The briefing was routine. The flight number was given as 19. Flight 18 was flying the same training practice just about 20 minutes ahead of them. Other flights were over the Bahamas or off the coast that day. From both Fort Lauderdale and Miami NAS, just 20 miles south, there were lots of Avengers in the air. This was hardly isolated flying. In fact, it was standard for squadrons to keep their radios tuned low so their inner-squadron chatter wouldn’t intrude on others. Visibility was about 10 to 12 miles, so each flight would fly in its own individual funnel of reality. The haze of the tropic day would forever be a retreating and following curtain.
The flight was seen departing the coast, with one of the students flying the lead and Taylor flying in the tracking position. Each leg of the flight would be led by one of the 4 students while Taylor followed and graded them.
The first leg to Chicken and Hen Shoals apparently went without incident. About 2:40 p.m. they should have been heading to Great Stirrup Cay, with another student flying the lead. Here they would turn onto their second leg, northwest. About 3: 40 p.m. Grand Bahama should be looming before them. It is one of the most significant land masses in the Bahamas. It was impossible to avoid.
Nevertheless, around this time Lt. Robert Cox overheard some interesting dialog coming from a flight. It was inner-squadron chatter on the training channel of 4805 kc/s. He was in the vicinity of Fort Lauderdale/Miami flying a TBF Avenger, FT-74. He knew that the radio was turned low during flights so that squadron communications would not intrude into other flights. This broadcast therefore wasn’t meant to be broadcast to others. The dialog indicated that someone was lost. Being that he was close to the coast and overhearing this, he was worried. It meant somebody was lost pretty close to where nobody could possibly get lost.
The pilot speaking was asking “Powers, what does you compass read? Powers? What does your compass read?” He repeated this a few times.
Powers responded something that Cox could not hear.
The original voice spoke again. “I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.”
This moment begins the saga of Flight 19. Robert Cox informed the tower at Fort Lauderdale and alternatively also gave advice to the flight leader, Charles Taylor. Nevertheless, none of it was to any avail. Cox was the only pilot who ever had extended communication with the flight. Ground bases had severe trouble trying to pick up dialog. This is just one of many conundrums with the saga of Flight 19. For Cox to have overheard the flight, they must have been near to the Florida coast, yet when base stations, like Fort Lauderdale and even more significantly, Port Everglades, tried to raise the flight it was either impossible or the back and forth communication (only between Flight 19 and Port Everglades) was marked by blackouts, faint dialog, and static.
We must remember this as we proceed. By today, so much has been written and recreated about Flight 19 that we naturally have preconceived ideas. We form our own images of being with the flight. But this only misleads us. The only eye on the flight was an ear. Radio operators and other pilots (initially) tried to overhear what they could and understand what they were able. Late afternoon fell to dusk, and this in turn fell to darky night. The only handle on the flight was the crackle of a faint voice coming through the static on the radio receiver. Other than this there was nothing. It is from this vantage we must try and relive the continuing drama of Flight 19.
Let’s continue. It is 3:40 p.m. when the saga of Flight 19 begins.
Cox listened carefully for a minute. The pilots were in some conversation. There was obviously more than 2. He then called Fort Lauderdale’s Operations Radio.
“Fox Tare seven four, Fox Tare 74 to Nan How Able One, Nan How Able One, there seems to be either a boat or plane lost and is calling Powers. Suggest you inform tower of it. Over.” (underline dialog indicates reconstruction)
“Roger,” perfunctorily responded the radio operator.
Cox then tried to raise the pilot who had been calling ‘Powers.’
“This is Fox Tare 74, plane or boat calling Powers, please identify yourself so someone can help you.”
He tried this a number of times, but he could get no answer.
Fort Lauderdale’s Operations Radio now cut in. “Nan How Able One to FT-74. Tower asks if they have any recognition or identification?”
“Negative. Not as yet known.”
Moments later Cox overheard more inner squadron dialog.
The voice he had first heard said: “Does anyone have any suggestions? . . .I think we must be over the Keys.”
