PBS Airdate: January 23, 2001
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NARRATOR: In 1998, two mountaineers climbing one of the highest and most forbidding peaks in the South American Andes, Mount Tupungato, made a startling discovery. On the rocky slopes of the 21,000-foot volcano, amidst scattered debris, lay an old Rolls Royce engine.

One climber posing for a snapshot joked, "How could anyone have gotten a car up here?" But the engine clearly belonged to a plane. Around it were scattered clues of a grim disaster: twisted metal wreckage, a mummified human hand, and tattered scraps of clothing.

This discovery would re-ignite the quest to solve one of aviation's most enduring mysteries: how a passenger plane that disappeared 53 years ago had vanished into thin air.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television.

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And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

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 four 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 three other crew members.

Some of the six 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 émigré returning to Chile with the ashes of her dead husband, and a messenger from the British King, carrying confidential diplomatic correspondence. But no one on board was ever to reach their destination.

Early in the journey, 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 the post-World-War-Two era, almost no other plane was better suited for the Andes crossing than a Lancastrian. Converted from the Royal Air Force's legendary Lancaster bomber, it could fly well above the tallest peaks in South America. Just before Stardust was due in Santiago, the plane contacted air traffic control confirming it was due to arrive in just four minutes. Stardust should have been just a few miles from touchdown in Santiago. Then the plane sent a mysterious Morse code message: 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 again twice. After that nothing more was heard from the plane. Stardust seemed to have vanished. Its disappearance gave rise to what has become one of the great aviation mysteries. When the plane failed to arrive, the search began.

But there was no sign of Stardust 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's senior pilots at the time. He flew out from Britain to help look for the plane.

FRANK TAYLOR (Former BSAA pilot): We did a search—well over nine hours actually—and what we did was to go to the central pass and really scan that back...backwards and forwards high altitude.

NARRATOR: As reports came in of faint radio messages being picked up from the missing plane, 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: Both Argentina and Chile sent troops to hunt for the missing plane. When they returned empty-handed, the rumors began. There were rumors of sabotage. The theory was compounded when two more planes of the same airline disappeared within months of each other.

There were also rumors about the King's 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 Stardust's disappearance that even alien abduction was suggested. The plane's final unexplained message, s-t-e-n-d-e-c, eventually inspired the name of a cult UFO magazine.

Hazel North was just a child when her uncle, Stardust's Captain Reginald Cook, disappeared.

HAZEL NORTH (Niece of Stardust's Captain): We got together as a family and wondered what had happened, why it was that the plane couldn't be found, why there wasn't 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.

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

STACY MARKING (Niece of Stardust passenger): Well, we didn't know he'd died because nobody knew what happened to the plane, just that the plane had vanished. And indeed all these years nobody's known what's 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...I think there'd 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 53 years, the legend of Stardust's disappearance continued to grow.

FRANK TAYLOR: A mystery it remained in 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 they'd found the aircraft.

NARRATOR: It looked as if Stardust had disappeared forever. Then in 1998, a chance discovery at last reopened the case of the plane that had vanished. An old Rolls Royce engine was discovered high in the Andes Mountains.

It had appeared out of nowhere 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 vanished in 1947. It had been visited since by mountaineers who'd found nothing, but now pieces of Stardust had suddenly reappeared. The discovery led to a storm of publicity.

In February, the Argentine Army called a press conference. Officials announced they were mounting an expedition into the Andes to retrieve and analyze the newly-found wreckage. A team of air crash investigators were called in to reopen the Stardust case. Dr. Carlos Bauza was the crash investigator chosen to lead the Army's attempt to reach the accident site.

DR. CARLOS BAUZA (Crash Investigation Team)(Through translator): When the wreckage of the plane was found, and it was confirmed that it was the Stardust, the reaction in Argentina—and probably all around the world—was one of amazement. I, too, was amazed. 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.

NARRATOR: The Argentine Army is preparing 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 for any clues that can shed light on what happened to Stardust—why a plane thought lost forever had suddenly reappeared 53 years later. They also plan 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. They're heading towards the heart of the Andes, the second highest range of mountains in the world.

