Flight 19 Anniversary

One of those events which managed to become enmeshed in popular culture and urban myth in the 70s was the disappearance of a training flight of  five Grumman Avengers on December 5, 1945 during an over water navigation training flight from the US Naval Air Station at Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The incident first came to my attention (and a bunch of others, I’m sure) as we read our copies of The Bermuda Triangle back in the mid 70s,  as Charles Berlitz tried to link every kind of weird disappearance to some extraordinary phenomenon.  I was a bit skeptical myself when he lumped the disappearance of the BSAA Avro Tudor G-AHNP Star Tiger into this collection,  since I’d read about that incident several years before in my tattered copy of Great Mysteries of the Air.

Grumman Avenger
TBM or TBF Avenger in similar markings to those on the ill-fated Flight 19, which vanished 70 years ago.

Some years later I saw a Horizon documentary on the BBC which debunked a couple of the myths, specifically one that the flight disappeared on a fine sunny afternoon.  If you look at the times of the reports, the aircraft probably vanished after dark.  Some of the radio intercepts from the flight were subject to varied interpretations,  especially since the flight leader was convinced he was over the Florida keys, a considerable distance to the South of where he actually was (the islands he observed may actually have been the Bahamas) and may have indeed led the flight out into the Atlantic.

Wikipedia notes the following from the time of  the official inquiry:

  • Flight leader Lt. Charles C. Taylor had mistakenly believed that the small islands he passed over were the Florida Keys, so his flight was over the Gulf of Mexico and heading northeast would take them to Florida. It was determined that Taylor had passed over the Bahamas as scheduled, and he did in fact lead his flight to the northeast over the Atlantic. The report noted that some subordinate officers probably knew their approximate position as indicated by radio transmissions stating that flying west would result in reaching the mainland.
  • Taylor was not at fault because the compasses stopped working.
  • PBM-5 BuNo 59225 was probably lost because of an on board explosion. The Mariner suffered problems with gasoline vapor accumulating within the fuselage.
  • This report was subsequently amended “cause unknown” by the Navy after Taylor’s mother contended that the Navy was unfairly blaming her son for the loss of five aircraft and 14 men, when the Navy had neither the bodies nor the airplanes as evidence
Flight 19's proposed exercise route, December 5, 1945
Flight 19’s proposed exercise route, December 5, 1945

Flight 19’s scheduled navigation exercise on December 5, 1945.

  • 1. Leave NAS Fort Lauderdale 14:10 on heading 091°, drop bombs at Hen and Chickens shoals (B) until about 15:00 then continue on heading 091° for 73 nautical miles (140 km)
  • 2. Turn left to heading 346° and fly 73 nautical miles (140 km).
  • 3. Turn left to heading 241° for 120 nautical miles (220 km) to end exercise north of NAS Fort Lauderdale.
  • 4. 17:50 radio triangulation established flight’s position to within 50 nautical miles (93 km) of 29°N 79°W and their last reported course, 270°.
  • 5. 19:27 PBM-5 Bu No 59225 left NAS Banana River.
  • 6. 19:50 explosion observed near 28°N 80°W which may have been BuNo59255.
Martin PBM-5 Mariner in flight circa 1945
U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo No. 2011.003.137.014
(Public Domain)

PBM-5 Mariner BuNo 59225 took off at 19:27 from Naval Air Station Banana River (which is now now Patrick AFB). The crew called in a routine radio message at 19:30 after which contact was lost. At 21.15, the tanker SS Gaines Mills reported it had observed flames from an apparent explosion burning for 10 minutes, at position 28.59°N 80.25°W.  The Captain  ordered a search for survivors in a pool of oil and aviation gasoline. The escort carrier USS Solomons also reported losing radar contact with an aircraft at the same position and time.