Forgotten Cold War airliner from Tacoma still missing

May 30, 2018, 6:16 AM | Updated: 8:28 am

It’s been a year since KIRO Radio first reported on the mystery of Flight 293, a plane missing from McChord Air Force Base for more than half a century.

Now, on the eve of the 55th anniversary of the disappearance, a small group of family and friends of some of the 101 people lost on the flight are building new hope to find closure.

On the morning of June 3, 1963, a Northwest Airlines DC-7 — a four-engine propeller airliner — left McChord Air Force Base, which is now part of JBLM. The flight was a military charter with a civilian crew with a total of 101 people aboard, mostly Army and Air Force personnel and their families headed to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska.

Flight 293 crashes

A little more than two hours after leaving McChord — north of Haida Gwai (or what used to be called Queen Charlotte Island) in the waters off Southeast Alaska near Annette Island — the plane crashed into 8,000 feet of water. Prior to the crash, there were no distress calls, and no one on the ground witnessed the plane striking the water.

There were no survivors and no bodies recovered, and only about 1,500 pounds of floating debris was found floating on the surface. With no wreckage and no witnesses – and since this was in the days before modern cockpit voice and data recorders – the cause of the crash was never determined.

The disappearance of a large passenger aircraft, unfortunately, is not something unfamiliar in 2018. Coincidentally, it was just announced yesterday that the final exhaustive search has been called off for Flight MH370 – the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 that vanished somewhere between Australia and India more than four years ago.

And, searching for long-lost aircraft is something that still captures imaginations, even decades after planes vanish.

Over Memorial Day Weekend, the New York Times featured a story about the work of a group called Project Recover. The non-profit organization partners with the military to locate and identify wreckage of lost aircraft and help bring closure to families whose relatives were previously considered missing in action.

In the story about Project Recover, the efforts of a family to determine what happened to an uncle who was lost in the Pacific during World War II in a B-24 bomber eventually led to the aircraft’s discovery in the waters of Papua New Guinea. A highlight of the piece is the closure this discovery brought to family members, including a niece who burst into tears at the news, though she had never met her uncle and wasn’t even born yet when he died in 1944.

The people left behind

In 2017, KIRO Radio first spoke with two people who had personal connections to Flight 293 — people who actually knew and remembered some of those lost 55 years ago — and reached out again in advance of this year’s anniversary.

Susan Francis lives in southern California.

Susan was an only child, and she said late last week that Rayma “Jody” Whipkey was her best friend. Jody had even lived with Susan’s family for a while, and the two were like sisters. In the spring of 1963, they were both 16 years old and living in El Paso, Texas when Jody’s father got transferred to Alaska.

Jody and her family were all lost aboard Flight 293, and Susan was crushed.

Does it get any easier to cope with the loss of her friend 55 years ago?

“You know, it doesn’t ever get to be OK, it just gets to be, after all these years, just commonplace,” Susan Francis said.

“It just happened and there’s nothing you can do about it. But I don’t think of her any less. I’ve moved on with life . . . I’m not swallowed up by this, but Jody was a very significant part of my first 16 years of life,” Francis said.

“And she’s still very much a part of my heart now.”

KIRO Radio also spoke last year with Greg Barrowman of Maple Valley.

Greg Barrowman was just nine years old and living in Renton when his 17-year old brother Bruce Barrowman headed north to Alaska for his first Army posting.

Barrowman said late last week that the loss of his brother hit the family hard, and he feels that loss more keenly around Memorial Day – and the anniversary of Flight 293 that comes just a few days later.

“The reaction in my heart is to grieve for the loss of not only my brother, but all those that paid homage and honor to serve our great country,” Barrowman said.

Many years ago, Barrowman built a private memorial to his brother in his backyard. He’s also reached out several times to elected officials and to the Department of Defense asking for their help to locate and recover whatever might be left of Flight 293.

Searching for Flight 293

It wasn’t long after the anniversary last year that Greg heard from Representative Dave Reichert’s office. Reichert’s staff received a letter in late June 2017 from the Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Division at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

“I was hopeful when I contacted [the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency] and had various conversations from the Pacific as well as the national organization,” Barrowman said. “[But] I was told that my request didn’t fall within the exact guidelines.”

“While the 58 servicemen [aboard Flight 293] were all on active duty, they didn’t qualify because it was in a Cold War situation, and wasn’t really a legitimate conflict,” Barrowman said.

“Which I would say, in turn, I would disagree,” he said.

The letter from June 2017 told Representative Reichert that the Army wasn’t going to search for the lost plane.

Why is Flight 293 – with living survivors who actually are old enough to recall those who were lost – now seemingly forgotten and largely ignored while efforts to recover World War II aircraft seem to be increasing?

Was it because the plane was a civilian airliner serving as a military charter, and thus it doesn’t generate the same sense of heroism or sacrifice as would a purely military aircraft?

Or, when a service member died while on active duty during the Cold War – a fairly complicated era in American history that lacks decisive battles and iconic battlefields – does it somehow not entitle the survivors to the same kind of searches for closure that other families who lost people in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and more recent conflicts take for granted?

Flight 293 Memorial

Whatever the answer to these questions, Greg Barrowman and Susan Francis have been in contact with each other over the past year to talk about Flight 293 and remember their loved ones. In the past few months, they’ve created a modest organization and a website called Flight 293 Memorial in order to build a community around the loss they share, and to create some kind of hope to find closure for themselves and others.

Barrowman and Francis are convinced that there must be others like them who lost family or friends aboard Flight 293, and they want to connect with as many like-minded people as they can.

The two believe it’s a numbers game. That is, the more names of survivors and stories about the people who were lost that they can gather, the better the families and friends of Flight 293 can make the case for a search to elected officials – in multiple Congressional Districts and to the Defense Department, or even to Project Recover or maybe the closer-to-home underwater exploration initiatives of Paul Allen.

Susan Francis says seeking closure by using modern technology to search for Flight 293 – even in 8,000 feet of water – just makes sense.

“I don’t think I’m the only one in the world who really has a deep sense of loss even though so many years have passed,” Francis said. “And I think the reason to do something like that, to form some kind of community or reach out and communicate with people is because, I just have to say, it is the right thing to do for those that are lost.”

“It’s the right thing to do to honor them,” Francis said.

Greg Barrowman agrees.

“It’s now 55 years later,” Barrowman said. “And here we sit, trying to look back on a discovery that would resolve a lot of questions, as well as give some type of peace of mind.”

Help Spread the Word

If you lost someone aboard Flight 293, please visit Flight 293 Memorial to connect with Greg Barrowman and Susan Francis. Or, if you have access via social media to groups of aviation enthusiasts or to veterans or military family organizations, please share this story and ask others to do the same.

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Forgotten Cold War airliner from Tacoma still missing