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Flight 19: Disappearance over the Bermuda triangle

Introduction

This article dives into the mysterious disappearance of flight 19 over the bermuda triangle.


The airplane

The biggest single engine airplane used in WWII— General Motors TBM Avenger. Stats: 40 feet long, 54 feet wingspan, 13.5 feet high. Range: 1,130 miles. Cruising Speed: 147 MPH. Crew: 3
The actual aircraft were in post war livery: dark sea blue, with F-T prominently painted on their sides. The F stood for Fort Lauderdale, their base; the T for Torpedo bomber. This was always supposed to be used in identification, enunciated as Fox Tare.

Here is a list of the planes and their pilots:


FT-117 was piloted by Marine Captain George William Stivers Jr. It was a TBM-1C. BuNo was 73209.
FT- 28 was piloted by the Flight Leader, Navy Lieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor. It was a TBM-3 ; BuNo 23307.
FT- 36 was piloted by Marine Captain Edward Joseph Powers, Jr. It was a TBM-1E. BuNo was 46094.
FT- 81 was piloted by Marine 2nd Lieutenant Forrest James Gerber. It was also a TBM-1C. BuNo was 46325.
FT- 3 was piloted by Navy Ensign Joseph Tipton Bossi. Another TBM-1C. BuNo 45714.


The Place

 Naval Air Station, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The base was a major advanced training facility for Naval Aviation. The many islands of the Bahamas, providing unlimited landmarks,  made both NAS Miami and Fort Lauderdale ideal for centers of advanced over-water navigation.


The Mission: Problem Navigation No. 1.

A fairly simple navigation problem. It is divided into 4 legs. Each leg’s termination is marked by a landfall or within sight of one. The orders: Fly 091 degrees True for 56 miles to Chicken and Hen Shoals. Practice bomb runs for around 20 minutes. Proceed on course 091 again for 67 miles to Great Stirrup Cay. Turn 346 degrees True northwest for 73 miles. In sight of Great Sale Cay, turn southwest 241 degrees True for 120 miles and return to NAS Fort Lauderdale.


The Students 

All were members of squadron 79M. Within the last two weeks they had been transferred to Fort Lauderdale from Miami, 20 miles south. They were being trained in Torpedo Squadron (VTB) assignments. The present syllabus was advanced over-water navigation. This was to be their third and final qualifying flight. Each was qualified to be a basic flight instructor.

The Day

December 5, 1945. It was a warm day;  billowing clouds soared overhead in the current of a gusting southwest trade wind. Temp. was 67 degrees. 


Charles Taylor (known as C.C.) approached Aviation Duty Officer, Lt. Arthur Curtis, to be removed from the flight. C.C. gave no reason other than simply not wishing to go. Curtis, however,  had no replacement so he had to deny his request. If C.C.  could not find a replacement, he would have to go. Curtis did not see C.C. Taylor again until the briefing. Several flights were being briefed in various rooms adjacent to the hangar and tower.


Taylor drew the proposed flight problem on the chalk board, next to the names of  the pilots, while the students sat at their tables and jotted everything down. Each of the 4 students was assigned a specific leg, and each wrote down the headings of the other pilots in the squadron. Taylor briefed them on the winds, which were from the southwest that day, gusting up to 35 knots. This would require standard course compensation to keep from being blown off the proscribed route.  

Preflight check

At 1:45 p.m. they checked out their aircraft for the flight, walked down the parking runway and mounted up. Their engines turned over and warmed up while they prepared themselves in the cockpit and the crew prepared for take off.  

Taylor called the tower and asked for taxi instructions, as did two other students. They headed down the runway and took their place. Flight 18 had just taken off about 20 minutes  earlier, formed and left the coast.

Take off

At 2:10 p.m. the last of Flight 19’s Avengers were airborne. They quickly formed into a squadron south of the field and headed eastward.


The flight was seen departing the coast, with one of the students flying the lead and Taylor flying in the tracking position. Each leg of the flight would be led by one of the 4 students, while Taylor followed and graded them.


The first leg to Chicken and Hen Shoals went without incident. About 2:30 p.m. they started their diving runs. Taylor circled down to about 3 to 400 feet over an old hulk (the wreck of the Sapona) while the students climbed to about 2 to 3000 feet then glide bombed over the wreck, dropping 12 pound smoke bombs. Taylor recorded the hits on a knee pad.


