On the afternoon of December 5, 1945, five Avenger torpedo bombers departed Florida’s Fort Lauderdale for a routine training flight and disappeared. The expedition was led by Lt. Charles Taylor, an experienced pilot who had multiple combat tours to his credit in the Pacific theatre of the second world war.
The first leg of the journey went like clockwork and the practice bombs were dropped into the sea without incident. But two hours into the flight the Florida flight tower received a panic message from Taylor that he could not see land and was likely off course. Contact was lost for about 10 minutes when another pilot rambled incoherently about not knowing where they were.
Two Mariner flying boats were immediately scrambled to the last known position of Flight 19 but one of them crashed soon after take-off. That meant that the five bombers plus one flying boat had been lost even though the coast guard and the navy searched 250,000 square miles in succeeding days. The navy even launched an investigation but nothing conclusive came of it. Some writers have concluded that the planes were swallowed up in the Bermuda Triangle or even spirited away by flying saucers.
What is clear is that Lt Taylor believed his Avenger’s compass was malfunctioning and that the planes were flying in the wrong direction in the Gulf of Mexico. It is possible he became disorientated as gusty winds, rains and heavy cloud formations restricted his view. Additionally Taylor may have become suddenly ill. Hence the most likely view is that the planes eventually ran out of gas and crashed into a heavy sea. No wreckage, not even an oil slick, was ever discovered in subsequent rescue missions.
Fiction writers have rushed to explain the tragedy. The most famous reference is in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind where the entire crew of five planes were whisked away by extra-terrestrial beings and later dumped in the Mexican desert. Other science fiction writers have suggested that the planes were brought down by strange magnetic forces, akin to other bizarre happenings in the so-called Bermuda Triangle of air and sea disappearances.
In 2021, a Florida retiree, Graham Stikelether, came forward to say that in 1962 as a youngster he had been shown the wreckage of a plane by his father. Stikelether maintained that he had seen the wreckage of one of the five planes which had managed to return but had crashed into shallow waters, killing the occupants. He suggested that at least one of the planes had correctly judged the right way home and had nearly been successful. There is no concrete evidence of the retiree’s claim and no supporting documentation. The fate of Flight 19 remains unsolved.