G-AGRE Star Ariel was an Avro Tudor Mark IVB passenger aircraft owned and operated by British South American Airways (BSAA) which disappeared without trace over the Atlantic Ocean while on a flight between Bermuda and Kingston, Jamaica on January 17, 1949. The loss of the aircraft along with that of BSAA Avro Tudor Star Tiger in January 1948 remain unsolved to this day, with the resulting speculation helping to develop the Bermuda Triangle legend.
|Date||January 17, 1949|
|Aircraft type||Avro Tudor Mark IVB|
|A picture of Star Ariel|
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.
The Star Ariel was one of three enlarged and improved versions of the Avro Tudor, designated Mark IVs. On 17 January 1949 the Star Ariel was awaiting flight instructions at Kindley Field, Bermuda, with no passengers. BSAA Tudor G-AHNK meanwhile lost an engine on approach to Bermuda, landing without incident. Star Ariel was promptly pressed into service to take G-AHNK's passengers on to their destination of Kingston, Jamaica.
Star Ariel took off at 08:41 with 7 crew and 13 passengers. Weather conditions were excellent, and her pilot, Captain John McPhee, decided on a high altitude flight to take advantage of it. About an hour into the flight McPhee contacted Kingston by radio:
And then at 09:42:
No more messages were received from Star Ariel and Kingston finally reported her overdue.
The search for the Star Ariel began with another Tudor IV, G-AHNJ Star Lion. She had earlier landed at Nassau, and now refueled and took off at 15:25 to fly out to Star Ariel's route, bisect it, and follow it back to Bermuda. Another aircraft took off from Bermuda, flew 500 mi (800 km), then did a 10 mi (16 km) lattice search all the way back. A US Navy task force headed by the battleship USS Missouri and including the aircraft carriers USS Kearsage and USS Leyte assisted in the search, which expanded to dozens of ships and several planes over the next few days.
By January 19 the search had been broadened to an area of 55,000 sq mi (140,000 km2) southwest of Bermuda. USAF Major Keith Cloe, who had been put in charge, said that the search would be continued until 22 January and extended if any reports of debris were received. The search was finally abandoned on 23 January, with aircraft from Kindley Field having flown over 1,000,000 mi (1,600,000 km). No sign of debris, oil slicks, or wreckage had been found.
A representative of the Chief Inspector of Accidents left for Bermuda on 18 January 1949.
It was revealed that there had been no bad weather, none of the weather reports indicating any abnormal conditions, and the chance of any marked clear air turbulence was almost nil. There were no clouds above 10,000 ft (3,000 m) over the whole of the aircraft's route.
However, although the weather was good, the day in question had suffered communication problems ranging from static to poor reception to complete blackouts lasting as much as 10 minutes which came and went, selectively affecting certain planes calling certain stations from different angles. The communication problem lasted almost exactly the entire time the Star Ariel would have been in flight, finally lifting around 13:07.
This was investigated, along with McPhee's switch over to Kingston frequency which was considered early, as he was still close to Bermuda at the time. It was considered possible that a distress transmission on that frequency might not have been heard, given the aircraft's distance from Kingston.
However, a BSAA representative in Kingston observed:
On 21 December 1949 the report of the inquiry was issued by the Chief Inspector of Accidents, Air Commodore Vernon Brown. In it he stated that "through lack of evidence due to no wreckage having been found, the cause of the accident is unknown."
Brown said that there was no evidence of defect in, or failure of, any part of the aircraft before its departure from Bermuda. The all-up weight and the centre of gravity were within the prescribed limits; a daily inspection had been carried out; the pilot was experienced on the route; the radio officer was very experienced and also experienced on the route; good radio communications had been maintained with the aircraft up to and including reception of its last message; there were no weather complications, and a study of the weather reports have no reason to believe that the accident was caused by meteorological conditions. There was also no evidence of sabotage, though Brown said that the possibility of such could not be entirely eliminated.
It was accepted that radio communications were poor during the early afternoon and worsened between 16:00 and 17:00, but Brown said it seemed strange that no attempt was made by BSAA staff at Kingston to find out whether anything had been heard of the aircraft until 2 hours 28 minutes after its last radio transmission. Kingston also did not attempt to establish contact with the aircraft until 17:10 or inquire as to whether it had made contact with Nassau or New York or any other radio station.
As a result of the loss, BSAA withdrew all five of their remaining Tudor IVs from service until each had been examined. The company faced problems in maintaining its services, since it was difficult to find aircraft of sufficient range, and considered chartering Avro Lancastrians.
Don Bennett, who had been fired by BSAA in 1948 when he objected to a judicial investigation into the loss of the Star Tiger, later claimed that both the Star Tiger and Star Ariel had been sabotaged and that "a known war-registered saboteur" had been seen near the Star Tiger shortly before its last takeoff. He also claimed that Prime Minister Clement Attlee had ordered all enquiries into the incidents to be abandoned.
The Tudor IV aircraft were converted to freight use, but Bennett had two restored to passenger use, and one of these, G-AKBY, crashed near Cardiff in March 1950 with the loss of 80 lives, at that time the worst air accident in Britain. An enquiry found incorrect loading to be the cause.