It is December 1945, and a squadron of five bombers are conducting a routine flight over the Atlantic Ocean. Yet even though the mission seems to involve minimal risk, somehow the pilots have become disorientated. Their radio exchanges consequently become heated and confused – and then they drop off altogether. This is the last that anybody ever hears from the group. And the mystery of their disappearance remains unsolved for 70 years – until scientist Karl Kruszelnicki claims to have the answer.
Known as Flight 19, the squadron consisted of five Grumman TBM-type Avenger torpedo bombers. Apparently, their flight that day was supposed to be an unremarkable training exercise. Departing from Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale in Florida, the squadron planned to follow a 354-mile circular flight path, heading east and north before arcing back to base.
But something went wrong. And according to author Allan W. Eckert, who wrote a chilling account of the incident in American Legion magazine in 1962, whatever happened appeared to seriously spook the flight leader. Eckhert in fact wrote that the leader said, “Nothing seems right. We don’t know where we are, the water is green, no white…”
Flight 19 never came home. Shortly after the squadron lost their bearings, you see, ground control lost radio contact. All five airplanes and 14 crew members then vanished without a trace. Yet Flight 19 was not the only bizarre disappearance that day. Because soon afterwards, a plane holding 13 men involved in the subsequent search-and-rescue mission vanished too.
The loss of 27 men in ambiguous circumstances naturally represented a profound tragedy for the U.S. Navy. And while decades have elapsed since then, the incident continues to be the subject of feverish debate. In particular, this is because it occurred in an ominous stretch of ocean. The so-called Bermuda Triangle has been responsible for scores of mysterious disappearances over the years, after all.
Known also as the Devil’s Triangle, the area consists of a triangular patch – variously defined over the years – of the Caribbean Sea. Writer Vincent Gaddis apparently put forward the most popular definition in 1964. According to him, three geographic points form the triangle: Miami in Florida, San Juan in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean island of Bermuda.
The first recorded incidence of weirdness in the Bermuda Triangle occurred way back in 1492, on Christopher Columbus’ pioneering first voyage to the Americas. On October 11, a few days before the expedition made landfall at the island of Guanahani in the Bahamas, the crew on the Santa María seemingly spotted a mysterious light over the water.
Since then, though, more than a thousand ships and airplanes have reportedly vanished in the triangle. Many have also disappeared without a trace and with no clear indication of how, where or why. Others have turned up as wrecks or ghost ships, their crews inexplicably absent. And over the years, the litany of weird happenings in the triangle has led many writers and researchers to seek answers.
The first person to publicly note that something was amiss was writer Edward Jones. For his part, he put forward his observations in an article for The Miami Herald in 1950. Then, two years later, Fate magazine published a piece called “Sea Mystery in our Back Door” by George Sand that referenced Flight 19 and other occurrences. Then in 1962 Eckert published his renowned piece about Flight 19 in American Legion.
It was Vincent Gaddis, writing for the Argosy magazine in 1964, who first attributed the disappearances to ominous causes, though. Titled “The Deadly Bermuda Triangle,” his article was followed a year later by his book Invisible Horizons. In fact, his work established a whole genre of Bermuda Triangle mythologies and conspiracy theories – which continue to this day.
“Whatever this menace that lurks within a triangle of tragedy so close to home,” wrote Gaddis in Argosy, “it was responsible for the most incredible mystery in the history of aviation – the lost patrol… This relatively limited area is the scene of disappearances that total far beyond the laws of chance.”
So, if not chance, what, then, is the cause? One popular theory suggests methane hydrate periodically breaks free from the ocean floor and bursts skyward as flammable plumes. These subsequently combust on contact with jet engines and ships, setting the former ablaze and causing the latter to sink. In fact, the methane blowout hypothesis is one of the more plausible Bermuda Triangle theories.
Others point to the mysterious “hexagonal” clouds that can span tens of miles. Such clouds have been observed in the North Sea as well as in the Bermuda Triangle. They are apparently associated with highly turbulent waters and hurricane-speed winds. And according to the Science Channel, hexagonal clouds can emit dangerous downward air plumes called microblasts.
