BSAA Star Tiger disappearance
An Avro Tudor Mk.IVB Super Trader similar to the aircraft that disappeared
|Date||30 January 1948|
|Aircraft type||Avro 688 Tudor Mark IV|
|Aircraft name||Star Tiger|
|Operator||British South American Airways (BSAA)|
Star Tiger (registration G-AHNP) was an Avro Tudor IV passenger aircraft owned and operated by British South American Airways (BSAA) which disappeared without a trace over the Atlantic Ocean while on a flight between Santa Maria in the Azores and Bermuda on 30 January 1948. The loss of the aircraft along with that of BSAA Avro Tudor Star Ariel in 1949 remain unsolved to this day, with the resulting speculation helping to develop the Bermuda Triangle legend.
British South American Airways (BSAA) was an airline created by former World War II pilots in an effort to provide service on the previously untapped South American trade and passenger routes. Originally named British Latin American Air Lines (BLAIR) it was split off from the British Overseas Airways Corporation to operate their South Atlantic routes. It commenced transatlantic services in March 1946, with a BSAA plane making the first operational flight from London's Heathrow Airport. The airline operated mostly Avro aircraft: Yorks, Lancastrians and Tudors, and flew to Bermuda, the West Indies and the western coast of South America.
Star Tiger was one of three enlarged and improved versions of the Avro Tudor, designated Tudor IV; it had made eleven transatlantic flights, a total of 575 hours flying time, since its initial test flight on 4 November 1947.
On the morning of 28 January 1948, the crew and passengers boarded Star Tiger at Lisbon only to be forced to return to the airport waiting room when the pilot, Captain Brian W. McMillan, told them that the port inner engine needed some attention. The aircraft took off 2½ hours later, and made what was intended to be a 75-minute refuelling stop at Santa Maria in the Azores. However, the reported weather was so poor that Captain McMillan decided they should stop over until the next day.
The following day, 29 January, Star Tiger took off for the next leg of its flight to Bermuda despite strong winds. McMillan had decided to fly at no more than 2,000 ft (610 m) so as to avoid the worst winds. An Avro Lancastrian belonging to BSAA piloted by Frank Griffin took off an hour ahead of the Star Tiger, and Griffin had agreed to radio weather information back to Star Tiger.
Star Tiger took off at 15:34 and soon after takeoff was lashed by heavy rain and strong winds. At first some 200 miles behind the Lancastrian, McMillan slowly closed the distance between them and both aircraft remained in radio contact with each other and Bermuda.
By 01:26 on 30 January, after 10 hours in the air, Star Tiger was only 150 mi (240 km) behind the Lancastrian. The navigator of the Lancastrian managed to fix their position using celestial navigation and found that the winds had blown the aircraft 60 mi (97 km) off-track in the previous hour. By this time, Star Tiger had passed its Point of No Alternative, at which it could have diverted to Newfoundland, and was committed to remaining on course for Bermuda.
At about 02:00 Cyril Ellison, Star Tiger's navigator, fixed the aircraft's position and learned that they too had been blown off course and were crabbing away from Bermuda. He gave McMillan a new course which turned the aircraft directly into a gale. However, McMillan still expected to reach Bermuda with at least an hour's worth of fuel remaining upon landing.
At 03:00 Captain Griffin aboard the Lancastrian amended his ETA from 03:56 to 05:00, and called Star Tiger to say that he was switching to voice telephony to contact Bermuda Approach Control. Griffin later testified that he heard nothing from Star Tiger to indicate that it was in trouble and that from then until he touched down at 04:11 his own aircraft encountered no turbulence, icing, fog or electrical storms.
At 03:04 Radio Officer Robert Tuck aboard Star Tiger requested a radio bearing from Bermuda, but the signal was not strong enough to obtain an accurate reading. Tuck repeated the request eleven minutes later, and this time the Bermuda radio operator was able to obtain a bearing of 72 degrees, accurate to within 2 degrees. The Bermuda operator transmitted this information, and Tuck acknowledged receipt at 03:17. This was the last communication with the aircraft. The Bermuda operator tried to contact Star Tiger at 03:50 and receiving no reply, thought that it had gone over to direct radio contact with Bermuda Approach Control. However, Approach Control reported that this was not the case. The Bermuda radio operator tried at 04:05 to contact Star Tiger, again without success, and after trying again at 04:40 he declared a state of emergency. He had heard no distress message, and neither had anyone else, even though many receiving stations were listening on Star Tiger's frequency.
The USAF personnel operating the airfield immediately organised a rescue effort that lasted for 5 days despite worsening weather. Twenty-six aircraft flew 882 hours in total and surface craft also conducted a search, but no signs of Star Tiger or her 31 passengers and crew were ever found.
A merchant ship, SS Troublador, had reported seeing a low flying aircraft with lights blinking about halfway between Bermuda and the entrance to Delaware Bay, which meant that if the aircraft was Star Tiger, then it had gone well off-course from Bermuda.
As soon as it was learned that the Star Tiger had been lost, BSAA's remaining Avro Tudors were grounded by Britain's Minister of Civil Aviation. They were permitted to carry cargo rather than passengers a few weeks later, but had to fly from Santa Maria to Bermuda via Newfoundland, a diversion that reduced the longest overwater leg by 250 mi (400 km).
