In early May, the book Flight 7 is Missing, by Ken H. Fortenberry (Fayetteville Mafia Press) came out. It’s surprising that is the first definitive account of one of the worst unsolved aviation accidents in U.S. history—the loss of the Pan Am airliner Romance of the Skies, which was flying from San Francisco to Honolulu in November 1957 when it went down in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. All 44 people aboard died, but only 19 bodies were recovered. Federal accident officials investigated the crash, but this was the days before black boxes and other safety features, and a cause was never identified.
Fortenberry—whose father William Fortenberry was the navigator on the flight—has investigated this crash for decades. He was just a boy when his father died, and I can only imagine how traumatic that would have been (the sequences in the book with his family before and immediately after the crash are heart-breaking). Since then, he’s amassed a considerable library of official records and documents, and has interviewed a huge array of officials and individuals with knowledge of the aircraft, its crew and passengers. He’s also co-written two Air & Space Magazine articles (click here and here to read them) on the crash and its possible explanations (there are three: sabotage by the aircraft’s purser, sabotage by a passenger, or maintenance neglect by Pan Am itself), and is properly considered an authority on the matter. The book is written like a thriller, and it’s a quick, largely enjoyable read.
My fascination with both the crash and Fortenberry’s book stems from my own personal connection to the flight: the aircraft’s flight engineer was Albert Pinataro, my cousin. Though he died about 15 years before I was born, he was a major influence on my father, who was 18 at the time of the crash. And I, too, wrote about the crash—in 2017, I put together this story for MauiTime about what investigating the doomed flight taught me about my cousin and myself.
But Fortenberry made two choices when putting this book together that are highly questionable. The first is that though this is a history book, there’s no bibliography or list of source notes. For researchers, this is a stunning omission—in fact, I found it so concerning that I asked Fortenberry why he’d written the book this way.
“I really didn’t write it as a scholarly work, more of a historic nonfiction genre with a semi-autobiographical theme,” Fortenberry told me via Facebook. “Pretty much cited sources in the text of the book as I thought necessary.”
The words “pretty much” are doing a lot of work here. Here’s one example of how this approach fails the reader. Early on in the text, Fortenberry describes Flight Engineer Pinataro thusly: “Pinataro celebrated his twenty-seventh birthday a week ago and recently told a relative that if he died tomorrow, he would die a happy man because he enjoys his job so much.”
There’s no citation anywhere in the book telling the reader how Fortenberry knows this. Sure, it’s a small detail, but it provides good description of Pinataro’s character. And I happen to know it’s true, because it came directly from my reporting. Pinataro’s relative mentioned here was his sister Jean, and she told me about her conversations with her brother when I talked to her for my 2017 story on the crash (she died in late 2019 at the age of 96).
When I wrote my 2017 story on the crash, I made damn sure readers knew exactly where I was getting my information, and that included the two Air & Space Magazine stories Fortenberry had co-written. Given that people are being asked to pay $24.99 for a paperback version of his new book, they deserve to know who did the research that forms the foundation of Fortenberry’s narrative.
The second choice Fortenberry made was that though this is ostensibly a non-fiction book of history, portions of the first and third chapters contain sequences that are drawn straight from the author’s imagination. The sequences take place on board the aircraft immediately before its crash, and include action and dialogue that simply aren’t knowable. Because of the lack of source notes or even a bibliography, it’s difficult to tell on what Fortenberry is basing these sequences. Again, I asked Fortenberry why he chose to do this.
“I really just wanted the story to come alive, and give it some personal texture during take off and crash,” Fortenberry told me. “Literary license to a degree, I suppose, but again I wrote it as creative historic nonfiction and rigorously stuck to the facts—checked again and again—over my lifelong search. From a pure writing standpoint this was done in a matter of months—not years—after I was approached by the editor. We agreed on the book in October and I had the manuscript to him in July. Could I have done some things differently? Of course. Hindsight is 20/20.”
To this, I told Fortenberry that he was engaging in behavior I could never have gotten away with in my two dozen years working as a journalist, but he was unmoved.
“I tried to bring the characters to life and stay true to the facts while recreating the crash the best I could based on my research,” he said. “I don’t think I took a huge leap into fiction to create that brief scene, but knowing that you, too, have a personal connection to the story, I understand where you are coming from.”
I wanted to like this book, because it’s a (mostly) well-written account of a glamorous but dangerous time in the world of aviation. His conclusions about what (and who) ultimately brought down the plane are clearly well-considered, but in the end seemed almost arbitrary (given the inability to study the bulk of the wreckage, a definitive explanation for the crash will likely never come out). When the lack of source notes and the clearly fictional scenes are added in, the book becomes rather risky for readers and all but useless for historians.
FLIGHT 7 IS MISSING: THE SEARCH FOR MY FATHER’S KILLER
By Ken H. Fortenberry
Fayetteville Mafia Press