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

The Stardust vanished without a trace NARRATOR (JACK FORTUNE): The Andes in South America. 53 years ago somewhere in these mountains a British passenger plane vanished into thin air and so began one of aviation's most enduring mysteries.

CAPT. FRANK TAYLOR (Former BSAA pilot): We heard all sorts of rumours about what could have happened to that plane.

RUTH HUDSON: You donít want to grieve for somebody that might not be dead.

NARRATOR: But earlier this year pieces of the plane mysteriously reappeared high on a remote glacier more than half a century after it had disappeared. The Argentine Army decided to undertake a gruelling expedition to one of the highest mountains in the Andes to try and find the rest of the plane. They hoped to discover enough information to help modern science solve the mystery of the plane that vanished.

HAZEL NORTH: We sat round and asked questions for years basically, the same questions that there were no answers for.

NARRATOR: On August 2nd 1947 a British Lancastrian airliner called Stardust took off on a routine passenger flight across South America. The flight was to be anything but routine. The scheduled British South American Airways flight should have taken under 4 hours to travel from Buenos Aires in Argentina to the Chilean capital Santiago across the Andes mountains. At the controls was a highly experienced pilot with a navigator and 3 other crew members. Some of the 6 passengers on board seemed to have stepped straight out of an Agatha Christie novel. Among them a Palestinian businessman with a large diamond sewn into the lining of his jacket, a German ťmigrť returning to Chile with the ashes of her dead husband and a British Kingís messenger, apparently carrying vital diplomatic correspondence. No-one on board was ever to reach their destination. Regular radio messages confirmed the plane was apparently on course. For the last 45 minutes Stardust should have crossed the Andes from Mendoza on the so-called central route close to Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America before turning south for Santiago. In 1947 no plane was better suited for the Andes crossing than a Lancastrian. Converted from the RAFís legendary Lancaster bomber, it could fly as high and as far as any airliner in the world. Just before Stardust was due in Santiago the plane contacted air traffic control. It confirmed it was due to arrive in just 4 minutes. Stardust should now have been just a few miles from touchdown in Santiago. Then the plane sent one final mysterious Morse Code message Ė S.T.E.N.D.E.C. Baffled by the unintelligible word, the radio operator in Santiago asked for clarification. The same word, S.T.E.N.D.E.C, was repeated twice more. After that nothing more was heard from the plane. It had vanished. It was the start of one of the great aviation mysteries. When the plane failed to arrive, the search began but there was no sign of the plane around Santiago, even though it had apparently been close to landing there when it disappeared, so the search spread out to cover the Andes mountains. Captain Frank Taylor was one of British South American senior pilots at the time. He flew out from Britain to join the search.

FRANK TAYLOR: We did a search, well over 9 hours actually and what we did was to go to the central pass and really scan that back, backwards and forth at, at high altitude.

NARRATOR: There were reports of faint radio messages from the missing plane so the search intensified. Planes criss-crossed a wider and wider area looking for any signs of wreckage.

FRANK TAYLOR: We went north to San Juan and we went south as well and we really had a very thorough look, but we found nothing.

NARRATOR: Stardust didnít seem to have crashed, but it simply disappeared. Then the rumours began. There were rumours of sabotage. The theory was compounded when two more planes of the same airline disappeared within months of each other. There were also rumours about the Kingís messenger. It was a time of tension between Britain and Argentina which led to speculation that the plane had been blown up to stop vital documents reaching Santiago. So inexplicable and complete was Stardustís disappearance that even alien abduction was suggested. The planeís final unexplained message, S.T.E.N.D.E.C, eventually inspired the name of the UFO magazine. Hazel North was just a child when her uncle, Stardustís Captain Reginald Cook, disappeared.

HAZEL NORTH: We got together as a family and wondered what had happened, why it was that the plane couldnít be found, why there wasnít any wreckage and there was no body and I think when you, when you can see a body you can come to terms with it, you can begin to grasp the reality of it, but we could never do that. We sat round and asked questions for years basically, the same questions that there were no answers for.

(ACTUALITY CHAT)

NARRATOR: Ruth, Stacy and Mary have spent a lifetime in the shadow of the Stardust mystery. Their uncle, Peter Young, was one of the missing passengers.

STACY MARKING: We didnít know heíd died Ďcos nobody knew what happened to the plane, just that the plane had vanished and indeed all these years nobodyís known whatís happened, what happened to the plane. Grandmother went on believing that he was still alive until she died, which must have been about 10 years later. She always.. So I think thereíd been that kind of, that thing of Shangri-La and that you could be up in the mountains and, and never found.

