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RIDDLE OF THE STAR DUST; Group of climbers find plane wreckage in Andes.

FOR 53 years, a remote peak high in the Andes kept a grim secret.

Now a chance discovery by climbers has ended the mystery of the last flight of the British-owned Star Dust, which disappeared in a storm on August 2, 1947.

The five crew and six passengers on the British South American Airways flight to Santiago, Chile from Buenos Aires, Argentina, have all been missing presumed dead since then.

But now at least three of them will finally receive a proper burial, after their bodies were found, preserved by the permanently freezing temperatures on the 6800m Tupungato peak in Argentina.

An Argentine judge has ordered DNA tests to be performed on the bodies to determine the identities of the three people.

Aircraft experts say the discovery is also a unique piece of aviation history.

The Avro Lancastrian, based on the wartime Lancaster bomber, is the only one still in existence.

The fuselage of the aircraft appears to have shattered but two of the climbers who stumbled across the crash site, Alejandro and Jose Moiso, have recovered a propeller, piece of a wing and an oxygen canister in "near perfect" condition.

Harry Holmes from the Avro Heritage Group, which celebrates the now-defunct Cheshire aerospace firm, said: "This would be the only Lancastrian left in the world. It's a very special find.

"Aircraft have been found in deserts 20 or 30 years after they were lost, but for one to be found nearly 53 years later with bodies preserved in the snow certainly sounds unique."

The Lancastrian was often used on transatlantic trips because of its long range.

Mr Holmes said: "It could easily cross the Atlantic without refuelling. At the time, this kind of travel was only for the wealthy and business people."

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "Our embassy is in touch with the Argentinian authorities about what they have found and what actions they propose to take.

"We will also look at our records to establish details about who was on board."

Documents held by the Public Record Office at Kew, south west London, showed that the Lancastrian was flown by Captain Reginald Cook, 29, First Officer Norman Cook, 30, and Second Officer Donald Checklin, 27, who were all ex-RAF pilots.

The Radio Officer was 28-year-old Dennis Harmer, and the "star girl" or air hostess, was Iris Evans, 26, a former chief petty officer in the Wrens.

The passengers were named as Paul Simpson and Marta Limpert from London.

Four others who flew from Buenos Aires were Peter Young, who was heading for Lima in Peru, Casis Said Atallah, Harold Pagh and John Salt Gooderham.

The names of the passengers were not given in the Ministry of Civil Aviation's official report into the disaster but in 1955 The Times reported that Paul Simpson was a King's Messenger.

A telegram to the Foreign Office two days after the plane disappeared read: "Cause of disaster may never be known and in the light of former accidents in the Andes, aircraft may not be found for years, if ever."

The Civil Air Accident report by Air Commodore Vernon Brown, Chief Inspector of Accidents, said that Captain Cook trained as a navigator with the RAF in 1940 and later as a pilot, joining the BSAA in May 1946.

He had crossed the Andes eight times as second pilot but the fatal journey was his first crossing as captain.

The aircraft disappeared on the most central of three routes across the massive mountain range.

The report, published in 1948, said: "Both in London and Buenos Aires the pilot had been briefed against taking the central route if bad weather prevailed.

"As this was the pilot's first trans-Andean flight in command, and in view of the weather conditions, he should not have crossed by the direct route."

The cause of the accident remained "obscure" but the report added that "the possibility of severe icing cannot be ignored".

More than eight years after the crash, the air carrier BOAC, which took over from British South American Airways, received reports that the aircraft wreckage had been found "completely pilfered".

BOAC asked the accident investigators to mount another search but were turned down because there was deemed to be little value in such vague information.

The documents held at Kew also revealed that a mysterious radio message was received 30 minutes after Star Dust took off from Buenos Aires for the short hop over the Andes to Chile.

The captain had radioed to report turbulent conditions and heavy snow but the final message received in Morse code was transcribed as "STENDEC".

Chilean radio operators asked the captain to twice repeat his message.

But nobody was able to establish what the mystery phrase meant.

After it was reported in national newspapers of the time, accident investigators received a number of possible alternative transcriptions from Morse code enthusiasts - including "SOS ICE", "URGENT" and "VALE", the Latin for farewell.

The report from BSAA's station manager at Santiago revealed that the Morse message "STENDEC" was initially thought to be a corrupt signal.

A state of partial emergency was declared at Los Cerrillos airport in Santiago when the plane had failed to turn up two hours after its estimated arrival time.

London was alerted at 9pm local time, more than seven hours after existence.

Crashed Lancasters have been discovered in unusual circumstances before, including one partly preserved by beeswax in 1989, 26 years after it crashed on a Pacific island.

StarDust should have arrived, with a telegram reading "immediate aircraftover due".

Now aircraft enthusiasts are hoping that the plane can be recovered.

Robert Rudhall, assistant editor of vintage aircraft magazine FlyPast, said: "This is important because until now nobody ever knew what had happened to this aeroplane."

He said only 95 Lancastrians were built, compared to thousands of Lancasters, only two airworthy examples of which remain in existence.

Crashed Lancasters have been discovered in unusual circumstances before, including one party preserved in beeswax in 1989, 26vyears after it crashed on a Pacific island.
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Author:Martin, Steve
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jan 26, 2000
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