The strange tale of Flight 19 - the mystery that sparked the Bermuda Triangle myth

Language can be a weird and persistent creature. Sometimes, a phrase can take root in human consciousness – even though there is scant reason for it to hang around, and little to support its continued existence. "Elbow Grease" would be one (whoever heard of such a thing?). "Stealing Thunder" would be another (from whom, why, and how?). And then there is "Bermuda Triangle". Ah yes – "Bermuda Triangle" would definitely be a third.

You know what it means, of course. In its two mis-matched words, it is a concept that was dragged from the murky realm of conspiracy theories, wild conjecture and grand leaps into fantasy – but in an era when conspiracy theories, wild conjecture and grand leaps into fantasy had not become the fulcrum of everyday conversation on social media.

It describes a three-sided patch of the Atlantic Ocean, shaped by straight lines drawn between the titular British Overseas Territory, San Juan on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, and Miami, at the south tip of the Florida peninsula. Here – so wild folklore purports – is somewhere around (definitions of the Triangle's size differ) 500,000 square miles of water where strange and inexplicable things happen. Planes fall out of the sky. Huge ships slip below the waves. Entire cargos evaporate. Men and women are plucked from the face of the planet, never to be seen again. These disappearances happen at the behest of unseen forces – perhaps even malevolent aliens in space-ships. And the whole thing is wrapped in a blanket of silence – though Someone Somewhere knows The Truth.

It is a nonsense, of course. While historical records show that there has been a sizeable number of accidents and losses in the area, the Bermuda Triangle encompasses some of the world's busiest air-traffic spaces and shipping lanes. Shipping lanes across waters which are enormously deep, yet sharp-toothed with reefs and threatening currents. Waters where hurricanes and tropical cyclones are a worry, depending on the time of year. Air-traffic spaces which, pre-Covid-19 at least, buzzed to the near-constant thrum of jet engines. If you have ever caught a plane to Miami or Fort Lauderdale – or anywhere in the westerly parts of the Caribbean, from Cuba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic to the beach resorts of Cancun and Mexico's Riviera Maya – then you have almost certainly flown through it (and, assuming you are reading this, have lived to tell the tale). By the laws of average and plausible risk, the Bermuda Triangle is no more deadly than any other randomly picked portion of the globe. But that hasn't stopped it becoming A Thing.

The blame or credit for the phrase (depending on your perspective) belongs largely to one Vincent Gaddis – a contributor to the American "pulp" magazine Argosy, which published stories of varying levels of sensationalism and guilty-pleasure reading during its near century-long lifetime (1882-1978). Other writers had already mused suggestively about this corner of the Atlantic – citing cases such as the loss of the USS Cyclops (which disappeared somewhere near St Kitts with a cargo of manganese ore and a crew of 309 in March 1918) and the Star Tiger (a British South American Airways aircraft that vanished without trace, with 31 people on board, on a flight between the Azores and Bermuda on January 30 1948). But it was Gaddis who coined the now-famous expression. In the February of 1964, he penned an article titled "The Deadly Bermuda Triangle" – in which he gave the area its "accepted" Miami-San Juan-Bermuda boundaries. A myth was born.

Gaddis deserves a momentary defence. Although his feature added two and two to achieve a total of 436, it did focus on one of the most fabled of the "Bermuda Triangle" mysteries. One which reaches its 75th anniversary this week. One whose many questions have still not been fully answered. One whose odd developments are the central pillar of the whole conceit. And one without which the idea of an area of ocean which devours passers-through on a whim and a wind would surely never have been conceived. Because, in many ways, Flight 19 is the Bermuda Triangle legend – and the Bermuda Triangle is Flight 19. They are one and the same jumble of the unexplained.

Of course, from the cool perspective of three-quarters of a century later, December 5 1945 looks like what it surely was – a series of unhappy accidents which amounted to a very bad day at the office for the US military. But it has clung to the popular imagination as something significantly more sinister – mainly because the 27 men who died that afternoon and evening have never been found. Nor, officially at least (more on which follows below), have the planes in which they went to their dooms. In this case, the sea really did take them, and keep them. That it did so without the unseen assistance of little green folk or unidentified flying objects doesn't make the tale any less grimly fascinating.

