Part 91 maintenance and proficiency flight which ended in the aircraft being ditched in the waters of Elliott Bay, Seattle, Washington.
According to reports, the flight took off from Boeing Field (BFI) and headed to Everett, Paine Field (PAE) to do circuits. A circuit or touch-and-go is a maneuver that is common when learning to fly in a fixed -winged aircraft. It involves landing and taking off without coming to a full stop. This allows many landings to be practiced in a shorter time frame.
The crew had reported that they conducted a landing and full stop at Paine Field without incident. The aircraft was then taxied back to the runway and the crew initiated a takeoff. Right after takeoff, number three engine experienced a momentary surge and then died. The highly trained Boeing pilots feathered the prop. Do you remember the comedian Bill Engvall when he would say something real obvious and then say, “Here’s your sign”. Well, this was the crews’ first sign of a major problem.
The crew decided to discontinue the flight and return to Boeing field. They really should have landed at the field they just took off from, which proved to be a major oversight. When they got near Boeing field, the landing gear was lowered with the landing gear light on, indicating that the left gear did not fully extend. They decided to fly around the field while the flight engineer manually hand cranked the gear down. The reason the left gear wouldn’t fully extend was because number three engine was the one that powered the hydraulic pump operating the gear.
Almost as soon as they got the gear down, the other engines stared to fail and they had to ditch the aircraft in the waters of Puget Sound. When investigators started looking at the downed plane, they discovered that three of the four engines didn’t have their props feathered indicating that they crew had very little time between engine failure and the ditching. In other words, the remaining three engines died all at once. Gee, I wonder what caused that? Here’s your sign!
Truth be told, the highly trained pilots had decided to take this beautifully restored aircraft on a joy ride and had paid for the fuel themselves. However, they didn’t wish to spend too much on fuel and only put in 300 gallons. You have to remember that these engines burn 50 gallons an hour at 2000 rpm in cruise, and really would burn more like 70 to 80 gallons an hour doing circuits. Are you starting to get the picture? Because these guys were having so much fun, they didn’t do the math on the fuel. When asked why they didn’t set the plane down at Paine field, which was where the maintenance was done on this aircraft, they were quoted as saying ” our cars were parked at Boeing field”.
The aircraft sustained enough damage to be totaled. The bulkhead was twisted where the spar attaches to the fuselage. In other words, the Stratoliner 307 just became scrap metal all because they were too cheap to put in the gas needed for their joy ride, and didn’t wish to walk back to get their cars. I wonder if they’re still employed at Boeing?