Sixty years ago today, on December 5, 1945 at 4:00pm Eastern Time, a fragment of a radio transmission was heard from a training flight of five TBM Avenger Torpedo Bombers that had departed from Fort Lauderdale earlier that day. The transmission was thought to be from Lt. Charles Taylor— the senior flight instructor— to one of the other pilots. The message indicated that the flight group had become lost and disoriented over the ocean east of Florida, and all of their compasses were malfunctioning.
The U.S. Naval Air Station attempted to establish communications on the training frequency, but interference from Cuba broadcasting stations, static, and atmospheric conditions prevented any meaningful contact. Brief snippets of radio transmissions were heard on the mainland, including some which indicated that the students were trying to convince their flight instructor to change the flight’s course westward, but he refused. In the early evening, it was determined that Flight 19’s position was east of central Florida, but the squadron could not be contacted to inform them. The planes continued on their northeast course, heading further out into the ocean.
When they were unable to contact the flight group for some time, the Navy put all of its available resources into locating the missing pilots and bringing them to safety. Among the aircraft which participated in the initial search, one disappeared. A PBM Patrol plane which took off from Florida at 7:30pm that night was never seen nor heard from again. A merchant ship reported a burst of flame and an oil slick which was presumed to be the downed PBM, but the plane and its crew were never located.
It was known that Flight 19 only carried enough fuel to last until 8:00pm, so when that time came and went without locating the planes, the search became a massive rescue operation. It was presumed that the pilots must have made a forced landing in the rough seas once they ran out of fuel. The area was extensively searched for five days by air and by sea, but on the sixth day the weather deteriorated to the point that further searching was too hazardous.
The flight and its twenty-seven airmen were never heard from again, and no trace of the planes was ever found. The area where they disappeared is the area now known as the Bermuda Triangle, and although they weren’t the first to disappear in that area, Flight 19 was the event that truly started the “Bermuda Triangle” legend.
Of course there are a number of non-supernatural explanations for the disappearance of the planes. For instance, the Navy’s original investigation concluded that the flight instructor, Lt. Charles Taylor, had become hopelessly lost, and refused to heed the advice of his students to turn west. But Lt. Taylor’s mother refused to accept this explanation, and finally convinced the Navy to change the report to indicate that the disaster was for “causes or reasons unknown.”
As for the fact that the planes were never seen again, the ocean that evening was experiencing fifty foot waves due to a storm, which would have sunk the 14,000 pound planes like rocks. The debris would likely have been quickly carried away by the fast-moving and turbulent gulf stream, which moves through that part of the ocean.
Interestingly, in 1991, five Avenger aircraft were found 600 feet underwater off the coast of Florida, but after examining the serial numbers on the engine blocks, it was discovered that none of them were part of Flight 19. Although their wreckages were in very close proximity to one another, they had all wrecked there on separate occasions. So far, no confirmed wreckage of any of the Flight 19 planes has ever been located.
Last month, the U.S. Congress honored the 27 Navy airmen lost on Flight 19 with a House resolution, hoping that the gesture would help bring closure for surviving families.