Other writers have suggested that the so-called Hutchison effect, named after scientist John Hutchison, may be responsible for weird events in the triangle. The effect refers to a kind of electromagnetic “fog” that some believe causes the electrical systems of ships and planes to malfunction. Invariably, however, such theories veer towards supernatural themes.
There is no shortage of outlandish conjecture to explain the Bermuda Triangle, either. One theory suggests that decaying technology from the mythical lost continent of Atlantis may be causing havoc with passing planes and ships. According to Geoffrey Keyte, who published his suspicions on the website Meta-religion.com, “Atlantean fire-crystals” could be one such technology.
Keyte wrote, “When Atlantis was destroyed, it sank to the very bottom of the ocean… [but] the great Atlantean fire-crystals that once provided [it with] so much of the tremendous power and energy… still exist… From time to time, the force field emitted by these damaged Atlantean fire-crystals becomes very powerful and any plane or ship coming within the influence of this force field disintegrates and is transformed into pure energy…”
Yet another theory blames UFOs for the disappearances. These ideas suggest that the Bermuda Triangle might actually be some sort of intergalactic portal. Steven Spielberg’s alien blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind advanced a similar idea with a storyline that depicted the Flight 19 crew abducted by aliens. But of course, the film was a work of fiction – not a documentary.
What we do know about Flight 19, though, is that it had been assigned a training exercise known as “Navigation problem No. 1,” which included both navigation and bombing tasks. In fact, the exercise had been intended to teach dead reckoning. This includes determining one’s geographic location by calculating factors such as velocity, elapsed time and previous position.
The leader of the squadron was U.S. Navy Lieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor. With 2,500 flying hours under his belt, he was a relatively experienced pilot. Taylor had in fact previously served as a torpedo bomber on the USS Hancock and as a VTB instructor in Miami. His trainees were not complete novices, either. Previously, each pilot had flown approximately 300 hours.
So, after a short delay, the squadron took off from Naval Air Station, Fort Lauderdale, at 2:10 p.m. on December 5, 1945. According to reports, weather at the station was “favorable.” And on the first of four planned legs, the squadron flew on an easterly heading for approximately 64 miles. They were led by a trainee under the supervision of Taylor.
After arriving at Hen and Chicken shoals, the squadron then carried out their bombing exercise. At that point, everything appeared to be proceeding as planned. According to radio transcripts, for instance, one pilot released his final bomb as authorized at approximately 3:00 p.m. Then, around 40 minutes later, Lieutenant Robert Cox, who was leading a different squadron in the area, received a call for help.
“Both of my compasses are out, and I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I am over land, but it’s broken,” Taylor apparently said to Cox. “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…”
Cox then relayed the situation to base and counseled Taylor to head north. Base command then suggested triangulating Taylor’s craft with its onboard IFF transmitter – but the message apparently never reached him. So at around 5:00 p.m., Taylor ordered his trainees to head due east. At this point, however, there was apparently disagreement between the pilots. “Dammit, if we could just fly west we would get home,” one student reportedly said. “Head west, dammit…”
As the squadron struggled to get their bearings, though, the weather began to worsen. Then the sun set, shrouding Flight 19 in darkness. And at around 7:00 p.m., the base recorded Taylor’s final transmission. He said, “All planes close up tight… we’ll have to ditch unless landfall… when the first plane drops below ten gallons, we’ll all go down together.” Following that, nothing was seen or heard from Flight 19 again.
With the squadron missing, an alert came out informing nearby bases and ships. Then, later that night, two Martin PBM Mariner seaplanes left to search the seas. One of them departed from Naval Air Station Banana River at 7:27 p.m. and radioed the base three minutes later – then apparently vanished without a trace.
Of course, the Navy subsequently carried out an investigation into the disappearances. And, initially, with respect to Flight 19, the authorities blamed the tragedy on Taylor – according to Taylor’s mother, who naturally complained. The Navy then amended its 500-page report, concluding that the squadron had disappeared due to unknown causes.
