On December 5, 1945, at 1410 (local), five Avenger torpedo bomber aircraft left Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on a standard navigational training mission, labeled on flight schedules as Flight 19. They never made it back to the base. Somehow, they became so lost among the many islands to the west of the Florida peninsula that they could not find a place to land their aircraft. 14 lives were lost, not counting the additional 17 lost in the search for them. The US Navy spent four days in an attempt to find them or wreckage from their planes across a large expanse of the ocean to the north of the Bahamas. They expended a large amount of tax-originated operational funds in the search but they found no trace of the men or their aircraft. No one has ever found any trace. Those Avenger aircraft found at the bottom of the Atlantic since 1945 have proven to be other aircraft.
After the search had concluded, the US Navy held a formal inquiry into the incident, and noted several important cause factors, laying the major blame on the instructor-flight leader for the tragic incident, the senior military person on the flight. However, the pilot's mother challenged that conclusion, since the US Navy had no bodies or aircraft to prove the assumptions they had made. As a result, the Navy changed the report's conclusion was to state that what had caused the loss of the aircraft was unknown. No one has found any wreckage that came from the missing Avengers, although appropriate areas of the Atlantic floor have been searched. Although the inquiry identified no paranormal elements or significant unknown factors, based as it was in real human shortcoming, many writers since have felt that something paranormal must have been involved. Because of their writings, public interest tends to support those vague theories.
Today many believe that the explanation for what happened to Flight 19 can only be found within the paranormal forces that pervade the area known variously as the 'Bermuda Triangle' or 'Devil's Triangle'. A good many books have been sold that outline the 'Legend' of the Triangle, encompassing an area that is usually described as running in a rough oval shape with one side being the Florida peninsula and the farther end being Bermuda, and even as far south as Cuba. Writers usually do not identify the specific nature of the forces at work in the oval area they examine, however, they care clear that the forces include things outside the boundaries of our scientific knowledge. Other writers have written books that attacked the accuracy of the 'Legend' books. Although the question of what might be happening in that area of the world is much larger than our discussion here, the Flight 19 incident provided the original focus to what became the 'Bermuda Triangle' mystery. However, to discuss what might have happened, we must separate it from the other incidents that are usually included in the 'Legend', and look at it as a separate incident, unconnected with any other event.
Since the missing aircraft were never recovered, more explanations are possible than that proposed in the official US Navy inquiry report. Yet the many writers who have proposed that paranormal elements were responsible have not proven their case, either. In fact, the writers have done more to confuse the issues than to propose new possibilities. Especially in the case of the missing Flight 19, the books have detailed elements that are different from the available sources. Some details reported are different from what witnesses said they told the author. By reading the books, the author's conclusions about Flight 19 would appear to be logical, even compelling, however, a study of the accurate details concerning the last flight and disappearance of the five Avenger aircraft easily shows the questions about what happened are different in nature and content than those usually discussed in the pro-Bermuda Triangle books.
The US Military has felt the need to have long-range bombing capacity for as long as the power of bombing from the air was recognized. In World War II, the art of flying long flights over water to bomb an enemy target and then return safely to home base became entrenched. However, the dead reckoning navigational techniques used in such an exercise were difficult to use appropriately all the time and were hard techniques to maintain. Therefore, bombers flying long distances over water might not reach their target, let alone return to base. Up until the advent of GPS navigation, dead reckoning navigational techniques were the only technology that the aircrew could count on to get to their target and return, since a sextant could be used on the stars, the sun, and the moon, but they were not always visible. It was clear that the bomber aircrew must maintain have a finely honed navigational ability to launch, find the target, attack, and return to home base using nothing but dead reckoning navigational procedures and skills. That meant practice. Flight 19 was on a navigational practice mission when they took off on the fifth of December 1945.
Dead Reckoning navigation sounds simple, but it is not. To some extent, it is more of an art form than a science, with the navigator's accuracy established by his or her ability to judge things for which he or she did not have accurate measurements. A good navigator tweaked the data based as much on estimation as any facts they might have. The longer the flight without known landmarks, the more critical the accuracy of the wind speed and direction and other factors became.
In simplistic terms, dead reckoning navigation consisted of running an aircraft at a certain air speed in a specific direction for a concrete length of time. In reality, three factors reduced the navigator and pilot's ability to perform that task correctly. First, the air mass the aircraft was flying within affected the aircraft's instrument readings. Second, the instruments themselves had limitations or problems. Third, flying across a globe isn't just point-and-fly like people think; calculations must be made to handle what navigators call the 'great circle problem' since the aircraft was flying across the surface of a ball, not something that matched the flat map the navigator calculated from.
The speed of an aircraft was never a sure thing prior to GPS. Pilots measured it in two ways, indicated air speed (IAS) and true ground speed (TGS). The difference between these two measures was the speed and direction of the air mass the aircraft was operating within. Indicated airspeed only measured the speed of the aircraft in the air mass, but true ground speed measured the actual distance covered. There was nothing in 1945 that told the pilot or navigator their true ground speed unless they could calculate it based on other factors and using a known good point to begin from and a known good point to calculate from.
The airspeed indicator in the cockpit of the aircraft tells the pilot the indicated airspeed (IAS). If the aircraft was flying due east and encountered a wind coming from the east, the navigator would have to subtract the wind speed from his indicated airspeed to get his TGS, or the speed of his aircraft in relation to the true distance being covered. If the wind were coming directly from behind, the navigator would add the wind speed to the indicated air speed. It became more complicated when the wind was coming in from a direction angled away from the main axis of the aircraft. The navigator must be good at mathematics and be familiar with the formulas to get the indicated air speed that the pilot must fly at in order for the aircraft to have a specific true ground speed. Obviously, very small variations in the figures used might have a large effect on the calculations. The navigator never knows the exact speed of the air surrounding the aircraft. People on the ground might give the navigator the estimated wind speed, but that figure could differ from what the aircraft was experiencing at altitude and some distance from the base. The estimated speed of the aircraft might not be accurate, as in the case of all dead-reckoning calculations.
Most people believe that the aircraft's compass should show the direction the aircraft was flying in, relative to magnetic north, however, that is far from true. Each compass has built in abnormalities that deflect the needle in certain ways depending on where it is in the circle. The compass is tested and the abnormalities documented, so the pilot and navigator can adjust the headings to account for the abnormalities yet still fly the direction they need to. However, that is a static problem; a more pressing, variable problem comes from the wind. Any wind that would deflect the aircraft even a small amount creates a problem. If you are flying due north according to your compass and a wind of 30 mph is coming from the east, it will push you to the west a certain amount for every hour you fly. As a result, you are not flying due north even though your compass might point that direction. In the example I gave, the aircraft would actually be flying angled more towards the west.
