Sunday, March 15, 2009

Into Thin Air

On August 2nd, 1947, a British South American Airways airliner called "Star Dust" took off from Buenos Aires, Argentina, on a flight to Santiago, Chile. The plane (a civilian version of an RAF bomber) was just under two years old and in perfect condition. The crew were former RAF pilots, all veterans of World War II, and all highly experienced. Among the passengers were a Palestinian businessman carrying a diamond sewn into his suit, a German woman (suspected of having been a Nazi) transporting her husband's ashes, a Swiss millionaire playboy, and a British diplomat intending to deliver important documents to the British embassy in Chile.

Star Dust traveled at high altitude to avoid poor weather. The pilots did not observe any on-board mechanical problems. As they approached their destination, Star Dust radioed the airport in Santiago to say "ETA SANTIAGO 17.45." After a period of silence, Star Dust radioed again, this time with a Morse-code signal:


Star Dust never landed in Santiago.

An extensive search was made of the nearby Andes Mountains to look for wreckage and possible survivors. Nothing was found. There was no indication that anything had gone wrong during the flight, and the pilots made no mention of anything abnormal in their radio transmissions to Santiago. They hadn't even issued an SOS, which would've been standard operation procedure had they encountered trouble. Instead, there was only STENDEC, an enigmatic final message that no one could decipher. It didn't belong in conventional aviation shorthand and wasn't a recognized acronym.

Rumors of sabotage floated about, the focus of the blame shifting from one eccentric passenger to another. These notions were later eclipsed by an even more outlandish idea. The disappearance of Star Dust was a year before the famous Roswell incident launched flying saucers into the collective consciousness, and it wasn't long before people began building associations between the vanished aircraft and extraterrestrial visitors. In one of the first books published about the flying saucer phenomenon, Flying Saucers on the Moon, author Harold T. Wilkins postulated that Star Dust was abducted by some "vast interplanetary craft."

Naturally, no evidence was offered to support this fantastic claim, but aviation experts and researchers were having difficulty putting forward more serious theories. The nonsensical Morse-code message was baffling, and the apparent lack of wreckage made any sort of forensic examination impossible. They found themselves as unable to substantiate their theories as Wilkins. As years past, it became generally accepted that the mystery would never be solved. Star Dust had become somewhat like the aviation world's Mary Celeste. In the 70's, STENDEC would be used as the title of a Spanish UFO-enthusiast magazine. Later a truly awful experimental musician would start calling himself "Stendek," after the Star Dust incident. However, by and large, the event faded into obscurity.

Then, in 1998, some mountain climbers were astonished to discover a massive Rolls-Royce airplane engine half-covered in the snows of Tupungato, one of the highest mountains in the Andes. The site was over fifty miles away from Star Dust's destination of Santiago. Adverse conditions made it impossible to assemble a proper expedition team until 2000, when the Argentinian military dispatched a group to determine if the area was the resting place of Star Dust. Facing inclement weather and a treacherous climb, they ascended to the glacial top of Tupungato after four days travel. In the subsequent investigation, they discovered a second engine and a propeller. They authenticated the wreckage as belonging to Star Dust. The further discovery of severed hands and fractured torsos, fifty-three years frozen in the mountain ice, confirmed this.

The information gathered by the expedition suggests that Star Dust had crashed closer to the peak of the mountain, becoming covered in snow and eventually being frozen into the glacier itself. As the glacier gradually melted, the wreckage slid down the mountain and more parts became exposed. Still, the wreckage itself offered no clear cause for the crash. Experts hypothesized that Star Dust had been flying at a high enough altitude to enter the jet-stream (largely unknown in 1947), and had been blown off course by the high speed winds. Even with their experience, it's entirely possible that the pilots were unable to recognize how dramatically Star Dust had been blown off course, and attempted to make their landing without knowing that beneath them laid the Andes Mountains and not Santiago. However, if this was the case, then why did they never send out a radio transmission indicating that they were close to landing?

The last piece of the puzzle also has yet to be put into place.
What did STENDEC mean and why was it transmitted? Barring any new discoveries, the answer will probably remain shrouded in mystery.

-You can read a BBC article detailing the discovery of the wreckage
-You can buy Harold T. Wilkin's crazy UFO book here.
-You can read a summary of the various theories as to what STENDEC might have meant right here


  1. Did they find the diamond?

    Them diamonds are worth a lot of money you know.

  2. Nope. Finding a diamond in the Andes glaciers is a needle-in-haystack type of situation.

    Until they agree to market my Diamond Detector, that is!