Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Flight 19: The Lost Squadron - Part One

The General Location of the Infamous Bermuda Triangle
Many authors on the subject of the Bermuda Triangle are of the opinion that the modern day fascination with the Triangle's mystery stems from what happened to Flight 19.  On 5th December, 1945, Bermuda Triangle writers tell us that five aircraft, flying together in formation with a combined crew of thirteen, simply disappeared.  They also like to include one of the rescue aircraft in this mystery, which would mean six aircraft, along with forty-one crew members, vanished into thin air.  The 'disappearance' of these aircraft sparked one of the largest air and sea rescues ever seen in history, with the actual event seeming so extraordinary that public interest grew, encouraging a journalistic review of both earlier and later disappearances.  This review was to establish not only the reputation of the Bermuda Triangle, but also its name.  However, as is often the case, the popularised myth of Flight 19 as it is often told lacks one important ingredient - facts.  The disappearance of the five TBM Avengers has become so distorted and embellished that it is sometimes difficult to tell the facts from the fiction.

What Was Flight 19?

Flight 19 was the nineteenth flight in a roster for take off from the Naval Air Station, Fort Lauderdale
in Florida.  Fort Lauderdale, around 20 miles north of Miami, serves as base for prospective naval pilots to undergo advanced navigational training before they are assigned duties on carriers at sea.

The planned flight path of Flight 19
The tale of Flight 19 tells us that the prospective pilots were executing a basic training exercise,
which, ironically, was based on a triangular flight plan.  Charles Berlitz tells us that the five planes were 'on a routine training mission... both pilots and crew were experienced airmen.'  The exercise started at about 2:10pm, starting at Fort Lauderdale, and was scheduled to go on for around 2 hours and 15 minutes, taking them no further from base than 123 miles east over the Bahamas.  At 140mph, it should be less that an hours distance to reach base as the crow flies.  This meant, in case of an emergency, it wouldn't take them too long to return.  Flight 19 was assigned what the Navy's Inquiry Report calls Problem No. 1, during which they were to fly 091° (east) for 56 miles to Chicken and Hen Shoals in order to conduct low level bombing.  They were to continue on 091° for 67 miles.  The next leg was on a course of 346° (north) for 73 miles and then to fly 241° (west-southwest) for 120 miles to bring them back to Fort Lauderdale.  The three corners of this triangle were marked by nearby land.  The weather was fair to average and Berlitz says that 'pilots who had flown earlier the same day reported ideal flying conditions.'

The Aircraft

The planes to be used during the flight exercise were General Motors Avenger torpedo bombers.  In World War II the TBM Avenger earned a reputation as the most deadly torpedo bomber ever built.  Avengers had two designations which depended on who made them.  Those constructed by Grumman Aircraft Corporation were called TBF's, and those made by General Motors were called TBM's.  The Avengers lived up to their name while operating from both land bases and aircraft carriers, beginning service in the spring of 1942 and being responsible for the sinking of the Japanese battleship 'Yamato', her escort of four destroyers and the cruiser 'Yahagi'.  The Avenger had a wingspan of 54 feet and was equipped with a Wright Cyclone B-2600 engine which developed 1,600 horsepower.  This gave the plane a top speed of close to 300 miles an hour for 1,000 miles.  They carried one standard torpedo or a 2,000 pound bomb.  They were also equipped with a 50-calibre machine gun beneath the forward cowl, with another in a power-operated ball.

Five Avengers in Flight
According to later testimony, all planes were carefully pre flighted and held full tanks of fuel, offering the squadron a range of over 1,000 miles.  All equipment, engines, and instruments were said to be in perfect working order.  Each TBM Avenger was equipped with extensive radio instruments, including ten communication channels and homing device which showed the heading the squadron would need to take in order to return to base.  Every plane also included a self-inflating life raft and each crew member had access to a Mae West life jacket.

The Pilots and Their Crew

The flight leader was a veteran of combat in the South Pacific named Lieutenant Charles Taylor, who was to fly FT-28.  He had been flying since 1941.  He was, according the the Inquiry Report, 'the authorised and assigned instructor in charge of Flight 19.'  The other pilots were all said to be accomplished servicemen that had switched to the Naval Air Force, with 350 or more hours of flight experience.  One 1942 Naval Academy graduate of Annapolis, Marine Captain George Stivers Jr, who was to pilot FT-117, was particularly respected for having been cited three times for bravery in the South Pacific.  Marine Captain Edward J. Powers Jr, a marine since 1941 and a graduate of Princeton, was an able officer who had been assigned as a training instructor at Quantico, Virginia during the war and was assigned to FT-36.  Marine Second Lieutenant Jimmy Gerber, who was to pilot FT-81, had joined the marines  after Pearl Harbour, working his way up to officer and pilot.  Ensign Joseph Bossi had been a pilot for only two years, declining discharge to give him the opportunity to continue flying planes like the Avenger, and was to fly FT-3. 