NARRATOR: For more than 50 years the legend of Stardustís disappearance continued to grow.

FRANK TAYLOR: And it, it remained to my mind for the last half a century. In fact I think I can safely say that I would have given up hope of ever hearing that theyíd found the aircraft.

NARRATOR: It looked as if Stardust had disappeared for ever. Then in January this year a mysterious discovery at last reopened the case of the plane that had vanished. An old Rolls Royce engine was found lying on a glacier high in the Andes mountains. It had appeared out of no-where and it belonged to Stardust. nearby were human remains. The sudden reappearance of a piece of Stardust only increased the mystery surrounding the plane. The engine had been found on a glacier below one of the biggest mountains in the Andes, Mount Tupangato. It was 50 miles from Santiago where Stardust had apparently been close to landing before it disappeared. This whole area had been systematically searched when Stardust disappeared in 1947. It had been visited since by mountaineers whoíd found nothing and yet now Stardust had suddenly reappeared. The discovery led to a storm of publicity. In February the Argentine Army called a press conference. They announced they were mounting an expedition into the Andes to investigate the mysterious reappearance of the plane. A team of air crash investigators were called in to reopen the Stardust investigation. Dr. Carlos Bauzá is the crash investigator chosen to join the Armyís attempt to reach the wreckage.

DR CARLOS BAUZÁ (Crash Investigation Team): When the wreckage of the plane was found and it was confirmed that it was Stardust the reaction in Argentina, and probably all around the world, was one of amazement. I too was amazed. I thought it was impossible that it should reappear after 52 years. The mere fact that it had appeared more than half a century after it had vanished lent it a great aura of mystery. How and why did it happen? All those in the world of aviation were surprised that it could have been found.

(SOLDIERS CHANTING)

NARRATOR: The Army prepared equipment and supplies for 100 soldiers to survive for 10 days in the mountains. The trucks roll out at dawn. Their mission is to search in the mountains for any clues that can shed light on what happened to Stardust, why a plane thought lost for ever had suddenly reappeared 53 years later. They also planned to bring back human remains in the hope they can be identified and returned to their families. In the distance the first glimpse of their destination, Mount Tupangato, 50 miles and 5 days away. Theyíre heading towards the heart of the Andes, the second highest range of mountains in the world. After a day theyíve left the foothills behind. The lorries grind up high into the mountains. There are no bridges, but they still have to cross several icy rivers. Theyíve brought 100 mules which will take over from the lorries when the track runs out. After 2 days the mules take over.

(ACTUALITY CHAT)

Theyíre entering a hostile world of rock and ice and the air is getting thinner. Eventually even the mules find the going tough and things begin to go wrong.

CARLOS BAUZÁ: Itís been a very hard day. Four or five mules have been hurt, some quite seriously. The path was very, very rough. We had to create several new paths in certain places and the mules found it very difficult.

NARRATOR: After 3 days theyíre now in the shadow of Mount Tupangato. Somewhere up there is the missing plane, but now the terrain is too rough even for the mules. The final march to the glacier will have to be on foot. Itís the 4th day. The expedition is now above 13,000ft, higher than most mountains in the Alps and approaching the massive Mount Tupangato. Below the towering mountain is the Tupangato glacier. Its lower section is so completely covered in rock from the surrounding mountains that the ice beneath is invisible. Somewhere on this rock-strewn glacier lies the key to the Stardust mystery. The wreckage site is now only a few hours away, but with light fading and snow in the air they set up camp for the night. They now have supplies for just 48 hours, so in the morning they will have less than 2 days to find the wreckage and solve the mystery of what happened to Stardust. Dawn on the 5th day. Itís minus 8 degrees. Theyíve reached the glacier and the hunt for Stardust has begun. The plan is to comb the entire glacier to find as many pieces of Stardust as possible.

CARLOS BAUZÁ: This is the whole area of the wreckage and weíre going to put two men to the left, two men to the right and one man each 5 metres here and then going climbing all side finding the wreckage.

NARRATOR: But first they have to find where the wreckage is and after 2 hours walking on the rock-covered glacier they found nothing. Then their luck changes.

CARLOS BAUZÁ: Over there the first, the first wreckage of the plane on that white spot over there with a red rock. Two fingers to the right. This probably the fuselage. What do I think? It means Stardust, Stardust, Stardust, the beginning of a word.

NARRATOR: So this is where Stardust met its end. Now the investigation into the crash can begin. The team need to discover why the plane disappeared so many years ago, only to suddenly reappear on a glacier 50 miles off course. To learn more Carlos needs to get an impression of the pattern of the wreckage over the whole glacier.

