The loss of six US military aircraft on 5th December 1945 is one of the most famous aviation mysteries. It has generated more interest, speculation and outright nonsense than almost any other mystery of the air. Seventy years on, is it possible to deduce what actually happened in the winter sky over Florida?
It was four years since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but World War Two had been over for almost five months, Japan and Germany had been defeated and America was the only country in the world which had the atomic bomb, making the prospect of any future conflict seem remote. Despite this, the training of young aviators continued at the US Naval Air Station at Ft. Lauderdale in Florida. Just after two o’clock in the afternoon a flight of five Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bombers took off on a routine training flight. None were ever seen again. During the subsequent search operation a Martin Mariner PBM flying boat also disappeared and was never seen again.
Ft. Lauderdale NAS during World War two
The disappearance of these six aircraft and twenty-seven men has become one of the most enduring mysteries of the air. It has also given rise to a huge amount of speculation involving UFOs, alien abduction, giant waterspouts and has even contributed to the creation of the myth of the Bermuda Triangle. Seventy years after the event, is it possible to deduce what really happened in December 1945?
The group of thirteen trainees who would comprise training Flight 19 were probably nervous as they waited in the briefing room close to the runway at the Ft. Lauderdale Naval Air Station. This was their last training flight before graduation but their training pilot, Lt. Charles Carroll Taylor, was late. The flight was due to depart at 13:45 EST, but by 13:00 there was no sign of Carroll, an experienced pilot who had combat experience. At 13:10 he finally arrived on the base but instead of joining his trainees he went instead to see the Aviation Duty Officer, Lt. Arthur Curtis, and asked to be excused from leading Flight 19 (flights were numbered consecutively in the order they were scheduled to take off each day – Flight 19 was simply the nineteenth flight due to take-off from Ft. Lauderdale on 5th December). We don’t know why, or if he asked to be excused all flying or just from leading Flight 19. The detailed report issued by the US Navy after the incident only notes that when asked for a reason, he “declined to give one”. He was told that no replacement training pilot was available, his request was denied and he joined the waiting trainees.
Lt. Charles Carroll Taylor, USNR
The trainees were a mix of officers and enlisted men from the US Navy Reserve (USNR), the US Marine Corps (USMC) and the US Marine Corps Reserve (USMCR). The aircraft they were to fly was the Grumman TBM Avenger. The Avenger had served the US Navy well during World War Two as a torpedo bomber, but by late 1945 it was beginning to show its age. The Navy was already looking at the possibility of using jet aircraft and the Avenger was powered by a single, huge, radial piston engine. In normal circumstances, each Avenger would have carried a crew of three: pilot, gunner and radioman. However, one trainee who should have been in Flight 19, Corporal Allan Kosnar, had asked to be excused the training flight as he already had the required number of hours (not because he had some premonition of danger as has been claimed). So, while four of the aircraft would carry a full crew of three, one would lack a gunner. Each avenger was painted in the new, post-war livery of overall dark blue and identified by the letters FT on the fuselage (“F” for Ft. Lauderdale, “T” for Torpedo Bomber) and by a one, two or three digit number painted on the aircraft’s tail. These were also used as radio call signs.
FT-123: Not an aircraft from Flight 19 but another TBM Avenger operating out of Ft. Lauderdale
The aircraft of Flight 19
FT-28, TBM Avenger TBM-3D. Pilot and Flight Leader: Lt. Charles Carroll Taylor, USNR. Gunner: George F. Devlin, AOM3c, USNR. Radioman: Walter Reed Parpart, Jr. ARM3c, USNR.
FT-36, TBM Avenger TBM-1C. Pilot: Capt. Edward Joseph Powers Jr., USMC. Gunner: Sgt. Howell O. Thompson, USMCR. Radioman: Sgt. George R. Paonessa, USMCR.
FT-81, TBM Avenger TBM-1C. Pilot: 2nd Lt. Forrest J. Gerber, USMCR. Gunner: None. Radioman: Pfc. William Lightfoot, USMCR.
FT-3, TBM Avenger TBM-1C. Pilot: Ensign Joseph T. Bossi, USNR. Gunner: Herman A. Thelander, S1c, USNR. Radioman: Burt E. Baluk, S1c, USNR.
FT-117, TBM Avenger TBM-1C. Pilot: Captain George W. Stivers, USMC. Gunner: Sgt. Robert F. Gallivan, USMCR. Radioman: Pvt. Robert F. Gruebel, USMCR.
In the briefing room Taylor discussed the training flight with the trainees. The weather was average with a temperature of 67°F, gusting southwest winds, visibility of ten – twelve miles and the possibility of rain showers. Taylor chalked the navigation problem they were to undertake on the board. Navigation Problem Number 1 was a dead reckoning exercise which would require calculations of speed, bearing and time to estimate position. The problem had four separate legs and Taylor assigned one trainee pilot to take the lead on each leg. Taylor would fly at the rear of the formation and grade each pilot on his performance during his period as lead.
Approximate route for Navigation Problem Number 1. The first leg took the aircraft to Hen and Chicken Shoals where they were to conduct practice bombing, most probably on the hulk of the concrete ship SS Sapona wrecked in 1926 about four miles away. Total flight time was expected to be around 2½ hours with an ETA for the return to Ft Lauderdale between 16:30 and 17:00. You’ll note that the triangular route doesn’t quite return to the starting point – the aircraft were expected to cross the Florida coast around ten miles north of Ft. Lauderdale NAS and then to turn south until they reached the airfield.
With the briefing over the fourteen men walked out to the waiting aircraft. Groundcrew had prepared the five aircraft which were filled with fuel and had all emergency equipment stowed. Taylor was to fly a model TBM-3D Avenger while other four aircraft were older model TBM-1C Avengers. However, each aircraft was missing one important piece of equipment. The 24 hour clocks fitted to TBM Avengers were extremely accurate. However, they were also easily removed and it was common for pilots to remove the clocks and take them home. After the war had ended the Navy stopped replacing these expensive pieces of equipment and none of the aircraft in Flight 19 had clocks. The assumption was that all pilots would use their own wristwatches to make the necessary calculations based on time.
