In August 1947 BOAC
, what was then British Airways
, ran services to and within South America under the name 'British South American Airways'. The war had produced a crop of experienced pilots, a number of large runways - which did away with the flying boat
- and plenty of surplus bombers with some flying hours left, and BSAA was an 'army surplus' attempt to turn coin
. The airline was equipped with the Avro Lancastrian
, a pressurised civilian conversion of the WW2 Lancaster
One such was 'Stardust', which vanished into thin air whilst en route from Buenos Aires in Argentina to Santiago in Chile - a journey requiring a trip over the Andes, which at that time were shrounded in a snowstorm. Along with the five RAF crew (all war veterans), six passengers were lost; at the time it was theorised that pilot error brought on by bad weather and the as-yet-unidentified jet stream had led to the aircraft crashing abruptly into the mountains, and this theory was given weight when portions of the smashed remains of the aircraft were discovered in a glacier, perfectly preserved, in 2000. Until then, however, UFO enthusiasts wondered if there might have been a more unusual explanation, and Stardust became one of those Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World things that keep people awake at night. Stardust vanished two years after the disappearance of Flight 19, one of the cornerstones of the Bermuda Triangle, but planes go missing all the time. Stardust is remembered today for its final message.
The very last radio transmission from the aircraft was a Morse code message reading "ETA Santiago 17.45 hrs STENDEC". The final word made no sense and was not RAF jargon. The radio operator at Santiago asked Stardust's communications officer twice to repeat the final word, and recieved 'STENDEC' both times. Those seven letters have subsequently haunted people's imagination; even today nobody is entirely sure what STENDEC was supposed to mean. RAF pilots were not known for making up strange codes during their radio transmissions, and the theorised nature of the crash suggests that nobody on board was aware that things were amiss until they hit the mountains, thus ruling out a forewarning of disaster.
Several theories abound, however, based on the possibility that one or other of the radio operators were mistaken in some way, either due to inexperience (in the case of the operator in Santiago) or hypoxia. 'STENDEC' is an anagram of 'DESCENT', and in the original Morse 'STENDEC' resembles 'Stardust', the name of the aircraft. Furthermore, a minor rearrangement of some of the spaces produces 'ETA LATE', or the Morse code for 'attention', followed by 'END', followed by the Morse code for 'signing off'. All these theories suffer from the fact that RAF communications officers were trained to send Morse cleanly and without ambiguity.
And sign off the operator did, as that was the last anybody ever heard from the Stardust for over half a century, until the events recounted in the following writeup...