Experts Searching For Missing Flight MH370 Made An Unbelievable Discovery On The Ocean Floor

When Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) seemingly disappeared without a trace in 2014, the world waited for news of the whereabouts of the missing plane. But as the days and weeks passed with no breakthrough from searchers, the fates of both the craft and the 239 people aboard looked increasingly grim. Then, on the ocean floor, investigators looking for answers made an incredible discovery.

MH370 had left Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12.41 a.m. on March 8, 2014. The plane was en route to Beijing Capital International Airport, where it was expected to touch down at 6:30 a.m. after a journey of around 2,700 miles. And as the weather at take-off was fine, it may have seemed likely at first that the flight would be a smooth one.

On MH370 that day were a total of 227 passengers and 12 crew members. People from 13 different countries were represented, although more than 50 percent of those on board were either Chinese or Taiwanese. A further 38 passengers were Malaysian, five were Indian, and three were from the United States.

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Of the American citizens traveling on MH370, two were children: toddler Yan Zhang and four-year-old Nicole Meng. And there were three other passengers aged below five on the flight, the youngest of them being 23-month-old Wang Moheng. He was traveling home to Beijing with his parents after a vacation in Malaysia.

Sadly, though, none of the passengers or the crew on the ill-fated flight would make it home again. And soon after MH370’s departure, the plane started to behave strangely. While the craft was able to rise to its intended altitude of 35,000 feet, its Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) was unexpectedly deactivated shortly after 1:07 a.m.

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The purpose of the ACARS is to give information on the aircraft’s performance – data needed during a journey. But the deactivation of the system wasn’t the only strange development. Around three-quarters of an hour after the flight had departed from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian air traffic monitors were no longer able to trace the plane. And, tragically, it was never to be heard from again.

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At the time the authorities became unable to contact MH370, the craft was traveling over the South China Sea that separates Malaysia from Vietnam. Controllers had spoken to the crew just a few minutes earlier, in fact, to inform them that they were about to cross over into Vietnamese airspace. Acknowledging the information, MH370 had then responded, “Good night. Malaysian three seven zero.” This was the final time that anyone heard from the flight.

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While MH370 had dropped off the Malaysian authorities’ radar, though, it was still being observed by military equipment. Consequently, it was noted that, bizarrely, the flight had turned away from its scheduled route towards China and was instead moving westward over Malaysia. The plane subsequently traveled out of range of the monitoring equipment when it was somewhere above the Andaman Sea.

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Then, while MH370 ultimately dropped off the Malaysian military radar at 2:22 a.m., an Inmarsat satellite situated above the Indian Ocean continued to log regular signals from the plane until 8:11 a.m. An Inmarsat transmission sent at 09:15 a.m. wasn’t acknowledged by the craft, which had been due to arrive in Beijing at 6.30 a.m.

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In the hours that followed, the relatives of those on board MH370 then began to arrive at Beijing Capital International Airport, awaiting news about the missing plane. And on March 9, 2014, it seemed that there was finally a clue to MH370’s whereabouts when a low-altitude airplane saw a rectangular object on the surface of the sea.

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Seven ships and six planes departed from Vietnam to try to find the reported object, although unfortunately they were unable to do so. And while subsequent search efforts focused at first on the South China Sea, these later switched to the Andaman Sea and the Strait of Malacca after the last known movements of MH370 became clearer.

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Then, seven days after MH370 had vanished, the search area changed yet again. Data from Inmarsat determined, you see, that the aircraft could have been anywhere on one of two paths. One of these routes arced to the south of the Indian Ocean towards Australia; the other went north towards the Asian nations of Vietnam and Turkmenistan.

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Ultimately, then, the search for MH370 came to span the waters off Australia and large sections of the Asian mainland. But a blow was dealt when Najib Razak – the Malaysian Prime Minister – later declared that the plane had come down far from land in the Indian Ocean. It was thought, too, that all the passengers and crew members were presumed dead.

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The investigation into MH370’s whereabouts would go on to become the most expensive of its kind, with the plane’s disappearance remaining a mystery even six years later. And with no definitive official explanation as to what became of the aircraft or those on board, a number of conspiracy theories have emerged.