The clock was not normally a problem, and the pilot usually just maintained his speed and direction for a certain time to get to a certain point. However, clocks were a problem with Flight 19. Just before the aircraft were due to launch, ground crew found that none of the Avengers had an installed clock. They assumed that the pilots all carried wristwatches, and did not consider the missing equipment to have been critical. However, researchers have concluded it was possible that Lt. Taylor, the flight leader, was not wearing a wristwatch during the flight, and so a clock might have been an important factor in what occurred. Taylor stated that both of his compasses were not working (an improbable state, since both compasses rarely fail at the same time). Coupled with the loss of an accurate time measuring device, Taylor would have had little to support dead reckoning navigation and would have had to rely on his students to do it. There was no indication that Taylor was relying on his students to supply him with the time.
It is the job of a navigator to calculate the appropriate indicated airspeed, compass heading, and time to move the aircraft from one specified point to another. All of the above factors must be taken into consideration, along with many others that I did not mention (such as wind gusting). Using this information, the navigator calculates the compass heading the pilot should maintain, the IAS that aircraft must fly at, and the time that the pilot must maintain those elements constant so that the pilot has what is necessary to fly the appropriate course. The data available to the navigator is never accurate enough to make the calculations exactly. For example, the wind may vary slightly across an hour, but the navigation could be calculated by using an average or by calculating separate segments using the best data available. The pilot can never fly the course provided by the navigator exactly, since small variations constantly creep into the physical process of flying. As an example, get in your car and attempt to maintain exactly 60 miles per hour speed while traveling on the freeway. You will find it is difficult to keep it close to the target speed. Pilots have even more factors to maintain than just the speed. Good navigators have the training, practice, and some natural ability to calculate factors and estimate the elements involved in establishing the figures that will get the aircraft to its intended destination. There are many adequate navigators, but it takes a good navigator to fly long distances over water using dead reckoning. Even good navigators have to maintain that ability with constant practice.
Flight 19 consisted of flying five TBM Avenger Bombers, each having a pilot and two aircrew. General Motors manufactured the Avengers designed as TBM based on the successful TBF model that was designed and produced by the Grumman Aircraft Corporatin. They had their first taste of combat in the Battle of Midway, World War II. Like the F6F and F4U fighters, the TBM Avenger had folding wings for close storage when aboard aircraft carriers. Each Avenger was 40 feet long, had a 54'2" wingspan, and had a .30 caliber machine gun in the nose, a .50 caliber machine gun mounted rear facing next to the turret gunner's head, and a .30 caliber machine gun mounted under the tail that could be hand-fired against aircraft attacking from below and behind. Besides the pilot, each aircraft had a standard crew that included a turret gunner and a radioman/bombardier/ventral gunner. The pilot also acted as the navigator. He alone controlled the aircraft. There was no access to the pilot area from the rest of the aircraft. The radioman usually sat on a folding bench to operate the radio and site the bomb drops, although he could fire one of the machine guns from the tail section. The radios were just behind the pilot and filled a large area. If equipment needed repair, the aircrew had to crawl through a tunnel on the right hand side of the aircraft.
The aircraft stood over 15' high, and weighed 10,545 lbs empty, 17,893 lbs fully loaded with fuel. They had a maximum speed of 276 mph, a cruising speed of 147 mph, a range of 1,000 miles fully loaded with bombs, and could fly to 30,000' altitude with a climb rate of 2,060'/minute. Each aircraft could carry one 2,000 lb. torpedo, or four 500 lb. bombs.
Flight 19 was a dead reckoning navigational exercise, which meant that they would not use a sextant or bubble octant to establish their position based on stars, the sun, or the moon; they would use dead reckoning navigation, practicing their ability to navigate during long flights over water in marginal weather conditions. Dead reckoning navigation was the only thing available when there was complete cloud cover at night, in large areas of fog, or during periods of rain. Combat operations during World War II had proven the necessity of keeping bomber crews in good readiness, and that included a lot of practice using dead reckoning navigational techniques
That flight was under the control of Lieutenant Charles Taylor. He had recently been transferred to Fort Lauderdale, arriving at the base on November 21, 1945, just a few days prior to Flight 19's disappearance. Flight 19 was his first training flight in the area. He had over 2,500 total flying hours, including some combat experience, some of which was when he was stationed on the USS Hancock during World War II. Twice he had ditched aircraft in the ocean because he had gotten lost, but the Navy still considered him an accomplished and good pilot. The students flying with him as a part of Flight 19 each had about 300 hours of total flying time, about 60 flight hours in the Avenger, and had flown a few times before in the Fort Lauderdale area.
The aircraft would be flying in a roughly triangular pattern, traveling to their bombing target, then continuing on the same flight path to a point where they would turn nearly due north for a time, then they would turn back to the west-southwest to return to home base. Across that flight path, there would be sections where they would be flying across areas of shallow water and other sections of deep water. These areas had distinctly different coloration and appearance. At one point, they would fly over Grand Bahama Island, and other islands would be visible at times. The information about island positions would have been particularly valuable to the pilots, since islands were the only landmarks the pilots could use in long flights over water.
According to the Navy inquiry report, the flight, called "Navigation Problem No. 1", was planned to "(1) depart 26 degrees 03 minutes north and 80 degrees 07 minutes west and fly 091 degrees (T) distance 56 miles to Hen and Chickens Shoals to conduct low level bombing, after bombing continue on course 091 degrees (T) for 67 miles, (2) fly course 346 degrees (T) distance 73 miles and (3) fly course 241 degrees (T) distance 120 miles, then returning to U.S. Naval Air Station, Fort Lauderdale, Florida." It sounds complex but it was actually a short navigational and bombing exercise, where the aircraft would probably have flown about 316 miles during the mission under normal circumstances, with mild weather conditions and a knowledgeable instructor. Estimated return time to home base was 1723. It should have been a simple process, yet somewhere in that process, things began to go wrong.
The aircrew and aircraft of Flight 19 include:
The aircraft were scheduled to take off earlier than they actually did, but the reason was not mysterious; the flight instructor, Lt. Taylor showed much very late and requested that the duty officer find a replacement for his flight. He gave no reason. The duty officer denied his request because there was no replacement available.
During the pre-flight brief, all aircrew were provided with data on their route, the practice-bombing run across a set of islands, and the environmental factors that they would have to deal with throughout the flight. Each of the students had already completed two flights in the area, and were probably not concerned with this one. The Weather forecast called for fair conditions with seas moderate to rough. The aircraft would be carrying enough fuel to fly perhaps 5.5 hours. We cannot be sure of every exact detail of what was in the preflight brief and it was very important in this case, since the instructor pilot had just arrived a few days before and no one can be sure how familiar the students were with anything concerning the flight. There is no hint in the reported preflight brief material as to what might have been the source of the later confusion. However, it is clear that the flight commander, who was acting more as an observer on that flight, showed up late. Since he was not that familiar with the local area, his late arrival was important. He would not have been given all of the same data provided to the students. Perhaps he thought that his role of observer meant that it was unnecessary for him to be fully briefed.
