The Un-mystery of the Bermuda Triangle
The Bermuda Triangle is a stretch of the Atlantic Ocean bordered by a line from Florida to the islands of Bermuda, to Puerto Rico and then back to Florida. It is one of the biggest mysteries of our time - that isn't really a mystery.
The term "Bermuda Triangle" was first used in an article written by Vincent H. Gaddis for Argosy magazine in 1964. In the article Gaddis claimed that in this strange sea a number of ships and planes had disappeared without explanation. Gaddis wasn't the first one to come to this conclusion, either. As early as 1952 George X. Sands, in a report in Fate magazine, noted what seemed like an unusually large number of strange accidents in that region.
In 1969 John Wallace Spencer wrote a book called Limbo of the Lost specifically about the triangle and, two years later, a feature documentary on the subject, The Devil's Triangle, was released. These, along with the bestseller The Bermuda Triangle, published in 1974, permanently registered the legend of the "Hoodoo Sea" within popular culture.
Several books suggested that the disappearances were due to an intelligent, technologically advanced race living in space or under the sea.
The only problem was that the mystery was more hype than reality. In 1975 a librarian at Arizona State University, named Larry Kusche, decided to investigate the claims made by these articles and books. What he found he published in his own book entitled The Bermuda Triangle Mystery-Solved. Kusche had carefully dug into records other writers had neglected. He found that many of the strange accidents were not so strange after all. Often a triangle writer had noted a ship or plane had disappeared in "calms seas" when the record showed a raging storm had been in progress. Others said ships had "mysteriously vanished" when their remains had actually been found and the cause of their sinking explained.
More significantly a check of Lloyd's of London's accident records by the editor of Fate in 1975 showed that the triangle was a no more dangerous part of the ocean than any other. U.S. Coast Guard records confirmed this and since that time no good arguments have ever been made to refute those statistics. So the Bermuda Triangle mystery disappeared, in the same way many of its supposed victims had vanished.
Even though the Bermuda Triangle isn't a true mystery, this region of the sea certainly has had its share of marine tragedy. Perhaps the best known one was the story of Flight 19.
The tale of Flight 19 started on December 5th, 1945. Five Avenger torpedo bombers lifted into the air from the Navel Air Station at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at 2:10 in the afternoon. It was a routine practice mission and the flight was composed of all students except for the Commander, a Lt. Charles Taylor.
The mission called for Taylor and his group of 13 men to fly due east 56 miles to Hens and Chicken Shoals to conduct practice bombing runs. When they had completed that objective, the flight plan called for them to fly an additional 67 miles east, then turn north for 73 miles and finally straight back to base, a distance of 120 miles. This course would take them on a triangular path over the sea.
About an hour and a half after the flight had left, a Lt. Robert Cox picked up a radio transmission from Taylor. Taylor indicated that his compasses were not working, but he believed himself to be somewhere over the Florida Keys (the Keys are a long chain of islands south of the Florida mainland). Cox urged him to fly north, toward Miami, if Taylor was sure the flight was over the Keys.
Planes today have a number of ways that they can check their current position including listening to a set of GPS (Global Positioning Satellites) in orbit around the Earth. It is almost impossible for a pilot to get lost if he has the right equipment and uses it properly. In 1945, though, planes flying over water had to depend on knowing their starting point, how long and fast they had flown, and in what direction. If a pilot made a mistake with any of these figures, he was lost. Over the ocean there were no landmarks to set him right.
Apparently Taylor had become confused at some point in the flight. He was an experienced pilot, but hadn't spent a lot of time flying east toward the Bahamas which was where he was going on that day. For some reason Taylor apparently thought the flight had started out in the wrong direction and had headed south toward the Keys, instead of east. This thought was to color his decisions throughout the rest of the flight with deadly results.
The more Taylor took his flight north to try to get out of the Keys, the further out to sea the Avengers actually traveled. As time went on, snatches of transmissions were picked up on the mainland indicating the other Flight 19 pilots were trying to get Taylor to change course. "If we would just fly west," one student told another, "we would get home." He was right.
A Mariner similar to Training 49 (USN Photo)
By 4:45 P.M. it was obvious to the people on the ground that Taylor was hopelessly lost. He was urged to turn control of the flight over to one of his students, but apparently he didn't. As it grew dark, communications deteriorated. From the few words that did get through it was apparent Taylor was still flying north and east, the wrong directions.
At 5:50 P.M. the ComGulf Sea Frontier Evaluation Center managed get a fix on Flight 19's weakening signals. It was apparently east of New Smyrna Beach, Florida. By then communications were so poor that this information could not be passed to the lost planes.
At 6:20 a Dumbo Flying Boat was dispatched to try and find Flight 19 and guide it back. Within the hour two more planes, Martin Mariners, joined the search. Hope was rapidly fading for Flight 19 by then. The weather was getting rough and the Avengers were very low on fuel.
The two Martin Mariners were supposed to rendezvous at the search zone. The second one, designated Training 49, never showed up.
The last transmission from Flight 19 was heard at 7:04 P.M. Planes searched the area through the night and the next day. There was no sign of the Avengers.
Nor did the authorities really expect to find much. The Avengers, crashing when their fuel was exhausted, would have been sent to the bottom in seconds by the 50 foot waves of the storm. As one of Taylor's colleagues noted, "...they didn't call those planes 'Iron Birds' for nothing. They weighed 14,000 pounds empty. So when they ditched, they went down pretty fast."
What happened to the missing Martin Mariner? Well, the crew of the SS Gaines Mill observed an explosion over the water shortly after the Mariner had taken off. They headed toward the site and there they saw what looked like oil and airplane debris floating on the surface. None of it was recovered because of the bad weather, but there seems little doubt this was the remains of the Mariner. The plane had a reputation as being a "flying bomb" which would burst into flame from even a single, small spark. Speculation is that one of 22 men on board, unaware that the unpressurized cabin contained gas fumes, lit a cigarette, causing the explosion.
So how did this tragedy turn into a Bermuda Triangle mystery? The Navy's original investigation concluded the accident had been caused by Taylor's confusion. Taylor's mother refused to accept that and finally got the Navy to change the report to read that the disaster was for "causes or reasons unknown." This may have spared the woman's feelings, but blurred the actual facts.
The saga of Flight 19 is probably the most repeated story about the Bermuda Triangle. The planes, and their pilots, even found their way into the science fiction film classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Where is Flight 19 now? Well, in 1991 five Avengers were found in 600 feet of water off the coast of Florida by the salvage ship Deep Sea. Examination of the planes showed that they were not Flight 19, however, so the final resting place of the planes,and their crews is still the Bermuda Triangle's secret.