Fort Lauderdale used 3 triangle “problems” for advanced over-water navigation. Their purpose was to train pilots in finding their target or base carrier by relying on wind direction, time of travel, direction of waves, and so forth. Each triangle used landmarks in the Bahamas as key nodal points by which instructors graded the progress of each student leading that particular “leg” of the flight. The other student pilots would be checking up on the courses as well. The flight had the combined power of 10 compasses and 5 navigators.
Today Flight 19 was assigned Problem Navigation Number 1. This flight triangle was a line drawn from Fort Lauderdale, the squadron’s home base, to Hen and Chicken Shoals, about 56 miles off the coast north of the Bahamian island of Bimini. Here they would conduct mock bombing runs on an old hulk. After this, another student pilot would lead them further easterly to Great Stirrup Cay. From here they would turn and follow another pilot northwest for 73 miles, cross the large and distinctive land mass of Grand Bahama, then off the island of Great Sale Cay turn southwest and follow another student for 124 miles right back into Fort Lauderdale. Each leg of the flight —Fort Lauderdale to Chicken and Hen Shoal, thence to Great Stirrup Cay, thence to Great Sale Cay, thence home to Fort Lauderdale— would be led by a student. Each pilot would check the course. The flight leader would fly behind them and grade them. If they missed any of their landmarks, the entire flight would get a “down” because it meant that all of the students made a mistake by not catching the mistake of the student leading that particular leg.
There seemed little chance of that today. The wind direction and strength was known, the flight was simple, the pilots and many of the crew had flown the area before, some of them many times.
Nevertheless, somewhere within this island crowded area, on this simple training triangle, something went terribly wrong and 5 pilots did not notice until it was too late. Truth lies in between the extremes that haunt the world of hype and hyperbole. Flight 19 was not the victim of UFOs. Yet it was not the victim of unqualified student pilots who didn’t know what they were doing. One pilot simply could not have made a mistake and the others blindly follow.
Radio communication picked up by other pilots and by base stations gives us some glimpses in the drama that must have been unfolding. We know that the flight leader, Charles Taylor, was certain he took the flight off course while in the heart of the Bahamas. It was only after they failed to find their next landmark, the unavoidable Grand Bahama Island, that he realized they were lost and that his compasses were not working properly. Knowledge of this, however, does not help dispel the mystery. There were 4 other pilots who could have corrected the course if they were lost. There were 4 other pilots who could have said that they weren’t lost. But they didn’t. Radio communications only revealed they had a discussion of compasses and headings.
This didn’t resolve the problem. The flight leader became sure that he must have taken the flight over their course for about an hour and none of his students had bothered to catch his erred compass heading. He no doubt did not trust their input anymore. Being sure they were in the Florida Keys, he ordered the flight to head northeast. The logic of this was to have the flight cut across the Bay of Florida and find the southern coast of Florida. From there they could easily follow the coast line and find Fort Lauderdale.
But that didn’t happen. Over the next hour radio communications with the flight continued to deteriorate, but it was obvious they never sighted any land. After a disagreement between the lead pilots, the flight leader had announced that they would fly west until the hit the beach or ran out of gas.
A radio triangulation would tell us that at 5:50 p.m. the flight was far north of the Bahamas. Somehow they had indeed gotten out of the heart of the Bahamas without seeing any distinctive landmark and were in the North Atlantic off Florida at New Smyrna Beach. Heading west for the last 30 minutes or so had only taken them northwest in the heavy winds heading northeast. Nevertheless, if they continued west they should cross the Florida coast around Flagler Beach.
Yet none of the land bases listening in to the broken and faint radio communication believed the flight ever made land. The last words that could be understood were from Taylor, the flight leader. He was insisting that they were still in the Gulf of Mexico and that they should turn around and head east. His hope was that they could ditch much closer to the west coast of Florida.
A storm had been brewing west of Florida and now the clouds were all over the peninsula and creeping further into the Atlantic. The seas were beginning to pitch. The wind was whipping up the whitecaps into frothy streamers. An easterly course now would have taken Flight 19 further out into a windswept Atlantic Ocean.
Based on the last wisps of garbled communication between 6:30 p.m. and 7:04 p.m., the Navy officers and men involved formed the impression that the flight had turned and headed easterly, going to their doom by ditching in a tumultuous dark Atlantic Ocean about 8 p.m. that night. Yet this overlooks key dialogue picked up coming from the flight. It overlooks the character of the student pilot who took over the flight, Marine Captain Edward Powers Jr., and it overlooks enigmatic radar reports from various bases and the carrier Solomons. Together these led me on my quest to find the final resting place of Flight 19. With this key, and many others, I was able to assemble the final moment of the flight. Analyzing all the dialogue (bits and pieces held by various bases that were able to catch the dialogue), it is possible to also reassemble the beginning of the flight and answer the confusing questions as to how the flight got lost to begin with and, more puzzling, how they got out of the Bahamas without ever seeing a distinctive landmark. In the end, why they flew into oblivion becomes clear, and I was finally able to unravel the greatest mystery of aviation. Irony, mystery, tragedy, and infrared come together to reveal one of the most complex military blunders in peacetime.