After the preflight briefing was over, the aircrew went out to the flight line and put their personal gear into the five aircraft. The flight had been scheduled to take off at 13:45, but Lt. Taylor's late arrival meant their takeoff was postponed until 1410. At first, they headed roughly west across the open ocean towards their first operational target, the bombing site at Hen and Chicken Shoals. Their cruising altitude was 5,000'. The weather was fair and the wind was mild. From radio broadcasts the aircraft made, it was clear that they performed the bombing practice on schedule. At about 15:00, a radio message was heard where a pilot stated he had one bomb remaining and was told to drop it.11 After bombing practice was completed, they would have continued flying the course they had been on before the bombing run for another 67 miles. A fisherman later reported he had seen 3 to 4 jets flying east at about 1500.
At standard cruising speed, they would have reached the first turning point at about 1528. At that point, they were scheduled to turn north on a course of 346 degrees, along which they would fly for 73 miles, which would probably have taken them about 30 minutes (should have occurred at 16:00). Along that straight portion of their planned flight, they would fly directly over Grand Bahama Island. Once they had flown the 73 miles, they would have turned onto a course of 241 degrees and headed back towards Fort Lauderdale, a distance that should have been about 120 miles.5 They should have landed at Fort Lauderdale at about 17:23, with the final leg taking them about 50 minutes to fly, for a total planned flight time of about 2 hours and 10 minutes.
Since the final bombs were being dropped on the practice targets just prior to 1500 and they had to fly an additional 67 miles to reach the point where they would turn north, we must assume that they arrived at the turning point at about 1530. The flight leader would have led the group in a turn until his compasses said the appropriate degrees for dead reckoning along that leg of the trip, modified by the wind that would have been coming from the west at that point. We know from later radio message content that they did reach that point and turn northwards. The northward leg was 73 miles long, so they should have reached the next vector point by 1600. They should have reached Grand Bahama Island sometime prior to 1540. Michael McDonell in his article (referenced) stated they should have been over Great Sale Cay, to the north of Grand Bahama. About that time, it became apparent to those on the ground that something out of the ordinary was occurring to the flight. It was probable that Grand Bahama Island figured prominently in what caused the confusion, however, it was improbable that seeing Great Sale Cay after having passed over Grand Bahama Island would have given Lt. Taylor the idea they were over the Florida Keys.
Grand Bahama Island is 96 miles long (stretching west to east), and only 17 miles wide at its widest point. The point at which Flight 19 would have crossed over the land mass was much narrower than that, perhaps a distance shorter than 5 miles. However, it seems difficult to understand how Lt. Taylor could have missed it, since the land area would have stretched well to the east and west at the point they crossed over it. It hardly seems to be appropriate for what Lt. Taylor seemed to believe at the time.
Lieutenant Robert F. Fox, leading a group of students similar to those led by Lt. Taylor, was forming up his flight about 1540 when he heard a radio transmission that must have come from Taylor's group. Someone asked one of the students named Powers (second most senior pilot) what his compasses read, but the radio reply was that Powers was unsure and they must have gotten lost after that last turn. 1540 was about the time they should have reached Grand Bahama Island, so the island must figure prominently in their confusion. During their preflight brief, the location and description of the large island were covered, since it would allow the pilots to identify where they were. Instead of validating their location, it appears that both Taylor and Powers were puzzled about their location and doubted the accuracy of their compasses. From that, it would seem that the island could not have been in their view or the island they saw did not equate to what they had expected. The US Navy inquiry concluded that the flight had flown over Grand Bahama Island, so there is no question that the island was seen by the Avenger aircrews. That the flight overflew Grand Bahama and was not aware of it are two facts that seem to be at odds with each other, yet both must be true.
At that time, the Avengers should have been heading nearly due north on a course of 346 degrees, and should have been close to Grand Bahama Island. Lt. Taylor said he was flying at 2300' altitude at the time. Lt. Fox attempted to communicate with the mysterious voice, who identified himself as FT-28 (Lt. Taylor flew in that aircraft). FT-28 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."3 Lt. Fox told him to put the sun on his port wing10 and fly up the coast to get back to base, obviously directions that would have meant something had the five aircraft actually been in the Florida Keys. A few minutes later, Fort Lauderdale asked Lt. Taylor if he had an IFF. Taylor did not reply. At about 1600, Lt. Fox heard Taylor say that he had visibility to about 10 to 15 miles. The wind was 22 knots from the west at the time.
At 1626, Air-sea Rescue Task Unit Four (ASRTU-4) at Fort Everglades heard Lt. Taylor say, "I am at angels 3.5. Have on emergency IFF. Does anyone in the area have a radar screen that could pick us up?" ASRTU-4 acknowledged the call and passed the request on to Fort Lauderdale. They in turn notified NAS Miami and asked anyone to help establish the position of the lost aircraft. Two minutes later ASRTU-4 suggested to Lt. Taylor that another pilot take the lead. Taylor acknowledged, but did not turn the lead over to anyone. Lt. Fox in FT-74, headed south towards the Florida Keys, found that the radio broadcasts from Lt. Taylor were becoming less and less readable. He asked Taylor what altitude he was flying at, and Taylor replied that he was flying at 4500'. Within minutes, Lt. Fox lost his transmitter and could no longer hear Taylor's radio broadcasts.
At 1630, the duty officer at Fort Lauderdale notified the base operations officer, who went to the tower and sent a radio message to ASRTU-4, asking them to tell Lt. Taylor to fly a 270-degree heading and fly into the setting sun. He also requested that ASRTU-4 ask Taylor if he had a homing transmitter card (YG) that would have allowed him to home in on the direction finder in the Fort Lauderdale tower. ASRTU-4 sent the message, but Lt. Taylor did not acknowledge it. Ft. Lauderdale asked him to broadcast continually on 4805 kilocycles, but Taylor did not reply.
