The passenger manifest for British South American Airlines (BSAA) flight CS-59 might have made a perfect character list for a murder-mystery. Aboard were two businessman friends touring South America on the lookout for trade opportunities: a fun-loving Swiss and a self-made English executive. Also travelling were a Palestinian man who was rumoured to have a diamond stitched into his jacket, and a South American agent of the Dunlop tyre company who had once been the tutor to Prince Michael of Romania. The oldest passenger was in her seventies, a widow of German extraction returning to her Chilean home after an inconvenient World War had unexpectedly extended her stay abroad. And to add a whiff of espionage, a member of a select corps of British civil servants known as King’s Messengers joined the flight, carrying a diplomatic bag bound for the UK embassy across the border.

The date was August 2nd, 1947, and the flight was scheduled to depart from Buenos Aires, Argentina, bound for Santiago, Chile. The intrepid voyagers were to fly in the Star Dust, a shiny Lancastrian aircraft derived from the legendary Avro Lancaster World War II bomber. Its aircrew were ex-Royal Air Force to a chap, and the machine was captained by an experienced and decorated wartime flyer named Reginald Cook. Traversing the Andes Mountains in atrocious winter weather was an undertaking that would demand all his knowledge and skills, yet the journey should have been well within the capabilities of both man and machine.

The dependable airliner could fly at speeds of 310 miles per hour and at altitudes of well over 20,000 feet⁠⁠— higher than most aircraft of the time and sufficient to clear the tallest peaks in the area. Reginald Cook had been recruited to the airline from the elite RAF Bomber Command Pathfinder Force, and like all BSAA pilots had received additional navigational training.

The crew maintained Morse-code radio contact with the ground for the duration of the flight, and just before it was scheduled to arrive they signalled their approach. But then a mysterious signal was received at Santiago airfield⁠⁠—comprising the letters “S-T-E-N-D-E-C”. Aware of no such Morse abbreviation, the radioman at Santiago requested a repeat of the signal, and the same cryptic message was received twice more. This inexplicable message was the last one received from flight CS-59; it answered subsequent signals with silence, and it never arrived at its destination.

Mount Tupungato
Mount Tupungato

An extensive aerial search was mounted, while the Chilean and Argentine armies combed the area on foot. No trace of Star Dust was found. For over fifty years the disappearance ranked as one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the aviation world, and a lively and inventive mythology grew up around the incident.

The Lancastrian’s vanishing act happened at a time of considerable political turmoil in South America. Deteriorating Anglo-Argentine relations held intriguing implications for the contents of the diplomatic bag carried by the King’s Messenger; sabotage might have been a convenient way to ensure that it never arrived at its destination. Furthermore, it was hard to ignore the presence of a German-born woman on the flight at a time when American and British authorities were becoming increasingly frustrated with Argentina’s tendency to welcome Nazi criminals fleeing from war-torn Europe. There were myriad ways a Palestinian connection could be worked into a decent conspiracy theory⁠— and no doubt the Romanian Royal family too⁠— while the presence of businessmen on the flight raised the spectre of corporate skulduggery.

But the provoking possibilities of the passenger list were never reinforced by any definite facts. The utter completeness of Star Dust’s disappearance was so baffling that eventually even alien abduction was invoked; the 1970s Spanish UFO magazine ‘Stendek’ was named in misspelled reference to this theory. In the nearby Argentine countryside the story took on aspects of an old fashioned tall-tale, with many locals believing that somewhere in them-thar mountains was an aeroplane wreck from whose broken hold gold bullion spilled forth onto the rocky, frozen slopes. More sober-headed individuals considered the possibility that the aircraft had simply over-flown Chile entirely and ditched in the Pacific Ocean.

In 1998, two climbers spotted something out-of-place on the lower reaches of a glacier 15,000 feet up on Mount Tupungato, about fifty miles east of Santiago. A piece of machinery was lying on the ice, engraved with the letters “OLLS-ROYCE.” Lying around were strips of decidedly unfashionable pinstripe cloth, and mangled pieces of metal. Although the site was remote and inaccessible, there had been previous visitors to the mountain in the last fifty years⁠— but no reports of any wreckage like this.

They mentioned the discovery on their return, and others quickly picked up on its significance. Tantalized by the prospect of solving the Star Dust mystery, a joint military-civilian expedition of local mountaineers tried to re-visit the location the following year. They were beaten back by a vicious ice storm, so it wasn’t until January 2000 that the same team finally returned to the area. Not long after arriving at the base of Tupungato glacier, Sergeant Cardozo of the Argentine Army, and civilian climber Alejo Moiso, dropped to their knees in prayer. They had found the evidence they were looking for: aircraft debris and body parts, gruesomely altered by years of exposure to the cold and grinding ice. Soon they found identifiable wreckage, such as the Rolls-Royce engine and an Avro propeller, and they realized that this was indeed Star Dust’s final resting place.

