Published on December 5, 2012
By Thomas Van Hare
It was mid-afternoon on December 5, 1945, just five months after the end of World War II, when a routine training mission of five aircraft took off and headed east from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, for navigation training. Over the next few hours, the planes would make a series of errors. These, compounded by mechanical failures and what seems to be a failure of leadership, culminated in one of history’s greatest aviation “mysteries”. Yet was it a mystery or instead just another example of what pilots call the “error chain”, a series of small errors that lead inexorably to a final crash?
Background and Evidence
Contrary to popular belief, the members of Flight 19 left a very telling trail of evidence of command failure, mis-navigation and error that, on face value, points to a truth that is virtually undeniable. As we consider the event, it is best to remember that the ill-fated members of Flight 19 were all quite green as pilots and flight crews. Incorrectly, the popular lore regarding the disappearance of Flight 19 claims otherwise. Most had about 60 hours in type and 300 hours total time overall. Only the flight leader, Lieutenant C. C. Taylor, USNR, was experienced. He had about 2,500 hours total time, but he was new to the command, even if he had previously been based in Miami and flown over the Florida Keys. This and many other events that followed were warning signs that things were amiss even before the start of the flight. Modern pilots are taught to recognize the “Error Chain” end things before they proceed to an accident.
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Among the warning signs — first, none of the aircraft in Flight 19 had a clock installed, a necessary instrument if one is flying time-speed-distance legs. Clocks are a simple navigational requirement. It was hoped that the students all had wristwatches, though this was never checked. Second, the flight was late in taking off because the instructor ran late. What was he doing? Where was he? When he did show up, he asked to be taken off the flight and replaced with another pilot. Was he fatigued or feeling ill? Had he been drinking? In any case, he was told that no replacement was available. Since the students were intent on going, since it was their final check ride before certification, he agreed to fly after all. Third, the weather was not “good” as popular lore would have us believe with calms seas. Actually, it was flyable, but windy with rough seas. As the day wore on into evening, the usual Florida winter storms rolled in — that day they came with a vengeance.
Finally, the flight leader wasn’t doing the navigating, but rather the students were flying the route prescribed — estimating time and distance while holding the prescribed headings. The flight path was a triangle that would have them flying east, doing a practice bombing run and then proceeding east straight out into the empty seas. After that, at a timed turn point, they would veer north for about 70 miles and then turn southwest back to Ft. Lauderdale. What is known is that they completed their bombing runs — this was heard over the radio and a small fishing boat spotted the planes heading east afterward.
After that, apparently the pilots undergoing training made a navigational error. At that, the flight leader stepped in and took over the navigation. Only later did the flight leader discover, however, that both of his compasses were broken. Perhaps the trainees hadn’t made a mistake after all.
The Radio Transcript
A review of the records reveals that a transcript of radio communications was taken. That allows us to make our own judgment about what might have happened. We pick up the first messages to and from the lead aircraft, going by the call sign “Fox Tare Two Eight” (FT-28). The flight leader was first heard in conversation with members of his flight, discussing that they were lost somewhere off the Florida coast. The messages were overheard by the senior flight instructor at Ft. Lauderdale, “Fox Tare Seventy-Four” (FT-74), who contacted the flight from his aircraft. At the time, he was flying over Ft. Lauderdale.
“This is FT-74, plane or boat calling ‘Powers’ please identify yourself so someone can help you.” (Ed. comments: There was no response but additional radio communications were overheard as the flight leader, FT-28, asked the other aircraft in Flight 19 for ideas.)
“FT-28, this is FT-74, what is your trouble?”
“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.” (Ed. comments: As the flight leader had previously flown out of Miami and done many flights over the Florida Keys, none of this makes any sense, since it is fairly obvious how to navigate up the Keys to Miami and then continue north to Ft. Lauderdale. In any case, the Bahamas and the Keys look a lot alike from the air and most likely he was somewhere near Great Sale Cay, which was on his intended course — i.e., nowhere near the Florida Keys.)
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.” (Ed. comments: These instructions would have made sense if the flight had been over the Keys, but if over the Bahamas, it was the equivalent of vectoring the flight out over the open seas. FT-74 was coming to the problem fresh and initially had no idea which mission or location the lost flight was located; thus, he offered instructions based on what he was told — that they were over the Florida Keys.)
