FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Treasure hunters believe they have discovered the legendary "Lost Patrol" -- five World War II Navy bombers that disappeared without a trace 45 years ago and strengthened the myth of the Bermuda Triangle.
If accurate, the find in 700 feet of water 10 miles off Fort Lauderdale would solve one of aviation's greatest mysteries and provide a long-awaited explanation to survivors of the five pilots and nine crewmen who lost radio contact and vanished on Dec. 5, 1945.
It also would suggest a tragic irony: that the Navy pilots were almost within sight of their home base when they apparently ditched their planes in high seas.
The five TBM Avenger bombers left the Naval Air Station at Fort Lauderdale, site of the present-day Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, for a practice bombing run and routine navigational mission over the Bahamas. The mission is known among historians by its training designation: Flight 19.
Graham Hawkes, leader of the sophisticated treasure-hunting operation, said the five planes were found on May 8 within a mile and a half of each other. Four of the planes were intact, resting upright on the ocean floor, he said. One, believed to be the flight leader's plane, was broken in two, each half upright on the bottom.
The cockpits of three of the planes were open.
Mr. Hawkes said his crew, working with a deep-water lighting and video system from the research vessel Deep See, recorded pictures of a wing number, "28," and the insignia "FT" on two other planes.
The leader of Flight 19, Navy Lt. Charles C. Taylor, piloted plane No. 28. All five of the Avenger bombers were marked with "FT," signifying that they flew from the Fort Lauderdale base.
Those clues and the cluster of five Avengers resting so close together on the ocean floor led Mr. Hawkes and his team to the tentative conclusion that they have found Flight 19.
"If it isn't Flight 19, then it is a very cruel hoax," Mr. Hawkes said. "Given the size of the ocean, they are right on top of each other."
But he said it was too early to draw firm conclusions, because the planes -- and most of their identifying numbers -- remained covered with silt and marine growth.
Mr. Hawkes, operations manager for Scientific Search Project, a Wall Street-financed treasure hunting expedition, said that in the weeks ahead, he and his crew would use a submersible robot to try to collect evidence identifying the five planes.
He said they would salvage the planes for a museum if they were from the Lost Patrol.
Bob Cervoni, a managing director of SSP, said the company filed suit yesterday in federal court in Miami asking a judge to grant title for the five aircraft to the company. He said the action was being taken to protect the discovery from other explorers who might try to horn in on the Flight 19 project.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Ryskamp granted the claim, although the Navy will be able to contest it, said the company's Miami attorney, Barbara Locke.
Mr. Hawkes and his crew showed portions of the video of the planes after docking in Fort Lauderdale yesterday.
One sequence shows the ocean flood under the glare of a spotlight. Suddenly, the view is interrupted by the clear image of a complete aircraft resting on the ocean floor.
"It's definitely an Avenger, yes," said Allan McElhiney of Fort Lauderdale, as he watched the video. "Once you see that turret on the back . . . there is no other plane with that on the back."
Mr. McElhiney participated in the search for the Lost Patrol 45 years ago.
"There were a lot of crashes [of Avengers] in Fort Lauderdale during the war, but most of them were in the Everglades," he said. "But for these five to be in the same place suggests it is a real find."
Mr. Hawkes said there was other compelling evidence suggesting that the planes belonged to the Lost Patrol.
He said Lieutenant Taylor's last monitored radio transmission included instructions that when the first plane had only 10 gallons of fuel remaining, they would all ditch together.
Mr. Hawkes said his team calculated that if the planes were flying at 80 knots and circling in a landing formation to account for the wind and high waves, they would have hit the water at about two-minute intervals. He said the planes were found spaced on the ocean floor in roughly that manner.