By Bill Hewitt
June 03, 1991 12:00 PM

THE SONAR IMAGES FLASHED A GARISH BULE IN THE CONTROL room of the Deep See as it slipped through the dark waters off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. For the five-man crew of the 60-foot research-and-exploration vessel, the night of May 8 started routinely enough as they scanned the ocean floor in search of sunken galleons or anything else salvageable. But in the early morning hours, something intriguing appeared on the screen—the computer-generated outline of an airplane lying on the seabed 750 feet below. Lowering their underwater camera, the crew saw the aircraft in murky black-and-white, right down to the star roundels on the wings. The distinctive rear gun turret marked the plane as a Navy Avenger, a torpedo plane used in World War II.

Two hundred yards away the sonar began picking up another image. It was a second plane. Soon there was a third Avenger. Over the next 24 hours, the crew spotted five in all, lying within a one-mile radius. “We were pretty thrilled,” says sonar operator Bill Mastrude. Well versed in the lore of the area, the Deep See crew began to suspect that they had stumbled upon the final resting place of Flight 19—the legendary Lost Squadron that had supposedly vanished into the Bermuda Triangle in December 1945. “We were all saying, ‘Nobody’s going to believe us at home,’ ” says Mastrude.

Along with the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the saga of Flight 19 has become one of the greatest mysteries in the history of aviation. The five fully armed Avengers that took off” from Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale with their 14 crewmen and disappeared without a trace have inspired more rumors and theories than a forestful of Bigfoots. For years afterward, there were periodic reports that the airmen had been seen living with Indians in the Everglades. Or were they in Texas? Much of the speculation focused on the possibility that they had somehow been abducted by UFOs—a scenario eerily depicted in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Now, 10 miles off the Florida coast, the riddle may have been solved.

World War II had been over for three months when Flight 19 took off for what was supposed to be a routine training exercise on that fair, breezy Dec. 5th. The group leader was Lt. Charles Taylor, 28, a seasoned combat veteran of the Pacific campaign, but a pilot with a reputation for sloppy navigation. (The day of the ill-fated flight he left some of his navigation equipment behind in his quarters.) Setting out at 2:10 P.M., the planes were loaded with 5½ hours’ fuel for the scheduled three-hour flight out over the Atlantic and back to the airfield. But things quickly went awry as the squadron became thoroughly disoriented. At one point, a pilot, presumably Taylor, was overheard saying, “I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.” A bit later Taylor announced, “I’m sure I’m in the Keys, but I don’t know how far down, and I don’t know how to get to Fort Lauderdale.” To make matters worse, while the ground controllers in Fort Lauderdale could hear Taylor’s radio transmissions, he had trouble picking up theirs.

At about 4:45 P.M. Taylor radioed again, this time saying that the formation had somehow ended up over the Gulf of Mexico, which seemed impossible. Listening on the ground, Lt. Comdr. Don Poole, the flight training officer at Fort Lauderdale, knew then that Taylor was only getting himself more confused. “It can happen to a pilot when you look out and you don’t see anything familiar,” says Poole, now 76 and living in Cape Coral, Fla. “But usually you snap out of that panic and stay on course. But he didn’t.”

The tragic irony was that investigators now believe that Taylor was now here near the Keys but about where he was supposed to be, over the Bahamas. More important, they theorize that as a result of his mistake in identifying the ground below, Taylor concluded wrongly that his compass was malfunctioning and from then on disregarded its readings. Author Larry Kusche, who has written two books about Flight 19, thinks he knows how the mix-up could have occurred. “Taylor had just transferred to Fort Lauderdale from Miami, where he was used to flying in the Keys,” says Kusche. “In between the Abacos [a part of the Bahamas], if you look to the right, there are lots of islands that look like the Keys. He just got confused.”

It seems clear that some in Taylor’s group realized their leader’s error. The transmissions from Flight 19 were growing increasingly faint, apparently because the squadron was getting farther away, but at 5 P.M. Poole heard one of the fliers say to another, “Dammit, if we would just fly west, we would get home.” But the iron code of military discipline dictated that they stay with Taylor. “In training it’s embedded in you to follow orders.” says Poole. And so the five planes droned on into the gathering dusk, desperately zig-zagging somewhere off the coast. as best the ground controllers could tell from the intermittent radio transmissions. At 5:22 Taylor was heard telling his team, “When first man gets down to 10 gallons of gas we will all land in the water together.” About that time a storm front hit the area, bringing 40-knot winds, torrential rain and 12-to 14-foot waves. At 6:02 one of the Avengers radioed that “we may have to ditch any minute.” For the next hour there were sporadic broadcasts until at last one of the planes called for Taylor and got no response. It was the last anyone heard from Flight 19.

The Navy launched a sweeping search-and-rescue operation. Back at the Fort Lauderdale base, experienced hands knew that ditching in such rough seas would be almost suicidal. Even if by great luck the crews survived the initial impact and managed to break out their life rafts, they would, in all likelihood, be quickly capsized. Still, those at the base tried to remain hopeful. John Evans, a Navy photographer, recalls that as darkness came on, controllers lit up all the runways to guide the fliers home. “I’ll never forget,” says Evans, now 65 and an architect. “I went out around 9 o’clock, and the lights were still on. But then slowly, one by one, they all went out, and I thought, ‘That’s it, they’re dead.’ ”

For the wife of Capt. Edward Powers, the awful truth came in a sickening flash. That night at the couple’s apartment in Mount Vernon, N.Y., where Joan Powers had remained behind with their 18-month-old daughter, Susan, Joan awoke in a panic, which had never happened to her before. Sensing that something was wrong, she called the base at 2 A.M. She was told that Edward was not there, and only the next morning did she hear on the radio about the missing planes.

The Navy continued to search for five days, but no clues were ever found, a fact that still puzzles some of the investigators. The Navy’s initial inquiry into the matter strongly suggested that Lieutenant Taylor had been responsible for the mishap. But under pressure from Taylor’s mother, Katherine, a subsequent review declared the investigation inconclusive. Thereafter, Taylor’s mother, a schoolteacher in Corpus Christi, Texas, would often appear on the docks around Fort Lauderdale. Clutching a photograph of her son, says Evans, she would ask charter-boat captains, “Have you seen this man, maybe in the Bahamas somewhere, or on a deserted island?”

The identities of the five planes found by the Deep See remain to be verified, which the crew hopes to do by matching serial numbers on the tails. Still, based on the preliminary findings, some experts believe that the Lost Squadron has been found. Although 139 Avengers were lost off the coast of Florida during the war years, there is no record of five of them going down in the same vicinity. The newly disc overed aircraft appear to have been ditched—the canopies are open, and some of the prop blades are bent back. (It is still unclear whether any of the pilots’ remains are inside.) One of the planes has the marking FT on its side. FT was the designation for the Fort Lauderdale base; another has a 28, which was the number of Taylor’s plane. Meanwhile, a court battle is already brewing between the Scientific Search Project—the owners of the Deep See—and the Navy over the rights to the wreckage, which could be worth a substantial amount in movie and television rights.

As for those who still mourn the losses from that day more than 45 years ago, the discovery has brought relief—and new pain. They must deal with the fact that their loved ones may have been a pitifully short distance from safety when they perished. Susan Powers Spengler, now 46 and never having known the father who died that day, would like to see the identities confirmed but the aircraft left where they are. “I don’t want them brought up,” she says. “Let them be. Let them rest.”