The cockpit of a TBM-3 Avenger
Flight 19 finally took off at 14:10, twenty-five minutes late and about thirty minutes behind Flight 18 which was on the same Navigation Problem. At the cruising speed of the TBM Avenger (135knots/150 mph) it should have taken a little over twenty minutes to reach the first waypoint, Hen and Chicken Shoals, where the group was to conduct bombing practice. Sometime between 14:30 and 15:00 Ft. Lauderdale operations logged two short radio messages from the flight indicating that they had arrived at Hen and Chicken Shoals and were engaged in bombing practice.
“I’ve got one more bomb.”
“Go ahead and drop it”.
A fishing boat in the area later reported seeing “three or four” aircraft heading east at about 15:00. The radio messages and this sighting suggest that Flight 19 reached Hen and Chicken Shoals without problems and carried out the bombing practice. The flight should then have continued on a heading of 091° (almost due east) for a further 67 miles. This would have taken around twenty five minutes and the flight was then due to turn north on to a heading of 346° and would have been due to overfly the island of Grand Bahama at around 16:00.
Lt. Robert Cox
However, at around 15:40, Lt. Robert Cox, the Senior Flight Instructor at Ft. Lauderdale (flying Avenger FT-74) was joining up with another training flight over the airfield when he heard a distant and partially garbled radio message. A voice was heard repeatedly asking someone called Powers (presumably Captain Edward Joseph Powers Jr., the pilot of FT-36 who, although a student, was the senior officer on Flight 19) what his compass read. Finally, Powers was heard to reply:
FT-36: “I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.”
Lt. Cox continued to monitor the radio over the next fifteen minutes as garbled and broken radio messages from Flight 19 faded in and out. Cox overheard fragmentary radio messages that included: “Does anyone have any suggestions?” and “I think we must be over the Keys.” By this time, Cox was sufficiently concerned that he informed Ft. Lauderdale Operations that he believed that a ship or a group of aircraft were lost and in difficulty. Ft. Lauderdale Operations (call sign NHA1) were not able to hear transmissions from Flight 19 and relied on Cox to act as an intermediary. After discussions with NHA1, Cox put out a blind transmission, hoping to reach the craft in distress.
FT-74: “This is Fox Tare 74, will the plane or boat calling Powers please identify yourself so someone can help you.”
Finally Cox heard a clear response.
FT-28: “Roger, this is MT-28.”
Taylor seemed to have forgotten his call-sign and he mistakenly initially identified himself as MT-28 instead of FT-28. “MT” was the identification for torpedo bombers flying out of Miami, where Taylor had previously been based.
FT-74: “MT-28, this is FT-74, what is your trouble?”
Around 15:50 Taylor responded.
FT-28: “Both my compasses are out and I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I am over land but it’s broken. 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.”
Taylor’s response made no sense. Flight 19 was over 100 miles north and east of the Florida Keys. Take a look at the map below to see where Flight 19 most likely was at 15:50 – the circle shows a 65 mile radius round the turning point where the flight should have turned on to a heading of 346°. Depending on the direction in which they flew, they could have been anywhere within this circle but they certainly couldn’t have passed over the Florida Keys.
Not realizing that Taylor was completely mistaken as to his current position, Cox responded.
FT-74: “MT-28 this is FT-74. Put the sun on your port wing if you are in the Keys and fly up the coast until you get to Miami. Fort Lauderdale is 20 miles further, your first port after Miami. The air station is directly on your left from the port.”
This was good advice for aircraft over the Florida Keys, but unfortunately it was no help at all to the aircraft of Flight 19 which were most probably somewhere close to the Bahamas. Soon after this Cox turned his aircraft south, towards the Florida Keys and transmitted again.
FT-74: “What is your present altitude? I will fly south and meet you.”
FT-28: “I know where I am now. I’m at 2,300 feet. Don’t come after me.”
FT-74: “Roger MT-28, you’re at 2,300. I’m coming to meet you anyhow.”
FT-28: “We have just passed over a small island. We have no other land in sight.”
It was clear that Taylor and his flight were completely lost. The situation was serious but not yet critical. At this point the Avengers of Flight 19 had enough fuel remaining for another 3 – 3½ hours of flying, possibly a little more if they flew as economically as possible. Ft. Lauderdale Operations then contacted Cox with a question.
NHA1: “FT-74, this is Nan How Able One. Is the call sign of your contact MT-28 or FT-28?”
Cox raised the question with Taylor.
FT-74: “MT-28 this is FT-74. Please verify. Are you MT-28 or FT-28? Over.”
At 16:26 Taylor responded.
FT-28: “Roger, that’s FT-28, repeat FT-28. FT-74, Can you have Miami or someone turn on their radar gear and pick us up? We don’t seem to be getting far. We were out on a navigation hop and on the second leg I thought they were going wrong, so I took over and was flying them back to the right position. But I’m sure, now, that neither one of my compasses is working.”
FT-74: “You can’t expect to get here in ten minutes. You have a 30- to 35-knot head or crosswind. Turn on your emergency IFF gear, or do you have it on?”
FT-28: IFF gear was off, I am turning it on now. I am at angels 3.5.”
“IFF gear” refers to an electronic beacon, the Identification Friend or Foe unit. When switched on this allows any aircraft to show up more clearly on radar sets. By the end of World War Two it was fitted in many military and civilian aircraft. Civilian aircraft have IFF on at all times to make them more easily visible to air traffic radar. Military aircraft tend to switch it on only in an emergency because it may also make them more visible to enemy radar. Cox transmitted to NHA1.
FT-74: “Nan How Able One, this is FT-74. Flight of 5 planes leader is FT-28. He has his emergency IFF equipment on. Requests if he can be picked up on Fort Lauderdale radar gear.”
NHA1: “Negative. He cannot be picked up on Fort Lauderdale radar gear. Tell FT-28 to have a pilot with a good compass take over lead. Over.”
FT-74: “Roger. FT-28, this is FT-74. Have a wingman with a good compass take over lead of flight. Over.”