The Squadron of Flight 19
Stivers, Powers, Gerber and Bossi were naval aviators who were undergoing instruction in 'VTB Type Advanced Training,' with eight out of the nine crew members undergoing 'Advanced Combat Aircrew Training in VTB type aircraft'.  For these four pilots, who had already completed two similar exercises in the area, the Flight 19 exercise was to be their final hop.

In addition to the pilots, each Avenger was to carry two crew, a gunner, and a radio man, who were receiving advanced training with their pilot.  The only aircraft carrying an all-veteran crew, who were also experienced marines and navy men, was Taylor's.  When the flight began that day they were short by one man - the radio man for Gerber's plane, who had failed to arrive, leaving FT-81 with only the pilot Gerber and his gunner, Billy Longfoot.

The Myth

The popularised myth tells us that the flight looked to be routine, perhaps even dull.  They completed the scheduled bombing practise at Chicken and Hen Shoals before heading further east and then northwest.  At 3:50pm, when the flight should be requesting landing instructions, Taylor told Powers that his compasses appeared to be malfunctioning.  The pilots compared their compass headings but this did little more than cause disagreement and further confusion.  Two of the five were certain that they should head west, but the rest simply could not agree.

Taylor contacted the control tower, saying, 'Calling tower.  This is an emergency.  We seem to be off course.  We cannot see land... repeat... we cannot see land.'  The tower is said to have requested their current position, with Taylor replying that he was unsure of their position.  'We cannot be sure just where we are.  We seem to be lost.'  Lauderdale suggested they take a heading of due west, but Taylor, according to the myth, is said to have responded, 'We don't know which way is west.  Everything is wrong... strange.  We can't be sure of just where we are.  We are not sure of any direction.  Even the ocean doesn't look as it should.'

When Robert Cox asked Taylor for his present altitude, the flight was silent for a few minutes.  Taylor is then said to have cried, 'Don't come after me!  They look like...'  This was followed by silence.  According to the tale, this transmission, heard at 4:30pm, was the last received from Taylor with the rescue mission being dispatched to the bombers' last estimated position within minutes.  One Navy officer is said to have commented that both Flight 19 and the search plane had 'vanished completely as if they had flown to Mars.'

A copy of a 6 December 1945 newspaper, relating the news.
The story raises many questions, such as: why did Taylor refuse help from Cox?; What did Taylor see when he called out, 'They look like...'?  Joan Powers, the widow of Lieutenant Powers, has been quoted as saying, 'My own theory is that the men saw something up there over the Triangle... something which so frightened Lieutenant Taylor that he did not want Cox to jeopardise his own life; something which, possibly for national security reasons, the Navy still does not want the public to know about.'

The Facts

If the mythical tale was correct, it would rank Flight 19 as the most baffling mystery in the history of aviation.  However, when looking at the official report, along with other reliable witnesses, the events of the day show the popularised tale to be almost completely inaccurate, giving an impression of cloudless skies, experienced airmen, and a flight plan that they knew well.

In actual fact, the real version of events differ greatly from those portrayed in the myth, as is obvious when looking at the Navy's later investigation into the incident, which took several months with the subsequent report being more than 400 pages long.  The first message was not actually received by the tower at Fort Lauderdale.  Instead it was Lieutenant Robert Cox, another flight instructor, who was flying near Fort Lauderdale when he overheard two pilots discussing their headings and compasses.

In his testimony during the Navy Inquiry, Cox said: 'I was flying around the field at approximately 3:40pm...  I heard some planes or boats.  One man was transmitting on 4805 (the channel used by training flights) to 'Powers'.  That is the word he used and he didn't give any recognition.  The party calling asked 'Powers' what his compass read a number of times and finally said, 'I don't know where we are.  We must have got lost after that last turn.'  During this time, at approximately 3:45pm, I called Operation Radio, Fort Lauderdale, and notified them that either a boat or some planes were lost.  They Rogered my message.'