It is important to note that by that time Lt. Taylor had assumed the job as flight commander, since all decisions made later come from his aircraft. His aircraft was also the focus of the radio broadcasts received on shore. Although Lt. Taylor was along as an observer, he had taken control by the time of the above radio broadcasts, if not before. A few minutes later, Taylor stated, "We have just passed over a small island. We have no other land in sight." When Lt. Fox stated that he definitely was coming to meet the aircraft under Lt. Taylor's control (in spite of Lt. Taylor saying not to come), Taylor replied, "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 is working." Lt. Fox sent back, "You can't expect to get here in ten minutes. You have a 30- to 35-knot head or crosswind. Turn on your emergency IFF gear, or do you have it on?"12 Lt. Taylor in FT-28 said he did not have it on.13
Taylor said that both of his compasses were out. When asked what his compasses heading was, Powers did not give it, but stated that it appeared by had gotten lost since that last turn. Obviously, they had vectored to the north at the appropriate time, but some indicator was telling them that they were not where they thought they should be. They felt the compass reading for both compasses in both aircraft was not taking them to where they thought it should. Two compasses do not fail at the same time, since it would be extremely remote for both to develop mechanical failures at the same time, yet we are talking about four compasses failing within a few minutes of each other.A tremendously powerful electromagnetic signal, such as fluctuations in the earth's magnetic field , could have affected all of the compasses but that is improbable. At least two of the students were not confused and stated what needed to be done to get home. It is more reasonable to assume that some visual element gave the pilots the impression the compasses had failed, rather than any true problem with the instruments. Visual indicators were available at the time, such as Grand Bahama Island, and it must have been what they could see that made them feel their compasses were wrong. Had they been able to see the island, they should have been confident of their position no matter what heading the compasses were providing, so it would appear that they could not see the island or felt the island was not Grand Bahama. Since both Taylor and Powers were not placing any confidence in both of their compasses, it would appear that both compasses were probably saying the same thing or reacting in the same manner. It is improbable that the compasses were spinning or something of that sort, since Taylor would have considered that an obvious and important problem, and he would have reported it to the base. Therefore, the compasses were probably pointing in the same direction, perhaps in all Flight 19 aircraft, and at least some of the pilots felt that the direction could not be accurate. Since Taylor repeatedly asked for the time they had been flying, it is probably true that he was not wearing a wristwatch, yet he must have been aware of the durations on the different headings he ordered flown.
Obviously, the Avengers were flying over land that appeared to have the general appearance of the Florida Keys in Lt. Taylor's perception. Taylor was probably expecting the larger land mass of Grand Bahama Island, but was seeing smaller islands instead. Yet investigators validated that Flight 19 had passed over Grand Bahama Island. It is difficult to see how he would have thought it was possible that he could have ended up in the Florida keys after flying the short distance from their bombing practice site. He would have had to have been flying to the south-southwest for quite a distance just to get to the Keys, then would have had to turn again towards the north in order be positioned with the sun to his left. Even without a wristwatch, Taylor should have been aware that there had not been adequate time to get there and the major turns in direction necessary had not occurred.
FT-28 broadcast again at 1645, "We are heading 030 degrees for 45 minutes, then we will fly north to make sure we are not over the Gulf of Mexico." 030 degrees was a north-northeast direction, nearly opposite to the direction they should have gone to make it home. That meant Taylor intended to fly that heading from 1645 to about 1724. However, about 1700, Taylor broadcast to his flight, "Change course to 090 degrees (due east) for 10 minutes." At about the same time, two others in the flight were heard to say "Dammit, if we could just fly west we would get home; head west, dammit."8 Of course, the students could not risk opposing the military leader in charge, since the consequences could be very severe and it would have been the end to any possibility of a successful military career.
Of note, attempts to establish their position using radio or IFF signal from 1645 to about 1730 all failed. At 1656, Taylor was requested to turn his (IFF) transmitter for YG, if he had one (to tower at Ft. Lauderdale setting). Again, Taylor did not reply. Lt. Taylor was told to broadcast on 4805 kilocycles, but did not reply. Then he was requested to switch to the search and rescue frequency, 3000 kilocycles, and replied, "I cannot switch frequencies. I must keep my planes intact."7 At 1724, Lt. Taylor radioed, "We'll fly 270 degrees west until landfall or running out of gas"6. He requested a weather check, indicating that weather was changing and had become a concern. Had he become aware that the wind strength was steadily rising, it would explain why he was concerned. Dead reckoning navigation required him to have an accurate measure of wind strength and direction at all times. Ft. Lauderdale informed Lt. Taylor that they had good weather, while the weather over the Grand Bahamas Bank was cloudy with a low ceiling and reduced visibility. At that time, Flight 19 was probably well over a hundred miles to the north of the Bahamas.
The Ft. Lauderdale operations officer was attempting to help the situation. He told the ready aircraft to launch and travel towards the estimated location (to the east) of the lost aviators so the pilot could establish a radio link with them and validate that their position was to the east. At 1700, the operations officer was told that a fix on the aircraft's position was going to established before long, so he ordered the ready aircraft to remain on the ground temporarily. He later said that when heard Lt. Taylor radioing his students that they would be flying a 270 heading, coupled with the report that bad weather was closing in, he decided that the duty aircraft would not have to launch and scrubbed the mission. The senior instructor, Lt. Fox had wanted to fly it, and for long afterwards felt it would have been the right thing to do and regretted he had not been allowed to do it.
Ft. Lauderdale informed the Gulf Sea Frontier and Eastern Sea Frontier HF/DF nets of the situation at 1657. They requested that they obtain a bearing on the transmissions coming from Flight 19's FT-28 aircraft, transmitting on 4805 kilocycles. At about 1750 (local), they obtained a fix placing FT-28 within a one hundred mile radius of 29 degrees, 15 minutes north, 79 degrees, 00 minutes west. They telephoned that position to the tower at Fort Lauderdale at about 1810; however, it does not appear that Lt. Taylor or any of the other aircrew received that information. No matter where the aircraft were in the possible area defined by the fix, they were well to the north of the Bahamas. The center of the area is about due north of Grand Bahama Island, indicating they had been flying north since the time that they had expressed doubt about the accuracy of their compasses.
Lt. Taylor broadcast to his aircraft at 1804, "Holding 270, we didn't fly far enough east, we may as well just turn around and fly east again". At that point, it appeared that he was on a due-west flight path, but was saying that the flight would turn around and fly due east because he did not think they had gone far enough to reach the standard flight track. That, of course, makes no sense. According to his radio messages, he had been attempting to find Fort Lauderdale two hours before, but now he seems to have wanted to 'fly enough east' to get to some point. Did that show he believed Flight 19 was to the west of the Florida peninsula? There was no possible way that could have been true and he should have known it. To end up west of the Florida peninsula would have required a much longer flight time and required them to maneuver around the peninsula to the south and then north again. Lt. Taylor was aware that nothing of that sort had occurred. For a short time, he had been following the 'rule of thumb' for aircraft lost in that area, to fly a 270-degree path to reach the Florida peninsula, meaning fly due west until you hit land. They could not have reached land because of inadequate fuel, but at 1804, it still made the most sense to continue flying in that direction. Lt. Taylor should not have felt they had flown long enough on 270 degrees to be able to reach the coast; however, we cannot be sure how confused he was. In any case, he gave the order to turn around.
An Air-Sea Rescue dumbo took off from Coast Guard Air Station, Dinner Key, Florida, at 1820, and tried to establish communications with Flight 19 on 4805 kilocycles, but was unable to do so. At the same time as the dumbo took off, Lt. Taylor sent his last message, "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."2 The sun had already set and the weather was deteriorating into a much heavier sea state. Lt. Taylor must have been aware that the possibility of being able to set an aircraft down in such conditions without death or injury was nearly non-existent.