(ACTUALITY CHAT)

Analysing the wreckage distribution is crucial because different types of crash leave very different signatures on the ground. For example, a bomb would spread the wreckage over a huge area as the plane broke up in mid-air and the wind carried debris over many square miles, but if the plane had lost control and dived straight into the glacier then the wreckage would be concentrated in a very small area. Carlos uses GPS, the global positioning system, to log the position of each piece of debris as itís found so that the spread of the wreckage can be accurately reconstructed. The first pieces of wreckage have been found on one side of the rock-covered section of the Tupangato glacier. The patrol fans out searching for more. Five hours later and scattered across the glacier theyíve found several more shattered pieces of wreckage, but so far theyíve found surprisingly little of the huge plane. Then a dramatic new discovery. The Lancastrianís two massive main wheels are lying on the glacier just a few metres apart. After more than 50 years one is still fully inflated.

CARLOS BAUZÁ: The main wheels are in this normal position. The pilot donít put in the landing position the, the wheels.

NARRATOR: If the pilot was preparing for a crash landing, for example because of engine failure, he might have lowered the wheels into the landing position, but these wheels are intact. It means they were retracted in their normal flying position at the time of the crash. If they had been lowered for a crash landing they would have been damaged in the impact. Carlos sets off to try and find more clues. He wants to find the engine whose discovery earlier in the year triggered the expedition.

(ACTUALITY CHAT)

The Lancastrianís Rolls Royce engine had clearly been battered by the crash impact, but Carlos needs to find out if engine failure caused the crash. The key to finding this out is to find the engineís propeller. The propeller can give vital clues about the performance of the engine at the time of the crash. If Stardustís engines were working normally when it crashed the propellers would have been turning at the moment of impact and would show a particular type of damage. This modern propeller shows the kind of damage that occurs if an engine crashes when itís working normally. If the propellers are rotating at high speed when they hit the ground the tips will be scarred and bent back. Carlos finds the propeller nearby and it only takes him a moment to recognise the significance of the damage it shows.

CARLOS BAUZÁ: See the point of the propeller, this one and this one. The propeller was in movement when the, when the plane crash.

NARRATOR: The propeller shows that this engine was working normally before the crash. Stardust had 4 engines and mysteriously thereís still no sign of the other 3 but nothing discovered so far suggests that engine failure caused the crash. More and more fragmented pieces of wreckage are found across the glacier. The GPS logging is revealing a crash site concentrated in an area of about 1 square mile on the lower section of the glacier. Despite searching well outside this area thereís no sign of any more debris. This crash site is too small for a bomb but one thing is becoming obvious: every piece of wreckage is crushed and crumpled, the signs of a massive high speed impact. This pattern of wreckage is exactly what would be expected if the plane flew straight into the glacier but there appears to be no reason for the plane to have crashed. The picture so far is of a plane apparently flying normally right up to the final moment. No explosion and no engine failure. The discoveries so far have only deepened the mystery of what happened to Stardust. Then the team find the first evidence of the people who lost their lives in Stardust.

CARLOS BAUZÁ: Itís a womanís shoe.

NARRATOR: The soldiers gather the scattered remains of several bodies. None are recognisable.

(ACTUALITY CHAT)

It seems clear that the people on board Stardust died at the same instant the plane crashed.

CARLOS BAUZÁ: I suppose by the, the speed that that aeroplane crashes here nobody suffer any pain.

NARRATOR: Carlos and the Army team have now thoroughly searched the glacier. Theyíve mapped all the wreckage there is, but the mystery continues to deepen. 90% of the plane is still missing. Thereís still no evidence to explain why Stardust crashed 50 miles from the airport it was supposedly only minutes away from. Nor are there any clues as to why the plane disappeared, only to reappear on the glacier 53 years later. Carlos will need help if he is to unravel the mystery any further. With the work on the glacier finished thereís an impromptu service to remember the dead. Theyíve found the remains of what they believe to be 4 of the 11 people on board. No-one knows which of the 11 theyíve found.

(ACTUALITY SPANISH SERVICE)

Ahead lies the difficult task of identifying the human remains and reuniting them with the families who have waited so long.

STACY MARKING: I feel we owe him to do everything we can to make sure that thereís a proper burial and a proper memorial and everything.

(ACTUALITY SPANISH SERVICE)

HAZEL NORTH: I think it would be wonderful if Reginald was identified. We all want him home. Heís been away for 53 years and we want this tragedy over.