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It’s been said, for example, that MH370’s pilot had embarked on a convoluted murder/suicide plot. Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah – who had been at the helm at the time – had been an extremely experienced pilot, having amassed more than 18,000 flight hours during his career. Shah had also worked for Malaysia Airlines since the early 1980s.

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Still, there had apparently been nothing unusual about Shah’s conduct in the lead-up to the flight – casting the theory of pilot suicide into doubt. The actions of the first officer, Fariq Ab Hamid, and the plane’s cabin attendants were also all in line with normal practices, making it unlikely that any of the crew members were responsible for the aircraft’s disappearance.

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A potential hijacking was similarly put forward as an explanation for MH370 vanishing, yet no person or entity ever came forward to claim that they’d caused the aircraft to go missing. It also appeared implausible that hijackers would have directed the jet out over the Indian Ocean.

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Others, meanwhile, have suggested that MH370 met its demise following a mechanical failure or a fire on board. And there have been even more bizarre theories put forward to explain the plane’s disappearance. Some of the particularly out-there opinions include the notion that the aircraft had been abducted by aliens; alternatively, it’s been posited that MH370 may have somehow flown into a black hole.

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While conspiracy theorists were busy putting their spin on MH370’s disappearance, however, the real search for answers was underway. And, unfortunately, the investigators’ efforts were made more difficult by the remote nature of the crash site in the Indian Ocean – 1,500 miles off the coast of Australia.

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Yet there was a glimmer of hope for search teams on April 6, 2014, when an Australian ship detected signals that could have emanated from MH370’s flight recorder. Promisingly, the position of the possible black box also matched the location of the last satellite signal received from the plane. And as a result, the race was on to locate the recorder before its battery went flat.

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But when an unmanned submarine was deployed to seek out the MH370 black box, it could find no traces of the aircraft. Tests also determined that a malfunctioning cable in the Australian ship’s monitoring equipment could have been responsible for the signals that had been picked up. For months, then, the fate of MH370 remained a mystery.

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In fact, it wasn’t until July 29, 2015, that the first debris from MH370 was finally located. A piece from one of the aircraft’s wings had washed up on the shores of Réunion – a French island that lies more than 2,000 miles from the original search area in the Indian Ocean. Then, over the course of the following 18 months, more plane parts were found on beaches in Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania.

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Of these 27 fragments of washed-up debris, three were definitively confirmed as belonging to MH370; a further 17 were deemed to have probably been part of the aircraft. And owing to the locations at which the parts were found, investigators were then able to limit the search to regions of the Indian Ocean – specifically, those areas from which it would be conceivable for wreckage to have washed up on the shores of Africa.

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Nonetheless, following investigation operations that spanned three years and in excess of 40,000 square miles, the search for MH370 was called off in January 2017. And although a U.S. firm named Ocean Infinity continued to look for the missing aircraft until May 2017, its investigations also proved inconclusive.

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In 2017 the MH370 Tripartite Joint Communiqué therefore released a statement announcing the end of the search for the missing plane. This message read, “Despite every effort using the best science available [and] cutting-edge technology as well as modeling and advice from highly skilled professionals who are the best in their field, unfortunately, the search has not been able to locate the aircraft. Accordingly, the underwater search for MH370 has been suspended.”

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Still, the hunt for the missing aircraft hasn’t been completely fruitless. Indeed, while the investigation tragically failed to provide answers for the families with loved ones on board the doomed flight, it did provide some insight into what lurks beneath the Indian Ocean. And some of the discoveries made as a result have proved quite amazing.

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As part of the search for MH370, you see, a team of Australian investigators made a series of intricate maps of the bottom of the Indian Ocean. And while the detailed graphs didn’t lead to the successful discovery of the missing aircraft, they have allowed us to view the depths of the vast body of water.

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Yes, these maps were made public in July 2017 – six months after the official search for MH370 was called off. And they have revealed the breathtaking landscapes hidden beneath the waves in a remote region of the Indian Ocean – an area where the aircraft is believed to have vanished.

