Wednesday, December 07, 2005

 

Lost Patrol might not have lived up to name with today's technology

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The State
By Robert Nolin
December 04, 2005

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Sixty years ago Monday, 14 men in five Navy planes took off from Fort Lauderdale on a routine practice mission. Then the "Lost Patrol" vanished into mystery - and the myth of the Bermuda Triangle.

Aviation experts and historians figure Flight 19 soared off course, perhaps due to a malfunction in old-fangled navigational equipment, and ditched in the Atlantic.

"I don't know where we are," the commander radioed at one point.

But with today's sophisticated aviation technology, it's unlikely the Lost Patrol would ever have lived up to its name. Aids like the Global Positioning System make it nearly impossible for aviators to steer astray.

"There's no excuse to get lost," aviation consultant Bob Baron said from his Savannah office. "You have to purposely try."

Flight 19, consisting of five, single-engine Avenger torpedo bombers, rumbled out of what is now Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on the afternoon of Dec. 5, 1945. The squadron was to fly to a bombing range in the Bahamas, then continue on a triangular path back to base.

Within 90 minutes, flight commander Lt. Charles C. Taylor reported compass trouble. Taylor thought he was over the Keys, and directed the gunmetal blue planes northeast, toward what he thought was the Florida Peninsula. Based on radio transmissions, investigators think the aircraft flew far out to sea, then west toward land, crashing before reaching Florida's East Coast.

One of aviation's greatest mysteries deepened later that night, when a seaplane searching for the doomed flight also crashed, killing 13. A total of 27 men were lost for what Navy investigators later labeled "causes unknown."

But theorists on the Bermuda Triangle, which stretches from Fort Lauderdale to Bermuda to Puerto Rico, have a smorgasbord of causes why the Lost Patrol, and other vessels and aircraft, vanish there: Interdimensional wormholes, the lost continent of Atlantis, electromagnetic windstorms, time portals, military experimentation, lunar gravitation, alien kidnapping.

Other observers - either less imaginative or less starry-eyed, depending on your point of view - simply see the triangle's peculiar disappearances as resulting from high air and sea traffic in an area notorious for unpredictable storms and unforgiving seas.

Baron speculated the planes' compasses could have gone haywire because of electromagnetic activity, the "chaff" that sometimes shows up on radar screens.

And the compass was the main navigation tool in those days. Flight 19's pilots relied solely on it and dead reckoning - determining position by calculating distance, speed and time. "Pilotage," or looking out the window and studying landmarks, was also common.

"It's a very crude way of navigating," Navy Cmdr. Pat Buckley, an expert on aviation technology, said from his base at Patuxent River, Md.

"It just amazes me to think they could go out on a mission to some remote island and turn around and go back and find an aircraft carrier or a flotilla of ships using the navigation that existed at the time," said Walt Houghton, 64, assistant to the director of aviation at Fort Lauderdale's airport.

Scant years after Flight 19 winged into legend, navigation technology took a baby step forward with non-directional beacons. A pilot could adjust course by tuning to a radio signal that would rotate his compass card in the direction of the signal. The '50s brought a more sophisticated version, the VOR, or VHF omnidirectional range system. That instrument also homed into radio signals, even standard AM ones, and displayed arrows for the pilot to set course.

Later came LORAN, the long-range navigation system. Also radio based, it is used by pilots to determine position by tracking signals from two or more ground-based stations. Trouble was, the system was of little use to cross-country aviation, since LORAN was mainly used by ships and its stations were along the coast.

The real sea change in navigation came with the advent of GPS, a system created and owned by the U.S. Defense Department, which became fully operational in 1995. Pilots seized on the system, which uses satellites to pinpoint one's position to within feet.

Today GPS receivers are common among hikers, boaters, motorists and especially aviators. "It's easy to use - just hit the `Where the hell am I?' button," said Alan Rifkin, who from his Hadley, Mass., home operates a Web site that tracks interesting GPS landmarks.

"You can go anywhere in the world without getting lost," said Houghton.

Had Flight 19 been equipped with current technology, there would never be a monument to its passing at the Fort Lauderdale airport - and the myth of the Bermuda Triangle would have lost much of its oomph.

"With all the navigational systems we have aboard our aircraft today, I can't imagine ever being in a position where I didn't know where I was," said the Navy's Buckley.

But all that high-tech wizardry still requires one essential element: A human to tell it what to do. And humans are ever prone to mistakes.

"There's a lot of examples where people fly for years and years and one day they forget to do something," Baron said, "and that's what gets them in trouble."


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