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Vanished!
Solve the Mystery of STENDEC
Readers' Theories

Set #1
Posted January 31, 2001
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Dear NOVA,

I am a radio amateur who actively uses the Morse Code.

A common abbreviation for the word "schedule," or "scheduled," in Morse Code, is SKED.

AR, as described in your Web page, is the common abbreviation for End Of Message.

Well, STENDEC has the exactly the same dot and dash sequence as SKED AR!

When sent fast, SKED AR could easily be copied as STENDEC, especially for someone who is not familiar with Morse abbreviations.

Thus, my guess for the STENDEC message is:

"ETA SANTIAGO 1745 HRS SKED AR"

Thus,

"Estimated Time of Arrival Santiago 17:45 hours scheduled.

End-of-Message."

Regards,

Kok Chen
Amateur Radio Operator AA6TY

Note that the Morse code symbols for STENDEC are also in the correct order for the phrase: VR NEAR.

Perhaps the radio operator was trying to indicate that they were "very near" Santiago.

Adam Zaner
Dallas, TX

"STENDEC" = "Starting en-route descent"

Check to see if the radio operator came from a previous job where acronyms were used for normal flight ops radio communications. Without en-route radar, maybe flight crews were required to communicate the different flight profiles. In this case, the radio operator replaced 21 Morse code letters with 7 Morse code letters.

Daryll

CQ CQ WGBH DE K2KK KN

Any CW (Morse code) op would know this immediately. Your Stardust show was very interesting. I am an amateur radio operator (ham) for 50 years. My call letters are K2KK. The above message means "Calling WGBH this is amateur station K2KK over to you."

The message should read: " V ETA I AR "

"V" means attention, attention! "ETA" means "Estimated Time of Arrival. "I" (eye) means "Incorrect, we will send you a new ETA shortly, standby." "AR" means "end of message." (In Morse code the A and R are run together, without a time space. This is common practice. Note that the plane operator did not send SK, which would mean - "end of all message work." AR implies, in this case, that more info will be coming.

I have been an amateur radio operator for 50 years. My radio call is K2KK. I believe the plane radio operator was sending too fast, and the ground operator should have sent QRS, which means "please send slower." The ground operator may not have been familiar with the "ETA I " code used by RAF radio operators. It would be interesting to verify my theory with an RAF veteran. Maybe the pilots suspected that their DR (deduced reckoning) position and resulting ETA was incorrect and were busy calculating a new DR and ETA when the plane crashed. Maybe the pilots were not paying attention to their altitude while they were doing the ETA recaluation.

NOVA shows are "FB." Hams send this all the time. Short for "fine business" and really means GREAT!

Fritz Greetham
North Syracuse, NY

I held an FCC 2nd class radiotelegraph license that I used as a radio officer in the U.S. Merchant Marine 1990-1995. The only thing I have to offer which has not been theorized to this point is the first three letters "STE", which could also be combined as the prosign for "Understood" or ...-.

I would also tend to agree that the "EC" could be the prosign for "AR" or end of transmission, but every radio operator has his or her quirks.

If both of these are true, then that leaves the middle part "ND" or -.-.. which could be any number of combinations for shorthand such as: "TED", "TAE", "KI", "ND", "NTI" or any number of such. I wonder about the difference in experience in usage of both operators. As every radio operator knows, the absolute most distinctive fists (or "worst" if so inclined) in the world belong to Greek radio operators. Did previous CW messages with same aircraft radio operator show similar misunderstandings or typos because the receiving op kept misreading the transmitting ops fist, word, or character spacing? Or, some such local distinction in the Chilean operators may account for some local "shorthand" other than standard "Q" signals used worldwide (such as QTH for location—lat/long, etc.), just like special symbols the Russian radio operators use? Just speculation on my part here but, perhaps an investigation of previous messages or local CW shorthand practice may be the only thing to shed light at this point—especially if there are scratched-out corrections.

Kim Smith

Please add my vote to the following scenario.

I think the radio operator sent the message in the final moments of the flight. Rather than SOS in anticipation of his survival, he sent V END V to advertise a most certain "crash."

As a retired commercial pilot I have great respect for the operator's attempt to explain Stardust's situation after a glimpse of an impossible situation—the momentary sight of the mountain. The plane was probably in the overpowering descending wind on the leeward side of the mountain and unable to escape.

Thank you for the excellent program and the posted theories.