The last radio broadcast intercepted from Flight 19 came not long afterwards at 1704 when a faint message was heard coming from one of the students who was attempting to contact Lt. Taylor. They would have had no more than about 30 gallons of fuel remaining at that time.
TBM Avengers carried a maximum of 325 gallons of fuel, enough to last for a maximum of 5.5 flight hours. They had taken off at 1410, meaning they would have ran out of fuel before 1940. The average fuel burn rate throughout a long flight is rated to average about 59 gallons per hour (gph), but real life tends to be less perfect, and so the real burn rate for Flight 19 was probably a little over 60 gph. Since Taylor had limited the time to fly to the point the first aircraft reached 10 gallons remaining, it meant that all aircraft were limited by the aircraft with the highest fuel burn rate. For the sake of estimation, let us say that all of the aircraft had flown efficient 60 gph, or one gallon per minute, up until 1820, when the last good broadcast from Flight 19 was heard. That would have meant that 250 gallons of fuel were gone, and 75 gallons remained, enough for about 75 minutes of flying. However, Taylor has said that they would start down and ditch when the first aircraft reached 10 gallons remaining, and that meant about 65 minutes of flying were left. The weather was bad and getting worse, but the wind was pushing them from behind, so they would probably have been able to maintain TGS of at least 150 mph, so they would have covered about 160 additional miles maximum. From the point they had turned east at 1804, they would have covered no more than 232 miles before they were forced to ditch. There was no evidence that the had changed their flight path during that time, so we can estimate that they ditched at a point slightly less than 230 miles from their position at 1804. That meant a good estimate of where they would have gone down would be about 350 miles to the east of the Florida coast.
While Flight 19 was getting ready to ditch in the heavy sea, merchant ship SS Viscount Empire sent a radio message stating she was encountering heavy seas and high winds. She was northeast of the Bahamas, probably not far from where Flight 19 was about to set down.9 It was difficult enough for the freighter to handle the rough seas, however, setting an aircraft down in such a sea state would have seemed insane. Only someone in an extreme desperate state would even contemplate such an act.
Some researchers believe that a final message was received at about 1900 (Florida time) that consisted of a sequence of "FT" characters repeated over and over. That would probably have been well before they were forced to ditch, but it might have been an attempt to inform those on shore that they were changing course or had decided to ditch before they ran out of fuel. We cannot be sure that the broadcast came from the lost aviators or what it might have meant.
We have no way to be sure at what point Flight 19 ditched in the rough ocean, but the swells would have been high, and the possibility of even one aircraft being able to set down without damage or turning over was slim. In the strong sea state, the aircraft would have begun to sink within seconds and probably carried many of the crew down with them. We can only hope that the flight crews did not experience a long period of discomfort before they died and began the long, slow fall to the ocean floor.
We know the general content of the preflight brief the students were given, but the complete details provided, if we are going to identify what caused the later confusion. Although the pilots and aircrew had already flown in the general area twice before, they probably did not handle the briefing in a routine fashion. However, the tension had increased because the brief was late and the flight had been postponed until Lt. Taylor arrived. It seems that what the pilots experienced was significantly different from the brief information, or at least what had been understood and expected. However, we can be sure that Lt. Taylor and Captain Powers said they were confused. None of the other students did, in fact, two seemed well aware of where they were.
Lt. Taylor arrived late and asked to be taken off of the flight schedule. Since he was so concerned with getting out of the flight, we should expect that he got little from the preflight briefing. No one at the time felt that the partial and late briefing before takeoff was a problem or that Lt. Taylor had been inadequately briefed.
The Navy inquiry found evidence that Flight 19 had passed over the Bahamas as scheduled. The report also stated that Lt. Taylor believed he had passed over the Florida Keys but did not detail any theory as to why he would have thought so. According to the report, his belief that he was flying to the south or southeast of Florida meant that the aircraft had to fly to the north to reach Florida. The Navy inquiry concluded that he had in fact led his flight to the northeast, out over the Atlantic and away from land. The report noted that some subordinate officers had probably known where they were, since radio transmissions indicate they knew they could just fly west to reach Florida. By calculating fuel state, the report concluded that the aircraft had already dropped below the minimum amount of fuel necessary to reach land by the time they actually began flying towards the west, which meant that they would have been required to ditch in the ocean in any case.
Later testing by the US Navy found that similar aircraft would sink very quickly when ditched in a low sea state (minimal waves and wind), sometimes in minutes and sometimes in less than a minute. Since the weather had already deteriorated into a rough sea state by the time Flight 19 would have to ditch, the aircraft probably suffered signifcant and perhaps major damage during ditching, and the aircrew probably had great difficulty in attempting to get out before the aircraft sank. When ditching in a heavy sea state, it was virtually impossible to set the aircraft down with no physical damage and so that the aircrew could get out easily. Even those aircrew that might have ended up in an aircraft that was right side up and intact probably were confused, disoriented, and perhaps unconscious. It would have been difficult to get out of an aircraft in such a sea state in the dark no matter what circumstance the aircraft was in. It was most probable that all the aircraft broke up on impact and the pieces quickly sank in the very rough seas. Most of the aircrew probably died quickly, not even able to get out of the cockpit area, and any who might have survived on the surface would have had to deal with the weather conditions and the lack of any protection from the waves and weather other than their life jackets. The search found no floating life jackets, so it is probable that none of the aircrew were able to get out of any of the five aircraft before they sank.
One PBM-5 aircraft's mission was to fly to the approximate area where Flight 19 would have set down. That aircraft reported the weather was overcast with a ceiling of only 800 to 1200 feet, the sea was very rough, and there was a turbulent wind that was estimated to have been 25-30 knots coming from the west-southwest. Those were not conditions that would have made ditching practical. Even after a successful ditching, survivors would be difficult to spot and would probably have died.
The US Navy, US Coast Guard, and some civilian ships and aircraft searched a wide area in and around the estimated point that Flight 19 would have gone down. From 6 to 10 December, they criss-crossed that area of the ocean, but did not find one item of wreckage or floatsom that could have come from the missing aircraft, not one survivor or life jacket. nothing was found. There was no question concerning if the aircraft had gone down; they had. There was no question that they had went down in that approximate area. There was just nothing there for the searchers to find.
Based on what we know about the incident, it was not a surprise that nothing was found; in those circumstances, the aircraft would probably have sank quickly. Although they might have broken up, the pieces would have went down virtually intact, leaving little or no debris on the surface. Most of the aircrew, if not all, would have still been in the aircraft when they came to rest on the ocean floor. That could have happened in even moderate seas, and the waves were much more powerful than that, so we should expect that it was improbable that anyone survived the crash landing.
