Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Mystery of the Bermuda Triangle Solved?

Stories of strange happenings and mysterious disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle have entertained the superstitious for many decades. Everything from disappearing airplanes and boats to reports of deadly whirlpools and malfunctioning mechanical equipment have helped to perpetuate the idea that something “otherworldly” has made its home in the western Atlantic Ocean. But recent scientific investigations may have finally cleared up these so-called “mysteries” once and for all.

The Bermuda Triangle is not really a triangle at all, but simply an angular area of the Atlantic Ocean running roughly from Bermuda southwest to Florida and southeast to Puerto Rico. Even the name is a misnomer: most of the reported incidents have occurred near the Bahamas, not Bermuda.

While the earliest reports of strange occurrences in the area may go back as far as Columbus (he reported strange lights and unusual compass readings in the area), the event that really ignited stories of the Bermuda Triangle occurred in the 1940’s with the now famous Flight 19.

Flight 19 took off from a U.S. Navy training base in Fort Lauderdale at roughly 2:10 on the afternoon of December 5, 1945, heading out for a routine training run. The weather was reported to be clear and sunny – a perfect day for flying. The flight consisted of five TBM Avengers – 3-man torpedo bombers used widely in World War II.

TBM Avengers like the ones flown by Flight 19

The flight was led by a veteran pilot named Charles Taylor, who had over 2500 flying hours under his belt. The training flight was a navigational one, teaching new pilots how to get their bearings in the air and how to navigate through a set pattern. The pilots were set to fly about a hundred miles due east, into the Atlantic Ocean, make a practice bombing run, turn north and pass directly over Grand Bahama Island, and then turn southwest and return to Fort Lauderdale.

A map showing a rough diagram of Flight 19's flight plan

The training run started off normal. Ground operations in Fort Lauderdale were able to monitor radio conversations between the planes, and it is known that Flight 19 completed its practice bombing run at about 3 pm, or roughly an hour after take-off.

At about 3:40 in the afternoon, another training squadron flying in the same area received a transmission from Flight 19. Among other things, Flight 19 reported that they were lost, their compasses were acting up, and they believed they were over the Florida Keys. Lt. Taylor, the leader of Flight 19, commented that he believed they had gotten lost after making their turn toward Grand Bahama Island. He asked for help in navigating back to Fort Lauderdale.

Anyone familiar with the geography of this area of the ocean will see an immediate problem – the Florida Keys are nowhere near Grand Bahama Island and were not within the navigating pattern of Flight 19. In fact, since it is known that their bombing run ended successfully at roughly 3 pm, even with a dramatic mistake in navigating (which would have required a turn in the exact opposite direction), the Avengers could not possibly have already been over the Florida Keys by 3:40.

For roughly the next two hours, ground control in Fort Lauderdale listened to the various radio transmissions being received from Flight 19, and attempted to bring Taylor and his flight back in safely. However, most of their transmissions to Taylor were not acknowledged. With the exception of a few exchanges, it appeared that ground control could hear what the Avenger pilots were saying to one another, but the pilots could not hear what ground control was saying to them. Ground control attempted to triangulate the squadron’s position using transponders, but they were not initially successful in this endeavor, and requests to Taylor to change his frequency went unacknowledged.

Several radio transmissions between the Avengers indicated that Taylor was hopelessly lost. At one point, he discussed the possibility that the flight was already west of Florida, out in the Gulf of Mexico, meaning that to head north would simply take them farther from land, and to head west would take them toward Texas. After apparently flying slightly northeast for some time, Taylor instructed his flight to turn due east, convinced now that the squadron was indeed already west of Florida, and therefore needed to fly eastward to get back to land. At this point, several of the students under Taylor’s command argued with him, suggesting that there was no way they were in the Gulf of Mexico (the Gulf was, after all, hundreds of miles from their original flight pattern), and insisting instead that they must be over the Atlantic. As such, they tried to encourage Taylor to turn west, believing this would take them straight to the Florida coast and Fort Lauderdale. Taylor, however, was convinced that the flight was in the Gulf of Mexico, and apparently because of military discipline, his students stuck with him as he continued to search for land.

