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Vanished!
Solve the Mystery of STENDEC
Readers' Theories

Set #3
Posted February 8, 2001
previous set


The word STENDEC means:

"Severe Turbulence Encountered, Now Descending, Emergency Crash-Landing."

Let me explain. During World War II, Allied convoys crossing the Atlantic would encounter U-boats. Some of the Allied ships came equipped with rocket-launched fighters—P-40s or Spitfires—which were launched to attack any U-boats. These planes could not land back on the ships and so were termed "throwaway" planes. When a pilot ran out of ammo or fuel, he would send a short Morse message, EDAS, meaning "Emergency Ditch at Sea." Allied ships in the area would triangulate on the plane's position, and the nearest Coast Guard or Navy ship would go pick up the pilot, who had ejected from his plane.

EDAS was an intentional ditch, whereas STENDEC implied an unintentional ditch due to bad weather or for some other reason. It meant essentially "My plane's in trouble, I may have to ditch, so please triangulate my position and be prepared to pick me up."

When I saw the word STENDEC on the NOVA program, I remembered seeing that word in a book somewhere. I couldn't find the reference, so I went and asked my father, who is nearly 80 years old and who served in the Merchant Marine during the war. He said that he sat across from the radio operator on his ship and heard the word STENDEC—with the meaning given above—all the time from these convoy-protecting pilots.

Maybe the pilot in control of Stardust ran into severe turbulence in the Andes. Perhaps the wings were icing over, affecting lift; possibly an engine was knocked loose from its mounts. In any case, the plane was going down. The radio operator had seconds to convey the plane's emergency situation. Either the radio operator or the pilot, who had flown over 100 missions in the war, knew this word STENDEC and tapped it out—very fast as the Chilean radio operator remembered.

I hope this helps to clear up the mystery.

D. Erbe
Southern California

As an ex-Air Force radio operator who was proficient in Morse code, I submit the following solution: A very common phrase used between aircraft and tower operators is IFR (instrument flight rules) or VFR (visual flight rules). These expressions were used everyday. Looking at the copied message and comparing it to IFR DEC (or descent), they are almost identical as follows:

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

/ .. / .._. / ._. / _.. / . / _._. / IFR DEC or IFR descent

Thus, the next-to-last message stating their ETA in 4 minutes was appended by the information they were decending under instrument flight rules due to the heavy cloud cover. While pilots today don't know Morse code, I believe they would unanimously concur that such a communication would be logical and normal. Notice that the above transmitted impulses are identical except for two dots.

It should also be realized that aircraft-to-ground radio was still quite primitive in those days. They were in severe weather and behind the mountains. Their signal was probably fading and copy was impacted by static and spurious noise. Also they were much farther from the tower than the tower operator believed was the case. Aircraft frequencies are essentially line-of-sight and aircraft transmitters of that day were not very powerful. That's the reason they used Morse code instead of voice communications. Morse code was more reliable for long distance communication.

Budd Feltenstein

I was disappointed to find that Steve Biondi beat me to what I feel is the correct solution to STENDEC (congrats Steve!).

I am an experienced code op, both ham radio, military, and commercial. If a single dash is added to the beginning of STENDEC, the result is: BT END AR.

BT is a very common Morse code 'break' sequence. It separates one subject from another, the body of a message from the signature, and is very commonly used in place of the period at the end of a sentence in a casual communication. (BT is easier to send than a period AAA.) Harmer would have used it to separate the body of his message from the end as:

ETA 17.45 HRS BT
END
AR

(Take a look at a message in the ARRL HANDBOOK 1993, page 37-19.)

One item not mentioned is that Harmer was probably using 'break-in' keying. This is where actual key contacts also cause the equipment to go into transmit mode. Especially with older tube-type equipment, it is very common for the first character (in this case, a dash for each of the two successive queries that Harmer responded to) to be 'missed'. This occurs because the equipment requires a brief moment to change from receive to transmit. It occurs at the first key press after being in a receive mode. Typically, that first character is made shorter or does not get transmitted at all. The result would be exactly the letters STENDEC. It's even more possible if the operator (Harmer) was sending "very fast" as reported by the Santiago operator. Missing that dash would also make it more difficult for the Santiago operator who is trying to copy very fast code to intuitively decipher that STENDEC is really just a BT with END and AR, run together.

For me (as I see that others feel likewise with their scenarios), the mystery is over. Experience in a domain that I know a little about, makes it quite plausible to me.