He cued his mike. “This is FT-74 calling lost plane or boats. Please identify yourself? Over.”
Finally a clear response came over. “Roger, this is Mike Tare 28.”
“MT-28, this is FT-74, what is your trouble?”
“Both my compasses are out and I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I am over land, but it’s broken. I’m sure I’m in the Keys, but I don’t know how far down and I don’t know how to get to Fort Lauderdale.”
“MT-28, this is FT-74. Put the sun on your port wing if you are in the Keys and fly up the coast until you get to Miami, then Fort Lauderdale is 20 miles further, your first port after Miami. The air station is directly on your left from the port. What is your present altitude? I will fly south and meet you?”
The pilot of MT-28’s voice changed to routine confidence. “I know where I am at now. I’m at 2300 feet. Don’t come after me.”
That did not satisfy a veteran pilot like Cox. “MT-28, roger. I’m coming up to meet you anyhow.”
As Cox tore off south to the Keys, Operations Radio queried him about the call sign of his contact. MT-28 indicated an aircraft that was flying out of Miami. Fort Lauderdale’s aircraft carried the FT prefix. Cox checked with MT-28, and received a quick roger. Now, Fort Lauderdale was no longer in the dark about the flight. It was Flight 19 and MT-28 was FT-28, Lt. Taylor.
Times differ between Fort Lauderdale and Cox’s reckoning. The clocks were later found to be off by about 20 minutes. But it is safe to say that it would be about 4:05 p.m. right now. Flight 19 was not due back yet, so there seemed little reason to worry back at Fort Lauderdale. But Lauderdale wasn’t picking up most of the dialog. Some of the most crucial and disturbing, indicating Taylor truly thought his flight was far out to sea, now came into Cox.
“FT-74. Can you have Miami or someone turn on their radar gear and pick us up? We don’t seem to be getting far. We were out on a navigational hop and on the second leg I thought they were going wrong so I took over and was flying them back to the right position, but I’m sure now that neither one of my compasses are working.”
This is quite a piquing statement. The second leg of the flight was the cross leg heading northwest from Great Stirrup Cay. This was the area of the flight’s training course that was completely land locked in the Bahamas. How could it be that they got lost here and had not spotted any significant landmark? Furthermore, it made it very unlikely, if not impossible, that they were anywhere near the Keys.
“FT-28,” responded Cox, “You can’t expect to get here in ten minutes. You have a 30 to 35 knot head or cross wind. Turn on your emergency IFF gear, or do you have it on ?
There is some contradiction here. Cox might have been in touch with Powers. Powers’ aircraft did not come with IFF. Moments later Cox tells Operations Radio that FT-28 has his IFF on, though there is no dialog saying that Taylor had said he was turning his on. Cox merely relays Taylor’s request “if he can be picked up on Fort Lauderdale radar gear.”
“FT-74, Nan How Able One. Negative. He cannot be picked up on Fort Lauderdale radar gear.”
(FT-74) “Roger. Standby.”
“FT-28, this is FT-74. Turn on your ZBX. . . FT-28, do you read? Turn on your ZBX.”
This was the homing device in the TBMs. They should be able to follow the beam and come back into Lauderdale.
Now Operations tried. “FT-28, this is Nan How Able One, turn on your ZBX. Repeat, turn on ZBX.”
No response. Port Everglades was listening back and forth. Now they tried. “FT-28, this is Nan How Able Three (Air Sea Rescue Unit 4, Port Everglades), Fox Tare twenty eight turn on your ZBX.”
Still nothing. Fort Lauderdale waited for a moment, then contacted Cox.
“FT-74, this is Nan How Able One, tell FT-28 to have a pilot with a good compass take over lead. Over.”
“Roger. FT-28, This is FT-74. Have a wingman with a good compass take over lead of flight. Over.”
. . .unintelligble. . .”radar”. . . (from FT-28).
Cox: “FT-28, your transmissions are fading. Something is wrong. What is your altitude?”
“I am at 4,500 feet.”
