Monday, 24 November 2014

Flight 19: The Lost Squadron - Part Three

Taylor was evidently disorientated and his situation was made more difficult due to a number of influencing factors.  His instruments were malfunctioning, or at least he believed they were.  He didn't have a clock or a watch, meaning he had little idea of how long the squadron had been in the air.  His radio channel was experiencing interference from nearby Cuban radio stations and, due to the fear of losing contact with the rest of his flight, Taylor was deterred from changing his frequency to the undisturbed emergency channel.  He took his flight first in one direction, then another and, as night fell, the weather and the sea grew rough.

At around 5:50pm, an approximate fix was obtained on Flight 19, placing them within a 100 mile radius of 29°, 15 minutes north, 79°, 80 minutes west.  The squadron were somewhere north of the Bahamas and east of New Smyma, Florida.  If Taylor could be informed of this, he would only need to head west and Flight 19 would make land.  Unfortunately, the radio signal became progressively worse and Port Everglades were unable to reach the squadron to give them this information.  From this point onwards, Flight 19's progress could no longer be charted and the rescue mission, while executed, was unable to determine the final location of the flight.

At 6:05pm radio operaters expected the flight to be confirming that the shoreline lights were in sight.  Instead, they overheard flight transmissions indicating that there was no land in sight and Taylor was becoming increasingly worried.  He insisted that the flight must be in the Gulf of Mexico and that their westerly heading, which had been their course for the last 55 minutes, was taking them further from land.  At this point he suggested that Powers should turn the flight east again.  However, there is no evidence to suggest that Powers followed this recommendation, perhaps becuase the rest of the squadron knew that there had been no land behind them for at least half an hour.

Added to this mystery was a high frequency fix, which placed the fix around 225 miles northeast of Fort Lauderdale, or roughly 150 to 200 miles off the east coast of Florida, between New Smyrna Beach and Jacksonville.  This indicated that Flight 19 had flown much further into the Atlantic than was thought and that, while they believed they had been heading west or northwest for around an hour, they had actually been flying north.

It became apparant that this flight was not what would be considered typical for a lost flight, with some personnel at the bases becoming convinced that none of Flight 19's equipment was working correctly.  This belief has been sustained by examination of several puzzling statements made by the flight.  Their westward heading, even according to Powers' compasses, seemed to take them north instead of west, with the flight dialogue being noteworthy due to the undertone of mild panic which was present even early in the flight when there seemed to be little reason for it.

Flight 19 by Boober61
Instrument malfunction, which seems to have included compasses, fuel gauges, airspeed indicators, and perhaps altimeters, is potentially suggested by some of the following recorded dialogue.  Not long after Taylor announced that they were lost, he expressed a degree of frustration and impatience when he commented, 'We don't seem to be getting far,' in relation to their speed and the amount of ground they had covered.  When Taylor explained to Cox how he believed they'd become lost, he said, 'We were out on a navigational 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.'

Both of Taylor's compasses were probably in perfect working order.  However, Taylor was compensating for 30 to 40 mph winds, with the TBM facing winds of up to 87 mph.  He turned into the third leg of the exercise before crossing the checkpoint, probably die to strong headwinds and, when they failed to arrive at Fort Lauderdale at the expected time, Taylor decided that his compasses were faulty.  It seems strange and mystifying that, given the circumstances, none of the other pilots bothered to correct Taylor by telling him that they were actually on the right course to being with.  Instead they seemed as surprised or unsure as Taylor was when he asked for a compass comparison.

There were also no IFF signals received from other planes despite confirmation from the flight that they were on IFF.  Nor did their ZBX instrument, or homing device, detect the beacon at Fort Lauderdale.  Another interesting comment made by one of the pilots at 5:55pm was, 'We may have to ditch any minute,' which would indicate that they were low on fuel, although they should have had more than enough at this point.

