The plane that disappeared for half a century


With the search for Malaysia Airline Flight MH370 ongoing, I thought I would share a story of the hunt for another missing plane: the Star Dust.

Star Dust (registration G-AGWH) was a British South American Airways (BSAA) Avro Lancastrian airliner which crashed into Mount Tupungato in the ArgentineAndes on 2 August 1947, during a flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago, Chile. A comprehensive search of a wide area (including what is now known to have been the crash site) was fruitless, and the fate of the aircraft and occupants remained unknown for over 50 years. An investigation in 2000 determined the crash was caused by weather-related factors,[1][2] but until then speculation had included theories of international intrigue, intercorporate sabotage and even abduction by aliens.

In the late 1990s, pieces of wreckage from the missing aircraft began to emerge from the glacial ice. It is now assumed that the crew became confused as to their exact location while flying at high altitudes through the (then poorly understood) jet stream. Mistakenly believing they had already cleared the mountain tops, they started their descent when they were in fact still behind cloud-covered peaks, and Star Dust crashed into Mount Tupungato, killing all aboard and burying itself in snow and ice.

This is (presumably) not a viable solution to the Malaysia airlines disappearance. It’s one thing for an 11 seater plane to disappear into a glacier, one imagines a 400 seat Boeing 777 is a rather different matter.

A strange lose end does still remain:

The last Morse code message sent by Star Dust was “ETA SANTIAGO 17.45 HRS STENDEC”.[11] The Chilean Air Force radio operator at the Santiago airport described this transmission as coming in “loud and clear” but very fast; as he did not recognise the last word, he requested clarification and heard “STENDEC” repeated twice in succession before contact with the aircraft was lost.[19][20] This word has not been definitively explained and has given rise to much speculation—including suggestions (made before the wreckage was finally discovered) that the aircraft and those aboard could have been the victims of a UFO encounter.[11]

The staff of the BBC television series Horizon—which presented an episode in 2000 on the Star Dust disappearance—received hundreds of messages from viewers proposing explanations of STENDEC. These included suggestions that the radio operator, possibly suffering from hypoxia, had scrambled the word DESCENT (of which STENDEC is an anagram); that STENDEC may have been the initials of some obscure phrase; or that the airport radio operator had misheard the Morse code transmission despite its reportedly having been repeated multiple times. The Horizon staff concluded that, with the possible exception of some misunderstanding based on Morse code, none of these proposed solutions was plausible.[11] In the absence of new clues, the meaning of STENDEC is likely to remain a mystery.[6][21]


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