The winds pushing Flight 19 to the east increased throughout the flight. Pilots had reported winds about 25 to 35 knots in strength at the time Ft. Lauderdale became aware they were lost, and it became stronger as time went on, but it does not appear that the wind was a major factor in what transpired. There was some cloud cover in the beginning and it definitely increased throughout the flight. The cloud cover was complete and the ceiling had dropped low by the time the flight was running out of fuel. Weather conditions were not the best throughout the flight but they were far from problematic. Flight 19's problems did not stem from the weather and the confusion that occurred was not because of it.
The problem that those in Flight 19 had to face was simple, the flight leader was confused about where the flight was, did not believe his equipment, and would not listen to advice from the student pilots involved. Had the pilot in charge remained calm and followed the rule of thumb for the area, followed what he was told to do, and flown his flight on a 270 degree heading until landfall, the flight would have come home. Even when he finally turned the flight onto that heading when there was insufficient fuel to make it back, his aircraft would still have come down much closer to the coast and they might have survived.
The heart of the problem concerning Flight 19 was what caused the flight leader's confusion? The US Navy found evidence that proved they had crossed over Grand Bahama Island on the planned flight path, so it seems unreasonable to think that the pilots in all five aircraft could have believed they were lost, and the evidence shows that some of them believed they knew where they were. With the positive affirmation provided by the huge bulk of Grand Bahama to tell them where they were, how could any of them have felt they were lost? With such a large island, how could Lt. Taylor have possibly assumed they were in the Florida Keys? With the sun on his port wing, how could he been unaware that they were flying towards the north? We have no data that shows the students were confused and evidence that shows some were not, so why were Lt. Taylor and Capt Powers the only confused pilots? In fact, Lt. Taylor overrode the insistence of at least two of his students that they fly west. Why did he feel that he was correct and the students were wrong? We must answer these questions to identify what happened to Flight 19.
The confusion began just after they had made the first turn onto the 346-degree heading when Lt. Taylor identified that his compasses were malfunctioning and assumed the role of flight leader. Something made Lt. Taylor doubt the integrity of his compasses and doubt that the flight was over the Bahamas Bank area. What might that have been? It seems improbable that both of his compasses could have failed at the same time and more likely that he just doubted what they told him. The setting sun was clearly on Flight 19's port wing, which should have told the pilots that they were heading north at the point the confusion began. Although Flight 19 was physically on the same course as had been planned, Lt. Taylor seems to have believed they were somewhere else. So why should Lt. Taylor have become so confused?
The flight should have been flying over a smaller island at about the point that Lt. Taylor became confused and assumed the role of Flight Leader, but within minutes, they were over Grand Bahama Island, which would have been impossible to miss. At the point they encountered it, the island would have been many miles wide and stretched beyond the horizon in both directions, hardly one of the Florida Keys. Once Lt. Taylor had identified the large island, he would have been reasonably sure of his position, but he ignored the island as far as we can tell. He did not even report they were flying or had flown over a large island, yet it would have taken about two minutes to fly across the land mass. In any emergency, they should have been able to land on the island, but no one suggested it. None of the pilots or aircrew suggested landing on any of the islands they had passed over or suggested returning to them later. The students were probably sure of where the Florida coastline lay, and Lt. Taylor does not seem to have considered the islands as a possible landing site. With the positive reinforcement provided by Grand Bahama, it seems incredible that Lt. Taylor remained in confusion after they had passed over it, yet his confusion seems to have arisen just afterwards.
Just after Flight 19 would have been encountering Grand Bahama Island, Lt. Taylor told Lt. Fox that he felt they were in the Florida Keys area. Lt. Taylor had flown over the Keys while he had been stated at NAS Miami, but that could have had very little to do with his current confusion about the islands below him. He should have known that the Bahamas Banks area has many small islands that look similar to the Keys. Even if Lt. Taylor had assumed they might be in the Florida Keys and ignored Grand Bahama Island a few minutes later, he should have been aware that Flight 19 could not have reached the Keys and then turned north. He should have known that they never turned south-southwest after their bombing practice at Hen and Chicken Shoals, a requirement if they were to reach the Keys. Even if his compasses had actually been malfunctioning, the sun would have told him in what general direction they were flying. We have no indication that Lt. Taylor made any attempt to calculate possibilities based on time and flight speed, but it was highly improbable that he was actually under the impression Flight 19 had turned around and flew south-southeast after they had completed their practice bombing run, then turned north again to put the sun in its proper position. Although he was probably unsure of what time the aircraft had been flying, he should have known that it was far below the amount of time required to reach the Keys.
Capt. Powers appeared to have been as confused as Lt. Taylor when the problem began. When Capt. Powers replied to Lt. Taylor's question about the compass heading, he seems to have felt the confusion began just after they turned northward on the second leg of their mission, but he gave no indication of what might have caused it or where the impression was coming from? We have no factors that could explain why either pilot would assume their compasses were malfunctioning, especially at the same time. Yet when Flight 19 was seen from the ground a few minutes later, they were right where they should have been and on schedule.
As far as we can tell, Flight 19 kept their 346 degrees heading until Lt. Taylor broadcast the change in direction at 1645. They would have flown about 196 miles north, for a location of about 160 miles due north of the center of Grand Bahama Island. From 1645 to about 1700, they flew at a 030-degree heading (north-northeast) for a distance of about 37 miles. Beginning at 1700, they flew a 090 degree heading, due east. Lt. Taylor said it would last for 10 minutes, but it appeared that he maintained it until 1724, covering a probable 75 miles. From about 1724 to 1804, he said they were flying 270 degree heading (due west), for a distance of about 74 miles. At 1804, they turned around and flew back on a 090 heading (due east), the same path that they had previously flown. The reason he gave was that they had not gone far enough east to reach whatever it was he thought lay there. The amount of time that he flew west was nearly identical to that he had flown due east, so there was no way that he could have assumed to have found land under that scenario; he had already covered that area. By heading east again, he was crossing the same area of ocean a third time and he knew that it did not hold any land mass. What is perhaps more important, he should have been aware that the fuel state of all the aircraft was becoming critical. He must have known that his fuel state would not allow them to go back east even as far as they had gone before, which meant the attempt to fly east could not have found land. It made no sense that he would have turned back to the east. The only logical course of action he had at the time was to continue to fly west into territory they had not covered and with at least some possibility of reaching land, a course of action that followed the rule of thumb for area for when lost and that two of his students had asked him to fly. He ignored the order that came from the Ft. Lauderdale operations officer and the request from his students to fly west. He vectored the students back and forth over the same area of ocean for a total of about 225 miles, while the coastline was less than 150 miles away.
