The sailors, old and young, were gathered at the shell of the abandoned Naval Air Station in Fort Lauderdale. They'd arrived as they do every year, for a ceremony that has become a ritual, that will go on until all the old sailors who still remember have died. Then it might still go on. The ceremony isn't a commemoration of a battle or a victory, but of a loss, an unfortunate loss of five Navy Avenger TBM torpedo bombers that disappeared mysteriously into oblivion on December 5, 1945. The routine training flight turned into a tragedy and sparked a legend when the experienced pilots became disoriented over the Caribbean and never returned. Years later, Flight 19 would be known as the Lost Patrol-even though it wasn't a patrol-and it would mark the cornerstone of the Bermuda Triangle mystery.
A high-school band played a marching song, the Stars and Stripes fluttered in the breeze, and a general was about to address the gathering. At the edge of the crowd, Bruce Gernon, a civilian pilot, watched the proceedings with a special interest.
Gernon felt a strong connection with the pilots of Flight 19. Like them, he encountered mysterious, disorienting conditions over the Caribbean and barely escaped the clutches of a baffling force, an "electronic fog." He believes Flight 19 flew into the same conditions. Like the elusive Loch Ness monster, the force haunting the Bermuda Triangle apparently appears and disappears leaving no trace of its existence in its wake, other than the puzzle of lost vessels and crafts and the stories of those, like Gernon, who survived.
But if Gernon or anyone else in the crowd was hoping that Brigadier General Jerry McAbee would address the lingering question of what happened to the airmen and their planes, he would be disappointed. McAbee wasn't here to talk of the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle, of strange clouds and odd banks of fog, hovering UFOs, time travel, or electromagnetic anomalies that send compasses into wild spins. Rather, he was here to honor the lost pilots, to carry on the tradition. Even so, there was something surreal about the marching band and the general honoring the flight that set off the Bermuda Triangle saga and the airmen who were last seen stepping from the gigantic spacecraft at the end of Stephen Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It almost seemed as if the ceremony were a scene from a movie in the making, and somewhere nearby a director, his storyboard in hand, would yell, "Cut!" And then they'd do it all over again.
When the ceremony was over, Gernon wandered out from the hangar and across the tarmac to the lone Avenger torpedo bomber that had flown in from Jacksonville for the ceremony. It was one of the few remaining in existence and soon attracted a crowd.
A few Navy veterans, who were here in 1945, stood by one wing discussing the disappearance of Flight 19. They seemed to possess an uncanny recollection of every detail, as if it occurred yesterday. Nearby, a crew from The Learning Channel, who had arrived from England to film the event as part of a documentary film on the Bermuda Triangle, turned their camera toward the bulky-looking craft. Gian Quasar, the creator of a lively Bermuda Triangle website, took a photo of Gernon by the plane and later added it to his site.
Most of the stories about the Bermuda Triangle are about the loss of lives, and aircraft that vanished without a trace. Gernon, though, is a human survivor of the Bermuda Triangle and has appeared in many of the documentaries about the mystery that have been produced in recent years. Where others have disappeared, Gernon returned with a story of a close encounter with mysterious forces.
At the time of this encounter, he'd never heard of the Bermuda Triangle, but he knew that something significant had happened to him. He thought about it every day and went over every detail. He wanted to make sure that he would remember it just as it happened. Then, more than a year later, he saw an interview on television with two men who were talking about strange events in the Caribbean. They used the term "Bermuda Triangle."
"Suddenly, I realized what happened to me wasn't an isolated event. It was part of something much bigger, and I'd survived it. I'd experienced the Bermuda Triangle first-hand."
A Strange Cloud Hardly a day goes by when Bruce Gernon doesn't reflect in one way or another on what happened to him one afternoon on a flight more than thirty years ago. He might recall some aspect of the experience, or mention something about it to a friend or acquaintance. Or he might reflect on the entire scene, which long ago he vowed never to forget.
On the hour drive from the Flight 19 ceremony in Fort Lauderdale to his home in Wellington, Florida, in Palm Beach County, Gernon described his experience in detail. "My dad was a developer and I was a builder, and in 1970 we were searching the Bahamas for an island to build a resort," Ger-non began. "We decided on Andros Island, and had made a dozen flights, when on December 4 we encountered something we would never forget."
