Sunday, December 03, 2006
The Mystery Of Flight 19, December 5, 1945
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Today in 1945, a flight of five US Navy aircraft and 14 crew members disappeared during a training flight off the coast of Florida. In the more than 60 years since the incident, Flight 19 has become the focus of much speculation and has helped fuel the belief that the Bermuda Triangle (an area of the Atlantic Ocean between the endpoints of Miami, Florida, San Juan, Puerto Rico and Bermuda) is home to strange paranormal activities.
Flight 19 was supposed to be a routine training flight over water. The trainee pilots were flying TBM Avenger torpedo bombers, the largest single-engine aircraft produced by the United States during the Second World War. The Avenger carried a crew of three: a pilot, a turret gunner and a third crewmen who served as radioman, bombardier and ventral gunner. The leader of the flight was Lieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor, a pilot with more than 2,500 flight hours under his belt, some of it spent as a combat pilot in the Pacific. Taylor was new to Florida, but the student pilots had all trained at the Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station and were familiar with the area. The flight plan was known as "Navigation Problem 1" and called for the flight to fly due east from Ft. Lauderdale for 123 miles, northwest for 73 miles and then southwest back to the air station. On the first leg, the planes would drop bombs just south of the Grand Bahamas.
The planes took off at 2:10 PM local time. The weather was good but the sea state was bordering on rough. Taylor let one of the trainees lead the flight while his aircraft flew in the rearmost position. Based on radio communications with the air station, the first leg of the flight and the bombing practice took place according to plan. Soon after turning to the second leg, however, unknown problems arose and Taylor took over the lead position of the flight. Conversations between the aircraft, which were received by several ground stations, indicated that only Taylor thought the flight was lost. He radioed another instructor who happened to be flying in the area and told him that both his compasses were malfunctioning and that he did not know the direction to Fort Lauderdale. He also said that he believed he was flying over the Florida Keys, a group of islands located a significant distance from the planned route. The instructor told him to turn the flight so that the sun was on their port, or left, wing. This would put them heading in a northernly direction. If Taylor was in the easternmost Keys, then flying to the north would cause the flight to find the coastline of Florida in a short period of time.
As the hours ticked by, the weather in the area began to worsen. At 5:16PM, more than three hours after takeoff, an argument was heard between Taylor and one of the trainees. The student was insisting that they turn due west. After the dispute, Taylor ordered a turn to 270 degrees, or due west, saying, "We'll fly 270 degrees west until landfall or running out of gas." No matter where the flight was at this point, this was the right decision to take. If Taylor was in the Florida Keys, flying to the west would eventually place the flight on the Texas-Mexico side of the Gulf of Mexico. If flying in the Atlantic off the east coast of Florida, then flying west would take the pilots back to the Florida coast. Either way, they would end up over land as long as their fuel didn't run out first.
At 6:04PM, another communication between Taylor and his flight was heard: "Holding 270, we didn't fly far enough east, we may as well just turn around and fly east again." There was no order in the transmission, just a suggestion. 15 minutes later, another message was received: "All planes close up tight...we'll have to ditch unless landfall...when the first plane drops below 10 gallons, we all go down together." That was the last anyone ever heard from Flight 19.
Four hours had passed since the flight took off from Fort Lauderdale; in that time, several land-based stations had triangulated the flight's position as being far off the east coast of central Florida. However, weather and interference from Cuban radio stations kept this information from being successfully transmitted to the pilots. The planes had taken off with five hours' worth of fuel onboard---by 7:10PM, it was unlikely than any of the Avengers were still in the air.
At 7:37PM, a Navy PBM Mariner with a crew of 13 aboard took off to search for Flight 19. After one message, this aircraft also disappeared. A nearby oil tanker reported seeing a mid-air explosion several minutes after the Mariner left its base. The ship conducted a search of the area and found only burning wreckage. A court of inquiry later determined that the Mariner, which had a reputation for leaking fuel, most likely exploded early in its mission with the loss of the entire crew. The same court also concluded that the Flight 19 Avengers most likely became lost and crash-landed in the Atlantic when they ran out of fuel. The Avenger was not an ideal aircraft in which to make a water landing; it was heavy and tended to sink quickly. If the pilot trainees and their crews did not act quickly after ditching, their chances of survival were slim.
The days that followed the disappearance of Flight 19 saw the one of the largest ocean searches in history. No trace of the five Avengers was found. As days turned to months and then years, speculation as to the fate of the flight turned from the realm of the possible to the realm of the bizarre. Most people who have investigated the incident have done so under the assumption that Lt. Taylor was an experienced combat veteran who had successfully navigated vast stretches of the Pacific Ocean with no problem. This is simply not true. The truth of Taylor's performance as a pilot was kept from the public in 1945 out of respect to his family. While it is not fair to impugn the abilities of a man who served his nation in combat, it is an undeniable fact that Taylor ditched three aircraft during the war; two of those times, he did so because he was lost. During his communications with both the trainee pilots and his air station on December 5, 1945, Taylor showed signs of indecisiveness and panic. Whether or not this contributed to the loss of the flight will never be known.
Searches for the remains of Flight 19 have, thus far, turned up nothing. In 1981, the wreck of five Avengers was discovered off the coast of Florida. The engine serial numbers on the planes revealed that instead of one flight of aircraft, they had crashed at different times, albeit within two miles of each other. In 1986, another Avenger was found during the search for debris from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The wreck was raised several years later, but the aircraft could not be positively identified.