Lee Saunders

Hi, this might seem a little bizarre, but it's a theory. Stardust's last flight was Captain Cook's "first flight as Captain of a complete service from London to Santiago via Buenos Aires, and also his first flight as Captain trans-Andes" as stated in the 1947's official accident report. It was also first officer N.H. Cook's "first crossing of the Andes." Well, maybe they were excited about it, and the message STENDEC was an abbreviation for the message "Stardust Ends (its First Flight with new Capt. and 1st officer as they were)." Perhaps they planned to explain it when they arrived or thought that the operator would understand the circumstances.

Your television broadcast stated that, if the pattern of dots and dashes was slightly rearranged, the last two letters of STENDEC could be made to mean "end of message." If "ST" stands for Stardust and "END" means exactly what it looks like, it could have been sort of a triumphant abbreviation for what they thought they had almost accomplished with their new positions.

It is also a possibility that some sort of situation arose on the plane that required the Morse code operator to encrypt his message. I'm not suggesting alien abduction, but rather demands from a passenger or crewperson in revolt. Perhaps a message that could be reassembled to be meaningful, as your broadcast depicted, but that was still gibberish in itself was sent to the Chilean operator intentionally. The Morse code operator might have hoped that the Chilean would recognize that something was wrong and think it an SOS signal. Also, if it were some sort of code, the slight difference between the Spanish and English alphabets might have had an impact on the decryption process, especially since I believe that "ll" and "ch" were still in usage as separate letters of the Spanish alphabet at that time.

Thanks for your time.

Robin Yoerger

The original message was "ETA SANTIAGO 17.45 HRS STENDEC"

I would like to take off of another theory that said the radio operator was signing off Morse and switching to voice. If we take the word STENDEC and use the theory that the letters ST "... - " was not ST at all, it was a letter V "...-" and then the letters END were ment to mean END and the letters EC ". .-.-." were really the letters AR ".- .-." Our original message now reads: ETA SANTIAGO 17.45 HRS V END AR

The letter V in Morse code is not only used as a call up signal but it is also a TEST letter. So if the radio operator was switching from Morse to voice at the end of his last message, he sent a test signal "V" and the word END, the letters AR for OVER or End of Transmission.

The radio operator in Santiago said the Morse signal was sent very fast. Well, very fast to a person who operates Morse code daily would most likely be in the 25 to 35 words-per-minute range. An operator listening to Morse at that speed could easily mistake a V for an ST or an EC for an AR. Not to mention that the sending operator was using what is known now days as a straight key. While sending at speeds above 20 wpm is demanding with this type of keyer it can be done. But done with a few mistakes here and there also....

I am a radio amateur and have been using morse code for 10 years. I also use a straight keyer and could see how my theory is a very good possibility.

Gary Honas

Following on the idea that the final two characters of the Stardust's final message were "AR", indicating that the radio operator was ceasing Morse code transmissions, a few possibilities present themselves.
  1. STRD AR.
    This results from playing with the spacing of the dots and dashes prior to the AR code. While pilots and radiomen usually use the aircraft registration number as a call sign, there is no law that says that the radio operator couldn't have used an abbreviation for Stardust.

  2. GUL AR.
    The registration number of the accident aircraft was G-AGWH. Pilots in the U.S. routinely drop the national character "N" from the beginning of their registration number in radio transmissions, and I think that it would be safe to assume that the Brits might do that too. Oddly enough, a query to an aircraft accident database on the Web listed another BSAAC Lancastrian, registration G-AGUL. Other BSAAC aircraft (lost in accidents, since this was after all an accident database) carried registrations G-AGWG and G-AGWK. It might be possible that the radio operator had a lapse of memory and gave the end of another airplane's registration number followed by the signoff code. The problem with this theory is that the beginning of the sequence GUL AR looks nothing like the beginning of STENDEC. The question though, is: Has anyone compared the STENDEC phrase against a complete list of BSAAC Lancastrian registration numbers?

  3. H UL AR.
    This is a real stretch, on the order of the initials theory, but it is an easier misinterpretation for the receiver than the theory above. H for Harmer, the radio operator. UL for the last two (and only unique) characters of G-AGUL (the wrong airplane again), and AR, goodbye.
And with that I submit my thoughts on the STENDEC message.

Dave Tenney
Broadcast and Computer Engineer
Meadows School of the Arts
Southern Methodist University

As an airline, maritime U.S. Navy, and general aviation pilot who used to be a crash investigator, I have encountered situations where a radio operator (like in a P-3 Orion) will abbreviate messages to those individuals he thinks can interpret them, though it may take a little good-natured deciphering. This is especially true if professional or "national" (country of origin) egos are involved or if two operators personally know each other.

