December 22, 2020 | Karl’s Korner

The Mysterious Disappearance of Navy Flight 19

Hello, Midway Family! Welcome back to “Karl’s Korner”, a historical segment written by myself, Karl Zingheim – Ship Historian of the USS Midway Museum. In honor of the 75th Anniversary of the mysterious disappearnace of Navy flight 19, I wanted to look back on this anomaly with all of you. Keep reading...

75 Years ago

Seventy-five years ago, five TBM Avenger bombers failed to return to Naval Air Station (NAS) Fort Lauderdale from a training flight over the Bahamas. Later that same day, a search and rescue PBM Mariner flying boat apparently exploded in mid-air early in its search leg, killing all thirteen men aboard. The resulting air and sea search involved scores of ships and nearly 500 aircraft scouring thousands of square miles of the Caribbean, Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, and even portions of Florida and Georgia. Although trace wreckage from the PBM was found, no sign of the Avenger flight’s 14 men was discovered. In the decades since, the catastrophic loss of so many aviators and aircraft on a single day of flying in what later became dubbed, “The Bermuda Triangle,” has fueled speculation of supernatural involvement, peculiar distortions of the planet’s magnetic field in the region, exceptional atmospheric disturbances, or even extraterrestrial intervention. This last interpretation was employed in Steven Spielberg’s science fiction film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” for dramatic effect and helped popularize the legend of the disappearance of Flight 19.

What really happened?

However, a closer look into the circumstances of Dec. 5, 1945 instead reveal a classic example of a chain of minor, and seemingly unrelated, setbacks and misfortunes that connected to create a catastrophe before the day concluded. The first unfortunate circumstance was the region. The greater area of south Florida and the neighboring Bahamas presents a complex topography of flat, broad beaches, large and tiny islands, and coral shoals with few distinguishing characteristics to set one apart from another. Considering the high speeds with which even a 1940s-era aircraft could fly, a glimpse of one island could readily lead to a misinterpretation of where one was. Another important factor for the region is the climate. Anyone familiar with living and working in the Southeast can attest to the extraordinary changes wrought by the weather over short spans of time, and the weather for that December day was less than moderate. Although conditions permitted local flying at the naval air station, 20 knot winds with gusts to 31 knots made landings difficult. Furthermore, the scattered clouds at 3,000 feet foreshadowed a powerful weather front blowing in from the west southwest with winds exceeding 50 knots at 6,000 feet. The proposed route of Flight 19’s training exercise over the Bahamas promised scattered showers, a ceiling of just 2,500 feet, and moderate visibility. Though not prohibitive, the weather that day was challenging, and flying conditions were later rated at “average to undesirable.” Most of the men comprising Flight 19 were student aviators of Class 46330 completing their syllabus in the advanced TBM course before ultimately reporting to their operational squadrons. The four student pilots had compiled approximately 60 hours each in the Avenger. One, Marine Capt. George W. Stivers, Jr., had seen combat with the 2nd Marine Division on Guadalcanal as an infantry officer. Another, Marine Capt. Edward J. Powers, was the flight’s senior man, by date of rank, and volunteered for flight training after an extended tour as a training officer at Quantico. The third student was 2nd Lt. Forrest J. Gerber, a former enlisted Marine who transferred to aviation after a tour of duty in the Aleutians, and the fourth was Ensign Joseph T. Bossi, whose love of flying prompted him to decline a postwar discharge so he could become a naval aviator. Flying with these officers were young sailors and enlisted Marines: Walter Parpart, an only child looking forward to continuing employment in the peacetime Navy; George Devlin, who enlisted underaged under a pseudonym and displayed a talent for aerial gunnery; Howell Thompson, who had already survived a kamikaze attack on the carrier Bunker Hill, and was looking forward to Christmas leave back home in Chicago; George Paonessa, one of five sons from an immigrant family to see action in World War II; Robert Gruebel, a blond 18-year old who had seen nothing but training since joining the Marines, as had his Navy classmate, Burt Baluk, Jr.; Robert Gallivan, who kept Marine aircraft armed from primitive airfields in the Solomons, and now was flying