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You are here: BBC > Science & Nature > TV &†Radio†Follow-up > Horizon

Vanished: The Plane That Disappeared
BBC2 9:00pm Thursday 2nd November 2000

'STENDEC' - Stardustís final mysterious message

Carlos Bausa at 'Star Dust' crash site in Tupangato, Andes, Argentina. Although science has solved most of the mysteries surrounding Stardustís disappearance, one mystery still remains. Just before the plane disappeared, it sent one final message in Morse code which was picked up by the radio operator in Santiago, where the plane was due to land. The full message sent at 17.41 hrs was as follows:

'ETA [estimated time of arrival] Santiago 17.45 hrs STENDEC'

The final apparently unintelligible word "STENDEC" has been a source of mystery, confusion and intrigue ever since. So mysterious was the disappearance of the plane - coupled with itís final strange message - that Stardust became entwined in UFO theories. The word STENDEC was corrupted into Stendek and became the name of a Spanish UFO magazine.

Now the plane has been found we know that it wasnít spirited away by aliens. However, the mystery of the final radio message remains. What was experienced radio operator Dennis Harmer trying to say? In 1947 the official report into Stardustís disappearance had this to say on the subject:

The 17.41 signal was received by Santiago only 4 minutes before the ETA. The Chilean radio operator at Santiago states that the reception of the signal was loud and clear but that it was given out very fast. Not understanding the word "STENDEC" he queried it and had the same word repeated by the aircraft twice in succession. A solution to the word "STENDEC" has not been found. From this time on nothing further was heard from the aircraft and no contact was made with the control tower at Santiago. All further calls were unanswered.

Before this message a series of entirely routine messages had been transmitted by the plane, reporting their position and intended course.

Since the programme transmitted we have received literally hundreds of messages offering explanations of STENDEC. Below we include a selection of the ideas. But before that, to help understand the problem, here is a website which translates English into Morse code. Any explanation for STENDEC depends on an understanding of Morse code.

"STENDEC" in Morse code is:

... / - / . / -. / -.. / . / -.-.
S   T   E   N   D   E   C


ANAGRAMS

The Theory
Many people wrote pointing out that STENDEC is an anagram of descent. Variations suggested that the crew might have been suffering from hypoxia (lack of oxygen) as the Lancastrian was unpressurised and the plane was flying at 24000 feet, which would have led the radio operator to scramble the message. Other explanations for the appearance of an anagram in an otherwise routine message included a dyxlexic radio operator and/or receiver in Santiago, and playfulness on behalf of Stardustís radio operator.

Discussion
Whilst itís true that the Lancastrian was unpressurised, the crew were all supplied with oxygen. A faulty oxygen system canít be ruled out, but seems unlikely. Furthermore, whilst it is relatively easy to imagine STENDEC being scrambled into descent in English, it is much harder in Morse code.
-.. / . / ... / -.-. / . / -. / - (Descent)
... / - / . / -. / -.. / . / -.-. (STENDEC)

And even less likely that the same morse dyslexia would be repeated three times.

STENDEC/Stardust

The Theory
The radio operator meant to say Stardust. STENDEC and Stardust have some similarities both in Morse code and English
... /- /.-/ .-./ -../ ..-/ .../ - (Stardust)
... / - / . / -. / -.. / . / -.-. (STENDEC)



Discussion
They may be similar, but it is still hard to imagine an experienced radio operator getting his planeís name wrong on 3 occasions. Furthermore, aircraft were usually referred to by their registration (in Stardustís case G-AGWH) rather than the romantic names airlines gave them. And finally, there seems to be no reason to transmit the planeís name at the end of a routine message.

INITIALS

The Theory
Various people came up with intriguing, imaginative and sometimes amusing messages based on using STENDEC as a series of initials: Hence we have:
"Santiago tower message now descending entering cloud" (or "Santiago tower aircraft now descending entering cloud")
"Stardust tank empty no diesel expected crash"
"Systems to the end navigation depends entirely on circle" (although this correspondent conceded that "the last bit may be a bit muddled").
"Santiago tower even navigator doesnít exactly know"

Discussion
All these variations seem implausible to a greater or lesser extent. Morse code experts we have consulted believe that it is highly unlikely that a radio operator would resort to convoluted messages based on initials.

Explanations based in Morse code

The theory
Perhaps the most plausible explanations we have heard are firmly based in Morse code, and have come from people highly familiar with this method of communication. Several people have pointed out that the sign off for a Morse code message is AR. The Morse for AR is
.- /.-.
which is identical - although with different spacings - to EC
. /-.-.

Similarly, another Morse expert has pointed out that to attract attention it is common to use the dots and dash for V as a calling up sign. Again, this is the same as ST, only with different spacing.
...- (V)
... /- (ST)


That would leave just "END", sandwiched between a signal attracting attention, and another signing off.

Another explanation, advanced at the time of the disappearance, was that a small rearrangement of the dots and dashes (for example losing the first two dots) yields ETA LATE - apparently a common method of signalling a late arrival amongst RAF radio operators.
. / - / .- / .-.. / .- / - / . (ETA LATE)
... / - / . / -. / -.. / . / -.-. (STENDEC)



Discussion
Why would the operator say end? Possibly because he was finishing Morse transmissions prior to picking up voice communication. Voice communication was only possible at this time when the aircraft was very close to the airport, and one pilot and radio operator who flew at this time reports that it was common to inform the airport that Morse transmissions were closing down. The problem? Why would the operator use a calling up sign in the middle of his message?

And similarly why would an operator say ETA LATE when he had only just confirmed his time of arrival?

CONCLUSION

Some things can be said with some degree of certainty. It seems clear that STENDEC is not what the message was meant to say. The word is meaningless in almost every language, and trying to use it as an acronym or an abreviation yields little fruit.

It also seems clear that the message was not anticipating a crash, otherwise it would not have been repeated three times. And why not use SOS, the internationally accepted distress signal?

Fiddling with Morse code seems to offer the best chance of getting close to an understanding of the message. But in the absence of a new clue the truth is we will never know for sure what that final enigmatic radio message was meant to mean.

A FINAL WORD

Horizon regrets that - due to the sheer volume of correspondence - we are unable to respond to further suggestions about the meaning of Stendec.

Back to 'Vanished: The Plane That Disappeared' programme page

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