Five Unsolved Mysteries of Aviation
People who love to fly love the adventure, the freedom, and the challenge of piloting a craft through the sky. They also love the great stories of aviators over the last hundred years. There are heroes, daredevils, great explorers—and mysteries. This article looks at six of aviation’s most tantalizing unexplained disappearances, sightings, and scary coincidences.
Flight 19 – The Legend of the Bermuda Triangle
Shortly after 2 p.m. on December 5, 1945, five TBM Avengers took off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on routine overwater navigation training flight that was to last about two hours. Their leader was an experienced pilot, USNR Lieutenant Charles Taylor. Each plane had a pilot and two crew—except for one plane, which was a crewman short. The second crewman, Marine Corporal Allan Kosnar, had asked for permission not to fly because he had a strong premonition of danger.
His premonition proved correct: 90 minutes into the exercise, something went horribly wrong. Fort Lauderdale received a series of confused transmissions from the Flight 19 pilots, including some from Taylor that seemed to indicate he believed he was over the Florida Keys in the Gulf of Mexico. For several hours, radio contact continued, but by the time night fell, the weather had deteriorated, and no more messages were received.
No wreckage of Flight 19 has ever been found. This unsolved mystery is one of the major contributors to the legend of the Bermuda Triangle, a patch of waters between Florida and the Bahamas where planes, ships, and even lighthouse keepers have mysteriously vanished.
191: The Unlucky Flight Number
Many people believe the number 13 is unlucky. In high-rise buildings, this superstition is sometimes taken so seriously that the owners skip from 12 to 14 when numbering their floors. In aviation, it seems that 191 is the unlucky number. Since the 1960s, five flights bearing the number 191 have been subject to bizarre experiences—or met terrible ends.
• In 1967, Flight 191 for the experimental X-15 test plane broke apart and crashed, killing the pilot—the only crash in the history of the X-15 experiements.
• In 1972, Prinair Flight 191 crashed at Mercedita Airport in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
• In 1979, American Airlines Flight 191 crashed at Chicago O’Hare. 273 people were killed, making it the deadliest singe-aircraft accident in American history.
• In 1985, Delta Air Lines Flight 191 crashed at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, killing 137.
• Finally, in 2012, JetBlue Airways Flight 191, en route from JFK to Las Vegas, had to make an emergency landing in Texas afte the pilot apparently experienced a panic attack or psychotic break mid-flight. He began behave so erratically that the co-pilot locked him out of the cockpit. A group of passengers were able to strap the pilot down, averting a disaster.
On November 24, 1971, Northwest Orient Airlines flight 305 was en route from Portland, Oregon to Seattle when “D.B. Cooper”, a non-descript male passenger in a dark suit, passed a note to the flight attendant. She set it to one side, but the man leaned over and said, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.” He then cracked open his briefcase, showing her a glimpse of what appeared to be an explosive device. Then he ordered another bourbon.
He never used the bomb, but he still managed to pull off the most daring hijacking in history. He demanded $200,000 in American cash, four parachutes, and a fuel tanker to be waiting for the plane when it landed at Seattle.
The pilots radioed his demands to SEA-TAC, and the president of Northeast Orient Airlines ordered complete cooperation with his requests. At Seattle, he took his money and his parachutes. After refuelling, he allowed the other 42 passengers and some of the flight attendants to leave the craft. Then he ordered the pilots to take off again.
He told them he wanted them to fly to Mexico, at the lowest possible speed and altitude that would avoid a stall-out or a crash. About forty minutes after take-off, he ordered the flight attendants into the cockpit. Then, warning lights told the staff he had opened the aft airstair. When the flight attendants came out to investigate, “Cooper”, the money, and two of the parachutes had vanished into the night.
Despite an immense man-hunt and years of searching, he has never been found again.
The 1952 Washington National Airport Incident
Flying-saucer mania had begun in America with the 1947 Roswell, New Mexico incidents, and had steadily built up to a fever pitch in 1952. During that year, there were thousands of reports of UFOs all over the world —some of them easily explained away by mundane phenomena, and some not. Perhaps the most notorious were those that occurred over the nation’s capital.
Between July 12 and July 29, 1952, a series of unidentified aircraft were reported in the skies over Washington, D.C. Air-traffic controllers out of National Airport (now known as Ronald Reagan National Airport) at two different radio towers were able to confirm the existence of the craft on radar, as were crew at Andrews Air Force base. Military and civilian pilots and flight crews reported sighting strange white or orange tail-less lights near their aircraft which moved as if controlled by intelligence. A few ground-based observers even claimed to have seen structured craft, rather than lights.
The Air Force held a press conference on July 29th that explained the radar evidence as the result of “temperature inversions” which cause radar interference. They declared that the lights and other visual sightings were shooting stars or meteors. That would appear to be case closed, but many people dispute the official explanations to this day.
The greatest of all unsolved aviation mysteries is the disappearance of pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart and her naviagator, Fred Noonan, over the Pacific Ocean in 1937. Earhart and Noonan were more than two-thirds of the way through their circumnavigation of the world at the equator. The final 7,000 miles of the 29,000-mile trip would take place over the Pacific.
On July 3, 1937, Earhart and Noonan were closing in on a small strip of land called Howland Island, located between Hawaii and Australia, where a U.S. Coast Guard Vessel, the Itasca, had radio contact with them. But Earhart and Noonan couldn’t seem to find the island. They radioed the Itasca several times, never seeming to hear the ship’s replies. Earhart’s last message, delivered in a level, unruffled voice, was “We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait.”
The Itasca waited, but no further message came. The Itasca began an immediate search, and a further 66 ships and 9 aircraft were mobilized to find the missing heroine. After two weeks of fruitless searching, the rescue was called off. Earhart was declared legally dead in 1939. While recent artifacts found on Gardiner Island south of Howland Island offer circumstantial evidence that Earhart may have successfully ditched her plane and survived for a time, no concrete proof yet exists.