Vanished: The Plane That Disappeared
BBC2 9:00pm Thursday 2nd November 2000
On August 2nd 1947, a British civilian
version of the wartime Lancaster bomber took off from Buenos Aires
airport on a scheduled flight to Santiago. There were 5 crew and
6 passengers on board the plane - named "Stardust". But Stardust
never made it to Santiago. Instead it vanished when it was apparently
just a few minutes from touchdown. One final strange morse code
radio message - "STENDEC" - was sent, but after that nothing more
was heard from the plane.
Despite a massive search of the Andes mountains no trace of the
plane was ever found. For 53 years the families of those who disappeared
have not known what happened to their loved ones.
But earlier this year the plane suddenly reappeared on a glacier
high up in the Andes, more than 50 kmís from the area where the
plane was last reported. In February this year the Argentine army
arranged a major expedition to visit the crash site beneath the
massive Tupangato peak (6800m). Their aim was to bring back the
human remains which had been found at the site, so that an attempt
could be made at identifying them. The expedition also offered a
unique opportunity for crash investigators to see if they could
finally explain what happened to the ill-fated plane.
'Horizon' gained exclusive access to this expedition, and now for
the first time the full story of what happened to "Stardust" can
be told. Why did the plane crash without warning? Why was it so
far from its planned route across the mountains? What was the meaning
of the last mysterious message - "STENDEC" - sent by the planeís
radio operator? Would it be possible more than 50 years after the
crash to identify the remaining fragments of human remains that
so graphically testified to the horrific destructive forces involved
in the crash? And perhaps most mysteriously, why did the wreckage
elude discovery for so long, despite regular mountaineering trips
to Tupangato over the years?
The expedition was joined at an army base in the Andes foothills.
The threat of altitude sickness and the approach of winter meant
that the trip required meticulous planning. More than 100 mules
were used on the four day journey to the crash site, ferrying people
and supplies to base camp, and then on up to an advance camp on
the glacier. Several mules fell on the perilous journey over a 4500m
pass; others bolted.
After four gruelling days the expedition finally reached the Tupangato
glacier. They had enough supplies for 36 hours to investigate the
crash site and finally explain what had happened to Stardust, and
why it had disappeared for so long. At the crash site 'Horizon'
followed the crash investigator as his ideas on the crash changed
with each new discovery. The planeís main wheels were discovered,
one still fully blown up. One of Stardustís Rolls Royce engines
was lying on the ice, and nearby itís propeller. Damage to the propeller
indicated that the engine was working normally at the time of the
crash. The wreckage offered no smoking gun to explain why the crash
Human remains were discovered - a hand, parts of a torso half buried
in ice, fragments of hair - poignant reminders that this was above
all a human tragedy. At a lab in Buenos Aires scientists are still
trying to extract sufficient DNA from the remains to allow the remains
to be identified. Few of those who went down with the aircraft were
old enough to have children, so DNA matches are being made with
more distant relatives, further complicating the work. The difficult
task of identifying the remains brought down from Tupangato is still
Meanwhile the air crash investigators focused on the mystery of
why the plane had not been found for so many years. Their analysis
led them to suspect that the reason the plane had remained hidden
for so long could lie with the glacier the wreckage was lying on.
As soon as they returned from the mountains the investigators visited
a glacial specialist in Mendoza. He told them that if the plane
had crashed on the upper part of the glacier it would have been
gradually buried by year on year snowfall, until it became a part
of the glacier itself. It would then have travelled downhill with
the glacier under the influence of gravity. Eventually it reached
a warmer zone, and here the ice started to melt. Gradually, out
of the melting ice, came the remains of Stardust. The wreckage hadnít
been found because for more than 50 years it had been buried inside
Stardust isnít the only plane to be buried inside a glacier. In
Greenland an entire squadron of second world war aircraft which
crash landed on top of the Greenland ice cap in 1942 were recently
discovered a hundred metres under the ice. They too had been buried
by years of snowfall which gradually hardened into ice, until planes
and glacier became one.
But having solved the mystery of why Stardust had disappeared for
so long, much hard work remained - particularly trying to explain
why the plane was more than 50 miles off course when it crashed.
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 planeís maximum altitude, so they could
fly over the top of the weatherÖ and the mountains. Stardustís superior
performance should have guaranteed itís 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 couldnít see the ground, so they had no
way of knowing that the jetstream was dramatically slowing them
down. It meant that although the crewís calculations showed they
had crossed the Andes, in fact the jetstreamís powerful wind meant
they were still on the wrong side of the mountains. So when Stardust
began itís 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
'STENDEC' - Stardustís Final Mysterious Message