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The Australian team’s search was conducted in two phases. Initially, the depths of the waters were measured in order to produce a comprehensive picture of the seabed, with researchers even able to use sonar technology to distinguish the varieties of sediment down there. During the process, the group also pinpointed unusual features below the surface that would need further investigation.

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The initial phase of the Australian search was then used to inform the second stage: a submarine search of the seafloor. For this, investigators used sophisticated sonar technology that was attached to underwater robots in order to create high-resolution maps of the subaquatic landscape.

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So, while the Australian team didn’t locate MH370, they did discover sunken vessels, ocean valleys and underwater mountains. And their detailed maps have documented the sub-aquatic world with extraordinary precision, making the data produced potentially invaluable in our future understanding of the depths of the Indian Ocean.

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Among the discoveries that investigators made were a vast volcano-lined rift valley; there were also sub-aquatic mountains that are taller than Mount Everest. And the resulting maps cover close to 50,000 square miles off the west coast of Australia, meaning the project is one of the most extensive investigations of its kind in human history.

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Currently, the planet’s deepest oceans remain largely unmapped, with less than one-fifth of their waters having been charted in the manner done by teams looking for the missing MH370. Prior to those investigations taking place, our knowledge of the search area in the Indian Ocean was derived from satellite data, which could only provide low-resolution maps of the seafloor.

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The remote location of the MH370 search area also made the new maps special, as the area they document lies well over 1,000 miles from the Western Australian city of Perth. And as it can take close to a week for ships to travel to the remote region, charting the ocean there may have proved too labor-intensive an endeavor under less urgent circumstances.

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Furthermore, as the new maps of the Indian Ocean provide an in-depth look at a little-explored section of water, they may supply both scientists and fishermen with invaluable information about the area. The documents could also help researchers in studying tsunamis in the region, as undersea mountains help to absorb the destructive energy of these phenomena.

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In 2017 Charitha Pattiaratchi, a coastal oceanography professor from the University of Western Australia, explained to Reuters why the maps may be useful to ocean trawlers. He said, “There are the locations of seamounts which will attract a lot of international deep-sea fishermen to the area.”

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Among the locations explored in detail for the first time during the hunt for MH370 was Broken Ridge – a 7,500-mile-long oceanic plateau. This was created, it’s thought, when Australia broke away from Antarctica back in the Jurassic period. And at more than 40 million years old, the ocean floor at Broken Ridge is therefore considered to be the earliest of its kind to have formed within the boundaries of the MH370 search area.

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By contrast, the youngest seabed was found at the Diamantina Escarpment. This was deemed to have been created as the result of “seafloor spreading” – a consequence of shifts in tectonic plates. But these differences in the ocean floor weren’t just down to age, but also to topography. And this makes the MH370 search area highly complex.

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Stuart Minchin is the chief of Geoscience Australia’s environmental division. And while commenting on the significance of the new data, he told the Daily Mail, “It is estimated that only ten to 15 percent of the world’s oceans have been surveyed with the kind of technology used in the search for MH370, making this remote part of the Indian Ocean among the most thoroughly mapped regions of the deep ocean on the planet.”

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So while the fate of MH370 remains one of the greatest and most tragic aviation mysteries that the world has ever seen, the search for the aircraft did lead to some valuable discoveries. And investigations may yet continue in the future if new evidence arises. In 2017 the MH370 Tripartite Joint Communiqué suggested as much, saying, “We remain hopeful that new information will come to light and that at some point in the future the aircraft will be located.”

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More than 60 years prior to the disappearance of MH370, though, another plane completely vanished. And not long before British South American Airways Flight CS59 dropped off the radar for good, it made a bizarre transmission that still baffles investigators to this day.

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It’s August 2, 1947, and Flight CS59 is on the last part of a long journey. The Avro Lancastrian passenger plane is making the flight after taking off from Buenos Aires, Argentina, en route to the final destination of Santiago, Chile. But not long before the airliner reaches Santiago, the crew sends a baffling radio message. And those are the last words ever heard from Flight CS59.

