The series dives into an indisputably popular topic, but its producers reach for so much material that it ends up leaving a lot unsaid … and so, substance itself gets lost in the infamous territory that ‘In Search Of’ seeks to cover.
This is an ongoing series about In Search Of, the television show that ran from 1977–1982. Think of this as a viewer’s companion to the program. I’m reviewing every episode, digging into the assertions and sources depicted. For more background on this project, have a look at the first installment at Retroist.
‘The Bermuda Triangle’*
Air Date: April 27, 1977
Alan Landsburg Productions
Written: Alan Landsburg
Produced: Alan Landsburg
Directed: H.G. Stark
Photography: Tony Mitchell
Music: Laurin Rinder and Mike Lewis
Researchers: Herb Rabinowitz, Jeanne Russo
Acknowledgments: United States Coast Guard (7th District, Miami, Florida) ; (11th District, Marina Del Ray, California) ; The United States Navy Department of Information
The production company brings out the big guns for what is the first episode of the series to approach an indisputably high-profile topic — The Bermuda Triangle (the name of the region derives from Vincent H. Gaddis’ article in Argosy, back in 1964). This was absolutely one of my favorites as a kid in the 1970s and 1980s, watching these as reruns. But there’s a problem with it, when it comes to my adult perspective. Such are the perils of revisiting youth! Readers, beware.
Now, on to the details of episode four.
A director is given for the first time since episode one, and it’s H.G. Stark returning. Alan Landsburg, series producer, takes on both script and production duties.
Two other changes of note: Tony Mitchell, cinematographer, replaces Paul Desatoff. Mitchell’s work is fine, but he’s no Desatoff. If you look at the first three episodes’ non-stock camerawork, you’ll see what I mean — the way the lens crawls along a wall or a length of wiring; Desatoff brings even the B-roll material to a kind of life. And so, with him goes — at least temporarily — a significant atmospheric touch. Second note, Mike Lewis, one half of the musical team on In Search Of, is again credited with shortened form of his name; it was W. Michael Lewis in the previous two instances.
We start in a small-airplane cockpit, as Leonard Nimoy, our narrator, tells us that a mysterious phenomenon preys on those who enter the coastal area of southern Florida.
“More than 1,000 lives have been lost under circumstances that cause veteran sailors to become uneasy traversing these waters,” Nimoy says. The camera dips under the waves. An ocean bed sways, fish and flora in the currents. Nimoy continues: “No one has found a satisfactory answer, but somewhere in this region, between the sea and the sky, lurks the solution to the mystery of The Bermuda Triangle.”
After the credits, post-credits mini-teaser, and disclaimer, we arrive at a marina. What appear to be Coast Guard officials are responding to a call. Most such calls are routine, says Nimoy, inexperienced weekend navigators getting themselves into trouble. But then there are the ones that end in more disturbing ways, events that are not so easily explained.
Back in the studio, Nimoy tells us recent media coverage of The Bermuda Triangle has included suggestions that science needn’t concern itself with vanishing vessels in the region. It is an assertion, Nimoy says, that leaves out the personal experiences of the people who’ve encountered strange phenomenon.
Cut to a ship at night. A foghorn drones.
Frank Flynn, once a lieutenant on a cutter in the Coast Guard, describes an uncanny encounter in the Triangle. Close to one-thirty, one morning, he and his crew observed a solid green line across their instrument scope. Shortly thereafter, he says, a gray vaporous wall appeared before them on the ocean — a misty mass extending upwards as far as the eye could see under the otherwise clear-and-starry skies. As the vessel crossed the boundary of the wall, the ship’s lights disappeared in the gloom and the engine room reported pressure problems. The crew’s throats grew irritated; men had difficulty breathing. And then they were through it, back in the clear. No explanation ever emerged, regarding what they’d encountered.