in them; William Lightfoot, descended from a family that had fought in all of America’s wars since the Revolution, and had already lost an older brother in World War II; and Herman Thelander, who hailed from a tiny Minnesota whistle stop village called Kinbrae, next to the Iowa border. Central to the legend of Flight 19 is the man destined to lead those men into oblivion: Navy Lt. Charles Carroll Taylor. He grew up not far from the same naval air station where he won his wings in 1942: NAS Corpus Christi. After a stint as a flight instructor, Taylor also flew convoy protection patrols in OS2U Kingfishers out of NAS Key West. In 1944, he joined Torpedo Squadron 7 and transitioned to the TBM. His air group deployed with the newly commissioned carrier Hancock and saw extensive combat in the latter half of 1944. In 1945, he was back with the training command, having recently transferred from NAS Miami to Fort Lauderdale. By December, he had accumulated some 2,509 hours, more than 600 of them in the TBM. Some sources report he had at least two episodes, while on deployment, of becoming lost, and had to be rescued at sea. Others suggest he was more of a “seat-of-the-pants” flier, not particularly adept at more technical aspects of flying. In any case, the Navy regarded him as proficient enough to oversee student aviators. The nature of Flight 19’s mission was a combined bombing and overwater navigation exercise to complete the advanced course for new TBM pilots. One of three “canned” flight problems, the route involved flying due east from NAS Fort Lauderdale some 56 nautical miles to Hen and Chicken Shoals for glide bombing practice with live bombs, and then a triangular track over the waters and islands of the Bahamas for a return to their Florida base. The expected duration of the training hop was 3 hours and 13 minutes. Aerial navigation was still primitive in 1945, employing “dead reckoning,” or flying along a theoretical line at a given speed and time, before making the turn to the next leg. This type of navigation does not take into account external effects on an aircraft’s progress like wind speed and direction, which can push a plane significantly off its intended track. Visual correlation of an identifiable landmark with an accurate chart will fix a flier on his actual location, and the dead reckoning process resumes from that point. Alternate means for assisting aerial navigation, such as ground radar detection, radio transmission (HF/DF) bearing fixes, and installed aircraft homing devices were commonplace by 1945, but this is where another link in the chain of misfortunes that day formed. Throughout World War II, the greater Caribbean region was a scene of intense air and naval activity as an extension of the Battle of the Atlantic against German U-boats. This included extensive arrays of sensors like radar and high frequency radio direction finding, but the postwar drawdown was in full swing by December 1945. Radar stations at Boca Raton and Hollywood, north and south of NAS Fort Lauderdale, were already deactivated and dismantled, and remaining HF/DF facilities were not ideally located for fixing the location of moving aircraft in the Bahamas area. Furthermore, outside radio operators, such as a powerful broadcast station in Havana, Cuba, often interfered with the quality of radio reception on Navy training frequencies. A minor annoyance as well, was a postwar laxness in aircraft security: instrument panel clocks were frequently noticed missing as they had become treasured keepsakes in the new peacetime environment. The student pilots and crews arrived at the Operations shack at NAS Fort Lauderdale early afternoon on that fateful day for briefing on their assigned flight. However, their scheduled instructor, Lt.Taylor, was not present, even though the flight was set to sortie at 1:45 p.m. Finally, Taylor arrived just a half hour prior to the departure time and promptly asked for a relief. When asked for a reason, he replied he did not want to take this flight out. With no other instructor available, his request was denied, and he got on with the preparations for the mission. Taylor was a newcomer to Fort Lauderdale, having just reported from NAS Miami days before. This hop to the Bahamas would be his first, but the students in Class 46330 had flown the other two canned training routes to this area before and were undoubtedly anxious to complete their course. During the briefing, the aerology report considered the projected weather to be “favorable” for the route, although this estimate was already several hours old. In fact, another training flight that had just completed a similar mission reported the weather was favorable, but the sea state was definitely picking up.

