Solving The Mystery Of S-T-E-N-D-E-C

On 2 August 1947, the British South American Airways Flt CS 59 Star Dust was enroute to Santiago, Chile from Buenos Aires, Argentina when it mysteriously disappeared. An extensive search by British Airways personnel, Argentine, and Chile troops found no sign of the aircraft or its occupants. There seemed to be no reasonable explanation for the disappearance, as the flight crew were all experienced members of the RAF, and the plane, a civilian version of the Lancaster bomber, was less than two years old. As in many cases of lost airplanes, speculation ranged from conspiracy and sabotage to abduction by invaders from outer space.

The passenger list included a colorful, if not sinister, assortment of individuals, certainly enough to arouse curiosity. Among these were two businessmen, one British and one Swiss, and an agent from the Dunlop tire company (who was once a tutor to Prince Michael of Romania). Also onboard was a King’s Messenger carrying diplomatic documents from the UK to the South American embassy, possibly containing important information surrounding the political turmoil that existed under Juan Peron, president of Argentina at the time. Then there was the German emigrant, believed to be a Nazi sympathizer as was Peron, but in actuality was an elderly widow simply returning her husband’s ashes for burial. Adding to the mystery was the wealthy Palestinian, thought to be carrying a huge diamond in the lining of his coat, which later led to imaginary tales of lost treasure in the Andes. Although this does sound like a cast from an Agatha Christie novel, in retrospect, this diversified group were probably no more than typical post-war travelers.

In 1947, the aircrew of the Star Dust would have relied on wind, speed, and ground observation, rather than radar. Winds of the jet stream that exist at such high altitudes were not readily understood by pilots at the time. Severe weather, which was common in the Andes, offers a logical explanation for the crash of the Star Dust, but the plane should have been well above the mountains and the storm. At an altitude of 24,000 feet, the crew could very well have supposed they were flying over Santiago. In fact, the plane was actually over the glacier on the opposite side of the mountain. It is assumed that the Star Dust descended at a high rate of speed and flew directly into a snow bank, causing an avalanche that buried the plane and its passengers.

The disappearance of the Star Dust remained a mystery for some 50 years until a mountain guide found a Rolls Royce engine at the foot of the Tupungato glacier in the Andes in 1998. Further exploration of the area by a group of 100 soldiers, led by Dr Carlos Bauza from the Argentine army, uncovered another 10% of the wreckage including a propeller part, two wheels (one still inflated), an oxygen canister, and shattered pieces of the fuselage. GPS was used to record the position of each item of debris for reconstruction of the crash site. No identification could be made of the remains of the victims, however, because of the decomposition and degradation of DNA that had occurred. At this writing, at least 90% of the aircraft has not been found, but as global warming increases and the glacier continues to melt, it is quite possible that more of the debris will emerge.

In January of 2000, the BBC announced this exciting discovery heralding its historical significance as the last remaining Lancastrian aircraft in existence. Although this ended the speculation of alien abduction, we are left to ponder the mystery of the final message from the Star Dust.

Four minutes before its arrival, a Morse-code transmission was received with the message “ETA SANTIAGO 17.45 (standard time) STENDEC.” Various theories about the meaning of the last word of the message have been proposed, but none seem to be valid or documented. Some have suggested it was an acronym for Starting Enroute Descent, or a longer one, Severe Turbulence Encountered Now Descending Emergency Crash Landing, which seems doubtful. It is also improbable that S-T-E-N-D-E-C was an unintentional scrambling of Morse code by the plane’s radio operator, which resulted in an anagram for Descent.

It is relatively easy to interchange dots and dashes in Morse code, which would result in entirely different messages; for example, ST End EC (Standard Time, End, End of Message). However, the radio operator in Santiago requested and received the same clear message three times in quick succession, so misinterpretation does not seem likely. Neither does the message indicate problems on the aircraft – if there had been, then why not simply use the SOS distress signal recognized worldwide.

Perhaps the airplane’s radio operator meant to use Star Dust in his message, which is similar in code to S-T-E-N-D-E-C. But, most agree that planes are usually identified by their registration, not by personalization. Others have offered various interpretations, some credible and some simply amusing — Stardust Tank Empty No Diesel Expected Crash — not logical for an experienced radio operator. For whatever reason, we can only conclude that S-T-E-N-D-E-C was not the intended message

Star Dust and its puzzling message have received a lot of attention worldwide including the PBS NOVA program, “Vanished,” Matt Castle’s article on the damn interesting website, and Jay Rayner’s book “Star Dust Falling.” A Spanish UFO magazine adopted a variation of the message, using the name Stendek for its publication. Many knowledgeable people, Morse code experts, and even amateur sleuths who love a good mystery, have tried to solve the message of S-T-E-N-D-E-C. Perhaps, some of our readers will find this intriguing, as well, and present us with yet another interesting interpretation.

Sharon Slayton

Filed Under: Travel mysteries

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  1. Lisa says:

    I think the pilot could not spell, maybe dislexic, or could not think of a code to state what was going on because he knew they were going to all die. So I think that instead of some sort of code, perhaps S.T.E.N.D.E.C. was meant to be “descent”??

    Also, maybe the guy on the other end wrote descent down wrong and took it for a code instead of an actual word?? This is what I think and it will drive me nuts to figure it out anymore. This is a plausible explanation (I hope lol) and I am done….

  2. The explanation I’ve found most plausible is that the full message was ETASANTIAGO1745STEND+.

    The ETASANTIAGO1745 part, which the Chilean operator had no trouble understanding, meant that Star Dust would land at Santiago at 1745.

    The mysterious STENDEC following it had three parts: ST, END, EC.

    ST: This may have been intended by the Star Dust operator, Dennis Harmer, to be part of 1745, indicating Standard Time (or possibly Summer Time).

    END: Plaintext for end of message.

    EC: When E and C are run together this is Morse procode for EndCommunication. Equivalent procodes are AR and +. When either EC (. -.-.) or AR (.- .-.) in Morse are run together it has the form .-.-. which is +. All three are treated as the same procode, with EC and AR customarily being written with a bar over the two letters to indicate that they are to be run together as the one procode.

    So, if this were actually what Harmer intended, why didn’t the Chilean operator (or anyone else) figure it out?

    Some background is in order.

    ST: Chile hadn’t used daylight savings since 1932, 15 years earlier. A Chilean operator would therefore not be accustomed to seeing ST at the end of a time-of-day, and so would naturally interpret it as the start of a new word.

    END: It is not standard Morse operating procedure to use plaintext END for EndCommunication. The operator would therefore be likely to regard it as a continuation of the mystery word starting with ST.

    EC: Although the procode + was in use in Europe and North America at the time it was not taught as a Morse procode in Chile in the 1940s. Since + (.-.-.) is the procode for EndCommunication, an operator accustomed to this connection with EC may either explicitly key EC as two letters, or subconsciously separate the leading dit (E) from the rest of + (C) from force of habit. In either case the Chilean operator would hear EC as the further continuation of STEND, and be mystified by it.

    This still leaves one question. If END is nonstandard everywhere, why did Harmer prefix it redundantly to EC?

    This was not Star Dust’s first flight into Santiago. Harmer may well have previously learned that EC meant nothing in Chilean Morse, and therefore supplemented it with the nonstandard END on this trip as an improvised belt-and-suspenders, hoping that at least one of END or EC would make sense.

    Which it might have if anyone had thought to associate ST with 1745, and been familiar with the procode +.

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