As the afternoon melted into evening, the weather began to worsen and storms began to roll in. Transmissions from the lost flight grew more indistinct. By 5:30, Taylor had apparently been won over by his students, and he was heard to transmit a heading of due west, suggesting that they would fly west until they either spotted land, or ran out of fuel. Some thirty minutes later, several land-based stations were finally able to triangulate Flight 19’s position, and it showed them to be roughly 150 miles north of Grand Bahama Island, about 100 miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral.

The weather continued to worsen as sunset neared, and at about 6:05 pm, Taylor was heard to say that he thought the flight should turn back eastward again. About 15 minutes later, Taylor told his students to fly close together, and if they ran out of fuel, they would all go in together. This was the last transmission received from Flight 19. At about the same time, a ship in the area radioed to say that they were in heavy winds and high seas, meaning the Avengers would be going down in bad weather.

Search and rescue craft were sent out almost immediately to search for the airplanes, but no wreckage and no survivors were ever found – not even an oil slick. Furthermore, adding yet another creepy aspect to the story, a 13-man PBY Catalina, which was part of the search and rescue team, went down at about 8 pm, following a midair explosion that was seen by a nearby ship. All 13 men on board were killed, and the explosion has never been explained.

Investigations into the loss of Flight 19 concluded that Taylor got confused in the air and believed that he was over the Gulf of Mexico, when in fact he was exactly where he should have been – over the Bahamas. The report suggested that Taylor mistook the small islands of the Bahamas for the small islands of the Florida Keys. By taking his flight north and east (which he thought was taking him back toward Florida from the Gulf of Mexico), he was actually taking his flight out into the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. By the time he gave in to his students’ suggestions and turned west, he was already too far out to make it back to land before running out of fuel.

It was not until the early 1960’s that discussions of the “mystery” of Flight 19 began to seep into the public consciousness. However, within 2 years of the first appearance of a major story about Flight 19, writers were already connecting various “strange” stories together, and referring to the area in question as “the deadly Bermuda Triangle.”

In regards to Flight 19, skeptics of the investigational findings noted that Taylor was an excellent and experienced pilot, and he could not possibly have mistaken the Bahamas for the Florida Keys, or the Atlantic Ocean for the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, they pointed to the reports of compasses going out, the general confused and panicky sounds of the pilots’ voices, and several unusual statements made in the various radio transmissions. Among these statements was a comment by Taylor that he couldn’t “be sure of any direction,” and that “everything looks strange, even the ocean.”

The mystery of Flight 19’s disappearance was deepened in the early 1990’s when the wreckage of five TBM Avengers was found on the ocean floor just a few miles off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. Scattered throughout a small region of about 1 mile, these five aircraft were identical to the type used by Flight 19. As no wreckage had ever been found, it was immediately assumed that these planes, so close together on the ocean floor, must be the planes of Flight 19. The mystery, however, was in their closeness to the coast. How could Flight 19 have gone down just a few miles from the coast – with land in site – and yet none of the wreckage or crewmen were ever seen by the many boats and planes scouring the area for survivors? Furthermore, why did the triangulation figures suggest the flight was 100 miles out into the ocean, and 150 miles north, if in fact they were just a few miles from Fort Lauderdale when they went down? Finally, why were radio transmissions fading out near the end, if in fact the planes were nearing the naval base?

A crew of oceanographers and historians decided to find out. Using cutting edge submersible technology, and even bringing along a pilot who had personally flown TBM Avengers out of Fort Lauderdale during the 1940’s, the crew inspected the aircraft and determined conclusively that they were, in fact, not from Flight 19. This was confirmed by the simple reading of serial numbers. However, in confirming that these five Avengers were not from Flight 19, the team uncovered what was potentially an even greater mystery – all five aircraft had gone down in the same area (within 1 mile of each other), on different days, at different times, and under different circumstances. It was not simply another lost flight of five planes, but five separate plane crashes, all in practically the same spot. One of the scientists noted that such a thing would be akin to hitting a hole in one, being struck by lightning, and holding a winning lottery ticket in your pocket – all at the same time. While this may be a bit of overstated hyperbole, the point is clear: in the wide expanse of ocean over which Avengers from Fort Lauderdale flew during the 1940’s, to have five different aircraft go down within a 1-mile radius of one another, on different days and under different conditions, is extremely unlikely.