Gernon was piloting their new Bonanza A36, a stable and smooth-flying aircraft. Even today, more than three decades later, the Bonanza airframe remains relatively unchanged and is one of general aviation's finest performing airplanes. If he had been flying a slower and less stable aircraft that day, Gernon believes that he may not have survived the flight. Although he had planned to take off in the morning, ever the cautious pilot, Gernon delayed the flight until the weather improved. "We waited all morning while it rained and it was close to 3:00 PM when my dad and I, along with Chuck Layfayette, a business associate, took off from Andros Town Airport."
He remembered that the sky was overcast and a light mist was falling. "Weather information wasn't available, so I decided to get airborne, then call Miami Flight Service for atmospheric conditions." As they made a turn after departing the runway, Gernon looked over to the terminal where he saw his friend, John Woolbright, waving to him. Woolbright was a mathematician at the Atlantic Undersea Test Evaluation Cen(AUTEC), a navy facility based on the island, which, ironically, would play a role in the Bermuda Triangle mystery.
They climbed to 1,000 feet and assumed a heading of 315 degrees. They couldn't go any higher because of a cloud ceiling at 1,500 feet. "My father was also a pilot and an expert navigator, so we flew the plane together on a direct route to Bimini. We tuned into the Bimini radio beacon on our automatic direction finder, and also used a magnetic compass."
They were cruising at 180 miles an hour and had been flying for about ten minutes when the drizzle ended and the skies cleared. By then, they had reached the northwest end of Andros Island and were flying over the ocean shallows of the Great Bahama Bank. The visibility had improved from about three miles to ten miles and the weather ahead appeared non threatening.
As they started to gain altitude, Gernon noticed an almond-shaped lenticular cloud directly in front of them, about a mile away. While other clouds move across the sky with the air currents, lenticular clouds tend to remain stationary. The cloud appeared to be about a mile-and-a-half long and a thousand feet thick, with the top of it reaching an altitude of 1,500 feet. It was white, with smooth edges and appeared inoffensive. However, he found one thing odd about the cloud.
"I'd seen quite a few lenticular-shaped clouds, but never at such a low altitude. They are usually up at 20,000 feet."
But Gernon couldn't spend much time looking at the cloud because he was busy filing his flight plan with the Miami Flight Service. They would fly to Bimini, then directly to West Palm Beach. Miami Radio, the call sign for the flight service, offered a promising forecast. The weather would be clear between Andros and the Florida coast, with a few scattered, isolated thunderstorms of moderate intensity in South Florida. Winds were light and variable, and the temperature was 75 degrees.
By this time, at about ten miles offshore and climbing toward their intended altitude of 10,500 feet, Gernon noticed that the lenticular cloud had changed into a huge, billowy, white, cumulus-shaped cloud. "We were climbing at a thousand feet per minute, and the cloud seemed to be building up underneath us at the same rate that we were ascending."
It rose so quickly that it occurred to him that they were flying over a cumulonimbus cloud, one of the most dangerous to fly through, and that it was about to form a monstrous thunderhead. "Chuck started to get nervous. He had never come this close to a cloud while flying in a small airplane. I assured him that we would break free of it at any moment, and leave it behind."
But after ascending for several minutes, they were nearly one mile high and the cloud was still ascending with them. Then, unexpectedly, the cloud caught up and engulfed the Bonanza. They felt a slight updraft, and visibility was reduced to less than a hundred feet. After about thirty seconds, they broke free of the clouds and continued their ascent.
"But the cloud was still right below us, rising at the same rate," Gernon recalled. "I couldn't even get ten yards above the cloud, and after another half-minute, it closed around us again."
Suddenly, another updraft provided an unexpected burst of acceleration, that pushed them up above the cloud. But then their vertical speed diminished and the cloud caught up to them again. The scenario was repeated at least five more times. "Dad and Chuck were getting worried," Gernon remembered. And Dad suggested we go back to Andros."
Making a 180-degree turn would be risky, but Gernon was considering it when suddenly the airplane broke free again at 11,500 feet and the sky was clear. He leveled the Bonanza and accelerated to a cruising speed of 195 miles per hour.
"What I didn't realize at the time was that the cloud must have been moving horizontally at least 105 miles an hour, our climbing speed, as well as vertically. But when it stopped its horizontal movement, we were finally free of it. When I looked back at the cloud, I was astonished at what I saw. The cloud was still rapidly building, and was enormous. That small lenticular cloud that we had initially flown over had taken on the shape of an immense squall."
