Led by World War II airman Lieutenant Charles C. Taylor, Flight 19 was scheduled as a navigational drill over the Florida Keys, a relatively standard exercise that many of the men aboard the five planes had executed before. However, Flight 19 vanished without trace and never returned to Naval Air Station (NAS) Fort Lauderdale. The circumstances of its disappearance would further enshroud the Bermuda Triangle in an aura of intrigue and dread.
To deepen the enigma, a PBM-5 Mariner seaplane with thirteen crew, dispatched as part of the search and rescue operation for the lost squadron of Flight Nineteen, also vanished. No debris, no survivors, no signals. The Bermuda Triangle, already the subject of seafaring legends and tales of inexplicable disappearances, had seemingly claimed more victims.
What happened to Flight 19? How could five warplanes simply disappear? Why was there not a single piece of debris recovered? Where did the planes go? Did they disappear due to human error or was there something more sinister afoot?
The Flight Nineteen mystery is one that has left the world baffled for over three quarters of a century. Let’s dive into aviation history as we attempt to shed light on one of the twentieth century’s most baffling conundrums.
December 5, 1945, 2.10pm
At ten past two in the afternoon of December 5, 1945, five torpedo bombers known as Flight 19 took off from NAS Fort Lauderdale in Florida. Their assignment was called ‘Navigation Problem No. 1’ and the weather was reported as ‘favourable, sea state moderate to rough.’
Four of the five aircraft had one pilot and two crew, but one of the planes only had one pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Forrest Gerber, and one crew, Private First Class William Lightfoot. The final crew member, Corporal Allan Kosnar, had asked to be excused from the exercise.
Commanded by Lieutenant Charles C. Taylor, the first leg of the exercise took them on a heading of 091° around sixty miles east to an area known as Hens and Chicken Shoals, where low-level bombing took place. They carried on the same heading for approximately eighty miles before turning left on heading 346° flying around eighty miles over Grand Bahama, the northernmost, and third-largest, of the Bahamas island chain.
The third and final leg of the journey was another left turn, on heading 241° for around 120 miles in a southwest direction which would take them all back to base.
At least that was what was supposed to happen.
However, during the exercise, something went amiss for Flight Nineteen. For reasons that remain subject of intense debate and speculation, Lieutenant Taylor believed they had veered off course. Subsequent radio transmissions revealed the pilots were disoriented. Despite attempts to navigate them back to base, all contact was eventually lost.
‘I Don’t Know Where We Are’
What happened to Flight 19? Bermuda Triangle? Catastrophic navigation error? Sabotage? Something else?
Around ninety minutes into the exercise, confusion began to set in. On being asked for his compass reading, Captain EJ Powers is reported to have said ‘I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.’
A voice believed to have been Taylor’s – although it was never conclusively proven – is then reported to have said, ‘Both of my compasses are out and I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I am over land but it’s broken. I am 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.’
Taylor was advised to put the sun on his port wing and fly north towards Fort Lauderdale. He was then advised to fly due east for ten minutes when an unidentified voice said words to the effect of ‘if we could just fly west we would get home; head west, dammit’. Little did they know at the time but this turned out to be true.
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Why the pilots didn’t make the collective decision to fly west instead of east has long been argued but the most likely reason is that they were disciplined naval officers and were following orders.
The weather worsened, the planes were believed to be over 200 miles out to sea and it was reported that by 6pm, Flight 19 was well north of the Bahamas. Between twenty minutes and an hour later – sources disagree on the timeframe – Charles C Taylor’s final message was received:
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.
Minutes later, radio communications were replaced by eerie static. They were never heard from nor seen again.
Not Only, But Also…
The fourteen airmen of Flight 19 weren’t the only military personnel to disappear on December 5, 1945. Within an hour, a Martin PBM-5 Mariner patrol boat with thirteen crew aboard was sent out on a search and rescue mission to find the lost airmen. It radioed in at 19.27 but three minutes later radio contact was lost.
Shonna Stanley, the captain of a tanker in the area reported seeing an explosion and moved towards the apparent site of the catastrophe. Despite moving slowly through pools of oil and aviation fuel, no debris or survivors were located.
For the next five days, hundreds of planes and boats were dispatched to cover an area of some 300,000 square miles. Despite a meticulous search, no trace of Flight 19 or the PBM-5 was ever found.
What is the Bermuda Triangle?
The Bermuda Triangle is a loosely defined region of the North Atlantic Ocean, where a number of aircraft and ships are said to have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The vertices of the triangle are generally considered to be Miami (Florida, USA), Bermuda, and San Juan (Puerto Rico), encompassing an area of about half a million square miles off the southeastern tip of Florida.
While it’s become part of popular culture to attribute these disappearances to paranormal activity or even extraterrestrial beings, most scientists dismiss the idea that there is any mystery about unusual disappearances in the region. A plane lost in Bermuda Triangle territory is most likely due to environmental factors, human error, or even deliberate acts of destruction.
It’s also worth noting that many scientists and researchers consider the Bermuda Triangle’s reputation for mystery to be overstated. The rate of incidents in this area isn’t believed to be significantly higher than in other heavily travelled regions of the world.
What Happened to Flight 19?
The disappearance of the five planes is one of the most famous incidents associated with the Bermuda Triangle. Over the decades, various theories, ranging from the plausible to the outlandish, have been proposed to explain the Flight NIneteen mystery.
Navigational or Human Error
One of the most widely accepted theories is that the pilots became disoriented, particularly after Lt. Charles C. Taylor’s compasses reportedly malfunctioned. Without reliable navigation, the squadron may have unknowingly flown out to sea until they ran out of fuel. It’s also possible that a series of human errors, combined with mechanical issues and environmental factors, led to the squadron’s loss. Misjudgments and uncertainty in stressful situations can cascade, leading to tragic outcomes.
Bad weather might have played a role in the planes’ disappearance. While there weren’t significant storms reported in the area on that day, local weather changes could have affected visibility or created challenging flight conditions.
Given that the PBM-5 Mariner seemingly exploded, some believe that one of Flight 19’s planes might have suffered a similar fate, leading to chaos and the eventual loss of the whole squadron. One plane perhaps, but all five?
The area encompassing the Bermuda Triangle is often said to contain magnetic anomalies that can cause compasses to malfunction. Though there’s scant scientific evidence supporting magnetic variations in this region, it’s a less-trodden theory tied to some Bermuda Triangle disappearances.
From the Sublime to the Ridiculous
Over the years, a number of outlandish conspiracy theories have been offered to explain the disappearance of Flight 19. These include the presence of advanced underwater civilisations, alien abduction, and a tear in the space-time continuum which transports the ships and planes into another, as yet unexplained, dimension.
In the end, despite extensive investigations and the passage of time, the true fate of Flight 19 remains one of aviation’s most enduring mysteries. A plane lost in Bermuda Triangle territory is most likely down to terrible tragedy and bad luck. Yet with its blend of real incidents and myths, the rumours surrounding the Bermuda Triangle have only deepened the intrigue of Flight 19.
The Flight that Never Came Home
Despite advances in technology and countless investigations and attempts to locate even the smallest fragment of evidence, the fate of this squadron remains unknown, casting a long shadow over the region. The story of Flight 19 serves not just as a documented yet unexplained event, but as a testament to the timeless interest in mysteries that remain unsolved.