Today, 5th December, is the anniversary of the loss of 5 Avenger torpedo bombers on a training flight off Florida in 1945. Because the exact circumstances were not resolved by the original investigation, the accident has acquired an unusual mystique compared to others. “Unknown phenomena”, “abducted by aliens”: that kind of thing.
But I don’t think it was mysterious at all. The instructor, Lieutenant Charles Taylor, made serious errors of judgement that led to the loss of the flight and the deaths of all five pilots, including himself. He had form. On two previous occasions he had had to be rescued from the water after becoming lost and ditching.
The key to understanding what happened is the rule that is drummed into every trainee pilot (or should be): if your gut feeling and your instruments differ, then you can be almost absolutely sure that it’s the instruments that are correct. At one point Taylor reported back via radio that both his compasses had failed. In fact, it is unlikely to an extreme degree that two compasses, working on different physical principles (a gyro compass and a magnetic one) would both fail at the same time and both point in the same, wrong, direction.
I have personal experience of the gut feeling phenomenon, but this time on the opposite side of the continent. I was flying up the California coast to Long Beach, being directed by Air Traffic Control straight in to the airport’s long, diagonal runway 30. Eventually, I caught sight of the airport, sooner than I expected, but a little to the right, and the big runway was pointing in the wrong direction! I very, very nearly made a right turn to line up with the runway and land on it, in defiance of my compasses and navigation equipment. It was actually the Los Alamitos military airfield, so I imagine that my arrival would not have been popular. For a moment I had thought that my instruments “must” be wrong, but, of course, they weren’t.
What seems to have confused Taylor was the geography of the area. The flight was supposed to fly out over the sea nearly due East from Fort Lauderdale, turn left after 100 nautical miles, nearly North, and fly another 73 nautical miles. Then another, sharper left turn would return them to base, having flown a triangular path. Some minutes after the first left turn, Taylor would have expected to see Grand Bahama island come into view dead ahead, and that planned leg of the flight was to pass directly over the middle of the island.
What I think must have happened is that instead of sighting Grand Bahama in the expected position, Taylor saw instead a different island of comparable size, but to his right. This is Great Abaco, one of the other islands of the Bahamas. The outlines of both islands are vaguely similar, being long and thin, but Grand Bahama is aligned East-West, while Great Abaco lies North-South. Making the same kind of error that I had narrowly escaped, Taylor decided that his compasses were wrong, and the correct route was over the centre of this island. In fact, that would have been a generally Eastward direction; out into the Atlantic.
What happened next is less clear, but refusal to believe the compasses is again a factor. Taylor radioed that he was over the Florida Keys. That’s quite impossible. The Keys are on the complete opposite side of the Florida penninsula, and run in a chain (now connected by an astonishing elevated highway) in a roughly North-East to South-West direction. Given that Taylor’s flight may have crossed Great Abaco, it seems that he thought the chain of keys to the North of that island was the Florida Keys. These run at right angles to the direction of the Florida Keys though, which could have further convinced Taylor in his “faulty compasses” belief.
His mental image of the geography was now skewed ninety degrees anticlockwise compared to reality. There’s a kind of double problem now. Taylor knows neither his true position nor true orientation. Believing that he was over the Florida Keys, he decided that he needed to fly a little North and then East to reach the mainland. But rotate that to correspond to Taylor’s distorted sense of direction, and start from his real location, and you can see that he would have been leading his flight first West, out into the Atlantic, and then North. Even allowing for his confusion, he continued East, as he saw it — actually North, parallel with the Florida coast — much, much too far.
And, in fact, the last traces of Flight 19 was a radio fix on Taylor’s broadcasts. He was located away to the North, roughly parallel to Daytona Beach, but far out to sea. They would have run out of fuel some time soon after that.