, also referred to as ‘The Lost Patrol
’, is one of the best-known ‘mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle
.’ It makes a cameo appearance at the beginning of Close Encounters of the Third Kind
when the five planes are found resting in a Mexican desert. There are some irregularities with the historical record, however.
Much of this information was taken from (among other places) an article in “Aviation News” in 1973, entitled “Lost Patrol.” It was written by Michael McDonell.
Some pre-flight facts:
- The flight wasn’t really a patrol. It was a navigation training exercise. The five planes consisted of four TBM-1 Avenger torpedo bombers, and one TBM-3 (designation FT-28) who was an instructor pilot shepherding the trainees. Although the instructor had over two thousand hours in this type of aircraft, none of the trainees had more than 300 or so total and only around 50 in the aircraft type they would be flying. Four of the trainees were the pilots; there were in addition several crewmen being trained in combat duty as ‘backseaters.’
- The instructor in FT-28 was late for the flight briefing, and apparently didn’t have a watch; he asked the time, and would later ask the time of various other pilots in the air.
- There is reason to believe that the clocks in the aircraft were either missing or unserviceable; these 24-hour clocks were favorites among collectors and souvenir hunters, and the training aircraft were particularly vulnerable to pilferage.
- The instructor, upon arriving, asked if there was anyone else who could make the flight for him; when asked why, he stated ‘no reason, just didn’t want to.’ There wasn’t.
- All aircraft were thoroughly preflighted. All survival gear was intact. All machines checked out OK and were recorded as such.
- Weather conditions were recorded as ‘favorable’ with a moderate chop to the ocean but no serious visibility or precip problems expected.
- The flight was a three-leg ‘hop’ described as follows by McDonell:
”The flight was entitled Navigation Problem No. 1 which ran as follows: (1) depart NAS Fort Lauderdale 26 degrees 03 minutes north and 80 degrees 07 minutes west and fly 091 degrees distance 56 miles to Hens and Chickens Shoals to conduct low level bombing and, after bombing, continue on course 091 for 67 miles, (2) fly course 346 degrees for 73 miles and (3) fly course 241 degrees for a distance of 120 miles, returning to NAS Fort Lauderdale. In short, a triangular route with a brief stop for some glide bombing practice on the first leg out.”
The Avengers carried approximately 5.5 hours of fuel, and cruised at 150 mph. Their course was a 260-mile triangle, with around 30 minutes allocated for bombing practice during the first leg. The flight was aloft by 1410 on Dec. 5th, 1945. They flew off on course. The tower at NAS Ft. Lauderdale picked up conversation about thirty to forty minutes later, with one pilot noting that he had one bomb left; the instructor told him to go ahead and drop it. A ship captain later reported that he had seen aircraft flying east (corresponding to the 091 vector) at around 1500 local time; this would be about right, as that was several minutes after the conversation, implying that the flight had finished bombing and was continuing on the first leg.
This is where things apparently began to go wrong. At around 1540 hours, by which time the flight should have been near Great Sale Cay if they were on course, another aircraft (FT-74, the senior flight instructor at NAS Ft. Lauderdale) was joining up over the field when he heard someone on freq. 4805 telling someone else named ‘Powers’ that he was lost. Powers was the name of one of the trainee pilots. The speaker was asking Powers what his compass readings were and how long they’d been flying that course. The question was repeated several times, and eventually FT-74 heard Powers respond that he didn’t know ‘where we are’ and that they must have got lost on the ‘last turn.’
FT-74 announced his presence on the frequency and the speaker was identified as FT-28. FT-28 stated that both his compasses were out, and he was flying over broken land, probably in the Keys, and didn’t know how far south he was. He didn’t know how to get to Fort Lauderdale.
The instructor pilot was a bit puzzled, and recited what was to all local pilots standard procedure: put the afternoon sun on the port wing (fly north) and follow the coast to Miami, then 20 miles further to Fort Lauderdale. FT-74 noted that FT-28 sounded ‘rattled and confused,’ and noted that FT-28 had often flown the Keys and should have known them. It’s also worth noting that had Flight 19 finished the first leg and turned correctly, they should have been at least 10 or 15 miles north of Miami still by then; they began 20 miles north of it and went almost due east. They were supposed to turn just west of north for the second leg. In order to end up in the Keys south of Miami, they would need to have flown off course for some time.
FT-28 then called up and stated that he knew where he was, and FT-74 shouldn’t come to find them. FT-74 replied that he was coming anyway. A few minutes later, FT-28 reported that they had just passed over a small island and had ‘no land in sight.’ This made it very unlikely that he was in the keys, as he would have been able to see the Florida mainland at that point. FT-74 headed south.
Another ground station made contact with FT-28, who called back and noted that his emergency IFF radio was on, and requested that anyone receiving his transmission offer a reciprocal bearing. Several ships joined in listening; eventually, more than 20 stations were listening for FT-28’s beacon. Meanwhile, FT-74 had heard FT-28’s transmissions growing fainter as he (FT-74) flew south towards the Keys. He deduced that, in fact, FT-28 was north of Ft. Lauderdale, perhaps near Bimini or the Bahamas, and turned back north, but was forced to land at Ft. Lauderdale with low fuel and transmitter trouble. He requested permission to take the ready aircraft out to continue the search, but was denied; night was coming on.
