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THE LOSS OF FLIGHT 19

A modern-day AvengerGary Stedman looks at a famous disappearance on its 55th anniversary

The battered Land Rover appears on the screen through the raging sand, it comes to a halt and several men dismount. Shielding their faces from the sand storm, they're greeted by a delegation from the Mexican Police as we learn the location is the Sonora desert, present day. A second group arrive by car, a reluctant French speaking interpreter is amongst them. As the two delegations exchange greetings one of the men cries "They're all there- all of them", pointing past the cantina towards a car junkyard. Excited, the group follows his lead, surrounding a aircraft, and barely visible in the driving sand stand four others. The Frenchman speaks to the interpreter; "Mr Lacombe wants the numbers off the engine blocks", he shouts as the group disperses towards the aircraft. Mr Lacombe's assistant runs off a checklist as the replies are shouted out over the sandstorm. One of the men checks the fuel tanks, finding gasoline still present. A now totally befuddled interpreter approaches Lacombe's assistant: "What the hell is happening here?" "It's Flight number 19. It's that training mission from NAS Fort Lauderdale, these planes were reported missing in 1945", he shouts as he climbs up into the cockpit of one of the planes, it still in perfect condition, even down to the snapshots of the pilots family and a 1945 calendar. "Where's the pilot, where's the crew?" The interpreter continues to scream questions at him as he examines the cockpit. "How the hell did it get here?" The assistant checks the battery, taps the fuel gauges and tries the engine, it starting first time.

An old Mexican man sits beside the cantina as the Mexican Police hustle over Mr Lacombe and his assistant. Clearly scared, he starts to speak, the American assistant translating into English while the interpreter continues in French. "He says the sun came out last night, it sang to him". The interpreter steps back into the desert, looking around nervously.


If this account sounds vaguely familiar then you may well be a science fiction buff, as it is the opening scene to the film 'Close encounters of the third kind', written and directed by the master of the big screen, Steven Spielberg. During the film's climax the alien entities return the crews, bewildered but still youthful. Spielberg's 1977 masterpiece adopted one of the more sensational explanations to one of aviation's most renowned mysteries, the loss of the fourteen aircrew on board five Grumman Avenger Torpedo Bombers that departed Fort Lauderdale NAS on the afternoon of the 5 December 1945 for a navigation and bombing exercise. A Martin Mariner flying boat, one of several aircraft despatched to aid the missing Avengers, was also lost.

The five TBMs departed Fort Lauderdale, designated Flight 19, at approximately 14:10 that afternoon to fly a triangular route over the Atlantic, this navigation exercise including a bombing run on the first leg. The flight leader, Lieutenant Charles Taylor, had requested another instructor take out the flight but was informed no replacement was available, so another Avenger left one man short.

The flight appeared to proceed normally until Lieutenant Robert Cox, another instructor who was over Fort Lauderdale, overheard Taylor talking to his students. Cox learned that Taylor's compasses were not working and he was lost. Taylor believed he was over the Florida Keys, a position far to the South of the intended route, but one he knew having recently transferred to Fort Lauderdale from Miami. Cox's directions were also based on Taylor's assumption that he was somewhere in the Keys. By flying South Cox intended to meet Taylor's flight heading North along the keys towards the Florida coast.

By now Fort Lauderdale was aware that one of its training flights was in difficulties and was also trying to establish contact with Flight 19. Cox was also experiencing trouble communicating with the flight, for if the flight was in the Florida Keys the signal should have become stronger as it flew North.

ClickWith Cox forced to land because of transmitter problems, Port Everglades contacted Taylor and instructed him to turn over the lead position to another aircraft with good compasses to lead the flight back, but despite acknowledging this request no other plane took over. Port Everglades believed the flight was actually over the Bahamas (where it should have been) and not to the South over the Keys as Taylor believed, so instructions to turn West were transmitted but not acknowledged. A suggestion by one of the student pilots to fly West was also overheard, although Taylor maintained a course to the North, still apparently unconvinced. The time was now approximately 17:00 and the weather was deteriorating considerably, as a storm front was moving into the area.

By 17:15 Taylor had finally turned the flight West and still expected to reach land, but interference from Cuban radio stations was affecting communications so he was requested to switch to another frequency. Refusing, he believed he might lose contact with some of his flight during the frequency change. The various shore stations listening to Flight 19 communications calculated a position fix at 18:00, the DF fix placing the Avengers North of the Bahamas, although suprisingly this information was not transmitted to Taylor until 18:30. By then the flight was no longer in contact with any shore station (only with each other), and there was no indication that Flight 19 received the position fix. Although contact was never established with the flight after 18:00 they continued to be monitored until 19:00, and the flight's fuel was expected to have been exhausted by 20:00.

Although a full search would not start until daybreak several aircraft were dispatched to establish contact, including two Martin Mariner flying boats from Banana River Naval Air Station. The two Mariners departed at about 19:30, heading independently towards the 18:00 position fix. The SS Gaines Mill observed a explosion in the sky at about 19:50, and a oil slick was noted in the sea where the explosion occurred, the Carrier USS Solomon also observing the aircraft disappear from its radar at the same time.

A extensive search for any survivors from the five Avengers and the Mariner was conducted over the next few days, and there were several reported sightings of wreckage and survivors, both at sea and in the Everglades swamps which upon investigation proved unfounded. In more recent years divers have located several wrecked Avengers on the seabed although none found to date match the markings carried by Flight 19's Avengers. The very thorough US Navy investigation listed many factors which may have contributed to the flight's demise, including: Taylor's unfamiliarity with the area; the approach of bad weather; the communications difficulties; the failure to send the position fix promptly. Despite concluding the flight was in the Florida Keys when in fact they where still over the Bahamas, Lieutenant Taylor was absolved of all blame for the flight's loss, the US Navy concluding that Taylor valiantly attempted to guide his planes back under the most difficult conditions.

The loss of Flight 19 would probably not have attracted so much notoriety if it had occured anywhere else on the planet, but to happen within the confines of the Bermuda Triangle was bound to court publicity. Sensational theories ranging from time warps to UFO kidnappings have all been suggested to explain the alleged disappearances in the area boarded by the tip of Florida and the islands of Bermuda and Puerto Rico. Most of the cases are inconclusive, many disappearances occurring in bad weather with several possible causes besides supernatural intervention. The Martin Mariner almost certainly exploded in mid air, although for reasons unknown.
In 1946 the US Navy left Fort Lauderdale, the air station becoming Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. On 5 December each year a memorial service is held at the airport to honour Flight 19.

However, not all disappearances can be dismissed quickly (see the previous article, Defence Significance?); the disappearance of Cessna 182 VH-DSJ and its young pilot off King Island, Australia in 1978 is particularly difficult to explain by conventional means. Frederick Valentich reported a large metallic object orbiting over his Cessna shortly before communications with Melbourne control abruptly ceased, a SAR effort commencing just fifteen minutes after the loss of contact. Despite a dubious attempt by divers to sell some photographs to a writer supposedly showing the Cessna (minus a body) on the seabed, this incident still remains baffling.

 

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