#Trending : The Bermuda Triangle – fact, fiction and fantasy

December 7, 2015 1:54 pm

70 years after the disappearance of five planes in the Atlantic,
Giles Milton investigates one of the world’s most enduring aviation
mysteries

The message picked up by the control tower was as bizarre as it was alarming.
“Everything looks strange,” said the pilot. “It looks like we’re entering white water. We’re completely lost.”
There
were a few more crackles and then silence. It was December 5, 1945, and
the five planes of Flight 19 – a military training mission from Fort
Lauderdale, Florida – had vanished.
The disappearance of Flight
19 became one of the world’s most enduring aviation mysteries. No
wreckage was found, despite an extensive search, and nor were any bodies
recovered. The planes and their 14 crewmen seemed to have disappeared
into thin air.
There was frenzied speculation, and, before long,
the birth of an extraordinary myth: an area of ocean that became known
as the Bermuda Triangle, in which unexplained and seemingly paranormal
incidents occurred with alarming frequency.

Now, seven decades after their disappearance, the truth
about the planes and the Bermuda Triangle can be revealed. It is a tale
of fantasy, duplicity and wishful thinking – one that brought enormous
wealth to a handful of individuals.
Within hours of the five
Avengers disappearing from the radar, a PBM-Mariner seaplane was sent on
a search-and-rescue mission. Its pilot made a routine radio call at
7.30pm indicating his position. Soon afterwards, the Mariner also
vanished from the radar. Neither the plane, nor her 13 crew, were seen
again.
The disappearance of six planes in one day was mysterious
enough, but a further three planes went missing in the same area in 1948
and 1949, and a yacht, the Connemara IV, was found adrift and without
its crew in 1955. A few years later, two US Air Force Stratotankers also
disappeared.
The media began to speculate: citing compass
variation, tropical storms and the Gulf Stream’s unpredictable currents.
But one theory caught the imagination: all the losses had occurred in
about 2.5 million square km between Miami, Puerto Rico and Bermuda.
In
February 1963, a freelance writer, Vincent Gaddis, wrote a sensational
article for Argosy magazine claiming that supernatural forces were at
work in this triangular bit of ocean.
Gaddis’s article contained
much speculation, little evidence and precious few facts. But his timing
was perfect: “The Deadly Bermuda Triangle” was published shortly after
the two Stratotankers were lost.
“The mysterious menace that haunts the Atlantic off our south-eastern coastline has claimed two more victims,” wrote Gaddis.
“Before
this article reaches print, it may strike again, swallowing a plane or
ship, or leaving behind a derelict [vessel], with no life aboard.”
The article was a masterpiece of conspiratorial fantasy, suggesting that dark forces were at work.
“Despite
swift wings and the voice of radio, we still have a world large enough
so that men and their machines and ships can disappear without trace.”
Others
were quick to cash in. Scores of books were published – many became
bestsellers – with the most popular being Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda
Triangle, published in 1974.
It sold 20 million copies in more than 30 languages – blaming the losses on aliens and survivors from Atlantis.
Berlitz’s
theories were so popular that when Steven Spielberg made Close
Encounters of the Third Kind, he depicted the Flight 19 aircrews as
having been abducted by aliens.
At the time of the loss, much
attention was focused on the squadron’s leader, Lieutenant Charles
Taylor. An accomplished pilot with 2,500 hours of flying experience, he
had an unblemished record as an instructor. His student pilots were also
highly capable, having clocked up some 300 hours of flying time.
The
planes were fully fuelled and had passed all their pre-flight checks.
They took off without incident at 2.10pm and were soon heading due east,
towards Abaco Island in the northern Bahamas. Snatches of the radio
conversations between the crews allow for a partial reconstruction.
Around 3.40pm, one was heard asking for a compass reading.
“I don’t know where we are,” was the response.
“We must have got lost after that last turn.”
Minutes later, Taylor said: “Both my compasses are out and I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida.”
He attempted to locate his position by studying the islands below.
“I am over land but it is broken,” he said.
“I am sure I’m in the [Florida] Keys, but I don’t know how far down.”
His
words give the first inkling of the disaster to come. His planes had
strayed from their planned route due to faulty compasses: Taylor was
almost certainly looking at the Bahamas. By swinging east – as he now
did – he was heading out into the Atlantic.
A dissenting voice
was heard on the radio. “Dammit, if we could just fly west, we would get
home. Head west, dammit.” Someone, it seems, knew that they were on
course for disaster.
The ground staff made frantic efforts to
contact Taylor, but their messages were not picked up. They eventually
triangulated Flight 19’s position and it was alarming. The planes were
north of the Bahamas, kilometres from land.
“All planes, close up tight,” radioed Taylor at 6.20pm.
“We’ll have to ditch unless landfall. When the first plane drops below 10 gallons, we all go down together.”
The
final moments of Flight 19 must be speculation: the planes presumably
ditched into the ocean, where conditions had deteriorated since they
left Fort Lauderdale. The choppy sea would have soon swallowed the heavy
Avengers.
The US Navy immediately opened an investigation into
the missing Avengers, as well as the PBM-Mariner. The latter plane was
widely held to have exploded in mid-air – a hypothesis reinforced by the
testimony of Captain Shonna Stanley of the SS Gaines Mills: he saw a
ball of fire in the sky at exactly the time the search plane went
missing.
As for the Avengers, it was concluded that human error
and compass malfunction caused the tragedy. Taylor had wrongly believed
himself to be over the Florida Keys; each change of course took his
formation further out to sea. He had previously been based in Miami and
was unfamiliar with the Fort Lauderdale topography.
One by one,
the Bermuda Triangle’s supposed mysteries have been solved. The
Connemara IV was washed out to sea (without its crew) during a hurricane
and the two Stratotankers collided and crashed in the Atlantic. And
Lloyds of London said losses were no higher there than in any other
area.
But Gaddis refused to accept the findings and set to work
on his supposition that supernatural forces were responsible – and the
Bermuda Triangle was born.
– Fascinating Footnotes From History, by Giles Milton is published by John Murray.