FT-28: . . .unintelligible. . . “radar. . .“
However, from the fragmentary and broken portions of radio transmission heard from the aircraft it is clear that Taylor did not hand the lead to another aircraft at this time. Cox, who was still flying south towards aircraft he assumed were flying north up the Keys towards him became aware that the radio transmissions from FT-28 were getting weaker, which made no sense. In fact, it is almost certain that at this point Taylor, still hopelessly lost, was over one hundred miles distant and actually flying away from Cox.
FT-74: “Your transmissions are fading. Something is wrong. What is your altitude?”
FT-28: “I’m at 4,500 feet.”
At this point, the battery on the ATC transmitter in Cox’s aircraft went off line and he was unable to make any further contact with Flight 19. Cox turned back to the north and returned to Ft. Lauderdale. He made no further contact with Flight 19. Air-Sea Rescue Task Unit Four at Port Everglades (call sign NHA3) which had been monitoring communications with Flight 19 now joined the conversation.
NHA3: “Nan How Able Three to FT-28: This is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country . . . can you read us?”
FT-28: “Affirmative. We have just passed over a small island. We have no other land in sight. Visibility is 10 to 12 miles. I am at angels 3.5. Have on Emergency IFF. Does anybody in the area have a radar screen that could pick us up?”
NHA3: “FT-28, this is Nan How Able Three. Suggest you have another plane in your flight with a good compass take over the lead and guide you back to the mainland.”
At 16:31 the following transmission from Taylor was picked up by NHA3:
FT-28: ““FT-28 to Nan How Able Three, one of the planes in the flight thinks if we went 270 degrees we could hit land.”
This was absolutely correct. All students at Ft. Lauderdale were told that, if they became disorientated while flying over the Atlantic they should simply fly a course of 270° (due west) or, if their navigation equipment failed, fly towards the sun. Both would take them back towards land. At 16:39 the Ft. Lauderdale Operations Officer contacted the Air-Sea Rescue Task Unit Four at Port Everglades by telephone to confer. It was agreed that a group of aircraft seemed to be lost somewhere over the Bahamas and that transmissions from the group were becoming more difficult to understand, suggesting that they were moving away from the coast. The Gulf Sea Frontier High Frequency Directional Finding Net was contacted to obtain a radio bearing on the flight’s transmissions. Nothing more was heard from Flight 19 until at 16:45:
FT-28: “FT-28 to Nan How Able Three. We are heading 030 degrees for 45 minutes, then we will fly north to make sure we are not over the Gulf of Mexico.”
Clearly Taylor had not heeded the suggestion that the flight head west. Instead he was leading them north east, almost directly away from land and safety, over the open ocean and into darkening skies and decreasing visibility. At around 16:50 NHA3 asked Taylor to switch his radio to the emergency frequency.
NHA3: “Nan How Able Three to FT-28, If you can change to Yellow Band (3000 kilocycles), please do so and give us a call.”
FT-28: “I receive you very weak. How is weather over Lauderdale?”
NHA3: “FT-28, this is Nan How Able Three, Weather over Lauderdale clear. Over Key West CAVU. Over the Bahamas cloudy rather low ceiling, poor visibility.”
FT-28: “Nan How Able Three, Can you hear me?”
NHA3: “Hear you strength three, modulation good. Can you shift to 3000 kcs? Over. FT-28, please change to 3000 kcs. . . .shift to 3000 kcs. Over.”
FT-28: “Nan How Able Three, How do you read?
NHA3: “Very Weak. Change to 3000 kilocycles.”
FT-28: “Hello Nan How Able Three, this is FT-28. I can hear you very faintly. My transmission is getting weaker.”
NHA3: “Change to Yellow Band channel 1, 3000 kilocycles and give us a call.”
FT-28: “My transmission is getting weaker.”
NHA3: “Change to Yellow Band 3000 kilocycles and say words twice when answering.”
NHA3: “Nan How Able Three to FT-28, Did you receive my last transmission? Change to channel 1 3000 kilocycles.”
FT-28: “Repeat once again.”
NHA3: “Change to Channel 1, 3000 kilocycles.”
FT-28: “I cannot change frequency. I must keep my planes intact.”
Presumably Taylor was finding it difficult to maintain formation as the light began to fade and the weather worsened. He wanted to maintain radio communication with the rest of the aircraft in Flight 19 at all times, hence his unwillingness to change to the search and rescue frequency. However, it was becoming difficult for shore stations to receive transmissions from Taylor and evidently difficult for Taylor to receive transmissions from shore. At 16:56 Taylor failed to respond to a request from NHA3 to turn on his ZBX receiver, part of the TBMs direction finding equipment. After 17:03 several disjointed and fragmentary transmissions were heard from Taylor to the other aircraft in Flight 19:
FT-28: “All planes in this flight join up in close formation.”
FT-28: “How long have we gone now?”
FT-28: “FT-28 to all planes in flight, change course to 090o for 10 minutes.”
FT-28: ” . . .You didn’t get far enough east. How long have we been going east?”
During this period transmissions were also heard from angry and confused pilots in the other Flight 19 aircraft:
Unidentified pilot 1: ”Dammit, if we could just fly west we would get home”
Unidentified pilot 2: ”Hold it: head west, dammit!”
Although these pilots were not formally identified in the report on the incident it was believed that they were Capt. Powers (pilot of aircraft FT-36) and Ensign Joseph T. Bossi (pilot of aircraft FT-3). Whoever they were, the unidentified pilots were correct. There presumably followed some heated discussion between the aircraft of Flight 19 though none of this was picked up by listening shore stations. At 17:16 another transmission was picked up from Taylor to NHA3.
FT-28: “Hello Nan How Able three, this is FT-28. Do you read? Over.”
NHA3: “Roger. This is Nan How Able Three. Go ahead.”
FT-28: “I receive you very weak. We are now flying 270o ”
FT-28: “We will fly 270 degrees until we hit the beach or run out of gas.”
