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Missing Aircraft

Avro Tudor IV

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The Tudors

January 30, 1948

   In 1948 the Tudor IV by Avro Corp. was a relatively new aircraft.Its design  was partially dictated by a new company called B.S.A.A.C. — British South American Airways Corporation. This company was founded by veteran fliers of W.W.II to tap into the South  American passenger and trade lines. Along with Star Panther and Star Lion, Star Tiger was one of the first planes ordered by BSAAC. It had flown roughly over 500 hours without incident when the following flight occurred.

   It was a dark night, those silent hours of the morning at Kindley Field, Bermuda, when everything is a slow, dull routine in the airport tower. A voice came over the amplifier at 3:15 a.m. from “Tucky” Tuck, the radio operator of an airliner en route to Bermuda called Star Tiger. He requested a radio bearing on Bermuda.

   The request was routine enough. It allowed Tuck to fix his position in relation to Bermuda. He depressed his transmitting key so Bermuda could home in on it.

   The Atlantic was a pitch black void outside the large futuristic windows of the Tudor IV airliner.  Those passengers who weren’t sleeping were in the routine of slow motion, in the silence of the dimmed cabin.  “Star Girls” Nichols and Clayton tended to their duties quietly in the pantry.

Specs

Length: 79 feet 6 inches

Wingspan: 120 feet

Capacity: 24 passengers

Max. Speed 320

Cruising Speed: 283

Range: 3,630 miles

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   A very distinguished passenger, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, either dozed or talked in undertones with other passengers en route to Kingston, Jamaica. Radio operator Robert “Tucky” Tuck continued to keep the key depressed so Bermuda could get a fix on their position. He was highly experienced in astral navigation, but this close to Bermuda a radio bearing would be sufficient to guide them in. Capt. B.W. McMillan, a highly qualified pilot, was waiting for Tuck’s reply, as was Capt. David Colby, the third pilot in case relief was needed. Co-pilot and 1st officer C. Ellison rounded out the crew.

   The reply from the tower was a first class bearing of 72 degrees. Tuck dutifully relayed it to McMillan who acknowledged in his very identifiable New Zealand accent and agreed with Tuck that the ETA at Bermuda would be 5 a.m., less than 2 hours away. Tuck duly told Bermuda.

   The 4-engine airliner was on course. Following this bearing would lead her to Bermuda without question. The long 2,067 mile flight from Santa Maria Island in the Azores, which had  began almost 12 hours earlier, was almost over. About an hour and a half and the 25 passengers could view the brilliant marine lights of Bermuda, great beacons visible at least 30 miles out to sea to guide planes and alert ships to this little oasis in the middle of the Atlantic.

     But 5 a.m. came and went. What happened? There was never a word from Star Tiger again. An intensive search found no trace, even though it was known where the aircraft last was. What indeed had happened?

   This disappearance was so upsetting that a comprehensive investigation was conducted under the authority of Lord MacMillan and his MacMillan Committee of the Civil Air Ministry. The official recital was impressive of what could not have happened to her: “There would accordingly appear be no grounds for supposing that Star Tiger fell into the sea in consequence of having been deprived of her radio, having failed to find her destination, and having exhausted her fuel.” Whatever occurred, it was concluded that it did so extremely rapidly: “There is good reason to suppose that no distress message was transmitted from the aircraft, for there were many radio receiving stations listening on the aircraft’s frequencies, and none reported such a message.”  Weather information proved “ . . .the weather was stable, there were no atmospheric disturbances of a serious kind which might cause structural damage to the aircraft, and there were no electrical storms.” The aircraft could not have been off course. Following the broadcast bearing from Bermuda, with the winds prevailing, would have brought Star Tiger within 30 miles of Bermuda, “ . . .the aircraft could hardly have failed to find the island in a short time, in the conditions of visibility which prevailed.” Engine trouble as a cause was ruled out since at this late stage in her flight, without the added weight of her fuel, she could have flown safely on 3, even 2 engines instead of the 4 she had. The possibility she could lose 3 engines was absurd.