At this inopportune moment Cox’s ATC transmitter konked out. He switched stations and finally got Nan How Able One on No. 7 “Nan How Able One this is FT-74. He is now on a new heading. Angles 4.5 and climbing.”
“Nan How Able Three (Port Everglades) to FT-28: Radio check, can you read us?”
“Affirmative. We have just passed over small island. We have no other land in sight. Am at angles 3.5. Have on Emergency IFF. Does anybody in the area have a radar screen that could pick us up?”
“FT-28, this is Nan How Able Three. Suggest you have another plane in your flight with a good compass take over the lead and guide you back to the mainland.”
“FT-28 to Port Everglades. One of the planes in the flight thinks if we went 270 we could hit land.”
Some at Fort Lauderdale, like the Operations Duty Officer, Commander Charles Kenyon, and his assistant, Samuel Hines, were second-guessing where the flight must be lost. They deduced it must currently be over the Biminis, only 56 miles from the coast. This was the product of a number of erroneous deductions, the worst of which was a tremendous and tragic mistake that would directly lead to the flight’s loss. Kenyon should have been alerted to his faulty judgment by how faint Taylor’s communication was. Even more so, there was the fact the flight’s IFF could not be picked up and, in addition, the fact that Taylor’s homing device was not picking up their beam. Altogether this should have told Kenyon the flight was far out to sea.
Unfortunately, Kenyon’s theory no doubt influenced the Flight Officer, Lt. Commander Don Poole, to think there was little to worry about. As soon as he stepped into Operations Radio to take over, he heard many theories on where the flight was. He, too, knew that Taylor could not have flown to the second leg of Problem Navigation 1 and had time to get to the Keys thereafter. When he entered Operations at 4:30 p.m. one of the clearest messages Operations picked up from the flight had just come over. One of the pilots had just said they should head west. That was standard procedure and Poole was relieved to hear it. The problem was resolving itself.
If they were so near to the coast at Bimini, they would be back home in only 20 minutes.
By 5 p.m., however, that had not happened. By this time, Cox had long lost contact with the flight and headed back to Fort Lauderdale to relay his suspicions. He had deduced that Flight 19 was actually in the northeastern part of the Bahamas, north of Grand Bahama, perhaps as much as 150 miles from the coast. Taylor had mentioned a chain of islands. But his communication faded more and more as Cox had headed south to the Keys. This made it seem certain to Cox that Taylor was actually over the Bahama Cays north of Grand Bahama.
At the present time, however, Port Everglades had established solid contact with Taylor.
At 4:45 p.m. Taylor had told them: “FT-28 to Nan How Able Three. We are heading 030 for 45 minutes, then we will fly north to make sure we are not over the Gulf of Mexico.”
Taylor still thought that they had flown a long way over their course and had ended up at the Keys. His instructions would bring the flight over the Bay of Florida to the southern coast of the peninsula. From there they could follow standard procedure and follow the coastline.
The coast, however, was obviously not coming into view as he expected it should. Thus he must have believed that they had been further down along the Keys than he had first suspected. This can be deduced because 20 minutes later, around 5:05 p.m., he ordered:
“Let’s turn and fly east 2 degrees. We are going too damn far north instead of east. If there is anything we wouldn’t see it.”
If they were flying north from the Key West area, these instructions would have been correct. If, however, seemed very unlikely.
If Cox was right, these courses were taking Flight 19 northeast into the Atlantic. They were headed away from Florida. It is no wonder communication with the flight was getting worse.
We must yet again remind ourselves that so far the only visual we have is a faint voice coming over the receiver. There was very little for Operations at Fort Lauderdale to contextualize at this point. And, in truth, they weren’t hearing everything that Port Everglades was hearing.
At 5:07 p.m. Taylor gave the order: “FT-28 to all planes in flight, change course to 090o for 10 minutes.”
To Taylor, this course would take them directly east and hopefully to the west coast of Florida.
It was already evident at Fort Lauderdale that there had been disagreements amongst the pilots. Poole recalls hearing one of the students say “Dammit, if we would just fly west we would get home!”
