No one has the right to be center stage in the public forum. No one has the right to be on radio or on TV. One earns these positions by the merits of their work. Once someone enters this forum with false information, they open themselves up to critical examination. I find that it personally leaves a nasty taste in my mouth to have to expose someone’s error, but gross misinformation and disinformation can have tragic results. You simply cannot be benign about it and put up your information when entire houses of legends and myths have been built by poor research and glued together by factoids. One has to expose their origins.
Some of the worst misinformation about Flight 19, sadly, originates with the only author who was able to publish a book entirely devoted to the subject. Unfortunately, Lawrence Kusche’s The Disappearance of Flight 19 (1980) was largely the product of cropping an image and removing context. He had achieved fame in the mid-70s with his claim of having solved The Bermuda Triangle (The Bermuda Triangle Mystery— Solved). Because of this The Disappearance of Flight 19 was promoted as being written by a man who “set new standards for investigative reporting on popular subjects.” However, this statement becomes a ghastly canard when Kusche’s numerous false statements are brought to light. There are so many, in fact, that together they reveal a tragic motive. The reason for the book seems merely to follow his previous success of having “solved” The Bermuda Triangle by undermining the “legend” and the “sensationalists” and by finding something elemental, if not simple to blame. This superficial approach to the subject was fraught with as much inaccuracy as the sensationalistic.
For instance, Kusche supplants the very foundation of Problem Navigation No. 1, replacing the real navigational hop with a bogus one of his own concoction: “With the exception of Hen and Chicken Shoals, there were no positive landmarks over which the lead changes took place. Each student pilot knew only that when he took over the lead, he was to fly a certain heading for a predetermined time. If the navigation had gone wrong on a previous leg, he would not have known it, because when he was not flying the lead, he was kept busy flying formation.”
This is shockingly inaccurate. The testimony of Lt. James Roy Jackson, the carrier qualifications, communications, and navigational phase training officer.
Question 16 of the Board: “How do pilots on navigation flights determine or check the accuracy of their navigation while flying the problem assigned?”
A. “With one exception the termination of all legs touch a point of land and that one exception is within sight of a large island.”
Although Kusche claims to have relied on the Naval Board of Inquiry Report, the same report from which the quotes on this page are taken, his above statement is just one example of his ignorance of this report or of his intentional misrepresentation of it.
This statement is underscored by the fact that Kusche said he later flew the course of Problem Navigation No. 1, a problem that required the training flight to fly it at only 1,000 feet altitude. On page 9 he now accepts (contradictorily) that Great Stirrup Cay is indeed one corner of the triangle. Yet he then amazingly writes: “If the visibility was good, the island might be seen to the right as they turned north.” Visibility was 10 to 12 miles that day. At 1,000 feet it would be impossible to not see the island. Furthermore, the flight was to overfly the island and turn north. It was at Great Sale Cay that the flight was to turn back for home when off the island. This is the exception that Jackson refers to above when mentioning the landmarks.
Moments later, however, Kusche contradicts himself yet again. He goes back to his false flight plan. “The purpose of the flight was to give the students practice in dead-reckoning navigation. They were to find their way across the water without the use of any landmarks, by plotting in advance the heading to be flown on each leg. . .If the wind estimates and navigation were accurate, the planes should arrive at any given position on the route at the estimated time. If there was no positive landmark that could be used to check navigational accuracy. . .all the pilots could do was trust that the wind estimates and navigation had been close. . .The success of the flights was largely measured by how close the pilots were to Fort Lauderdale when they re-crossed the coast.”
The origin of Kusche’s mistake is hereby revealed. The above is a very good description of PBM Martin Mariner training. Those students left, primarily from Banana River, in a single PBM and flew a triangle out of the bare sea. If they re-crossed the coast in the wrong position they failed their flight.