   A pondersome cache of evidence.

   Reflecting this evidence, the Committee soberly rendered its conclusion, in some of the most eloquent language ever entered into any accident report:

           In closing this report it may truly be said that no more baffling problem has ever been presented for investigation. In the complete absence of any reliable evidence as to either the nature or the cause of the accident to “Star Tiger” the Court has not been able to do more than suggest possibilities, none of which reaches the level even of probability. Into all activities which involve the co-operation of man and machine two elements enter of a very diverse character. There is the incalculable element of the human equation dependent upon imperfectly known      factors; and there is the mechanical element subject to quite different laws. A breakdown may occur in either separately or in both in conjunction. Or some external cause may over whelm both man and machine. What happened in this case will never be known and the fate of “Star Tiger” must remain an unsolved mystery. 

Star Ariel-2-65%
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Rare photo of the actual Star Ariel in flight.

   It wouldn’t be long and there would be another unsolvable mystery. Another airliner would vanish near Bermuda. Again, it was to a BSAAC aircraft, another Tudor, Star Ariel. The date:

January 17, 1949

   Star Ariel (G-AGRE) was sitting at Bermuda without passengers. Her crew were on return trip after having been on west bound service to Jamaica. However, another BSAAC Tudor, G-AHNK, lost an engine while on approach to Bermuda. She landed without incident. An alert BSAAC took quick advantage of Star Ariel. She was refueled and ordered to take the 13 passengers of G-AHNK onto their destination of Jamaica..

   J.C. McPhee, her pilot, received a weather briefing while “Star  Girl” J.B. Moxon and Steward K.W. Coleman greeted the passengers. The weather forecast was perfect, so McPhee decided on a high altitude flight to take advantage of it.

   Star Ariel took her place in the traffic of airplanes taking off that day, and that was the last time she was seen.

   About an hour into the flight, McPhee’s voice came of the receiver and addressed: 

OATC --La Guardia, New York
B.S.A.A.C. Kindley Field, Bermuda
B.S.A.A.C Kingston, Jamaica.

  I DEPARTED FROM KINDLEY FIELD AT 8:41 A.M. HOURS
  MY ETA AT KINGSTON 2:10 P.M. HOURS. I AM FLYING
  IN GOOD VISIBILITY AT 18,000 FT. I FLEW OVER 150
  MILES SOUTH OF KINDLEY FIELD AT 9:32 HRS. MY ETA
  AT 30o N IS 9:37 HRS. WILL YOU ACCEPT CONTROL?

At 9:42 a second message came:

   I WAS OVER 30 N AT 9:37 I AM CHANGING  
   FREQUENCY TO MRX. [Kingston/Nassau]

   At this level the Sargasso Sea below must have been stunning: great mats of floating green sargassum on a deep blue ocean. Above the clouds the visibility was limitless; below never less than 12 miles.

   But what happened? Nothing was ever heard from Star Ariel again. Kingston finally reported her overdue.

   The search began with another Tudor IV Star Lion (G-AHNJ). She had landed at Nassau on a routine flight. Now she refueled and took off at 3:25 P.M. to fly out to Star Ariel’s route, bisect it at 27o NL, 69o WL and follow it back to Bermuda. Another aircraft took off from Bermuda, flew 500 miles out, then did a 10 mile lattice search all the way back. A U.S. Navy task force headed by Battleship Missouri coordinated the effort, which expanded to dozens of ships and several planes for the next few days. Not one shred was ever found.

   The British Civil Air Ministry was faced with another disturbing mystery, as was a now bereft B.S.A.A.C. Lord Barbazon of Thara headed the commission.

   As with the Star Tiger, the results only concluded how mysterious the loss was. There was, in fact, no clue.  