Aerial Assistance Loses Their Way

At 2:10 p.m. the flight finally took to the sky, with enough fuel on board for five and a half hours of flying. Since this was an advanced course with students nearing the end of their training regimen, one of the trainee pilots led the flight, with Taylor trailing as an observing instructor. After about 20 minutes’ flying, the TBMs arrived at Hen and Chicken Shoals and spent the next half hour conducting bombing runs on a marked target until all the ordnance was dropped. The next step was to resume their base course of 091T for the remaining 67 miles on the first leg before making a turn to the north northeast. All the while, a 30-knot plus tailwind from just over their right shoulders continually pushed them along to the east and a bit north of track. The last time Flight 19 was seen, by a fishing craft, they were heading east in formation at approximately 3 p.m. About forty minutes later, a senior instructor leading another flight off the south Florida coast overheard a conversation on the training frequency. Someone was in conversation with a pilot named “Powers” about what his compass read. The reply presumably came from Powers confessing he did not know where they were, and that the last turn must have gotten the formation lost. The senior instructor attempted to join the conversation but received no reply. Minutes later, he heard a request from the first pilot earlier asking the others in the flight for any suggestions. The senior instructor over the Florida coast tried once more and reached Taylor. Taylor reported that both of his compasses (a gyro and a magnetic “wet” compass) were inoperative, and that he was attempting to find a route back to Fort Lauderdale. He then relayed that he was over broken land but was certain it was the Florida Keys. Since the Bahamas and the Keys are several hundred miles apart, and could not have been reached, even accidentally, in the time that had elapsed, Taylor was seriously disoriented. Worse, Taylor apparently clung to this misperception for most of the flight’s remaining flying time. Accepting Taylor’s position report, the senior instructor advised him to put the sun on the port wing, and to fly north to return to the Florida mainland. When the senior instructor asked for Taylor’s altitude and suggested he fly south to meet up with Taylor’s formation and guide them in, Taylor replied that he was at 2,300 feet but now knew where he was. “Don’t come after me,” he concluded. Continuing south along the Florida coast, the senior instructor minutes later heard another transmission from Taylor indicating they had passed over another small island with no other landmasses in sight. Clearly, Taylor was not over the Keys flying north. Taylor then broadcasted a request for a radar sweep out of Miami to track them. He then reported that their turn onto the second leg did not put them over expected landmarks, so he took over the flight to correct their track, but concluded he was confronted with compass failures. The senior instructor informed Taylor of the prevailing crosswind, and suggested he activate his plane’s homing gear. At 4:26 p.m. the Air-Sea Rescue detachment at Port Everglades heard Taylor announce he was flying at 3,500 feet with his emergency IFF (Identification Friend of Foe) activated to highlight his location on a radar scope. Port Everglades contacted Fort Lauderdale about radar activation, and ultimately, up to 20 different locations were notified to assist in locating Flight 19 over the day, but poor teletype communications in the Florida area impeded these calls. Additionally, static increasingly interfered with the training frequency, as well as bleed over from the commercial station in Havana. The southbound senior instructor made one last call to Taylor who reported he was now at 4,500 feet, but the rapidly fading message suggested he was receding from the senior instructor, not closing from over the Keys. By 4:30 p.m. the training staff at NAS Fort Lauderdale deduced that Taylor could not possibly have overflown the Keys. They passed on to the Air-Sea Rescue unit to instruct Taylor to fly towards the sun until he sighted the mainland. Fifteen minutes later, Taylor reported that he will direct his flight along course 030 for forty-five minutes before turning north to ensure they were not over the Gulf of Mexico. With his IFF signal not appearing on radar, and voice communication over the training frequency fading, Taylor was directed to shift to the search and rescue frequency. Taylor declined, stating he needed to maintain contact with all his pilots. At 4:56 p.m., another call to Taylor advised him to activate his homing gear. Taylor made no reply, but shortly afterwards was heard to direct his men to fly due east for ten minutes. Another pilot’s voice was then heard to exclaim, “Dammit, if we could just fly west, we would get home. Fly west, dammit!” Minutes later, Taylor appeared to have relented and directed a turn to the west. However, the weather front was now closing in. By this time, radio direction triangulation placed Flight 19 north of the Bahamas over the open Atlantic, well to the east of central Florida. Unfortunately, this was not broadcasted to Taylor. At 6:04 p.m., Taylor exhibited doubt when he suggested another turn to the east. But it was now dark, and the weather had deteriorated. Naval discipline demanded that his men follow his orders as the Mission Commander. The last transmission from Taylor was logged in at 6:20 p.m.: “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.” As the afternoon waned, and evening set in, various flying boat aircraft were dispatched to find the errant Flight 19 or were diverted from scheduled training duties to search. A PBM Mariner flying boat set out from NAS Banana River north of Fort Lauderdale and made a routine radio check three minutes into the flight. However, just two hours into their patrol, the large plane exploded in mid-air, witnessed by a nearby freighter. All thirteen men aboard were lost in an apparent detonation of leaking fuel, not unknown in the Mariner. The subsequent searches for Flight 19 and possible survivors from the Mariner all returned empty handed.

The Navy Investigates...

The Navy’s investigation deduced that throughout the crisis portion of the flight, Taylor thought they were over the Keys, and therefore were proceeding over the Gulf of Mexico. Interpretations of what Taylor reported over the radio support this, but there was no satisfactory explanation as to why an experienced naval aviator would come to that conclusion. An early finding of “mental aberration” was successfully challenged by his mother, and a new, inconclusive finding removed any direct blame from Taylor. However, it is difficult to absolve Taylor of conducting haphazard navigation, and consistently making faulty assessments after a routine navigational glitch. Was he absent or completely inattentive during the preflight navigational briefing? Was he mentally or physically impaired that day, as suggested by his request to be relieved of the flight command? In a bizarre way, did his extensive experience of flying over the Keys in his career shape his interpretation of what the islands and shoals of the Bahamas passing beneath were showing him? If his compasses were indeed malfunctioning, why did he not pass navigational duties over to another aircraft with operating compasses? Far from being an artifact of the otherworldliness of the Bermuda Triangle, the saga of Flight 19 should better be remembered for its role as the foundation of an era of postwar naval aviation mishaps that culminated in the Flatley reforms to flight safety in the early 1950s. The Flatley report took the naval aviation establishment to task for among other things, inconsistent training methods and excessive corner-cutting in instructional methods during World War II and after. While the Flatley report did not directly concern Flight 19, there is arguably a correlation between Taylor’s performance and a string of flight mishaps plaguing naval aviation up through the introduction of jet aircraft. In the interest of improving flight safety and professionalism, the fates of the men assigned to Flight 19 can justly claim to have not been in vain. I hope you enjoyed looking back with me this year and learning about Navy Flight 19 today. Please leave me a comment below and tell me what you thought of this month’s Karl’s Korner. Did you know about this otherworldy even previously? Leave me a comment. Launch ‘em… until next time – Karl  

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