(ACTUALITY SPANISH)

NARRATOR: Reuniting the remains found on Tupangato with their surviving relatives will not be easy. In Buenos Aires the forensic service begins work on the human remains. They start to unravel the remains and identify what they can. Two female hip bones, clearly from different women, are identified. There were only two women on Stardust, a BSAA stewardess, Iris Evans, and the German ťmigrť, Marta Limpert. But thatís as far as the forensic examination can go. With no facial features or even dental records the only chance to investigate the rest of the remains is through DNA profiling. Relatives of all those who were lost in the crash have been asked to give blood so that DNA profiles can be created. The aim is to try and match these to DNA profiles from the Stardust remains.

WOMAN: Like to press firmly on that for me. Thank you.

NARRATOR: The problem is that the remains from Stardust have been deteriorating for 53 years and the DNA has become seriously degraded. Because only tiny fragments of DNA remain, the DNA strands will have to be amplified many millions of times to produce a profile. Through this method 7 more profiles are identified in addition to the 2 women on board. The tests to link these profiles to the surviving relatives are still on-going. It is uncertain who, if any, of those on board Stardust will be identified. The crash investigators now face the task of making sense of what had so far proved a completely baffling investigation. Several mysteries remained. No-one knew why Stardust, apparently flying normally, flew straight into a glacier 50 miles off course and just as strange, why it disappeared only to suddenly reappear 53 years later. Carlos wonders whether the glacier itself could hold the key to the Stardust mystery. He has met up with his colleague, air crash investigator, Carlos Sorini in Mendoza city. Theyíve arranged to meet an expert on glaciers, Dr. Juan Carlos Leiva.

CARLOS BAUZÁ: We found the wreckage of an aircraft over an area of more than one kilometre.

NARRATOR: After reviewing the information and the role of the Tupangato glacier, Dr. Leiva confronts them with a startling conclusion. He tells them the wreckage isnít at the actual crash site at all. Thereís a crucial fact to consider: glaciers move. Glaciers are enormous rivers of ice moving slowly downhill under the influence of gravity. Thereís a crucial implication. It means that 53 years ago Stardust crashed not where the wreckage is lying today, but higher up the glacier. It could well have crashed right underneath the sheer snow-covered east face of Mount Tupangato. This reassessment of where Stardust crashed might hold the key to explaining one of the great mysteries Ė why the plane wasnít found despite the massive search in 1947.

CARLOS BAUZÁ: I think the impact of the aircraft against the mountain produced a vibration that caused an avalanche which covered the wreckage in snow

NARRATOR: If Carlos is right, then within seconds the avalanche would have buried Stardust, but that was just the first stage in Stardustís long disappearance. After the avalanche the glacier itself would have swallowed the plane.

DR JUAN CARLOS LEIVA (Glaciologist): The ice in the upper part of the glacier incorporates the wreckage which must have been stuck in the ice and then moved right down.

NARRATOR: Year by year, layers of snowfall would have buried the wreckage deeper and deeper. Gradually Stardust would have become part of the glacier itself, travelling slowly downhill, not on the surface of the ice, but deep inside it. It lay hidden inside the glacier for another 53 years. Itís not the first time a plane has been swallowed by a glacier. In Greenland this Second World War fighter was recently discovered 250ft under an ice sheet. It had been abandoned, with 5 other planes, on the surface of the ice in 1942. Over the years they were buried in snow. The snow hardened into ice. Planes and glacier became one. But thereís one crucial difference: the Greenland planes were still buried deep inside the ice when they were found. Stardust had reappeared on the surface of the Tupangato glacier. Dr. Leiva believes he can explain Stardustís sudden reappearance, the final link in the mystery of Stardustís disappearance.

(ACTUALITY CHAT)

The crucial clue comes from the lower rock-covered section of the Tupangato glacier. Stardust crashed in the upper area where the plane was buried and became part of the glacier. Over the years the wreckage travelled downhill inside the glacier until it reached the lower rock-covered section. Here at the lower altitude itís warmer and the glacier starts to melt. Anything inside the glacier, rocks or wreckage, will gradually melt out onto the surface. 90% of the wreckage is still entombed in the ice, but if the theory is right it too will reappear on the surface of the Tupangato glacier over the next few years. The glacier explains why Stardust had disappeared for so long and then suddenly reappeared. But that left the last puzzle still unsolved. There was no explanation for why Stardust had crashed when there was apparently nothing wrong with the plane. The investigators knew from the wreckage that the crash was a high energy impact. The plane was apparently flying normally and they had one other clue. The plane had crashed 50 miles away from Santiago, even thought the crew thought they were close to landing so they focussed on one key factor that could have caused the crash Ė navigation error. Today sophisticated navigation systems mean itís almost impossible for an airline crew not to know where they are every second theyíre in the air but 53 years ago it was a different story.

