A US Air Force HC-97 was one of the planes involved in the crash. *Photo supplied
A US Air Force HC-97 was one of the planes involved in the crash. *Photo supplied

The exact reason that two military aircraft collided with such catastrophic consequences remains a mystery to this day.

The official Air Force Accident Report concludes that the cause of the collision was undetermined.

But it provides a number of possible factors that could have played a part in the disaster
that captured media attention and headlines across the globe and even featured in Life Magazine.

One possible cause cited was that Captain Harry Lai, who was flying the HC-54, suffered a heart attack behind the controls.

Lack of training, pilot fatigue, an air pocket, inadequate briefings prior to the mission and an unbalanced aircraft have also been suggested as possible causes.

The official USAF report states: “The weather was 2000ft scattered clouds, visibility nine miles, and winds variable at eight knots.

“Both aircraft arrived in the drop area and because of the clouds decided to fly the mission at 1,700 (below the clouds).

“The first run had the HC-97 taking photos as the HC54 (which was slightly forward and below) began deploying the pararescuemen.

“After a few passes over the drop with the pararescuemen being deployed from the HC-54, the aircraft changed positions.

“After flying one dry run…two pararescuemen deployed from the HC-97. Seconds later the two aircraft collided. The three boats in the area immediately began a search for any survivors. Both aircraft were destroyed and there were no survivors.”

The real cause of the collision will probably never be known and may well be a combination of factors suggested in the report.

But while the reason for the crash is still unclear the nature of the NASA mission the two crews were tasked with was precise and seen as vital to America’s attempts to land a man on the moon.

A New York Herald Tribune article in August 1964 described the seventeen men who died in Bermuda as ‘the first men to die in the billion dollar space project called Gemini’.

The article by Earl Ubell, Joseph Hixson and David Hoffman stated that those who died were the ‘cream of the special Air Force’.

It added: “They were to practice leaping into the water from the aircraft in their rubber suits to wrap 3,300 pounds of Gemini floating capsule in a huge inflatable collar — a magnified version of the rubber rings children wear at the beach.

“Like the fatal operation off Bermuda almost every detail of the two-man Gemini flights scheduled to begin early next year is a test for the moon flight to come.”

A total of 17 Air Force personnel were killed in the disaster.

There were seven survivors, all who jumped prior to the collision.

Only the bodies of five of the 17 killed were ever recovered.