Book titles tend to be prone to hyperbole, but this 1975 book, one of my favourite books, does exactly what it says on the cover. It simply explains the Bermuda Triangle phenomena, and also teaches a few lessons in critical thinking that deeply impressed 10 year old me when I first read it.
I grew up in the 1970’s, and books were my sweets or chocolate, While I used to spend hours riding around the farm or climbing trees, or playing in puddles where leaves formed ships and carried cargoes of flower petals and little stones over muddy seas to imagined nations – but at night I used to read pretty much anything I could lay my hands on. My older siblings (the closest is 14 years older than me) left all manner of books – and as I got older my pocket money was spent on books from the second hand book shops in Hatter Street, Bury, now sadly all gone.
Eventually I stumbled upon Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda Triangle, and I was instantly hooked! I had a friend called Splodge – well that was not what his parents called him but his nickname, but I won’t embarrass him by giving his real name – and we both read through that book time and time again, usually with me reading and him looking words up when we were puzzled. There weren’t many kids at Ingham Primary – I think 7 the year I left, and it closed as a result – but we were probably the only ones to ever sit around talking about magnetic pole reversal, which we felt had to be involved somehow in any explanation.
Now we were not alone – Charles Berlitz (yes he of the language school) had written The Bermuda Triangle (1974) one of the biggest sellers of the 1970’s (20 million copies in 30 languages), and while it never reached quite the level of influence of Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, it was a massive influence on popular culture. There was a film (I never saw it!) in 1978, and it even made Top of the Pops in 1981, via the awesome Barry Manilow. If you are not at work, you must stop and watch this now 😉 You will thank me for it!
“Bermuda Triangle makes people disappear…” That video just makes me blush!
In 1981 Splodge and I were at middle school in Bury, and while still friends my obsession with the boardgame Diplomacy and roleplaying games was leading us in different directions. One day however I found a book called The Bermuda Triangle – Solved, by Lawrence David Kusche, and I bought it and read it. It taught me a valuable lesson in critical thinking, and made me far more sceptical. (I soon after acquired a book that demolished von Daniken – I’ll have to dig that one out!)
The Bermuda Triangle – Solved
Last week I was lucky enough to find a copy again in a second hand book shop, and curiously enough on rereading it, it does not contain the passage I (mis)remember as coming from it about the Bermuda Triangle being a HUGE area, and one of the busiest air and seaways in the world, so statistically the number of disappearances is no more than one would expect, if that. Nor does it mention the possibility of piracy and vessels and planes being stolen for drug running. While both may be factors in some of the cases examined – around 50 chronological short chapters, with a demolition of Ivan T. Sandersen’s Vile Vortices and a piece on The Devils Sea off Japan at the end – Kusche would actually not be impressed. He rejects ALL theories for the Bermuda Triangle phenomena, because he does not think that is such a thing (in fact he demonstrates beautifully there isn’t) and because he advocates rejecting all theoretical top down approaches.
What Kusche does is take each case as a *separate incident*. And then he does something quite extraordinary – rather than as “mystifiers” usually do simply copying stories from earlier books on the subject, Kusche looked up the original documents, wrote letters to the Coast Guard and other parties, and dug out contemporary newspaper articles. He seems to have also developed a pretty good knowledge of ocean currents, compasses, navigation, and all manner of other subjects – by looking stuff up, and writing to people.
Kusche was (I’m guessing he is retired now) a librarian, and he dedicates his book to all the other librarians he worked with using Inter Library Loans, and to the Arizona librarians who were his colleagues and who kept being asked for books on the Bermuda Triangle. His book came out the year after Berlitz’s, and while he is careful not to mention or critique individual authors – he mentions The Legend – it is clear Berlitz is one of his main targets.
So what did Kusche find? Basically that a lot of authors are a) lazy or b) dishonest. Some cases (two or three) seems to be entirely imaginary – simply made up. None of them are very interesting or significant though. A few of the vessels listed as missing in much Bermuda Triangle lore were actually found, safe and well, with crews intact – they were just delayed, out of radio contact, or rather prematurely reported missing in one case by a slightly over anxious son.
Where the vessels or planes are missing, time and time again there is little mystery. In a surprising number of cases some debris was found, though in many none. In a LOT of cases there was terrible weather at the time of the loss – not mentioned in most accounts now. What is very common is for the Triangle authors to make things sound more mysterious than they actually were. Planes were within sight of the airfield and just vanished. Weather conditions were perfect when ships vanish half way through a message. In short the writers have allowed truth to give way to dramatic flourishes, and they sometimes actually get “improved” by further invented details by subsequent authors, though not always. These details always serve the purpose of making the story weirder, more interestingly mysterious.
