On Tuesday morning, December 5, 2006, Lieutenant Jimmy McGrath, a fresh faced 22 year old, Naval academy graduate, maneuvered his fighter jet across the tarmac at the US Naval Air Station Florida to the designated runway. Behind him, awaiting their tower clearance orders were the four other members of Jimmy's squadron. The men, boys really, some with peach fuzz beards, were training for assignment in Dubai, where they could fly sorties over Afghanistan and Iraq. All five pilots had been training here in Florida for several weeks, their high stress air combat training punctuated by wild Florida nights of heavy drinking and non-stop womanizing.
The locals were used to it, having hosted these flyboys since Lauderdale nearly burst at the seams with newly drafted airmen, training in T-6s, and SNJ fighter trainers during World War 2. McGrath readied his jet at the flight line and after a final instrument check, increased throttle towards rotation speed, rumbling down the runway and easing back on the stick until the two ton plane defied gravity and began a steady ascent into the clouds hanging over the azure blue ocean. McGrath banked the plane right and felt momentary g-force pressure as he rolled away from the take off flight path to allow the next jet to leave the Earth."Hee-haw" shrieked through Jimmy's mic, as his wingman, Bobby-Joe Nicholson followed McGrath into the heavens. Nicholson grew up in tobacco rich North Carolina back country, and his accent and redneck colloquialisms made training a lot easier for everybody.
Nicholson was followed by Andy Grayson, from Wichita, then Angel Fernandez of the Bronx, and finally Ron Fontaine, a graduate of the Donnelly Housing Projects in Detroit. Fontaine was voted by his peers the last person anyone wanted to meet in a back alley for a fight. He was also the most accomplished "stick man" among them. Despite his "officer and gentleman status, Fontaine's 6 foot 2 inch muscular frame and tattooed biceps gave off a menacing appearance respected and feared by the other young pilots.
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The five jets screamed through the blue sky, each plane's engine creating enormous jet trails flowing behind, until they maneuvered into formation. The planes floated in the air next to each other as if dangling on elastic strings, their high-powered engines, flying in unison, making it appear as if they were not even moving.
"OK guys," McGrath bellowed," lets head south over the ocean and then take a bearing of 26 degrees, 3 minutes north, then 80 degrees, 7 minutes west toward Hen and Chickens Shoals." Although he did not mention it, the day's flight path would eventually take them into them into heart of the Devils Triangle.
The Devils Triangle, or Bermuda Triangle as it was sometimes called, was a triangular patch of ocean in the Atlantic stretching from the Florida Keys south towards the Bermuda Islands. As every school kid knows, the Triangle's legend of mystery encompasses numerous claims of disappearing ships and aircraft.
None of the men gave any serious thought to the Triangle legend, not many people did anymore since the quasi-pulp fiction exposes published in the 1970s tried to give pseudo-scientific credence to alleged supernatural happenings in that part of the Atlantic Ocean. However, they all knew about it.
"Where to skip,?" crackled over the airwaves from Ron Fontaine's cockpit.
"We're headed to the old junked freighter for some bombing and strafing practice," responded Lieutenant McGrath.
"And Ron," said the flight leader, "this time wait for my signal before you starting locking in on the target."
"Shiiiit," Fontaine screeched into his headset, and the other pilots chuckled at the exchange between the two men.
"Hey Lieutenant, this time can we go in youngest pilot first,?" said Fernandez.
"What is it with you guys from New Yawk," drawled Nicholson, "y'all think you're born to tell the rest of us what to do."
"Hey, Tobacco boy," I saw a guy like you once in the Bronx Zoo, behind bars," Fernandex replied with a laugh.
"Aw can it, you two," shouted McGrath, "and tighten up the formation. Fernandez and Grayson pick it up back there."
"Aye, aye sir," came the reply, in unison.
The old freighter had been towed to this classified location in 1945, near the war's end, and for 60 years had, along with several other decommissioned vessels, been used to train young hot-shot pilots in the art of air war.
"All right, in about 60 second we'll come up on the shoals bomb site, Nicholson and Fontaine, break right and take the first pass. Remember, nose guns first, then use one Sidewinder missile each the second time around," McGrath ordered.
