The Riddle of Flight 19
The 1945 disappearance of five fighter planes in the Bermuda Triangle was real, but hardly how it's portrayed.
Nearly everyone has heard of the Bermuda Triangle, the supposedly mysterious region off the United States' southeastern coast where planes and ships are believed to disappear at an alarming rate. Its story began in 1945, when a training flight of five US Navy aircraft disappeared, leaving no trace. Also lost without explanation was a large Navy flying boat that went to search for them. Some believe they were swallowed up by whatever strange forces are at work in the Triangle, perhaps some magnetic or weather anomaly, or perhaps something intelligent and more sinister. Today we're going to examine all the evidence to see if we can solve what happened to the missing planes and their crew.
The aircraft were five Grumman TBM Avengers, the same type of plane in which George H. W. Bush was shot down during World War II only two years earlier. Although they had the same general appearance of a single-engine WWII fighter plane, the Avenger was actually a small bomber containing a bomb bay and carrying a crew of three. Behind and below the pilot were a turret gunner, and a third crewman who was the radio operator, bombardier, and ventral gunner. The plane was powered by a single massive 14-cylinder radial engine, intended to be rugged and reliable enough to keep the plane flying over water even when damaged by enemy fire. Thus, the Avenger was the biggest and heaviest single-engined airplane of the second World War.
It was just three weeks before Christmas in 1945 when Flight 19 took off for an afternoon training flight from the Naval Air Station at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The exercise was called "Navigation Problem #1". They were supposed to fly a large triangular route, 91° east out to a point south of Grand Bahama island, then 346° north to a point north of Grand Bahama, and then 241° southwest back to Fort Lauderdale. Halfway out along the bottom line of the triangle, they were to drop practice bombs at a place called the Hen and Chicken Shoals. The total distance was to have been about 316 nautical miles, or about 585 kilometers. Lieutenant Charles Taylor was the instructor, but one of the four student pilots was to act as flight leader. One of the planes was a man short, so in all, there were fourteen men aboard the five planes. The missing man, a Corporal Kosnar, had asked to be excused. Most UFO books and books about the Bermuda Triangle usually state that he had a premonition of danger. This claim seems dubious, as any crewman requesting to be excused on that basis would not likely have been coddled and released. In fact, Kosnar was excused because he had simply already completed all the required hours of training.
All went well with dropping the bombs, and continued to go fine until the planes reached their first turn and were supposed to head north, overflying Grand Bahama in the process. That's when everything got unaccountably crazy. Taylor seemed to be lost. Radio contact was made with ships and with other Navy planes in the area. There was great confusion and contradicting reports of location and direction. At 6:20pm, Taylor made his final radio call:
Other Navy planes that had already been airborne were already searching for them by that time, heading to an area that land stations had triangulated as being the last known location of the Avengers. Bizarrely, this area was well north of the exercise's triangular route. They'd gone nearly three times as far north as they should have, and never made the turn west back toward the coast.
Within two hours, two big PBM Mariner flying boats had joined the search, each with a crew of thirteen. One of them exploded in flight and went down, an event witnessed by the crew of the commercial ship S.S. Gaines Mills. The PBM had been declared in top shape, and no clue as to the cause of its loss was ever found, nor was its wreckage... just like the fate of Flight 19.
So what happened? The weather was getting pretty rough; the seas and the wind were both running high, and there was rain. While the weather certainly affected visibility to some degree, it was probably not a significantly contributing factor. Any number of bizarre explanations have been suggested: waterspouts, seaquakes; the types of things that have never been known to bring down an aircraft. There's even a book out titled The Loss of Flight 19: Is There a UFO Base inside the Bermuda Triangle?
The hype that exists was mainly the fruit of the labors of Charles Berlitz, who could arguably be described as the father of the Bermuda Triangle with his 1974 book The Bermuda Triangle in which he promoted all manner of strange hypotheses that could take down a ship or a plane. None of his suggestions have ever been observed to actually do so in the real world. So does all of this mean that we're forced to leave the mystery of Flight 19 as an unsolved mystery?
Fortunately, no, it does not mean that at all. We do have transcripts of the radio conversation, which were brought into evidence by the Navy's Board of Investigation. Taylor seems to have gotten unaccountably lost in a way that doesn't make any sense at all. After they passed over Grand Bahama, the student pilot acting as flight leader radioed:
Overhearing this conversation was the senior flight instructor at Fort Lauderdale, Lt. Robert Cox, who was just taking off to lead his own group of student pilots on the same Navigation Problem #1. He reported that someone was lost and radioed Taylor directly to ask what was going on. Taylor answered:
This was an astounding error. Even after they had dropped their bombs in the correct area, Taylor suddenly thought they were more than 300 kilometers to the southwest; not east of Florida, but south of Florida. Taylor had been stationed in Miami for six months and knew the Keys well; it seems impossible to believe he could have been this wrong. Getting lost was his first mistake.
Lt. Cox offered to come and meet him, but Taylor turned it down, which was his second mistake:
The standard procedure, drilled into all the students from Fort Lauderdale, was that if you got lost, head 270 degrees or toward the sun, due west, until you hit land. That's pretty foolproof. At one point Taylor said over the radio:
But still convinced they were over the Gulf of Mexico rather than the Atlantic Ocean, Taylor then said:
The base instructed Taylor to switch his radio to the search and rescue frequency, but he refused, making his third mistake. He explained:
As late as 6:00pm, Taylor said:
Even though his students were telling him:
Ignoring the cautions from his student pilots flying alongside him that they were going in the wrong direction, Taylor made his fourth mistake, and kept making the extraordinary assertion that he believed they were over the Florida Keys. And then, just as unaccountably, he thought the solution was to fly further east — actually taking them further out to sea. Following Taylor, as they were required to do, the other pilots had no hope of reaching land.
The Board of Investigation report made one statement in its summary that the Bermuda Triangle people have latched onto: "We are not able to even make a good guess as to what happened." But that doesn't tell the whole story. Their inability to make a good guess pertained to what caused Taylor to make these decisions. The conclusion was clear: the flight was lost because Taylor led them out to sea until they ran out of gas and ditched. The seas were high and rough, and the Avenger was a very heavy plane. That no wreckage was found was not surprising to the Board of Investigation.
The Navy's accident reports on all five of the Avengers contained the following:
In his 1980 book The Disappearance of Flight 19, probably the most authoritative and thorough book on the subject, author Larry Kusche found that Charles Berlitz had fabricated more radio messages to make it sound as though the planes were having all sorts of inexplicable equipment failures and experiencing unprecedented meteorological conditions. But more importantly, Kusche looked into who Charles Taylor was. He was an experienced but not particularly talented pilot, only 28 years old, with a history of irresponsible blunders. During combat in the Pacific, Taylor had gotten lost twice before, and had to ditch planes both times. On this particular day, he didn't showed up to the base until 25 minutes after they were supposed to take off, giving no explanation, and then asked if someone else could take his place. The request was denied. Kusche also determined that Taylor had not even brought a watch or basic navigational equipment such as a plotting board with him on Flight 19. Taylor was unprepared, unprofessional, and had a history of getting lost and ditching planes at sea.
Such a career as his finally caught up with him. He may have survived the Japanese bullets in the Pacific, but he ultimately did not survive his own tendency toward human error. Flight 19 was not a warning about UFOs or mysterious underwater forces, but simply a reminder of our own human fallibility.
Correction: An earlier version of this incorrectly stated that the reason Kosnar was excused was unknown. He was excused because he had already completed his training hours.
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