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Flight 293 left McChord Air Force Base 54 years ago and disappeared

May 31, 2017, 6:57 AM | Updated: 6:01 pm
LISTEN: Flight 293 left McChord Air Force Base 54 years ago and disappeared

It was 54 years ago this Saturday, June 3 around 8:30 a.m. that a Northwest Airlines four-engine airliner left McChord Air Force Base and headed north to Alaska.

There were 95 passengers, mostly members of the military and their families, and a six-person crew aboard. Final destination for Flight 293 was Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage.

The plane never arrived.

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And though more than half a century has passed, family and friends of those aboard Flight 293 still feel the profound loss of loved ones whose bodies were never recovered.

And they want to do something about it.

Private Bruce Barrowman

“My parents decided to take us out of school so we could all go as a group and take him to McChord Air Force Base that morning,” said Greg Barrowman, who nowadays lives in Maple Valley near the military cemetery.

In June 1963, Greg was 8 years old. His big brother, US Army Private Bruce Barrowman, was 17 when he shipped out for his first assignment in Alaska.

“He was dressed in his uniform and ready to go,” Barrowman said. “Kind of a proud moment.”

Barrowman says his was a strict family, not given to public displays of emotion.

“We had one of those good ‘adult’ kind of goodbyes, where we all got out and stood face to face with a handshake and hugs,” Barrowman said. “We were a little more disciplined, I think, where you were little men and women, instead of a bunch of goofy kids.”

That evening, young Greg was watching TV at the family home in Renton when the news reported that the plane from McChord was missing. He called to the rest of the family to join him.

“I remember we all huddled around and waited and kept on watching,” Barrowman said.

“Obviously, my parents were concerned, [but they were thinking] there’s gotta be survivors. Planes don’t just crash and people don’t die necessarily, of course, a big plane like that, it could float,” Barrowman said.

The Barrowman family received official word a few days later that Bruce was among the 101 people lost on Flight 293. The plane had crashed into the waters off Annette Island in southeast Alaska, just north of the Queen Charlotte Islands (now called Haida Gwai). There were no survivors. Minimal wreckage was found on the water, and the plane sank into 8,000 feet of water.

“My brother was a very athletic, and a very studious, and a very kind person,” Barrowman said. “I think through the course, he probably would’ve been a pretty good citizen.”

Prior to joining the Army, Bruce Barrowman had stumbled a bit when the family moved and he had had to change high schools, and had dropped out during his junior year. His father was a World War II Army vet and had encouraged Bruce to enlist.

After the crash, things would never be the same for Greg Barrowman’s parents, or for Greg and his remaining two siblings. The disappearance of Flight 293 broke his family apart.

“I think my sister put it best,” Barrowman said. “There was no rudder on the ship anymore.”

Susie and Jodie

Susan Francis (nee Waldron) was 16 and living in El Paso, Texas in the spring of 1963. Her best friend since middle school was Rayma “Jody” Whipkey. The two were sophomores at Austin High School.

“We were crazy kids. We flirted with boys, and we loved theater and drama and dance – we were in dance classes together,” Francis said. “We loved dogs. We bought each other crazy things.”

“She was sparkly and she had a sense of humor, she laughed,” Francis said. “My mother loved her because you always laughed when you talked to Jody – she said cute, funny things.”

Jody’s father, Joe Whipkey, was stationed at the old Biggs Air Force Base in El Paso. Sometime around March 1963, Jody told Susan Francis that the Whipkey family was moving to Alaska. Jody’s mom considered letting Jody stay behind in El Paso with Susan, but after school was out at the end of May, Jody departed Texas with her mother, father and older sister. They headed north from Biggs AFB up to McChord to connect with Flight 293.

Susan Francis found out about the crash from her mom, who’d read about it in the El Paso newspaper a few days after it had happened. Francis was devastated.

Francis says that a few days before the crash, she began having a series of vivid dreams about Jody and her family – picturing them waiting to board the plane, then sitting on the plane, and then buckling up as the DC-7C hit turbulence. Then, a few weeks after the crash, she was convinced she saw Jody in her neighborhood, walking toward her in the distance, only to disappear a few blocks away.

Susan Francis says that she’s a confirmed skeptic who needs evidence in order to believe something is true, but she also says that something inexplicable was happening in June 1963.

“I felt like Jody tried to say goodbye to me,” Francis said. “Whether I made that up in my brain, or whether there’s some remote way through, I don’t know, mitochondrial DNA or something like that, she tried to connect with me.”

Over the decades, Susan Francis left El Paso and moved to California. But she never forgot her best friend.

“I graduated. I got married. I had a baby. I mean, life goes on,” Francis said. “But Jody has always stayed with me.”

