The Mystery Of The Lost Patrol

It was vintage Twilight Zone. Fourteen men in five Avenger torpedo bombers took off from Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station on a sunny afternoon on Dec. 5, 1945. With World War II a four-month-old memory, the crew of Flight 19 planned a routine mission: a few hours of practice bombing off the Florida coast. The first run, on a target just north of Bimini, went off without a hitch. The squadron regrouped and headed due east to Great Stirrup Cay. Suddenly, Lt. Charles C. Taylor, the flight commander, sent a distress message to the Air Station tower. His legendary words: "We cannot see land ... We can't be sure of any direction-even the ocean doesn't look as it should." Over the crackle of static, the tower heard frantic exchanges between the planes, reports of possible fuel shortages, high winds, gyros and compasses "going crazy." Then the transmission faded and Flight 19 disappeared without a trace.

"They vanished as completely as if they had flown to Mars," marveled one member of a naval board of inquiry, which came up empty-handed. Had the "Lost Patrol" been captured by a UFO? Eaten by sea monsters? Pushed into a time-space warp? Any of the above, argued disciples of the supernatural, who exulted in the legend of the Bermuda Triangle-an area defined by imaginary lines between Bermuda, Puerto Rico and Melbourne on the Florida coast, where more than 100 ships and planes have allegedly vanished.

Now, the legend itself could be diminished. A group of deep-sea explorers recently discovered the wreckage of five Avengers about 10 miles off the coast of Ft. Lauderdale, which may very well be the Lost Patrol. Flight 19 is the only group of five Avengers ever reported missing. The salvage team was prowling for Spanish galleons when their sonar devices spotted the first of a cluster of planes within a one-mile radius, under 700 to 900 feet of water. Underwater video cameras uncovered more compelling evidence: the number 28 on the broken lead plane, the same number as on flight commander Taylor's aircraft, and on other planes the letters FT, the designation of Fort Lauderdale-based aircraft.

Is it the Lost Patrol? "It's extremely difficult to tell," hedges Graham Hawkes, project director of Scientific Search Project, which is managing the salvage effort. "There's a strong case this has to be Flight 19, but some of the numbers we have don't match up." He won't know for certain until the team sends submersible robots to clean off the planes' serial numbers, obscured by 45 years of silt and marine growth. Still unanswered is the question of what caused the pilots to lose their bearings. Positive identification of the planes won't be ready until mid-June at the earliest. Meantime, Hawkes and his team have their hands full cutting a deal with the Navy on ownership-not to mention fending off the skeptics on all sides of the Bermuda Triangle.