These researchers, however, came up with a plausible and testable theory, one that not only clears up the mystery of Flight 19, but may well also explain the other phenomena that occur in the area of the Bermuda Triangle.

First, it is clear that Lt. Taylor of Flight 19 got lost. Why this happened is anybody’s guess, but it is a known fact (and was even included in the original investigation) that Taylor was known for “flying by the seat of his pants,” and had twice, during the war, had to ditch planes in the ocean because of becoming lost and running out of fuel. Either way, the researchers believed Taylor reported that things looked strange, and that he thought he was above the Florida keys, because he had made a bad turn, possibly resulting from a malfunctioning compass.

His initial target had been a spot some 20 or 30 miles due south of Grand Bahama Island. At that spot, he was supposed to turn north and fly across this east-west lying island. However, the researchers suggested that he actually turned somewhat northeast, missed Grand Bahama Island, and came upon Abaco Island instead.

Grand Bahama Island and Abaco Island are in the upper part of this map

This island lies north-south off the southeastern coast of Grand Bahama Island. Since he believed he had turned north toward Grand Bahama Island, he became disoriented (thus everything looked “strange”) when he reached the north-south lying Abaco Island. He had expected to see a large island running perpendicular before him; instead he found a large island running parallel with him beyond his right wing.

Confusion would have begun immediately. One can almost imagine the internal dialogue he might have had with himself. “Grand Bahama should be in front of me, to the north. Yet it’s lying there off my right wing, to the east. If that’s Grand Bahama, then I’m not heading north as my compass is telling me – I’m actually heading west. If I turn and head across Grand Bahama like I’m supposed to, I’ll be heading north, but my compass will say east. Or maybe that’s not Grand Bahama at all. Maybe I’m somewhere else completely.”

It is little wonder that Taylor very quickly got disoriented and reported that he could not “be sure of any direction.”

When he began to cross over a string of atolls surrounding Abaco Island, he came to believe that he was above the Florida Keys – which have a similar appearance from the air. At this point, he turned north, believing Florida to be in that direction. As he entered the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean north of the Bahamas, he became convinced that he was in the Gulf of Mexico and so turned east – thinking this would get him back to Florida. In reality, it was simply taken him farther out to sea.

Secondly, Taylor’s confused and panicky demeanor is easily explained by the psychological phenomenon that we might call “tunnel thinking.” When in the air, and away from normal ground perspective, it is easy – even for seasoned pilots – to lose their bearings. This is especially true above a hypnotizing expanse of water. When this happens, adrenalin begins to pump, and the brain becomes very focused – this is an evolutionary design to help out during periods of high stress. However, when it happens inside the cockpit of an airplane, it can cause a pilot to make poor decisions, and not consider more reasonable courses of action. The pilot can become convinced of a particular idea (in this case, Taylor’s belief that he was over the Gulf of Mexico), and no amount of reasoning can sway him from his belief.

When being attacked by a lion, this sort of thing can be helpful; but it can be deadly inside an airplane.

Finally, the initial cause of the problem – a malfunctioning compass – may well be explained by the existence of methane gas in the atmosphere.