Finally, Flight 19 was heading west, towards the coast and safety. At this point the aircraft had more than two hours of fuel left, sufficient to bring them back over the Florida coast. The weather was worsening at Ft. Lauderdale and as the flight now seemed to be heading back to safety it was decided not to launch the duty aircraft to the east to look for the missing flight. At 17:50 the Gulf and Eastern Sea Frontier high frequency/DF nets had finally completed triangulation of bearings on FT-28 which produced a reliable fix on their location. They were within a 100-mile radius of 29°N, 79°W – north of the Bahamas and roughly 120 miles east of Daytona Beach. Unfortunately this information was not sent to Flight 19, probably because they already appeared to be heading in the right direction. The sun set at 17:20 which meant that it would be dark before the flight reached land so all stations were alerted and instructed to turn on field lights/beacons, and searchlights.
Approximate location of Flight 19 at 17:50 according to triangulation by shore radio stations. The area has a radius of 100 miles and the centre is 120 miles east of Daytona Beach.
But then at 18:04 another faint conversation between the aircraft of Flight 19 was picked up:
FT-28: “Hello Powers, do you read me?”
FT-28: “Hello Powers, this is Taylor. Do you read me? Over.”
FT-36: “Roger. I read you.”
FT-28: “Hello Powers. I have been trying to reach you.”
FT-36: “I thought you were calling base—“
FT-28: “Negative. What course are we on?”
FT-36: “Holding course 270.”
FT-28: “Affirmative. I am pretty sure we are over the Gulf of Mexico. We didn’t go far enough east. How long have we been on this course?”
FT-36: ” About 45 minutes.”
FT-28: “I suggest we fly due east until we run out of gas. We have a better chance of being picked up close to shore. If we were near land we should be able to see a light or something. Are you listening ? We may just as well turn around and go east again.
It seemed that Taylor had handed control of the flight to Captain Powers who was leading them to the west. But, incredibly, after just fifty minutes of flying in the right direction, Taylor was suggesting that they turn round and fly east once again, towards the open sea. It was no longer possible for NHA3 to make radio contact with Flight 19 and at 18:20 a PBY Catalina flying boat was launched from the Dinner Key Coast Guard Air Station to try to contact the missing aircraft and to confirm their position and the direction they should fly to safety. Unfortunately the Catalina had radio problems and was unable to make contact with Flight 19. Radio messages from Flight 19 were increasingly garbled and difficult to understand. At around 18:30 the final clearly discernible radio message from Taylor was picked up:
FT-28: “All planes close up tight… we’ll have to ditch unless landfall… when the first plane drops below 10 gallons, we all go down together.”
No further positively identified messages were heard from Flight 19 though NHA3 did pick up a very faint “FT-3, FT-3, FT-3” later. FT-3 was the aircraft flown by Ensign Joseph Bossi but despite repeated attempts, NHA3 was unable to raise any of the aircraft in Flight 19. A massive air/sea rescue operation was launched as soon as it was realized that the aircraft were not heading for shore and all stations were told to be on the look-out for the missing flight. The last possible sighting of Flight 19 was a radar contact by the aircraft carrier USS Solomons (CVE-67) at 19:00. The report from the Solomons read:
“FOUR TO SIX PLANES – NO IFF – AT 1900 – LAT 2935 – LONG 8128 COURSE 170 – SPEED 120 – ESTIMATED ALTITUDE 4000 FEET”
Location of radar contact by USS Solomons, 19:00
It has never been confirmed that the radar contact at 29°35’00.0″N, 81°28’00.0″W made by the USS Solomons was of Flight 19, though it certainly makes sense. By 19:00 it was dark and stormy and the risk of collision would have made it dangerous for any group of aircraft to fly in formation together – the search and rescue aircraft flew separately. The official enquiry failed to find any other group of aircraft which might have accounted for this radar contact. If you compare the map above with the map showing the triangulated fix of Flight 19s position at 17:50, they are around 150 miles apart – easily covered at the cruise speed of the TBM Avenger. The altitude and speed of the radar contact matches what we would expect from Flight 19 and the course, heading almost due south, also makes sense in terms of aircraft which were trying to find an airbase at which to land. However, if this was Flight 19, they must have been very close to running out of fuel at this point.
Search and rescue craft were launched all along the Florida coast to look for Flight 19. At the Banana River Naval Air Station near Jacksonville in Florida two giant Martin Mariner PBM-5 flying boats were launched to join the search at around 19:25. At 19:30 one of the aircraft, BuNo 59225, with 13 men onboard radioed in a routine climb report. Nothing further was heard from this aircraft. At 20:00 a message was received from the SS Gaines, an oil tanker transiting the coast of Florida.
“At 1950hr observed a burst of flame, apparently an explosion, leaping flames 100ft high, and burning for 10min. Position 28°69’N, 8°25’W. At present passing through a big pool of oil. Circled area using searchlights, looking for survivors. None found.”
In a later message the Master of the SS Gaines confirmed that he had seen an aircraft catch fire and immediately crash, burning into the sea. The air search radar on the USS Solomons confirmed that they had been tracking the aircraft since it had taken off from Banana River NAS and that the radar plot disappeared at around the time that SS Gaines reported seeing flames and an explosion. All on board the PBM-5 were presumed lost.
A Martin Mariner PBM-5 flying boat
No wreckage of the six missing aircraft was found despite one of the largest search and rescue operations ever mounted. However, large oil slicks were observed at the location where SS Gaines had seen an aircraft crash and the PBM-5 was assumed to have crashed in to the sea at this location. There was no trace of any of the missing aircraft from Flight 19. On the following day the crew of an Eastern Air Lines DC-3 reported seeing a red flare in swampland the vicinity of Sebastian, north of Vero Beach, Florida. This was followed up but no trace was found of any crashed aircraft.
A few days later the family of Sgt. George R. Paonessa, the radioman on one of the Flight 19 aircraft, received a Western Union telegram apparently sent from the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville. The telegram read: “I am very much alive” and was signed: “Georgie“. According to the family “Georgie” was how Sgt. Paonessa was known to close family members. No further communications were received by the family from “Georgie”.