The silver jets streaked through the cloud-filled blue sky like sharp knives slicing through warm biscuits.
The two pilots took the lead and banked towards the abandoned and anchored old ship and locked onto the target with their computerized weapons guidance system. With today's technology they could hit a small object from a distance of a mile or more, but their state side training still required close target approaches. The planes would come within 500 yards of the target on the first pass.
The three other pilots kept a distance to watch the show and wait their turn, as determined by their flight leader, Lieutenant McGrath.
Nicholson and Fontaine took turns firing their 30 Millimeter, seven barrel nose guns at the old tub, blasting holes in the rusting hull at apace of 3900 rounds a minute, which exploded with a fury of sparks, smoke and flying debris as they roared past
"Nice work guys," McGrath said.
"Commander Taylor, my fuel is low, and my instruments are still acting up, maybe we should be heading West" crackled across his headphones in response.
"Come back," McGrath replied. Is that you Fernandez. Stop the bullshit, will ya."
"Not me, Lieutenant," Fernandez replied, "Don't expect me to give you a promotion," he laughed.
"Cut it out," McGrath said, as he scanned the skies around him, "are one of you guys having instrument problems?"
"Everyone check in," he commanded.
"Nicholson here, I'm fine Lieutenant."
"This is Fontaine, Jimmy, no problems with my bird."
"This is Grayson, sir, it wasn't me."
"Well who the hell is playing around." McGrath shouted.
"I can't see any land, sir" came the voice again. This time someone else responded.
"Boys, this is Taylor, don't worry, we left the Georgia swamp area 30 miles back, and we should be coming up on the Keys shortly,"
"Who's on this frequency, identify yourselves, " Lt. McGrath said into his helmet mic.
He scanned his instrument radar panel and again looked outside his cockpit canopy but did not see any other planes in the bright, clear, mid-day sky.
Without answering McGrath, the unknown chatter continued.
"Hey Brownie, if we ever find our way back, I'm gonna propose to that nurse I met last week at the USO Holiday dance."
"Yeah, yeah sure, the one whose feet you kept stepping on during the Glen Miller piece?"
"Shiiit, Glenn Miller, what the fuck is that all about," Fontaine said.
"Hey, one of you guys playing some sort of trick on our boy Jimmy," Fernandez laughed.
"Yeah, one of those old radio shows, or some shit like that," Fontaine replied.
"I don't know about you but it's freaking me out," said Grayson. "Anyway, whoever it is mentioned Lauderdale, so it's probably some old Navy guys out for a joyride. I see those guys come out on Sunday's sometimes and fly around in those old radial engine trainers."
"Yeah, but it ain't Sunday, and what they all doin' on our radio frequency," drawled Nicholson.
"All right, all right, forget about it. It's probably just somebody playing around," bellowed McGrath, "lets get ready for the second run. One missile this time."
Fontaine and Grayson broke away from the formation again and headed toward the target This time they programmed their guidance system to fire one AIM-9 Sidewinder missile each at a distance of a half mile.
Within seconds each jet shimmied slightly as their missiles dislodged from under their wings and moved off in an arc of white smoke toward the old half-sunken freighter.
The missile warheads were loaded with only small amounts of explosives so that they would create damage but not completely obliterate the boat, leaving it sufficiently intact for further training runs.
The two missiles struck, on forward one aft, almost simultaneously, and a column of smoke, debris, and sea water rose high into the air.
As the mix fell back again, the pilots who were all observing the action noticed small black objects off in the distance, beyond the target area, moving slowly toward them.
"What the fuck is that," sad Fernandez into his mic.
Grayson and Fontaine, who had pulled up and over the target, getting a birds-eye view of the damage they caused, rolled across the sky, unknowingly hurtling their jets directly in the path of the shadowy, black objects.
Some three miles away, the rest of the squadron watched as Fontaine and Grayson blew past the objects and then banked and ascended up and to the left.
As they had flown by, in the seconds they were adjacent to the objects, both pilots had seen something that had startled them.
Grayson and Fontaine had peered into the cockpits of a squadron of World War 2 naval fighters, "Avengers", each operated by a two or three man crew, a pilot facing forward, sometimes with a co-pilot, and a gunner operating a ball turret weapon aft.
