It’s August 2, 1947, and British South American Airways Flight CS59 is on the last part of a long journey. An Avro Lancastrian is the passenger plane making the flight after taking off from Buenos Aires, Argentina en route to the final destination of Santiago, Chile. But not long before the plane reaches Santiago, the crew sends a baffling radio message. And those are the last words ever heard from Flight CS59.
Flight CS59’s international journey had started on July 29, 1947, when it had taken off from London, U.K. It was a different plane that had made that transatlantic journey to the first stopping off point, Buenos Aires. That flight had been made by an Avro York airliner with the name Star Mist. It was also a British South American Airways (BSAA) aircraft.
Once in Buenos Aires, a different plane took on the role of completing Flight CS59’s itinerary, an Avro Lancastrian called Star Dust. This final leg involved crossing South America from Buenos Aires in the east to Santiago in the west. It also meant flying across the formidable Andes mountain range, the rocky spine that runs down the continent.
The flight plan for the journey involved a route that flew over the Argentinean city of Mendoza in the eastern foothills of the Andes. The total flight time would be three hours and 12 minutes. The Avro Lancastrian would fly the first 605-mile part of the journey at an altitude of 18,000 feet until it was over Mendoza.
After passing over Mendoza the pilot would take the airliner to a height of 26,000 feet to cross the high peaks of the Andes for the final 122 miles of the flight on to Santiago. The Lancastrian duly took off from Buenos Aires at 1:46 p.m. And for most of the flight, everything seemed to be entirely routine.
But during the journey, as the plane passed over Mendoza, bad weather had closed in. And with it, came high winds with speeds in excess of 100 mph, along with heavy snow. Nevertheless, by 5:41 p.m. Star Dust was somewhere near Mount Tupungato, about 50 miles from Santiago. And it sent a Morse code message from that location to Santiago.
The Star Dust crew’s message to Santiago stated that their estimated time of arrival was just four minutes away. It was a routine transmission but for two things. Firstly, the final word of the message was the incomprehensible word “STENDEC.” And secondly, it would be the last that was ever heard from BSAA Flight CS59.
The Avro Lancastrian, its five crew and six passengers had apparently disappeared into thin air over the Andes. But what had the enigmatic word in the final message, STENDEC, meant? Before we try to unravel that mystery, let’s take a quick look at some other planes that have mysteriously vanished.
In fact, we don’t need to look far since British South American Airways seems to have been quite profligate when it came to losing planes in unexplained circumstances. Indeed, two other BSAA flights have disappeared over the years. On January 30, 1948, the year after Flight CS-59 vanished over the Andes, another BSAA plane, Star Tiger, had gone missing over the Atlantic Ocean.
Star Tiger, an Avro Tudor IV passenger plane, had been flying from Santa Maria, one of the Azores islands in the North Atlantic, to the Caribbean island of Bermuda. Its journey had actually started from the Portuguese capital Lisbon on 28 January from where it had flown to Santa Maria. Its stop there was intended to be a brief one simply to re-fuel.
But the pilot, Captain Brian W. McMillan, changed his plans due to bad weather. The 25 passengers and six crew now spent the night in Santa Maria. The next day Star Tiger then took off for Bermuda in the afternoon. There were high winds and Captain McMillan decided to fly at low altitude, 2,000 feet, in the hope of avoiding the worst of those.
The severe winds knocked the plane off its course to Bermuda, so McMillan adjusted his flight path to take account of this. But after a final radio message at 3:17 a.m. on January 30, the plane was never heard from again. An official investigation into the incident concluded, “What happened in this case will never be known and the fate of Star Tiger must remain an unsolved mystery.”
And it was just another year later that BSAA lost yet another plane. Star Ariel, an Avro Tudor Mark IVB airliner from the island of Bermuda on January 17, 1949 bound for Kingston Jamaica. The plane departed in good, clear weather with 13 passengers and seven crew aboard.
The pilot, Captain John Clutha McPhee, radioed Kingston about an hour after take-off – all was apparently well. Yet this was the last that was ever heard from Star Ariel. The official enquiry into the plane’s disappearance concluded that “through lack of evidence due to no wreckage having been found, the cause of the accident is unknown.”