Kusche clearly did not due very substantive research. This, however, is not an excuse for some of the statements he makes. Not only is his flight plan apocryphal, this and his analysis are so wholly illogical it staggers the mind. His plan would be self-defeating to the purpose of training multiple pilots since it has no definite landmark as a cross reference by which to grade their individual progress. If the flight re-crossed the coast in error, which pilot was to blame? How could the flight leader even determine if he didn’t know which one missed his landmark?
Kusche’s ludicrous flight plan begs such questions, but the real navigational hop, which the Navy used, does not. It is a logical and basic training maneuver for multiple pilots used throughout the war.
But Kusche’s approach provides him with a simple basis for how five pilots could get so lost. Without landmarks all it would take is one pilot to get them lost and the others would blindly follow. He follows the above supposition and places himself in the cockpit that day. “The right hand controlled the stick, the left stayed on the throttle; continuous attention was required in the close group. Pilots flying in formation are generally so involved that not only do they not keep track of their position, they often do not even pay attention to the direction in which they are heading.”
That’s a reassuring procedure for navigation training.
Question 18 of the Board to Lt. Jackson: “Does navigation instruction for student pilots point out the value of frequent comparison between mechanical and remote reading compasses?”
A. “In ground school when flying the link trainers and in the problems they work in ground school, it is brought out in each period the value of comparing their compasses at all times.”
Besides trained to check their compasses frequently, each student was trained to know each others’ headings. The Testimony of Commander Thomas A. Jenkins, Aviation Training Officer: “The problem itself is worked out under the supervision of the instructor and each student’s navigation is checked by other students and the instructor prior to departing on the flight.”
This was for a very good reason. Each pilot knew the headings for each leg of the flight, regardless if he was the pilot for that leg or not. The very purpose of the mission was to give the pilots the opportunity to plot and cross-check each other’s navigation. If a landmark was missed, it meant that not only was the lead pilot for that leg guilty but so were the others for not catching his mistake.
Prob. Nav. 1 was for navigation training, not flight formation training. In fact, after they got lost Taylor was heard to say twice: “All planes in flight, close formation,” an indication that the training flight had not been as tightly grouped as Kusche’s imagination conveys, and they could use, as they must, their plotting boards.
Rather than accepting that it was unusual that 5 pilots did indeed get lost, and starting his investigation into a cause from that unique point, Kusche amazingly calls into question the reliability of plotting boards. “Plotting boards were not that precise,” he writes later. He said that they were “nearly impossible to use” on a route with many short turns, as Flight 19 was on. Flight 19 was not necessarily on short routes by carrier standards. If Kusche is right, it is amazing the whole US Navy did not vanish considering this method of navigation was in use on all Naval aircraft. This is what all pilots used in the Pacific, flying off carriers to find a moving enemy fleet and then finding their way back to their own moving carrier.
He also resorts to the Manual for Naval Aviators, which says “the plotting board is the only navigational aid available in ship based planes.” He adds that this “obscure factor” which was “tucked away” in the manual has greater significance for the loss of Flight 19 than all the “sensationalistic solutions” of UFOs, Time-Warps, and electromagnetic forces. His obscure factor leads him to unwarranted dogma: He declares: “The men who were lost on Navigation Problem Number One on December 5, 1945, were not carrying maps.”
It is Kusche’s logic which is obscure, and nothing else. In over-water navigation there is no point in having maps since there is nothing for them to show. All the manual is saying is that maps and charts were not used for navigational purposes. They could be carried and used for identification purposes. The map case in Avengers is an easy point of reference in most every cockpit. (Kusche claimed to have examined the cockpit of a museum Avenger and to have spoken with numerous Avenger pilots but overlooks mentioning the map case.) They were always used for cross country flying. It was at the discretion of the pilot if he wished to carry maps with him otherwise.
It is rather evident that Kusche is looking for an excessively simple deduction on Taylor’s part. The lack of maps makes Kusche conclude: “Thus, when Taylor saw the island he had mentioned, he had no way of determining which one it was. Not having flown the area before, he mistakeningly assumed he was seeing ‘his old stomping grounds,’ the Florida Keys.”