Believing the flight was in trouble, Cox attempted to contact the flight, saying , 'This is FT-74, plane or boat called 'Powers', please identify yourself so someone can help you.'  He received no answer.  Cox's testimony goes on to say: 'Later he called and asked if anyone had any suggestions.  I called again, giving my identification as FT-74, and he answered, giving his as MT-28.'  A series of transmissions then ensued between Cox and, it is believed, Taylor.
Original Painting on exhibit 'Flight 19' by Bob Jenny

Cox: MT-28 this is FT-74.  What is your trouble?
Taylor: Both my compasses are out and I'm trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  I am over land but it's broken.  I'm sure I'm in the Keys, but I don't know how far down and I don't know how to get to Fort Lauderdale.
Cox: MT-28, this is FT-74.  Put the sun on your port wing if you're in the Keys and fly up the coast until you get to Miami, then Fort Lauderdale is 20 miles further, your first port after Miami.  The air station is directly on your left from the port.  What is your present altitude?  I will fly south and meet you.
Taylor:  I know where I am now, I'm at 2,300 feet.  Don't come after me.
Cox: MT-28, Roger, you're at 2,300 feet.  I'm coming after you anyhow.

Cox's testimony continues: 'I then received a call from Fort Lauderdale asking if it was FT-28 or MT-28, and after calling MT-28 again, I learned that it was FT-28 and relayed the message to Fort Lauderdale.'

The last two sentences of transmission are often elaborated, as in the myth where Taylor tells Cox 'Don't come after me...It looks like...', where there is actually no mention of anything looking remotely unusual in the official report.  However, while Taylor said that he knew where the flight were, he was wrong.  He didn't know and this led to increasing confusion.

Cox departed from his own squadron and flew to the Keys, where Taylor believed his flight to be.  Shortly after, he received another message from FT-28.  'Can you have Miami or someone turn on their radar gear and pick us up?  We don't seem to be getting far.  We were out on a navigation hop and on the second leg I thought they were going wrong so I took over and was flying them back to the right position, but I'm sure now that neither one of my compasses are working.'  Cox responded, 'You can't expect to get here in ten minutes.  You have a 30 to 35 knot head or cross wind.  Turn on your emergency IFF gear (to make the plane's image brighter on a radar screen), or do you have it?'  Taylor replied that it didn't and Cox suggested that Taylor should turn on his ZBX gear, but received no response.

Fort Lauderdale and Port Everglade also attempted to get Taylor to switch on his ZBX or IFF gear.  Cox's testimony goes on to say, 'I don't know whether they got an answer.  Fort Lauderdale suggested I tell FT-28 to have one of his wingmen take over the lead and I did this.  I received no direct answer, but I heard some transmission about radar or something.'

Aerial view of NASFL with a Squadron of Avengers in mid-flight celebrating the end of the war, 1945
As Cox neared the Keys, he noticed that the communications made by Flight 19 didn't seem to be improving as they should be.  Instead, they appeared to be worsening.  He called Taylor, saying, 'Your transmissions are fading.  Something is wrong.  What is your altitude?'  Taylor responded, saying that he was at 4,300 feet.  Unfortunately, at this point Cox's AC transmitter stopped working and he lost the power to send transmissions on Flight 19's radio frequency.  He attempted to contact them on all nine available channels, finally reaching Fort Lauderdale on channel 7.

Cox said: 'As his transmissions were fading he must have been going north.  I believe at the time of his first transmissions he was either over the Biminis or the Bahamas.  I was about forty miles below Fort Lauderdale and couldn't hear him any longer.'  Commander Richard Baxter, an assistant operations officer of the coast guard office, commented in his testimony: 'In my estimation [the planes] were near Walker City [40 miles north of Grand Bahama Island] when they thought they were over the Keys.'  This opinion was later shared by both Lieutenant Cox and the Board of Inquiry, and was offered as an explanation for why the flight never returned to land.  However, it does not account for the fact that Flight 19 followed this heading for more than 25 minutes before turning west which, providing the above estimate is correct, would have taken them to the east coast of Florida safely within an hour.

The Bahamas and Florida Keys are actually surprisingly similar from above, with some islands looking almost identical.  Bruce Gernon and his copilot, who recreated the flight path followed by Flight 19, noticed that the lower over the Bahamas they went, the more they seemed to resemble the Keys.  'In particular, a group of twenty islands between Grand Bahama and Little Abaco Island, known as the Cross Cays, looked like islands in the lower keys surrounding Big Pine Key.  The difference, of course, was that a series of bridges connect a string of the keys.  However, there are dozens of smaller keys that aren't connected by bridges.'

At 4:25pm Port Everglades were able to establish contact with Taylor and requested a radio check.  Taylor told them that he heard them and that they had just passed over a small island.  There was no other land in sight.

That's it for today.  I won't list the sources on this post, but will put them at the end of the subject of Flight 19.  Next time we will continue with the story of Flight 19.

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