The US Navy enquiry and report into the loss of Flight 19 initially found Lt. Taylor guilty of “mental aberration”. However his mother, Katherine Taylor, began her own investigation. The contention of Mrs Taylor and other members of the family was that, as the Navy was unable to prove what had happened to Flight 19, it was unreasonable and unfair to place the blame upon Taylor. This was accepted by the Navy and Lt. Taylor was exonerated in 1947 by the Board for Correction of Naval Records, in regard for “responsibility for loss of lives and naval aircraft.”
Part of the official documentation relating to the disappearance of Flight 19 – this discusses the loss of the PBM-5.
In 1963 Graham Stikelether, an Indian River County attorney who later became a judge, found the wreckage of what appeared to be a naval aircraft while hunting near Sebastian, Florida. The aircraft contained two bodies. Stikelether notified the Navy and the aircraft and human remains were retrieved. Stikelether claimed that he was initially told that the aircraft was one of those from Flight 19, but naval authorities later denied this. The US navy has consistently refused to identify the bodies or the aircraft recovered near Sebastian in 1963 and even refused a Freedom of Information request lodged by Flight 19 researcher Jon Myhre in 2013.
Parts of a crashed TBM Avenger are recovered in Broward County, Florida in 1989.
In May 1989 it appeared that one of the Flight 19 aircraft might have been discovered when a crashed TBM Avenger was found in Broward County, Florida. The wreckage was spotted by a county deputy in a helicopter following a brush fire which had destroyed the long grass under which it had been hidden. Initial research suggested that this was a TBM-3D Avenger, the same model flown by Charles Taylor. However in 2014 it was finally established that the recovered aircraft had crashed in 1947 and was nothing to do with Flight 19.
Recovery of part of the wreckage of a TBM Avenger from the sea off Ft. Lauderdale, August 1991.
In May 1991 the research ship Deep See was using advanced sonar equipment and underwater video cameras to search off the Florida coast for a for a Spanish galleon when it located the wreckage of a group of five Avenger aircraft within an area of 1.2 miles approximately 10 miles north-east of Ft. Lauderdale. Excitement rose when the US Navy confirmed that it had no knowledge of five Avenger aircraft ditching in the area other than those from Flight 19. However a costly follow-up expedition in August recovered some of the wreckage and showed than none of the aircraft were from Flight 19. How these five Avengers came to be on the sea bed off Ft. Lauderdale without the knowledge of the US Navy remains a mystery.
The simplest theory about Flight 19 is that it became lost and continued to fly a meandering course until the aircraft ran out of fuel at which point they either ditched in the sea or crashed on land. By the time that Flight 19 would have run out of fuel it was dark, there were low clouds, strong winds and a heavy sea. The chances of surviving either a crash-landing or a ditching in those circumstances are very low. Similarly the loss of the PBM-5 search aircraft is thought to have a logical cause. The PBM-5 Mariner aircraft was able to carry up to 3,400 gallons of fuel giving it immense range but also earning it the nickname “flying gas tank” from crews. Fire was a very real risk on the Mariner and several were lost as a result. On July 9th 1945 for example, a Mariner had taken off from Banana River NAS for a routine patrol over the Bahamas. The weather was good but the aircraft was never seen again despite a large search operation. It was assumed that the aircraft had suffered a failure so sudden and catastrophic that it was destroyed before it could send a distress message. An on-board explosion was cited as a possible cause. The Aviation Safety Network database lists the loss of 16 Mariners with 126 fatalities between 1943 and 1955.
However, I suppose that air accidents, no matter how odd, don’t sell many books or rack-up web-site hits. As a result a whole mythos has developed to explain the loss of Flight 19 and the PBM-5 in terms of aliens, UFOs, giant methane gas bubbles, huge waterspouts and the paranormal. As to the natural explanations, well, I can’t say for certain that there aren’t giant methane bubbles or huge waterspouts in the area between the Bahamas and Florida, but there is no evidence at all to link these with the loss of Flight 19 or the PBM-5. Most of the discussion of UFOs and aliens can be traced to radio transmissions supposedly received from Flight 19. These include:
“Everything is wrong…even the ocean doesn’t look as it should”
“Calling control tower…emergency. We seem to have gone off course… we can’t see the ground any more. I repeat: we can’t see the ground.”
“We can’t tell which is west. Nothing is working properly. It’s nuts…we can’t be sure of any directions. Even the sea looks funny…”
“We’re entering white water…”
And my personal favourite:
“Don’t come after us. They look like they’re from outer space!”
The one thing all these transmissions have in common is that they’re completely fabricated. Despite this you can still find books and websites confidently claiming that these can be found in “the National Archives in Washington D.C.” They can’t. All that exists in terms of the public record is the 500 page US Navy “Board of Investigation Report on the loss of Flight 19“. Which is where most of the information in the Just the Facts section of this article comes from and there is no mention in there of “outer space”, “white water” or “It’s nuts…”. Look, just take a moment to read the supposed transmissions above. They sound as if they’re spoken by a hyperactive 15 year-old who has been reading too many war comics, not a veteran Navy pilot. Compare these fake messages with the terminology and tones of the actual transmissions from Flight 19 quoted earlier. Taylor may have been lost and confused but he never sounded anything but calm and professional on the radio. In simple terms, there never was any association between the loss of Flight 19 and UFOs until this was invented by unscrupulous writers to spice-up the story and then re-quoted by those who can’t be bothered to go back to source.
Opening scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The aircraft of Flight 19 are discovered in the Sonoran desert in Mexico after being returned by the aliens who captured them.
As to discussing the possible involvement of time-warps, teleportation or anything similar, I just can’t be bothered. If that offends you, please go away because I think I’m losing the will to live. And if you really feel that I need to refute the theory that the alleged UFO seen floating in space by the crew of Apollo 11 in 1969 is actually one of the missing Flight 19 aircraft then I can only suggest that you try lying quietly in a darkened room with a damp cloth on your head to see if you feel any better.
