Pan Am Flight 816 (lost flight recorders of fatal passenger aircraft crash; 1973)

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This article has been tagged as NSFL due to its disturbing subject matter.


Mike Freer photo of 816's sister plane.

Status: Lost

On 22nd July 1973, Pan Am Flight 816, consisting of a Boeing 707-321B, took off from Faa'a International Airport in Papeete, Tahiti. 30 seconds afterwards, it plummeted into the South Pacific Ocean. Of 79 on-board, only one passenger survived the disaster. Ultimately, the crash has yet to be officially explained as 816's flight recorders have never been recovered from the sea.


Pan Am Flight 816 initially took off from Auckland, New Zealand and made its way towards Faa'a International Airport, Tahiti.[1][2][3][4] The flight crew was vastly experienced, consisting of flight captain Robert Evarts, first officer Clyde Havens, flight engineer was Isaac N. Lambert, and navigator Frederick W. Fischer.[5][1] While both the captain and first officer were reportedly taking high blood pressure medication, with Havens also living with a major arteriosclerotic condition, it is believed this did not have an impact on the flight.[6][7][1] Also on board were six flight attendants and 69 passengers.[5][2][1][3][7] The flight plan would see Flight 816 be grounded for 16 hours at Papeete, before making a direct flight to Los Angeles International Airport.[1][2][3][4] It would then complete its journey by reaching San Francisco International Airport.[1][5][4]

During the flight to Papeete, the plane's L3 window sustained a crack.[1][7] Prior to the planned 20:30 pm departure, captain Evarts voiced his concerns over the damaged windshield to Pan Am officials situated in New York City.[1][7] The conversation, which allegedly got heated, ended with officials assuring Evarts the damage would be malleable and that the plane was ultimately safe to fly.[1][7] Evarts continued with flight procedures but requested the maximum allowed fuel load of 156,220 pounds instead of the usual 121,000.[1][7] This was likely connected to Evarts' request to fly at FL230 rather than the planned FL330, to avoid breaking the L3 window.[1][7] The conversation with New York City and the increased refuelling meant that the flight's takeoff would be delayed for over 90 minutes.[1][7]

At 21:52 pm, Evarts requested to takeoff at runway 04 rather than 08.[8][1][7] Twelve minutes later, Papette Flight Control cleared Flight 816 for takeoff, with the message "Clipper eight-oh-two, the wind is two-four-zero at eight knots. You're cleared for takeoff."[1][7] After using the entire runway to takeoff, 816 lifted itself into the night sky at 22:06 pm and climbed to an estimated 300 feet.[1][7][8][2][3] Not long afterwards, however, an airport worker reported that 816 suddenly veered 90 degrees to the left and began rapidly descending.[3][8][5][2][7][1] Meanwhile, a passenger and the air traffic controller heard a loud cracking sound, before the latter and other eyewitnesses saw flashes and a possible red flare on the water.[7][5][3][1] It soon became clear that 816 had crashed into the South Pacific Ocean, two miles north from Papeete Harbour and 300 feet from the airport.[5][2][4][3][8][1][7] It is believed 816 crashed just 30 seconds after takeoff.[8] In an intense naval rescue lasting throughout the night, two survivors were initially rescued from the wreckage.[5][8] One of them, a flight attendant, would ultimately succumb to her injuries while on board a rescue boat.[5][8]

The other was passenger James Campbell, a Canadian citizen who ultimately became the only individual to survive the accident.[9][10][5][3][4][8][2] He explained in interviews that 816's left wing abruptly banked left before the plane plunged into the sea.[9][7] By placing himself in the brace position, he escaped with contusions and burns inflicted from the ignited kerosene.[9][5] In addition to Campbell and the flight attendant, eleven other bodies were rescued from the sea, including those of Havens and Lambert.[10][3][5][4][8] Some reports stated an American tourist whose wife was on the flight jumped into the water upon seeing her lifeless body.[4][8] His fate remains unclear, though he is presumed to have also perished.[4][8] To date, Flight 816 remains the worst air disaster to have occurred within the French Polynesia.[2]

Crash Theories

Aside from the recovery of bodies, the rescue effort intensified its search for key wreckage, using sonar equipment to find materials over a three-day period.[8][4][10][5][1] A few seats, the flight logbook, and some of the undercarriage was obtained, but crucially little else.[8][4][1][7] Among the missing components included 816's flight data and cockpit voice recorders, which record key flight condition information and sounds from the cockpit respectively.[11][8][2][1][7] The missing parts are believed to have sunk 2,300-3,300 feet to the bottom of the South Pacific Ocean.[8][5][2] The loss of components considerably impacted BEA Aero's crash investigation, to the extent that no official cause of the crash has been declared.[2][1][8][7]

With little else to examine, investigators began fact-finding by interviewing Campbell on two separate occasions.[1][7] He stated that the plane suffered severe vibrations in a few instances before it suddenly banked left.[1][7][9] After taking off, 816 suddenly lurched forward, prompting Campbell to assume the brace position.[1][7] He and other eyewitnesses also affirmed the aircraft used the entire runway to take off, which is excessive under normal circumstances.[1][7]