Although Avro's managing director, Sir Roy Dobson, and Don Bennett of BSAA both publicly regretted any implication that the aircraft had been faulty, the Minister decided that a judicial investigation ("Court of Investigation") into the cause of the incident was necessary, the first such since the loss of the airship R101 in 1930. Bennett objected so strongly to this that BSAA fired him.
The investigation, which was held in public at Church House, Westminster, opened on 12 April 1948 and lasted 11 days. On 21 August they presented their report to Lord Pakenham, who had succeeded Lord Nathan of Churt as Minister of Civil Aviation. The report emphasised that the crew of the Star Tiger were highly experienced, and found "want of care and attention to detail" in the flight plan, but nothing serious enough to explain the accident.
The inquiry reported in conclusion:
"...In the complete absence of any reliable evidence as to either the nature or the cause of the accident of Star Tiger the Court has not been able to do more than suggest possibilities, none of which reaches the level even of probability. .... What happened in this case will never be known and the fate of Star Tiger must remain an unsolved mystery."
Among the passengers was Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, a hero of World War II, formerly Air Officer Commander-in-Chief, 2nd Tactical Air Force during the Battle of Normandy. Coningham's death shared the front page of the New York Times on 31 January along with the news of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the death of Orville Wright.
If the Star Tiger's radio had failed shortly after 03:15, her captain and navigator would have been faced with the task of locating a small group of islands, measuring 22 mi (35 km) from northeast to southwest covering a total area of 20 sq mi (52 km2), and equipped with powerful lights that were visible from about 30 mi (48 km) at the aircraft's assumed altitude. It was at that time about 340 mi (550 km) from the islands with enough fuel for 3½ hours' flying time. Having received an accurate bearing, McMillan's task of making landfall was not in itself difficult, except that he was acutely aware of the fact that there was no alternative airport: the nearest point on the American mainland was Cape Hatteras, 580 mi (930 km) to the west, and well beyond the Star Tiger's range. However, there was no evidence to suggest that radio failure or navigational error were responsible for the disaster.
As for engine failure, the aircraft could easily have reached Bermuda on two engines. Its low altitude, however, would have made any handling problem more dangerous. The altitude chosen by the Star Tiger and the Lancastrian was much lower than usual and no previous BSAA flight had flown so low for so long. Wind forecasts were unreliable throughout the journey, especially at lower altitudes; consequently, a sudden strong gust could have abruptly plunged the aircraft into the sea, or inattention on the part of the crew coupled with a faulty altimeter could have allowed it to dive gently into the sea, giving the radio operator no chance to transmit a distress signal. One notable discrepancy was that although the planned cruising altitude was 2,000 feet, every position report transmitted by Star Tiger gave the height as 20,000 feet. Since 20,000 feet was a more typical cruising altitude for this route, it is possible the crew forgot they were flying at only 2,000 feet and simply flew the aircraft into the sea during the descent phase. The crew may have been fatigued after the long flight, and contemporary altimeters were prone to misreading of the thousand-foot level.
Twice before on similar flights the Star Tiger had been forced to divert to Gander, Newfoundland and just two months previously another Tudor IV had found itself landing with less than 100 imp gal (450 l; 120 US gal) of fuel left; less than the amount by which the Star Tiger was overloaded.
The fuel cock for the reserve tanks were in the passenger compartment and – if they were not already on – to switch to reserve one of the crew would have to go aft. There might have been insufficient time given the height at which they were flying.
During the inquiry Bennett suggested both the Star Tiger and Star Ariel had been sabotaged. He also claimed that Prime Minister Clement Attlee had ordered all inquiries into the incidents to be abandoned. In regard to the loss of the Star Tiger, a 2009 theory is that the loss of fuel could have contributed to the plane's disaster
- Ottaway and Ottaway, 143, 151
- Orange, p. 252
- Ottaway and Ottaway, 153
- Orange, p. 254
- "The Star Tiger Mystery" Flight 7 October 1948 p433
- Orange, p. 255
- "Coningham Expert in Air Warfare". The New York Times. 31 January 1948. p. 10.
- Orange, p. 253
- Brookes, 40, 44
- Orange, p. 250
- Tom Mangold Inside the Bermuda Triangle: the Mysteries Solved Ladbroke Radio. First broadcast BBC Radio 4 2009.
- and that "a known war-registered saboteur" had been seen near the Star Tiger shortly before its last takeoff."Star Tiger Inquiry"
- Bermuda Triangle plane mystery 'solved' September 13, 2009
- Brookes, Andrew (1992). Disaster in the Air. Ian Allen Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7110-2037-5.
- Orange, Vincent (1992). Coningham: a biography of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham. DIANE Publishing. ISBN 1-4289-9280-4.
- Ottaway, Susan; Ottaway, Ian (2007). Fly With the Stars: British South American Airways – The Rise and Controversial Fall of a Long-Haul Trailblazer. Sutton Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7509-4448-9.
- Press release from the official investigation
- BBC news on probable cause
- "The Star Tiger Mystery" the disappearance as reported by Flight
- "Report of the Court Investigation of the Accident to the Tudor IV Aircraft 'Star Tiger' G-AHNP on the 30th January, 1948" the Official Accident Report (PDF)