What did the crew of BSAA Flight CS-59 mean when they sent and repeated the cryptic message “STENDEC” via Morse code seconds before crashing?
On August 2, 1947, the crew of a British South American Airways (BSAA) Lancastrian, an airliner version of the Avro Lancaster WWII bomber, sent a cryptic message. Operating as Flight CS-59, aka “Star Dust,” the four-engine aircraft was en route from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Santiago, Chile, with 11 people on board. At 5:41 p.m., a Chilean Morse code radio operator for the Los Cerrillos Airport received a message.
“ETA Santiago 17:45 hrs. STENDEC.”
The operator understood that Star Dust intended to land in four minutes, but the final word, “STENDEC,” confused him. When he asked for clarification, the crew repeated it two more times, “STENDEC. STENDEC.” It would be the last anyone ever heard from Star Dust. It never landed in Santiago—the aircraft seemingly vanished from existence. Its fate became one of the most puzzling aviation mysteries of its time. The public, still reeling from the now-famous “flying saucer” incident in Roswell, New Mexico, a few weeks earlier, went wild with theories, speculating everything from sabotage to alien abduction. It even inspired a new name for a UFO magazine—STENDEK.
It wasn’t until 1998 that a group of Argentine mountaineers climbing Mount Tupungato, approximately 50 miles east of Santiago, stumbled upon wreckage from the crash. Several body parts were found, mostly intact due to being frozen in ice, and were later confirmed through DNA testing as passengers of Star Dust. Investigators concluded that the crew, flying in a snowstorm against a powerful jet stream, had become confused about their location and believed they were closer to Santiago than they actually were. The crash was a result of controlled descent into terrain.
While the fate of Star Dust had finally been solved, remaining in its wake was still the mystery of the crew’s final message—STENDEC. What was radio operator Dennis Harmer, a highly trained wartime and civilian operator, trying to say? Could there be more to the story of Star Dust’s crash?
… / - / . / -. / -.. / . / -.-. (STENDEC)
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As it turns out, STENDEC is an anagram of the word “descent.” One popular theory is that the crew, flying at 24,000 feet in an unpressurized aircraft, suffered from hypoxia. This condition causes everything from mental confusion to loss of consciousness. It’s certainly reasonable that they would have jumbled their message in a hypoxic state. However, while the aircraft was unpressurized, its crew had been supplied with oxygen. Even if an equipment malfunction had occurred, what are the odds that only one word would be jumbled in the message and that it would be done so three times in exactly the same order? Seems very unlikely.
STENDEC/STAR DUST Theory
STENDEC and STAR DUST are coded similarly in both English and Morse code, causing some to theorize that Harmer sent one when he actually meant the other. This theory is an easy one to break apart. For one, call signs for all BSAA flights in the 1940s began with “star.” It’s unlikely that this would have been a point of confusion for Harmer, especially given that STENDEC wasn’t a word. Moreover, operators at the time only referred to aircraft by their registration code, which in Star Dust’s case was “G-AGWH.”
Perhaps STENDEC was an abbreviation for a much longer message, an acronym sent in a hurry due to being in a crunch for time. Believers of this theory claim it stood for something like, “Stardust tank empty, no diesel, expected crash,” or, “Santiago tower, emergency, now descending, entering cloud.” Experts on Morse code are quick to call hogwash on this theory, however, saying that the crew would have never cryptically abbreviated an important message. If they wanted to convey distress, they would have sent an “SOS.”
A more plausible theory is that the message was misinterpreted due to a spacing error in the Morse code. According to experts, if an additional space had been added between the first two letters, STENDEC would translate to: “ATTENTION – END – END OF MESSAGE.” It seems a bit redundant to say “END” and then “END OF MESSAGE,” however. Furthermore, why would they put “ATTENTION” at the end of the transmission instead of the beginning? It would be like ending a story with “once upon a time.”
The most likely reality is that sending “STENDEC” was a mistake of some sort by Star Dust’s radio operator. The word simply has no meaning in any language, not even in Morse code. And if there was any meaning to it, it wasn’t in regards to the crash. The flight was conducted in zero-visibility conditions, so it’s unlikely the crew had any idea their plane was about to impact a mountainside. Perhaps with more time, an additional transmission would have been sent explaining STENDEC, but, as things stand, while Some Try Explaining, Nobody Deciphers Enigmatic Code