Star dust memories

I had thought the grieving done with, the intense human drama finished.

A few months before we met, in January 2000, Argentine climbers had finally located the wreckage of his plane, thousands of feet up on the slopes of Mount Tupungato. Even body parts were preserved amid the intense year-round cold. "Part of me was happy when the wreck was discovered," Lola says, "because I finally knew where he was. But, at the same time, it has brought all the pain back." And she began to weep again.

It was the rawness of the emotion that startled me. But then, there were a lot of things in this story which took me by surprise. I was first attracted to it, became convinced it was worthy of a book, by the curiously romantic detail contained in the very first news reports of the wreck’s discovery.

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For a start there was the name of the aircraft, with its ripe echoes of the jazz age: it was called Star Dust. Then there was the five-strong crew, former bomber pilots who had beaten the odds and survived the war only to be claimed by the unforgiving winds over the Andes.

Finally there were the passengers: the two dashing businessmen out to turn a quick buck amid the boisterous post-war economies of South America; the Chilean-German woman who had been caught in Berlin by the war and who now, newly widowed, was trying to make for home; the king’s messenger with his diplomatic bag full of secrets; and of course, Casis Said Atalah himself.

He had left Santiago to visit his dying mother in Bethlehem with a picture of the Virgin Mary in his luggage for spiritual protection and a diamond stitched into the lining of his suit for emergencies. Perhaps The Virgin had kept an eye on him, because he made it safely all the way to Palestine and back to Buenos Aires. After that she appears to have lost concentration. He disappeared, along with everybody else, in the late afternoon of 2 August, 1947.

I was not then, and am not now, an aviation buff; the sweet smell of aircraft fuel has never done it for me.

But I was certain there was a great story here, something about the pioneering days of long-haul flight, a time before pressurised cabins and multi-course menus and 15 channels of in-flight entertainment. As I began researching, however, digging away in the Public Records Office at Kew for previously unseen documents and talking to the former staff and passengers of the airline that operated the Star Dust, it became so much more; a parable for our times, about bravery and over-weaning ambition, about arrogance and the pursuit of profit over safety, all of which cannot help but chime with the agonies being experienced by our modern transport networks. It became the story of the most dangerous airline in the Western world. The Star Dust was one of six Lancastrians delivered to a new airline called British South American Airways in January 1946. The company had been established during the war by four shipping lines which could see that aviation was the coming thing, but was nationalised by the Atlee government at conflict’s end. As its chief executive, the Civil Aviation Minister installed an austere Australian flyer called Air Vice Marshal Don Bennett, who had formed and led the RAF’s Pathfinders throughout the air war.

Bennett was a hero’s hero. Before the war he was the first pilot to fly commercial freight across the Atlantic. He was the first man to cross the Atlantic in winter and he held the world sea-plane distance record - 6,000 miles - which stands to this day. But he was also an obstinate and difficult character who was convinced he knew best. They were good qualities for wartime, less so for peace. As an avowed patriot for his adopted country he insisted that his airline use only British planes, like the Lancastrian, even though that craft was not best suited to the job. He insisted they carry only British navigation equipment even though it was pitifully under-powered. And, as his crews, he chose former bomber pilots, most of them the men he had commanded in the Pathfinders. His airline would later be described as "bomber command in mufti".

"People believed Bennett knew what he was doing," says Don Mackintosh, who now lives in Crieff, Perthshire, and who joined BSAA from the "Dambuster" special squadrons. "Bennett said, ‘You are good lads, you came through the war. You have my complete confidence.’ The expectation was that you would go to the limits, that you would press on." Which they did. As Mackintosh put it to me, "I emerged from the war with a sense of being lucky. Only as I got older did I begin to appreciate the randomness of life."

And death. The first serious BSAA incident came in September 1946 when an aircraft crashed on take-off from the Gambia. Some 24 people were killed. In April 1947 there was another crash, this time in Dakar. Seven people were killed. Four months later in August 1947, the Star Dust disappeared over the Andes with 11 people lost. By today’s standards the fatalities may look small but compared to the average number of passengers on each flight - perhaps no more than five or six - the losses were massive, and there were many more to come.