John Ison

Friends:

I believe STENDEC was a call for help, but more specific than SOS. The crash came almost instantly after the call, "4 minutes from arrival." The head-on crash killed pilot, co-pilot, and radioman up front. The avalanche was triggered immediately also.

Someone was in the tail area and survived the telescoping of the fuselage, but was critically injured, struggled up to the radio and sent out exactly what he or she intended, but in shock as to the English words, and so sent out a German compound word, Sten(g)dec(k)—"Topmast covered"—radio topmast covered (by avalanche). He or she repeated it three times, as no other word was repeated, until snow or slippage of the wreckage cut down radio transmission. But the repetition shows a delirious need for help. This person was forced back into his/her childhood German language of habit.

And surely, in South America, especially Argentina, with its problem against Great Britain, there were many German émigré who knew English as a second language, reverting to German in crisis. On this flight, I believe, the old woman was such a German émigré returning home. Anyone's past (WWII) could have included Morse code and radio—radio was the forte of all resistance movments. It can be assumed, in 1947, any of several people on this flight could send radio messages.

Imagine you are blacking out and desperate. Why just send an SOS, when they expect your plane to come out of the Andes in four minutes? Of course, they will be looking for you but won't see your wreckage. You warn them to look for the new avalanche—you are covered completely—over your radio topmast—COVERED!

So what if you made up a word not in the 1947 (or 2001) dictionary of common usage? The German language is creative of new compounds! Can you or I find STENDEC as such in a German dictionary? I did not. I first looked up sten, found steng, then dec, found deck. Put the two together, dropping the last consonant of each, and this solution seems logical.

Sincerely,

Raymond I. Knight

Is it possible that it was not the radio operator on the aircraft who made the mistake, but rather the radio operator on the ground? When Morse code is sent very fast, it is often difficult to tell where one letter ends and another begins. Therefore, it occurs to me that perhaps the experienced radio operator of the aircraft sent a message that another equally experienced RAF radio operator might read one way, but a less experienced Chilean radio operator whose native language was not English might read another way.

For example, the first letter of the message, the letter "S" (dot-dot-dot) could be confused with "EEE" (dot dot dot), or perhaps "EI" (dot dot-dot), or perhaps "IE" (dot-dot dot), just to utilize the first three elements of the message. And if elements were lost at either the beginning or end, then instead of the message beginning with three dots, it could have begun with either four dots, or a dash, and then three dots.

What all this means of course I have no idea, but the possibility of this confusion does sound plausible, at least to me.

David Briggs
Shoreview, MN

I have been an amateur radio operator for 30 years and have used Morse code extensively. My take on this thing is that STENDEC was really STNG DEC. This could be an abbreviation for "starting decent."

Morse code is a very slow means of communication and radio operators often used abbreviations to speed up the process—for example, "ABT" for the word "about" or "B4" instead of "before" etc. "STNG" would be a plausible abbreviation for "starting."

STNG DEC only requires the loss of two Morse elements—the first dash in the letter "N" and the first dash in the letter "G"—to turn into STENDEC.

This is a very interesting puzzle. I'd love to hear a recording of that last transmission!!!

Dave Good WA0MFO
Wichita, KS

E.T.A. SANTIAGO 1745HRS ST (STANDARD) END NC (N COOK, FIRST OFICER)

It was stated in the report that the message was sent very fast. And it would only require that the dash in the letter "N" be missed to make it an "E."

Not really knowing if this would be a valid communication, but I think it is a good guess.

George Bisschop

STENDEC AS CYPHER
When I saw the NOVA program "Vanished" and learned of the mystery of 'STENDEC', I thought of the passengers on the flight. As the plane missed its original ETA of 5:30 pm and then entered the jet stream, it could have encountered heavy turbulence from the strong wind. This could have prompted the passenger that was the King's Messenger (British diplomat) to put a message into code. Then he entered the cockpit and introduced himself. He then asked the crew to send the current time and ETA with his coded message at the end. He stood in the cockpit to make sure his message was sent. When the operator in Santiago queried it, the diplomat asked the crew to send it again to make it appear as though its meaning was obvious.

If this is true it could be impossible to decypher the meaning. Even after correct decyphering, knowing what the letters or numbers mean would require inside knowledge.

