Researchers discover TBM Avenger torpedo bombers in the Mexican desert.

If you’ve watched the 1977 Steven Spielberg classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (who hasn’t?), you might recall the opening sequence. Researchers are summoned to the Sonoran Desert in Mexico, where a group of old planes—Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bombers, to be exact—have suddenly appeared. They determine that the planes, in perfect condition, belong to Flight 19, a group of five planes that disappeared 32 years earlier, in 1945. Did I say disappeared? Has to be science fiction, right? Wrong. It really happened.


On December 5th, 1945 Flight 19 left Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale, Florida at about 2 p.m. for a routine navigation and combat training exercise with a total of 14 airmen on board the five planes. The weather was described as “favorable” at the time of departure, though it deteriorated throughout the day as the mission was carried out. Radio chatter between the pilots could be heard by the base, as well as other aircraft in the area.

A similar Flight to the one that was lost in 1945.

An hour later, with the exercise mostly completed, one of the pilots was asked for his compass reading. He replied, “I don’t know where we are. We must’ve gotten lost after that last turn.” The lead pilot of Flight 19, Lt. Charles Taylor, then reported, “I’m trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I am over land but it’s broken. I am 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.”

Subsequently, no bearings could be made on Flight 19. The weather continued to deteriorate, and any radio contact was spotty. By 6 p.m. it was believed that the planes were over 200 miles out to sea, possibly within the area known as the Bermuda Triangle, where many ships and aircraft were reported to have gone missing. One questionable account had Lt. Taylor saying, “We are entering white water, nothing seems right. We don’t know where we are, the water is green, not white.”

Taylor’s last confirmed message occurred sometime between 6:20 and 7 p.m. He said, “All planes close up tight. We’ll have to ditch unless landfall… When the last plane drops below 10 gallons, we all go down together.”


A Martin PBM-5 flying boat also disappeared while searching for Flight 19.

With Flight 19 now lost, all air bases, merchant ships, and aircraft were alerted. A PBY Catalina flying boat was first in the air. Soon after, two Martin PBM Mariner flying boats took off in search of Flight 19. One of the latter, a PBM-5 BuNo, took off from NAS Banana River with a crew of 13. At about 7:30 p.m. it called in a routine message.

PBM-5 BuNo then disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Did the Bermuda Triangle take these aircraft, and their 27 crew members? Theories abounded after the tragedies, with the Navy ultimately issuing a 500-page report that offered a number of “logical” explanations. Still, the mystery of Flight 19 remains exactly that, and may never be fully explained.

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