But unlike most squalls, which form in a line, this cloud curved in a perfect semicircle and radiated out on either side of them. It appeared to extend out at least ten miles in either direction. After a few minutes, they left the cloud behind and continued on their path toward Bimini under clear skies. "Everything was back to normal, so I engaged the autopilot, sat back, and started to relax."
Trapped But, after a few minutes, they noticed another squall forming in front of them. "As we approached the cloud, moving at about three miles a minute, an eerie sight began to unfold. To my consternation, the cloud looked very much like the one we'd left behind. It had a similar curving, semicircular shape, except now the arms extended in the opposite direction, directly toward us. The top of this enormous cloud reached at least 40,000 feet."
Then Gernon noticed something else that surprised him. Normal cumulus clouds have a base, or ceiling, one or two thousand feet above the surface. If the cloud is producing rain, the base is usually at about 1,000 feet and sometimes as low as four or five hundred feet. But, as they flew within a few miles of the cloud, he saw that this cloud appeared to emanate directly from the ocean.
"I realized that we couldn't go either under the cloud or above it, and attempting to circumvent it would take us considerably off our flight path. Besides, the arms of the cloud were already stretching out on either side of us, so we couldn't make an easy escape. However, the cloud didn't look too threatening, so after conferring with Dad, I decided to fly into it. I had flown under clouds in heavy rain and I'd penetrated them while flying with instrument-rated pilots, but pilots are supposed to steer clear of strong thunderstorms, and the 10,000-foot level was supposed to be the most dangerous altitude to fly through a storm. I'd been told that there could be updrafts and downdrafts in excess of 100 miles an hour in the heart of a thunderstorm cell."
They were about forty-five miles east of Bimini when they entered the misty edges of this enormous cloud formation. Once inside, Gernon realized he might've made a mistake. Although the cloud was white and fluffy on the outside, its interior was dark, as if night suddenly had fallen.
"But it didn't stay dark for long. Bright white flashes lit up the interior of the cloud. They seemed to go on and off in a neverending, random pattern, and the deeper we penetrated, the more intense the flashes became."
Although there were no bolts of lightning, Gernon had no doubt that they'd entered an electrical storm and were in danger. "When my father asked if I was going to continue on, I didn't have to think very long to answer. I shook my head, turned 135 degrees and assumed a due south heading."
All three men were wearing watches, and they noted that they were deviating from their course at 3:27 PM. An electric-powered clock on the panel, which included a timer that Gernon had engaged upon takeoff, indicated that they'd been airborne for twenty-seven minutes. His father started the timer on his watch when they changed their course, and using very-high frequency OmniRange navigation equipment (VOR), he calculated that they were forty miles southeast of Bimini. Meanwhile, Gernon contacted Miami Radio on the VHF and told them that they had altered their course to avoid a thunderstorm, and they were attempting to fly around it.
"We thought we might be able to avoid the semicircular-shaped cloud to the south, but after traveling six or seven miles, we could see that the cloud continued on our left toward the east. Then, a couple minutes later, we realized that the cloud that we encountered near Andros and the second cloud were now connected. As far as I could tell, the enormous cloud encircled us. I estimated that the diameter of the opening was about thirty miles. We were trapped inside a billowing prison with no way out. We couldn't go over or under it."
The Tunnel Vortex Gernon's concern was increasing by the minute, but he knew he had to remain calm. He tried to understand how they'd gotten into this predicament. It seemed that the storm was created first in the form of a lenticular cloud just offshore of Andros Island, and then had rapidly spread outward, forming the shape of a donut. He remembered what it was like inside the thunderstorm, and the last thing he wanted to do was fly back into the powerful storm cell.
They'd flown about ten miles from the point where they'd turned south when he noticed a breach in the massive cloud on the west side. The U-shaped aperture, Gernon thought, was where the two arms of the expansive cloud had not yet met.
At the top, on either side, the cloud extended outward in the shape of an anvil. So it looked as if the cloud soon would form a bridge. The anvil shape is commonly seen in cumulonimbus thunderstorms as they reach maturity. The top typically spreads outward for several miles at an elevation of about 35,000 feet. Normally, Gernon would stay clear of such an anvil head, but this time the situation called for drastic action.
