LOSS OF FLIGHT 19
Gary 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.