Sadly, it’s impossible to talk about the loss of Flight 19 without mentioning the Bermuda Triangle. The term “Bermuda Triangle” has entered the lexicon of popular understanding. Ask almost anyone in the Western world what it is and they’ll give you some kind of answer. However, if you ask someone to point to this area on a map, they won’t be able to do that. Because the Bermuda Triangle doesn’t exist. The real mystery here is how the idea of an area where ships and aircraft disappear in an unexplained way has taken root in the popular imagination when there is no factual basis for it?
The idea which became the Bermuda Triangle began with an Associated Press news dispatch in September 1950 in which reporter E.V.W. Jones wrote of ships and planes mysteriously vanishing between the Florida coast and Bermuda. Fate magazine then published an article in 1952 in which George Sand made similar claims. By the mid-1950s the idea that there was something strange happening in the area became part of the UFO mania which was sweeping the US and a link between this area and extraterrestrial beings was made in several books including The Case for the UFO (1955) by M.K. Jessup, The Flying Saucer Conspiracy (1955) by Donald E. Keyhoe and Stranger than Science (1959) by Frank Edwards. However it wasn’t until 1964 that Vincent Gaddis struck gold when he coined the term Bermuda Triangle in an article titled The Deadly Bermuda Triangle in Argosy magazine. This article was later expanded to become Chapter 13 of Gaddis’ book Invisible Horizons: True Mysteries of the Sea (1965). This was quickly followed by Limbo of the Lost (1969) by John Wallace Spencer and most famously by The Bermuda Triangle (1974) by Charles Berlitz. These three books have probably done more than anything else to establish the notion of the Bermuda Triangle in popular culture.
All of these books and articles take a charmingly vague approach to the actual location, shape and extent of the alleged triangle. For example, the area shown as the locus for strange events in Berlitz’ book clearly has four sides, but perhaps “The Bermuda Quadrilateral” just wasn’t felt to be such a snappy title? However, what all these and subsequent supporters of this theory are agreed upon is that, wherever it is precisely, strange things happen in the Bermuda Triangle. Many cases are quoted of aircraft and ships disappearing in calm seas and good weather, navigation instruments and radios malfunctioning and people experiencing weird time-shifts and disorientation. The problem is, most of these accounts are unverified and/or substantially distorted or even entirely invented to fit the author’s point of view. Charles Berlitz in particular was an immensely popular author who never let a few pesky facts get in the way of a good story (for example, some of the lost ships and planes described in his book disappeared many thousands of miles away and in very different circumstances). I don’t have the time, space or inclination to provide a detailed refutation of these books here. Anyway, other people have already done this and there are links at the end of this article if you want to know more. Let’s just accept for the moment that the mysterious Bermuda Triangle has no basis in fact. It was created by some astute writers solely for the purpose of selling books and articles and it has no place in a rational discussion of what happened to Flight 19.
Poster for the 1978 movie The Bermuda Triangle
However, there is no doubt that the seas off the East coast of the US can be a dangerous place (though the maritime accident records of Lloyd’s of London show that they are no more dangerous than many other congested sea lanes elsewhere in the world). The reasons are mundane rather than mysterious though. The Gulf Stream is swift and turbulent in this area, leading to unpredictable weather including sudden localised thunderstorms and fog. The ocean floor is very varied here, with deep trenches, shallow shoals and reefs. This can lead to unpredictable sea conditions and the interaction of currents with the ocean floor can change existing shoals or even create new ones in an astonishingly short period of time, making navigation hazardous. Finally, this is one of only two places on earth (the other is the Devil’s Sea off the east coast of Japan) where a magnetic compass points to true north rather than magnetic north. Unwary pilots and mariners are often caught out by this and can quickly find themselves many miles off course. It has been credibly suggested that weather and compass issues may have been a factor in the loss of Flight 19.
I believe that the true cause of the loss of Flight 19 lies in human factors and particularly in the personality of Lt. Taylor, the flight’s training officer. We know that something was wrong with Taylor on 5th December. The official report notes that he arrived late and asked to be excused from leading Flight 19. The report also tells us that when asked, he declined to give a reason, but I think we can assume that this is a carefully circumspect Navy account of what actually happened. For an assigned training officer to ask to be excused a training flight at such short notice is unusual, and I don’t believe for a moment that the officer involved would simply accept Taylor’s refusal to give a reason and send him out on the flight without asking more questions. There were unconfirmed rumours from other personnel on the base that he was suffering from a monumental hangover after over-indulging at the Officer’s Club the night before. And that he had received a letter that morning that seemed to upset him, though he didn’t say what it was about and simply tucked it inside his flight jacket. Perhaps Taylor did give a reason for not wanting to fly, but it wasn’t accepted? Perhaps there was an extended discussion or even an argument? We’ll never know for sure, and speculating probably isn’t helpful, but we do know that for some reason Taylor didn’t want to fly that day.
The next issue is whether Taylor had even brought a wristwatch with him? Not to do so, when he should have known that the aircraft he was to be flying would not have been equipped with a clock, would be very strange indeed. A dead-reckoning exercise like Navigation problem Number 1 requires that the course and speed of the aircraft is known at all times, and that these are used with elapsed time to calculate just where you are. A pilot who doesn’t know how long he has been flying on a particular course will be lost as soon as he is out of sight of land. In several of the radio transmissions logged between the aircraft of Flight 19, Taylor is heard to ask how long they have been on a particular course, which certainly suggests that he didn’t have a watch. Did he leave his watch behind because he assumed that he wouldn’t be flying that day? Did he assume that, because another pilot would be flying the lead on each leg of the exercise he wouldn’t be required to do any navigation himself? If either of these things are true, they seem to imply a dangerously casual attitude towards his duties on the part of Lt. Taylor.
What do we know about Lt. Charles Carroll Taylor? He was born in October 1917, in Nueces County, Texas and he graduated from Texas A&M University. He joined the US Naval Reserve in 1941 and graduated as a pilot from NAS Corpus Christi in February 1942. He became a flight instructor in October 1942 and flew with Scouting Squadron 62 until November 1943 when he became a torpedo plane pilot with Squadron 7. From April 1944 to December 1944 he served on the aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CV-19) and saw combat as part of as part of Task Force 38. He then spent time as a Flight Instructor at NAS Miami Opa Locka with Squadron 79 and on November 21st, 1945, he transferred to NAS Fort Lauderdale as part of a large-scale transfer of personnel to take up duties as a Flight Instructor there. Before leaving with Flight 19 Taylor had logged a total of 2,509.3 flight hours with 616 in Avengers. The records show that he made his first familiarisation flight from NAS Ft. Lauderdale on 1st December. We can’t be certain, but it is likely that Flight 19 was the first training flight he had taken up since arriving and perhaps only his second flight from Ft. Lauderdale.