But one treatment shows promise and could be worked out by the diplomat at his seat without a codebook or cypher machine. If the first two letters in STENDEC is the key to the cypher then each of the remaining letters should be the next letter in the alphabet. The letter 'T' is one letter down from the letter 'S'. 'S' then 'T' indicates a downward shift. 'E' becomes 'F'. 'N' becomes 'O'. 'D' becomes 'E'. 'E' becomes 'F' again. And 'C' becomes 'D'. 'STENDEC' becomes 'FOEFD'. This could be a total coincidence but this leaps from the page as 'FOE F.D.' or "F.D. is the enemy."

I have tried other cypher keys. If the letters are shifted up instead of down, the remaining letters 'ENDEC' become 'DMCDB'. If the last two letters are the key, 'STEND' becomes 'QRCLB' or 'UVGPF'. All meaningless.

In the local public library I found the 'Barnhart Abbreviations Dictionary' copyright 1995. F.D. is sometimes an abbreviation for a Latin phrase fidei defensor, or defender of the faith. A label for King Henry the VIII of England, or the King of England or the king. This appears very ominous. 'FOE F.D.' then translates as "the king is our enemy."

The year 1947 was a tumultuous one for Britain. The European powers were losing their grip on their colonial empires. Communists were taking over eastern Europe. This could have referred to an Indian king (of a princely state), a Middle Eastern king, or a European king.

Israel
4-2-47: Foreign Secretary Ernst Bevin puts Palestine on the docket for independence.
5-14-47: Israel becomes a state.

India
2-20-47: Prime Minister Atlee instructs Lord Mountbatten to prepare India for independence.
8-15-47:India gains independance.

Romania
1945: Communists intimidate King Michael to appoint a Communist-dominated government.
12-30-47: King Michael abdicates.

F.D. can also mean "forced draft" or "first day." It could also be someone's initials. It could also refer to a priest.

Sincerely,

Thurgood Stubbs

All previuos messages were routine messages concerning position reports etc. The expert who concluded that the first two letters S and T were meant as V was quite right. That leaves ENDEC to understand. It too is a position report and is routine because it defines a positon as END DECK. Which means that the position was past the mountain ranges where they are to begin their descending left turn for approach to Santiago.

Jet streams were not generally known. Thus in actual fact the ground speed was less than calculated, making their actual position in the mountains, which led to this tragic accident.

The word 'deck' is in common use among all pilots amd I believe that it is international. I hope that I have contrubuted some help in finding a solution to this problem.

Yours truly,

Boaz Talerman

Enjoyed the program on Stardust. Possible meaning of STENDEC is as follows:

Santiago
Tower
Error
Navigating
Descending
Expecting
Crash

They knew they were lost and having flown into the jet stream perhaps used up all or most of fuel and had to try and locate some landmark and did a CFIT (controlled flight into terrain).

Noel Loewen

I believe that the starboard engine of Stardust had failed and the crew, thinking they were close to the airport, were planning to make a crash landing on the runway, and wanted the other planes there moved for safety. In this case, the message was either "STarboard ENgine Dead, Emergency Clearance" or "STarboard ENgine DECeased."

Timothy Henson
California

The nightmare of every IFR pilot is to contact terrain while descending through cloud (Controlled Flight Into Terrain). I am sure there was some discussion among the crew members before starting to descend through cloud. I am also sure that the radio operator was told to send a message to this effect but time was short, so the operator used an acronym instead of spelling it out in full. I believe that the acronym stands for the following:

Search To East Now Descending Entering Cloud.

Unsigned

Sir,
No 'codes', no anagrams, no 'procedural ritual'—nothing exceptstraightforward Morse code incorrectly read due, maybe, to hasty (or even imperfect) transmitting.

It really doesn't appear so mysterious when you place the 'dots and dashes' in STENDEC alongside the 'dots and dashes' in STAR AR—with 'Star' being the identification of the aircraft sending the message, and 'AR' being the end of message code. It will be found that there is one extra 'dot' after 'STAR'. This might (however unlikely) have been a full stop, or period, inserted by the operator, or a misread by the Chilean receiver—he said the transmission was 'fast'.

However you look at it, the answer is clear. STAR AR, a perfectly legible and 'normal' signal, and it is fully contained in the 'dots and dashes'. The reading was slightly off, that's all!

Nobody appears to have noted that the aircraft didn't identify itself (or, if it did, nobody has mentioned it). It would be almost obliged to sign off, and STAR would have been more than sufficient in those days of infrequent arrivals and departures.

