“Flight 19 Lost Squadron 75th Anniversary Tribute” Accurate Miniatures TBM-1C Avenger as FT-81
First off, I want to thank all of you who held off posting your articles so we could keep our Flight 19 builds together. That was very kind of you and considerate…
Flight 19 … The “Lost Squadron” was previously introduced to you by Chuck Villanueva @uscusn
who built a Hobby Boss kit of FT-28.
Flight 19 is a mysterious aviation story that happened 75 years ago today, back on December 5th, 1945. The Flight has had numerous versions portrayed on both the television screen, in movie theaters, and in media print. The most famous movie (in my opinion) where the Flight was shown, was in Steven Spielberg’s movie called “Close Encounter’s of the 3rd Kind”. In the movie, the entire flight of Avengers was found abandoned in a desert… and the crew was missing, nowhere to be seen.
Understanding what actually happened here involves a lot of “educated” guessing. Some people have dedicated their lives to the study of what happened on that day, and they have done some serious detective work on the subject. Some of the ‘investigators” have interpreted different outcomes to the final fate of the planes… and more importantly, the crews. To this day the mystery has never been solved, and these men are still missing, as are the planes.
It has become known as the Flight that disappeared in the infamous “Devil’s Triangle”… although some have called it the Bermuda Triangle as well. Hundreds of ships and planes have disappeared in this location over the years.
Here’s the short story about what happened that day. This next bit of information was copied directly from the Accurate Miniatures kit assembly instructions.
TBM-1C Avenger: Flight 19
Lost in the Bermuda Triangle
“If we would just fly West, we would get home.”
Flight 19 will remain one of the great aviation mysteries of all time. The mission was a fairly simple navigation problem that was divided into four legs. Each leg’s termination point was marked by landfall, or within sight of landfall. The orders were to fly 091 degrees True for 56 miles to Chicken and Hen Shoals. Practice bomb runs for about 20 minutes, then proceed on course 091 again for 67 miles to Great Stirrup Cay, turn 346 degrees True North West for 73 miles. In sight of Great Salt Cay, turn South West 241 degrees True for 120 miles, and return to NAS Ft. Lauderdale.
The crews were all students from Squadron 79M who had transferred from NAS Miami, 20 miles South within the previous two weeks. This was to be their Third and final qualifying flight in Torpedo Squadron (VTB) operations. The syllabus was advanced over – water navigation. Each pilot was qualified to be a basic flight instructor.
The date was December 5th, 1945.
This is the end of what I copied directly from the provided kit instructions…
So this was supposed to be a straightforward navigational training exercise, combined along with 20 minutes of practice bombing, and it was scheduled to be flown by 5 Avenger aircrews. They were taking off from the NAS Ft. Lauderdale, which is located on the South Eastern coast of Florida, not too far North from Miami, where another Naval Air Station was located at the time.
The original idea for the build belonged to our dear friend, David Leigh Smith. @dirtylittlefokker
David, we miss you buddy !
The plane I chose to build from our private little group was an Eastern Aircraft built TBM-1C. It was Bureau Number 46325, with a fuselage number of “FT-81”. FT was the “official” designator for the Ft. Lauderdale Naval Air Station.
Here’s the information on the crew members. This information was obtained form the Flight 19 website so all credit should go there.
Pilot: 2nd LT Forrest James Gerber USMC
Forrest James “Jimmy” Gerber war born 1921 in New Ulm, Minnesota. He joined the United States Marine Corps January 1942, just after Pearl Harbor. Jimmy trained in San Diego, California, where he became Ground Marine, then transferred to Naval Station Bremerton, in Washington. He was soon transferred to Adak Army Field, in Alaska. At Adak, he was part of the operation to keep the Japanese from taking any other islands in the Aleutians chain: The Aleutian Islands Campaign (June 1942-August 1943). United States troops fought to remove Japanese garrisons established on a pair of U.S owned islands west of Alaska. In June 1942, Japan had seized the remote, sparsely inhabited islands of Attu and Kiska. A battle to reclaim Attu was launched on May 11, 1943, and completed following a final Japanese banzai charge on May 29. On 15 August 1943, an invasion force landed on Kiska in the wake of a sustained three-week barrage, only to discover the Japanese had abandoned the island on July 29. It was the only U.S soil Japan would claim during the war in the Pacific.
After the Aleutian campaign, Jimmy got recommended for officer training in naval aviation. He was transferred to NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, and in July 1945, he became a fully trained pilot in the United States Marine Corps. With this accomplishment, he was promoted to Officer. He was then transferred to NAS Miami, where he would join training Squadron 79. Jimmy would accumulate 360.5 hours of flight time, 61.8 were on the Avenger torpedo bombers alone. His final assignment would be at NAS Fort Lauderdale.