Kusche’s leap in logic is apparently based upon his only visit to the Triangle in which he flew the triangular training course and then flew southwest to the Keys: “Flying the route of Flight 19 reinforced the conclusion that parts of the Bahamas and the Florida Keys look enough alike that a lost pilot could assume that one was the other.”
Not really. It would take a major navigational mistake to be near the Keys, since they were about 150 to 175 miles away from the second leg of Prob Nav 1, the point where Taylor took over. It would, really, take following a major compass malfunction for over an hour. Taylor had reason to believe he did this. There was one other factor to convince him he was in the Keys, and this factor is something that both the Navy and Kusche overlooked. The flight got lost in the Bahamas in an area were it was impossible to miss the large and very distinctive island of Grand Bahama. It was not seeing this, a crucial landmark they had to cross before seeing their final corner of the triangle at Great Sale Cay, which must have convinced Taylor they had gone west over their course. Basically that’s the only way any pilot could go to see a chain of islands without having crossed one of the Bahamas’ large, distinctive islands— Andros, Grand Bahama or Great Abaco.
All who have researched the disappearance of Flight 19 for the last decades have agreed that when Taylor reported the broken chain of islands he must have been flying over the Bahama Cays, north of Grand Bahama. The fact that the flight did get north into the Atlantic, as proved by a later radio fix, establishes that the flight never saw Grand Bahama and that the islands in question were most definitely the Cays. All this actually helps in determining what kind of error Taylor had in his compasses and what as a result the flight must have done to actually accidentally bypass Grand Bahama. But instead of pursuing this, Kusche completely ignores the significance of Grand Bahama as a bulwark. Instead he follows one of his most absurd tangential red herrings. This is to question whether Taylor’s compasses were indeed malfunctioning: “Taylor could have convinced himself that he was in the Keys if he had failed to pay proper attention to his navigation, seen some Bahamian islands he thought he recognized as the Keys, then assumed his compasses were wrong.” This above deduction was a coattail to his dissertation that a “pilot’s usual first reaction when he gets lost is to doubt his compass. It is tempting to have more confidence in terrain that looks familiar than in a compass that disagrees with the comforting landmarks.”
Reality, in the case of Flight 19, is quite different. Taylor could crosscheck his compasses with the four other pilots. The radio logs record a discussion on headings and compasses. Obviously theirs said something different or Taylor would have realized that his were not wrong. Also, as late as 6:37 p.m. that night he is overheard to ask Powers “What course are we on now?” The question is pointless if his compass is working.
Kusche continues to promote this to this day, saying that Taylor was used to flying over the Keys since that is where Miami based pilots were trained. For Kusche, Taylor was simply confused. . .and a careless navigator. This is yet another statement of illogic and proof of ignorance of, or contempt for, the report. Miami based pilots also overflew this area of the Bahamas in their training. After all there was only 20 miles difference between the two bases.
The Testimony of Lt. Lee Conklin: “I had one hop with him [Taylor] as an assistant instructor. It was a navigation hop out of NAS Miami. We rendezvoused at our said point and came back home and he took us right to the station. I had Captain Powers and Captain Stivers with me at that time too.”
Testimony of Lt. James Roy Jackson. Question 4 “How far had the students progressed in the navigation syllabus?”
A. “This was their third and last flight. They had had two in Miami before reporting to Fort Lauderdale.”
The Testimony of Lt. Commander Donald J. Poole. “From our records, I considered all personnel fully qualified to perform their third and last navigation flight in a satisfactory manner. Navigation flights 1 & 2 were similiar in nature and covered the same general over-water territory.”
Q. 3 of the Board to Lt. James Roy Jackson: “What navigational instructions did you give to the five missing TBM pilots on 5 December 1945?”
A. “I gave the students no instructions prior to the flight but had previously briefed the instructor, Lieutenant Taylor, on his duties and in the conduct of his flight.”