"Faced with the dilemma that we were in, I felt that I had no choice but to turn the aircraft 90 degrees to the right and try to exit through the cloud by way of the only visible opening. As we flew toward the aperture, we saw the two anvil heads connect with each other, forming a hole in the cloud. The tunnel was about a mile wide and appeared to be between ten and fifteen miles long. Its bottom was at the 10,000-foot level. On the far side of the passage, we could see blue sky, and that gave us hope."
But as they neared the tunnel, they realized that its diameter was shrinking. Gernon took the engine up to maximum power. By the time they were three miles from the shaft, the opening was only about a thousand feet wide. They were still two miles away when the aperture had shrunk to five hundred feet, and as they entered it, the opening was merely three hundred feet across.
"I recalled what Charles Galanza, my first flight instructor, told us one night during a class. He said that sometimes in the higher altitudes, usually above five-thousand feet, long horizontal tunnels sometimes formed in storm clouds. He called them 'sucker holes,' and warned us never to fly through them. He said he knew of pilots who had tried the feat and were never seen again. I assumed he meant that they'd crashed into the ocean and disappeared."
But by the time the flight was over, Gernon wondered if there were other possibilities.
Weightless Gernon was startled to see that upon entering the tunnel, strange spiraling lines instantly appeared the entire length of the tunnel. Moments before the tunnel had appeared ten miles long; now it was only about a mile long and he still could see blue sky on the other side. Instead of close to three minutes, it would take only about twenty seconds to get through the tunnel. "I had to remain right in the center of the tunnel, because I was afraid that if the wings ran into the edges of the cloud, I might lose sight of the hole and the path to the clear sky."
The silky white walls of the tunnel glowed with the light from the afternoon sun. The walls appeared to be symmetrical and were slowly shrinking. Along their edges were small puffs of gray clouds about three-feet long and one-foot thick. Gernon noticed that these clouds were swirling around the airplane in a counterclockwise motion at a rate of several times a minute. At the same time, the tunnel continued to shrink around them. "The diameter was only thirty feet, and the tips of the wings scraped the edges of the cloud as we reached the far side of the tunnel. It had taken about twenty seconds to travel through it. I noticed that contrails formed at the ends of the wings, leaving a parallel trail behind us as we escaped."
That was when he suddenly felt as though he was experiencing zero gravity, and that his seatbelt was the only thing keeping him from levitating out of his seat. "While the vapor trails were streaming from the wings, I felt a strange sensation of weightlessness, and simultaneously a feeling that our speed was increasing."
About ten seconds later, the weightless sensation vanished. "I looked back and gasped as I watched the tunnel walls collapse and form a slowly rotating slit. I was relieved to have made it through the tunnel, but for some reason I felt disoriented, so I asked my dad to check our position. He was always good at using the instruments to give me our exact location on the chart, within a few seconds. "This time he fiddled with the instruments for longer than usual. Then he told me that something was wrong. That was when I realized that all the electronic and magnetic navigational instruments were malfunctioning. Even the magnetic compass was slowly rotating counterclockwise, as if the plane were making a turn."
Gernon contacted Miami air-traffic control and reported that he wasn't sure of his position and would like radar identification. The plane was equipped with a transponder, a new invention at the time that helped radar controllers identify airplane location. "I told them that we were about forty-five miles southeast of Bimini heading east, and flying at 10,500 feet. But the controller came back and said that there were no planes on radar between Miami, Bimini, and Andros. That was when Dad snatched the microphone and yelled at the controller. 'What the hell do you mean you can't find us on radar?'
"The controller sounded bewildered and apologized, but said the radar showed no blips in the area we were flying. I wondered how this could be. In the past they had always been able to identify us, especially when we were approaching ADIZ, the international defense zone," Gernon recalled.
"Dad was getting more and more agitated and began screaming at the controller. He was starting to panic so I took the microphone back and told the controller to let us know if anything came up on his radar. I did my best to calm Dad and Chuck by saying that we were through the worst of it. Everything would be okay now." But he was wrong.
"It was about that time that I realized that something very bizarre had happened. Instead of the clear blue sky that we expected at the end of the tunnel, everything appeared a dull grayish white. Visibility appeared to be more than two miles, but there was absolutely nothing to see-no ocean, no horizon no sky, only a gray haze."
