05 December 2014

Dammit, If We Would Just Fly West We Would Get Home



A
t some point in the early ’60s I stumbled on a book at a friend’s house, Stranger Than Science, a collection of bizarre events that were supposedly unexplained. The author was Frank Edwards. I read it avidly, and then soon after picked up a copy at one of the little bookstores that used to infest Portland before the advent of Powell's changed everything. I think I paid nine cents for it. That was nine cents more than it was really worth, in terms of the actual information it contained, but for its unintended benefits it was worth a thousand times its cost.
Frank Edwards was to Charles Fort as Thomas Huxley to Charles Darwin or William Whiston to Isaac Newton. Where Fort put out impenatrable collections of mysterious marvels with tongue-in-cheek “explanations” that even he could hardly have intended seriously, Edwards threw out little nuggets of alleged information, tales of ghosts and mysterious objects in the sky and rains of frogs, all written in plain journalistic English and cutting off abruptly, leaving any possible explanation to the reader's imagination.
My library, as I've probably mentioned too damn often, is in storage, so I can't quickly confirm my memory of Frank Edwards’ work, or even give a telling example, but my half-century impressions are still fresh in my mind. I wish I could quickly check on this, but I think it was in Stranger than Science that I first read of the mysterious disappearance of Flight 19 on 5 December 1945. Edwards wasn’t alone in this genre by any means, and it may well be that I have confused his work with (say) Donald Keyhoe or somebody of lesser renown—and I know I read this story in more than one source anyway—but I’m going to blame it on Edwards. This particular story gripped my imagination. Here’s how I remember it:
Five Avenger bombers left Fort Lauderdale on a routine training mission. The planes were to head out east and then return, using dead reckoning to determine their course. The weather was calm, the air clear, and there was nothing to prevent them from flying out and returning uneventfully. Even if something—engine trouble for example—were to affect one of the planes, the other four should have been able to deal with it—or at least report it. But instead something inexplicable happened.
About the time the flight should have returned one of the planes radioed that they had an emergency. It reported that there was no land in sight and they had no idea where they were. How could this be? Radio transmissions among the planes indicated that a serious situation existed, but the exact nature of it was unclear. And then, abruptly, there was silence. Whatever mysterious force was out there had taken them—all at once.
Immediately a rescue plane was sent out—and after a few routine messages it too went silent.
Nothing was ever heard of any of the planes again. This even though an extensive search was made for several days thereafter.
For me that was the grabber—the rescue plane. Whatever mysterious force had got the Avengers was clearly still lurking out there in the ocean to grab the rescue plane as well. Eerie. Even today shivers run up my spine at the thought that thing out there, waiting…
The trouble with all those Frank Edwards / Charles Fort / Donald Keyhoe stories is that they were (in those long-ago pre-internet days) frustratingly impossible to run down. Standard reference sources didn’t even mention Flight 19, or Benjamin Bathurst, or David Lang, or any of the other protagonists of these uncanny tales. And even when they turned up in other Stranger than Reality books nobody ever gave any goddamn sources, or any useful information in finding out more. I remember once trying to borrow a nineteenth-century Tennessee paper through interlibrary loan to see if I could find out anything about a bizarre disappearance that had allegedly happened there and getting stonewalled by a librarian. But a lot of the goddamn stories were missing key elements—names, dates, places—to even get started. One story about a French girl who allegedly returned to the hotel where she had been staying with her mother only to find that nobody there had ever heard of her or her mother struck me as beyond belief for one simple reason—how would anybody know about it? The only source of information would have to be the girl herself, and by far the easier explanation would be that she herself was wrong, rather than that everybody else was in some conspiracy to bewilder and confuse her. Common sense was never a strong point in these things, however.
Flight 19 was elusive. Somewhere or other—newspaper archives maybe—I ran into confirmation that the flight had in fact disappeared off the Florida coast, but nothing about the mysterious elements. There was a gap somewhere. I never successfully filled the gap, but a fellow named Lawrence Kusche did. In his book, The Bermuda Triangle Solved, he devoted a chapter to the event.
The facts were a bit more prosaic. The emergency was caused by human error, and compounded by poor communications and the effect of tight military discipline. And the search plane didn’t actually disappear—it was seen to explode in an unconnected accident during the massive search that followed.
Today when I think of Flight 19 chills still run down my spine. The reason is different, however. You see, what happened—and this is really not all that mysterious—was that the team leader became disoriented. Why isn’t absolutely clear—maybe he confused islands near Bermuda with the Florida Keys—but the fact is that he believed they were flying into the Gulf of Mexico when they were actually almost exactly on course east of Florida. Given his confusion he would have been heading north into the open sea rather than west—towards Florida.
At least one of the crew was entirely aware of the situation. “If we would just fly west we would get home,” he radioed plaintively, and then “Dammit, if we would just fly west we would get home.” He was right. His superior, however, knew better. It was a hell of a situation. A line from the Firesign Theatre comes back to me: “They think he is insane—yet he outranks them.” Military discipline presumably kept the dissenter from going back on his own and so saving at least his own life (and those of the crew). He stayed with the others—and shared their fate.
It was sixty-nine years ago today that Lt. Charles C. Taylor, flight instructor and team leader, ignoring the advice of his subordinate, knowing they were off-course heading into the Gulf took the only measure he could to get them back home safely. He led them in exactly the wrong direction—north, presumably—and into oblivion. Into legend.

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