What happened to Flight 19?
True life Second World War mystery from the Bermuda Triangle.
The now famous phrase ‘the Bermuda Triangle’ hadn’t been coined on that day in December 1946 when, just before three o’clock in the afternoon, five planes took off on a routine training flight from Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station.
The aircraft, and their young occupants, were never seen again.
This is a truly fascinating story. Nevertheless, it’s a fact that the reality has been twisted and distorted over the years. The Bermuda Triangle and its mysteries make good copy for books and magazines; sometimes with little regard for the truth.
How did Flight 19 disappear?
Over the year there have been many theories and often, these have been that the five aircraft simply vanished into thin air because of the mysterious malevolence of the Bermuda Triangle.
Other factors that have been blamed are curious sea monsters, alien abduction or mysterious, unknown time warps. As far as some journalists are concerned, no theory is too bizarre.
But nevertheless, how could five Avenger bombers and their crews simply vanish with absolutely no trace? When planes ditched into the ocean,there were usually bodies, abandoned liferafts or aircraft debris. But thirteen men vanished completely.
Even stranger, a further aircraft sent up to search for them was also lost with no trace. The man who was initially blamed for this was Charles Carroll Taylor, the young pilot in charge of the training flight.
Who was Charles Taylor?
It depends largely on the accounts you read.Some portray him as an excellent and experienced pilot. Others show him to be hysterical, nervous and a drinker. The transcript of the radio transmissions point to the former.
However if you read books that concentrate on the mystery angle of the disappearance, he is shown in a very different light.
Tylor knew, when the radio transmissions were made,that he and the other four aircraft were in trouble but he remained calm and practical. THere was no need to hysterics. Planes ditched into the sea regularly – it was quite common in those days.
During the war, Taylor had primarily flown planes that were based on aircraft carriers. This was remarkably tricky and dangerous. Accounts from those he served with prove that he was a brave airman- he was not the type to panic. The men he was training on the day of the disappearance were not new pilots – they too were experienced and the training was an advanced course.
The proposed flight was not a difficult one. The five planes were required to leave Fort Lauderdale, fly east (and a little to the south) to one of the islands of the Bahamas. From there, the course was to take them seventy miles to the north, then they were to fly west to return to the Fort Lauderdale base.
The planes would fly in formation and as part of the training, each would take its turn to lead. Taylor, the man in charge, was to bring up the rear,observing.
So what went wrong?
There seemed to be signs of trouble quite soon into the flight. There was another training flight taking place too, led by Lieutenant Robert Cox, near to Fort Lauderdale. Cox reported later that he heard Flight 19’s pilots discussing their whereabouts – they couldn’t agree.
Taylor was reporting that his compass wasn’t working. This was the normal way of air navigation at that time.
This later triggered speculation that strange magnetic forces were at work in the area but compass malfunction wasn’t unusual. And in those days, pilots were trained to use visual landmarks for navigation. But the crew of Flight 19 couldn’t agree. They weren’t sure whether they were over the Bahamas or, as Taylor believed, the Florida Keys.
The disappearance of the search party
The plane you see here is the same as the one that went to search for the lost five aircraft in 1946. As you can see, it is a seaplane but they were often regarding as dangerous, being referred to as the ‘flying gas tank’. On the day before its search mission,it had had a bad landing but wasn’t considered damaged enough to be grounded. Thirteen men were aboard.
Those who had been monitoring Flight 19 from the ground believed that the training flight had been over the Bahamas when they declared themselves lost. But they also reckoned that the pilots had thought themselves to be over the Keys – so had proceeded north. Therefore, they directed the search plane in that direction too,towards Banana River. The aircraft and its crew were also never seen again.
Many people pass through Fort Lauderdale Airport every day. If you have been, then the chances are that you’ve walked in the footsteps of the missing airmen- today’s airport is in the exact same location as the wartime Naval Air Station. When Flight 19 took off and disappeared,it was 1946 and the war was over,of course, but the government still wanted trained pilots. so the air station remained in use.
But during the war,discipline had been more rigid and the air station was manned entirely by uniformed staff. By December 1946, many of them had returned to civilian life and the staff at the air station was now diminished. This helps to explain to some extent why the rescue mission- and Flight 19 itself – had problems.