I think it's clear. It wasn't STENDEC that was transmitted, it was STAR AR

Roy Anderson
Mount Brydges, Ontario, Canada

I have already sent a similar message to BBC regarding my interpretation.

I think the radio operator Dennis Harmer was sending a practiced and personal signature. I believe the message to be either of the following:

"I AR DENN" meaning "Interational Sign-off Denn[is Harmer]"

or

"I AR DENN" meaning "I sign-off Denn," with "DENN" being a nickname.

A rapid I AR DENN might be misunderstood as STENDEC.

The program was fascinating. Thank you.

Unsigned

STENDEC = STarboard ENgine DECay. The starboard outboard engine was newest, and I believe most likely to develop a sudden and escalating problem that resulted in the compromise of aircraft integrity.

Unsigned

Morse code used to be what we now refer to as "click code." CW Morse as we now know it was put into use widely in World War II, but many ships and air operations in remote areas used click code long after International decisions were made to chage it. Click code sound a lot more like "noise" that CW, a lot like "lightning noise" since it is essentially just that—a spark that sends a "double click" for each strike of the operator's fist—closely spaced for a DIT and not so closely spaced for a DAH.

Also back then, the PROCODES we now accept in CW were not completely standardized. The AR that is now commonly used was often taught as EC, so the student would think "end communication." They are both DIT DAH DIT DAH DIT. What we now use as a "break transmission," BT, was not always the standard, either; ST, meaning simply STOP, was used more often (have you ever read a telegram?). A typical message would end with STop followed by an identifier for the home port of the crew, typically three letters, followed by EC for "end communication."

The mystery, if there is one, is where did the crew call home? Where is END?

Unsigned

After reviewing the other theories, I think I've got it. I agree with the "STRD AR" camp; the implied meaning being simply "STARDUST OUT." It has the same order of dots and dashes. An operator's "fist" accounts for the slight variation in spacing. With the speed the plane was traveling and the cloudy conditions at the time, I don't believe the crew had any idea what was about to happen and therefore wouldn't have transmitted anything regarding emergencies or descent. Fortunately for them, I think they were blissfully unaware.

Steve Harvey

I was a radio operator in the Royal Canadian Navy 1950-54. I subsequently became a pilot in Canadian Naval Aviation until my retirement in 1985. It was common practice to use the first and last letters of a ship's name on correspondence as a identifier, along with a file number. The "ST" could be an abbreviation of "Stardust" and the "EC" the end of message indicator "AR" instead of "EC." It was not uncommon for operators to give certain letters or operating signals a bit of a flourish that might have been misread by the ground operator. These flourishes tended to identify the operator. In the Navy, we were taught to use a very standard style of Morse so that the operator, and hence the station, could not be identified if encrypted call-signs were being used. The message was most likely the closing-down message on Morse, since the crew thought they were close to the destination. That part of the message would then read "ST END AR."

There may be another explanation for the "END." I do not know if the Stardust radio operator had commercial radio experience (telegrams etc from ship or shore). It was common to use the word "stop" after each sentence in telegrams. I am not sure, but I think the word "END" may have been used to separate the text from the signature in telegrams, since certain company names could have been confusing if the recipient understood them to be part of the text. If the aircraft operator did have such a background, he may have inserted it through habit.

James Stegen
Kentville, Nova Scotia, Canada

The communications officer was Mr. D.B. Harmer. I suggest the original message was:

ETA Santiago 17.45 hrs Harmer

That is, the comm officer signed his message.

STENDEC ... - . -. -.. . -.-.

HARMER .... .- .-. -- . .-. (spacing adjusted to parallel STENDEC)

This theory requires some spacing misinterpretations and reading of several dots for dashes. However, Mr. Harmer was probably cold due to the altitude and might have been keying clumsily due to cold, tiredness, or wearing gloves. "The Chilean Air Force operator at Santiago states that the reception of the signal was loud and clear but that it was given out very fast." So, the Chilean may have initially misinterpreted what was not a word he would commonly receive. Having first misinterpreted the signal as STENDEC, he would tend to hear that again unless Mr. Harmer took steps to send more slowly and clearly. As the signature was not critical, this was probably not important to Mr. Harmer.

Unsigned

Note that the Morse code symbols for STENDEC are also in the correct order for the phrase: SKED RTE

"SKED" is a common Morse code abbreviation for "schedule" (at least nowadays). "RTE" is a common abbreviation for "route." Perhaps the radio operator was trying to indicate that they were following their "scheduled route."