Conversation heard from Flight 19 indicated that apparently the instructor was unsure if he was over the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico; he kept turning the flight east, when the students were increasingly strident in their responses that they needed to fly west to land. Eventually, FT-28 gave in, and noted that they would fly 270 (west) until they saw the beach. This contributed to FT-74 being refused permission to fly out after them. FT-74 and the Ft. Lauderdale Ops officer were fairly sure they knew where the flight was; it was north of the Bahamas. They wanted to fly the ready plane out along a 075-degree heading towards a likely intercept with the westward-flying Flight 19; if the transmission strength of Flight 19’s messages increased, they would know that they were correct. Permission was denied, however, due to the oncoming dark and the assumption that Flight 19 would hit land on 270.
At 1804 hours, FT-28 called his students and told them to go east again, that they hadn’t gone far enough east. He appeared to still be unsure of which body of water they were over, the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico. At this point, enough stations had bearings to isolate the source of the transmissions as a 100-mile radius circle around 29 degrees N 79 degrees W, north of the Bahamas and east of Florida. For some reason, however, this information was never passed to those trying to communicate with Flight 19; all stations were instructed to light searchlights and beacons, but no-one broadcast this information to Flight 19.
By 1820, a PBY Flying Boat was on its way outbound from CGAS Dinner Key to try and make contact. It was having transmitter trouble, however. FT-28 was heard again, talking to other planes in the flight, telling them to keep together, and that when the first plane went below 10 gallons of fuel indicated, they would all ditch together. Simultaneously, a British ship (HMS Viscount Empire) reported from north of the Bahamas that there were ‘tremendous seas and winds.’ More search aircraft were dispatched from various stations, including two PBM-5 aircraft diverted from training. What happened next is best taken directly from the McDonell article:
"At NAS Banana River, two PBM-5s were being prepared to join the search, after being diverted from a regularly scheduled night navigation training flight. A flight mechanic checked out one of the planes, PBM-5 BuNo 59225, filled it with enough fuel for a 12-hour flight and, as he later testified before the Board, "I found it to be A-1. I spent about an hour in the aircraft . . .and there was no indication of any gas fumes. There was no discrepancy in any of the equipment and, when we started up the engines, they operated normally."
According to the pilot of the other PBM, "About 1830, operations called and the operations duty officer in regard to the five TBMs whose last position was reported as approximately 130 miles east of New Smyrna with about 20 minutes of fuel remaining. We received this position and were told to conduct a square search. We were instructed to conduct radar and visual search and to stand by on 4805 kc, the reported frequency on which the TBMs were operating. At the time we were briefed, Ltjg Jeffrey, in Training 49, was to make the second plane in the search. No other planes were included."
Were any plans made for a joint conduct of the search mission? "Yes, I was to proceed to the last reported position of the TBMs and conduct a square search. Lt. Jeffrey was to proceed to New Smyrna and track eastward to intercept the presumed track of the TBMs and then was to conduct an expanding square search at the last reported position of the TBMs."
What were the weather and sea conditions when you arrived in the vicinity of 29 degrees north, 79 degrees west? ". . .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."
At 1927, PBM-5, Buno 59225, was airborne from Banana River with 3 aviators aboard and a crew of 10. At 1930, the aircraft radioed an "out" report to its home base and was not heard from again.
Cruising off the coast of Florida, the tanker S.S. Gaines Mills was sailing through the dark night when it sent the following message, "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." Her captain later confirmed that he saw a plane catch fire and immediately crash, exploding upon the sea."
This was followed by five days of fruitless searching for any of the missing aircraft and personnel. Various Avenger pilots interviewed later were of the unanimous opinion that the airplane wouldn’t have survived a water landing in any sort of rough seas.
As may be imagined, since we don't know for certain what happened, there are a whole host of conspiracy theories that have sprung up. One of the least wild and most reasonable questioners is the son of the pilot of the surviving PBM-5, who notes that his father stated that their aircraft never in fact took off. This contradicts the Navy's finding that two aircraft were observed to rendezvous and then separate; if the second PBM hadn't left the ground, what was the other aircraft?
For another thing, why was the instructor the one that apparently was having the most trouble? Why did no airplane have a working clock? Did none of them have watches? that sounds unlikely, especially for a group of over a dozen naval aviators.
Later, a Larry Kusche wrote a book titled The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved! in which he goes about debunking the mythos surrounding Flight 19. I haven't read it, but if you're interested, you'd probably want to.
Finally, there is a complete and annotated transcript of all communications involved in the incident (with a timeline) available at:
Michael McDonell, "Lost Patrol." Aviation News, 1973.
htp://www.kilroywashere.org (NAS Ft. Lauderdale section)
Naval Historical Center website