The story excited great interest in Argentina, Britain, and across the world. In the ensuing weeks a much larger expedition was mounted by the Argentine Army with the aim of further documenting the discovery and recovering the human remains. Myriad journalists and a team of BBC documentary makers went in tow. Argentina’s Air Force-led Air Accident Investigation Board also became involved⁠— in a move smacking of inter-service rivalry, they visited the crash site by helicopter just before the Army team arrived on foot. The resulting investigations soon began to provide important pieces of the puzzle, and for the first time a reasonable account emerged of Star Dust’s last hours.

Heading for the seemingly impenetrable barrier of the Andes on a westbound track, Reginald Cook would have seen poor weather ahead. Confident in his machine, he would have climbed to near the aircraft’s limit of 24,000 feet to get above both cloud and mountain peaks. As the unpressurized aircraft gained altitude, Star Dust’s single flight attendant, ‘Stargirl’ Iris Evans, would have demonstrated the use of the cabin’s oxygen tubes to the varied passengers. With no fixed ground-based navigational beacons in the area, and of course no satellite navigation, the aircrew relied on compass, stopwatch and forecast wind speeds (‘dead-reckoning’) to estimate their position. Experienced airmen like ex-Pathfinder Cook were capable of impressive feats of navigation using these crude tools, even while out of sight of the ground.

Presumably, after droning above the dense blanket of cloud for several hours, Cook’s calculations told him that they had cleared the Andes and were nearing their destination. He started a gentle descent. The aircraft’s radio operator indicated their imminent arrival at Santiago, estimated at four minutes, and tapped out the mysterious letters ‘STENDEC’. Santiago’s radioman had no reason to question Star Dust’s position, although the meaning of the final signal perplexed him in spite of two clear repetitions.

A good fifty miles from the airfield, Star Dust crashed into the sheer upper section of Tupungato glacier, killing the passengers and crew instantly. The impact of the collision shook the mountainside, loosening a mighty mound of snow which developed into an avalanche that swallowed the wreckage whole. Hidden from the gaze of the subsequent searchers, snowfalls in the coming years buried the debris further until eventually Star Dust became part of the glacier, entombed in ice and moving inexorably down the mountain towards warmer air. With ponderous inevitability, the remains of the Lancastrian and its occupants slowly migrated through the ice over several decades, finally emerging from the glacier’s melt zone 51 years later.

Old weather charts suggest the most likely cause for Reginald Cook’s colossal navigational error: they show that at the time of the flight, conditions over that part of South America were perfect for the formation of a high-speed, high-altitude wind known to modern meteorologists as a jet stream. Jet streams are relatively narrow ‘rivers’ of fast-flowing air which meander across the globe in both hemispheres at high altitudes, and it seems that Cook and his crew unwittingly discovered this phenomenon during their ill-fated flight. Height and speed can vary but the direction is fixed by the Coriolis effect which is caused by the Earth’s rotation. The jet stream over the Andes in August 1947 was blowing west-to-east, at a speed of up to 200mph. At 24,000 feet, Star Dust would have just penetrated its lower reaches. Cook would have been totally unaware of this huge headwind; with the plane’s ground speed slowed down to a pitiful crawl, flight CS-59 had not even crested the Andes, let alone got near its destination, at the time of its ‘dead-reckoned’ arrival at Santiago.

During the war there were inklings of this meteorological phenomenon. In Europe high-flying Allied aircraft had occasionally come across inexplicable high-velocity winds, while in the Pacific theatre the effect was better recognized, with the USAAF’s early efforts to bomb Japan at altitude being foiled by bafflingly brisk west-to-east breezes. The Japanese themselves made use of those self-same air streams for their little-known balloon-bombing campaign of the American mainland. But it was to take over a decade for these observations to be drawn together into a coherent theory, capable of successfully predicting the location and characteristics of these powerful globe-spanning forces. To Captain Reginald Cook and the other occupants of Star Dust, this exotic ‘jet stream’ would have been hardly more feasible than spotting a UFO.

It seems that the diverse backgrounds of the passengers on that fateful flight were simply a reflection of South America’s turbulent post-war era, and nothing more. Yet there is one final mystery to keep the conspiracy theorists entertained. Despite numerous conjectures, the meaning of the final ‘STENDEC’ transmission has never been satisfactorily explained. And although the aforementioned account is the most scientifically plausible explanation, nobody knows for certain what happened that cold August afternoon. Star Dust’s emergence from the belly of a glacier was unexpected to say the least⁠— yet some of its secrets are likely to remain buried forever.