Destination Unknown Essay, Research Paper
Destination unknown Star Dust Falling Jay Rayner 329pp, Doubleday A plane crash has its own peculiar horror: no matter that slow drowning in an icy sea would be far worse than sudden immolation in a mid-air explosion, none of us board a ship with the same subconscious fear that accompanies us on to an airliner. Partly it is the suddenness, and partly that there are unlikely to be any remains for a dignified leave-taking. That Jay Rayner has written a whole book about the fate of an airliner that vanished over the Andes in 1947 en route to Santiago in Chile is, you might say, testament to the ghoulish fascination of plane crashes. In fact, “one of the greatest aviation mysteries of all time”, in Rayner’s rather hyped claim, was only remarkable because it was 50 years before the wreckage of the Star Dust was discovered, high up in inhospitable mountains. Star Dust Falling fleshes out the story exhaustively, if a little doggedly: the lives of each of the passengers and the history of the airline, the short-lived British South American Airways. Ironically, the brilliant but maverick aviation pioneer who founded it, Don Bennett, had written the standard work on air navigation, as well as founding Bomber Command’s elite Pathfinder unit, which marked bombing targets over Germany during the war. More redundantly, it also details the squabbling within the Argentine military that marred the operation to recover the plane’s wreckage, and even the genesis of the Hoagy Carmichael song that gave the craft its name. Rayner navigates his two narratives – the last hours of the doomed airliner, and the consequences of a climber’s chance discovery of a Rolls-Royce engine cowling half a century on – with an easy fluency. Paradoxically, his conscientious research ultimately demystifies the story, to the extent that you wonder if there really was a whole book in it. He establishes that there wasn’t any gold aboard the Star Dust – a story in itself, since in those days the British government regularly sent bullion around the world on British airliners (the captains of BOAC flying boats had to disperse the bars carefully under every seat to avoid unbalancing their craft). When a plane went down, it was a genuine governmental emergency to get a salvage team out in time to stop the gold being hauled away in local farmers’ carts. Rayner’s fruitless diggings also establish that the official files carried by one passenger, the King’s Messenger, were not valuable diplomatic secrets that might have invited sabotage, but so routine as to have been weeded from the archives almost immediately. The book’s wider thesis is that the demise of the Star Dust was symptomatic of the disastrously dysfunctional culture of British South American Airways, in which the wing-and-a-prayer attitudes of its flying crew, largely Bomber Command veterans, were quite inappropriately translated into the running of a civil airline flying some very long and difficult transcontinental routes. But though the airline’s safety record was hardly admirable, the ramshackle picture Rayner paints is much more representative of civil aviation at the time than he seems aware. After the war, the airliners available were largely converted bombers, and there was little time for the exhaustive testing of new prototypes that we would expect today. Until the jet engine was commercially available, all airliners were simply underpowered; there were, by today’s standards, lots of crashes. Nowadays, Imperial Airways’ Empire flying boats are remembered as halcyon legend, yet in its first year of operation the airline lost six of them. Moreover, Rayner’s research contradicts his case: the official verdict of the Argentine air accident investigators is that jet streams – high-altitude winds whose very existence was then imperfectly understood by meteorologists – retarded the plane’s passage over the Andes, so that it began its descent before it had cleared them. Weather was a hugely significant factor for all planes at the time. It was no mean feat for airliners such as the Star Dust to make it successfully across the Andes at all. Graham Coster is the author of Corsairville: The Lost Domain of the Flying Boat (Penguin).