The non-mystery of Flight 19

by Bernard McCormick Monday, April 21, 2014 No Comment(s)


Painting by Bob Jenny 
Today’s project deals with transportation, but for once not about trains. How about airplanes? Specifically the lost Flight 19, which disappeared after leaving Fort Lauderdale in 1945. Recently, some aviation buffs thought they had found one of the five planes in the Everglades, but it turned out to be a plane that crashed a few years later. So, the mystery goes on. 

Except, it isn’t that much of a mystery. Not according to the late architect John Evans, who wrote about the subject years back in Gold Coast magazine. Evans had an unusual perspective on the subject. He was almost on the lost flight. As Evans wrote, he was a young gunner on a Grumman TBF Avenger based in Fort Lauderdale. He, like the crewmen who disappeared, was training at the base, and might have been assigned to the ill-fated flight had not he gotten leave when his parents came to visit him. 
Evans, who participated until his death in the annual memorial service for the flight, always debunked the theory of the Bermuda Triangle and its curse on aircraft. He says that to those at the base, it was never a great mystery in the first place, and that the flight was a fiasco from the time it took off. He wrote that it never should have flown. Bad weather was moving in and the other nearby Navy air stations closed down. Furthermore, the flight leader did not want to fly. He may have been under the weather from a party the night before. 
Compounding the problem was that the planes were not in perfect condition. The war had ended and maintenance may have been lax, for key navigation devices did not work that afternoon, at least not on the flight leader’s plane. Its compass was out. The Avenger was a relatively modern design. It entered service at the battle of Midway in June 1942 and in the next few years pilots flew thousands of missions and relied on instruments to return safely to aircraft carriers over miles of featureless ocean. 
On the night of the disaster, radar was following the planes, and ground operators and other aircraft could hear transmissions between members of the flight. But the planes could not hear the ground when operators tried to lead them back to base. 
Thus, what should have been a routine, relatively short flight to the Bahamas, turned into a nightmare when the flight leader could not find his way back to Fort Lauderdale. Ground operators could hear some of the pilots telling their skipper the correct heading to home, but he did not agree. As weather closed in and darkness came, the flight zigzagged on a generally northward course. Today, even in poor weather, pilots would see miles of lights along the coast. But in 1945, much of Florida’s coast was empty, and Flight 19 had the bad luck not to pass over populated cities. 
Radar tracked the planes as far north as Daytona Beach, using fuel the entire time, and (again, according to John Evans) the last plotting had the planes heading out to sea in total darkness. He is convinced they lie in deep water in the Atlantic. If he were around today, he would be highly skeptical that any of the planes could have wound up far to the south in the Everglades. But he surely would have applauded the try.

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