USS Hancock during World War Two
It’s clear that Taylor was an experienced pilot who had seen combat and though he had been transferred to Ft. Lauderdale less than three weeks before, he had previously flown out of Miami, only twenty miles away, and he would have been familiar with landmarks and weather conditions in the area. He seems to have been generally well regarded by other personnel he served with, some of whom described him as an excellent pilot and the perfect southern gentleman who was also proud to be a U.S. Navy aviator. However, some colleagues described Taylor as a loner and a man who lacked ambition. It was said that the only reason he stayed in the Navy after the war was because he didn’t know what else to do. And although he was a very handsome man, he didn’t seem interested in women and didn’t appear to have close friends.
It’s also worth noting that, although Taylor was described as an excellent airman, he had been forced to ditch in the sea twice since qualifying as a pilot in 1942. On each occasion this had resulted from his getting lost rather than being caused by combat damage or enemy action. On June 14th, 1944, near Trinidad, Taylor became lost and was forced to ditch when he ran out of fuel though fortunately he and his crew were quickly rescued. On January 30th, 1945 Taylor was unable to find his landing field on Guam and was forced to ditch again. He was not officially censured on either occasion, but it may be significant that he had become so lost on two previous occasions that he had not been able to return to base.
The critical period on 5th December is between 15:00 (when a group of aircraft were seen flying east from Hen and Chicken Shoals suggesting that Flight 19 was on-course and on-schedule at that time) and 15:50 when Taylor made the following response to Lt. Cox in FT-74:
FT-28: “Both my compasses are out and I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I am over land but it’s broken. 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.”
There are several interesting points here. The first is “Both my compasses are out”. It would be very unusual indeed in an aircraft such as the Avenger to simultaneously have both compasses stop working. These were pre-electronic days and the compasses fitted to the TBM were entirely separate mechanical devices. It’s difficult to imagine what could have caused both to fail simultaneously. Next “I am over land but it’s broken”. Wherever Taylor was at 15:50, he was within sight of land, which may help us to work out where he was. But the most astonishing thing he says is “I’m 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.” There are two separate things here we need to consider. The first is that Taylor seems to believe that the broken land he is looking at is part of the Florida Keys. This is so completely bonkers that it suggests that Taylor was suffering at the very least from some sort of mental confusion – although the small islands in the Bahamas and the Florida keys look fairly similar from the air, the flight was a long way from the Keys and it wasn’t possible for them to have reached that area from Hen and Chicken Shoals in 50 minutes even if they had flown direct.
The Florida Keys (left), Elbow Cay in the Bahamas (right)
The second thing is perhaps even more important – if the flight really was over the Florida Keys as Taylor seemed to believe, then getting to Ft. Lauderdale would have been easy. All that would have been necessary would have been to fly north following the Keys until they reached Florida. Even without a compass, all you have to do to fly north in the afternoon is to put the sun on your port wing, something every pilot flying out of Ft. Lauderdale was aware of. But Taylor tells Cox that he doesn’t know how to get to Ft. Lauderdale. To suggest that an experienced pilot who was over the Keys didn’t know how to get to Ft. Lauderdale is even more surprising than Taylor’s error of location. At this point, it seems that something is very wrong with Lt. Taylor’s powers of reasoning. This seems to be confirmed by the preceding transmissions overheard between Captain Powers and Lieutenant Taylor where Taylor seems to be questioning the direction in which Powers is leading the flight. Yet, just a few minutes later Taylor tells Cox that both his compasses are out so, how could he have known that the heading on which Powers was flying was wrong?
If we add this to Taylor’s initial inability to remember his own call-sign, it certainly appears that he was suffering from some sort of mental issues. And yet, for the remaining three hours all the actions he took were consistent and sensible if Flight 19 had been in the Gulf of Mexico at 15:50. However, if the flight was somewhere over the Bahamas at 15:50, Taylor’s actions were disastrously and catastrophically wrong. The first thing we have to ask is: Could Taylor have been right when he gave his position as being over the Keys at 15:50? This just doesn’t seem possible. Even if Flight 19 had deviated from its planned route immediately after leaving Hen and Chicken Shoals, it couldn’t have reached the Keys by 15:50. And the fix established two hours later at 17:50 puts Flight 19 around 200 miles north of the Bahamas and 150 miles east of Florida. Which is entirely consistent with the flight being somewhere in the Bahamas at 15:50 but not possible if the flight was in the Gulf of Mexico at that time. The “broken land” that Taylor reported at 15:50 must have been part of the Bahamas, not the Florida Keys.
So, it seems that Taylor was utterly wrong and suffering from some kind of confusion at 15:50. We won’t ever know precisely why, but everything that follows comes from his erroneous belief of the location of Flight 19. At 16:28 the Air Sea Task Unit suggested that Taylor hand over the lead of the flight to another aircraft as he had twice noted that neither of his compasses were working. He “Rogered” this suggestion, but there is no evidence that he did hand control to another aircraft until much later.
We do know that Taylor led Flight 19 to the north. This would have been sensible if they had been in the Gulf of Mexico as it would have taken them towards landfall over Florida, Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana. But as they started from the Bahamas, it led them instead out over the open ocean. The other pilots and crew in Flight 19 must have realized Taylor’s mistake. Some argued with him, as evidenced by the radio transmissions, and finally at 17:16 Flight 19 turned west, towards land and safety.
Capt. Edward Joseph Powers Jr. (right)
However, at 18:04 there was another radio transmission which seemed to show once again a major degree of confusion on Taylor’s part. At that point the flight had been flying west for 50 minutes lead by Captain Powers. However it had little more than one hour’s fuel left and the situation was becoming critical.
