5th of December 1945
It is 14.10 on this day in 1945 when five TBM Avenger torpedo bombers takes off from the Naval Air Station in Ft, Lauderdale, Florida. Their call sign, Flight 19. That callsign would become a synonym for one of the most perplexing mysteries in aviation history.
A TBM Avenger (© http://www.cactusairforce.com)
Flight 19 was a 5 aircraft formation, all but one of the aircraft had 3 crew members on board. The flight leader was Lieutenant Charles C. Taylor. He was a World War II veteran from the Pacific Theater.
The training mission was a three-hour flight, which would take them East out of Ft. Lauderdale to a bombing range called "Hens and Chicken Shoals". There they would turn on a northerly heading towards Grand Bahama Island. followed by a left turn on a southwesterly course back to Ft. Lauderdale. The exercise was called "Navigation Problem Number One"
They were the 19th flight flying that mission that day. After completing the first leg Flight 19 dropped their practice bombs at the "Hens and Chicken Shoals" range and turned north toward their next waypoint.
Shortly after that Taylor reported that his compass had malfunctioned and that they had been flying in the wrong direction. flight 19's leader was disoriented, this was increased by a front moving in with rain, gusty winds and heavy cloud cover. One of the flights' pilots was heard over the radio saying that he didn't know where he was. This broadcast was overheard by a Navy Instructor who informed the Naval Air Station of the message he heard and asked Flight 19 if he could be of help. Lieutenant Tailor reported that both his compasses were unserviceable, stating also that he was over land, the Florida Keys but wasn't sure where he was exactly over the Keys. SOP for missions like this one was to steer towards the setting sun (west) until landfall and then find out where you are. However, Taylor was presumably under the impression that would take him into the Gulf of Mexico (thinking he was over the Keys). So he decided to fly a North Easterly course think this would take him back to mainland Florida. One of the pilots was heard broadcasting “If we would just fly west, we would get home.”
Artwork with the 5 aircraft of Flight 19, the names of the crew and the Squadron emblem
Pressure from the pilots eventually persuaded home to turn west, around 18.00h. A short while later he reversed that order and ordered Flight 19 on an easterly heading. Radio messages started to fade but Taylor could be heard preparing his flight for a potential ditching, closing up the formation and instructing the other pilots when to ditch.No further radio calls were received Investigators believe that (at least) one plane broke formation and headed west. On the 6th of December, a sea and air armada of over 300 ships and aircraft started a five-day search of 300.000 square miles of ocean. Not a sign was found of Flight 19, not during the above-mentioned search, not on many others in the years afterwards.
In red the planned routing for the mission, yellow dots "Hens and Chicken Shoals"
bombing range, yellow circle the area were Flight 19 possibly ditched.
One of the search aircraft, a Martin PBM-5 Mariner (Click here for more info) was lost during the search mission. This brought the total cost of human lives lost to 27 (14 crewmembers of Flight 19, and 13 of the Mariner). The US Navy launched an investigation and concluded that;
Flight Leader Lt. Charles Taylor was not at fault due to a double compass failure.
The Nave believes that Taylor misidentified the Bahamas for the Florida Keys and as a result of this misidentification mistakenly led the flight northeast out into the airspace over the Atlantic.
Based on radio messages received one or more crews might have broken formation and headed west
Some specifications of the Grumman TBM Avenger;
Empty Weight: 10,545 lbs.
Max Weight: 17,893 lbs.
Range: 1,000 miles.
Service Ceiling: 30,100 ft.
Max Speed: 275 mph.