On August 2, 1947, a British South American Airways (BSAA) Avro Lancastrian airliner “Star Dust” vanished without trace during a flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago, Chile. Star Dust never made it to Santiago.
At that time comprehensive search of a wide area was fruitless, and the fate of the aircraft and occupants remained unknown for over 50 years. On early 2000 the plane’s wreckage suddenly reappeared on a glacier high up in the Andes, more than 50 km’s from the area where the plane was last reported.
Although most of the mysteries surrounding Star Dust’s disappearance has been solved, one mystery still remains. Just before the plane disappeared, Chile’s Santiago airport received the Morse code transmission “ETA SANTIAGO 17.45 HRS STENDEC” four minutes before it was scheduled to land that day.
The controller responded that he did not understand the acronym at the end of the message but “STENDEC” was never clarified by the pilot. Until now, final message has been a source of mystery, confusion and intrigue ever since.
On its final flight, Star Dust carried a crew of 5 and 6 passengers. The captain, Reginald Cook, was an experienced Royal Air Force pilot with combat experience during World War II—as were his first officer, Norman Hilton Cook, and second officer, Donald Checklin.
The passengers were:
Harald Pagh, businessmen
Peter Young, an agent for Dunlop
Paul Simpson, a British civil servant. He was functioning as a King’s Messenger with diplomatic documents destined for the British embassy in Santiago.
Marta Limpert. She was bringing her dead husband’s ashes with her.
Casis Said Atalah, a Palestinian returning home to Chile from a visit to his dying mother. Atalah is said to have had a diamond with him (stitched into the lining of his suit).
At 1.46 PM on 2 August, the flight left Buenos Aires and was apparently uneventful until the radio operator (Harmer) sent a routine message in Morse code to the airport in Santiago at 5.41 PM, announcing an expected arrival of 5.45 PM.
However, Star Dust never arrived, no more radio transmissions were received by the airport. Five days intensive efforts by both Chilean and Argentine search teams, as well as by other BSAA pilots, failed to uncover any trace of the aircraft or of the people on board.
According to the official report in 1947, the 17.41 signal was received by Santiago only 4 minutes before the ETA. The Chilean radio operator at Santiago states that the reception of the signal was loud and clear but that it was given out very fast.
Not understanding the word “STENDEC” he queried it and had the same word repeated by the aircraft twice in succession. A solution to the word “STENDEC” has not been found. From this time on nothing further was heard from the aircraft and no contact was made with the control tower at Santiago. All further calls were unanswered.
Before this message a series of entirely routine messages had been transmitted by the plane, reporting their position and intended course.
Over 50 years later, in 1998, two Argentine mountaineers climbing Mount Tupungato—about 97 km west-southwest of Mendoza City, and about 80 km east of Santiago—found the wreckage of a Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engine, along with twisted pieces of metal and shreds of clothing, in the Tupungato Glacier at an elevation of 4,600 m. Two years later, in February 2000 the Argentine army arranged a major expedition to visit the crash site beneath the massive Tupungato peak (6800m).
The plane’s main wheels were discovered, one still fully blown up. One of Stardust’s Rolls Royce engines was lying on the ice, and nearby it’s propeller. Damage to the propeller indicated that the engine was working normally at the time of the crash.
A main wheel from the Star Dust, found amidst the wreckage in 2000
The wreckage offered no smoking gun to explain why the crash happened. Human remains were also recovered, including three torsos, a foot in an ankle boot and a manicured hand. By 2002, the bodies of five of the eight British victims had been identified through DNA testing.
Experts believe the plane crashed into the side of the mountain, likely causing an avalanche to bury the aircraft. The Argentine investigation needed to explain why a highly experienced crew could make such a massive error.
They focused on a meteorological phenomenon that was virtually unknown in 1947 – the ‘jetstream’. This high altitude wind can blow at more than one hundred miles an hour. But in 1947 very few planes flew high enough to encounter the jetstream. Stardust was one of the exceptions.
On the day of the flight bad weather over the Andes persuaded the crew to fly close to the plane’s maximum altitude, so they could fly over the top of the weather… and the mountains. Stardust’s superior performance should have guaranteed it’s safety. But in fact, it was the decision to fly high that was at the root of the disaster.
Unknown to the crew, they were flying straight into the jetstream. And because of the bad weather, they couldn’t see the ground, so they had no way of knowing that the jetstream was dramatically slowing them down.
It meant that although the crew’s calculations showed they had crossed the Andes, in fact the jetstream’s powerful wind meant they were still on the wrong side of the mountains. So when Stardust began it’s descent, rather than being above Santiago airport, it was on a collision course with Mount Tupangato.
The jetstream finally explained the reason for the massive navigation error, and therefore the crash. But the investigators were unable to explain one final mystery, the last radio message – Stendec – sent by Stardust just before the crash. Many explanations have been advanced, but to this day none has convincingly explained what the message meant.
Many people wrote pointing out that STENDEC is an anagram of descent. Variations suggested that the crew might have been suffering from hypoxia (lack of oxygen) as the Lancastrian was unpressurised and the plane was flying at 24000 feet, which would have led the radio operator to scramble the message. Other explanations for the appearance of an anagram in an otherwise routine message included a dyxlexic radio operator and/or receiver in Santiago, and playfulness on behalf of Stardust’s radio operator.
Whilst it’s true that the Lancastrian was unpressurised, the crew were all supplied with oxygen. A faulty oxygen system can’t be ruled out, but seems unlikely. Furthermore, whilst it is relatively easy to imagine STENDEC being scrambled into descent in English, it is much harder in Morse code:
-.. / . / … / -.-. / . / -. / – (Descent)
… / – / . / -. / -.. / . / -.-. (STENDEC)
And even less likely that the same morse dyslexia would be repeated three times.