December 5 1945 should have been like any other Wednesday at the end of a year in which the Second World War had finally subsided. It should have been a routine page in the diary out on Florida's east coast, where Flight 19 – a small group of Grumman TBM Avengers – was preparing to leave Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale. The site is now home to the city's international airport, but 75 years ago, it was a training base, from which aircraft like the Avenger would take off for trial bombing missions – dropping their explosives on uninhabited islets in the relative vicinity of the Sunshine State. On that winter day, the target was Hen and Chickens Shoals – a low-lying reef skulking 64 miles east of the mainland. These unfortunate nuggets of coral were a regular punchbag, and had already been bombed that morning, prior to Flight 19's departure. The planes ("TBM" identified them as having been built by General Motors) would manage to deliver their payloads – but those ticked boxes would be the only "successes" of a horrible few hours.

There were five Avengers in total – four TBM-1Cs, and one TBM-3. And there were 14 crew members upon them, including the exercise's leader, US Navy Lieutenant Charles Taylor – a 28-year-old of undoubted experience who had fought for his country in the Second World War's Pacific theatre. The planes had been fully fuelled, and when they lifted up from the runway at 2.10pm, they did so into bright skies and favourable weather.

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The first element of the mission, the run out to Hen and Chickens Shoals, went smoothly. The second, rather less so. As well as target practice, the exercise was designed to help the trainees work at the art of "dead reckoning" – navigating by using their knowledge of their earlier positions, their speed, and the time elapsed since take-off. Having dropped the final bomb – permission to do so was requested and given at 3pm – the Avengers were meant to continue in the direction they had already taken (091°; almost due east) for a further 77 miles, before taking a sharp left-hand turn to travel another 84 miles in a near-northerly direction (346°). From there, another left turn, this time onto a south-westerly flight path of 241°, was supposed to carry them the 140 miles back into Fort Lauderdale.

It did not, and would not. The five Avengers would not make it to that last dash for home. Instead, things began to go awry on the continuing eastward leg of the flight, somewhere out beyond Hen and Chickens. At 3.40pm, radios at the base picked up Edward Powers – the designated pilot of another of the aircraft – uttering some concerning words. Asked for his location, he answered:  "I don't know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn." The situation worsened when Taylor joined the conversation from his own plane. "Both of my compasses are out", he said, "I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale." His next statement would go to the heart of the matter. "I am over land... I am sure I am in the Keys, but I don't know how far down. I don't know how to get to Fort Lauderdale."

It is all but impossible that, despite Taylor's assertion, the aircraft were above the Keys – the string of islands that hangs in a south-westerly tail from the bottom of the Florida Peninsula, arcing out towards the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, they were somewhere over the Bahamas. That was the plan, and that was the route. Indeed, their scheduled swing to the north (346°) should have taken the Avengers directly over the unmistakeable outcrop of Grand Bahama – the largest fragment of that Caribbean island nation. But somehow and somewhere, Taylor had lost his bearings, and had begun to believe that the Avengers were some 300 miles to the south-west. This confusion would be crucial. Had that really been the case, to continue the flight route as planned, concluding with a 140-mile last leg to the south-west, would have meant the planes flying towards the open water of the Gulf, and certain to run out of fuel. At 4.45pm, over an hour after this disorientation had kicked in, Taylor announced he was taking action. "We are heading 030° [almost north-east] for 45 minutes," he said. "Then we'll fly north to make sure we aren't over the Gulf of Mexico."

During this time, radar had been unable to pinpoint the Avengers. But assuming that they were still over the Bahamas, as they should have been, this change of course would have taken them further into the Atlantic – though not so far out that the situation was yet irredeemable. The next instruction, however, was critical. Now seemingly convinced that the planes were over the Gulf of Mexico, and west of the Florida peninsula, Taylor told his charges to "change course to 90°[due east] for 10 minutes". Back at Fort Lauderdale, grumbles of dissent from the trainees were picked up on the radio. "Dammit, if we could just fly west, we would get home," one voice was heard to mutter. "Head west, dammit."

Had the younger pilots broken with military discipline and followed this instinct, they would surely have made it back. Instead, following orders, they may have been as far as 230 miles east of the mainland. Briefly, Taylor seemed to realise his mistake. At 5.24pm, he announced "we'll fly 270° west until landfall, or running out of gas" – only to change his mind at 6.04pm, stating 'holding 270°, [but] we didn't fly far enough east. We may as well just turn around and fly east again". Flight 19 was hopelessly lost, the weather was deteriorating, the daylight was running out, and so was the fuel. Taylor's last message was received at 6.20pm. "All planes close up tight… We'll have to ditch unless [we make] landfall… When the first plane drops below 10 gallons, we all go down together."