The fix obtained on Flight 19's radio broadcasts at 1750 placed them over a hundred miles to the north of Brand Bahama Island, in about the location they would have been had the above headings been accurate. Even if that location been been transmitted to Flight 19, they could not have reached Florida sinc they did not have enough fuel remaining to get more than about 75 miles; the Florida peninsula was probably between 110 and 150 miles to the west. Yet the location would have proven that the students were right and Lt. Taylor was wrong, and their final ditch location would have been much closer to the Florida coastline.
As I stated before, Flight 19 would probably have gone down about 350 miles off of the Florida coastline. From the time that rescue support efforts were beginning to gel, the flight was turning around and heading east, away from them. The flight was already doomed to ditch at sea. No one had been able to make good communication with the flight and convince Lt. Taylor to do what he was being told, so the radio broadcasts from the lost aircraft became increasingly hard to receive. The fact that the radio broadcasts coming from Ft. Lauderdale were getting fainter should have been a strong indication that they were heading away from Florida. Lt. Taylor might have felt that was due to the storm, but the continued reduction in signal strength would have been hard to blame on the storm alone. Lt. Taylor should have realized that, but he did not.
No logical scenario could explain why Lt. Taylor thought he was in the Florida Keys. After he stated he believed they were in the Keys, he had then fly north, then north-northeast for a distance that should have told him they could not have been in the Keys. If he had been, he should have hit the Florida coast within a short time. As they went on, he sent them east, flying over a hundred miles to the northeast of the point he had first reported to be lost. If there were hundreds of miles to the southwest of Florida, based on the flight path he had them fly, how could they have gotten there? Once he arrived at that point, he had the aircraft fly due east for about 75 miles. They didn't find Florida, and Lt. Taylor should have known that it was impossible for them to have been so far to the west of Florida. There was no question of their position, since they could only have been to the east of Florida based on any sense of logic that Taylor should have been able to develop. There had not been flying time, fuel, or general direction to get to the Keys. He had went well beyond the limits of possibility to find Florida to the east of them, yet he appeared to be unconvinced that Florida could be to the west.
By the time they turned back to the west, they had inadequate fuel to to Florida. It was incomprehensible that he might have believed they were on the west side of Florida and that flying east would find land. By the time he turned back towards the east again, he must have been aware they did not have enough fuel even to get back across the distance they had just come; they would have to ditch the aircraft in the ocean. Did his confusion go far enough that he was unaware of even that situation?
Lt. Talyor's having lead the flight back and forth over the same area of ocean cannot be considered to have been an attempt to make landfall since it had no real possibility of finding land. If he was truly lost and knew it, why did he elect to continue criss-crossing what he knew to be empty ocean when he could have gotten them south and landed on the large island they had crossed. Was he confused, overly hopeful, or was there a more sinister purpose? The question must be asked; did Taylor know well that he was flying to his death? Did he lead his students purposely to their demise, either consciously or unconscously? Did he have a death wish? Was that why in every case when the people on the ground might have provided some assistance to those in the air, he did not reply back? (Exampe: Had he told them he had an IFF and that it was on, they should have been able to identify his location and tell him where he was, yet he repeatedly did not reply when asked if his IFF was on. He finally admitted that it was not.)
Some of the radio messages that Lt. Taylor elected not to reply to were critically important. Although it was impossible to be sure that he received all of them, it was improbable that he did not hear any of them. He probably replied to only a sub-grouping of the radio messages he received, and we cannot be sure why, but the fact that he flew through a time of confusion without turning on his IFF so that those on shore could find them is suspicious. It was to Lt. Taylor's benefit to pay attention at all times to what the people on the ground were telling him. Had Taylor's IFF been broadcasting for the entire period they were airborne, they would probably have gotten a fix on the flight's position well before 1750. In fact, it should have been easier to get a fix earlier when the aircraft were closer to Florida and closer to Ft. Lauderdale. Lt. Taylor also made the statement when asked to switch frequencies that he could not do so since he had to keep his flight intact. Switching frequencies is a normal condition during flight, and was important when it provided the basis for establishing a location based on the radio signal. Lt. Taylor must have known that, but still elected not to change frequencies and give those on the ground the ability to find them. It almost seems as though Taylor was purposely attempting to make it as hard as possible for anyone on the ground to give Flight 19 any aid until it was too late.
It would have been impossible to prove that Lt. Taylor intended to give those on the ground the impression that no help would be necessary. However, Lt. Taylor's directions to his students did cause the Operations Officer to cancel the rescue flight that was being readied. They were heading west, finally. By the time they turned back towards the east, there would have been no way that a rescue flight could have reached them.
Lt. Taylor did not want to fly that day, and we have no information to explain his reluctance. In that and his later assumption of the flight leader position and the later confused flight track, his behavior was strange. It was almost as if he wanted to die that day. Had Lt. Taylor committed suicide, his mother would not have received the benefits of any life insurance policy he might have had, and she would have had to live with the stigma of having a son that had committed suicide. However, since Taylor died in an accident on a standard training exercise, his mother would have received any benefits due and would have had the knowledge that her son had died in the performance of his duty. It seems far-fetched that one man entrusted with the lives of others would purposefully lead them to their death, yet it has become somewhat normal to hear of mass murderers have killed many innocent people before they took their own life, and there are times that events seem to support the idea that some person had a death wish. It was possible that Lt. Taylor might have had one. Having a person commit suicide under the cover of an operational situation might seem improbable, yet it could well of happened many times; however, there was no evidence that conclusively proved it in that case. At the same time, there is no real competing theory the many things that Lt. Taylor did. Either he was so confused that he did not closely track where they were flying, or he did it with purpose.
Although that sounds incredible, what was incredible was that Lt. Taylor could have believed Flight 19 could possibly be over the Florida keys, knowing they had left their bombing position only a short time before and with the sun beginning to dip towards the west being an obvious indication of general direction. It was incredible he still felt they were in the Keys when the flight crossed over Grand Bahama Island. It was incredible that he vectored the flight three times over the same area of ocean. It was incredible that he only turned on his IFF after being asked about it several times, yet must have known that it was necessary for those on the ground to establish their position. It was incredible that he felt so strongly about his feelings that he ignored the order to fly west that came from his superior on the ground at Fort Lauderdale and the insistences of his own students.14 It was more incredible for Lt. Taylor to have done what we find in the record without a strong focus on not coming home. Yet it remains possible that his confusion removed the normal, logical elements that we might expect to find. The case of his having a death wish was not proven, just possible.
If I haven't already convinced you that there is a strong possibility that Lt. Taylor intended to go down at sea, let me bring one strong fact to your attention. Put yourself in the cockpit with Lt. Taylor and think about the situation. You do not now where you are and you do not believe your compasses are accurate. Yet you make no attempt to get a concensus of headings from your students. At the same time, you start giving orders to fly on specific headings for specific lengths of time� without attempts to coordinate with your students. You had no way to tell time or direction, yet you flew using both. The students who broadcast the messages saying to fly west obviously knew where west was, and they seem to have felt that Lt. Taylor was aware of it, also. Since Taylor was leading the flight and directing headings and timeframes, it seems reasonable that he was aware of both. If so, there could not have been much confusion involved.