This makes sense when appended to the rest of the transmitted ETA message.

Adam Zaner
Dallas, TX

Having some military communications in my background and having talked with others in military communications that served during WWII:

Acronyms were often used while sending in Morse/CW.  The theory being that if voice communications is bad or spotty, that Morse/CW will penetrate through the weak signal conditions (and it will!). Morse/CW signals were usually, by design, of a short nature and were often sent three times and sent fast to assure at least one (no fade) reception of the signal. It was often second nature to the operator to do this due to military training. I am assuming that Stardust's radio operator had a military background. 

Military acronyms were often developed on a mission-by-mission basis. I just talked with a close friend of mine, Norman Hall, who was part of a bomber crew during WWII (still alive but in poor health). I posed the STENDEC question to him. He thought, as I did, that it was a military acronym for: START END DESCENT  (ST=start     EN=end   DEsC=descent)—(qualify the letter breakdown/association as you please)). Liberties were often taken in the birth of a military acronym, so it would sound out cleanly when spoken.

The radio operator may have been in the habit of using the STENDEC acronym due to his military background, and it may have not struck his mind that he was using a (past) specialized CALL when sending what he expected to be his last communication via Morse/CW, before switching to voice communications. It might have even entered his mind, "Let's see if they can figure this one out" (if he was somewhat of a joker— many brass pounders were often of a "one up on you" type of individual).

Sincerely,

Frank Hertel
Newman Kees Frequency Measurements and Installations
Communications and Broadcasting Service

I'm a 35-year-old firefighter-paramedic from a 60,000 population suburb of Montreal called Repentigny, Quebec, Canada. For many reasons the "Vanished" report from NOVA touched me. I'm fascinated by vintage airplanes, science, and by post-catastrophe investigations. This report had all these interesting subjects and once again "good work."

My theory is as follows: In the frequency band used in those days, certain phenomena are to be considered. I suspect that the radio transmisson heard may have not been from the Avro Lancaster! In an effort to closely listen to the Lancaster, the radio operator may have received fragmented radio transmissions from very far away, as far away as North America! 

This phenomenon is called "skip." It originates from solar eruptions and the magnetic feilds it produces. It is also influenced by weather patterns. The principle is fairly complex but it can be safely described as bouncing radio waves. The radio waves are emitted from the source and bounce on the Earth's surface like a kangaroo does, thus changing a short radio transmisson into a long-distance emission.

In order to come to a formal conclusion, a few inexpensive tests could be conducted with minimal resources. With a modern replica of the radio-telegraph system used then, coupled with resembling solar and weather patterns, a "skip" test could be conducted from different universities and colleges (or even volunteer amateur radio operators) from all over North America. Back then, though only occasionally at today's standards, radio telegraph communications for civilian and military purposes were fairly common, increasing the potential for radio skip contamination. (Continuous weather reports for navigation existed then and were transmitted by fairly powerful radio-telegraph stations all over the United States and Canada.)

Francois Laurendeau
Repentigny, Quebec, Canada

P.S. I dont know about you but I would pay a fortune just to ride in one of those Lancasters!

I was a Navy radio operator in the same time period as the Stardust disappearance. One significant thing that stands out as an essential in solving the mystery is actual tape (wire recorders were more common then) of the operator's transmissions, not just of that transmission, but others as well. Every Morse code operator develops and maintains a distinct and recognizable style known as 'fist', and without a knowledge of the Stardust operator's 'fist', one can't accurately decode his message by guess.

Assuming the last part of the message is 'AR' for 'out', several possible decodings present themselves: SARI / EFND / VRD / SCD, and others. None of these have any significance to the 'end of message' assumption. One possible construction remains that could be pertinent, appropriate, and makes sense : 'STRD/AR', for "Stardust out."

W.P. Williams

v end.
v end.
v end.

would indicate that the mountain came into sight and they were unable to alter their course.

s=...
t=__

together they equal ..._

end is as transmitted and

e=.
c=_._.

together they equal ._._. / period, hence stendec= v end.

John Frey Binkley, Jr.

I offer another theory, perhaps remote but still plausible.

