“Uncertain as to in what position lay the Peninsula of Florida”: The Official Record and the Loss of Flight 19

October is American Archives Month! We’re celebrating the work of archivists and the importance of archives with a series of blog posts highlighting our “Archives Across America.” Today’s post comes from Michael Wright and Joseph Ryan from the National Archives at Fort Worth.

NAID 73985447

Map of Navigation Problem #1, 1945. (National Archives Identifier 73985447)

On December 5, 1945, five Grumman Avenger aircraft, carrying 14 sailors and Marines, did not return from a routine training mission off the coast of Florida. This is a fact, and it is undisputed.

Unfortunately, that is where rational agreement ends, and the conspiracy theories begin.

Because the aircraft and servicemen were lost in an area known as the Bermuda Triangle, years and layers of rumor, gossip, folklore, and legend have relegated Flight 19 to the realm of myth.

Numerous luridly titled books, articles, and movies have posited strange magnetic disturbances, whirlpools, sea monsters, and aliens as the cause of the tragic but all too explainable maritime losses in the Bermuda Triangle. Perhaps the most famous of these was the reappearance of Flight 19, neither aged nor damaged, in the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Fortunately, the National Archives at Fort Worth maintains some of the official records of Flight 19 and of Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station—which include the contemporaneous Navy investigations and correspondence.

Here, then, is what actually happened to Flight 19. It is an all too human, all too tragic story.

On the afternoon in question, Instructor Pilot Lt. Charles C. Taylor received his training assignment. He was to execute Navigation Problem #1—a simple, straightforward mission for a 28-year-old officer with combat experience, 2,500 hours of flight time (600 in Avengers), and three years as an instructor. Lieutenant Taylor had also been based at nearby Miami Naval Air Station, so he was familiar with the area.

Navigation Problem #1 required Taylor to fly eastward from Fort Lauderdale, conduct a practice bombing run at Hen & Chicken Shoals just north of Bimini, continue eastward, then turn north, fly over Grand Bahama Island, and then turn southwest and return to base. The flight would cover approximately 316 miles and last about 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Flight 19 departed Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station at 2:10 p.m. and completed its bombing run at about 3 p.m.

At 3:40 p.m., however, the first indication appeared that something had gone terribly wrong. One of the five aircraft radioed another for a compass reading, and the reply came back “I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.”

A few minutes later, Taylor radioed to a pilot on the ground, “Both of my compasses are out, and I am trying to find Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I am over land but it is broken. I am sure I am in the Keys but I don’t know how far down and I don’t know how to get back to Ft. Lauderdale.” At the time Taylor made this call, he was well northeast, rather than southwest of Ft. Lauderdale as he thought.

Over the next two hours, the flight continually changed directions as the various pilots argued over which direction was the correct one. It did not help that although Lieutenant Taylor was the flight instructor, he was not the ranking officer on the flight. That honor belonged to Capt. Edward Powers, USMC.

By 5:30 p.m. the sun had set, the weather was deteriorating, and Flight 19 remained lost—only now they were also critically low on fuel. Search and rescue was launched, while Taylor continued to see what he was used to seeing when conducting mission out of Miami—the Florida Keys.

Powers and several others believed they were well north of the Bahamas. Nevertheless, the flight remained under Taylor’s control as the light faded, the weather worsened, and the fuel burned. The last transmission monitored from the flight was from Lieutenant Taylor at 7:04 p.m. to his comrades: “All planes close up tight . . . we’ll have to ditch unless landfall . . . when the first plane drops below ten gallons, we all go down together.”

At approximately 7:30 p.m. the first rescue aircraft arrived at the suspected spot where Flight 19 had ditched and reported overcast, showers, turbulence, 25–30 knot winds and very rough seas. There was no sign of Flight 19. Twenty minutes later, one of the many rescue aircraft searching for Flight 19 exploded in the air, killing the 13 men aboard. No wreckage or bodies from either flight has ever been recovered.

The Navy concluded in their investigation that Flight 19 got lost through pilot error, so much so that Lieutenant Taylor was “uncertain as to in what position lay the Peninsula of Florida,” and therefore had to ditch in darkness and poor weather—resulting in the loss of all aircraft and crew.

As for the rescue aircraft, the Navy concluded that a faulty fuel system resulted in the explosion and loss of the aircraft and crew. These explanations are clear and concise, yet they leave something in the mind that does not satisfy. Perhaps we need something more to justify the loss of 27 lives, and that’s where the myths come in.

The accidents and incidents inherent in the human condition are what they are, and we are fortunate to have the records to help us understand what really happens in such occurrences.

NAID 73985451

Chief Navel Officer Request for Information, December 28, 1945. (National Archives Identifier 73985451)

For more information on the records held at the National Archives at Fort Worth, visit their website.

Visit the National Archives American Archives Month web page for more information about our events and activities throughout the month. 

And don’t miss our #AskAnArchivist sessions every Tuesday in October from 1-2 p.m. EDT. Follow us on Twitter @usnatarchives to participate.

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