Like most everybody else, I watched all the TV documentaries made on the subjects (the best still date to the 1970s). But like everybody else, phenomena remained a spectator’s sport. After all, where do you go to do this kind of research? Where do you start? You believe or you don’t believe, often based merely on popular arguments and pulp renditions. Most take for granted that facts are behind them. I have found this to be a specious deduction.
It was a strange set of circumstances that got me more involved. It was the late summer of 1990 that I pulled an old book out of my father’s book shelf. Besides being one of the top 30 GM dealers in the world (at that time), he had also been a pilot, ran on behalf of San Martin County the local auxiliary airport, and had several marine dealerships and licenses. It was only natural he would have this book. It was Charles Berlitz’s book on the Bermuda Triangle, published in 1974, and most any aviator or yachtsman probably had a copy at one point. Some 5 million copies were sold, making it and the Bermuda Triangle a phenomenon.
I won’t go into details, but I found it quite piquing, enough so that I finished it the next day when I came home from work. I had never really considered that books might have been written on the subject before. (When the Bermuda Triangle was real hot in the early to mid 1970s I was but a kid and was naturally unaware or unconcerned with anything erudite.)
I soon collected every book on the subject. Eventually I amassed quite a library. Some were rare, some were a dime a dozen paperbacks. Some used the missing as proof for a hodgepodge of outlandish theories, while in many others the author had merely repeated the many mistakes of earlier authors. Error concerning the 575-foot V.A. Fogg started with John Spencer (Limbo of the Lost) (1973), who said it could only have been teleported from the planet. Of course, it had sunk in only 90 feet of water and is actually being used as an artificial reef to this day! The Freya, a derelict schooner in the Pacific, mysteriously found its way into the Triangle litany– the biggest mystery about it. Debunkers hardly had a higher standard. When I came across Lawrence Kusche’s book, entitled The Bermuda Triangle Mystery– Solved (1975), I found a book which fit the maxim: “You cannot judge a book by its cover.” I was hoping for far more than the selective cases he offered, and out of these only 5 or 6 were even based on an actual accident report detailing the investigation, leaving far too much room for “solutions” and elastic conclusions from inaccurate newspaper accounts. This book was endorsed by both the US Coast Guard and Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, both institutions which, understandably, are not eager to promote mysteries.
This is all 25 year old water under the bridge. What happened then doesn’t amount to a whole lot today, and all these books collect dust in used book stores along with the literary momentos of other by-gone eras. However, this is where I shed my “so stupid you don’t know” and where I began to shed my “so stupid you don’t suspect.” I realized no one really looked into it beyond their own point of view and beyond a superficial popular account.
It was the great gap since then that made me the most curious. The last major book was published around 1978. By 1990 some 13 years had gone by without a peep. If there was true mystery with this section of sea, it should be continuing. While debating with myself where to begin, a strange twist of fate happened. In February. 1991 worldwide front page news proclaimed the discovery of Flight 19! A salvor found them only 20 miles off Fort Lauderdale at the bottom of the sea. I talked to a former Navy pilot whom I knew, George Smith, who trained at Banana River in 1946. His first thought was that those were probably surplus that the Navy took out to sea and just dumped. In June, salvor Graham Hawkes’ much touted but erroneous discovery was soundly laid to rest . . .but it nevertheless took about a month to do it – the numbers didn’t match on the aircraft. George Smith was right! They were just surplus. When I got the Naval Board of Inquiry Report months later, I was surprised. No one who had read that document ever would have leaped to the conclusion Flight 19 could be anywhere near Fort Lauderdale. This did it for me. It was obvious no one really knew any details of these incidents.
In April 1991 I started my firsthand research. I wasn’t out to prove or debunk incidents; I was out to find them; to see just how many people, planes and ships were truly vanishing. I started looking in libraries, but this really doesn’t amount to much. Index to the New York Times gives you a few incidents. Miami Herald gives a little more. But I found out the papers were never very reliable. They had no choice but to repeat what was told them. Often rescuers and searchers themselves weren’t quite sure what to say during the heat of search operations. I had to go beyond this.
I sought every scrap in officialdom. I would not take no for an answer. Bolling Air Force Base, the legal center of the Air Force, informed a full colonel at Air Materiel Command, who then put it on letterhead for me, that there were no repositories in existence that held reports on Air Force aircraft accidents prior to the early 1970s. I bought it for a while; but finally, now not being so dumb that I don’t suspect, suspected they might be wrong. I called the Air Force Safety Center Agency at Norton Air Force Base. The answer was a quick yes. They had every report I wished, even one that went back to 1952. All has now been moved to Kirtland Air Force Base when Norton closed. Now all reports prior to 1955 have been moved to the Historical Research Agency at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. These go back to 1915. In fact, the Air Force maintains reports back until its creation as Army Air Corp. I don’t think the experts at Bolling AFB still know this.
One of the best sources for U.S. aircraft losses is the National Transportation Safety Board. They investigate any type of aircraft accident along with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), after the old CAB (Civil Aeronautic Board) was melded. A “Brief” can be had first. A Brief is what it sounds like. It is a brief, usually one page, chit with all the relevant data to inform the reader of the basics.