Newspaper Report

Throughout the final hour of contact between the flight and base, messages were fragmented and strained.  At 6:30pm, Taylor tried desperately to keep his flight together.  He was heard announcing, 'All planes close up tight... we will have to ditch unless landfall... when the first plane drops to 10 gallons we all go down together.'  He was also heard repeatedly asking, 'What course are we on now?', which was the last thing Fort Lauderdale heard from him at 6:37pm.  These faint transmissions faded out completely at 7:04pm, when Ensign Rossi was heard repeating his call sign, 'Fox Tare Three... For Tare Three... Fox Tare Three...'  This came over the radio clearly before ending abruptly.  It is assumed that sometime over the next hour the five bombers descended into the tubulent seas below, with experts commenting that a TBM would sink in under a minute.

Flight 19's fuel endurance was questionable when it was estimated to be exhausted by 6:30pm, the 7pm, and finally 8pm that night.  These estimates did not take into account the possibility of the pilots adjusting their control settings and throttling back, which would allow them to stagger their fuel, prolonging their already extensive fuel range.  This action would, however, slow their cruising speed potentially accounting for the statement that they didn't seem to be making much progress.  It wouldn't, however, explain how they came to be so far north to begin with.  Some TBM Avenger pilots have commented that they could have extended their flight time to seven or eight hours in total, giving them roughly two hours of extra flight time after the last brief message was heard at 7:04pm.

Over the years many questions have been asked as to how this disaster could have happened, with some arguing that the Navy had tried to conceal certain facts that would indicate that Flight 19 had been captured or destroyed by aliens.  This was due to the report having remained classified for more than three decades.  In actual fact, the reasons for this extended classification can be discerned when we look at how the inefficiency of the rescue units as well as how the situation was dealt with in the beginning.  How did they become so completely lost, and why, when  it became apparent that they were lost, did the involved stations not react as quickly as they could have?

For those that hadn't see the official report, the facts given would make it seem that the flight should have never become lost in the first place.  The weather was fine to average; the airmen had experience - especially Taylor.  The flight plan was routine.  But in truth, while the weather was fine at the start of the flight, it rapidly deteriorated during the flight, with search crafts later reporting unsafe flying conditions and tremendous seas.  During his testimony, Cox, when asked if he had observed the state of the sea, commented: 'The sea was very rough.  It was covered with white caps and long white streamers.  The visibility was very good  in all directions, except directly west.'  WhileTaylor was experienced, he was the exceotion, with other crew members only having around 60 hours flight experience in TBM-type aircraft.  They were students in training.  However, Taylor's experience didn't change the fact that he had only recently moved to Fort Lauderdale from Miami and was unfamiliar with the area, never having flown the route taken by Flight 19.  The 'routine' flight was only routine in the sense that it was a well established training exercise at Fort Lauderdale.  It was actually meant to be a complicated navigation exercise.

One of the Official Accident Reports
 Adding to the problems caused by his disorientation was Taylor's refusal to change his radio frequency to the emergency channel, resulting in his inability to maintain radio contact with the ground stations.  While he feared losing contact with the other planes in his flight, transferring to 3000 kilocycles would have provided an undisturbed channel, free of the interference of Cuban radio stations and enabling stations closer to the flight to remain in contact with them.  It would have also allowed the direction-finding stations to find the flight's position much earlier.  Again, it seems that Taylor had forgotten his training , with an important part of okane procedure being the switch over to the emergency frequency.  This is something Taylor should have done when he first suspected that his squadron were lost.

It is also interesting to note that before the flight took place, Taylor requested that another instructor take his place, giving no reason other that not wanting to take the navigational hop.  While Lieutenant Arthur A. Curtis, who took the request, noticed no strange behaviour, Taylor's judgement throughout the entire flight seemed adversely affected and all available evidence suggests that his actions were the opposite to everything he knew he should have done.  It seems unlikely that the investigators would not have persued this matter if there was any possibility that Taylor was impaired, emotionally or physically.  But could they have been wrong?  According to his room mate, Taylor was very upset about a letter he had received just before the scheduled take off.  He told no one about the contents of the letter and took it with him on the flight.  Is is possible that whatever the letter contained may have contributed to Taylor's anxiety and concentration throughout the exercise.

