- Education and Science
What Happened to Flight 19?
A true life Second World War mystery
It was December 5th, 1945. At Fort Lauderdale's Naval air station, at just before three in the afternoon, five planes carrying fourteen crew took off on a routine training exercise. Their route took them through what later became known as the Bermuda Triangle. The men, and the airplanes, were never seen again.
This story has fascinated me since I moved to Fort Lauderdale over twenty years ago.But what I have only just realised is that the events have been embellished and distorted over the years. Desperate to create the spooky Bermuda Triangle, writers and journalists have adjusted the facts to suit their own ends - largely newspaper sales.But let's look at the facts - and the fantasy.
Why did Flight 19 disappear?
There are plenty of stories and mostly it's the nebulous Bermuda Triangle that's firmly to blame. Others believe that the aircraft and crew were abducted by aliens.Time warps have been blamed. Yep. The more bizarre the better as far as some writers are concerned.
But the fact remains that the five Avenger bombers and the men did disappear leaving no traces - no wreckage, no liferafts, no sign at all. It's also true that a rescue airplane, sent to look for them, also was never seen again. Neither were any of the thirteen men aboard it.And all these deaths - if indeed that's what they were - were blamed on the young man who was in charge of the training flight, Charles Taylor.
As I write,I have two books in front of me. (See below). One is a meticulously researched account of Flight 19 which includes a transcript of the actual radio transmissions from the aircraft when they realised they were in trouble.
The other is a compendium of American mysteries, which naturally includes the mystery of Flight 19.The latter describes how Charles Taylor hysterically radioed back to base at Fort Lauderdale giving the impression that 'everything was wrong' and 'nothing is as it should be' - suggesting a supernatural force at work.
But the first book - the one with the transcript - shows that Taylor was calm throughout the radio transmissions and that there was no sense of hysteria or panic, despite their obvious problem.
The Bahamas and the flight
Taylor was an experienced pilot. During the war he had served precariously flying from aircraft carriers. He was experienced and, as all accounts agree, a brave flyer.The trainees were not beginners either. They were experienced pilots who were taking extended training specifically for aircraft carrier work.
The training flight was simple. From Fort Lauderdale they were to fly east (and slightly south) to one of the Bahamian Islands. Then the route took them about seventy miles north,then turn west and back to the airfield; a triangular route.Flying in formation, each trainee plane would take its turn as leader of the 'v' shaped formation with the instructor, Taylor, observing from the rear.
What went wrong?
Flight 19 had only been in the air for just over an hour when another senior instructor, Lieutenant Robert Cox, overheard Flight 19's radio transmissions. Cox was flying close to Fort Lauderdale with trainees when he heard Taylor and the other pilots discussing their position. They were unsure where they were.To make matters worse, Taylor was reporting that his compass - virtually his only form of navigation - wasn't working.
Remember, we're talking about a long time ago with primitive equipment. Pilots relied lot on visual landmarks. Were they over the Bahamas s they intended? Or had winds blown them off course so they were actually looking down at the Florida Keys? Taylor thought the latter.
The second disappearance
This is the same type of plane that was sent up on the rescue mission. It's a seaplane and they were often referred to as the 'flying gas tank'.The previous day it had suffered a bad landing but was considered fit to fly. There were thirteen men on board.
Ground controllers now believed that Flight 19 had been over the Bahamas all along. They decided that the pilots, believing that they were in the Keys, had flown north away from Fort Lauderdale. This rescue aircraft was sent from Banana River, much further in the north. The plane and its crew were never seen again.
If you've ever been to Fort Lauderdale / Hollywood Airport then you have walked in the footsteps of the lost airmen. Today's airport is at the exact same location.By December 1945, the air station was still in use for training purposes. Although the Second World War had ended, it was deemed correct to keep the navy and the naval planes in readiness.
However, the strict discipline of wartime was relaxed and as many staff had now left the forces, the airbase was run with a skeleton staff.This goes some way towards explaining why the accident happened in the first place and why the rescue mission was unsuccessful.
The black triangle represents the route the Avenger Flight 19 pilots should have taken. As you can see, this takes from Fort Lauderdale (the lower side of the triangle) then almost directly east over the Bahamian Islands, then north continuing over the islands.
At this point, they should turn by almost ninety degrees and return to the air base.Curling around the bottom of Florida, from the right hand side, you can see the islands of the Florida Keys.Look a little further east, beyond the route triangle and there's an example of how the Bahamian Islands are similar to the Keys. Especially from the air.
Points to consider
- Over the years it has been suggested that Taylor was drunk or extremely hungover when Flight 19 left Fort Lauderdale. The author of the book below interviewed many people at great length who were present just before the flight took off and they say that a) there was absolutely no evidence to suggest this and b) this would have been completely out of character. But later 'Bermuda Triangle' writers say that this accounted for his disorientation and supposed 'hysteria'.
