Like Area 51 in the southern Nevada desert, the Bermuda Triangle is a name whose significance is attached less to the specific parameters of the physical place than the activities that some believe happen there. When people draw the physical place on the map, it becomes nebulous, measuring anywhere from half a million to 1.5 million square miles. Generally, it’s located in the western North Atlantic Ocean: to the east of Florida, the north of Puerto Rico, and south of the island of Bermuda. Beyond that, it’s impossible to be precise; for unlike Area 51, the Bermuda Triangle does not officially exist.
(The CIA publicly acknowledged the existence of Area 51 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request in 2005. They did not, however, publicly confirm the base’s reported use as a storage facility for the wrecked spacecraft recovered in Roswell in 1947, which I think was equally disappointing for all of us.)
Also known among the more dramatic as The Devil’s Triangle, the Bermuda Triangle is not even necessarily a triangle. It’s been drawn variously, often expanding to accommodate incidents that happen nearby, but some think it’s more accurate to think of it as an ovoid, an ellipse, a “lozenge.” Others have pushed for its very particular consideration as a scalene trapezoid. This, at least, was the theory of Martin Caidin, author of military history and aeronautical authority, presented in his article “The Triangle With Four (or More) Sides” published in Fate magazine in 1993. Still, even if just because it sounds the best, “Triangle” is the shape that sticks.
THE REGION FIRST GAINED notice after the Flight 19 disaster of December 5, 1945. Five TPM Avenger torpedo bombers departed at 2:10 p.m. from the Naval Air Station in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for a standard overwater navigation and combat training flight. Each craft was fully fueled, and the weather conditions were described as favorable and clear, with moderately choppy waters below. The entire trip should have taken two hours and 15 minutes. The airmen (14 in all) would fly due east about 64 miles, carry out bombing practice at the Hen and Chickens Shoals, and then head 73 nautical miles farther east, flying over Grand Bahama island. Then they’d hang a left, flying almost due north for 73 nautical miles. There the exercise would be complete, and the Avengers would return, in a southwest direction, to Fort Lauderdale.
The first step of the training was apparently completed, but shortly after, radio transmissions between the bombers reveal that flight leader Charles Carroll Taylor’s compasses went out. A flight instructor flying near Fort Lauderdale picked up Flight 19’s troubled communications and attempted to direct Taylor back to the base. But Taylor didn’t know where he was. Students in his squadron told him to head west, back toward land, but Taylor believed them to be in the Gulf of Mexico. At 6:04 p.m. (nearly four hours after they’d departed), Taylor radioed that they “didn’t fly far enough east.” Transmissions indicate a great deal of confusing back-and-forth. In the last hour of communications, Taylor radios Captain Powers, who is on another craft, to ask what course they’re on now. But he can’t reach him. At 7:04 p.m., another captain, Ensign Bossi, can be heard reading the call sign (“Fox Tare Three … Fox Tare Three …”). After that, nothing else is heard from the airmen of Flight 19.
The first plane to search for Flight 19 and its crew, a PBM-5 with 13 crew members on board that departed around 7:27 p.m., exploded 20 minutes into flight. All that it left behind, as far as witnesses and investigators could find, was an oil slick sprayed across the water off the eastern coast of Florida.
The mysterious trajectory of Flight 19 was written up in both Fate and Argosy magazines (the former trading in paranormal phenomena, the latter a pulp rag) a number of years later. People began paying closer attention to the so-called Bermuda Triangle, and theorizing on the area’s possible involvement with paranormal phenomena flourished. In 1977, screenwriter and director Steven Spielberg borrowed a line from those who thought UFOs might be involved, co-opting the story of the missing crew of Flight 19 and returning them to Earth as alien abductees in his movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
ACCORDING TO GIAN J. Quasar, author of a 2005 book called Into the Bermuda Triangle: Pursuing the Truth Behind the World’s Greatest Mystery, an average of four aircraft and 20 yachts disappear into the Bermuda Triangle each year. Quasar obtained his numbers by doing database searches of briefs from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). From 1964 to 1974, Quasar identified 37 planes that vanished over the Bermuda Triangle. From 1974 to 1984, he found 41. Between 1984 and 1994, 32 aircraft disappeared, and from 1994 to 2004, 20. (Quasar speculates the decrease is not owed to any weakening of the Bermuda Triangle’s pull, but to the curtailing of air traffic after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.) Though some wreckage was eventually found in some (though not all) of these disappearances, Quasar writes, “In no search undertaken by the Seventh Coast Guard district, for any airplane or vessel posted overdue and then eventually declared missing, has a body ever been recovered.” Of course, it’s not unheard of for a body to go missing in the ocean. But it sounds mysterious.
Forty years earlier, a research librarian named Larry Kusche published a book called, straightforwardly enough, The Bermuda Triangle Mystery: Solved. (A quick sidenote about Kusche: two years later, he published a book called Larry Kusche’s Popcorn Cookery, a collection of popcorn-based recipes including, Wikipedia says, ones for “baked goods consisting of ground-up popcorn flour.” So he pretty much covered everything.) Anyway, Kusche found—and I’m sure this won’t shock you—that many of the claims made about the Bermuda Triangle’s unusual-ness are exaggerated and sometimes erroneous. This is an area with above-average and often sudden tropical storms, and many Triangle Truthers’ (if you’ll let me call them that) reports of missing ships and planes failed to mention these adverse conditions. Stories like those printed in magazines like Fate and Argosy were, Kusche argued, sloppily researched. And furthermore, the number of ships that disappear into the Bermuda Triangle (and it does happen) was not found to be substantially greater than in any other area of the ocean. Indeed, Quasar’s numbers sound stark when comparing them to zero vanished aircraft. But what of how they compare to the rest of the world?
If the ocean is mysterious and not-yet-totally-figured-out (and this much seems inarguable), “The Bermuda Triangle” is just a legendary name for one little, otherwise-unremarkable part of it. Area 51, on the other hand? Something weird is definitely going on there.