The Testimony of Lt. Willard L. Stoll, flight leader of Flight 18. Question 8 of the Board: “Did you see any of the material used by Lieutenant Taylor in briefing his students prior to his takeoff on Flight No. 19?”
A. “Yes sir. I saw Lieutenant Taylor’s true headings for all legs and distances which coincided with navigation problem No. 1, Naval Air Station, Fort Lauderdale. I saw this information on the blackboard opposite the names from his flight. The winds used by Lieutenant Taylor’s flight were the same winds given from Aerology and used by my flight, No 18.”
Compass malfunction is also a prime cog in the “legend of Flight 19,” something that Bermuda Triangle buffs exploited to the hilt. In their case, they expanded it to apply to all compasses; something quite untrue. Taylor’s compass malfunction is well documented and is the kernel from which that legend grew. But whatever the sensationalists took to the one extreme, Kusche seemed to take to the opposite extreme, leaving him with an equally improbable flight for Flight 19 and an equally improbable solution in simple misidentification and bad navigation.
Change of Command in Flight 19 is a cog in the “legend” of Flight 19. Kusche also took exception to this, relying on the semantics of “Lead” and “Command.” No such lengthy debates are necessary. Taylor’s dialogue shows he was not giving orders. However, Kusche’s treatment of it is worthy of a final look since it reveals the paucity of his acquaintance with the actual Board of Inquiry Report. “The issue very likely arose because of Opinion 34 in the report which states that ‘Captain Powers assumed the lead of Flight 19 and maintained a course of 270 [west].’ ...It is not apparent, however, why this opinion was given at all, as there is nothing in the station logs or in any of the testimony from which it might have been taken. The situation is further muddled by Opinion 35, which states that at 6:06 Taylor suggested* that Powers head east again.’’ (*Italics are Kusche’s.)
Three logs clearly contain the word “suggest.” Opinion 35 did not make up the word or muddle anything. How many times does Taylor ask Powers what course are they on? The question is pointless if Powers is not leading. Had Kusche not been ignorant of Powers’ seniority in rank, (his book, in fact, dealt with the other pilots as mere bit players, if not outright walk-ons), there would be no real issue.
There is little to be gained from Kusche’s farcical flight. It misrepresents Naval Aviation, the very course they were on, and ignores the training they had received. I see little difference between its credibility and those sensationalistic accounts of UFOs kidnapping the pilots . . . except theirs never hurt or impugned the reputation of anybody.
The Board of Inquiry Report is 500 pages of testimony, plane logs, charts, communications and radio logs, Opinions and Findings of Facts. I had to have my copy run off by a special microfilm company. It was not filmed on standard sized paper and cannot be run off on most library microfilm readers because the pages cannot be condensed to fit into the square provided on their monitors. Although Larry Kusche claims to have relied on this report, his reconstruction is not supported by these documents. On the contrary, they reveal his rendition as more inventive than investigative. The abundance of his bogus statements and dubious deductions force me to assume that a myopic purpose to lay an elemental cause on Flight 19’s disappearance dictated the tenor of his error-filled account. His misuse of this report was the misuse of a very powerful weapon that could eventually have led him to Flight 19’s final resting place.
Most every great mystery of aviation has had sober and well researched biographies written about them. The loss of the airship Hindenberg and the disappearance of Amelia Earhart are two such examples. Flight 19, like them, is one of the greatest mysteries of aviation. Unfortunately, it became obscured by The Bermuda Triangle. Its cry for an accurate biography should have been answered by a serious attempt to find the real facts, place them in order, and find an explanation, not find guilt or dispel tabloid rumors. An inaccurate characterization of Charles Taylor and the training methods for naval aviators, and even questions regarding the method of naval aviation, complete Kusche’s false triad for sloppy navigation and simple confusion. “Everybody likes a good mystery,” Kusche was quoted in a newspaper, “But to me, the really intelligent person likes the truth.”