The newspaper accounts throw up all manner of little errors that have crept in to the stories. Kusche opens each chapter with “The Legend” – a composite account of how the story is told in books on the supernatural – and then gives the facts. A few cases took place nowhere near what we would consider the Bermuda Triangle – one occurred in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico, several a lot closer in the Gulf of Mexico but others all over the North Atlantic, right up to within a few hundred miles of Ireland. I was surprised at the inclusion of Donald Crowhurst and the Teignmouth Electron – according to Kusche one author depicts this as a mysterious disappearance, rather than the clear case of suicide it was!
At the end of the book Kusche summarises his findings, and points out the only clear conclusuon. Prioperly examined on a case by case basis, there is no need to postulate a “Bermuda Triangle effect”. There are certainly some intriguing mysteries, like the Carroll A Deering, or the loss of Star Ariel – but there is no need to invoke a common cause for the losses.
Interestingly, Kusche provides details that even someone like me who has watched many documentaries and read much of what has been written on these matters had missed. For example, I always wondered why Taylor, Flight Leader on Flight 19 never switched radio frequencies to the clear emergency frequency when requested, or why when a radio location fix was established fairly early in the crisis he was not able to find his way back to Fort Lauderdale. The answers are given by Kusche – one of the Flight could not access the emergency frequency, so Taylor kept everyone on 4800 to keep his planes together, and the station that got the directional fix on Flight 19 could not reach them, and their teletype was not working – so those who *were* taking to Flight 19 did not know where they were to pass the information on! (If you don’t know about the events of December 5th 1945, look at Flight 19 here).
Now Kusche has to be fair been perhaps a little superseded by Wikipedia – I’m guessing much of his book is now cited on the individual wiki enties for the cases – yet for sheer encyclopaedic dogged critical thinking and hard work his efforts will always be impressive. It is a little masterpiece of scepticism, and one that curiously you rarely hear big name Skeptics invoke, perhaps because so few people care about the Bermuda Triangle now?
A Curious Foreshadowing
One case however did really strike me – and it’s one I know well from various books, Star Ariel. Star Ariel was flying from Bermuda to Kingston, Jamaica, and a short distance in to the flight announced it was signing off from Bermuda and would be signing on to Kingston. Kingston never heard from it — and in fact it never radioed Nassau either. This strikes Kusche as odd. I don’t know how to use my paint program on this PC, but I will attempt a rough map…
Something odd here. Apparently most pilots worked Bermuda much longer, then worked Nassau mid flight, or more likely stayed in touch with Bermuda then swapped to Kingston at the mid-point. Yet at 9.42am, the Star Ariel just beyond the 30 degree N line radioed “I am changing frequency to MRX” [Kingston]. Why? Kusche is puzzled, and so am I. The plane has not made contact with Kingston, and was 100 miles in to a 1,100 mile flight. Then the quote that stopped me dead for a moment
“The possibility of an aircraft signing off on one frequency, and not reporting on the new one does not appear to be have been guarded against by the procedures laid down by the highest authorities up till this time”
Those words come from the 1948 Ministry of Civil Aviation report on the loss of Star Ariel, and are cited by Kusche. When I read them as a child they meant nothing to me, and if I had read them a year ago they would have provoked little interest.
Then of course it happened again – the jet MH370 vanished under exactly these circumstances, going missing in the switch-over from one air traffic system to another. I’m not going to get excited by conspiracy theory, but it seems the 1948 advice was never acted upon, and it does make me wonder if Star Ariel could have been deliberately lost, though why I can not imagine?
The year before Star Tiger had vanished on the Azores to Bermuda run, and various theories have been put forward, often revolving around navigational failure (Kusche downplays this an unlikely) or defective cabin heaters causing a fire.
The important thing is, when you take away all the “paranormal” mystery, there is plenty of genuine mystery left to go around!
This remains an excellent book, and an excellent sceptical work. Kusche explains why compasses spin, and many other minor mysteries – and curiously the first “lost in a fog” Piper account, that preceded later electronic fog encounters, actually appears to be a fictional case. The book is filled with interesting snippets even for the armchair expert, and is certainly thought provoking, even 40 years after it was published. Highly recommended
I have not seen the Prometheus Books new edition from 1985 – buy it here!