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Mysteries Of Flight: Flying Tiger Flight 739 Disappearance

The Super Connie went missing over a remote tract of open ocean. Sinister theories abound. But what really happened?

A Constellation similar to the Flying Tiger Flight 739 aircraft that disappeared while on a secret mission somewhere over the Pacific Ocean west of Guam. Photo courtesy of Flickr and Wikipedia Commons
A Constellation similar to the Flying Tiger Flight 739 aircraft that disappeared while on a secret mission somewhere over the Pacific Ocean west of Guam. Photo courtesy of Flickr and Wikipedia Commons
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Mystery

Two identical aircraft in the Flying Tiger Flight Line fleet suffered tragic fates, with one crashing and the other vanishing after departing the same airport on the same day. Coincidence or conspiracy?  

Background

On March 14, 1962, Flying Tiger Flight 739 (N6921C) departed Travis Air Force Base at 05:45 GMT for Clark Air Force Base. On board the Lockheed L-1049H Super Constellation were 11 crew members, three South Vietnamese soldiers and 93 highly trained Army Ranger specialists. According to the military, the men were under orders to relieve soldiers in Saigon tasked with training Vietnamese troops to fight the Viet Cong guerillas. As such, the flight was operated by the Military Air Transport Service (MATS). A few stopovers were made along the route—one in Honolulu, one in Wake Island, and a final one in Guam. With nine and half hours of fuel remaining, their final stretch was estimated to take around six hours. Sadly, however, they were never seen again.

Guam Centre grew concerned when the flight failed to make its scheduled position report at 15:30. They attempted to contact the aircraft without luck. When the flight also failed to make its destination, a distress status was initiated, and one of the largest search and rescue operations to date commenced. The search was conducted by the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines and covered more than 200,000 square miles. It came up empty, and nearly 60 years later, not a trace of the flight has been found. 

Strangely, another MATS-operated Super Connie in the Flying Tiger Line, this one carrying secret military cargo, also met with tragedy that day. Departing from the same airport at roughly the same time as Flight 739, Flight 7816 (N6911C) crashed during an attempted instrument approach to Adak Island, Alaska. Of the seven people on board, six crew members suffered minor injuries, and one died after becoming trapped in the fire. The timing of the incident with Flight 739’s disappearance raised many red flags.

Explosion

The only potential clue to Flight 739’s fate came from onboard a Liberian tanker, the SS T L Linzen, where witnesses noticed vapor trails moving west and disappearing into a layer of cumulus clouds. A few seconds later, they observed a large, two-pulse explosion, followed by two fireballs falling from the sky at different speeds. The ship’s radar flagged a target approximately 17 miles from its current position, or roughly 500 miles off the coast of Guam. The location fell in line with the approximate flight path of 739, so search and rescue operations gave focus to the area. It is in the remote Pacific Ocean, so it’s a wonder that anyone witnessed the event at all. 

Sabotage Theory

The idea of a Super Connie exploding mid-flight was too improbable for aircraft experts to believe, leading many to the conclusion of sabotage. For one, L-1049Hs were not known to have any fuel problems or electrical issues near fuel tanks. Additionally, nothing on board would have been powerful enough to blow apart. So, if the plane did explode, the theory goes, it would likely have been caused by impact with an external force, such as a meteor or, more sinisterly, a missile. With the United States in the throes of the Vietnam and Cold Wars, proponents of the shoot-down theory have pointed toward the Soviet Union as a possible villain in this scenario. 

Kidnapping Theory

Assuming the explosion was unrelated, another possibility is that the flight was hijacked and those onboard taken hostage. However, the kidnappers would have likely made demands for the men’s release at some point, and such demands never came—or were at least not made public knowledge. Kidnapping theories are common with disappearances of aircraft, including Malaysia Flight 370. 

Secret Military Operation Theory

For surviving family, the most popular theory has always been that the men were part of a secret military operation gone awry. This is supported by claims that they left behind important items, such as their IDs and wedding bands, and gave long, drawn-out goodbyes—as if they knew they were never coming back. Still desperate for answers, some family members recently attempted to submit their DNA to the military database used to identify bodies found abroad. The government denied those requests, citing legal reasons. It has also denied decades of pleading to have the servicemen’s names added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, remaining adamant that they were never part of any war mission.

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A Red Herring

While the crash of Flight 7816 was incredibly tragic, it was also likely a red herring in the mystery of Flight 739. Investigators concluded that the crash was caused by pilot error. During the ground-controlled approach to Adak Island, the pilots were advised multiple times that the aircraft was below glide slope and to execute a missed approach. They refused, instead opting for an attempted visual approach. Their decision resulted in the aircraft’s landing gear striking rocks approximately 300 feet short of the runway threshold, leading to a violent, fiery crash. 

Conclusion

With no evidence of anything sinister, the crash of the Super Connie upon landing in low weather in Anchorage was a case of pilot error. The possible explosion of Flight 739 is a more complicated case. Could some maintenance problem have caused an explosion? Maintenance problems had already been addressed while the plane was in Guam, but it’s rare for a mechanical issue to cause an explosion, though it can’t be completely ruled out—likewise with sabotage. While neither option can be dismissed entirely, there’s no evidence that they happened. 

The missile theory is also speculative. If an enemy had chosen to shoot down this flight, who would that have been? The Soviet Union, which was a Cold War adversary, was the only other nation capable of downing a high-flying plane mid-ocean. But why would the Soviets have done it? And why in such a remote expanse of the Pacific? There’s no clear motive and no evidence to support such a claim. A more likely explanation is the explosion of ordinance, accidentally or as an act of sabotage by some unknown actor, aboard the secret military flight. 

The truth is, until some evidence is found (and every year that passes makes that ever more unlikely), the reason for the disappearance is not known and possibly never will be. 

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In late 2020, surviving family members constructed a monument in South Portland, Maine, honoring the servicemen of Flight 739. While it may not hold the same weight to some as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it will forever be a special place to remember their loved ones’ services and sacrifices. 

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