After a day, they've left the foothills behind. The trucks grind up high into the mountains. There are no bridges, but they still have to cross several icy rivers. They've brought 100 mules, which will take over from the trucks when the road runs out. After two days, the mules take on their burden.

They're 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.

DR. CARLOS BAUZA (Through translator): It's 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 three days they're in the shadow of Mount Tupangato. The terrain has become too rough even for the mules. The final march to the glacier will have to be on foot.

It's the fourth day. The expedition is now above 13,000 feet, higher than most mountains in the Alps. Below Mount Tupangato is the Tupangato glacier. Its lower section is covered in rock that has fallen from the surrounding mountains. The ice beneath is invisible. Somewhere on this rock-strewn glacier lies the key to the Stardust mystery.

The wreckage that the mountaineers found is now only a few hours away. But with light fading and snow in the air the expedition sets up camp for the night. Because supplies are limited, they only have two days to find the wreckage and investigate the crash.

Dawn on the fifth day. It's minus eight degrees. They've reached the glacier, and the hunt for Stardust can begin. The plan is to comb the entire area to find as many pieces of the plane as possible.

DR. CARLOS BAUZA (Through translator): This is the whole area of that wreckage—the airplane wreckage—and we're going to put two men to the left, two men to the right and one man each five meters here, and then go in climbing on all sides to find the wreckage.

NARRATOR: After two hours of walking on the rock-covered glacier no one finds any trace of the plane. Then their luck changes.

DR. CARLOS BAUZA (Through translator): 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 is 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 needs 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.

Analyzing the wreckage distribution is crucial because different types of crashes 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 dove 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 it's found so that the spread of the wreckage can be accurately reconstructed.

The first pieces of the plane 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, they've located several more shattered pieces of metal strewn across the glacier. But so far they've found surprisingly little of the huge plane. Then—a dramatic breakthrough: the Lancastrian's two massive main wheels are discovered just a few meters apart. After more than 50 years, one is still fully inflated.

DR. CARLOS BAUZA (Through translator): The main wheels are in this normal position. The pilot don't put in the landing position the...the wheels.

NARRATOR: If the pilot was preparing for a crash landing, because of engine failure for example, 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 accident. 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, discovered earlier in the year, that triggered the expedition.

The Lancastrian's Rolls Royce engine had clearly been battered by the crash impact, but Carlos wants to know if engine failure caused the accident. To figure this out, he needs to locate the engine's propeller.

The propeller can give vital clues about the performance of the engine at the time of the crash. If Stardust's engines were working normally, 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 it's working properly. 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. It only takes him a moment to see it is extremely scarred and bent back.

DR. CARLOS BAUZA (Through translator): See the point of the propeller—this one and this one. The propeller was in movement when the...when the plane crash.

NARRATOR: It means this engine was working normally. Yet, Stardust had four engines and mysteriously there's still no sign of the other three. But nothing discovered so far suggests that engine failure caused the crash.

More and more fragmented pieces of the plane are found across the glacier.

The GPS logging is revealing a crash site concentrated in an area of about one square mile on the lower section of the glacier. Despite searching well outside this zone there's 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 debris is exactly what would be expected if the plane flew straight into the glacier.

But there appears to be no reason for Stardust 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 finds the first evidence of the people who lost their lives.

DR. CARLOS BAUZA (Through translator): It's a woman's shoe. It's a hand. A female's one, too.

NARRATOR: Next to a stream lie a torso and a jawbone. It's unclear if they are from the same person. The soldiers gather the scattered remains of several bodies. None are recognizable.

The picture that is emerging is one of an exceptionally violent collision. It seems clear that the people on board Stardust died at the same instant the plane crashed.

DR. CARLOS BAUZA (Through translator): I suppose by the speed that the airplane crashes here, nobody suffer any pain.

NARRATOR: Carlos and the Army team have now thoroughly searched the glacier. They've mapped all the wreckage there is, but they are nowhere close to solving the case.

Ninety percent of the plane is still missing. There's still no evidence to explain why Stardust crashed 50 miles from the airport from which it was supposedly only minutes away. 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 piece together the puzzle any further.

With the work on the glacier finished there's an impromptu service to remember the dead. They've gathered the remains of what they believe to be four of the 11 people on board. No one knows which of the passengers they've found.

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 there's a proper burial and a proper memorial and everything.