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Curiously, looking back at the press coverage of the day, I found no mention of BSAA’s safety record. For that I had to look elsewhere, to a seemingly endless pile of manila folders, the common currency of Whitehall life, which had been marked closed for decades by touchy government civil servants. (If ever we find out who in the current government was responsible for which decisions with regard to Railtrack it will be through files like these.)

The BSAA files I studied were full of memos marked "top secret" and "private" and "confidential". There were letters from the British Embassy in Lisbon to the Civil Aviation Ministry in London complaining that Bennett was refusing to pay the cost of transporting the body of a Portuguese national who had died in the Dakar crash because, Bennett said, his airline was only responsible for the living. The deceased, whose body was now decaying beneath a harsh African sun, was the son of a prominent Lisbon lawyer and the affair was affecting international relations.

There were letters from Jack Leche, our man in Santiago, to a Mr Freese-Pennefather of the Foreign Office (whatever happened to fabulous surnames like Freese-Pennefather?) reporting stories told to him by concerned BSAA pilots: about Bennett risking lives because he was refusing to pay for full weather forecasts or for enough fuel to allow for diversions in emergencies. Bennett was so determined that his company should make a profit he outlawed anything he perceived as waste. Later Leche even alleged there was widespread drunkenness among the crews.

The Civil Aviation ministry did question Bennett on his safety record but he always batted the enquiries away. "He just said, ‘We’ve had fewer casualties than we had in the Pathfinders," I was told by Sir Peter Masefield, a civil servant in the ministry at the time. "Bennett was a bit too casual." The loss of the Star Dust, on the final leg of a three-and-a-half day journey from London to Santiago, finally forced the ministry to study the company’s record in detail. Statisticians compared BSAA to the other British airlines. BOAC had, by then, lost one passenger for every 18,900 flown. BEA had carried 342,502 and suffered no losses at all. BSAA had lost one passenger for every 385 flown. It is the equivalent of one person on every full Boeing 747.

Today Don Mackintosh says most of the crew, having come from wartime experiences, accepted the losses as merely part of the job. "Looking back I can see now that our mindset was very similar to that in the war," he says. Planes flew, some of them crashed and some people died. At BSAA it was just business as usual: there were to be another three crashes, claiming 51 lives, before Bennett was given his marching orders and, in 1949, BSAA was finally merged into BOAC.

Each crash -in Africa or Brazil or over the Atlantic - had a certain exotica to it. And yet of all the lost aircraft it is the story of the Star Dust which has endured and cultivated its own ripe crop of myths and legends.

There are those, for example, who believe it was carrying a heavy cargo of British gold when it went down. The king’s messenger was rumoured to be carrying great secrets, sensitive enough to destabilise the whole of South America. There were even suggestions that there were escaping Nazis among its passengers. The stories were enough to lead Argentinean climbers to search for the wreck for years before its discovery in January 2000.

I think now that a lot of the mytholigising of the Star Dust arises from where it went down, in the unforgiving crags of the Andes. One morning in October 2000, while researching my book, I managed to talk my way into the cockpit of a Lan Chile jet as it crossed the peaks (unimaginable now, post 11 September). I wanted to see the mountains as the BSAA pilots would have done: as a barrier to be overcome, filling their field of vision. Even today the Andes still offer pilots an interesting experience because of the unpredictable mountain winds; in the late 1940s, when the maximum altitude of the planes could be less than the tallest peaks, they were one of the world’s great challenges.

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Looking down upon them now, the tight rocky folds and snow-filled crevices hiding as much as they revealed, I could see just how easy it would be to project one’s fantasies upon those ice-crusted slopes. It finally made sense to me that some of the relatives of Star Dust’s missing would have imagined their loved ones still alive somewhere down there in the mountains. It was, perhaps, more comforting than knowing nothing at all. But then, as a grieving Lola Samur Samur proved to me that morning in Santiago, sometimes it is just as hard to learn the truth. That’s the thing about the legend of the Star Dust and the curiously lethal airline that operated it: even after 53 years it still has the power to move.

Star Dust Falling by Jay Rayner is published by Doubleday. Readers of The Scotsman can order copies at a special price of 9.99 including postage and packing through Bookpost on 01624-836000.