FT-28: “I suggest we fly due east until we run out of gas. We have a better chance of being picked up close to shore. If we were near land we should be able to see a light or something. Are you listening ? We may just as well turn around and go east again.
So, at this point they were still flying west, but Taylor wants them to turn around and head back to the east. Taylor clearly thinks that they are still somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. However, there is an even bigger clue to Taylor’s dissociation here. They have been flying west for 50 minutes. During that time they have not sighted land. If they turn round and fly back the way they have come, they know they won’t see land for at least 50 minutes, at which point they will be critically low on fuel. Whatever the answer is at this point, it isn’t turning round and going back the same way they have just come, and yet that’s what Taylor is suggesting.
That transmission at 18:04 is the last piece of evidence we have on the course which Flight 19 was following. Many people have assumed that after that they took Taylor’s advice and headed back to the east, ditching somewhere in the Atlantic when they finally ran out of fuel. That’s not impossible, but there is another option. The radar sighting by the USS Solomons at 19:00 is mentioned in the official report but for some reason often seems to be ignored by Flight 19 researchers. It’s certainly likely that Flight 19 was still in the air at 19:00 – they took off at 14:10 with full tanks of fuel which should have kept them in the air for 5 – 5½ hours. Navy investigators estimated that, with careful management of fuel, it might have been possible for Flight 19 to continue flying until as late as 19:50. The radar contact was of a group of “four to six planes” and Navy investigators who compiled the incident report stated that no other groups of aircraft where known to be in the area at the time. The speed is right for Avengers – the radar report estimated 120knots and the cruising speed of the Avenger is 135 knots but it makes sense to fly more slowly if you’re trying to conserve fuel. The contact sighting also noted “Estimated altitude 4000 feet”. In his transmissions Taylor noted that he was at “Angels 3.5” or 3,500 feet and later at 4,500 feet. Finally the course is 170°, almost due south. You’ll recall that the original flight plan for Flight 19 required them to turn to the south once they crossed the coast of Florida in order to find Ft. Lauderdale.
But if this was Flight 19, what happened to them after that? The Solomons radar sighting puts them over land somewhere in a triangle formed by Daytona Beach to the south, St. Augustine to the north and Gainesville to the west. It’s a desolate area of swampland and rivers and by 19:00 on the 5th December the weather had closed in with huge seas and a large area of turbulent air rolling out of a storm centred over Georgia. Forty miles-per-hour winds were recorded at 1,000 feet and full hurricane force winds of over 75 miles an hour were recorded at Jacksonville at 16:00 at 8,000 feet. Rescue aircraft later described the cloudbase as 800 – 1200 feet.
So, it was dark, stormy and at 4,000 feet aircraft in the position plotted by the Solomons would have been in the clouds and unable to see the ground or the lights of Daytona Beach or Gainesville in the distance. If this was indeed Flight 19, they were still in big trouble and they may not even have realised that they were over land. But why didn’t they use their radios to request help? The reason that ground stations had so much difficulty picking up transmissions earlier in the flight was due to the fact that they were far out over the Atlantic. If they had been over Florida any transmissions they made, including communications between the aircraft, should have been easily picked up. But nothing was heard from Flight 19 after Taylor’s last transmission at 18:30 discussing the possibility of ditching.
Did any of the members of Flight 19 survive? There is little evidence for this. The red flare reported by an Eastern Airlines DC3 the following day certainly wasn’t far from the last radar contact by the Solomons, but a thorough search of the area failed to find any evidence of crashed aircraft or survivors. The telegram received by the family of George Paonessa in the days following the crash is certainly real – a copy is held by the Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale Museum. However, I suspect it was nothing but a cruel hoax and there is no other evidence of Sergeant Paonessa being alive after December 5th.
PBM-5 Mariner “Trainer 49”. This is the aircraft that was lost on 5th December while searching for Flight 19.
The fire and explosion which destroyed the PBM-5 Mariner search aircraft and killed its thirteen crew was tragic, but it wasn’t mysterious. A number of Mariners were lost due to fire and explosion both before and after 5th December 1945. This was an explicable aviation accident and it is only the coincidence of its happening during the search for Flight 19 that has led to unfounded speculation of strange or even paranormal causes.
Until someone stumbles across the wreck of at least one of the Avengers from Flight 19, we won’t know for certain whether they ditched in the sea or crashed in a remote area on land. What we can be certain of is that the tragic deaths of twenty-seven men on 5th December 1945 weren’t due to anything paranormal: they were caused directly by the fallibility of the human mind. Flight 19 got lost, ran out of fuel and crashed or ditched. We even know why they got lost: Their flight leader was convinced that he knew where they were, but he was utterly wrong. The only real question is what led Taylor to make this fundamental mistake? The loss of Flight 19 is mysterious only because the actions of an experienced instructor pilot seem incomprehensible. Many other writers have tried to add elements of the paranormal into a story that just didn’t have them in the first place. Sorry Steven Spielberg, but the solution to the mystery of Flight 19 lies in psychology, not in outer space.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy this book by the author of Mystery Ink. It provides a fuller, more detailed account of the Flight 19 Mystery.
Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale Museum. Good resource for anyone interested in finding out more about Flight 19.
The Disappearance of Flight 19, 1980, by Larry Kusche. One of the first books to attempt a rational analysis of Flight 19. A well researched book in which the life and personality of Charles Taylor (and other aspects of Flight 19) are examined in detail.
They Flew into Oblivion: The Disappearance of Flight, 2013, by Gian J. Quasar. Balanced and well researched book on Flight 19 which concludes that the aircraft crashed on land.
The Finding of Flight 19. For something a little lighter, try this. A short account of the disappearance of Flight 19 (see how many errors you can spot) and an explanation of why the alleged UFO seen from Apollo 11 in 1969 is actually one of the missing Flight 19 aircraft. From an author who is described as “a telepath with direct, open contact to ETs from the open state, who are not subject to earth mankind’s frequency-barrier-caused closed brain and limited consciousness.”