About 2:40 p.m. they reformed into a loose formation and headed toward Great Stirrup Cay, 67 miles further eastward, with another student flying the lead.


Great Stirrup is about 113 miles easterly of the Florida coast. Here, at about 3:05 to 3:10 p.m., they turned in a northwesterly direction.


Fort Lauderdale

Lieutenant Robert Cox was flying in the vicinity of Fort Lauderdale. He was a TBM/TBF instructor pilot, joining up with his squadron of students. At around 3:45 p.m (probably a bit later),  he heard a voice over the training channel of 4805 kl/s. What happened and what was spoken after this point has become known as the disappearance of Flight 19.


Cox’s TBF had the squadron number 74, which was used in radio contact. He called Fort Lauderdale.

“Fox Tare seven four, Fox Tare 74 to Nan How Able One, Nan How Able One , there seems to be either a boat or plane lost and is calling Powers. Suggest you inform tower of it. Over.”

“Nan How Able One, Roger.”

“This is Fox Tare 74, plane or boat calling Powers, please identify yourself so someone can help you.”


After evaluating the situation, he instructed NHA3 to tell them  to “fly west, fly into the sun.” He went up to the tower to continue to supervise and attempt to communicate with the flight.

“Nan How Able One to FT-74. Tower asks if they have any recognition or identification  . . .do they have any recognition?”

 “Negative. Not as yet known.”

 Moments later Cox over heard more  inner squadron dialogue.

“Does anyone have any suggestions?  . . .I think we must be over the Keys.”

“This is FT-74 calling lost plane or boats. Please identify yourself? Over.”

“Roger, this is MT-28.”

“MT-28, this is FT-74, what is your trouble?

Navigation issues

“Both my compasses are out and I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I am over land, but it’s broken.  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.”

“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, then Fort Lauderdale is 20 miles further, your first port after Miami. The air station is directly on your left from  the port. What is your present altitude? I will south and meet you?”

 “I know where I am at now. I’m at 2,300 feet. Don’t come after me.”

“MT-28, roger. I’m coming up to meet you anyhow.”

“FT-74, this is Nan How Able One. Is the call sign of your contact MT-28 or FT-28?”

 “MT-28 this is FT-74. Please verify. Are you MT-28 or FT-28? Over.”

“Roger, that’s 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 navigational 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 are working.”

“FT-28, You can’t expect to get here in ten minutes. You have a 30 to 35 knot head or cross wind. Turn on your emergency IFF gear, or do you have it on?”

“Negative.”

“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.”

“FT-74, Nan How Able One. Negative. He cannot be picked up on Fort Lauderdale radar gear.”

[FT-74] “Roger. Standby.”

“FT-28, this is FT-74. Turn on your ZBX

. . . FT-28, do you read? Turn on your ZBX.”

“FT-74, this is Nan How Able One, tell FT-28 to have a pilot with a good compass take over lead. Over.”

“Roger. FT-28, this is FT-74. Have a wingman with a good compass take over lead of flight. Over.”

 [FT-28]. . .unintelligible. . . “radar. . .”

“FT-28, your transmissions are fading. Something is wrong. What is your altitude?

 “I am at 4,500 feet.”

Changing channels

At this inopportune moment Cox’s ATC transmitter conked out. He switched stations and finally got Nan How Able One on No. 7

”Nan How Able One, this is FT-74. He is now on a new heading. Angles 4.5 and climbing.”

“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?”

“Affirmative. We have just passed over small island. We have no other land in sight. Visibility is 10 to 12 miles.”

“I am at angles 3.5. Have on Emergency IFF. Does anybody in the area have a radar screen that could pick us up?” 

“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.”

“Roger.”  


At 4:30 p.m. Lieutenant Commander Don Poole, the Flight Officer at NAS Fort Lauderdale, was informed of the missing flight. He immediately went to Operations and took over the proceedings. At 4:45 p.m. he learned NHA3 still had contact.

“FT-28 to Nan How Able Three, one of the planes in the flight thinks if we went 270 we could hit land.”

Cox intercepts FT-28 one last time.

“We went out on a heading of 120. On the second leg of the hop I took over because I thought they were going wrong, but now I know it’s my compasses that were wrong.”

