‘Plausible Solutions’ To Triangle Mysteries

January 31, 2011

1avro_tudorA leading British investigative reporter may have solved one of the so-called Bermuda Triangle’s most mysterious disappearances — the loss of the Star Tiger” commercial aircraft, which vanished en route to Bermuda exactly 63 years ago.

Tom Mangold, a celebrated British Broadcasting Corporation journalist and the author of critically acclaimed books on subjects ranging from biological warfare to the execution of the Russian royal family in 1918, says he might have a plausible explanation for the disappearance of the “Star Tiger” on January 30, 1948 and its sister aircraft the “Star Ariel” almost exactly a year later.

Scores of ships and planes are reputed to have vanished without trace over the decades in a vast triangular area of ocean bounded by Bermuda, Florida and Puerto Rico. But along with the disappearance of the US Navy’s Flight 19, the losses of the “Star Tiger” and “Star Ariel” are two of the most enduring and best known Bermuda Triangle mysteries.

Mr. Mangold’s recent reviews of the “Star Tiger” and “Star Ariel” cases for a 10-part BBC radio series concluded human error was a more likely explanation for the two disappearances — lost along with 51 passengers and crew — than supernatural or extraterrestrial causes.

The “Star Tiger” is likely to have run out of fuel while the “Star Ariel” probably suffered from catastrophic technical failure as a result of poor design.

“Sixty years ago, commercial flights from London to Bermuda were new and perilous,” said Mr. Mangold in an essay which accompanied his BBC series. “It would require a refuelling stop on the Azores before the 2,000-mile flight to Bermuda, which at that time was the longest non-stop commercial overseas flight in the world.”

The planes — propellor-driven Avro Tudor Mark IVs [pictured above] – would have been operating at the limit of their range. Today planes arriving in Bermuda have sufficient reserve fuel to divert to the US East Coast 700 miles away, in case of emergency.

bermuda triangle map

British South American Airways (BSAA), which operated the route, had a grim safety record, said Mr. Mangold . In three years it had had 11 serious accidents and lost five planes with 73 passengers and 22 crew members killed.

On 30 January 1948, a BSAA Avro Tudor IV plane disappeared without trace. Twenty-five passengers and a crew of six were on board ‘Star Tiger’. No bodies or wreckage were found.

On the morning of January 28, 1948, the crew and passengers boarded ‘Star Tiger’ at Lisbon only to be forced to return to the airport waiting room when the pilot, Captain Brian W. McMillan, told them that the port inner engine needed some attention. The aircraft took off 2½ hours later, and made what was intended to be a 75 minute refuelling stop at Santa Maria in the Azores. However, the reported weather was so poor that Captain McMillan decided they should stop over until the next day.

The following day, January 29, “Star Tiger” took off for the next leg of its flight to Bermuda despite strong winds. The aircraft never arrived here.

Despite an intensive search by US Air Force planes stationed in Bermuda, no trace of the ‘Star Tiger’ was ever found.

The official investigation into the disappearance concluded: “It may truly be said that no more baffling problem has ever been presented What happened in this case will never be known and the fate of ‘Star Tiger’ must remain an unsolved mystery.”

But Mr. Mangold said a number of clues in the official accident report reveal the “Star Tiger” had encountered problems before it reached the Azores.

The aircraft’s heater was notoriously unreliable and had failed en route, and one of the compasses was found to be faulty. Probably to keep the plane warmer, the pilot had decided to fly the whole transatlantic route very low, at 2,000 feet, burning fuel at a faster rate.

On approaching Bermuda, “Star Tiger” was a little off course and had been flying an hour later than planned.

In addition, the official Ministry of Civil Aviation report considered that the headwinds faced by “Star Tiger” may have been much stronger than those forecast. This would have caused the fuel to burn more quickly.

“Flying at 2,000 feet they would have used up much more fuel,” said Eric Newton, one of the Ministry of Civil Aviation’s most senior air accident investigators, who reviewed the scenario for the BBC. “At 2,000 feet you’d be leaving very little altitude for manoeuvre. In any serious in-flight emergency they could have lost their height in seconds and gone into the sea.”

Whatever happened to the plane, it was sudden and catastrophic — there was no time to send an emergency signal.

The Avro Tudor IV was a converted warplane that was eventually taken out of passenger service because of its poor safety record. Only BSAA continued to fly the aircraft.

Gordon Store was chief pilot and manager of operations at BSAA. In an interview he said he had no confidence in the Tudor’s engines.

“Its systems were hopeless… all the hydraulics, the air-conditioning equipment and the recycling fans were crammed together underneath the floor without any thought. There were fuel-burning heaters that would never work,” he said.

Almost a year to the day after the disappearance of the “Star Tiger”, another Avro Tudor IV belonging to BSAA vanished between Bermuda and Jamaica.

Exactly one hour after departure from Bermuda on January 17, 1949, the pilot of the ‘Star’ Ariel sent a routine communication of his position. But then the plane vanished without trace at 18,000 feet.

According to experts, this would have required a sudden catastrophe reported Mr. Mangold.

Again, no wreckage, debris or bodies were ever found.

Fuel starvation at that height was not plausible, the weather report had been good, and pilot error was ruled out.

The plane’s poor design may well have been to blame, according to Don Mackintosh, a former BSAA Tudor IV pilot. The cabin heater mounted underneath the floor where the co-pilot sat is his prime suspect.

At the time, aircraft heater technology was still in its infancy.

“The heater bled aviation fuel on to a hot tube – and was also fairly close to the hydraulic pipes,” said Mr. Mackintosh. “A pressure switch should have allowed the heater to operate when it was in the air but it was unreliable and was often deliberately short-circuited by staff, allowing the pilot manual control.

“The switch prevented inflammable fuel from flowing, but if the heater was switched on manually, gas that may have collected could have ignited. ”

Captain Peter Duffey, a former BSAA pilot who went on to become a captain of British Airways Concorde, also believes that the proximity of the heater and the hydraulic pipes was significant.

“My theory is that hydraulic vapour escaped from a leak, which got on to a hot heater and caused an explosion,” he said.

Mr. Newton’s report came to a similar conclusion: “If the heater had caught fire down below the floorboards then it could have developed to a catastrophic state before the crew knew anything about it.

“There was no automatic fire extinguisher to put it out like there is nowadays. There was no alarm where the heater was stored… so no-one would know, possibly until it was too late.”

The official accident investigation discovered that because of a communications error, search and rescue teams were not despatched until seven and a half hours later.

By then what was left of the plane and the bodies would have sunk.

The report on the disappearance of the first plane, the “S’tar Tiger”, said something which, because it could be easily misinterpreted, helped the accident achieve notoriety.

In a moment of philosophical conjecture, the investigators mused that maybe “some external cause may (have) overwhelm(ed) both man and machine”.

Those comments from sober-suited British Civil Servants opened the floodgates for conspiracy theorists, hack journalists and mischief makers, said Mr. Mangold, adding to the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle.

Recently superstars Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt were both said to be planning new movies with plots which centre around the Bermuda Triangle.

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