Assume the radio operator on Stardust was not the person sending the code. Rather, it was another member of the crew trying to fill in momentarily. Assume that this person was not proficient in Morse code, and that he somehow confused dashes and dots, in fact transposing them. People unfamiliar with the Morse code typically refer to "dots" and "dashes," writing them down as '.' and '-' on paper. Those who are proficient in code refer to the sounds as "dit" and "dah." If you are proficient in code, you find that "thinking" of the sounds as a '.' or '-' symbol leads to an inefficient process of translating the "sound" of the code into a series of '.' or '-' "symbols" and then translating these symbols into characters. Good operators soon learn to "think" in terms of the sound, not symbols.

Perhaps whoever was actually sending had been given a "cheat sheet" by the radio operator and told to send the "sounds" described as "dit" and "dah" he had written down on a piece of paper, and the sender simply sent a "dit" when a "dah" (i.e., dash) was meant and vice versa.

So, with these assumptions made, here's the theory.

STENDEC sent correctly is:

dit-dit-dit dah dit dah-dit dah-dit-dit dit dah-dit-dah-dit

Transposing dashes to dots and dots to dashes, one gets:

dah-dah-dah dit dah dit-dah dit-dah-dah dah dit-dah-dit-dah

This reads as: OETAWT AR

To get the "AR", I'm assuming that there was one more "dit" intended at the end of the message, making the dit-dah-dit-dah actually dit-dah-dit-dah-dit, which is the standard "end of transmission" suffix, AR. Note that AR sent correctly has no "space" between the A and the R.

I don't know what "OETAWT" may mean. Perhaps it was an abbreviation in common use, but it does contain the string ETA, which is interesting. This theory does not require one to assume misinterpretation caused by individual character sounds being run together or characters to be re-arranged.

Shawn Donley

Perhaps due to atmospheric anomaly or because of the mountainous terrain the message as sent by the operator "descent" was recieved out of sequence at the tower. This can be analagous to a ghost on an old-style broadcast television, in which the signal is sent out and becomes shifted and is received as two separate signals slightly out of phase.

Denice van de Mark

Greetings,

STENDEC....was the operator using a "bug" type paddle (side to side motion versus the up and down of a conventional code key)? I used to use a Vibroplex bug for sending code at fast rates, and there's a specific style that develops when using them. It's not uncommon to insert minor spaces between the dot and the dash if the dot precedes the dash. Also, if another dot follows the dash, its spacing is conversely very small. Also, if I'd been using the "bug" for awhile and then go to a "straight key" (the conventional up-and-down style of code key), these spacing irregularities are preserved and become integrated into my "style." (Code operators can recognize their radio buddies by the style of code each person has.) Code is more like a second language for people that use it frequently.

Now to the mystery. "ST" could easily be a "V" if the operator was accustomed to using a bug. I have used the "V" interchangeably with the meanings of "pause" or "space." Some operators regard this same character as "ST." It's a translational difficulty attributable, again, to style. Its meaning is unmistakable when heard in context. Also, during rapid conversation or a roundtable, when it's your turn you would pick it up with a "V" and then usually an "R". 

"EN" could equal "R" for "received". Again, the longer space between the first dot than the last dot. This is the way many of us send the letter "R"—only when indicating the message was received. Realize that code operators make extensive use of abbreviations and these sound unique when compared to the literal letter used in the context of words.

"DE" means "from" and would not be subject to the timing distortion of the "bug" style. "C" would have to be his identification or initial (notice the last names of all the men in the cockpit). It could also be "NN", "TR", "KE", or "TETE". All of which share the same dash/dot/dash/dot compilation with the only differences being the spacing between letters. Again, if he was used to a "bug" style, it would likely have sounded like "NN". This is the only part in "STENDEC" where the bug idea may have problems. Nevertheless, for the STENDE portion, the rest of this supposition is accurate. 

Good luck.

Patrick Padgett

P.S. This theory could be especially supported we knew the nature of the conversation between operators. Were they familiar with each other? Was it formal or informal? If it were formal, then I would have expected to hear a "K", "KN", or "AR" at the end of the transmission. If it were informal, then "C" would have sufficed. Was there other radio traffic at the time and if so, was there any cross communication? All these have an impact on the nature of a code scenario and the abbreviations used.

Harmer was the only crew member experienced with the Andes crossing—he made six compared to the Cooks' zero and the flight attendant's zero number of crossings. While not formally educated on jet stream phenonema, he must have been aware of the strange crossing times and knew from experience to be sure you were over the mountains before descending, perhaps by verbal communication with Santiago or even something visual like the ocean. Having two experienced RAF pilots downplay his concerns, his final message was a subtle attempt to get Santiago to instruct them to maintain altitude. "STENDEC" is exactly what it says, from one radio operator to another: begin transmitting/ END/ end of transmission. Maybe he should have been more direct.

