Date: December 5th, 1945
Location: Naval Air Station at Fort Lauderdale, FL
The tale of Flight 19 started on December 5th, 1945. Five Avenger torpedo bombers lifted into the air from the Naval Air Station at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at 2:10 p.m. It was a routine practice mission and the flight was composed of all students except for the Commander, a Lt. Charles Taylor.
The mission called for Taylor and his group of 13 men to fly due east 56 miles to Hens and Chicken Shoals to conduct practice bombing runs. When they had completed that objective, the flight plan called for them to fly an additional 67 miles east, and then turn north for 73 miles and finally straight back to base, a distance of 120 miles. This course would take them on a triangular path over the sea.
About 90 minutes after the flight had left, Lt. Robert Cox at the base picked up a radio transmission from Taylor. He indicated that his compasses were not working, but he believed himself to be somewhere over the Florida Keys, a long chain of islands south of the Florida mainland. Cox urged him to fly north toward Miami, if Taylor was sure the flight was over the Keys. Planes today have a number of ways that they can check their current position including listening to a set of GPSs in orbit around the earth. It is almost impossible for a pilot to get lost if he has the right equipment and uses it properly. In 1945, though, planes flying over water had to depend on knowing their starting point, how long and fast they had flown, and in what direction. If a pilot made a mistake with any of these figures, he was lost. Over the ocean there were no landmarks to set him right.
Apparently Taylor had become confused at some point in the flight. He was an experienced pilot, but hadn't spent a lot of time flying east toward the Bahamas which was where he was going on that day. For some reason Taylor apparently thought the flight had started out in the wrong direction and had headed south toward the Keys, instead of east. This thought was to color his decisions throughout the rest of the flight with deadly results.
The more Taylor took his flight north to try to get out of the Keys, the further out to sea the Avengers actually traveled. As time went on, snatches of transmissions were picked up on the mainland indicating the other Flight 19 pilots were trying to get Taylor to change course
If we would just fly west, we would get home.
By 4:45 p.m. it was obvious to the people on the ground that Taylor was hopelessly lost. He was urged to turn control of the flight over to one of his students, but apparently he didn't. As it grew dark, communications deteriorated. From the few words that did get through it was apparent Taylor was still flying north and east, the wrong direction. At 5:50 p.m. the ComGulf Sea Frontier Evaluation Center managed get a fix on Flight 19s weakening signals. It was apparently east of New Smyrna Beach, Florida. By then communications were so poor that this information could not be passed to the lost planes. At 6:20 p.m. a Dumbo flying boat was dispatched to try and find Flight 19 and guide it back. Within the hour 2 more planes, Martin Mariners, joined the search. Hope was rapidly fading for Flight 19 by then. The weather was getting rough and the Avengers were very low on fuel. Two Martin Mariners were supposed to rendezvous at the search zone. The 2nd, designated Training 49, never showed up, joining the 5 Avengers as missing. The last transmission from Flight 19 was heard at 7:04 p.m. Planes searched the area through the night and the next day. There was no sign of the Avengers. Nor did the authorities really expect to find much. The Avengers, crashing when their fuel was exhausted, would have been sent to the bottom in seconds by the 50' waves of the storm. As one of Taylors colleagues noted:
They didn't call those planes Iron Birds for nothing. They weighed 14,000 pounds empty. So when they ditched, they went down pretty fast.
What happened to the missing Martin Mariner? Well, the crew of the SS Gaines Mill observed an explosion over the water shortly after the Mariner had taken off. They headed toward the site and there they saw what looked like oil and airplane debris floating on the surface. None of it was recovered because of the bad weather, but there seems little doubt this was the remains of the Mariner. The plane had a reputation as being a flying bomb, which would burst into flame from even a single, small spark. Speculation is that one of 22 men on board, unaware that the unpressurized cabin contained gas fumes, lit a cigarette, causing the explosion.
So how did this tragedy turn into a Bermuda Triangle mystery? The Navys original investigation concluded the accident had been caused by Taylors navigational confusion. According to those that knew him he was a good pilot, but often navigated flying by the seat of his pants, and had gotten lost in the past. Taylors mother refused to accept that and finally got the Navy to change the report to read that the disaster was for causes or reasons unknown. This may have spared the womans feelings, but blurred the actual facts. The saga of Flight 19 is probably the most repeated story about the Bermuda Triangle. Vincent Gaddis put the tale into the same Argosy magazine article where he coined the term Bermuda Triangle in 1964 and the two have been connected ever since. The planes and their pilots even found their way into the science fiction film classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Where is Flight 19 now? Well, in 1991 five Avengers were found in 750' of water off the coast of Florida by the salvage ship Deep Sea. Examination of the planes ID numbers, however, showed that they were not from Flight 19, as many as 139 Avengers were thought to have gone into the water off the coast of Florida during the war. It seems the final resting place of the lost squadron and their crews is still a real Bermuda Triangle mystery.