On the fateful day of 5 December 1945 at NAS Fort Lauderdale, Jimmy (along with 13 other crewmen), was assigned to a training squadron of 5 Avenger aircraft that would be known as Flight 19. The squadron was to perform a routine navigation exercise, and mock bombing run over the Hen and Chickens shoals in the Bahamas, and then return to the NAS Fort Lauderdale. The planes never returned. Neither did a PBM Mariner rescue seaplane with 13 crewmen aboard, that was dispatched to search for their lost colleagues. In total, 6 aircraft and 27 men disappeared that afternoon. A massive search was organized, and nothing was found. Their disappearance launched one of the largest air and sea searches in history, and began the legend of the Bermuda Triangle. To this date, Flight 19 remains one of the great aviation mysteries.
2nd Lt. Forrest James Gerber was the pilot on FT-81, a TBM-1C Avenger with BuNo 46325. There would be only one crewman with him: Pfc. William Lightfoot, USMCR. That day, the third crewman Corporal Allan Kosnar, had asked to be excused from this exercise. 2nd Lt. Forrest James Gerber was 24 yrs old.
Lieutenant Gerber’s plane was one man short… as his radio operator was excused from duty on that fateful day. It has been reported by some, that he had a “premonition” and didn’t feel good enough to fly. So this was the only plane out of the group that had a two man crew in place of a standard three man crew as the others had.
Gunner: PFC William Earl Lightfoot USMC
“Billy” Lightfoot’s mother never knew what happened to either of her sons. Billy’s brother, Lt. Eugene Lightfoot, disappeared over France in 1944, one year earlier…
The following information was copied from the Flight 19 website:
Pfc. William Earl Lightfoot came from a long family line of military men and women serving during the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Three members of the Lightfoot family would disappear while in service. William Earl Lightfoot was a Flight 19 crewmember aboard one of five planes that would vanish over the Atlantic on December 5, 1945. In a separate incident in 1944, his brother Eugene– a 2nd Lieutenant with the U.S Air Corps– was shot down in his plane, over the British Straits. William and Eugene were never found.
William was born in 1926 in Clayton, New Mexico, to Ora Lee & John Arnold Lightfoot (a Highway Engineer serving in both WWI and WWII). Ora and John had 6 children: Wanda, Geraldine and Norma, and boys Claude, Eugene and William.
In 1943 William joined the U.S Marine Corps in Lexington, Illinois. He continued with advanced training in TBM Avenger aircraft at the Naval Air Gunners School in NAS Miami (last recorded date was November 9, 1945). He was then transferred to NAS Fort Lauderdale just before his disappearance with Flight 19. Pfc. William E. Lightfoot, 19 years old, was the only crewman besides the Pilot– 2nd Lt. Forrest Gerber USMCR– aboard a TBM-1C Avenger (FT-81 from NAS Fort Lauderdale).
Eastern built various Grumman aircraft under a licensed agreement with Grumman. Grumman provided the assembly jigs and tooling to build Avengers to the Eastern Aircraft Company, which was at the time a branch of General Motors. During WW2 almost every company that manufactured things, had converted over to a wartime production environment. Even the Singer Sewing Machine Company was working and manufacturing things for the “War effort”, and they manufactured licensed built copies of the famous “Colt Model 1911, .45 ACP caliber pistol…
So FT-81 was essentially identical to a Grumman built machine, and only differed in two things. First of which, these Eastern Aircraft Avengers had the interiors painted completely using a color called “Interior Green”… where the Grumman built examples were painted in a Bronze Green (or Dull Dark Green) in the visible areas of the forward crew compartments. The only other difference was that these Eastern built aircraft were given a different designation. They were called a TBM, while the Grumman built planes were called TBF’s. This was done also with the Wildcat fighter, and they were called FM-1’s and FM-2’s. This allowed Grumman to build a bunch of the more famous F6F series of fighter we know as the “Hellcat”. Grumman was also hard at work designing (and building the F8F Bearcat) but this is another story in itself.
The Naval Air Station located here in Ft. Lauderdale was used to train numerous TBM / TBF Avenger crews during WW2.
Several famous aviators received their advanced training here in Ft. Lauderdale during World War 2. One of these Naval Aviators was destined to later become a President of the United States, and his name was George H. W. Bush.
I grew up in Central Florida on the East Coast near Daytona Beach. My Dad, who I mentioned was a Korean War combat veteran (in my recent posting about the dual Hudner and Brown F4U Corsair builds), worked as a First Mate on various deep sea fishing boats throughout the mid 1960’s and into the early 1970’s.