- Just before Taylor left home to go to the air station, a roommate tells that he (Taylor) had received a letter which seemed to distress him. Asked if he was OK, Taylor said he was and put the letter into his jacket pocket. Of course, the letter was with him aboard the aircraft so we'll never know its contents.
- It is a fact that Taylor arrived late at the air station and hence the training flight was delayed for a short while. Those who apportion the blame in his direction says that this points to him being drunk or ill. However, it's more likely that it was the receipt of the letter mentioned above that had delayed him.
- It is also true that Taylor had told the commanding officer that he didn't want to fly that day. This also adds to the drinking theory or, in the hands of some journalists, a premonition of doom. However, Taylor was told that there was no other instructor available. This gives the impression that he was flying very much against his will but that isn't the case. If a pilot was determined not to fly, he could not be forced to do so. Taylor accepted the decision so didn't feel terribly strongly about it. If he had genuinely had premonition of doom, he would have found a way to cancel the entire flight for the safety of the other men- he was not a man to simply think of his own skin.
- So where were Flight 19? It's a mind-boggling problem. If they were over the Keys then they should fly east to be on the Atlantic coast again and north to Fort Lauderdale. But if they were in the Bahamas, flying east would take them further away from base. If they flew west, believing that they were in the Bahamas but were really in the Keys, then they would fly even further away over the Gulf of Mexico on the west side of the peninsula. Mind-boggling.
- But there wasn't just this problem to consider. It was now getting dark (remember this was December). Other than islands, they could see no landmarks. (Avenger bombers never flew with maps). They were also getting close to running out of fuel. Remember too that they were also flying in close formation which in itself requires an immense amount of concentration from the pilots.
- The rescue aircraft, which disappeared without trace, took off at just after 7.20 that evening. It was estimated that the airplanes of Flight 19 were now critically low on fuel. They had last been heard on the radio some fifteen minutes before. When the rescue plane had been in the air for about thirty minutes, a ship reported seeing a huge explosion in the sky. The ship rushed to the site and although they found an oil slick, they found no wreckage on no survivors.
- Charles Taylor was heard to tell his men,that when the first plane found that its fuel level was critical, they would all ditch their aircraft into the ocean together. This is not suicidal as it may seem. Taylor himself had ditched planes in the ocean several times when flying from aircraft carriers..Other pilots had also done so safely countless times. Also, by ditching their planes at the same time, the men would have the opportunity to help each other. This was far better than a solo plane running out of fuel and ditching solo.
- When ditching, it was essential to land the aircraft parallel to the ocean.The crew would then exit the plane, climb onto the wing and take the inflatable life raft from it's compartment situated on the exterior body of the plane. This would then inflate and it was said that with Avenger bombers, this could be done by the crew without them even getting their feet wet.
- However, this had to be done quickly. Those who had experienced ditching Avengers said that the nose of the plane would start pointing downwards within ten or so seconds. Then, after about forty seconds, the plane would nose dive under the water. But, they said, there was plenty of time, as proved by all the men who had lived to tell the tale.
- However, this assumed calm seas and the ocean was now far from calm.The life rafts were attached with rope to the aircraft to avoid them blowing away during inflation. Once the men were aboard the raft, the cord needed to be cut. If not, the raft would go down with the plane. Anyone in the water,or still on the wing, would be sucked down too.Of course, if the crew were disoriented by the impact, or knocked unconscious,the liferaft was of no use. The fact that the planes and crew disappeared 'without trace' is often cited as demonstrating the 'supernatural powers' of the Bermuda Triangle. But in this scenario, 'without trace' is more than likely, it's almost a given.
- Bermuda Triangle exponents also point to the 'fact' that the naval investigation into Flight 19's disappearance was attributed to unknown circumstances'. This is not strictly true. At first, the investigation laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of Charles Taylor. He, they said, was in command of the training flight. He was the most experienced pilot. He had, the report concluded, had faulty judgement. They accepted that, believing he was in the Keys, he directed the aircraft north and away from Fort Lauderdale with the result that they travelled parallel to the Florida coast, but without being close enough to see it, until they ran out of fuel and had to ditch.
- Taylor's mother and aunt would believe this. The families of other lost crewmen wouldn't believe it either. After much investigation, a new investigative group met to hear the proposals put forward by Mrs Taylor's attorney. Much of this information was related to the ineptitude of the search and rescue mission - and much of it was erroneous. As this wasn't a court, the controllers and officials responsible for the search weren't there to defend themselves. Largely to appease Mrs Taylor, who was a 'society lady' and thoroughly determined, the board ruled that the reasons for the disappearance were unknown.
The author of the fine book I mentioned above is also the author of this one.Here, he takes the legend of the Bermuda Triangle as a whole, and not just Flight 19, and makes sense about the mysteries that the public have been talking about for many years.
See more details from the BBC
The Bermuda Triangle is a rather addictive subject. I have read the books featured on this page plus many more.I'm sure that you'll find the subject as fascinating as I do.