"Shiiit," Fontaine yelled into his helmet mic, "did you see that Grayson."
"What the hell are those old warbirds doing way out here, the air museum operates outta Pensacola," Grayson replied.
"Hell if I know," Fontaine said, "but they were sure as shittin surprised by us."
"Damn lucky we didn't clip their wings."
"Hey skip," Fontaine said, calling out to Lieutenant McGrath, " you won't believe what's headed your way."
"I see 'em, Fontaine, we're gonna give those old buckets some room so we don't blow their tails off with our engines," McGrath replied.
The remaining jets elevated their flight path to avoid the oncoming relics of the past, shooting with Mach speed into the lower stratosphere.
"Commander, did you see that?," said one of the warbird pilots.
"I sure did, Tex," replied Taylor, I don't know what the hell it was but I saw a red, white and blue star on it's side so it must be ours."
"Hell yes," Tex's gunner cried, "we must be close to the Shoals now. I see the target ship they towed out this way a few weeks ago."
"I bet that was some experimental jet the Nazis were using, I saw a few being worked on at the base. Just come over from Germany last week for testing," said one of the Avenger pilots.
OK, men, settle down" Commander Taylor ordered, "set a course for the direction of the target vessels and let's get these tired birds home."
"Hey, my instruments are working again, Commander," said one of the pilots.
"Mine too, Chuck," cried another.
"Looks like we'll make it back after all," the Avenger flight leader said, "and not a moment too soon with these near empty gas gauges. Keep a tight formation as we head in boys. Follow my lead. Last one on the deck has to kiss Charlie McCarthy's bald head."
The jet pilots listened, without a word, to the entire conversation going on below them. Fontaine and Grayson had rejoined the group and they were all now headed due East at 400 miles an hour at an elevation of 25,000 feet.
Finally, Fernandez spoke up.
"You catch that, Lieutenant."
""Probably some re-enactors," Lt. McGrath replied, although his voice had lost its usual firm, confident tone.
"What the hell they doin' out here, Jimmy," said Nicholson, "don't make no sense at all."
McGrath had to agree. This area was restricted to Naval air traffic. He thought he better contact the base and let them know what was going on.
"Flight leader Bravo calling Lauderdale, come in Lauderdale."
The air was quiet.
"Flight leader Bravo calling Lauderdale, come in Lauderdale"
"Hey Jimmy," Fontaine said, "my computer just went down."
"Hey me too," Nicholson shouted.
The five jets flew in tight formation through the clouds as chaos erupted in their cockpits.
"Flight leader Chuck Taylor calling Lauderdale, come in Lauderdale."
"This is Lauderdale, where the heck you guys been?" came the reply. The Base Commander's been going crazy. They even called the War Department."
"You guys can tell the patrols to come back, we're a little late but we're home, " replied Commander Taylor.
On the stormy evening of December 5, 1945, five TBM Avengers, their heavy radial engines roaring across the Florida sky, approached US Naval Air Station in tight formation. One by one the gleaming blue fighter planes lowered their flaps, cut off their throttles and eased their tired metal frames onto the tarmac. As they rolled off the runway, they passed rows of B-17 bombers, fresh from the battle over Europe, being serviced and refit for duty in the Pacific against the Japanese.
Worried ground crews raced in gray jeeps toward each plane, dropping heavy wooden blocks under the wheels, and climbing up on the wings to draw back the heavy canopies to release the human cargo.
The fourteen crew members scrambled to the airfield grounds and embraced one another, removing their yellow Mae West vests and crush caps, giving thanks that what was lost was once again found.
Meanwhile, miles away, five jet fighters crossed the sky into an ethereal graveyard. They hurtled at supersonic speed into an endless vortex of space and time without up or down, without time or space, without any connection to the world they left behind.
At NORAD, desperate computer messages flooded the communications room alerting the men and women who worked there of a crisis in the making.
An Admiral rushed into the room in time to confront a telecommunications staffer who was the most recent recipient of the tragic news.
"Sir," the young ensign said to the astonished man," Flight 19 is missing."
"Get me Rumsfeld," the Admiral replied.
Two wars, 6 decades apart. Two tragedies, dance partners in a macabre story with ironic parallels. The past and the future, melded together, and separated, one mystery solved, another one just beginning.
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