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Boeing’s Stratoliner: Beginning and ending with a crash

Boeing Stratoliner sits nose down in front of Salty's at Alki in March 2002. (United States Coast Guard, PA2 Sarah Foster-Snell [Public domain])

The four-engine Boeing plane called the Stratoliner has a bittersweet history in the Pacific Northwest, especially during the month of March.

The Stratoliner prototype first flew from Boeing Field on New Year’s Eve 1938. The plane was designed to compete with the famous and very popular Douglas DC-3, and it represented a major leap forward in aviation technology.

The basic design for the plane was based on the B-17, but what set the Stratoliner apart from Boeing’s famous Flying Fortress (and from civilian aircraft) was its revolutionary pressurized cabin. This feature allowed the plane to be flown at a high altitude above storms and other weather disturbances.

Starting with a crash

Test flights began in earnest in January 1939 and continued through the winter until tragedy struck on a Saturday in March. Early on the afternoon of March 18, 1939, the Stratoliner prototype crashed near Alder in Pierce County, killing all 10 aboard, including Boeing pilots, and representatives of TWA and the Dutch government. The wreckage of the shiny silver Stratoliner was strewn in a field near a highway, and newspaper photographs show nearby residents and passersby swarming over the crash site.

Related: Survivor recalls the final minutes of a doomed Boeing jetliner

Mike Lavelle is an aviation historian and author based in Issaquah. Lavelle has studied the Stratoliner, written research papers about it, and given technical and historical presentations at aviation conferences. He said the cause of the March 1939 crash was laid out clearly in the report published by the Civil Aeronautics Authority after the accident investigation.

“Flying at low speed. Losing control below minimum velocity. Going into a spin. Trying to pull out. Breaking the airplane apart,” Lavelle said, matter-of-factly.

“That was just part of the flight testing program and protocol at the time,” Lavelle added. “But I don’t want you to think [accidents like this] happened every day; they did not.”

An interrupted legacy

After the crash, Boeing made modifications to the design of the Stratoliner and then resumed test flights in May 1939. American aviator and eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes was the first customer for the plane, taking delivery of a stripped-down model in July 1939. Hughes was planning an around-the-world flight but had to put it off due to the outbreak of World War II in early September that year. Pan Am and TWA took delivery of their Stratoliners in March 1940 at an average price of $315,000 each.

In addition to the pressurized cabin, the Stratoliner was also fairly luxurious for its time, and especially by 2016 flying standards. The plane had a crew of five, and could carry 33 passengers in regular seats. It could also be set-up for overnight flight with 24 of the seats converting into 16 sleeping berths.

Cancelation of Hughes’ around-the-world flight wasn’t the only impact that World War II had on aviation; it also took its toll on the entire Stratoliner program, too. When production of the Stratoliner ceased in 1940, a total of only 10 aircraft had been built, including the prototype that crashed at Alder. With war spreading across Europe and Asia, Boeing switched over to bomber manufacturing at “Plant Two,” the company’s famous factory that once stood along East Marginal Way South and the Duwamish River.

Mike Lavelle says that even though so few Stratoliners were actually built, the plane paved the way for several other important Boeing planes. The cabin pressurization technology developed in the 1930s for the Stratoliner was used in the B-29 bomber during the war, and in the B-52 and Dash 80 707 prototypes in the 1950s.

In a paper he authored about the Stratoliner, Lavelle speculated about what might have been for Boeing had the war not interfered with its domestic aviation plans.

“Would the [Stratoliner] have put Boeing on the map like the DC-3 did for Douglas,” Lavelle wrote. “Or like the 707 did for Boeing 20 years later?”

With Boeing preparing to celebrate its centennial later this year, the company is probably still best known for its 707, 747, 787 and other jetliners (and, arguably, for its World War II and Cold War bombers). Thus, despite its innovative design, throughout the first five decades of the Jet Age, the Stratoliner remained something of a footnote.

Ending with a crash

As it turned out, though, the Stratoliner did eventually put the company on the map. It happened 60 years after the model first flew, and it certainly wasn’t in the same way that Mike Lavelle meant in his research paper.

