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Mystery Solved

Entry 1088, on 2009-09-14 at 20:31:46 (Rating 1, Skepticism)

I have been interested in skepticism for many years now. By skepticism I don't mean being cynical and negative and not believing anything (which is more like nihilism). What I mean is maintaining a healthy initial disrespect for all claims and especially those which seem to contradict knowledge with good objective support. Of course, balance is needed because new evidence does sometimes lead to long standing theories changing. But no one said being a well-balanced skeptic was easy!

So what is this leading to? Actually to an article at the BBC web site which seems to be inspired by a new series they are running examining paranormal phenomena. It doesn't say much about the series but it seems that it might be quite skeptical. Many TV series take the easy path and either emphasise the sensational but inaccurate explanations of various phenomena or, at the very least, leave the question open to some paranormal explanation.

The mystery mentioned in the article concerned the disappearance of two aircraft in the Bermuda Triangle. This area is well known as a part of the world where a mysteriously high number of aircraft and ships disappear without explanation. Unfortunately that isn't entirely accurate. When the accident rate is analysed it is about the same as any other part of the world when the number of ships and planes in the area is considered. And the mysteries usually turn out to have fairly mundane explanations or at least quite reasonable potential explanations even when the evidence is lacking.

One of the mysteries involved a BSAA Avro Tudor IV plane which disappeared on 30 January 1948. No bodies or wreckage were found. Unfortunately the official investigation concluded with the poorly considered phrase: "It may truly be said that no more baffling problem has ever been presented." Why do investigators write stuff like that? Its just an open invitation for the crazies to take it and read a lot more into the event than is really there.

Have a look at some of these facts...

The aircraft's heater was known to be unreliable and had already failed during that flight. Because of this the pilot decided to fly much lower than usual (about 2000 feet) making accidents much more likely.

When it approached Bermuda, Star Tiger was off course and had been flying for an hour longer than planned. It also had encountered head winds and flying at the lower altitude used more fuel. At the time even commercial flights carried very little extra fuel.

Flying at 2,000 feet would leave very little altitude for any emergency manoeuvres. 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 taken out of passenger service because of its poor safety record. Only the airline involved (BSAA) which itself had a poor safety record continued to fly the aircraft. The chief pilot even said he had no confidence in the Tudor's engines, saying "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."

So at 2,000 feet a failure would result in a rapid crash into the sea without the chance to radio for help. Given this there seems to be little justification in saying it was a baffling problem. With all that against it you could say it would have been more baffling if the flight had actually got to its final destination!

I would like to say that the last comment I made wasn't entirely serious because, taken at face value, it might imply I would consider it a mystery if any similar flight did end successfully. That's the problem with using rhetoric and hyperbole in these situations: some people will take that sort of comment and warp it beyond all recognition. That's what usually happens with the Bermuda Triangle and other mysteries - but in reality they aren't real mysteries at all.


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