Hours after the flight was estimated to have exhausted their fuel supply, search pilots are said to have heard the delayed call letters, 'FT... FT...'  This has been dismissed as wishful thinking, although if the flight had throttled back, the letters were potentially from Flight 19, adding yet another layer of mystery.  Where had they been during the hours of radio silence?  One interesting revelation that was not revealed until later was that, at the point Taylor requested the planes close formation, one pilot evidently realized that their heading was taking them further out to sea.  That man, although it is unclear which, defied regulations and broke away from the formation.  He started to fly west towards land.  It remains unknown where this pilot and his plane ended up.

Flight 19 by Spiros Karkavelas
Another interesting fact came to light during the subsequent search for Flight 19.  Captain J. D. Morrison, an Eastern pilot, spotted red flares rising from the sky while flying 10 miles south of Melbourne, Fla.  He knew they were coming from a small island and agreed to lead the search team to the site.  However, the search effoty left a lot to be desired.  Morrison witnessed the Navy's 'careful search of the island' which consisted of a single helicopter that flew three passes over one island which was surrounded by marshy terrain.  There were no ground units involved and the marshes could quite easily conceal any airmen or planes that had crashed, especially if the men were unconscioua or injured to the extent they were unable to signal for help.  The Board of Inquiry criticized the individuals in charge of the search operations, with several high-ranking officers being demoted, including one admiral.  It seems that throughout the entire episode incompetence reigned.

In a formal statement the Fort Lauderdale NAS commanding officer said, 'What happened is unbelievable.  Only fifteen minutes before the squadron of Avengers left our base at 2:10pm that Wednesday, another flight of five similar planes took off, flew exactly the same course and returned safely without incident.'  It encountered no unusual weather conditions,except the wind picked up ten or fifteen knots.  Some of the search pilots believe they hadn't searched far enough north, with orders to search as far as Jacksonville, Florida.  However, if the flight had been any further north, the Gulf Stream's northern current would drag any debris beyond the search area.  Admiral F. D. Wagner added one final note to the report, stating, 'The leaders of the flight became so hopelessly confused as to have suffered something akin to a mental aberration.

Bruce Gernon, another pilot, believes Flight 19 flew into an electromagnetic storm.  Interestingly, electromagnetism can cause several of the problems which some believe were suffered by the squadron.  This includes instrument malfunctions, confusion and disorientation.  Gernon commented, 'I'm convinced that Flight 19 entered this storm at about 3:30, and exited it less that ten minutes later jist before Charles Taylor made his first distress call.  I suspect that Flight 19 penetrated too deeply into the storm and into a field of electromagnetic energy, which had a dramatic effect on the outcome of the flight.'  While there is no definitive proof that the squadron entered an electromagnetic storm, or even that such a storm could affect the minds of the pilots, we do know that storm conditions were present during the flight, that Taylor believed his compasses malfunctioned and that his thinking seemed illogical, confused and disorientated.  This theory is one that has gained popularity over the years and is now a view shared by many.  In a June 1974 issue of 'Sealife', Howard L. Rosenberg writes, 'If the planes were flying through a magnetic storm, all compasses could possibly malfunction.  Actually, men's knowledge of magnetism is limited.  We know how to live with it and escape it by going into space, but we really don't know what exactly it is.'

Many different factors prevented the squadron from returning to land: the failure of the radio channel which Cox needed to communicate with the flight, bad radio reception, the delay in sending the rescue plane out, bad weather, an inability to locate the flight quickly, and the delay in relaying the estimated location once it was known, amongst many other factors.  The most tragic part of the entire incident is that, when Taylor first reported that he was having difficulties, he was probably over the reefs and kays just north of the Bahamas, with the flight being almost exactly on course when the pilots decided they were lost.  Many continue to search for the planes that made up Flight 19 and perhaps they will one day be found to give us the last pieces of the puzzle that remains.

Useful Resources
Into the Bermuda Triangle: Pursuing the Truth Behind the World's Greatest Mystery by Gian Quasar
The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved by Lawrence David Kusche
Out of this world: Mysteries of mind, space and time
The Fog: A Never Before Published Theory of the Bermuda Triangle Phenomenon by Bruce Gernon and Rob MacGregor
Naval History & Heritage

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