Spooky Skies

Just in time for Halloween, a collection of aviation mysteries

Spiders at 30,000 Feet: A Louise Bourgeouis sculpture outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. (Brian Colson)

The Mystery of Flight 19

(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

You remember the 1977 blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The story begins with French scientist Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) and his American interpreter David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) arriving in Mexico’s Sonoran Desert, where they find five pristine Grumman TBM Avengers sitting in the sand. As the numbers are read off the engine blocks, Laughlin becomes confused. “Tell me something—what the hell is happening here?” he calls out. “It’s Flight number 19,” someone replies. “19 what?” Laughlin asks. “It’s that training mission from the Naval Air Station at Fort Lauderdale,” says the man. “They were doing target runs on an old hulk.” “Who flies crates like these any more?” asks Laughlin. “No one,” comes the reply. “These planes were reported missing in 1945.”

Director Steven Spielberg used an actual aviation accident for the opening scene of his iconic movie. Fourteen airmen and their five aircraft disappeared on December 5, 1945, during a navigation training flight. Accident investigators speculated that the flight leader may have become disoriented, and the aircraft crashed into the sea after running out of fuel. The five airplanes were never located. Eerily, a PBM patrol aircraft, launched at 7:30 p.m., December 5 to search for the squadron, was not seen or heard from after take-off, reports Naval History & Heritage Command.

Photo: Screen grab from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."


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