While haze in the lower atmosphere is common, Gernon described it as darker than the common haze that he often encountered. But the air was stable and there was no lightning or precipitation. "We seemed to be in some sort of fog, but unlike the usual fog where visibility is never much over a few hundred feet, we could see much farther." But even more disturbing was the fact that the instruments were still malfunctioning.
An Internal Compass Gernon slowed the plane down to one hundred and eighty miles an hour because he didn't know what would happen next. He remembered that when they entered the tunnel their heading was 290 degrees, but now the compass was spinning. Very soon they could be going in any direction, even right back into the dangerous cloud. But now he called upon his "visionary compass," an ability he had developed during the past couple of months, which could best be described as an intuitive sense of direction.
"I created an imaginary compass in my mind," Gernon said. "It was located just above my eyes and looked exactly like a magnetic compass, a drum-like scale, marked in degrees. It was about six inches in diameter and floated inside my skull. It always remained horizontal and pointed to true north no matter which direction I was facing. So I put my visionary compass to use to maintain a 290-degree heading." Gernon's "internal compass" is an ability that is similar to a technique used by shamans in Indonesia, which was described by researcher John Perkins in his book Psycho-Navigation: Techniques for Travel. Perkins was shown the skill by present-day shamans among the Bugis of Indonesia, who still build wooden ships-as they have done for centuries-and cross great distances of open water with no compasses or other navigational tools.
At this point, Gernon and his two passengers had been traveling for nearly thirty-two minutes. According to their flight time, they should have been approaching the chain of Bimini Islands, which extend fifty-five miles south of Bimini, the main island, to Orange Cay, the southernmost island in the chain. He estimated that they were about ninety-five miles southwest of Miami, and just shy of twenty miles from crossing the Bimini chain. If his internal compass was working, Gernon figured they would be crossing the islands in six or seven minutes.
"Off to the right, we saw a dark area that looked like land, but it was too soon for the islands. I figured it was probably the shadow of a cloud rather than an island. Pilots often mistake such shadows for islands when flying in the Bahamas, especially when they're getting anxious to find a checkpoint. But as we flew past the dark spot, it seemed to go by us much too quickly. So I decided it must be a cloud moving in the opposite direction."
They continued on, still shrouded by the odd haze. Gernon was puzzled by the conditions, but the air was stable and he felt in control of the airplane. "We remained on the Miami frequency, but didn't hear any transmissions for several minutes, which seemed odd. Then, suddenly, we heard the voice of the controller, who yelled that he had spotted an airplane directly over Miami Beach, flying due west."
Gernon looked at his watch and saw that they had been flying for just under thirty-four minutes. "We couldn't possibly be over Miami Beach yet, so I told the controller that we were approximately ninety miles southwest of Miami, and still looking for the Bimini Islands." Suddenly, the fog started to break apart, but it didn't just dissipate. Long ribbons of fog ran parallel to their direction of flight. The ribbons spread apart until clear sky appeared as long slits in the fog. The ribbons were about one mile from the plane, and ran two-to-three miles in front of them, and about the same distance behind them. The slits gradually grew wider, and then, within several seconds, the slits all connected and the ribbons of fog disappeared.
"All I could see was brilliant blue sky, and then my eyes adjusted to the brightness, and I recognized Miami Beach directly below us."
The three men were relieved to see familiar land again and to have escaped the fog. For some reason, Gernon knew that it was important to remember the clouds that he'd seen. It was an odd thought, almost as if it had come from outside of him. "The clouds we'd gone through were certainly extraordinary but I had no idea how or why they would be significant.
"Dad noticed that the navigation instruments appeared to be working again, so he used them to verify our position. I contacted the radar controller and told him that he was correct about our location over Miami Beach. I thanked him for his assistance and signed off the radio."
They headed north and skirted around a thunderstorm near Fort Lauderdale. After they landed at Palm Beach International Gernon noticed that the flight had taken forty-seven minutes. "I thought something must be wrong with the plane's timer. But all three of our watches showed that it was 3:48 PM. The airplane clock showed the same time.
"I had made this flight from Palm Beach to Andros at least a dozen times and had never flown it in less than seventy-five minutes, and that was on a direct route. This flight was indirect and would probably cover a distance of close to two hundred and fifty miles. The Bonanza could not possibly travel that distance in forty-seven minutes when its maximum cruising speed was one hundred and ninety-five miles an hour. We had no answers."
Another year passed before Gernon learned about the legacy of the Bermuda Triangle, and that his experience was part of a larger picture.
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