I told her that I try to take a rational approach to such things. If I find a slate in my garden, I assume that it has fallen from the roof. I do not consider the possibility that the fairies have transported it there during the night to provide a flat surface for dancing lessons. But I bit my tongue as she expounded her beliefs although I could not but help expressing my scepticism. (And indeed, a few days later, a man in the West Country was fined for making crop circles and destroying the farmer’s wheat in the process).
However, one should always keep an open mind. History abounds with the persecution of people who advanced incredible, unpopular, or ‘heretical’ explanations and asked awkward questions. Darwin was mocked, Galilleo lived his last ten years under house arrest, and Socrates was executed. The fact that all three are now regarded as giants in their respective fields should be a lesson for everyone who would rush to judgement on matters not immediately obvious of rational explanation. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to believe that aliens who possess the technology to travel to our planet, would not find a more efficient and less ambiguous way of communicating with us or each other.
I was still musing on the apparent willingness of people to believe in such arcane and far-fetched explanations, when I happened to see a television programme about a mysterious event that happened more than sixty years ago. In 1947, a British passenger plane disappeared during a scheduled flight between Buenos Aires and Santiago. The last radio contact, just a few minutes before the flight was due to land in Santiago, contained a mysterious word transmitted by Morse code, ‘STENDEC’, repeated twice and having no obvious explanation. An air search over the known route found no trace of the plane and its eleven passengers and crew. The complete disappearance of the aircraft, together with the inexplicable message prompted theories of alien abduction. A magazine devoted to UFOs was even named Stendek.
Then, years later, a report was received that parts of an aircraft and some human remains had been found on a glacier below one of the highest mountains in the area. A team from the Argentinean army and an air accident investigator went to the site, and found bits of the fuselage, wheels, propellers and engines confirming that it was, indeed, the missing plane. The questions then posed were, why did it crash, where had it been for the last fifty years and what on earth did STENDEC mean? Already there is enough material for another ‘Close Encounters...’ film. However, careful investigation and analysis produced a highly plausible, and in my opinion, far more thought-provoking explanation of what had happened than any possibility of alien abduction.
The aircraft had crashed into the glacier much higher up the mountain setting off an avalanche which buried it immediately. With succeeding snowfalls, it was absorbed into the glacier that flowed slowly down the mountain. The plane re-appeared fifty years later when the ice melted on the lower slopes. The state of the one propeller found indicated that it had been operating normally on impact, so it seemed as if the aircraft had just flown into the mountain. Of course, it should not have been there at all. It should have flown west from Mendoza, over the Andes where the mountains were not too high, and then south to Santiago. On this occasion since the weather was poor, the crew elected to climb above it to 24,000 feet. At that altitude they were above the highest peaks, so it is believed that they decided to fly directly southwest towards Santiago, taking them over the high mountains.
It was quite unusual then to fly so high, and almost nothing was known about the jet stream, that high altitude tube of air usually travelling west to east at a velocity of more than one hundred miles per hour. The known weather conditions were consistent with a jet stream at the time, and provided the key to the tragedy. As the aircraft ascended, it entered the jet stream. If the crew even felt anything, they would have assumed it to be normal turbulence. In any event, they could not see the ground, and since their airspeed remained unchanged, they had no way of knowing what had happened. But because they were flying through an air-stream which itself was moving at around 100 mph against their direction of travel, their speed over the ground was reduced by that amount. When the navigator, by dead reckoning, calculated that they had cleared the mountains, they started their descent, and radioed their imminent arrival. But the jet stream had slowed them down, and instead of descending into Santiago, they flew straight into mount Tupungato, fifty miles away.
So, the explanation for the disappearance and subsequent reappearance had nothing to do with UFOs, aliens or the Bermuda Triangle effect. It was a tragedy resulting from an inadequate understanding of upper atmosphere weather conditions. It also proved the power of simple, logical deduction, and confirmed again the principle of William of Occam’s famous Razor: look for simple and rational explanations first; only when they have been exhausted, invoke the extraordinary, unknown or supernatural. Admittedly, the mysterious STENDEC has never been satisfactorily explained, but as this was transmitted by Morse-code, errors in transmission and/or reception could be at the root of the mystery.
I wrote to my friend, summarising the story of the disappeared flight. I said that to me, the beautiful way that straightforward scientific explanations had been found to account for virtually all of the facts was far more wonderful and fascinating than the thought that aliens were responsible. The danger of the modern preoccupation with UFOs, horoscopes and the occult is that more and more we seek supernatural explanations for the problems that perplex us. The difficulty with that is that people will start to invoke supernatural solutions with uncalled-for and possibly tragic results, when we should really be applying good old-fashioned common sense.
Examine the crop circles for human, not humanoid footprints, and leave science fiction to literature and the media.