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Flight CS59’s international journey had actually started on July 29, 1947, when it had taken off from London, U.K. Yet it was a different plane that had made the transatlantic journey to the first stopping off point: Buenos Aires. An Avro York airliner with the name Star Mist had made that flight, you see. This was also a British South American Airways (BSAA) aircraft.

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Once in Buenos Aires, though, the Avro Lancastrian called Star Dust took on the role of completing Flight CS59’s itinerary. The final leg involved crossing South America from Buenos Aires in the east to Santiago in the west. It also meant flying across the formidable Andes mountain range – the rocky spine that runs down the continent.

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The flight plan for the journey in fact involved a route that flew over the Argentinean city of Mendoza in the eastern foothills of the Andes. The total flight time should have been three hours and 12 minutes. And the Avro Lancastrian should have flown the first 605-mile part of the journey at an altitude of 18,000 feet until it was over Mendoza.

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After then passing over Mendoza, the pilot planned to take the airliner to a height of 26,000 feet to cross the high peaks of the Andes for the final 122 miles of the flight on to Santiago. So the Lancastrian duly took off from Buenos Aires at 1:46 p.m. And for most of the flight, everything seemed to be entirely routine.

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But during the journey, as the plane passed over Mendoza, bad weather had closed in. And with it came high winds with speeds in excess of 100 mph – along with heavy snow. At 5:41 p.m., though, Star Dust was somewhere near Mount Tupungato, about 50 miles from Santiago. And it then sent a Morse code message from that location to Santiago.

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The Star Dust crew’s message to Santiago stated that their estimated time of arrival was just four minutes away. It was a routine transmission but for two things. Firstly, the final word of the message was the incomprehensible word “STENDEC.” And secondly, it would be the last that was ever heard from BSAA Flight CS59.

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Yes, the Avro Lancastrian, its five crew and six passengers had apparently disappeared into thin air over the Andes. But what had the enigmatic word, STENDEC, in the final message meant? Before we try to unravel that mystery, though, let’s take a look at other planes that have mysteriously vanished to see if they hold any answers.

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And we actually don’t need to look far since British South American Airways seems to have been quite profligate when it came to losing planes in unexplained circumstances. Two other BSAA flights have disappeared over the years, in fact. On January 30, 1948, the year after Flight CS59 vanished over the Andes, another BSAA plane, Star Tiger, went missing over the Atlantic Ocean.

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Star Tiger, an Avro Tudor IV passenger plane, had been flying from Santa Maria, one of the Azores islands in the North Atlantic, to the Caribbean island of Bermuda. Its journey had actually started from the Portuguese capital Lisbon on January 28. Its stop in Santa Maria had only been intended to be a brief one simply to re-fuel.

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But the pilot, Captain Brian W. McMillan, changed his plans due to bad weather. So the 25 passengers and six crew spent the night in Santa Maria. Then, the next day, Star Tiger took off for Bermuda in the afternoon. Yet the subsequent high winds made Captain McMillan decide to fly at low altitude – 2,000 feet – in the hope of avoiding the worst gusts.

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The severe winds knocked the plane off its course to Bermuda, though. McMillan therefore adjusted his flight path to take account of this. But after a final radio message at 3:17 a.m. on January 30, the plane was never heard from again. An official investigation into the incident concluded, “What happened in this case will never be known, and the fate of Star Tiger must remain an unsolved mystery.”

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And it was just one year later that BSAA lost yet another plane. Star Ariel, an Avro Tudor Mark IVB airliner, was traveling from the island of Bermuda on January 17, 1949, bound for Kingston, Jamaica. The plane had departed in good, clear weather with 13 passengers and seven crew aboard.

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The pilot, Captain John Clutha McPhee, also radioed Kingston about an hour after take-off – all was apparently well. Yet this was the last that was ever heard from Star Ariel. The official enquiry into this plane’s disappearance concluded that “through lack of evidence due to no wreckage having been found, the cause of the accident is unknown.”