Methane is a naturally-occurring gas that is vented up from the bottom of the ocean. When holes exist in the ocean floor to release methane gas, it generally bubbles up without much of an effect on the atmosphere or the surface of the water. However, if those vents become clogged with debris, or if methane begins to build in an area where no natural vents exist, it can create enormous pressure beneath the ocean floor. When the floor finally gives way, an enormous bubble of methane is released toward the surface, where it explodes with tremendous force. Methane bubbles are known to be powerful enough to create enormous tidal waves on the ocean’s surface. Such a large concentration of methane, being released all at once into the air, can alter the natural chemical composition of the air. If an aircraft happens to fly through such a gas bubble after it has risen from the ocean, the change in air pressure can wreak havoc on the aircraft. Studies conducted by the scientists in question indicated that if a high enough concentration of methane exists, it can actually cause a loss of air pressure over the wings of the aircraft, thereby causing it to stall and crash. However, even low concentrations of methane in the air – as low as 2% – can cause engines to go out, and dashboard instruments to give false readings.

This, then, may be the explanation for the initial problem experienced by Flight 19, and reported as a problem with the compass and other dashboard instruments. Taylor may have flown through one of these methane gas bubbles, experienced false compass readings, subsequently made a bad turn, and then became disoriented when he did not end up where he had expected.

In addition to providing a logical explanation for the problems experienced by Flight 19, the methane gas theory also solves a lot of other “mysterious” occurrences in the Bermuda Triangle. As mentioned above, even low concentrations of methane gas can cause engines to go out and instruments to fail. Many of the Bermuda Triangle stories include mysteriously failing instruments and aircraft engines that suddenly quit. In fact, dead engines were the primary reasons behind the crashes of the five separate Avengers that were discovered off the coast of Florida in the early 90’s. It is possible that this particular area has a high concentration of methane in the air due to gas released from the ocean floor, and with hundreds of Navy planes flying low through the area during the 1940’s, it may be little wonder that several of them crashed at various times in roughly the same spot.

Furthermore, the release of enormous methane gas bubbles can greatly disturb the surface of the ocean as well. Experiments conducted by the Australian Navy have shown that large upsurges in the ocean are powerful enough to sink a full sized battleship in a matter of minutes. If one of these enormous methane releases happened to occur right beneath a passing ship, it could easily break the ship up and sink it, and do it so quickly that it would never have time to even radio a mayday. Moreover, it would not necessarily take an enormous methane bubble with colossal force to sink a ship. Methane is less dense than water, so when it bubbles up to the surface, if the bubbling is spread out over a wide enough area, it can impact the surface density of the water. If a boat – particularly a small boat – is passing through such an area, it could suddenly lose buoyancy and sink without warning. Many of the inexplicable phenomena in the Bermuda Triangle include reports of bubbling oceans, whirlpools, “holes” in the ocean, and sudden tidal waves on calm seas. Methane gas eruptions can explain all of these things.

In the end, I believe that these scientists and historians – whose report I watched on the History Channel – have given an extremely well-researched, well-demonstrated, and plausible explanation for many of the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle. For a very long time, the unusual phenomena in this area were not understood, and thus they were chalked up by many to supernatural or otherworldly interference. This, I believe, is human nature – when we cannot explain something, we assume it must be supernatural. However, it appears – for the time being at least – that the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle has been reasonably put to bed.


Anonymous said...

Okay, here's my question, and forgive me if I somehow missed this in your essay. Why here? I accept the methane argument as very plausible, but wouldn't these eruptions be occuring all over the place? Why so many in this particular area?

Scott said...

Well, that's one of the arguments that skeptics of the Bermuda Triangle mysteries have said all along - that the Bermuda Triangle does not produce any higher percentage of plane crashes, sinkings, and "strange phenomena" than any other area of similar size in the world's oceans.

As for whether or not the area of the Bermuda Triangle has a higher amount of methane being released from the ocean floor than other places - that's something that has not been determined yet, I don't think.

Anonymous said...

I think this is excellent i think you have hit the nail right on the head

Anonymous said...

It has been proven that this area of the ocean has deep rifts that contain larger concentrations of methane than other areas. These methane "pockets" can be released through the ocean, causing a shift in buoyancy for ships/boats that could make them sink if they were moving slowly on the outer edge... and once the methane reaches the air it only takes a 1% shift in oxygen/methane concentration to disrupt a mechanical airplane engine, causing it to stall.