For 46 years the U.S. Navy couldn't find five Avenger airplanes that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle, but now it plans to sue the ocean explorers who apparently discovered the missing squadron's watery grave.
"The Navy has never relinquished ownership of these airplanes. They are federal property," said retired Capt. Bob Rasmussen, director of the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola.Rasmussen said he has been working with Navy attorneys on a suit against the salvors, Scientific Search Project of New York.
Scientific Search Project, which was looking for a Spanish galleon at the time of the May 8 discovery, announced its find Thursday in federal court when it claimed possession of the site 10 miles northeast of Fort Lauderdale and in 600 feet of water.
Mystery has shrouded the fate of Flight 19, or the "Lost Patrol," since its disappearance Dec. 5, 1945, on a routine training mission.
The loss of the five planes, which took off from Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station, now the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, with 14 men aboard, helped build the myth surrounding the Bermuda Triangle.
Rasmussen said the Navy will file its claim to the airplanes, all within a one-mile radius on the ocean floor, this week in a federal court.
Noting that the pilots and crew could be entombed in the planes, Rasmussen told The Miami Herald for Saturday's editions, "We would not like to see the airplanes raised and put in some commercial museum for exploitation."
The Navy's reaction caught the salvage company a bit by surprise.
"The purpose of our lawsuit was to keep everybody else away, but not necessarily the Navy," said Robert Cervoni, managing director of Scientific Search Project.
"We want to work out a deal with the Navy about being able to identify these planes and maybe restore them," he said.
Navy regulations state that a Navy aircraft "regardless of its location, belongs to the government until such time as the Navy determines its disposition, i.e., recovery, loan or donation to a qualified organization."
The lead pilot of Flight 19 became disoriented in bad weather over the Atlantic and, thinking the squadron had drifted over the Gulf of Mexico, ordered his planes to fly east. That decision carried them away from land.
One of the last radio transmissions by Lt. Charles C. Taylor was to order his pilots to ditch the planes together as soon as the fuel level of any one of them fell to 10 gallons.
Taylor was overheard telling the other pilots they would all go down together. Then the five planes vanished without a trace, fueling the myth of the Bermuda Triangle.
Bounded by Puerto Rico, Miami and Bermuda, the triangle is said to be bedeviled by unexplained forces that jam radio frequencies and confuse cockpit compasses. For 50 years, hundreds of planes and ships have disappeared in the area, giving rise to wild tales of UFO encounters and supernatural forces.
The salvors are optimistic the planes are those of the Lost Patrol because no other loss of five Avengers together has ever been reported by the Navy.