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Unsurprisingly, then, the loss of these two planes, Star Tiger and Star Ariel, in entirely mysterious circumstances helped to get the whole “Bermuda Triangle” mythology off the ground. But as Star Dust flew over the Andes in 1947, all of that was yet to come. And to find out more, let’s now meet the crew members.

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The lead officer on Flight CS59 was Captain Reginald Cook. For his part, the pilot was an experienced flier who had seen action during the Second World War and won medals for his bravery. In fact, all of the flying crew – including First Officer Norman Cook and Second Officer Donald Checklin – had served with the Royal Air Force in WWII.

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The other two crew members were Dennis Harmer, the radio operator, and flight attendant Iris Evans. During the war, Evans had served as a Chief Petty Officer with the Women’s Royal Naval Service. And Harmer had served as an RAF radio operator for three years. So this band of WWII veterans crewing the plane pretty much told the story of BSAA as an outfit.

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You see, British South American Airways had been founded by demobbed WWII pilots keen to exploit what they saw as a gap in the market for air travel to the Caribbean and Latin America. The company’s inaugural flight in fact took off from London’s Heathrow Airport on New Year’s Day 1946, bound for South America. But the BSAA story predictably came to an end after the loss of that third plane in 1949. The BSAA badge was then subsumed into the British Overseas Airways Corporation.

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As for the machine the crew was flying, that was an Avro 691 Lancastrian 3. The Lancastrian was in fact a modified version of the Lancaster – a four-engined WWII era bomber. These civilian airliners were used for passenger flights and for ferrying mail via both Canadian and British operators.

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Star Dust’s first flight, fresh from the factory, came in November 1945, and BSAA took delivery of the aircraft in January 1946. That was a Lancastrian 3 variant, and 18 of this model rolled off the Avro production line. These planes could carry up to 13 passengers. And that brings us to the passengers on Flight CS59.

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Marta Limpert was a German who lived in Chile, and accompanying her on the flight were the ashes of her late husband. Harald Pagh and Jack Gooderham were businessmen. Briton Paul Simpson worked as a civil servant and had diplomatic papers with him for delivery to the British Embassy in Santiago. In fact, some even theorized that Star Dust might have been sabotaged because of those papers. There was, however, no real evidence for this.

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Also on the passenger list was Palestinian Casis Said Atalah, who was on his way back to Chile after a visit to his sick mother. And according to some sources, Atalah was carrying a diamond sewn into the fabric of his suit. Meanwhile, another travelling was Peter Young, who worked for Dunlop. As we know, then, this flight would be the last this disparate group would take.

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So Star Dust took off from Buenos Aires at 1:46 p.m. for the 727-mile trip across the Andes to Santiago. Then at 5:41 p.m. radio operator Dennis Harmer sent a Morse code message to Santiago. In its entirety, the message read, “ETA [estimated time of arrival] Santiago 17.45 hrs STENDEC.”

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The first part of Harmer’s message is clear enough. It is simply an announcement that the Star Dust was expected to arrive at the airport in Santiago four minutes after the Morse code transmission. But what on Earth did STENDEC mean? Well, that’s something that experts and amateurs have puzzled over for decades.

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When the plane did not arrive at Santiago, then, search parties were sent out from both Argentina and Chile. BSAA pilots also scanned the terrain – but no wreckage and no survivors from Star Dust were found. So the only conclusion drawn was that the plane had crashed with the loss of all 11 people on board.

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Yet the unanswered questions about what exactly had happened to Star Dust only served to make the elusive meaning of STENDEC seem all the more significant. And there is no shortage of theories as to what this perplexing word in that final Morse code message from Flight CS59 might possibly mean.

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A Chilean Air Force operator had taken the last message from Star Dust, and he testified that the Morse code had been clearly transmitted. But he did say that the code had been tapped out very rapidly. Even so, STENDEC had puzzled the operator enough that he had asked Harmer to repeat his message. This he did, and the second time it came out just as clearly as the first, according to the Chilean.