These types of transmissions rarely occur when exchanging vital information. However, boredom and creative expression may creep into the formula to help spice up a routine radio call. After many, many hours of routine flight time over the course of a day or a career, it is a possibility that the crew or radio operator of Stardust would send non-critical message "STENDEC" just to see if the ATC controllers would correctly interpret it. Even if not correctly interpreted by ATC, it may not have interested the crew to help identify the true intent of the message. After all, if you're bored and going to be landing in a few minutes anyway, what's better than waiting to see if someone can solve a little puzzle. The crew may have even looked forward to discussing the interpretation of the message when they arrived.

I'm not saying that the crew of Stardust was complacent or unprofessional. But after a career of flying thousands of hours, individuals tend to use shortcuts and make routine information more interesting. Therefore, it is my opinion that "STENDEC" is nothing more than some kind of verbage for a routine aviation occurrence or phenomenon.

My best guess as to the meaning would be - STart of ENroute DEsCent or STarting ENroute DEsCent

Another would be - Start Top of ENroute DEsCent or Starting Top of Enroute DEsCent

Possibly even - STarted ENroute DEsCent (with even a Zulu time to follow, but the crash occurred before that time was transmitted)

Finally, something slightly different - STratus (layer or layers) on ENroute DEsCent

I believe one shouldn't read too much into this one radio transmission. It certainly didn't have anything to do with the crash or wasn't an effort to warn the world of some mysterious, otherworldly phenomenon.

My theory may take some of the wild mystery or spookiness out of Stardust's last transmission. However, this radio call will probably be correlated to some kind of aeronautical verbage in the language of the day, be it standard/sub-standard/non-standard terminology.

Good luck,

Dick Schulz

I had never heard of the Stardust story until I watched NOVA tonight. It's a fascinating and tragic story.The STENDEC mystery prompted some discussion between my son and me. We came up with the hypoxia/anagram/"descent" theory right away and wrongly assumed the rest of the world was pretty slow for not noticing it. Then we visited the NOVA Web site...........

Here's a theory from the edge: Human nature being what it is, people tend to horse around. They are not stiff, formal, and professional 24 hours a day. Is it possible, despite (ahem) the strict rules governing aircraft and radio operation, that the radio operator was feeling a little bored, or perhaps playful? After studying the Morse code translations—given the fact that it would have been the final Morse transmission for the flight anyway—I wonder if the Stardust operator was signing off with some kind of flourish, maybe even a reference to a popular musical tune? What I mean to say is: Do the dots and dashes of "STENDEC" fit with a song rhythm of the time? We are all familiar with the "Shave and a haircut; two bits!" line, which would be __ . . __ . pause . .

Getting the rhythm would be the problem, and would a radio operator repeat the same 'joke' two more times?

Regards,

Dave Walker Sr., Dave Walker Jr.

Hello,

It has been stated that the message was not intended to say "STENDEC." I find this highly improbable as the operator repeated it twice. I also find it hard to believe that it was an acronym, as there is no logical reason yet presented for it to be such. Also, as "STENDEC" means nothing in any language, we are left with few possibilities. I think that the best explanation is that perhaps this is some kind of a joke (inside or practical) or that it may be someone's name, a greeting. Though this is highly improbable in such an official environment, people have been known to do such things. In short, I think that some people have been looking too hard. Remember Occam's Razor.

Thank You,

Kuplickenstein

Another possible solution.

... _ . _. _.. . _._.

S T E N D E C

... _ ._ ._.. ._.. . _..

S T A L L E D

As in the engine.

It's close...and possible. A person sending in a panic could very likely drop a dot or two (15 tones versus 18). Also operator error on the receiving end reconfirming his first incorrectly received message. The "STALLED" message may not have made sense in light of the message received seconds before which confirmed ETA.

Just a theory.

Dave Carroll

It is possible that a portion of previous messages sent by Stardust were of a coded (i.e., secret, covert intell or military?) nature. One can't be sure if this was purely a civilian flight. STENDEC could be an anagram for STardustENdDECode, which could have indicated problems with the flight and that any future transmissions were to be of an emergency nature regarding the plane or flight itself and not to be considered composed of secretly coded messages. The messages in these Morse codes passed from that point on would have no need of being decoded by the receiving party—whomever that may have been in addition to those that had been receiving any transmissions up to that point.

B. Girtz

Hello,

"STENDEC" may have been a simple misunderstanding of:

STR DEC

e.g., STaRting DEsCent.

This may be considered a reasonable end of a message with:
  • only four-minutes to ETA

  • common use of three-letter abbreviations (e.g., ETA, hrs)

  • hurried nature (accident report indicates message "given out very fast")
Slightly obscure abbreviations are common among radio operators (observation from amateur radio operating). Also, it seems unlikely that an experienced radio operator would have extra dits or dahs in a message repeated three times, as some other theories suggest. But a slight "timing error" on the part of the sender (or perhaps more likely, the now-confused receiving operator) seems quite possible; i.e., misunderstanding R (dit dah dit) as EN (dit dah dit). Finally, this simple theory seems more appealing than a more complicated one.

