When a small plane carrying a world-famous fashion designer disappeared in the Caribbean Sea last week, rumors began circulating that he may have fallen victim to a curse, or a smaller version of the Bermuda Triangle.

According to a story in The Guardian,

The as-yet-unexplained disappearance last Friday of the plane carrying six passengers and crew, including Italian fashion mogul Vittorio Missoni, has prompted some to blame the “Los Roques curse”. The label has been attached to a series of mysterious plane crashes and “vanishings” over the past decade or so between the Caribbean archipelago of Los Roques and the Venezuelan capital Caracas, 140km to the south. Inevitably, comparisons have been made with the infamous Bermuda Triangle, the area between Miami, Bermuda and Puerto Rico that has long had a reputation for unexplained disappearances of ships and planes. To date, no wreckage of Missoni’s plane has been located since it took off from Los Roques for Caracas…. Since the mid-90s, there have been at least 15 reported incidents in which small aircraft have either crashed, disappeared or declared emergencies while travelling through the area.

There are a handful of theories about what might cause ships and planes to vanish, including underwater alien bases, tidal waves, magnetic anomalies, sea monsters, and exploding bubbles of methane gas. But before examining the validity of the theories it’s important to ask a basic question: Is there anything unusual that needs explaining?

There are a few things to note about the area and the claims surrounding it. Let’s examine this statement: “Since the mid-90s, there have been at least 15 reported incidents in which small aircraft have either crashed, disappeared or declared emergencies while traveling through the area.” The first thing to point out is that it does not mention 15 mysterious disappearances, just 15 incidents — which include crashes (whose causes are known) and aircraft that had some unspecified emergency on board (which could include anything from a passenger having a heart attack to some mechanical problem).

Second, fifteen “incidents” since the mid-1990s comes to a startling average of about one incident per year, out of the hundreds of flights per day over those waters (including from Simón Bolívar International Airport outside of Caracas, which carries about 10 million passengers each year). The Caribbean Sea north of Caracas has lots of boat and plane traffic; there are more resort islands clustered in that area than anywhere else in the world, including Aruba, Curacao, Grenada, St. Lucia, Antigua, Barbados, and of course Puerto Rico. The only way to get to and from those islands is by boat or plane, and — like cars, boats, or anything else — more traffic than average means more accidents and mishaps than average. If anything, it’s surprising there aren’t more crashes.

It’s also important to note that the plane Massoni disappeared in was a small a twin-engine Islander built in 1968. I’ve been on ancient puddle-jumpers in the Caribbean and South America and can report first-hand that they aren’t known for their outstanding maintenance and safety records, no matter who the passengers are. Had Massoni been traveling in a brand-new private plane instead of a resort’s 44-year-old plane, his disappearance would be more mysterious.

Like the Bermuda Triangle story, the Los Roques curse story is largely a media-fueled myth. Calling it an “unexplained disappearance” make it sound much more mysterious than it is; all plane and boat disappearances begin as “unexplained,” by definition. For example in June 2009, Air France flight 447 mysteriously disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean, killing 228 people. It took years to find the wreckage and determine the cause; the once “unexplained” crash was determined to have been caused by a stall linked to an iced-over airspeed sensor.

Massoni’s family is holding out hope that he has been abducted and held for ransom, and if this is true hopefully he will be recovered safely. But small aircraft crashes are not inherently mysterious, and the only reason anyone is paying attention to this particular plane is that someone famous is missing.

Image: The view over Los Roques National Park. Credit: Getty