FRANK TAYLOR: Youíve got to realise that in those days things were pretty primitive in certain parts of the world. We didnít have radio navigational aids which would tell us precisely where we were.

NARRATOR: But even allowing for the lack of modern navigation aids, Stardustís highly experienced crew should not have been 50 miles off course. There had to be a reason for such a massive navigation error. The investigators knew from the weather reports at the time of the crash that conditions were bad over the mountains and Stardustís crew had also known about the bad weather.

(ACTUALITY CHAT)

So to avoid the bad weather they had radioed their intention to climb to 24,000ft above the cloud and the mountains. On its own bad weather didnít explain the crash because the Lancastrianís ability to fly high should have guaranteed safety. The investigators believe that once Stardust was above the clouds and the mountains at 24,000ft the crew decided to fly in a straight line to Santiago. Although they didnít know it, by trying to fly over the tops of the mountains they were sealing their fate. They were about to encounter an invisible meteorological phenomenon which they knew nothing about: the jetstream. This powerful, high altitude wind only develops above the normal weather systems. It blows at speeds of well over 100 miles an hour, but in 1947 very few planes ever flew high enough to encounter the jet stream, so the phenomenon itself was still largely unknown. Stardust was an exception. It could fly this high. The investigators realised that a head on encounter with the invisible jetstream would have dramatically slowed Stardust down without the crew knowing it. This could be the key to their huge navigation error.

CARLOS SORINI (Crash Investigation Team): Because we have the weather charts today and because of the way the jetstream develops, we can say that on the day of the crash conditions were ideal for the jetstream to occur. But the flight crew had absolutely no knowledge of it at all, because in those days nothing was known about this type of phenomenon.

NARRATOR: Analysis of the old weather charts showed that on the day of the crash Stardust was flying straight into the jet stream, which was blowing at around 100 miles an hour, but crucially the clouds meant that the crew was unable to see the ground which would tell them where they were, so they had no way of knowing that the jet stream was slowing them down, destroying all their navigational calculations.

(ACTUALITY CHAT)

Using their modern day knowledge of the jet stream the investigating team have now reconstructed the last 45 minutes of Stardustís doomed flight. At 5pm on August 2nd, 1947 Stardust radioed its position near to Mendoza. The crew could still see the ground, but ahead the mountains were covered in cloud. Stardust told air traffic control that it intended to climb to 24,000ft avoiding the bad weather. From now onwards the ground would be invisible beneath the clouds. As Stardust climbed it began to enter the jetstream and slow down dramatically, but the crew had no knowledge of this. They believed that they were making much faster progress. At 24,000ft Stardust was flying almost directly into the jetstream which was blowing at around 100 miles an hour. The jetstreamís effect was devastating. At 5.33 the crew was convinced they were crossing the mountains into Chile, but they werenít. They radioed their time of arrival as 5.45. In fact the plane was still on the wrong side of the mountains.

CARLOS SORINI: There is no doubt that according to their calculations they clearly thought that they were on the other side of the mountains.

NARRATOR: Confident the Andes were well behind them, Reginald Cook began the descent, sure that when Stardust emerged from the clouds it would be above Santiago airport. In fact they were descending straight towards Mount Tupangato which was still invisible in the clouds ahead. Disaster was seconds away.

CARLOS BAUZÁ: I think that in the final minutes of the flight the pilot was quite sure of what he was doing and felt quite relaxed. The passengers would never at any moment have realised what was happening. I donít think it was a bad way to die because you go from feeling relaxed to suddenly not feeling anything.

NARRATOR: Hopelessly off course because of the jetstream Stardust flew straight into the cloud-covered glacier. After the devastating crash Stardust was buried within seconds. it vanished from sight. Over time the wreckage was swallowed by the glacier. For the next 53 years it travelled down towards the glacierís zone of melting. Now, finally it is beginning to melt out onto the surface. The mystery of what happened to Stardust is almost over. But one small part of the legend still remains, a final riddle which science has been unable to solve: S.T.E.N.D.E.C, Stardustís last apparently unintelligible radio message sent just before the crash. Itís a mystery that Sorini can shed no further light on.

CARLOS SORINI: "Stendec" is a word we have thought a lot about. We have tried to decipher the word and find out what it means. It was, is, and perhaps will continue to be, a mystery.

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

'STENDEC' - Stardustís Final Mysterious Message

Further information