A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Has anyone vanished in the Bermuda Triangle lately?

February 3, 1989

Dear Cecil:

Has anyone vanished in the Bermuda Triangle lately? There were many reports of mysterious incidents back in the 70s, but since then the whole subject has simply dropped out of sight (grin). Is the mystery any closer to being solved? I'm thinking of sending my in-laws on a permanent vacation.

Cecil replies:

Better stick to cyanide or blunt instruments, K. The lethality of the Bermuda Triangle has been greatly exaggerated.  The only reason I bring up the subject at all is to bestow some belated publicity on a fine example of the debunker's art. More on this in a moment.

In case anybody's forgotten, the Bermuda Triangle is a region in the Atlantic Ocean where scores of ships and planes allegedly have vanished — usually without a trace, in good weather, without sending distress calls. Two typical cases:

  • In December 1945, five Navy planes took off from Fort Lauderdale on a routine training mission. After reporting that their compasses were acting up and everything looked "strange," the five lost contact with their base and were never seen again. Another plane sent out to look for them vanished as well. No wreckage from any of the planes was ever found.
  • On December 28, 1948, a DC-3 carrying 36 persons disappeared while en route from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Miami. In their last radio message around 4 AM the plane's crew reported they were only 50 miles south of Miami and within sight of the city's lights.  The plane was never heard from again. A massive search turned up no wreckage, despite the shallowness of the waters south of Miami.

These and many other incidents were blamed on everything from UFOs to electromagnetic fluctuations in the space-time continuum.  Fortunately a few level-headed folk also looked into the matter. Among them was Lawrence David Kusche, who wrote a book entitled The Bermuda Triangle Mystery — Solved in 1975.

In an analysis of some 50 cases, Kusche found that overeager BT buffs had been playing fast and loose with the facts. In many cases the disappearances had taken place in bad weather, involving craft known to have been experiencing trouble.  Wreckage was found in many instances. In others, darkness or delay in starting the search provided ample time for debris to disperse. Many of the cases hadn't even taken place in the Bermuda Triangle, but rather in other sites near Ireland, in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Africa or South America, or in one case, in the Pacific Ocean.

Here's what Kusche found out about the cases cited above:

  • The five Navy planes were piloted by four student pilots and one instructor. The instructor's compasses failed and he became disoriented, thinking he was over the Florida Keys when he was really near the Bahamas. Radio interference from ground stations hindered efforts to help him.  After flying aimlessly for several hours, the planes ran out of gas and were presumably ditched in the ocean shortly after nightfall. By this time the seas were extremely rough. Darkness, delay, and equipment failures hampered search efforts. One of the planes sent up to search for the missing flight apparently blew up in mid-air; the explosion was spotted by a nearby ship.
  • The destroyed plane was of a type that often reeked of fuel fumes and was widely considered dangerous. While in San Juan the crew of the DC-3 found the plane's batteries were dead but decided to take off without adequately recharging them. Because of the lack of power, the radio was operational only intermittently.  An investigating panel speculated that additional electrical problems might have rendered the plane's navigation equipment inoperable. The crew never said they were within sight of Miami — these reports were the work of Triangle buffs who jumped to conclusions. The waters 50 miles due south of Miami are shallow, but those 50 miles along the flight path to San Juan (i.e., southeast) are approximately 5,000 feet deep.

In short, both disappearances could be plausibly explained without reference to UFOs or mysterious vortexes or any other paranormal phenomenon. The same could be said for almost all the other cases Kusche looked into.  Conclusion: the Bermuda Triangle "mystery" is a figment of a lot of overactive imaginations. About what you'd expect.

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