They should have left Fort Lauderdale, flown east to the Bahamian Islands, then to the north. At that time, they should have tuned by roughly ninety degrees so that they were heading back to the Fort Lauderdale base. At the bottom of the map,you see the Florida Keys. You can see how the eastern islands of the Bahamas would resemble those of the Keys from the air.
Points to consider
- As people investigated the disappearance of Flight 9 over the years, some tried – unsuccessfully – to demonstrate that Charles Taylor was drunk or hungover when he set off for the training flight. But official interviews proved that this wasn’t the case. The people who saw him and spoke to him just before the flight say that they saw no signs of this whatsoever and that it would have been completely out of character
- Taylor had a roommate at the base who said that just before he left for the fatal flight, he had received a letter that appeared to shake him. Asked if he was OK, Taylor replied that he was fine and put the letter into his pocket. This implies that Taylor was upset about something that he had read in the letter. Yet he had been a valiant pilot throughout the war who had seen and experienced many upsetting things. What was in this alleged letter?
- It is true that he arrived at the air base a little late and the flight was delayed because of this. This helped to fan the flames of the rumours that he was hungover, drunk,distressed or ill. However, I think that we have all been late without being in any of those four conditions
- Taylor evidently told the commanding officer that he didn’t want to fly that day. This adds to the theory that something wasn’t right but of course, some writers have seen that as a ‘premonition’. When Taylor was informed that no other flight trainer was available he was not distressed and agreed to fly. It must be stressed that a pilot was never made to fly against his will. Had he really and determinedly not wanted to fly, he would have not done so. If, as some writers say, he had a strong premonition that something would go wrong, he would have no doubt concocted some story to prevent his men going into danger
- Where were Flight 19 when they were lost? It’s likely that we’ll never be sure. Another problem they encountered was that, this being December, the light was failing by the time they realised they were in trouble. Avengers never flew with maps – they relied on compassesand visuallandmarks, which they could nolonger see in the failing light. They were also flying in close formation – this alone required a great deal of concentration and by now,they were running out of fuel
- The rescue aircraft took off at 7.20pm. The crew of Flight 19 had last been heard just after seven o’clock and those on the ground knew that they were now dangerously low on fuel. The rescue plane had been airborne for about half an hour when the crew of a ship reported seeing a fireball in the sky. The ship hurried to the site but found nothing but an oil slick
- Charles Taylor told his men that when their fuel situation became dangerous, they would all ditch into the ocean. Taylor had done this several times when he was flying from aircraft carriers during the war – many pilots had. It was a relatively safe procedure, especially if they went down together. They would be able to stick together and help each other
- The procedure for ditching is to land the aircraft parallel to the surface of the water so that it floats temporarily. The crew then exit onto the wings and launch the inflatable lifeboats. These were stored in exterior compartments near the wings. This was such a common procedure that it was said that Avenger crews could do this without getting their feet wet. It had to be done quickly, as the aircraft would sink quite soon. So many aircrew had done this successfully before
- Calm waters were ideal however and on December 5th 1946, these conditions did not apply. The inflatables were attached to the body of the aircraft by lines. this stopped them being blown away during the inflation period. Once the crews were aboard the lines were cut, otherwise the liferafts would be dragged down by the sinking aircraft. So would any men in the water or still on the wings. If this were the case, especially if men were unconscious or injured, they would be pulled under and ‘disappear without a trace’. Sothe fact that the thirteen men of Flight 19 did so is hardly surprising under those conditions, yet is seen by sensationalists as evidence of a mysterious power, a hungry sea monster or an alien abduction.
- It is not true that the plane disappeared because of ‘unknown circumstances’ – although this is often quoted by the misinformed. The official investigation first suggested that Charles Taylor,as the leader,was responsible. It was thought that his judgement had been faulty. The families of the lost airmen would not accept this theory,Charles Taylor’s mother particularly. Because she was a determined ‘society’ lady, another investigation was called. Largely to meet with Mrs Taylor’s approval, a further verdict of ‘unknown causes’ was give. This has led journalists to believe that the tribunals believed in supernatural forces, which was most certainly not the case
Scroll down to see a video from the BBC.
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