Good show. Enjoy reviewing the responses.

Regards,

Mark

My theory is that STENDEC is simply ST, which is the abbreviation for STANDARD TIME and the . is an E the _. is an N and the _.. is a D, the final .-.-. is a period. Therefore the message would read "ETA [estimated time of arrival] Santiago 17.45 hrs standard time end."

Unsigned

To whom it may concern,

There seems to be a bit of confusion regarding the meaning of the transmission of the phrase STENDEC. I hope the following will be helpful.

So far the theories as outlined in the program and your Web site suggest that the crew was confused due to lack of oxygen at a high altitude, or they were in fact trying to communicate a different message.

Considering the exact Morse message was sent multiple times, I believe the crew intended to send the message of STENDEC, which may have the following meanings.
  1. Stardust in Declination.
    ST = Stardust EN = in DEC = Declination

  2. They may have been sending a message in Spanish.
    Stardust en Declinar.
    ST = Stardust EN = in DEC = Declinar
Decadencia, decente, declinar, and decaimiento, are words which have meaning similar to decline and decent.

Sincerely,

Madeleine O'Brien

I watched the program on Stardust and found it fascinating. Now, if the theory of the headwind is correct, and the plane was descending on the wrong side of the mountain, the radio operator in the plane may have heard STATIC when receiving messages. The land-based receiver, possibly being more powerful, would have received the Stardust messages loud and clear.

... / _ / . / _. /_.. /. /_._. = STENDEC

... /_ /._ / _ / .. /_._. = STATIC

There is only one dot and one dot/dash different in the two and with slightly differing phrasing, possibly explained by static in the sender's headset and/or hypoxia? I wonder if after sending the message three times he realized why there was too much static? But it was to late.

Excellent program, I hope this theory helps.

Charlie Treat

STENDEC could have been the code name to an operative aboard Stardust. A suicide mission maybe? This maybe the reason the transmission was the same at all three times. The operative aboard wanted to make sure he succeeded in getting his message to whomever he was involved with, that he was successful.

David Iacobucci

I just saw the story tonight, and it was very interesting. I thought that since they were in South America, where they speak mostly Spanish (except for Brazil), maybe the radio operator was trying to send a code in spanish. STENDEC if changed the ST to a V and the EC to an AR, you have two Spanish terms VEN and DAR. Venir is a verb to come and conjegated is come, and dar is to give. Maybe the radio operator was wanting something like another signal and was trying to say Come in! or Give me a signal!

Unsigned

The show seemed to be operating under the assumption that the pilots did not know they were traveling as slow as they were because of the jet stream. While I'll agree they probably didn't know about the jet stream, I would think even a plane of that era would have an air speed indicator. So it occurred to me that they might have known they weren't traveling as fast.

So working under that premise, they would have known that they hadn't crossed the Andes yet. That opens up the possibility that they were forced to descend, and it occurred to me that the STENDEC message could be an abreviation for ST(alled) EN(gine), DEC(scending). If one of their four engines would have stalled, they wouldn't have been able to maintain their altitute and would have had to descend. As far as the crash site, they could have been on the direct route allowed by their high altitude before their engine stalled; or they could have been attempting to reach their destination asap due to their stalled engine.

And if they were simply descending (and hoping for the best), their wheels would be up and locked and at least one of their other engines working. This tracks with the evidence presented about the crash site.

Jeff M. Brindle
King of Prussia, PA

Assume the third and fourth letters were sent rapidly and meant to be the third letter 'r'. You could get STRDEC, for starting descent. Also assume that they encountered the jet stream at 24,000 ft., and they were not making the ground speed they presumed to be making. Having flown that route in a B-747, I know there is little or no margin for error into Santiago. A premature descent in that area is certain to put you in a rock-filled cloud.

Captain G. Potter (retired)

.../-/.-/-./-../-.../-.--

Standby

.../-/./ -./-.././-.-.

Stendec

I think the problem isn't the pilot's transmission, but the Chilean radio operator's perception. He admits that the transmission was very fast, so he may have missed part of the transmission. Despite it being repeated, he only came up with something nonsensical when the rest of the transmission was decipherable to him. It's like asking a fast talker to repeat a word, and you still can't get it because they spurt it out. I don't think the theory that the radio operator on the plane was oxygen-deprived would hold where the first part of the transmission was decipherable. Standby would work with what he was able to decipher. The pilot is telling them he's four minutes away—standby for landing. Thus:

ETA Santiago 17.45 hrs STENDEC

could be

ETA Santiago 17.45 hrs Standby

Just a hunch. I don't know Morse code, but this makes sense to me.

