Well, all this had to be made clear. The Navy figured the Marlin must have exploded when it hit the ocean. (^* The wording in the above message is where the erroneous reports must have originated that the Marlin was in flames in mid air. It was made clear later that it hit the ocean, then exploded). When the wreckage sank to 25 feet, the triggering depth for the depth charges it carried, they then exploded. This accounts for the second explosion. This means that the Marlin stayed afloat in one form or another for about 25 minutes, the time in between the crash and second explosion.
This seems probable. Survivors may have had time to get off, explaining that flare or light seen by the Lyras. Two days later, the Astro also reported a flare but could not locate it in heavier than ideal seas. No trace was ever found of the crew. If any survived, they eventually vanished under the sea.
The Navy proposed three possible solutions. First, starting with the most simple: that the Marlin experienced engine trouble when passing over the Lyras (which reported no sound of engine trouble); second, the pilot left the instruments and became confused after the low level pass, and lost control; third and most subjective: that the pilot did not check between the pressure altimeter and the radio altimeter and flew into the ocean. There was a reported altimeter error of 300 feet for that area.
The last may very well be the case. Patterson may have thought that he was 300 feet higher in altitude than he was (although passing over the ship should have given him a clue as to his altitude). On the other hand, he seems to have kept his plane in the same level of decent and not bothered to pull up after the pass, since 6 miles after his pass over he flew into the ocean at the same constant angle of descent. This argues for lack of flight control, not misreading the altimeter. When a pass is made of a ship, it is usually done in a level flight pattern, not a descending one.
Something happened in those short 12 minutes after he and Peters spoke and when Patterson said all was normal. The big Marlin just flew straight into the sea and into mystery.
The Bermuda Triangle offers a fourth possibility: those of equipment malfunction and the electromagnetic drains some pilots have reported. If these are legitimate, they could have suddenly effected the big plane, making it impossible for Patterson to pull his plane out of its deadly descent or send any SOS they were going down.
In fact, the Navy believed Patterson didn’t even know what was happening. “ . . .if the pilot had any due warning of a malfunction it is believed he would have contacted Navy 126506 [Peters], which he had contacted on UHF approximately 12 minutes prior to the accident. It is also believed he would have jettisoned his ordnance.”
Officially, though, all that can be said with certainty is offered in the brief final conclusion: “The primary cause of this fatal accident is undetermined.”