Flight 19 was comprised of five military Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bombers, a plane that had been instrumental in bringing down Japanese warships in the Atlantic Ocean. The planes had a range of 1,000 miles and each was crewed by three men except for one plane which only carried two. All of the trainees involved had each completed around 300 hours in the sky.
On 5 December 1945, the flight set off from the US naval base in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for a routine navigational training mission to include a few bombing practice runs over ‘Hen and Chickens Shoals’, and was the 19th of such flights that day (hence ‘Flight 19’). The planes were equipped with enough fuel to fly for 4 hours and were expected to return to the base before sunset.
However, all five planes disappeared without a trace, in a case that captivated the public and baffled experts for decades – often cited as one of the earliest examples of the legend of the Bermuda Triangle. What might have happened?
What went wrong
After just 30 minutes, its leader, 28-year-old Lieutenant Charles C. Taylor (an experienced pilot having carried out more than 2,000 flight hours, over 600 of them in Avengers) reported that his compass was not functioning properly, convincing him that they’d been travelling in entirely the wrong direction.
The weather was increasingly turbulent, and records show one of the pilots stated:
I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.
Instead of flying West towards the mainland, Lt. Taylor became disoriented and ordered Flight 19 to travel further out to sea, in a northeasterly direction. Having been airborne for 4 hours and with fuel running dangerously low, Lt. Taylor could then be heard stating: “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.”
Despite the best efforts of the control tower to provide guidance, Taylor and his planes continued to fly in the wrong direction. Radio transmissions slowly fell silent, and Flight 19 eventually disappeared from radar.
Their disappearance launched one of the largest air and sea searches in history. (Two PBM Mariner flying boats were sent out and one of these also disappeared, believed to have exploded shortly after take off.)
Despite the Navy searching more than 300,000 square miles of water, no trace of Flight 19 was ever found. The causes or reasons for its disappearance were recorded as ‘unknown’, beginning the legend of the Bermuda Triangle.
The Bermuda Triangle is a western area of the North Atlantic Ocean that extends from Florida to Bermuda to Puerto Rico. Over the last 200 years, around 20 aircraft and 50 ships have vanished without a trace within it.
Unusual compass readings in the area had been reported for centuries are such a common phenomenon that some believe mysterious forces are at work. In 1492, Christopher Columbus described bizarre compass readings in the area on his way to the New World, and in 1928 the compass aboard the Spirit of St Louis plane span uncontrollably when Charles Lindbergh attempted to fly from Cuba to Florida.
In 1952, Fate magazine published an article by George Sand called ‘Sea Mystery at Our Back Door’ which first laid out the triangular area, yet the region didn’t get its name until August 1964, when Vincent Gaddis coined the term ‘Bermuda Triangle’ in a magazine article for Argosy magazine about the disappearance of Flight 19.
Despite numerous ships and aircraft disappearing in the region, there is no scientific evidence that proves the existence of any supernatural or extraterrestrial activity – instead such incidents are more likely due to human error, piracy, or natural phenomena including storms and rogue waves.
The region is one of only two places on Earth where true north and magnetic north line up, which could make compass readings unpredictable. It is also home to some of the deepest underwater trenches in the world – thus any wreckage could settle miles below the surface. (Most of its sea floor is about 5,791 metres deep, though in places the Puerto Rico Trench dips to 8,229 metres below sea level.)
The Gulf Stream travels along the western edge, acting like a 40-50-mile-wide river circulating within the North Atlantic Ocean, with the warm water and 2-4 knot currents sometimes creating weather patterns channelled within that. Unpredictable Caribbean-Atlantic storms can also create dangerous waterspouts, and strong currents over the reefs can prove hazardous.
The US government has stated that the Bermuda Triangle is not a recognised shipping or flight danger zone, and that it does not keep official statistics on the incidents that have occurred in the region.
To this day there is no explanation of what happened to Flight 19, and a popular theory is that it became disoriented and was lost in the Bermuda Triangle’s supernatural element.
An equally wild theory is that the planes were abducted by aliens, with some believing that extraterrestrial beings are responsible for the disappearance of many ships and planes in the Bermuda Triangle. Witnesses claimed that Lt. Taylor arrived to Flight 19’s pre-exercise briefing late and had requested to be excused from leading the mission due to a bad feeling. Was this a premonition?
Others attribute the disappearance to enormous sea monsters, giant squids or ocean ‘flatulence’ – the ocean spewing out great quantities of trapped methane.
A more plausible theory is that the planes experienced mechanical failure or equipment malfunction that caused them to crash, however no debris was ever found despite extensive Naval searches of the area. Some think that a fog bank disrupted the planes instruments and navigation systems, yet there was no mention of fog in any of the flight transcripts.
Global Positioning System (GPS) technology was not yet commonplace in 1945, so pilots flying over water had to rely on compasses and knowing how long they’d been flying in a particular direction, and at what speed. Both of the compasses on Taylor’s plane were apparently malfunctioning, and transcripts of his in-flight communications suggest he wasn’t wearing a watch, with no landmarks for reference in the middle of the ocean. Yet what are the chances of two compasses malfunctioning at the same time?
The planes may simply have run out of petrol, alternatively, Mother Nature, human error, bad craftsmanship or just plain bad luck could have played a role. Furthermore, Lt. Taylor, although an experienced pilot, had a history of getting lost (three times during World War Two, two of which he ditched in the sea for rescue). He didn’t know the area around Florida well, and did not hand over control to one of the trainee pilots when instructed to do so, despite clearly being hopelessly lost. One trainee was heard on a transmission saying:
Dammit. If we would just fly west, we would get home.
He was right, but Taylor stubbornly refused to comply. However, a Navy board of investigation argued that while Taylor might have confused the Bahamas for the Florida Keys, it could find no clear explanation for why Flight 19 had become quite so disoriented.
Questions also arise over Lt. Taylor’s fitness for for duty, however, why did none of the members of Flight 19 make use of the rescue radio frequency or their planes’ ZBX receivers, which could have helped lead them toward Navy radio towers on land? The pilots were told to switch the devices on, but they either didn’t hear or acknowledge the message.
The Avenger was a rugged plane – if Flight 19 did indeed follow Taylor’s idea of ditching at sea if the first plane’s fuel level dipped below 10 gallons, they would have gone down hard, with the wreckage descending quickly to the bottom of the sea. The possibility of surviving the landing was slim, as were any chances of surviving in cold waters.
A report by Navy investigators concluded that flight leader Lt. Taylor mistook small islands offshore for the Florida Keys after his compasses stopped working, resulting in the flight heading over open sea away from land. The report was later amended to read ’cause unknown’ to avoid blaming Taylor for the loss of 5 aircraft and 14 men.
Presumably, the planes eventually ran out of fuel and ditched in the ocean, leaving any survivors at the mercy of rough seas and deep water. Nevertheless, Flight 19 remains one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history.