Coast Guardsmen Keith Pugh

Keith Pugh grew up in Oregon. He was a Coast Guard radar operator barely out of his teens in 1963. Pugh was stationed aboard the USCGC Klamath, cruising from Seattle to the Bering Sea, to keep an eye on Soviet and Japanese fishing vessels.

“We were pulling into Women’s Bay, Kodiak, Alaska for fuel,” Pugh said. “About a half-hour later, we got a radio message that an airliner was overdue from Seattle to Anchorage. Another half-hour later, we were underway, headed for the last reported position.”

Pugh says a Canadian Air Force plane spotted debris west of Annette Island, and so the Klamath headed that direction. A Japanese ship was first on the scene and had picked up a few uninflated life rafts.

“[We] took over [the search], since we had an air search radar, we had a Coast Guard 95-foot patrol boat, we had a buoy tender and a Grumman Albatross flying overhead,” Pugh said.

Pugh says the Coast Guard searchers found “seat cushions, some of them had the seat with them – we found luggage, just one or two pieces.”

The searchers recovered only a few obvious pieces of human tissue, and no bodies. But they did retrieve at least one haunting memento that was likely lost by a passenger on Flight 293.

“We found a 35mm slide,” Pugh said, floating in the waves. “It’s a souvenir slide of the Space Needle. This would be a year after the Seattle World’s Fair, so it was a collector’s piece. So we fished that out of the water.”

What happened to Flight 293?

When the Civil Aeronautics Board (a precursor to the National Transportation Safety Board) released the findings of its investigation into Flight 293, it was short and to the point:

Because of a lack of evidence the Board is unable to determine the probable cause of this accident.

The report went on to describe the horrific final moments of the flight:

The fragmentation of the aircraft indicates that it struck the water at a high speed and the damage to the seat backs shows forces applied to the top of the seat indicating that the airplane fuselage struck the water nearly inverted.

Everything the CAB could investigate about Flight 293 was normal – maintenance records, the background of the crew, the weather at the time of the flight, and radio transmissions. But, of course, they were never able to examine the plane itself.

Meanwhile, it appears that there’s never been a monument or memorial at McChord Air Force Base dedicated to the members of the military who died in the crash. Flight 293, it seems, isn’t much remembered at all at the place where the Barrowman family – and probably several others – said their final goodbye to loved ones.

“I just couldn’t find anyone that had any knowledge, or that is aware of any memorial that is on the installation,” said Staff Sgt. Naomi Shipley, the Community Engagement Section Chief with the Air Force at JBLM.

Greg Barrowman

After the crash, Greg Barrowman struggled to come to terms with the loss of his brother Bruce on Flight 293. Then, a few years later, his remaining brother was killed at age 16 by a drunk driver.

As he matured, Barrowman grew distant from his parents. After his mother passed away in 2000, he reconnected with his dad, and the two of them began talking about Bruce – and about the notion of working to dedicate some kind of public monument to him and to the others lost aboard the flight, perhaps at one of the national cemeteries.

But Greg Barrowman has something more in mind. He also wants to see if the long-lost DC-7C could be located and perhaps even retrieved since the military has a pretty good idea where the wreckage is.

“I think it would be kinda cool if somebody in the Naval or underwater community might take an interest and send down a probe and do a little investigation,” Barrowman said.

“Over the years, I just imagined this happening, but now with submarines and the remote technologies [it’s actually possible],” Barrowman said. “Why not? I mean, it’s just money, right?”

Time for a memorial to Flight 293?

Susan Francis shares Greg Barrowman’s interest in dedicating some kind of memorial to the passengers of Flight 293.

“There has to be more people than just me who have the passion to get closure, if you want to use those words, or get closer to Jody again,” Francis said. “Just the process of being involved in some kind of research on this gives me back my childhood friend.”

Greg Barrowman has corresponded in the past with Representative Dave Reichert’s office about seeking help from the military with the search for Flight 293, and from the federal government to create some kind of monument.

A spokesperson in Reichert’s office said via email that it would take “a presidential declaration or act of Congress” to create a memorial, and suggested asking the Army about a new search.

One bizarre footnote to this story: There was an earlier “Flight 293” in October 1962 following essentially the same flight plan in the same type of aircraft (a Northwest Airlines DC-7C) that had engine problems and had to ditch in the ocean near Sitka. Everyone aboard that Flight 293 survived.

EDITOR’S NOTE

If you have a personal connection to either Flight 293 – October 1962 or June 1963, KIRO Radio historian Feliks Banel would be interested in speaking with you. Please send email to [email protected]

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Flight 293 left McChord Air Force Base 54 years ago and disappeared