FT-74: “What is your present altitude? I will fly south and meet you.” (Ed. comments: FT-74 was already airborne and thereafter he flew south.)
FT-28: “I know where I am now. I’m at 2,300 feet. Don’t come after me.”
FT-74: “Roger, 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.” (Ed. comments: This almost certainly puts him at the northern edge of the Bahamas)
FT-28: “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?” (Ed. comments: winds at altitude were about 30 to 35 knots from the west, in other words, the winds were pushing the planes out into the open Atlantic east of the Bahamas.)
FT-28 (paraphrased): IFF gear was off, I am turning it on now.
FT-28: “I am at angels 3.5 (3,500 feet of altitude). Have on emergency IFF. Does anyone in the area have a radar screen that could pick us up?”
Air-Sea Rescue Task Unit Four at Fort Everglades (ASRTU-4) (paraphrased): Suggest another aircraft in your flight take over lead since your compasses are out.
FT-74: “Your transmissions are fading. Something is wrong. What is your altitude?” (Ed. comments: as FT-74 proceeded south and FT-28 proceeded north, they were flying away from each other; hence the weakening radio signal.)
FT-28: “I’m at 4,500 feet.”
At this point, FT-74’s transmitter went off line when the battery ran low. He could not contact the flight further. The rest of the transmissions were heard by ASRTU-4. FT-74 returned to Ft. Lauderdale.
FT-28: “One of the planes in the flight thinks if we went 270 degrees we could hit land.”
For 14 minutes, there was no word from FT-28.
FT-28: “We are heading 030 degrees for 45 minutes, then we will fly north to make sure we are not over the Gulf of Mexico.” (Ed. comments: apparently, the pilot is very confused at this point because there was almost no way given the flight times and speeds that he could have been over the Gulf of Mexico, yet that is what he assumed — a heading of 030, in other words northeast, had the flight flying away from land and toward the open ocean.)
Ft. Lauderdale (paraphrased): Change radio frequency to 3000 kc, the search and rescue frequency.
FT-28: “I cannot switch frequencies. I must keep my planes intact.” (Ed. comments: this meant that he wanted to stay on the same frequency with the rest of his flight.)
FT-28 (to his flight): “Change course to 090 degrees for 10 minutes.” (Ed. comments: this was backwards from the direction they should have been flying and put them heading further out into the open ocean — how the flight leader could have thought he was over the Gulf of Mexico, west of Florida remains a mystery to this day.)
Unidentified pilot: “”Dammit, if we could just fly west we would get home; head west, dammit.” (Ed comments: This was the only voice of reason, one of the inexperienced pilots who recognized that they were still off the east coast of Florida — in fact, based on even rudimentary navigation, that was the ONLY possibility. Having not crossed Florida, nor gone south and around the Keys, a flight that would have taken an hour or so, more time than they had been aloft before they had started flying NE and E, the evidence is clear that the flight leader was seriously lost. It seems as if the leader was flying with seriously impaired judgment and was somehow lacking in normal pilotage skills, which is bizarre given that he had 2,500 hours of total flight time to his name.)
FT-28 (about 20 minutes later; partly paraphrased): We will fly 270 degrees “until we hit the beach or run out of gas.” (Ed comments: this was absolutely the right thing and had they done this earlier, they would have been fine.)
For the next hour, the flight apparently flew back toward Florida directly into the teeth of a strong headwind. The flight probably even came fairly near the coast, though it was still not able to see the beach. At this time, the weather at Palm Beach, which was roughly on a line of where they would have been, had turned stormy, which made sighting the land even more difficult.
FT-28 to his flight: “Holding course 270 degrees; we didn’t go far enough east… we may as well just turn around and go east again.” (Ed comments: The flight leader is actually advising that they turn back around and head east back toward the open ocean, having lost confidence in the westerly heading. However, had he continued, he would have hit land; instead, it appears that the flight turned back eastward and retraced its flight path away from land. The tail wind only increased the speed at which they flew further away from land.)
