NOVA Online (see text links below)

STENDEK magazines Inspired by STENDEC: a Spanish UFO magazine.
Solve the Mystery of STENDEC
STENDEC Theories

On August 2, 1947, Stardust's radio operator sent a final message in Morse code to the Chilean radio operator then on duty in Santiago. The full message sent at 17.41 hrs was as follows:
'ETA [estimated time of arrival] Santiago 17.45 hrs STENDEC'
The final apparently unintelligible word "STENDEC" has been a source of mystery, confusion, and intrigue ever since. So mysterious was the disappearance of the plane—coupled with its final strange message—that Stardust became entwined in UFO theories. The word STENDEC was corrupted into Stendek and became the name of a Spanish UFO magazine.

Now that the plane has been found, we know that it wasn't spirited away by aliens. However, the mystery of the final radio message remains. What was experienced radio operator Dennis Harmer trying to say? The official 1947 report into Stardust's disappearance had this to say on the subject:
The 17.41 signal was received by Santiago only 4 minutes before the ETA. The Chilean radio operator at Santiago states that the reception of the signal was loud and clear but that it was given out very fast. Not understanding the word "STENDEC" he queried it and had the same word repeated by the aircraft twice in succession. A solution to the word "STENDEC" has not been found. From this time on nothing further was heard from the aircraft and no contact was made with the control tower at Santiago. All further calls were unanswered.
Before this message a series of entirely routine messages had been transmitted by the plane, reporting its position and intended course.

Since the program "Vanished" first aired in Britain, its producers have received literally hundreds of messages offering explanations of STENDEC. Below we include a selection of the ideas. Before you have a look at them, familiarize yourself with Morse code if you're not already familiar with it. Any explanation for STENDEC depends on an understanding of this 160-year-old technology.

"STENDEC" in Morse code is:
... / - / . / -. / -.. / . / -.-.
S / T / E / N / D / E / C

Stardust Is STENDEC an anagram of DESCENT?

The Theory
Many people who wrote in pointed out that STENDEC is an anagram of 'descent.' Variations suggested that the crew might have been suffering from hypoxia (lack of oxygen), because the Lancastrian was unpressurized and the plane was flying at 24,000 feet, which might have led the radio operator to scramble the message. Other explanations for the appearance of an anagram in an otherwise routine message included a dyslexic radio operator and/or receiver in Santiago, and playfulness on behalf of Stardust's radio operator.

While it's true that the Lancastrian was unpressurized, the crew were all supplied with oxygen. A faulty oxygen system can't be ruled out but seems unlikely. Furthermore, while it is relatively easy to imagine STENDEC being scrambled into descent in English, it is much harder in Morse code.

-.. / . / ... / -.-. / . / -. / - (Descent)
... / - / . / -. / -.. / . / -.-. (STENDEC)

And it's even less likely that the same Morse dyslexia would be repeated three times.

The Theory
The radio operator meant to say 'Stardust.' STENDEC and Stardust have some similarities in both Morse code and English:

... / - / .- / .-. / -.. / ..- / ... / - (Stardust)
... / - / . / -. / -.. / . / -.-.

They may be similar, but it is still hard to imagine an experienced radio operator getting his plane's name wrong on three occasions. Furthermore, aircraft were usually referred to by their registration (in Stardust's case G-AGWH) rather than the romantic names airlines gave them. And finally, there seems to be no reason to transmit the plane's name at the end of a routine message.

Stardust When he tapped out STENDEC, did the radio operator mean STARDUST?
The Theory
Various people came up with intriguing, imaginative, and sometimes amusing messages based on using STENDEC as a series of initials. Hence we have:
  • "Santiago tower message now descending entering cloud" (or "Santiago tower aircraft now descending entering cloud")

  • "Stardust tank empty no diesel expected crash"

  • "Systems to the end navigation depends entirely on circle" (this correspondent conceded that "the last bit may be a bit muddled")

  • "Santiago tower even navigator doesn't exactly know"

All these variations seem implausible to a greater or lesser extent. Morse code experts the producers have consulted believe it is highly unlikely that a radio operator would resort to convoluted messages based on initials.

Morse operator's hands The Morse code may hold the answer as to what Stardust's radio operator really meant to say.

Explanations based in Morse code
The Theory
Perhaps the most plausible explanations we have heard are firmly based in Morse code and have come from people highly familiar with this method of communication. Several people have pointed out that the sign-off for a Morse code message is AR. The Morse for AR is:

.- / .-.

which is identical—although with different spacings—to EC:

. / -.-.

Similarly, another Morse expert has pointed out that to attract attention it is common to use the dots and dash for V as a calling-up sign. Again, this is the same as ST, only with different spacing:

... / - (ST)
That would leave just "END" sandwiched between a signal attracting attention, and another signing off.

Another explanation, advanced at the time of the disappearance, was that a small rearrangement of the dots and dashes—for example, losing the first two dots—yields ETA LATE, apparently a common method of signalling a late arrival amongst Royal Air Force radio operators:

. / - / .- / .-.. / .- / - / . (ETA LATE)
... / - / . / -. / -.. / . / -.-. (STENDEC)

Why would the operator say "end"? Possibly because he was finishing Morse transmissions prior to picking up voice communication. Voice communication was only possible at this time when the aircraft was very close to the airport, and one pilot and radio operator who flew at this time reports that it was common to inform the airport that Morse transmissions were closing down. The problem? Why would the operator use a calling-up sign in the middle of his message?

Similarly, why would an operator say ETA LATE when he had only just confirmed his time of arrival?

Hand on radio dial What is the true meaning of the word the Santiago-based radio operator heard three times that August night in 1947? We may never know.
Some things can be said with some degree of certainty. It seems clear that STENDEC is not what the Morse-code message was meant to say. The word is meaningless, and trying to use it as an acronym or an abbreviation yields little fruit.

It also seems clear that Stardust's radio operator was not anticipating a crash, otherwise he would not have repeated the message three times. And why not use SOS, the internationally accepted distress signal?

Fiddling with Morse code seems to offer the best chance of getting close to an understanding of the message. But in the absence of a new clue, the truth is we will never know for sure what that final enigmatic radio message was meant to mean.

        STENDEC Theories
        Tapping into Morse Code
        1947 Official Accident Report
        Readers' Theories

A version of this article originally appeared on the Horizon Web site at Used with permission.

Solve the Mystery of STENDEC | Mysterious Plane Crashes
Reading the Wreckage | Inside the Jet Stream | Resources
Transcript | Site Map | Vanished! Home

Editor's Picks | Previous Sites | Join Us/E-mail | TV/Web Schedule
About NOVA | Teachers | Site Map | Shop | Jobs | Search | To print
PBS Online | NOVA Online | WGBH

© | Updated January 2001
/wgbh/nova/vanished/textindex.html /wgbh/nova/vanished/