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The "Mystery" of Flight 19

by Ronald Bruce Meyer

TBM Avenger
Grumman TBM Avenger

There is, one knows not what
sweet mystery about the sea,
whose gently awful stirrings
seem to speak of some
hidden soul beneath.

--Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)

Everyone loves a mystery, especially when it's about the sea. The northern hemisphere's own Bermuda Triangle, for one, captures the imagination with its otherworldly charms. I am sure Bermuda Triangle enthusiasts across the nation were grieved to learn on May 17 that the disappearance of Flight 19 off the coast of Florida in 1945 was a mystery no longer. The lost planes were discovered in deep water. The crews all died of accidental, but natural, causes. There had been no hocus pocus, no mystery.

But just 19 days later we all learned that the demise of this favorite mystery had been announced prematurely. On June 5 the skipper of the exploration vessel Deep See said it was all a case of mistaken identity: the May discovery was of some other nautical tragedy of about the same time. So Flight 19's disappearance at sea remains a mystery. But there are mysteries and there are mysteries: Some are truly unsolved and unsolvable. Others, such as the disappearance of Flight 19, are solvable and solved.

The mystery version of the story tells us that at 2:10 PM on December 5, 1945, five Avenger torpedo bombers left what was then known as Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station for a routine patrol... and disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle. By these accounts, all planes were fully fueled, all compasses, radios, and other instruments were in perfect working order, the pilots and flight crews were all experienced airmen, and the weather was fair.

There are additional dramatic details: the lead plane, with the most experienced airman aboard, lost compass direction and radioed an emergency -- he couldn't tell where he was, even though the weather was ideal for flying and he could simply have headed for land in the direction of the setting sun. At about 4:25 PM communication with the planes ceased in mid-sentence. A massive search effort, which was sustained for weeks, turned up not a trace, not a clue.

Five airplanes and fourteen experienced airmen, we are told, could not have vanished without a trace in such a small area -- unless some strange forces were at play. What we have here would be a true mystery, if only the "facts" were accurate.

What are the facts?

I've been reading about the "mysterious" Bermuda Triangle, from a less credulous point of view, in The Bermuda Triangle Mystery -- Solved by Lawrence David Kusche (Harper & Row, 1975, 1986). Mr. Kusche says the mystery was pretty much laid to rest forty-four years ago by the official Navy investigation. Those who would keep the mystery alive probably have not read the investigation -- it is more than 400 pages long. And news reporters, who should be the most skeptical of all of us, repeat the fantastic details without verifying them.

The nature of Flight 19's mission is often misrepresented, as is the experience of the pilots and crew. The fourteen Navy airmen were on a training mission off the Florida coast. Four of the five pilots and eight of the nine crew members (the mission was one man short) were students, not the experienced airmen the story claims. The lead pilot, Lt. Charles C. Taylor, was a flight instructor and an experienced airman, but was unfamiliar with the Bermuda area.

Failure of Taylor's compass in the lead plane, and absence of a working clock in any of the planes, spelled navigational disaster for the mission. The Navy report surmised that Taylor thought he was west of the Florida panhandle when actually he was east of it, when he got lost. Consequently, he refused to fly due west, which would have brought him to the shore from which they all had taken off. Radio communication with Florida coastal stations was being interrupted constantly by broadcast radio in Cuba. Even after repeated urgings from flight controllers in Florida, Taylor refused to change to the emergency radio frequency for fear of losing contact with the other four planes, even though they had been lost so long they were running out of fuel.

Finally, when all contact was lost (there is no mention in the Navy report of communication cutting off in mid-sentence), the planes were assumed to have ditched -- but this was at night in heavy seas, not in the fair flying weather the legend urges. With all the above going against them, it is little wonder Flight 19 was "lost without a trace." Setting down fuelless airplanes on a dark and turbulent sea is a last resort for a flight hopelessly lost.

Does all this mean that Flight 19 couldn't have been sucked into a mysterious "black hole" or supernatural vortex? Of course not, except for two things -- and this is where uncritical thought can get us all sucked in. First is Occam's Razor, a device all news reporters should carry with them: we must not multiply entities unnecessarily. That is, if a highly probable, natural explanation exists, it is foolishness to posit the supernatural instead.

Second is burden of proof: If you are faced with a choice between the mundane explanation (bad weather, low fuel, lost students) and the fantastic one (being transported to oblivion), the burden of proof must fall on the latter. To rational minds, the unbelievable requires a higher standard of proof. But, as I pointed out, the Navy was satisfied that nothing supernatural had taken place.

It is plain silly of the reporter in the May 17 news story to gush about providing "a long-awaited explanation to survivors" of the ill-fated Flight 19 airmen. The Navy closed the books on this "mystery" almost half a century ago. Indeed, the Navy was fairly certain the planes ditched far north of where the Deep See is said to have found them. The retraction on June 5 was inevitable, but a little fact checking might have made it unnecessary.

I know there is a special place in the inferno of public opinion -- see Canto III from line 22 -- reserved for debunkers of cherished myths. The climate is intolerable there. On the other hand, can we tolerate such weeds of sloppy and uncritical thinking in the fields of public discourse?
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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.