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

NARRATOR: Returning the remains found on Tupangato to their surviving relatives will not be easy. In Buenos Aires the forensic service begins its grim task of trying to identify the mangled body parts. They are quickly able to determine that two female hipbones are from the left side of the body and come from different individuals.

Since there were only two women on board, they must belong to the British South American Airline stewardess, Iris Evans, and the German émigré, Marta Limpert. But that's 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.

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

NARRATOR: The goal is to try and match their DNA profiles to those created from the Stardust remains. The problem is that after 53 years, the DNA retrieved from the crash site has become seriously degraded. Because only tiny fragments still exist, the DNA strands will have to be amplified millions of times.

Through this method, seven distinct genetic profiles are found in addition to the two 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 has proved to be a completely baffling accident. Several mysteries remain.

No one knows 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 the city of Mendoza. They've arranged to meet an expert on glaciers, Dr. Juan Carlos Leiva.

DR. CARLOS BAUZA (Through translator): We found the wreckage of an aircraft over an area of more than one square kilometer.

NARRATOR: After reviewing the information and the geography of the Tupangato glacier, Dr. Leiva confronts them with a startling conclusion. He tells them the wreckage isn't at the actual crash site at all. There's a crucial fact to consider: glaciers move. Glaciers are enormous rivers of ice. Once they reach a critical mass, about 18 meters thick, they become so heavy, they travel slowly downhill under the influence of gravity.

There's an important implication. Fifty-three years ago Stardust crashed not where the wreckage is lying today, but higher up on 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 why the plane wasn't found despite the massive search in 1947.

DR. CARLOS BAUZA (Through translator): 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 beginning. After the avalanche, the glacier itself would have slowly swallowed the plane.

DR. JUAN CARLOS LEIVA (Glaciologist)(Through translator): 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, traveling slowly downhill, not on the surface of the ice, but deep inside it. It lay hidden inside the glacier for another 53 years. It's not the first time a plane has been swallowed by a glacier.

In Greenland, this second-World-War fighter was recently discovered 250 feet beneath an ice sheet. It had been abandoned, with five 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 there's one crucial difference—the Greenland planes were still buried deep inside the ice when they were found. Yet Stardust had reappeared on the surface of the Tupangato glacier.

Dr. Leiva believes he can explain why Stardust disappeared without a trace only to reappear half a century later.

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 traveled downhill inside the ice until it reached the lower rock-covered section. Here at the lower altitude it's warmer and the glacier started to melt.

Anything trapped inside the ice, rocks or debris from the crash, gradually melted out onto the surface. 90% of the plane is still entombed in the ice, but if the theory is right it too will reappear on the surface over the next few years.

The glacier finally explains why Stardust had disappeared for so long.

But there were still pieces of the puzzle that remained 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 though the crew thought they were close to landing. So they focused on one key factor that could have caused the accident—navigational error.

Today, sophisticated navigation systems mean it's almost impossible for an airline crew not to know where they are every second they're in the air, but 53 years ago it was a different story.

FRANK TAYLOR: You've got to realize that in those days things were pretty primitive in certain parts of the world. We didn't have radio navigational aids, which would tell us precisely where we were. The fact of the matter was that you started off on a set heading, on the basis of the forecast winds, and whatever height you've selected. And from then on you would just hope that you might get a visual checkpoint somewhere. You might be able to see Aconcagua sticking up; you might be able to see Topongata. But if you couldn't, you couldn't guarantee that you were going precisely where you thought you were on an estimated basis. That was the problem.

NARRATOR: But even allowing for the lack of modern navigation aids, Stardust's highly experienced crew should not have been 50 miles off course. There had to be a reason for such a massive navigational error.

The investigators knew from the weather reports at the time of the crash that conditions were bad over the mountains, and Stardust's crew had also known about the bad weather. So to avoid the advancing snowstorms they had radioed their intention to climb to 24,000 feet above the cloud and the mountains. On its own, bad weather didn't explain the crash because the Lancastrian's ability to fly high should have guaranteed safety.