We cut to a single-engine plane at takeoff. Bob Spielman, flyer and renter of planes in the region, talks about a tragedy claiming five of his customers. On a day of perfect flying weather, Miami suddenly lost contact with the loaner craft. The flight was lost. The wreckage was later found and showed signs of some “terrific force” that apparently wrenched one wing from the fuselage.
And we visit with Ray Smithers, an amateur Triangle researcher who, as a radio disc jockey on WFtL, in Fort Lauderdale, got a strange call on his late-night show when it addressed the subject. After numerous cut-off lines, on the next circuit that worked Smithers’ caller said, “Every living thing on this planet has an aura. The area that you are discussing now is the aura of this planet. It is a communicative channel through which the Millionth Council governs this planet. Anyone going into this area when the communicative channel is open does not disappear, but they are in the timeless void. They are all perfectly alive and well. It is the only area through which the Council can communicate with this planet.” Smithers says that listeners later complained to the station of physical and emotional distress following the broadcast.
The narrative skims some additional historical incidents: disappearances of British naval vessels in the Eighteenth Century; the loss of the Marine Sulphur Queen in the Twentieth Century, then also the disappearance of the ore-hauling Proteus in 1941. The Scorpion, a United States Navy submarine, vanished in 1968. An Air Force C-119 disappeared from the skies over the Triangle in 1965.
Finally, in this episode, there is the well-known vanishing of Flight 19 in 1945. Carlton Hamilton was staffing a Miami air-traffic control tower the day it happened. They just disappeared, he says. Hamilton goes on to describe a day when his Beechcraft plane for a time lost all lights and navigational instruments in the skies off Miami Beach. He says he believes something is at work within “that Devil’s Triangle,” but only at low altitudes — below, say, 10,000 feet — a force possibly coming from underwater.
“Somewhere beneath the Atlantic may lie the solution to The Bermuda Triangle mystery,” Nimoy says. If we are to find it, however, we must keep searching. The unknown force, he concludes, “is begging for investigation.”
Developments? Debunked? Debate?
A very recent theory surrounding missing vessels on the waters of The Bermuda Triangle has to do with methane. Based on phenomenon observed along the seabeds off Norway, massive underwater methane explosions in the Bermuda Triangle region could cause a ship to sink with devastating speed. Likewise, National Geographic notes, massive bursts of the gas into the air could create the kind of turbulence that disrupts aircraft (and perhaps irritate throats like Frank Flynn recounts when it came to his crew).
That being said, the 1977 episode is packed with details and there’s a lot to cover. And so, as always, the deeper info I was able to turn up about the sources and incidents cited follows.
- Frank Flynn: Flynn served aboard the Coast Guard cutter Yamacraw in 1956, the time he says his experience happened. Flynn passed away in 2006. While I think the methane theory is worth considering, some writers have attached the description of encounters with instrument-disrupting vapors and mists to high-voltage phenomena. Accounts of a gray mist resulting from such tests emerge from the assertions of one John Hutchison, a self-styled scientist (and, more recently, a 9/11 conspiracist).
- Bob Spielman: I haven’t identified any one individual who is definitely the Bob Spielman in this episode. I’ve reached out to one potential match — and if turns out to be the same person, readers are in for an ironic postscript to the story presented back in 1977.
- Ray Smithers: This episode was not the last time Smithers worked with Alan Landsburg Productions. He’d appear again, helping to reenact the WFtL call, in Secrets of the Bermuda Triangle, directed by Donald Brittain and In Search Of’s own Laurin Render (the movie was also steered by Howard Lipstone, the series’ executive in charge of production). Alan Landsburg published a book with the same title, the same year, part of a run of volumes that John Scoleri looks at in this helpful article.
- The WFtL Caller: There has been, of course, speculation surrounding the identity of the caller to Ray Smithers’ show. Gian Quasar, author of Into the Bermuda Triangle, recently notes the recording of the man’s voice sounds to him like it is the voice of Peter Tompkins, a journalist who turned his attention to matters of the unknown, including plant sentience (the subject of In Search Of’s first episode). Tompkins would narrate the Landsburg company’s subsequent Bermuda Triangle documentary, Secrets of the Bermuda Triangle.