At this point, the ground systems got a good triangulation on FT-28’s broadcasts, giving moderately precise indications of his location — he was within a 100-mile radius of the latitude-longitude position of 29 degrees North, 79 degrees West. In other words, within 100 miles of a point that is essentially 120 miles due east of Daytona Beach. Thus, had the flight leader flown west for 30 minutes, as noted above, they would have hit land. Incredibly, despite achieving a reasonable radio fix, somehow that information was not relayed to Flight 19. It was one of the final links in a disastrous chain of errors.
Another 20 minutes passed without clear signal from any of the aircraft — then the following was heard (by this time, the flight was nearly out of fuel.
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 other communications were heard from Flight 19. At that point, they were probably flying east toward the open ocean and were probably about 200 miles offshore.
The PBM Mariner
In the wake of the loss, the US Navy followed regular procedure and undertook not a lone search and rescue flight, but rather a massive search effort involving hundreds of aircraft and ships that were immediately dispatched offshore. Simultaneously, an inland search was carried out in hope that the aircraft had come down in the Everglades. As evening wore on, weather conditions deteriorated and seas were described as “massive”. One of the SAR aircraft reported the weather after the flight: “…the ceiling was approximately 800 to 1200 feet overcast, occasional showers, estimated wind, west southwest about 25 30 knots. The air was very turbulent. The sea was very rough.”
In that massive efforts with planes scouring the seas in close coordination — one more plane was lost, a PBM-5 Mariner, with call sign Buno 59225. With so many aircraft flying at once, odds were that there would be malfunctions. In this case, the aircraft type used, a PBM Mariner, apparently suffered a destructive fuel system explosion. In fact, the fireball was seen from the tanker ship S.S. Gaines Mills, whose captain relayed that he had seen the plane catch fire and explode. At the time, the ship radioed: “At 1950, observed a burst of flames, apparently an explosion, leaping flames 100 feet high and burning for ten minutes. Position 28 degrees 59 minutes north, 80 degrees 25 minutes west. At present, passing through a big pool of oil. Stopped, circled area using searchlights, looking for survivors. None found.”
The PBM Mariner’s 13 man crew were all killed in the inflight explosion. It was a terrible loss, but one with a clear explanation.
In light of the transcripts and details of the events that we know and can verify from that day, it seems as if the events of 67 years ago today in aviation history, have suffered more from sensational reporting than any actual truth in research. The theories that are most popular involve a supposed UFO abduction. Others blame the loss on some mysterious phenomenon in the Bermuda Triangle. The conspiracy theorists, however, cannot compete with the stark truth that exists based on the evidence at hand. Everything points to something far more menacing — everyday human factors. On review, it seems likely that the loss of Flight 19 was more an issue of a command failure than one of little green men. The result was still death to all involved.
Somewhere far out of sight of the coast, the five aircraft of Flight 19 ran low of fuel and chose to ditch together into the heavy seas of the open Atlantic, perhaps 200 or more miles out to sea. While they may have hoped to survive and stay together until being rescued, the heavy seas and bad weather undoubtedly swamped their life rafts. The winds would have blown them further east, away from land, while the currents of Gulf Stream would have carried them northeast and out into the central Atlantic.
Given the bad weather and heavy seas, all of them may not even have escaped their aircraft after ditching and some may have sunk with their planes. That is of the opinion of others who flew the TBM Avenger in that era, who note that it didn’t float for very long. Even if some did escape their sinking planes, they might not have pulled their life rafts out of the hatch on the rear fuselage before the planes were swamped and sunk in the heavy seas. Even for those who clambered clear of the planes and might have gotten into rafts, those planes searching for them would have found it almost impossible to find the men. A search and rescue plane flying at 500 feet of altitude has only a 50% chance of spotting a raft on the sea from 1 mile distant. If the men weren’t in rafts, that distance is reduced to just 1/4 mile — a flip of the coin — and that is with fairly clear seas, which weren’t the case at the time. In the stormy nighttime seas, without flares and not in rafts, most likely they would have died before morning. Those in rafts would have found themselves separated quickly in the heavy seas. By morning, they probably never saw one another again. Within a few days, without water, they would have all died of exposure and dehydration.
The story of Flight 19 is a terrible one, to be sure, which resulted in the deaths of many men. However, those who claim that something mysterious happened are simply making up stories out of thin air.
Today’s Aviation History Question
What do you think happened to Flight 19 based on this? Where would it have most likely gone down?