The loss of those two planes, Star Tiger and Star Ariel, in entirely mysterious circumstances helped to get the whole Bermuda Triangle mythology off the ground. But as Star Dust flew over the Andes in 1947, all of that was yet to come. And to find out more, let’s now meet the crew members.
The lead officer on Flight CS59 was Captain Reginald Cook. For his part, he was an experienced flier who had seen action during the Second World War and won medals for his bravery. In fact, all of the flying crew, First Officer Norman Cook and Second Officer Donald Checklin, had served with the Royal Air Force in WWII.
The other two crew members were Dennis Harmer, the radio operator, and flight attendant Iris Evans. During the war, Evans had served as a Chief Petty Officer with the Women’s Royal Naval Service. Meanwhile, Harmer had served as an RAF radio operator for three years. In fact, this band of WWII veterans crewing the plane pretty much told the story of BSAA as an outfit.
British South American Airways had been founded by demobbed WWII pilots keen to exploit what they saw as a gap in the market for air travel to the Caribbean and Latin America. The company’s inaugural flight took off from London’s Heathrow Airport on New Year’s Day 1946, bound for South America. But the BSAA story came to an end after the loss of that third plane in 1949. The BSAA badge was then subsumed into the British Overseas Airways Corporation.
As for the machine the crew was flying, as we’ve seen that was an Avro 691 Lancastrian 3. The Lancastrian was in fact a modified version of the Lancaster, a four-engined WWII era bomber. The civilian planes were used for passenger flights and for ferrying mail by both Canadian and British operators.
Star Dust’s first flight, fresh from the factory, came in November 1945 and BSAA took delivery of the aircraft in January 1946. It was a Lancastrian 3 variant and 18 of this model rolled off the Avro production line. These planes could carry up to 13 passengers and that brings us to the passengers that were on this particular flight.
Marta Limpert was a German who lived in Chile and accompanying her on the flight were the ashes of her late husband. Harald Pagh and Jack Gooderham were businessmen. British Paul Simpson worked as a civil servant and had diplomatic papers with him for delivery to the British Embassy in Santiago. Indeed, some even theorized that Star Dust might have been sabotaged because of those papers, but there was no real evidence for this.
Also on the passenger list was Palestinian Casis Said Atalah, who was on his way back to Chile after a visit to his sick mother. According to some sources he was carrying a diamond sewn into the fabric of his suit. Meanwhile, another travelling was Peter Young, who worked for Dunlop. And as we know, this flight would be the last this disparate group would take.
As we saw earlier, Star Dust took off from Buenos Aires at 1:46 p.m. for the 727-mile trip across the Andes to Santiago. At 5:41 p.m. radio operator Dennis Harmer sent a Morse code message to Santiago. In its entirety the message read “ETA [estimated time of arrival] Santiago 17.45 hrs STENDEC.”
The first part of Harmer’s message was clear enough. It was simply an announcement that the Star Dust expected to arrive at the airport in Santiago in four minutes from the Morse code transmission. But what on Earth did STENDEC mean? That’s something that experts and amateurs have puzzled over for decades.
Subsequently, when the plane did not arrive at Santiago, search parties were sent out from both Argentina and Chile. BSAA pilots also scanned the terrain, but no wreckage and no survivors from Star Dust were found. Indeed, the only conclusion could be that the plane had crashed with the loss of all 11 people on board.
The unanswered questions about what exactly had happened to Star Dust only served to make the elusive meaning of STENDEC seem all the more significant. And there was no shortage of theories as to what this perplexing word in that final Morse code message from Flight CS59 might possibly mean.
A Chilean Air Force operator had taken the last message from Star Dust and he testified that the Morse code had been clearly transmitted. Although he did say that the code had been tapped out very rapidly. STENDEC had puzzled the operator enough that he asked Harmer to repeat his message. This he did and the second time it came out just as clearly as the first, according to the Chilean.