   “There were no weather complications at all. A study of the weather reports gives no indication of any abnormal conditions. A low pressure system was centered about 28 N 53 W and an anticyclone about 32 N 14 W. The aircraft track lay about halfway between these coordinates. The Bermuda 1500 hrs. upper air temperature was stable above about 5,000 feet and the remainder of the route was over anticyclone conditions. Although the 0900 hrs. Bermuda radar upper wind report gave some indication of shear between 14,000 and 18,000 ft., the 1500 hrs. report indicates little if any. The chance of any marked clear air turbulence of a frictional nature is therefore almost nil. . . .There were no clouds above 10,000 feet over the whole route . . .The freezing level was 14,000 feet, so there was no question of icing.”

   Although the weather was good, the day was vexed by communication problems ranging from static to hazy  reception to complete blackouts lasting as much as 10 minutes which came and went after selectively affecting certain planes calling certain stations from different angles. The communication  problem lasted almost exactly the entire time Ariel should have been in flight, lifting around 1:07 P.M.

   This was also investigated along with McPhee’s rather early switch over to Kingston frequency when he was still so close to Bermuda. It was thought that perhaps no one would have heard a distress for this reason, since Kingston was far away.
   However, when a BSAAC representative in Kingston was queried by the Barbazon Committee, he aptly observed:

           It would appear that the aircraft should have made firm contact with MRX before
         requesting permission from Bermuda to change frequency. This was obviously not
       done as MRX never worked G-AGRE on this frequency at all. In addition I am
       convinced that G-AGRE did not ever transmit on this frequency of 6523 kc/s. even if 
       Bermuda did give authority to change frequency which they could quite readily have
       done. This latter opinion is based on the fact that not only was MRX in Jamaica listening
       out  on 6523 kc/s. but so also were New York, Miami, Nassau, Havana, and Balbao
       and, so far as we are aware and from what definite information we have, none of these
       stations ever heard from G-AGRE on 6523 kc/s. Whilst it may have been possible for
       us not to hear G-AGRE owing to the bad reception Palisadoes [Kingston Aerodrome]
       was experiencing at the time of the requested QSY, it would seem most improbable for
       similar conditions to obtain with all those other stations listening out on that frequency.

     The Barbazon Committee agreed. “The Captain’s procedure was correct. That he did not re-establish communication with Bermuda after failure to contact Kingston or any other Caribbean Station must be assumed to have been because of inability to do so.”

     Such a conclusion seems undeniable; Star Ariel must have vanished within minutes or even seconds after her routine call to Bermuda before she could raise Kingston.  With hindsight, this scenario does not seem too maverick. It is precisely what we have seen in almost every disappearance since then: a sudden and extremely destructive force. Indeed, just prior to her loss, another airliner,  a DC-3 vanished in even more inexplicable conditions around Miami. Whatever it may be, it is worthy to note that Jumbo jets continue to encounter unexplained phenomena in the Bermuda Triangle. (As recent as April 7, 1996, an American Airlines Boeing 757 with 194 passengers en route from New York to Caracas encountered severe and mysterious turbulence 300 miles west of Bermuda, which were neither predictable nor showed on any weather forecast, causing it to divert to Bermuda with a serious injury.)

   Without any solution to 2 disappearances of BSAAC aircraft the company was in trouble. Sabotage was ruled out, leaving the suspicion in the minds of would-be ticket holders that the carrier was simply to blame. BSAAC went broke and BOAC took over as sole carrier. Although the Tudor IV aircraft was a beautiful aircraft, performed well in the Berlin Airlift, and none of the other planes had experienced anything remotely out of the ordinary, the Civil Air Ministry ordered the plane withdrawn. None were to fly again because of those 2 which vanished in the Bermuda Triangle . . until, that is, Freddie Laker brought them back and modified them as the “Super Trader. It was then that they were used for cargo flights only.

   In addition to Flight 19’s disappearance, it was the loss of Star Tiger, Star Ariel and the DC-3 NC16002 which began to create the enigma of the Bermuda Triangle.

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