WASHINGTON – The disappearance of Flight 19, a Navy mission that began the myth of the Bermuda Triangle, is still unexplained but not forgotten 60 years later.
The 27 Navy airmen who disappeared somewhere off Florida's coast on Dec. 5, 1945, were honored in a House resolution Thursday. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., said he hoped the gesture would help bring closure for surviving families.
What happened is the question that has befuddled, entertained and tormented both skeptics and believers in the Bermuda Triangle, a stretch of ocean between Puerto Rico, Bermuda and Miami that many believe is an area of supernatural phenomena.
"There's just so many weird things here that experienced pilots would have not acted this way," Shaw said. "Something happened out there."
Five U.S. Navy Avenger airplanes left the Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station on a routine training mission over the Bahamas. The five pilots and nine crewmen, led by instructor Lt. Charles Taylor, were to practice bombing and low-level strafing on small coral shoals 60 miles east of the naval station. They were then to turn north to practice mapping and then southwest to home. The entire flight, which Air Station pilots took three or four times a day, should have lasted three hours.
From radio reports overheard by ground control and other airplanes, the compasses on Taylor's plane apparently malfunctioned 90 minutes into the mission.
With no instruments to guide him over the open ocean, Taylor thought the flight had drifted off-course and was actually south over the Florida Keys. As a result, he directed the planes to fly due north to hit land.
"He was not in the Keys, he was out in the end of the Bahama chain," said David White, who at the time was a flight instructor stationed at Fort Lauderdale. "When he went north, he was going out to the wide ocean."
Just about the time the squadron was to have landed back at Fort Lauderdale, a last radio message from Taylor was received: They would keep flying "until we hit the beach or run out of gas." Due to weakening radio signals, no reading could be made on the direct location of the planes.
Radio messages show that some of the students wanted to fly east, said Allan McElhiney, president of the Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale Historical Association.
Yet military discipline overruled.
"You stay with the leader, that's the Navy way," McElhiney said.
The mystery deepened when a few hours later a Navy rescue airplane, a Martin Mariner with 13 crewmen, also vanished. Though a passing ship reported seeing bright lights in the sky indicating what could be an in-air explosion, no evidence of the Mariner was ever found either.
The next morning, White became part of one of the largest rescue missions in American naval history. Civilian vessels and units of the Coast Guard, Army and Navy scoured an area of more than 250,000 square miles, but no wreckage was ever found.
"In all the times I remember we never had one plane missing," White said. "Five all qualified pilots missing at one time? I couldn't believe it."
Even the official review offered little explanation. The Navy Board of Inquiry report concluded, "We are not able to even make a good guess as to what happened."
Did Flight 19 turn east? Was landfall ever reached? Where was the debris?
Several ocean expeditions, documentaries and books offer varying theories, ranging from paranormal activities to sightings of alien activity. The SCI-FI channel will broadcast a new documentary Nov. 27.
Bermuda Triangle author Gian Quasar believes electromagnetic anomalies in the area's atmosphere led to the demise of Flight 19. Such "electronic fog" can cause needles on compasses and other instruments to spin. This fog comes and goes and can cause pilots to become disoriented, Quaser said.
"It's something that will seize the aircraft and travel with you," he said. "You are not flying into the fog, it is flying with you."
In the years that David White flew out of Fort Lauderdale, none of his instrumentation ever malfunctioned. He thinks the planes crash-landed east of Florida and the airmen died on impact or drowned in the stormy waters. And the Mariner? That type of plane had such a history of accidents it was known as the "flying gas can," he said.
"It was pure and simple pilot error," said Joan Pietrucha, the niece of Howell Thompson, one of the navigators on Flight 19. "I don't believe in wacky compasses."