Dad told me stories about when they went out to sea, where the navigational compass in the boat would start spinning around and it didn’t work properly. This happened only when they were out deep into the area that is now considered as “Triangle Territory”. This compass anomaly didn’t happen all the time, only occasionally. My thoughts are there has to be some sort of magnetic iron deposits hidden under the ocean floor in this area.
Dad also told me about how his boat was almost capsized once by a “Rogue Wave” at sea… and this also happened in the area. The weather could go from very nice to a very bad storm in a matter of 15-30 minutes.
Here are some pictures I recently found at my Mom’s house. They took a picture of the catch and charter guests on each run they made offshore. I have more of these pictures from the earlier times, located somewhere at mom’s house. They’re much larger photos, and they’re also printed Black and White. You can see where one boat Dad worked on was called the “Blue Angel”, while another was called the “Laura K”. The dates are posted on the anchor that is always present and being held by one of the guests that went out that day… Dad was a hard working man, and one you didn’t want to cross. He’s standing on the far left side in each of these pictures. Dad also worked on a boat called the “Dandy L” and several shrimp boats, one of which was named the “Riptide”. It was a hard way to make a living… but he did it, seven days a week for years. Needless to say, we didn’t go fishing or eat much fish as a child.
My Avenger build is one of the original Accurate Miniatures TBF-1C kits. I sourced a set of Super Scale decals for it, and found someone selling these AM models as a “knock down” kit with copied instructions and the box was folded flat… These were sold at a deep discount, so I purchased several of them at the time. Look for more Avengers later down the road …
I changed this one up, by using a resin wing fold conversion set. This was made by a company called “Danger Boy” back in the early turn of the century…man that makes me sound old ! The resin wing fold parts were used in place of the supplied kit parts, and they fit very nicely. It’s also a very strong assembly, as each wing has a sturdy slotted section in the inner wing section. The outer resin wings plug into the opening. This is covered by a resin part that depicts the inner wing structures very nicely.
I also “borrowed” a set of zero length rocket launch rails from several 1/48 scale Hasegawa F6F Hellcat kits. These Ft. Lauderdale Avengers had rockets rails and “Yagi” radar antennae’s located under the wings. So I installed these parts on my build to make it look more authentic.
The engine supplied by Accurate Miniatures is a little gem in it’s own right.
I used Ultra Bright Chrome Bare Metal Foil on the shock absorber part of the landing gear.
The bomb bays are very nicely done on the Accurate Miniatures kit.
The tail wheel is also nicely depicted. You will notice the “stinger” machine gun is missing. These were removed after the war on these planes.
The cockpit is very nicely done right from the box. I installed a set of homemade seat belts for the pilot. This was my first attempt at doing this. They’re way too big and would look better on a larger 1/32 scale plane.
As nightfall approached, a Martin Mariner was launched to start looking for any signs of wreckage. Sadly it exploded shortly after it went airborne. I have personally talked to some “old timers” who lived here during the war. They told me they saw the Mariner explode in the air, not far off the coast of New Smyrna. The Gulf Stream is just off the coast here, and it is a very fast moving underwater current. It’s not surprising for something to drift underwater for miles before it rests on the bottom floor of the ocean.
The waters offshore of the East Coast of Florida are littered with numerous wrecks of ships and planes… Some of these wrecks are from WW2, as many planes were lost in the area because it was a training ground for pilots before they shipped overseas.
In the past I watched a TV program, where one person claimed that a flight of “unidentified aircraft” were observed on radar, flying on shore near the coast of St Augustine, shortly after it became dark. The flight was then reported to disappear somewhere in the Okefenokee Swamp, which is located in North Florida, and Southern Georgia.
Did they make landfall only to disappear in an unforgiving swamp ?
I have spent some time hunting in the swamps of Florida… It is not a very hospitable place to be for a long period of time, especially if a person was severely injured.
Is this what ultimately happened to Flight 19 after all ? God only knows… Most importantly, these men have not been forgotten.
Here’s a link to Chuck Villanueva’s FT-28 build… which was flown by flight leader Taylor.
The rest of the Flight, including the PBM Mariner which exploded offshore later the same day, was built by
FT-28 by Chuck Villanueva, @uscusn
FT-36 and FT-117 by Tom Bebout, @tom-bebout
FT-3 by Paul Barber, @yellow10
PBM Mariner by Gary Sausmikat. @gwskat
We all had a lot of fun building these models, and it truly was a world wide effort that spanned the globe.
As always, comments are encouraged.