Unsigned

Something that deserves more attention is the possibility of STENDEC being an encoded message meant for British intelligence. If so, enough time has passed so that no British interests will be compromised if they declassify any secrets about the flight of Stardust. Encoding may explain how a nonsense message could be repeated three times. In addition, the flight was only quasi-commercial, its crew of military background carrying an emissary between countries with strained relations. Airline crews have often been used as covert agents of governments; this may have been one such case.

David Schindele

NOVA:
It is also my observation that to a practiced ear, a hurried "ST" can well become "V" in Morse code. Thus your theory of "V" (alert), "END" (just what it says), followed by "EC" (sign off) makes the best sense to me. A single 'end' would have been enough to identify the end of the message. But three rapidly repeated "END"s would seem to indicate that at least the telegrapher (probably the navigator) was aware (just seconds before) that the passengers and crew were very close to their END.

Or: the (V...- E. N-. D-.. EC .-.-. ) X 3 could be read as (S ... T- A.- L.-.. End of transmission .-.-.) X 3. This would lead to the possibility that at least the captain or co-captain also knew of the bad news, perhaps they saw the mountain dead ahead and tried to (climb climb climb), going into a high altitude Stall (STAL L) without having effected much gain in altitude. This being reported as (STAL .-.-. STAL .-.-. STAL .-.-.).

I don't think better explanations can be found, but I will continue to ruminate. And thanks for the Morse translator. Wonderful!

Unsigned

STENDEC in Morse code using a straight key and doing so in an airplane experiencing strong turbulence, and also taking into account a Morse code operator's "fist" and the resulting message being received, could very likely have been VENDAR, which is a Spanish word for "to blindfold," according to my Spanish to English dictionary. Literally they were likely transmitting that they were blind or could not see through the cloud cover.

Please recall that part of the crew and certainly the airport operating personnel were South American and spoke Spanish, not English. If you look carefully at the dot and dash characters comprising STENDEC, you easily can obtain the word VENDAR.

Harry Hess

I really enjoyed your program on the Stardust mystery. I can't stop thinking of the reason for the word STENDEC. I have a couple of ideas I'm working on:

Maybe it was S TEN DEC, in other words, Saturday, the tenth of December. Could this date have any significance? Was the 10th on a Saturday that year? Did anything significant happen on that day?

Another idea is that STENDEC was someone's last name that had some significance to one of the crew or possible hijacker and this was a suicide crash blamed on Stendec?

I hope my thoughts were helpful and I will be thinking on this subject some more!

Steven King

STENDEC Theory

STENDEC message appears to be in standard ICAO CW AERONAUTCAL Q CODE format.

Most of this code starts with "Q" followed by a two-letter combination. For example, QFY means "REPORT PRESENT METEOROLGICAL LANDING CONDITIONS" and QFY? means "WHAT ARE THE PRESENT METEOROLGICAL LANDING CONDITIONS?"

But there are also Miscellaneous Aeronautical Abbreviations that are part of the code and don't use the "Q"codes, e.g., TGL for "Touch and Go Landing" and IR for "Ice on Runway."

If this is the case, then here is how the message translates:

ST = STratus clouds

E   = East (directly behind the plane)

N  = No or Not

DEC = Descending

I can only gather from this was that the crew totally lost ground visibility and the pilot decided to stop his descent.

From the accident report the actual weather conditions were:

-------------------------

The Actual for Mendoza at 1800 hrs.

Overcast with blue holes. Alto cumulus and alto stratus. A large layer of cloud existed between 10,000 feet and 20,000 feet.

Note: It is very doubtful whether at Mendoza the pilot could have seen the ground by visual observation at all.

-------------------------

Interestingly, there isn't a "Q" code for "Descent Stopped." There is one for reporting cloud conditions from an aircraft. The 'proper' message format would have been:  

QBC 24 ST E N DEC DRT 282 UFN  

This equals: Weather from my aircraft at 24,000 ft is STratus clouds to the East Not DEsCending maintaining compass DiRecTion 282 Until Further Notice.

It may have been possible that Radio Officer Harmer couldn't remember that Q Code and didn't know the altitude and just sent "ST E N DEC" instead.