There does not seem to be any support for possible confusion in Lt. Taylor's actions. The attempts made by other flight groups or those on the ground were repulsed or ignored in nearly all cases. Remember Lt. Taylor's reply to Lt. Fox's statement that he was flying towards them, "Don't come after us." Time after time, Lt. Taylor's actions seem to indicate that he was aware of direction and time, and his flight across Grand Bahama Island should have made it clear where the fight was. The evidence points strongly towards a theory that Lt. Taylor intentionally kept the flight out to sea and brought them down to their death, taking the aircrew from five aircraft with him. As they neared the end of their fuel and many of them probably felt their fate was sealed, Lt. Taylor told them to tighten up so they could ditch together, something that makes no sense. The aircraft would keep together and should ditch together, but the aircraft would not land in tight formation since one could easily crash into another; the broadcast has the connotations of Taylor attempting to maintain control over the flight, not give them a means to survive.
They went down far from land, dropping down in a dark, featureless sea, a slow inching down, down, until there was a sudden crash and a momentary flash of panic that gave way in drowning to dreamless death. We cannot be sure where their bones lie, but we can be sure they died. If they died because of some conscious or unconscious deathwish that one of them had, we will never be sure of it and the question will remain; not a question of what forces might have taken them, but a question of why they died.
When Flight 19 became lost, several processes were set in motion. One of them was the launch of two PBM-5 Marine flying boats that headed towards the last reported area for Flight 19, one tasked with performing a square search and the other tasked with following the known track of the missing aircraft. The two PBM aircraft were scheduled to fly a standard training mission, but were reassigned to fly a search and rescue mission when Flight 19 became lost. One of the PBMs, BUNO 59225, never arrived at its search location. Some writers have tried to suggest that its disappearance was connected with Flight 19's problems. There was no question that the PBM exploded in mid-air not long after it launched on the rescue mission. The tanker SS Gaines Mills reported a mid-air explosion at 19:50 at about the time the aircraft would have been at that location, and added that flames were leaping 100 feet high and burning oil was visible on the sea for 10 minutes there. The captain later reported that people from the ship had actually seen the aircraft catch fire and plunge into the sea. Escort Carrier USS Solomons reported they had lost radar contact with the flying boat at the same time and location.
Although such an accident coming on the heels of the disappearance of five other aircraft appeared to have been unlikely, that was not the case. Searches include many aircraft, much more than are used during normal flight operations and exercises, and the rush to save lives means that aircrew tend to fly aircraft that they might normally have grounded, struggling to put as many search planes in the air as possible and cover as much territory as possible. In a moment of real need, pilots and aircrew tend to act more quickly, increasing the risk of an accident because of human error or equipment failure. PBM's were known to explode, catch fire, and were commonly called 'flying gas tanks'. No smoking regulations were rigidly enforced onboard the aircraft. That specific aircraft was old, much used, and probably showed the effect of long miles of use in World War II; it should be no surprise that such an aircraft crashed in that manner. It is probable that some mechanical problem occurred, causing the aircraft to explode in midair.1
We know when the PBM exploded, where it exploded, and that the cause was probably equipment failure. We cannot be exactly sure what caused it to explode, but the explosion itself cannot was probably not abnormal. Perhaps the timing was the only thing that has lead writers to include it with the telling of the Flight 19 mystery. However, there does not appear to have been anything extraordinary about the incident at all. It was sad that 13 people lost their lives in the explosion, but accidents of this sort do occur all too often, and the risk of death has always been a part of the military missions that these men flew. We can only hope that their death was quick and relatively painless.
The US Navy performs inquires to identify lessons learned and make sure such tragedies do not happen again. The inquiry into the disappearance of Flight 19 had important consequences, and the Navy found that several factors might have been of benefit under the circumstances. They found that the duty officer at Fort Lauderdale was standing his first watch alone when Flight 19 first reported its problem, after having completing only one watch with an experienced officer. He had no written documentation about the past events in the area, and had no one available who had such knowledge. The radio operator on duty had only been there a few weeks and had no experience in the area. It was possible that an experienced radio operator and a duty officer with wide experience in the area would have been more capable of handling the problem that occurred. Flight 19 was not lost because of these factors, but the duty officer might have provided critical help. Had Lt. Taylor been using his IFF in the beginning of the problem or he had switched his radio frequency to one more suited to getting a fix on his position, it would have been possible to let Flight 19 know where they were before fuel became critical. A flight commander can panic or become so confused that the flight is lost, and that might have occurred in the situation with Lt. Taylor and Flight 19. Once the flight is out there, it is at the mercy of the flight commander, whether or not that person is confused or competent to lead. Where a flight leader loses the ability to handle the situation, the lives of the aviators he leads might be the ultimate price paid.
The US Navy concluded that Lt. Taylor was responsible for the tragic incident. However, Lt. Taylor's mother challenged the conclusion on the basis that no wreckage or bodies had been found to prove it. In the face of the challenge, the US Navy backed down and changed the conclusion in the report so that the main cause factors were considered to be unknown. The obvious critical factor involved was that Taylor became disoriented and lost; however, it was clear that Capt. Powers had also mistrusted his compasses and may have supported Lt. Taylor's methods to get back to home base.
In my many years in US Naval Aviation, I have been involved in several tragedies, a few somewhat similar to what happened to Flight 19. Navigational problems occur even when the aircraft has GPS navigational capability. Navigation has always been problematic, and people can die because of errors that navigators make or when equipment fails. Flight 19 highlights what can happen when navigation goes wrong or becomes impossible. 14 people died in what should have been a routine training mission. No bodies were found to bury. No tombstones mark the spot. Although we cannot be sure of all of the events that occurred in the incident, the basic facts point clearly towards the cause of the tragedy having been human imperfection, not paranormal forces.
Aviation has alwasy been inherently unforgiving of human failure or shortcoming. People die when they find themselves inadequate to handle the situation, and those who fly in aircraft, especially military aircraft, know the chance they take when they accept the challenge. Tragedy remains a possibility on any day and in any flight. The military pilots and aircrew of Flight 19 took their lives in their hands in every mission they had been a part of and they did so on December 5, 1945, when their time ran out. Those 14 airmen who died have achieved a kind of an unexpected fame because their story has been presented as an unsolvable paranormal mystery by some writers, not because thier lives were lost in some horrendous, attention-getting disaster. There have been and will continue to be airmen who lose their lives in routine military actions. Things happen, and in our unperfect world, accidents will always occur. What happened on that day was an accident, when a group of aircraft manned by professional people took to the air, flew out over the Atlantic on a sunny day, and never returned home. Requiscat in Pace.