Something must now have come to a head because Taylor had ordered them eastward. There was some exchange between the pilots and then only 4 minutes later Taylor was heard to complain: “You didn’t get far enough east. How long have we been going east?”
Whatever happened the disagreement was settled quickly.
The flight was clearly turned around by Powers. There was no other pilot in a position to assert rank. He had also been the pilot that had been leading the flight since Taylor’s compasses were not working. Powers also had a temper. He would have been the pilot who said “Dammit, if we would just head west we would get home!”
Only minutes later, their course westward was confirmed. Taylor called to Port Everglades: “Hello Nan How Able three, this is FT-28. Do you read? Over.” He repeated: “I receive you very weak. We are now flying 270o”.
“Roger,” replied Port Everglades.
“We will fly 270o until we hit the beach or run out of gas,” confirmed Taylor a minute later.
Whatever had gotten the flight lost, it seemed the drama would be over soon. The flight most definitely had to be in the Atlantic. They had more than enough fuel to get back to the coast. They were headed in the right direction now. Powers was leading the way. The dialog was too choppy for all members in Operations to assert dogmatically that Powers actually assumed command, but the dialog, from hindsight, collated from all the bits and pieces the other stations picked up, makes it clear that the flight did not proceed eastward for the amount of time following Taylor’s orders. The recent discussions confirmed to base stations that they were heading west come hell or high water.
With this, and in light of the fact that Aerology just informed Fort Lauderdale that foul weather was coming from the west, Poole decided not to send a Ready Plane to maintain radio contact with the flight and lead them in. Robert Cox was on the ground by this time and standing by the wall in Operations. He offered to take the plane himself. Poole basically barked at him that there was no need. Cox backed off.
Snippets of dialog were picked up thereafter. None of it shed much light on what had happened. Taylor was overheard now to order “Planes fly close formation,” adding, “When first man gets down to 10 gallons of gas, we will all land in the water together. Does everyone understand that?”
Taylor clearly still asserted himself as the commander of the exercise. The pilots no doubt listened. But as to direction, they squarely followed Powers.
The flight was heading west and there was little reason for much conversation. So it is not surprising that little or nothing was heard. By now, all High Frequency Directional Finding stations along Florida and the Gulf were listening for the flight’s messages. Between 5:22 p.m. and 5:24 p.m. Houma, Louisiana, heard Taylor ask Port Everglades: “Nan How Able Three This is Fox Tare twenty-eight. I receive you very weak. How is weather over Lauderdale?” A few minutes later, Taylor asked another pilot “Is that a ship on the left?” But the reply was too faint to read.
Over the next 10 minutes, Taylor intermittently asked: “Nan How Able Three, Can you hear me? FT-28: Nan How Able Three, How do you read?”
Port Everglades was finally able to get a response through. “Very Weak. Change to 3000 kilocycles.”
Fort Lauderdale heard: “Hello Nan How Able Three. This is FT-28. Over. I can hear you very faintly. My transmission is getting weaker.”
Port Everglades calmly told Taylor to change to “channel 1 3000 kilocycles and give us a call.”
Fort Lauderdale hears: “My transmission is getting weaker.”
Changing to 3000 kilocycles would have greatly helped since all stations along Florida monitored that emergency frequency. It had a greater range and more clarity. The training frequency Taylor was on had a limited range and was picked up for only about 125 miles. Furthermore, it was used mostly only by Fort Lauderdale. Other stations and bases had to be told to change to that frequency in order to pick up the flight. None of them, however, transmitted on that channel. Only Port Everglades and Fort Lauderdale could actually have 2-way communication with Flight 19, but their reception was very poor.
At 5:53: p.m. Port Everglades reiterated: “Change to Yellow Band 3000 kilocycles and say words twice when answering. A minute later: “Did you receive my last transmission? Change to channel 1 3000 kilocycles.”
Taylor’s faint voice came over: “Repeat once gain.”
“Change to Channel 1, 3000 kilocycles.”
