Star Dust

It’s been over a decade since this event was reported,  yet the story of a commercial airplane that mysteriously disappeared while on a routine flight still fascinates me.

It was 1947. A British passenger airliner called Star Dust had taken off from Buenos Aires, Argentina, bound for the Chilean capital, Santiago, a trip that should have taken less than four hours. The route was across the Andes Mountains, the captain and his first and second officers were experienced pilots with Royal Air Force combat experience during World War II, and the aircraft model—an Avro Lancastrian—was perfectly suited for the task.

Reliable men, excellent machines.

Star Dust radioed its position at 5 pm while near Mendoza. The ground was still visible, but the mountains were shrouded by clouds. So far, everything seemed to be going according to plan. At 5.41 pm, the pilot contacted air traffic control in Santiago, confirming the flight would arrive in just four minutes.

Then … silence. The plane simply disappeared. For years, no wreckage was found, and there was no indication—no clue at all—of what had happened to Star Dust, the five crew members, or the six passengers.

The incident had remained a mystery for over 50 years. Then on a glacier high on Mount Tupungato, one of the highest mountains in South America, the wreckage was finally found. The plane had not been outside Santiago, as the pilot believed, but 50 miles away, still on the wrong side of the mountains.

What went wrong? Investigators now believe they know the answers.

Star Dust had told air traffic control that it intended to climb to 24,000 ft (about 7,300 m) in order to avoid the bad weather. This seemed a safe and sensible decision. Little did they know that they were about to encounter an invisible meteorological phenomenon. The jet stream is a powerful, high-altitude wind that blows at speeds in excess of 160 km an hour from west to east around the earth. However, it only develops above the normal weather systems, and in 1947, very few planes flew high enough to encounter the jet stream, so the phenomenon was still largely unknown.

The BBC reports that as Star Dust climbed and began to enter the jet stream, it slowed down dramatically, but the crew had no knowledge of this.

The jet stream’s effect was devastating. Confident the Andes were well behind them, the pilot, Reginald Cook, began the descent, sure that when Stardust [sic] emerged from the clouds it would be above Santiago Airport. In fact, they were descending straight towards Mount Tupangato [sic] which was still invisible in the clouds ahead. Disaster was seconds away. Hopelessly off course because of the jet stream, Stardust flew straight into the cloud-covered glacier.

It’s believed that the plane crashed into a vertical wall of ice, causing an avalanche that immediately covered it in snow. And so it vanished from sight. Over the decades, the wreckage travelled downhill through the glacier toward the lower rock-covered section. And there, where the glacier melts, Star Dust finally became visible once again.

Examination of the wreckage indicated that the plane was in perfect working order. It was apparently flying normally right up to that final moment when it crashed head-on into the glacier.

There is no blame attached to the Star Dust crew. No matter how professional, competent, and experienced they were, they had no way of knowing that the jet stream was slowing them down, messing up all their navigational calculations.

Despite our best efforts to navigate life, to do what is right, to faithfully discharge our responsibilities, we can never be fully aware of or avoid the invisible jet streams and pitfalls of life. In many respects, we are actually walking in the dark. We don’t have the ability or the navigational skills to foresee the future and to avoid the perils.

So while we keep forging ahead using all the knowledge and devices that are available to us, it’s important that we keep a strong connection with the all-knowing God, who is an unfailing navigational system for our lives. We don’t have to walk in darkness, for Jesus assures us, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.”1

  1. John 8:12