The investigators believe that once Stardust was at 24,000 feet the crew decided to fly in a straight line to Santiago. Although they didn't 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 jet stream. This powerful, high altitude wind only develops above the normal weather systems. It can reach speeds upwards of 300 miles an hour. But in 1947, the jet stream was still largely unknown, especially in South America because very few planes ever flew high enough to encounter these upper atmosphere winds. Stardust was the exception. It could fly this high.

The investigators realized that a head-on encounter with the invisible wind would have dramatically slowed Stardust down without the crew knowing it. This could be the key to their huge navigational error.

CARLOS SORINI (Crash Investigation Team)(Through translator): Because we have the weather charts today, and because of the way the jet stream develops, we can say that on the day of the crash conditions were ideal for the jet stream to occur. But the flight crew had absolutely no knowledge of it at all, because in those days little 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. Moreover, the clouds meant that the crew was unable to see the ground, which would tell them where they were. They had no way of knowing the jet stream was slowing them down, destroying all their navigational calculations.

Using their modern-day knowledge of the jet stream, the investigating team have now reconstructed the last 45 minutes of Stardust's doomed flight. At 5 p.m. on August 2nd,1947, Stardust radioed its position near to the city of Mendoza. The crew could still see the ground, but ahead the mountains were covered in clouds. Stardust told air traffic control that it intended to climb to 24,000 feet, avoiding the bad weather. From now onwards the ground would be invisible. As Stardust climbed, it began to enter the jet stream and slow down dramatically, but the crew had no knowledge of this.

They believed that they were making much faster progress. At 24,000 feet Stardust was flying almost directly into the jet stream's winds blowing close to 100 miles an hour. The jet stream's effect was devastating. At 5:33 p.m., the crew was convinced they were crossing the mountains into Chile, but they weren't.

They radioed their time of arrival as 5:45. In fact, the plane was still on the wrong side of the mountains.

CARLOS SORINI (Through translator): 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.

DR. CARLOS BAUZA (Through translator): 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 realized what was happening. I don't think it was a bad way to die because you go from feeling relaxed to suddenly not feeling anything.

NARRATOR: After the devastating crash the plane was buried within seconds. It vanished from sight. Over time the wreckage was swallowed by the glacier. For the next 53 years it traveled down towards the glacier's zone of melting. Now, finally, it is beginning to re-emerge. The mystery of what happened to Stardust is almost solved.

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, Stardust's last apparently unintelligible radio message. What does it really mean?

To send accurate Morse code, the operator has to be able to hear an audible signal. Yet as Stardust descended into a turbulent storm, the noise or even static electricity trapped in the clouds above the mountains may have caused audio problems. But if the Morse code signal had become scrambled or was the result of a typographical error, why was it transmitted and received the same way three times?

If s-t-e-n-d-e-c wasn't the result of an unclear signal, could the same arrangements of dots and dashes produce a different message?

In 1948, a wireless operator noted that by slightly changing the spacing between the symbols for s-t-e-n-d-e-c, one gets e-t-a-l-a-t-e, a common message. Only the dot is missing—an easy mistake to make.

Other Morse code experts have pointed out that the letters e-c have the same number of dots and dashes as the letters a-r, the standard signal for end of message.

But that still leaves the first part of the word undeciphered. Since s-t-e-n-d-e-c is meaningless in almost every language, could it possibly be an abbreviation, as one historian has suggested, indicating the plane's descent? Others argue this is not a standard use of Morse code.

DR. CARLOS BAUZA (Through translator): We have consulted everyone who flew these planes and even appealed through the British press to see if any pilots who flew these aircraft could explain whether s-t-e-n-d-e-c was a code word or something to do with weather conditions, or give us any information at all. We couldn't find the answer. I think that in the end s-t-e-n-d-e-c is going to be the final unsolved mystery in the story of Stardust.

NARRATOR: There is one legend that the discovery of Stardust can put to rest. There was no alien abduction by UFOs from other worlds.

The invisible force blowing the plane off course was an earthly phenomenon—the jet stream. Unfamiliar with its strength, Stardust's crew made their tragic error.

Want to try your hand at solving the s-t-e-n-d-e-c mystery? On NOVA's Website, review the evidence, examine Morse code and send in your theory at or America Online, Keyword PBS.

Educators can order this or any other NOVA program for $19.95 plus shipping and handling. Call WGBH Boston Video at 1-800-255-9424.

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