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Some thought that this strange word might have been something to do with a UFO. And some apparently thought the plane and crew might have been abducted by aliens. At the time, of course, UFOs and aliens were hot news, so any mystery was apt to be connected to extraterrestrial sources. But we’re probably safe to discount the involvement of little green men here. Although that brings us no closer to understanding the meaning, if any, of STENDEC.

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More than 50 years later, then, the STENDEC mystery was still a live one. This was confirmed in 2000 when the BBC broadcast a program delving into the mysteries of Star Dust’s demise. The documentary paid particular attention to that final puzzling message too. Viewers then responded in their hundreds with possible explanations – and some were even quite plausible.

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One said that Harmer might have been suffering from a lack of oxygen – impairing his Morse abilities. Perhaps he meant to tap out the word “descent”? That, after all, is actually an anagram of STENDEC. Alternatively, the enigmatic word might have been a series of letters standing for a full phrase. “Severe Turbulence Encountered, Now Descending Emergency Crash-landing” was mooted as one possibility.

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But the idea that STENDEC was code for an emergency situation, or a panicked mistyping of descent, is flatly contradicted by the rest of the message, which is entirely routine. There was also the idea that the Chilean wireless operator might simply have got the message wrong – or that Harmer had made errors while sending it.

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Remember, the Chilean operator had said that the Morse code had been tapped out very quickly. Ultimately, though, probably the most likely explanation is that it was a Morse code error in the sending or receiving. The dots and dashes for STENDEC are, after all, the same as for SCTI AR.

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Of course, the spacings between dots and dashes is crucial for a message’s final meaning. And SCTI AR is not enigmatic; it’s simply standard code for “over,” which makes perfect sense in the context. The misunderstanding could have therefore occurred because the dot and dash spacings were incorrect. Tapping out very rapidly could easily have even led to a mistaken transmission or interpretation of the message.

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And that’s probably as close as we’ll ever get to a definitive answer to the STENDEC message enigma. But that still leaves us with the missing plane, which had eluded the best efforts of searchers back in 1947. That situation – the apparent complete disappearance of an airliner and its passengers – would in fact continue for half a century.

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A significant breakthrough came in 1998, though, when two Argentinean climbers were scaling Mount Tupungato. They were actually on the Tupungato Glacier at an altitude of 15,000 feet when they came across the remains of a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and some other debris. And the Star Dust had been fitted with four Merlin aviation engines.

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Then a couple of years later, Argentinean soldiers set out to search for wreckage on the Tupungato Glacier. Their finds included a wheel with its tire still inflated and one of the four propellers. Much more gruesomely, the soldiers also found a variety of body parts. The human remains included three torsos, a foot still in its boot and a hand.

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Thanks to the freezing conditions and the dry winds, the hand and other body parts found were well preserved. In fact, the hand still retained its manicure and was clearly that of a female. And the only female aboard Star Dust had been Iris Evans, who was just 26 when she died in the crash. The discovery of the remains then triggered a search for surviving relatives so that identities could be confirmed via DNA testing.

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The search for descendants and surviving relatives took two years – but brought some success in 2002. In fact, DNA testing confirmed the identities of five of the eight British crew and passengers on the flight. This conclusively confirmed that the bodies were of some of those aboard the plane when it had crashed and that the wreckage was from Star Dust.

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Margaret Coalwood of Nottingham, U.K., was one of the surviving relatives who was tracked down. Second Officer Donald Checklin was her cousin. Coalwood spoke to The Guardian in 2002 after DNA testing had confirmed the identity of her cousin’s body. She said, “He was my older cousin, who I idolized hopelessly. He flew Lancaster bombers and got medals for bringing back his aircraft one time on a wing and a prayer.”

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But now that the crashed plane’s wreckage had been found, the question was what had caused the disaster? Well, it seems that high winds from the jet stream may have pushed the flight off course. Misjudging his position, the pilot might then have started his descent too soon, putting him on a collision course for Mount Tupungato. Alternatively, high winds and icing may have plunged the plane into the mountain side. Whatever caused the crash, though, it’s likely that more wreckage from Star Dust and further passenger remains will emerge from the glacier as the years go by.

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