“I cannot change frequency,” he replied. “I must keep my planes intact.”
There was simply no way now that reception was going to get better. It was dark at sea, and Taylor was not going to risk losing contact with one of his pilots. Switching frequencies in the dark was not that simple in an Avenger anyway. There was a 12 foot long control cable and over time there was some play in the knob. In the dark, one of the pilots might not be able to tune into the right channel. Taylor would then have lost contact with one of his pilots. He could not afford to do that.
A few more messages were overheard. Mostly it was Taylor trying to raise Powers. He seemed to be having trouble. It went on for a couple of minutes until Powers finally responded.
“Hello Powers. This is Taylor. I have been trying to reach you.”
“I thought you were calling base---”
“Negative. What course are we on?”
“Holding course 270.”
“Affirmative. I am pretty sure we are over the Gulf. We didn’t go far enough east. How long have we been on this course?”
“About 45 minutes.”
“I suggest we fly due east until we run out of gas. We have a better chance of being picked up close to shore. If we were near land we should be able to see a light or something.” Nothing came back from Powers. As a result at 6:06 p.m., Taylor said “Are you listening ? We may just as well turn around and go east again.”
The dialog above reconfirmed that insofar as direction was concerned, Powers had complete control. Superiors do not suggest to a subordinate in the field. Taylor had lost command to Powers. In that earlier period of conversation that Operations and Port Everglades tried to hear, date of commission must have been requested. When it was over, it would be obvious that Powers actually held seniority over Taylor by 5 months. He could assert rank. Although controversial because Taylor was the assigned commander, Powers obviously did it and headed the flight west.
The dialog picked up thereafter more or less implies that Powers was ignoring Taylor’s advice.
At 6:13 p.m. Taylor again calls: “Hello, Powers?”
At 6:17 p.m: “Powers, what is your course?”
At 6:37 p.m: “What course are we on now?”
Between 6:43- 6:44 p.m. Ensign Bossi’s call sign is heard. He is trying to raise Taylor. “Fox Tare Three . . . Fox Tare Three . . .”
Port Everglades jumps on it. “FT-3, This is Nan How Able three. Come in please. We are reading you very weak. Come in please.”
Nothing. Twenty minutes later garbled communication and Bossi’s call sign: “FT-3, FT-3, FT-3 . . .”
That was it. After 7:04 p.m. that night there was no more communication. They had been heading west since 5:11 p.m. They had followed Ed Powers. He presumably had a working compass. Yet they still never returned. They had more than enough time and more than enough fuel. What happened?
Many have tried to piece together the above dialog and more (some minor dialog is left out here) to try and unravel the mystery of the flight. It is a tenuous thing. Our own eye on the night was an ear, as I said, the ears of those who took down what they could as the faint and staccato dialog crackled over the receivers. It is, in fact, easier today to try and unravel the flight than it was that dark night so long ago.
By the end of that night not one station had all the dialog. None had all the facts. What was expected to be a routine blunder that would be solved when the flight landed and the pilots embarrassingly faced their comrades would turn into the greatest mystery of aviation. The blunder would be added to by Air Sea Rescue. They had little more than a patchwork of information. By 7:30 p.m. that night a full search operation was in progress, but none of them really knew where to look.
Then to everyone’s surprise at the bases one of the big Martin Mariner “Dumbos” searching for the lost flight also vanished. No trace would be found of it either, or of its 13 men.
The flight would fade into a complex mystery over the decades to follow. Five pilots and their crews, with five big aircraft, had vanished that night. In all, 14 men were gone, and no trace would be found. Then one of the rescue planes followed it. Altogether 27 men and 6 huge aircraft disappeared into thin air.
But we are not left without clues. Clues begin even before the saga. The biggest clue is that peaceful silence in which the flight must have been flying a wrong course for a considerable time and yet none seemed aware of it. When Taylor speaks to Powers about being lost it is very much in the vein of surprise. Within that silence lies the greatest conundrum in Flight 19’s mystery. . .and the solution to how it got lost.