- Millionth Council: Whatever the caller means to tell us about The Millionth Council, it seems to be confined to the transcript of the radio show. Predictably, contemporary online forums and blogs take up the reference, here and there, but I’ve found little in the way of any other substantial definition.
- SS Marine Sulphur Queen: Vanished in February 1963, and then debris bearing its markings turned up during searches in the weeks that followed. In the course of proceedings, court officials found that the ship was overfilled with molten sulphur and, facing heavy seas the day it disappeared, possibly suffered a “sudden and massive structural collapse.”
- USS Proteus: The third of three Navy vessels of the Proteus class to disappear in the region. The first two were the USS Cyclops and the USS Nereus, lost in November 1941 and December 1942. “Research by Rear Admiral George van Deurs, USN,” writes Robert C. Fisher, “suggests … these aging and poorly constructed colliers broke up in heavy seas following a storm … In other colliers of this type the acidic coal had seriously eroded the longitudinal support beams making them extremely vulnerable.” Other theories involve the contents of the ships’ holds liquefying in heavy rains, making them unstable.
- USS Scorpion: Lost during a May 1968 mission to surveil Soviet maneuvers, the wreck of the US nuclear submarine Scorpion was discovered in October of the same year. According to the US Naval Institute, investigations concluded either one of the Scorpion’s own torpedoes detonated inside the hull or its battery cells exploded.
- C-119 Flight: The US Air Force C-119G Flying Boxcar, bound for the island of Grand Turk, went missing after takeoff close to eight o’clock, the evening of June 5, 1965. By some reports, debris did turn up. Those details were not, one journalist notes, included in the Air Force’s redacted documents, when released.
- Carlton Hamilton: The air-traffic-control expert in this episode is cited in mid-1970s FAA reports as the chief at Opa Locka Tower, just north of Miami International Airport.
- Flight 19: Larry Kusche, writing at the Skeptical Inquirer, dives deep into what could have gone wrong aboard the planes of Flight 19. The upshot of his lengthy analysis is that compass failure on the leader’s plane, compounded by a precedent of pilot confusion when newly encountering the region’s topography, led to the disastrous loss of all five aircraft. When it comes to wreckage, “a group called Project 19 salvaged a TBM Avenger — the same model of plane flown by Flight 19 — from 400 feet deep in the ocean off Cape Canaveral,” writes Vicki McCash, at the Sun Sentinel, in 1991. “The group thinks the plane is the one flown by Capt. William Stivers, one of the student pilots of the Lost Patrol.” The find was complicated, however, by the fact that key pieces of the plane — ones said to hold crucial identifying markings — were lost during the salvage.
The Takeaway: ‘The Bermuda Triangle’
The main problem with In Search Of’s episode about The Bermuda Triangle is that it bites off so much more than it can chew. Focusing on Flight 19 alone would have been a full half-hour, and one trimmed for length at that. Or, a look at the Scorpion. You get the picture. It’s fun to speculate on multiple mysteries, but the show promises to help us examine possible answers. There’s a fine line, then, between too much and not quite enough. There ought to be some substance to such a popular topic, when the series takes it on. Defaulting to a wide-spectrum approach works well for some In Search Of episodes, but when it comes to The Bermuda Triangle it leaves us underserved.
Long story short, the show feints when it should’ve jabbed, and its argument is ultimately that there should be a deeper investigation of The Bermuda Triangle. One thinks that’s the point of the series itself, though, right? Possible answers to the mysteries presented, in this case, are nowhere to be found.
Next Up: It’s into the woods to look for Sasquatch, as In Search Of takes on another favorite topic. Join us next time for a look at “Bigfoot” … and let’s hope the producers introduce some additional focus for our viewing pleasure.
*Episode Credits/Air Date Sources: in-video credits and IMBD.com