ICAO dictates that all aircraft CW communication use international Morse code in English. Use of Spanish or nonstandard codes or abbreviations is highly unlikely.

References:
"International Telecommunication and Radio Conferences" (Atlantic City, 1947)

"Communication Codes and Abbreviations," ICAO Doc 6100-COM/504/1

Good program.

Bis Wichy

Theory #1
It could be possible that during the trans-Andes crossing the airplane encountered severe weather and a message was put out STENDEC, which could stand for SEVERE TURBULENCE ENTERING DESCENT. The pilot, trying to stabilize the plane and thus refusing to send an SOS message due to this being his first trans-Andes crossing as captain and not wanting to sound an alarm/warning automatically, if he felt he had control of the (airplane) situation did not permit the radio operator to send such message. Thus, not wanting to show disrespect for the captain, the radio operator issued a warning to the best of his ability under such circumstances using a quick code, hoping it would be deciphered by the tower radio operator as not to cause a great panic or alarm without the captain's permission.

Theory #2
If the crew and the captain and especially the radio operator were flying in South America, they had to have at least some understanding of the Spanish language, which dominates the entire region, in order to communicate with the locals of said region. It could be that the radio operator in midst of impending danger or severe turbulence put out a code "STENDEC" ("STEN DE CUIDADO") ("BE ON THE ALERT") in Spanish, assuming the tower radio operator would not be able to understand the English Language, thus sending "STENDEC" ("STENDECUIDADO") spelled (esten de cuidado) in Spanish. One question though: Were the tower and radio operator employees bilingual?

Unsigned

I am a former U.S. Navy electronics man and operated at NPM, the Navy station in Pearl Harbor and now my own ham station N2XS. I was on the VLF link to submarines in 1953 to 1955. I think that there is a simple explanation. I assume that the operator copied the letters correctly. The "DE" is used in Morse for "from," it is the French word for "from" and is still extensively used. So the message reads STEN FROM C.

However, aviation telegraphers used a "BUG" to send this, which is a key that operates horizontally instead of vertically with the dots automatically formed when the key is moved to the right, and operates as an ordinary key when moved to the left. This has the consequence of putting too great a space between a string of dots and a dash, a common problem of this type of key. The first ST then, ...-, would be read as a V. Therefore, he could be sending VEN FROM C. Since the use of bugs was only starting to spread at that time, the operator receiving the message may have never had to copy one before. Bugs do not send Morse code as clear as a regular standard key.

So VEN FROM C merely means that the operator heard another signal, perhaps from another plane and was trying to get him to answer. He evidently knew this guy and used his own initial C, to sign. Sending the plane's radio call, GAGWH, was just too long and VEN was the guy in the other plane. It is customary to send a calling string three times even today, so it was sent three times.

In those days the transmission of CW or Morse in planes was done on about 8 Megahertz, which could carry large distances at times. The region from 6 to 8 Megahertz is the best range of frequencies for carrying distances in the entire radio spectrum, and that is why most utilities use this range. It is also the reason the ham (radio amateur) band in the area (7 MHz or 40 meters) is so small.

So the other plane or station could have been some distance away, and it was a guy that the operator knew and just wanted to say hello, and was trying to raise him after hearing him call. It was customary at that time for planes to have five call letters while ground stations had three and ships four. Five call letters repeated was a lot to send, so any kind of shortening was used, and evidently these two guys had been in contact before and merely used the shortened form with the guy on the Stardust signing only a C.

Joe Stephany

I assumed that the sequence of dots and dashes might have been wholly misinterpreted by the receiver, and his confirmation solely by Morse code would not have changed that.

Since this was not a distress call and any of the information provided by the other interpretations seems redundant, I could only think that the operator was communicating something about his environment during their approach to the wrong landing site.

I think he (or some other member of the crew or a passenger) had noted that they could see the mountain under them, perhaps, and the radio operator communicated this, and this is what they, in fact, then hit.

I initially noticed that, if you transposed the "c" group in STENDEC to before the three dots that make up "d" and "e", you'd make a Morse Code palindrome, i.e., the dots and dashes would read the same way left-to-right and right-to-left. After much effort, here it is, divided by the initial dash in the "d", the two halves make up the same left-to-right sequence, and are interpreted this way:

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

S C T S C

What does this mean, and what does it have to do with my initial comments?

Santiago
Chile,
Tierra de
Santiago,
Chile

That is to say, "Land, land, I see land!"

S. M. Hall
Tampa, FL

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