Of course, many investigators have since attempted to explain what those unknown causes might be. And now Australian scientist and TV pundit Karl Kruszelnicki thinks he has the answer. According to him, then, natural causes led to the disappearance of Flight 19. Kruszelnicki in fact argued that there is nothing strange or supernatural about the Bermuda Triangle at all.
“It is close to the Equator, near a wealthy part of the world – America – therefore you have a lot of traffic,” he told The Independent. “The number that go missing in the Bermuda Triangle is the same as anywhere in the world on a percentage basis.”
In fact, neither the U.S. Coastguard nor international insurers have detected anything anomalous about the Bermuda Triangle. And with respect to Flight 19, Kruszelnicki also challenged the claim made by Gaddis that the squadron had disappeared in good flight conditions. He told The Independent, “It wasn’t fine weather; there were 49-feet waves.”
According to scientists from the University of Southampton, too, the Bermuda Triangle is prone to so-called “rogue waves,” which can reach over 100 feet high. Therefore, if the squadron ran out of fuel and landed on the sea, rogue waves could easily have swept away the planes – and any survivors.
Kruszelnicki also argued that human error may have played a major role in the disappearance in Flight 19. Specifically, the scientist said Taylor may have been responsible for losing the squadron. Kruszelnicki continued, “Taylor arrived with a hangover, flew off without a watch, and had a history of getting lost and ditching his plane twice before.”
Taylor also had to contend with a malfunction: a faulty compass. And without this essential navigation tool, he may simply have misidentified his location, Kruszelnicki argued. So the “broken” land that Taylor mentioned to Cox in his distress call may not have been the Florida Keys, which is located to the southwest of the mainland. Instead, Kruszelnicki felt, Taylor was probably flying over the Bahamas, which is to the southeast.
This would explain why, upon them losing their bearings, Taylor believed that the squadron should continue flying east. And it might explain why one of his students had wanted to fly west, according to Kruszelnicki. And if Kruszelnicki is correct, Taylor might have arrived home safely if he had listened to that student. But instead, he led his trainees further out to sea, over deep ocean.
Finally, according to Kruszelnicki, the apparently mysterious disappearance of one of the rescue sea planes is also easily explainable. Nicknamed “flying gas tanks,” the planes had a reputation for volatility. As Kruszelnicki said to The Independent, “[The plane] didn’t vanish without a trace. [It] was seen to blow up.”
Indeed, at 9:15 p.m. that day, the crew on board a nearby tanker, the SS Gaines Mills reported a significant sighting. They said they saw a massive explosion and a ten-minute fire at the exact location where the plane had been spotted on the radar of a naval carrier, the USS Solomons. Captain Shonna Stanley subsequently searched the area and found no survivors. But he did find a slick of gasoline and oil.
Kruszelnicki’s claims actually build on the work of Lawrence Kusche. The latter’s 1975 book, The Bermuda Triangle Mystery: Solved, was the first to advance the skeptic case. Kusche wrote, “The legend of the Bermuda Triangle is a manufactured mystery, perpetuated by writers who either purposely or unknowingly made use of misconceptions, faulty reasoning, and sensationalism…”
In fact, you see, insurance premiums for vessels traveling through the Bermuda Triangle cost no more than anywhere else. And this is a statement that Lloyd’s of London has been repeating since 1975. A spokesperson said in 1997, “There are just as many losses as in other wide expanses of ocean.”
Still, professional treasure-hunters continue to search for the remains of Flight 19. And in 1991 it almost seemed that one of them had succeeded when Graham Hawkes declared that he had found five wrecked planes off the coast of Florida. The planes were Avengers – but the tail numbers did not match those from Flight 19.
Naturally, though, the Bermuda Triangle continues to fire up the public imagination. So much so that in 2017 director Sam Raimi announced the development of a Bermuda Triangle movie. And it sounds as weird as the very weirdest triangle theories. According to the film news site ScreenRant, it will include “sharks, Vikings and Nazis.”
But perhaps the biggest mystery of all is why – despite all scientific evidence to the contrary – people still believe that there is anything unusual about the Bermuda Triangle. It could be because, like all good stories, the myth speaks to our unconscious wants and fears. And those, whatever the facts, are never going to go out of style.