Best wishes,

Lynda Jones
Philadelphia, PA

When I first saw the word STENDEC, I intuitively guessed it was short for STEep Nose DEsCent. Just a guess.

David Bang

STAR DEC

STAR means standard terminal approach route, and DEC means descent. So the operator may have just been saying starting descent according to standard terminal approach procedures.

Jay Shuman

The final conversation was relative to arrival time. Perhaps the final message "STENDEC" was partially misread and was really intended to say STENTIME or Standard Eastern Time, referring to the time zone they were in. That's how we refer to the East Coast time zone in North America, which, coincidentally, is the same time zone that Santiago is in.

DEC (-.././-.-.) is somewhat close to TIME (-/../--/.)

Now the question becomes whether this nomenclature was common or even used at all to describe time zones in such a fashion. Who was the radio operator and where had he flown before?

Peter Tedder

Fascinating show!

Before I begin my theory of what I think happened to Stardust, I want to make certain that the following is not viewed as an attack on the character of any member of the crew or their memory.*

As I watched this program, I thought about the following:

Assume that the aircraft was in controlled flight and operating normally
  • Consider human factors (human behavior) as a critical factor in this crash

  • Consider crew coordination issues (eg., how well did the crew interact?)

  • Consider the basic navigational problem (mathematical)

  • Consider "crew concept" and the "pecking order" of the typical bomber flight crew (12 O'Clock High isn't that far-fetched)

  • Consider the wartime flight performance record of each crew member

  • Consider character references of the crew by reliable sources who are willing to reveal actual character—not ideal character

  • *Consider the fact that excellent aircrews do fly perfectly good aircraft into the ground.
This is my couch potato, and former USAF flight evaluator, theory:

STENDEC: "Starting Enroute Descent." Repeated three times because the navigator wasn't confident of his position. Perhaps he was looking for a confidence builder. Maybe he was hoping that someone on the ground would provide a "DF cut" and radio range from the departure or arrival field to help provide a "fix" without revealing to the pilot that he was unsure of his position. "Lost" just doesn't cut it in the bomber business, let alone the passenger business.

Case in point: Bombardiers frequently dropped ordnance in the wrong place rather than admit they were "unsure of their position." Bomber formations didn't always end up where they were supposed to.

Was radio direction finding, a primitive technique even in the 1940's, available in South America as a navigation aid? Was "enroute descent" a term that was used back then? It seems to me that the navigator wanted someone to tell him not to descend—yet.

The crew of Stardust saw some odd instrument readings as the airplane climbed into the jet stream (esentially windshear)—like a big increase (combined with decreases) in indicated airspeed, which would have made them think that the airplane was performing in a questionable manner. Lancastrians couldn't physically do what the instruments were telling the crew. Without a ground reference, they were unable to compute true airspeed, which ultimately sealed the fate of the passengers and crew.

Turbulence would have been a problem too, assuming that the crew entered the jetstream. Air sickness due to a lack of visual references may have affected crew judgment.

Fuel consumption would have been very high, which may have further contributed to the decision to start descent in the face of unexplained instrument readings. Fuel was probably an issue, and the navigator didn't want to fail fuel management.

The navigator had no choice but to fall back to the basic air navigation problem of "time, heading and killing the drift." The navigator, rest his soul, decided to "Be British," and trust what his instruments were telling him, as he learned at flight school.

Was this a "crew coordination" problem? The Lancastrians were crew airplanes, and it took input from each crew member to fly the airplane. The pilot, who was "relaxed," followed the instructions of the navigator, who I'll bet wasn't relaxed at all. He knew that something didn't add up and he was probably reluctant to tell anyone about it.

Aircrews must trust each other implicitly, and I have to ask, what was the relationship between the crew members? Was the pilot overbearing, which would have caused the navigator to keep his "insecurity" about the aircraft's position to himself? Was the navigator the "proud" type? Was he submissive? Intimidation can lead to tragedy when you are in a crew airplane.

What do the performance reports of the crew reveal? Was there a weak link on the crew? What do people say about the crew of this airplane? Somebody, somewhere, has the input to shed light on this. Consider what is known about the Titanic tragedy and the personalities that sent that ship to the bottom of the ocean.

Look into why perfectly good airplanes impact terrain and you will find human factors as the cause, and personalities/egos are often the only issue.

Stuart Fisher
Cedar Rapids, Iowa

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