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"Technology helps pilots avoid 'Lost Patrol's' fate"



Monday, December 5, 2005

Technology helps pilots avoid 'Lost Patrol's' fate
By Robert Nolin
THE SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Sixty years ago today, 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 that 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 is unlikely that the
Lost Patrol would ever have lived up to its name. Aids such as 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, Ga., 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 Taylor reported compass
trouble. He thought he was over the Florida 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 and alien kidnapping.

Other observers, either less imaginative or less starry-eyed, 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 that 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.

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 Buckley.

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