Some thought that this strange word might have been something to do with a UFO. Indeed, some apparently thought the plane and crew might have been abducted by aliens. At the time, UFOs and aliens were hot news and any mystery was apt to be connected to extraterrestrial sources. But we’re probably safe to discount the involvement of little green men. Although that brings us no closer to understanding the meaning, if any, of STENDEC.
Meanwhile, more than 50 years later the STENDEC mystery was still a live one. This was confirmed in 2000 when the BBC broadcast a program delving into the mysteries of Star Dust’s demise. The documentary paid particular attention to that final puzzling message. Viewers responded in their hundreds with possible explanations – and some were even quite plausible.
One said that Harmer might have been suffering from a lack of oxygen, impairing his Morse abilities. Perhaps he meant to tap out the word “descent.” That, after all, is actually an anagram of STENDEC. Alternatively, the enigmatic word might have been a series of letters standing for a full phrase. “Severe Turbulence Encountered, Now Descending Emergency Crash-landing” was mooted as one possibility.
But the idea that STENDEC was code for an emergency situation, or a panicked mistyping of descent, is flatly contradicted by the rest of the message, which is entirely routine. There was also the idea that the Chilean wireless operator might simply have got the message wrong, or that Harmer had made errors while sending it.
As we saw, the Chilean operator had said that the Morse code had been tapped out very quickly. Ultimately, probably the most likely explanation was that it was a Morse code error in the sending or receiving. The dots and dashes for STENDEC are the same as for SCTI AR.
It turns out that the spacing between dots and dashes is crucial for their final meaning. And that SCTI AR is not enigmatic – it’s simply standard code for “over,” which makes perfect sense in the context. The misunderstanding could have occurred because the dot and dash spacings were incorrect. Indeed, tapping out very rapidly could easily have led to a mistaken transmission or interpretation of the message.
And that’s probably as close as we’ll ever get to a definitive answer to the STENDEC message enigma. But that still leaves us with the missing plane, which had eluded the best efforts of searchers back in 1947. And that situation, the apparent complete disappearance of an airliner and its passengers, would continue for half a century.
A significant breakthrough came in 1998 when two Argentinean climbers were scaling Mount Tupungato. They were actually on the Tupungato Glacier at an altitude of 15,000 feet when they came across the remains of a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and some other debris. For its part, the Star Dust had been fitted with four Merlin aviation engines.
Then a couple of years later Argentinean soldiers set out to search for wreckage on the Tupungato Glacier. Their finds included a wheel with its tire still inflated and one of the four propellers. Much more gruesomely, they also found a variety of body parts. The human remains included three torsos, a foot still in its boot and a hand.
Thanks to the freezing conditions and the dry winds, the hand and other body parts found were well preserved. In fact, the hand still retained its manicure and was clearly that of a female. Of course, the only female aboard Star Dust had been Iris Evans, who was just 26 when she died in the crash. The discovery of the remains then triggered a search for surviving relatives, so that identities could be confirmed by DNA testing.
The search for descendants and surviving relatives took two years but brought some success in 2002. Of the eight British crew and passengers on the flight, DNA testing confirmed the identities of five. This conclusively confirmed that the bodies were of some of those aboard the plane when it crashed and that the wreckage was from Star Dust.
Margaret Coalwood of Nottingham, U.K., was one of the surviving relatives who was tracked down. Second Officer Donald Checklin was her cousin. Coalwood spoke to The Guardian in 2002 after DNA testing had confirmed the identity of her cousin’s body. She said, “He was my older cousin, who I idolized hopelessly. He flew Lancaster bombers and got medals for bringing back his aircraft one time on a wing and a prayer.”
Meanwhile, now that the crashed plane’s wreckage had been found, the question was what had caused the disaster? It seems that high winds from the jet stream may have pushed the flight off course. Misjudging his position, the pilot might have started his descent too soon, putting him on a collision course for Mount Tupungato. Alternatively, high winds and icing may have plunged the plane into the mountain side. Whatever caused the crash, as the years go by, it’s likely that more wreckage from Star Dust and further passenger remains will emerge from the glacier.