South China Morning Post – Dec 11, 2005 – Richard Luscombe – SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 16 – Sixty years after the disappearance of a US Navy training flight, the mystery of a notorious stretch of water that has claimed so many lives still endures, writes Richard Luscombe

It has been almost three decades since Steven Spielberg “solved” the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle in his classic science-fiction movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The Lost Patrol, five US Navy training aircraft that vanished without trace off the Florida coast in December 1945 in the notorious triangular stretch of the Atlantic bordered by Bermuda, Miami and Puerto Rico, were simply abducted by aliens.

It might be a far-fetched theory, but nobody today is really any closer to the truth. This month’s 60th anniversary of the sudden disappearance of Flight 19, and a rescue plane sent to find them, has provoked renewed interest in hundreds of missing ships and aircraft, but the triangle remains an enigma destined never to be fully resolved.

“People are fascinated by the Bermuda Triangle because it’s one of the world’s great mysteries,” said Gian Quasar, a California-based author who has spent more than a decade researching the subject.

“The last island has been discovered, the last mountain has been climbed, but there’s something here still to be discovered.

“There’s also something tangible about it all. The aircraft and ships that disappeared did exist, the people who were on them were real people.”

The Flight 19 episode was the most intriguing of countless unexplained disappearances of aircraft and ships in the Bermuda Triangle dating back more than 200 years, and some experts believe the fate of the 27 airmen on the training flight and rescue mission could hold the key to the entire mystery.

Theories put forward over the years include the presence of an electromagnetic “fog” that rendered navigation equipment useless, extreme and sudden weather conditions and even supernatural forces or UFOs. Other pilots have reported being “buzzed” by strange objects.

Aircraft disappeared from radar screens with no wreckage ever found. Ships, some with hundreds of crewmembers aboard, put to sea and were never seen again. No official records are kept, but over time thousands of people are unaccounted for.

The puzzle is still being debated at the highest levels of government, even though officials do not recognise the concept of the Bermuda Triangle and the US Coastguard dismisses all talk of the supernatural or alien forces at work.

It insists that no more lives are lost in the heavily traversed triangle than any other half-million square miles of sea. “The combined forces of nature and unpredictability of mankind outdo even the most far-fetched science fiction many times each year,” according to the US Navy’s historical centre in Washington DC.

But Congressman Clay Shaw of Florida is one politician who believes there could be something out there. “There’s just so many weird things here,” he said after persuading Congress to support his motion honouring Flight 19 commander Charles Taylor and the lost crewmen last month. “Perhaps some day we will learn what happened and lay this mystery to rest.”

Ironically, the most expensive and thorough expedition ever launched to try to solve the mystery returned last month with more questions than answers. A costly underwater expedition off the Florida coast, aided by 20 scientists and technology experts and using Nasa satellites for the first time, failed to find any trace of the lost planes.

Filmmakers also staged a re-enactment of the doomed flight from Fort Lauderdale in a vintage 60-year-old Avenger torpedo bomber identical to the navy’s lost aircraft, yet found no clues to what might have caused the planes’ compasses to malfunction, or Lieutenant Taylor to radio in saying that he had lost his bearings and did not know if the pilots were over the Bahamas or Florida Keys.

One early theory was that the pilots became disoriented and thought they were heading back to land when they were actually flying east and further out to sea, where they ran out of fuel.

Alleged sightings of the flight crossing the Florida coast and signals picked up by an aircraft carrier from five unidentified planes later that day appear to debunk that theory. Yet despite one of the biggest searches in maritime history, involving hundreds of ships and aircraft in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, no trace was ever found of Flight 19 or the lost rescue plane.

“We know why they got lost but the big mystery is why they didn’t come back,” Mr Quasar said.

Nautical researcher David Bright led the marine expedition to try to find Flight 19’s rescue plane, thought to have crashed with 13 airmen aboard. “We took into account that there could be scenarios where the ‘ship’ exploded in midair and pieces would come down,” he said.

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.

“Or that it exploded as it hit the water, or that it may have hit the water and parts of it could have blown up yet the remainder could have gone on a little further with the tides. We were excited about the science we did out there and none of us would have done anything differently.”

History records many similar chilling tales, such as the plight of the USS Cyclops, a 165m navy warship that vanished in the triangle in March 1918 with its 306 crew and passengers, just days after leaving Bridgetown, Barbados.

Another large vessel, the 153m tanker Marine Sulphur Queen, disappeared in February 1963 on its way from Texas to Virginia. All that was ever found of the ship or 39 crewmen was one solitary lifejacket, recovered 75km from her last known position in the Florida Strait.

John Murray, a psychologist based in West Palm Beach, Florida, believes that some pilots and captains simply panicked after they become disoriented. Experts claim that the triangle is one of two places on earth, with Japan’s so-called Devil Sea, where compasses point to true north, not magnetic north.

“The triangle is better explained by poor mental skills and reckless behaviour than magical or mystical forces. The Bermuda Triangle may really just be a function of under-developed mental training,” he said.

Mr Quasar, meanwhile, believes the truth is still waiting to be found, but theories of the paranormal can be discounted.

“The enigma of the triangle is real,” he said. “But it’s not aliens, and it’s not ghosts doing nasty things to people. The unexplained is not the supernatural.”