On the afternoon of Thursday, March 28, 2002, Boeing pilots “Buzz” Nelson and Mike Carriker were at the controls of the last remaining Stratoliner. The plane was scheduled to be flown later to, and put on permanent display at, the Smithsonian’s sprawling Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

This particular Stratoliner had been originally christened “Clipper Flying Cloud” and was delivered by Boeing to Pan American Airlines on March 20, 1940. After serving Pan Am passengers and then the US Military during World War II, the plane ultimately ended up as part of the Haitian Air Force. Then, it came home to Seattle, where it was lovingly and painstakingly restored to original condition with help from Boeing and some very skilled volunteers.

Down at Salty’s Restaurant on the waterfront in West Seattle, Tim O’Brien was on-duty that March day in 2002. He’s the beverage manager, and the lunchtime crowd was keeping everyone busy.

“I was standing right about here,” O’Brien said, pointing to a spot near a low wall at the edge of the main dining room at Salty’s. “I saw a woman in heels running at me with eyes as wide as saucers, and she just blew past me.”

“Then I heard this commotion, and everybody got up out of their seats and started to run. As I looked out the front window, there was this plane coming at us about 20 feet above the water, very slowly, getting larger and larger,” O’Brien said.

“It has four props on it, and none of those were turning,” O’Brien said. “So it looked like it was going to skip right off the water and into the building.”

That’s when O’Brien, like all of his customers before him, evacuated the building.

“I thought we were in peril. And this was about five months after 9/11 so your brain is just flashing through all the scenarios, none of them good,” O’Brien said.

By the time Tim O’Brien got outside and looked toward the water, he saw the shining silver plane sitting in the water next to Salty’s outdoor deck.

“It stopped right off the southeast corner of the restaurant, and you could almost step off the wing and be in the restaurant,” O’Brien said. “The Coast Guard was almost at the plane as soon as it stopped.”

O’Brien says the plane drifted to the north corner of the restaurant and started to sink. He says that the Coast Guard towed it closer to shore west of Salty’s, and only the forward portion of the Stratoliner went underwater. Nelson and Carriker and two other men aboard the plane were unhurt.

After all the hubbub in the parking lot and once it was clear that nobody had been hurt, Salty’s invited customers back into the restaurant.

“We talked folks into coming back in because almost nobody had actually been served their lunch, but nobody had an appetite either,” O’Brien said. “So we poured a little glass of champagne for everybody that was here, just to settle them down and share stories and then gradually got back into the lunch mode.”

Tim O’Brien says that Salty’s also fed the emergency crews and other workers who showed up that day to assist in the effort to save the Stratoliner.

Unlike the 1939 Stratoliner crash, nobody was hurt or killed in the 2002 ditching, and the plane was not destroyed. And, the argument could be made that it took some mighty fine piloting skills to bring the aircraft down with no loss of life and only minor damage to the rare plane. Still, it was something of an embarrassment when the reason for the ditching was revealed: the Stratoliner had run out of gas.

The National Transportation Safety Board report is very clear. The 2002 Stratoliner ditching in Elliott Bay happened because of “loss of all engine power due to fuel exhaustion that resulted from the flight crew’s failure to accurately determine onboard fuel during the pre-flight inspection. A factor contributing to the accident was a lack of adequate crew communication regarding the fuel status.”

“Buzz” Nelson retired from Boeing in 2004. Mike Carriker still works there and is the chief pilot for the 787 Dreamliner program. Boeing declined to make Mr. Carriker available for an interview and chose not comment for this story.

After the ditching, the Stratoliner was pulled from the water and restored in Seattle once again. It’s now on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, as had been planned all along.

Before the re-restored Stratoliner left Boeing Field on a cross-country flight to the Smithsonian in July 2003, Salty’s helped throw a party to thank the pilots, Tim O’Brien says, for “not crashing into the restaurant.” O’Brien says that Nelson and Carriker do, in fact, have a sense of humor about the incident, though they do feel bad for all the hours that volunteers spent doing the restoration work that had to be done again.

Since the Stratoliner’s arrival in Virginia in August 2003, there have been no further plans for it to ever take flight again.

That’s okay with Tim O’Brien down at Salty’s on Alki. But he still has one special request.

“I just ask, the next time it’s in the air, if it’s in the area, I just want a heads up,” O’Brien said.


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