The scenario was dreadful enough without what ensued. As darkness fell, three flying boats – a Consolidated PBY Catalina, and a pair of Martin PBM Mariners – were sent out to search for the Avengers, aiming for co-ordinates of 29°N 79°W (a position due east of Bethune Beach, a full 230 miles north of Fort Lauderdale, and considerably off Flight 19's planned path). One of the two Mariners, PBM-5 BuNo 59225, took off from Naval Air Station Banana River at 7.27pm, carrying 13 crew. It called in its last message just three minutes later. At 9.15pm, a tanker, the SS Gaines Mills, reported that it had seen 100ft flames in the ocean at 28°N 80°W. The captain said they had burned for 10 minutes.

A dual tragedy brought about by supernatural powers and malign intent – or a sequence of sad accidents, sparked by human error, bad decisions made under crushing pressure, awful coincidence and plain misfortune? The subsequent naval investigation placed the responsibility with Taylor, stating that he had mistaken his actual position, over the Bahamas (specifically, failing to recognise the Abaco Islands in the north of the archipelago), for the Florida Keys – and had reacted accordingly. But he was cleared of fault because of the failure of his compasses – a fatal factor that, desperately, had led to him flying north-west, almost parallel to the Florida coastline, when he had thought he was heading due west and (maybe) back towards the base. He would later be completely exonerated, and the report amended to "cause unknown", after his mother bridled at her son's being blamed for 27 deaths, when neither bodies nor any of the aircraft has been retrieved. The subsequent Mariner crash, meanwhile, was evidently due to an explosion – the PBM-5 was known to have a tendency to build up flammable fuel vapour in its tanks.

But if logic could explain what happened to Flight 19, mystery would cling to it as the hoary myth of the Bermuda Triangle took hold – and as the Avengers remained unlocated.

After the initial searches found nothing, the trail was left to go cold. Flight 19 was a sorrowful tale, but it was hardly extraordinary. These were times when young men lost their lives with a frequency that made their deaths almost commonplace. In total, training accidents out of Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale alone wrought a cost of 95 aviation personnel between 1942 and 1945. The accident also happened four years to the week after the attack on Pearl Harbor – an incident that had scarred the American soul. Another few unmarked tombs in the ocean were just that. But the story remained perplexing, thanks to articles such as Gaddis's – and the human penchant for extracting florid conspiracy from chance circumstance. And in 1991, it would receive a belated postscript.

There had been sightings of Avengers on the seabed before Graham Hawkes came along. In 1986, a scanning of the Atlantic floor for wreckage of the Space Shuttle Challenger had "unearthed" one such plane – and a suggestion (subsequently dismissed) that it was one of the Flight 19 aircraft. Five years later, Hawkes – a British submarine designer and marine engineer – was also looking for something more eye-catching than long-crashed warplanes. Spanish gold. In the May of 1991, he was scanning the depths off the Florida coast for signs of wrecked galleons and 17th century treasure. Instead, he stumbled upon five Avengers, clustered together, between 550 and 750ft below the surface – each of them sitting upright, and apparently undamaged, as if they had been ditched rather than simply crashed. There was a buzz of excitement. There were press conferences. And, a little later, there was disappointment. Serial numbers on the tail-fins could not be identified, and the found Avengers looked as if they were of a model which pre-dated 1945, military experts said. In a mass watery grave, littered with such corpses, this was just another coincidence.

By 2012, two decades later, Hawkes had changed his tune. In 1991, it had been in everyone's interests for the story to fade away, he said. The investors who had been underwriting his work did not want him to be distracted from the hunt for doubloons and diamonds; the Pentagon, while it had briefly acknowledged his discovery, had far bigger things to concentrate on than submerged training aircraft. Without solid evidence to justify any further attention, his random findings were left to their Atlantic resting places.

But now he was convinced, he said, that he had solved the mystery. He had consulted a statistician about the mathematical probability of spotting a quintet of Avengers, together in the very area where the aircraft were thought to have run out of fuel – and it not being 1945's contribution to the Bermuda Triangle legend. He was told: "You've got Flight 19".

Either way, he had summarised the story in 1991, when asked by the gathered media if this was indeed the "Lost Patrol". "You can rule out aliens", he'd said, with a quiet smile.

The Telegraph, London

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