Hey, readers. This week we’re returning to the sea for another mysterious disappearance. This one has always fascinated me.
The Bermuda Triangle is an area in the Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Southern Florida, and Puerto Rico. It’s also referred to as Devil’s Triangle or Hurricane Alley and is the spot where several ships and aircraft have disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
One of the most famous disappearances is that of Flight 19.
On December 5, 1945, five TBM Avenger torpedo bombers took off from a Naval Air Station in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for a routine training flight. Collectively known as Flight 19, the flight plan called for them to head east from the Florida coast, conduct bombing runs at a place called Hen and Chicken Shoals, then turn north to Grand Bahama Island before changing course southwest and back to the base.
All crew members were experienced aviators, most of whom had logged more than 300 hours of flight time. The leader, Lt. Charles C. Taylor, was an experienced pilot who flew several combat missions in World War II.
The first part of Flight 19’s mission proceeded smoothly and without incident. But shortly after the patrol turned north for the second leg of the journey, something happened. For some unknown reason, Lt. Taylor became convinced his Avenger’s compass was malfunctioning and thought his planes were flying in the wrong direction.
Troubles mounted when a front brought heavy cloud cover, rain, and gusting winds. The crews became disoriented, and one pilot was noted to have said, “I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.”
A Navy flight instructor, Lt. Robert Cox, was flying near the Florida coast and overheard Flight 19’s radio communications. He informed a nearby Air Force Station and contacted the crew to ask if they needed assistance.
Taylor responded. “Both my compasses are out, and I’m trying to find Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I’m over land, but it’s broken. I’m sure I’m in the Keys, but I don’t know how far down.”
His communication didn’t make sense. Less than an hour earlier, he was in the Bahamas but now believed his place had drifted hundreds of miles off course into the Florida Keys. Some speculate he may have confused some of the Bahaman Islands for the Keys.
Under normal circumstances, pilots lost in the Atlantic were supposed to point their planes toward the setting sun and fly west toward the mainland, but Taylor had become convinced that he might be over the Gulf of Mexico.
In hopes of locating the Florida peninsula, he decided to fly northeast in a course that would take them even farther out to sea.
Apparently, some of his pilots realized the mistake. One was heard to say, “Dammit. If we would just fly west, we would get home.”
Eventually, someone persuaded Taylor to turn west, but shortly after 6:00 p.m., he canceled the order and changed direction. “We didn’t go far enough east. We may as well just turn around and go east again.”
Several speculate Taylor’s pilots argued the decision, and some investigators think one plane broke away and flew in a different direction.
Flight 19’s radio transmission became increasingly faint. In one of the last communications heard, Taylor prepped his men for a potential crash landing in the ocean. “All planes close up tight. We’ll have to ditch unless landfall…when the first plane drops below ten gallons, we all go down together.”
Minutes later, the only thing heard was an eerie buzz of static.
The Navy sent up search planes. Around 7:30 p.m., two PBM Mariner flying boats took off from an air station north of Ft. Lauderdale. Twenty minutes later, one of them vanished off radar. The wreckage and bodies of the thirteen crewmen were never found.
The common belief is the seaplane exploded after takeoff. These planes were accident-prone and even nicknamed “flying gas tanks.” A passing merchant ship confirmed seeing a fireball and found evidence of an oil slick in the ocean.
The next day, the Navy sent more than 300 boats and aircraft to look for Flight 19 and the missing Mariner. But five days of combing through 300,000 square miles yielded no findings.
“They just vanished,” Navy Lt. David White later said. “We had hundreds of planes out looking, and we searched over land and water for days, and nobody ever found the bodies or any debris.” The Navy board of investigation had no definitive answer, finally attributing the loss to “causes or reasons unknown.”
As you might expect, the fate of Flight 19 has caused much speculation. Some believe the flight was gobbled up by the Bermuda Triangle. Other theories include magnetic anomalies, parallel dimensions, alien abduction.
The most likely cause is the planes ran out of fuel and ditched somewhere in the Atlantic. In 1991, a group of treasure hunters thought they had solved the puzzle when they found five World War II-era Avengers submerged in waters near Fort Lauderdale. However, the serial number of these planes didn’t match those of Flight 19.
The search continues to this day, but no signs of Flight 19, the Mariner and twenty-seven crewmen have ever been found.