Scrutiny was placed on the cracked L3 window, with some theorising that a failed windshield compromised the pilots and thus caused the accident.[3][10][1][7] Analysis of reports shows there were conflicting accounts from Pan Am officials regarding the windshield's status.[3] One spokesman in Paris stated the plane was attempting an emergency landing following a windscreen failure.[3] However, another Pan Am official claimed the windshield was actually replaced prior to takeoff and so theoretically should not have been a factor in the crash. But this contradicts Evarts' requests for a lower flight level and increase of fuel, which were said to have been in response to the damaged L3 window. Even so, some flight engineers reported being "puzzled" regarding claims of windscreen failure.[10] They claimed that not only were the windscreens designed to withstand nearly all forms of breakage, even if one had broken, the flight's other pilot could have used the other windscreen to clearly view their surroundings.[10] A similar theory suggested split fraps during takeoff, though its impact was again deemphasised.[1]

Furthermore, confusion emerged over whether an emergency call and landing had even been made.[3][5][6] Whereas Pan Am's Paris spokesman and other airline officials claimed the pilots radioed air traffic control requesting an emergency landing, another spokesman stated the crew never informed the control tower about any emerging problems.[3][5][6][1] The air traffic controller meanwhile claimed he only heard a loud noise from the radio.[1] Theories soon turned towards the possibility of pilot error.[7][6][1] Takeoff was to have emerged on a moonless night; once off the runway, the pilots would have had no visual aids while out of sea.[7][6][2][1] Thus, they would have needed to rely on their instruments and own judgement.[7][6][2][1] One theory proposed by Rob Martinside was that the pilots experienced the black hole syndrome.[7] This emerges when, once making the transition from runway lights to instruments, visual disorientation occurs which results in the crew dismissing instrument information and rely on their compromised senses.[7] This can lead to aircraft suddenly descending and ultimately plunge into the sea.[7] This syndrome has been linked to several accidents occurring during night takeoffs from aircraft carriers.[7]

Similarly, Jim Wood suggested that the increased refuelling of Flight 816 led to a heavily loaded Boeing 707.[7] He proposed the pilots were unable to ascend as quickly as usual, leading to visual disorientation and the belief they had climbed higher than in reality.[7] Thus, their decision to descend led to the accident.[7] Others claimed the instruments themselves may have been faulty, misleading and/or distracting the pilots and henceforth causing the disaster.[6][2][1][7] In analysis of the BEA Aero report, one individual expressed doubt concerning the disorientation theory.[7] By taking off at runway 04, pilots would be able to take advantage of the Port of Papeete, with light sources directly in front of them and from the hills.[7] They also noted that eyewitnesses claimed the plane had a weak pitch setting of less than 15 degrees, again adding possible doubt to the disorientation theory.[7] However, they put across two possible contributing factors to the crash: firstly, the left tyre was deflated, unlike the right tyre.[7][1] It led them to theorise that excessive takeoff airspeed could have damaged the tyres, though no indication the left tyre was shredded was ever mentioned in the report.[7][1] Further, they noted the crew had fewer than eight hours sleep before starting their daily routines, suggesting inadequate quality rest may have led to an increased risk of pilot error.[7][1]


Alas, the lack of available evidence means no proposed theories can be fully proven or debunked.[2][1][8][7] The main clues surrounding 816's fate like dwell within the missing flight recorders, which are designed to withstand the most serious of accidents and remain functional even when submerged.[11][1][8][2][7] However, due to how much time has passed, it appears extremely unlikely the flight recorders will ever be recovered from the bottom of the South Pacific Ocean.[8][1][2][7]

See Also


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 1.24 1.25 1.26 1.27 1.28 1.29 1.30 1.31 1.32 1.33 1.34 1.35 1.36 1.37 1.38 1.39 Official BEA Aero crash report (report in French). Retrieved 17th Mar '23
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 Aviation Safety Network summarising the flight's narrative, and noting the official cause has not been deduced. Retrieved 17th Mar '23
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 24th July 1973 issue of The Canberra Times reporting on the crash. Retrieved 17th Mar '23
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 4.9 23rd July 1973 issue of Desert Sun reporting on the accident and the American tourist who went missing. Retrieved 17th Mar '23
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 5.14 The New York Times reporting on the disaster. Retrieved 17th Mar '23
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 Aviation Disasters summarising some of the key theories regarding the accident. Retrieved 17th Mar '23
  7. 7.00 7.01 7.02 7.03 7.04 7.05 7.06 7.07 7.08 7.09 7.10 7.11 7.12 7.13 7.14 7.15 7.16 7.17 7.18 7.19 7.20 7.21 7.22 7.23 7.24 7.25 7.26 7.27 7.28 7.29 7.30 7.31 7.32 7.33 7.34 7.35 7.36 7.37 7.38 7.39 7.40 7.41 7.42 Code 7700 providing accounts from Sky Gods: The Fall of Pan Am and from a French speaker's analysis of the crash report. Retrieved 17th Mar '23
  8. 8.00 8.01 8.02 8.03 8.04 8.05 8.06 8.07 8.08 8.09 8.10 8.11 8.12 8.13 8.14 8.15 8.16 8.17 8.18 Aviation Disasters summarising the accident and noting both flight recorders were never found. Retrieved 17th Mar '23
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 26th July 1973 issue of Papua New Guinea Post-Courier reporting on Campbell becoming the only survivor and providing a summary of his first interview. Retrieved 17th Mar '23
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 25th July 1973 issue of The Canberra Times reporting on the end of the rescue effort. Retrieved 17th Mar '23
  11. 11.0 11.1 NTSB defining flight data and cockpit voice recorders. Retrieved 17th Mar '23