All those Wonderful Stories
St. Elmo's Fireball
By Elizabeth Lambert Kearins
Sometime in July or August of 1959 I was scheduled on a flight out of Oakland across the Pacific with a crew of 3 (maybe 4) in the cabin and 4 guys up front on a TAL Boeing Stratocruiser. My assignment was rear cabin (steerage) with Daisy Chun. We had almost a full load in our cabin, first class was maybe half full. I seem to remember that Tom Dooley was seated up front, going back to Vietnam where his orphanages were. He would beg free rides from whoever could take him, which was us, PANAM or NORTHWEST in those days. He would go as far as he could on one airline then switch to another. TRANSOCEAN would take him as far as Naha, Okinawa or Tokyo then he would catch a ride on CAT to SAIGON.
SFO to Honolulu (9 hours) was long and uneventful – crew change with 1 or 2 days there. Honolulu to Wake Island (8 hours) was also uneventful – crew change again. Unlike the other crew members I did not waterski in the lagoon. There are sharks out there…are you crazy! But did ride in the boat pulling the skiers. Wake Island to Guam (about 6 hours)was again a crew change and overnight. The last leg was Guam to Naha (7hours) and we left Guam at night about 9pm. This was a do nothing flight, just coffee, tea and a small snack after takeoff and breakfast before landing in the morning. The passengers had been on the plane since Oakland. A few had left or boarded in Honolulu and were all asleep after our snack service. Daisy and I cleaned up, had a little coffee, checked the passengers and took turns sitting in the empty seats by the rear galley reading. The rear galley in this aircraft was at the very end of the aisle. The galley door was the last thing you saw if you
looked down the aisle. On either side were the rows of seats. Two seats per row both sides of the aisleseats by the rear galley reading. The rear galley in this aircraft was at the very end of the aisle. The galley door was the last thing you saw if you looked down the aisle. On either side were the rows of seats. Two seats per row both sides of the aisle back that far. We were convinced that the Boeing engineer who designed this galley and its location had probably been mistreated by a stewardess sometime and was getting even with all of us. In any turbulence the airplane "fishtailed". The up/down, sideways bumping around made holding onto trays of poured coffee, juice, etc., and keeping your balance a bit of a challenge. About half way to Naha it started getting a little bumpy and then the seat belt sign went on. The galley intercom "ding-dinged". I answered it and a cockpit voice said to check the passengers for seat belts and then sit down and put seat belts on ourselves. So Daisy and I checked everyone in our cabin. We also checked the bar downstairs (no one there). Everyone was sound asleep so this meant climbing in the rows and making sure belts were fastened under the blankets. Then we went to the last rows on the left side. Daisy sat down in the second to the last row in the aisle seat and I sat behind her in the last row. It started getting interesting with the up, down and fishtail bumping and I saw a hand waving in the aisle. A small voice said, "Leez..may I have a cigarette?" When Daisy got nervous she always asked for a cigarette. I don’t think ever smoked one though.
The bumping got worse and we saw the wings light up with a bluish glow – St. Elmo's Fire! Then the entire rear of the airplane got one big bump that you would swear some giant had kicked the whole fuselage. We heard some noises coming from the galley but didn't worry as we had put everything away and locked all the service doors. I saw Daisy's hand waving in the aisle and she was saying, "LEEZ, LEEZ…put your feet up!" She was pointing down the aisle and there, moving rather slowly, rolling down the center of the aisle, was a blue ball of St Elmo's Fire! We watched it roll past us and disappear into the galley door. Daisy asked for another cigarette. We kept our feet up for awhile. The turbulence became less in a few minutes so I ventured out of my seat. We were not, NOT going to touch that galley door. I walked up to the cockpit but did not see the first class crewmember. (I always wondered where she went to) I reported the "blue ball" incident to the crew. When they stopped laughing, the engineer got out of his seat and followed me back down the aisle. I stepped into the last row where I had been sitting. He put out his hand, touched the galley door handle and jumped back when he got a little shock, and then opened the door.
Well no breakfast ladies and gentlemen...the massive tray carriers had moved half way across the galley. There was fruit cocktail dripping from the ceiling, doors had sprung open on all the other tray carriers and cups, garbage bags, spoons, etc., were all over the floor. We closed the galley door and did not open it again. St Elmo's fireball was nowhere to be seen.
The passengers were still asleep – they slept through the whole thing. We woke everyone up when we were descending into Naha. After the passengers had all deplaned, we, the crew, went down the stairs and walked around the aircraft. From the tip of the right wing, all across that wing, across the fuselage and across the left wing was a very large and wide black scorch mark.
We had been hit by lightening.