"Flight 7" a whodunit with heart
There’s a song that, even today, will make Ken Fortenberry sad. But that’s
understandable. It reminds him of one of the most traumatic days in his life.
I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to be told at the tender age of six that
daddy is never coming home again. But Ken knows because he lived through it. And
it was only recently that I found out about that tragic loss he suffered so long ago.
Ken Fortenberry is the author of “Flight 7 Is Missing: The Search For My Father's
Killer.” It’s a whodunit about the mysterious disappearance 63 years ago of a
passenger plane over the Pacific Ocean. I was curious, not only because I once
worked for him, but because the subject was aviation, the focus of this newsletter. I
felt it was a must-read for me, so I bought a copy of his 350-page book published by
Fayetteville Mafia Press.
Because I know the author, I decided it would be a good idea to probe just a little bit
deeper to provide some additional insight for my aviation-savvy readers. So I gave
him a call for an interview.
I first met Ken in the early ’90s when he was managing editor at the Pensacola News
Journal and I became the paper’s military reporter. Ken had hired me after UPI closed
its Pensacola bureau, and since I didn’t want to move away, I took the job he offered.
We got along well enough, but you don’t become buddies in a boss-worker situation.
In fact, we laughed during the call because I admitted there were many times I
muttered a word that ends in “hole.”
He wasn’t surprised, and it’s not that uncommon in those days. Hard-headed
reporters, equally hard-headed editors were bound to lock horns from time to time.
But Ken did seem to take particular interest when any of the stories I wrote involved
aircraft from the nearby Navy and Air Force bases.
Now I understand why.
The book is about Ken’s decades-long on-and-off investigation to find out what
happened to that airliner. He was just 14 when he decided to find out what
happened, but as he got older and launched his own career, he ended up using the
tools of a journalist to try to come up with answers.
Ken’s father, William Holland Fortenberry, was a 35-year-old Pan American co-pilot
of a four-engine Boeing Stratocruiser. He was one of eight crew members and 36
passengers who boarded Romance of the Skies in San Francisco Nov. 8, 1957 for a
10-hour flight to Honolulu.
But at the midway point high above the Pacific, the pilot checked in with a ship in the
area, and nothing strange was reported. But shortly later something catastrophic
happened aboard the flight.
Ken brings us to that fateful day, hours before the disaster, when he recalls driving
back home with his siblings and mother after bringing his father to the airport. During
the 40-minute drive home, they discussed the upcoming Thanksgiving, and the
turkey and pumpkin pie daddy loved so much. His mother turned on the radio to a
Palo Alto station, and a song about a lonely heart, You Belong to Me, was playing:
Fly the ocean
In a silver plane
Watch the jungle
When it's wet with rain...
It was only well after that ride home that Ken found out that his daddy wasn’t coming
home again. And that song to this day still makes him chokes up.
“It takes me back in time. It makes me think of my mother particularly. That was one
of her favorite songs. He was gone so much. That song spoke to her. It tears me up
even now,” he said.
What is particularly effective in the telling of his investigation is that he uses such
story-telling devices, including letters from his father, to bring the reader back in time
and to make the search personal.
It’s effective, and keeps the reader turning the pages. One recollection really struck
me. I told Ken during our phone call that the passage about his father's memorial
service made me think of my grandfather’s service. I told him that when I was three or
four, I remember my father’s hands on my shoulders during the service that I couldn’t
quite comprehend. I remember looking at dad, and saw the tears in his eyes.
Yes, I told Ken. I was lucky I had my father nearby. Then I read him a passage from
his book about the memorial service for his daddy.
“Mom is unusually strong today, and for the first time in weeks I see no tears rolling
down her face,” he wrote. Then he put this about that sad day: “No casket. No grave.
No dirt. No tearful farewells as we walk away from the final resting place high on a
western hill. Daddy’s casket is the crumpled cockpit of a Boeing Stratocruiser. His
watery grave is at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and his final resting place is
thousands of miles away from us, a place we will never see, a grave we will never
He said hearing me read the passage made him feel that loneliness once again.
“You know you can’t lose somebody you love like that so early in your life and not
leave a hole that can’t ever be filled,” he said. “There’s not a day in my life even now
that I don’t think about my dad.”
It took Ken many years of research, contacting anyone and everyone, public and
private, that might provide some answers. The book takes the reader through all the
leads he followed. And while a few of them seemed outlandish, like looking into the
possibility that UFOs were involved and going to some psychics, by the end of the
book it’s clear why he did so in such detail.
“I wanted to make sure that when I finished this book, because I knew there would
be critical reviews and naturally expected that, but I wanted people to say this guy left
no stone unturned,” he said.
In doing so, Ken showed just what it is to be a journalist. He went down every
possible avenue, no matter how seemingly unfruitful any particular road might be.
Several times I wondered why he was going down a road I immediately discounted.
Then it hit me. I would have done the same. A real reporter doesn’t discount
something out of hand. Scrutinize the theory, show why it couldn't be correct and
move on to the next.
It’s what a good journalist does. But unlike a newspaper story, which doesn’t tell you
all the avenues that were pursued and discounted, Ken puts it all there in the book
so you can judge for yourself. Sure, it slows the pace a bit, but it’s a solid approach
to this kind of mystery.
He does come up with what he thinks is the best answer for why his father not only
died, but that he and the others were the victims of a killer. I won’t give away what he
found, but I find myself agreeing with his assessment.
I was curious though, about whether I was one of the few people at the paper who
didn’t know about this. So I asked Ken if it was something others knew about.
“I never talked about it, even to my family much,” he said, partly because it
happened so long ago, and partly because if he failed to find answers, the only one
who would be disappointed would be him. “I’ve heard people say, I had no clue.”
So why did he finish this book after all these years? Ken said he felt like he had to
keep a promise to himself and his father to do whatever he could to find out what
happened. And yes, he does feel some closure. But there is still one thing left to do.
Ken has never taken a flight across the Pacific Ocean. He has never been close to
his father’s final resting place. But he said that he does plan to do so.
“When I get to that point halfway between San Francisco and Honolulu, I’ll want to
tell the pilot, ‘take me down low to where we think that plane went down.’”
But of course, unless he’s in a private plane, that’s not going to happen. Still, he
knows what he’ll do when he gets to the right location.
“I hope to do that in the next couple of years. And that will definitely be the end of it
for me, frankly,” he said. Closure, finally?
“Absolutely. I’ll whisper, ‘Goodbye dad,’ and I really will be able to say goodbye