Strange Phenomena – and how to explain them

Nostradamus’s prophecies
Written
in verse, the letters of 16th-century French philosopher Michel de
Nostredame have long been credited with predicting the French
Revolution, the rises of Napoleon and Hitler and the 9/11 attacks on the
Twin Towers. The vagueness of the descriptions have encouraged
conspiracy theorists – despite so many prophecies, not least the end of
the world in 1999, never coming true.
Crop circles
There
are countless theories as to how crops come to be flattened in
elaborate patterns of geometric lines and circles. But rather than being
a supernatural phenomenon, or created by the landing gear of
extra-terrestrial spacecraft, the only known cause is human.
Marie Celeste
Speculation
over what happened to the crew of the brigantine, found adrift in the
Atlantic in 1872, has been fuelled by a lack of evidence to support
suggestions of piracy or mutiny. In 2006, a UCL scientist posited that
an explosion caused by alcohol leaking from the cargo, could have caused
“a pressure-wave type of explosion”, killing the crew.
Spontaneous human combustion
According
to hundreds of accounts, people have caught fire and burnt slowly,
without scorching their surroundings. One theory for it – which leaves a
yellow, foul-smelling grease surrounding the remains – is a build-up of
methane that is ignited by enzymes or static electricity. But many
scientists believe the victims died after falling asleep with a
cigarette, suffocated and, in a slow-burning process known as the wick
effect, were cremated.
“Blue or gold dress?”
#Dressgate
divided a nation this year, when a party dress appeared to be blue and
black or gold and white, depending on the environment and screen on
which the digital photograph was viewed. (It was, in fact, blue and
black.)
Area 51
A remote area of desert in
Nevada is a magnet for conspiracy theorists, who believe post-war US
governments hid evidence of alien life there. Recently released
documents, however, show it was used during World War II as a gunnery
range for pilots.

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