At 4:43 p.m. Miami contacted Gulf Sea Frontier High Frequency Directional Finding Net (Jupiter, FLA., US Naval Air Station, Pensacola, FLA., Houma, LA) to obtain a radio bearing on the flight’s transmissions. 

“Monitor 4805 for Plane FT28 – Plane lost on east coast Florida”

NAS Pensacola: “Roger.”

Houma: “Roger.”

Jupiter: “Roger.”

Miami: “If you hear him or FT74, alert the Net.”

“FT-28 to Nan How Able Three. We are heading 030 for 45 minutes, then we will fly north to make sure we are not over the Gulf of Mexico.”

Unidentified. “Should I drop the last of my bombs now? “

“By all means” [FT-28]

Nan How Able One to FT-28, please turn on your ZBX. Repeat, turn on ZBX. Over. 

“Nan How Able Three to FT-28, please turn on your ZBX. Repeat, please turn on ZBX.”

“Nan How Able Three to any Fox Tare in flight with Fox Tare Twenty-eight, turn on your ZBX. Over.”

“All planes in this flight join up in close formation.” [FT-28] 

“How long have we gone now?” [FT-28]

 

Powers unreadable

“Let’s turn and fly east 2 degrees. We are going too damn far north instead of east. If there is anything we wouldn’t see it.”

“FT-28 to all planes in flight, change course to 090o for 10 minutes.” 

” . . .You didn’t get far enough east. How long have we been going east?”

“Hello Nan How Able three, this is FT-28. Do you read? Over.”

“Roger. This is Nan How Able Three. Go ahead.” [Or Poole’s directions were sent]

“I receive you very weak. We are now flying 270o ”  [FT-28 . . .or possibly Powers]

“Roger.”

“We will fly 270o until we hit the beach or run out of gas.” [FT-28]

“Planes fly close formation. When first man gets down to 10 gallons of gas, we will all land in the water together. Does everyone understand that?”

“Nan How Able Three to FT-28, If you can change to Yellow Band (3000 kilocycles), please do so and give us a call.”

“Nan How Able Three, this is Fox Tare twenty-eight. . .”

“This is Nan How Able Three, shift to 3000 kilocycles. “

“I receive you very weak. How is weather over Lauderdale?” 

“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] “Is that a ship on the left?”

 Powers reply too faint to read

[FT-28] “Nan How Able Three, Can you hear me?”

“Hear you strength three, modulation good.” [No reply] 

“Nan How Able Three  to FT-28, 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?  

“Very Weak. Change to 3000 kilocycles.”

“Hello Nan How Able Three, this is FT-28.  I can hear you very faintly. My transmission is getting weaker.”

“Hello Nan How Able Three. This is FT-28. Over.”

“Change to Yellow Band channel 1, 3000 kilocycles and give us a call.”

“My transmission is getting weaker.”

“Change to Yellow Band 3000 kilocycles and say words twice when answering.”

“Nan How Able Three to FT-28, Did you receive my last transmission? Change to channel 1 3000 kilocycles.”

“Repeat once gain.” [FT-28]

“Change to Channel 1, 3000 kilocycles.”

“I cannot change frequency. I must keep my planes intact.”

[Unidentified] “We may have to ditch any minute.” 

“Hello Powers, do you read me?”

“Hello Powers, this is Taylor. Do you read me? Over.”

“Roger. I read you.”

“Hello Powers. I have been trying to reach you.” 

“I thought you were calling base—“

“Negative. What course are we on?”

“Holding course 270.”

“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?”

” About 45 minutes.”

“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.”

“Nan How Able Three to FT-28, do you read me?”

Nan How Able Three to FT-28, do you read me . . .Ten nine eight seven six five four three two one.”

“Hello, Powers?” [FT-28]

“Powers, what is your course?” [FT-28]

[Powers did not reply]

“What course are we on now?”

“Fox Tare Three . . . Fox Tare Three . . .”

“FT-3, This is Nan How Able Three. Come in please.  We are reading you very weak. Come in please.”

“Fox Tare Three, Fox Tare Three, Fox Tare Three. . .”

[Garbled conversation. ] 

Epilogue

There was nothing ever heard from Flight 19 over the Bermuda triangle again. Antennae may have iced over, the flight may have simply been too far away, or they may have descended to a lower altitude, in which case their beam would not travel as far as Port Everglades or Fort Lauderdale or Pensacola anymore.

What was to turn into a massive search finally began.

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