For as long as we have been around there are those of us who have stepped off the face of the earth to seemingly vanish out of existence. Not only individuals, but very often boats and aircraft can be at the core of such phenomena, showing that size does not seem to matter when it comes to unexplained disappearances or fading into the ether. In many cases there is little left behind to help us figure these mysteries out, and at others there are puzzling clues that taunt us and promise us answers without ever doing so. One such type of evidence is that of eerie last radio transmissions from aircraft that have flown off to vanish into thin air. These cryptic messages remain indelibly etched into our records of these events and not only offer a spooky, unsettling look into the last moments of these pilots and their aircraft, but also serve to further mire such accounts in some deeper place of dark mystery. Here we will look at the bizarre last transmissions made during some of the most discussed and inexplicable aviation mysteries the world has ever seen.
One of the most oft-discussed and mysterious vanishings of aircraft revolve around the enigmatic Flight 19, in 1945. The flight in question was actually a group of U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bombers that took off from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on December 5, 1945, on a Naval exercise called “Navigation Problem Number One,” which was for the purpose of carrying out mock bombing runs along an area known as Hens and Chickens Shoals in the Bahamas. It was all a standard, routine flight, and each of the five planes in the squadron was manned by 3 experienced men, with the whole thing under the command of a seasoned pilot by the name of Lieutenant Charles C. Taylor.
The first half of the mission all went according to plan, the dummy bombs were dropped, and the planes headed off on the second leg of their mission, but this was when things would get strange indeed. The leader, Taylor, began to complain that his compass was on the fritz, and he further proclaimed that the planes were all flying in the wrong direction. As the group of planes floundered about trying to get their bearings, one of the pilots radioed, “I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.” A passing Navy plane piloted by a Lieutenant Robert F. Cox was flying by at the time and overheard the radio chatter, after which he extended an offer of help, as well as a message to the nearest air station of what was going on. In response, he got a chilling message from a frightened sounding Taylor that said:
Both my compasses are out and I’m trying to find Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I’m over land, but it’s broken. I’m sure I’m in the Keys, but I don’t know how far down.
This was strange to say the least, as the group had just successfully fulfilled the first half of their mission near the Bahamas and should have been nowhere near the Florida Keys at that point in time. After this, Taylor, convinced that he was way off course, instructed his squadron to veer off towards the northeast, thinking it would take them home but really only sending them further out to sea. Some of the other pilots in the group protested the move, saying they should fly west, but the order had been given and off they went. At one point Taylor changed his mind and directed them west, but then they changed their course to east once again. It was all rather bizarre behavior to say the least. As this was happening, the radio chatter from Flight 19 became fainter and more distorted, and one of the final transmissions was:
All planes close up tight. We’ll have to ditch unless landfall…when the first plane drops below ten gallons, we all go down together.
This seemed to suggest that Taylor was aware that their fuel was running low and that they were on a one way ticket into the sea, and after that the radio transmissions became plagued by strange static before going silent. The Navy was quick to respond, sending out a search crew almost immediately after this final transmission, but they were unable to find any sign of Flight 19. Indeed, one of the searchers, a Mariner aircraft and its 13 crew members, also suddenly lost communications and dropped off the face of the earth as well to join Flight 19 in the annals of great mysteries. This in turn prompted its own search party and the whole thing turned into a hot mess quite rapidly.
In the end, the Navy would scour over 3,000 square miles of sea in search of the missing planes but would turn up not even a scrap of wreckage. Of course, considering the proximity to the notorious Bermuda Triangle the media was all over this and theories began to fly. One was that Taylor had been somewhat unfit for duty, which had impacted his judgement during the doomed mission. There are reports that he had arrived late on the day of the mission and had for unknown reasons implored the command not to go through with it. This has led to the most popular, “rational” theory that these planes under his questionable state simply made a mistake, ran out of fuel, and crashed into the ocean to never be seen again. The mystery was even tantalizingly “solved” for a time when in 1991 a team of treasure hunters came across the wrecks of five World War II Avengers planes at the bottom of the sea, but these turned out to have not had anything to do with the mysterious lost flight. The fate of Flight 19 remains unknown.
Another strange last transmission concerns not a spoken message, but rather a mysterious set of Morse code. On August 2nd, 1947, the British South American Airways Star Dust departed from Buenos Aires, Argentina destined for Santiago, Chile under the command of the experienced Air Force pilot Reginald Cook. Its flightpath included heading straight over the majestic Andes mountains, and it was here where it would seemingly fly right off the face of the earth.
At some point during its ill-fated flight, the Star Dust suddenly sent out a cryptic Morse code message that simply said “ETA SANTIAGO 17.45 HRS STENDEC,” with STENDEC repeated twice in quick succession, after which the aircraft completely vanished seemingly into thin air. The plane would go on to incite endless debate and speculation as to what had happened to it, including the rational theory that it had just crashed, the more conspiratorial idea that the plane had been intentionally sabotaged or hijacked, and the more outlandish idea that they were attacked by a UFO, but no one had any idea.
Likewise, the meaning of STENDEC in that last transmission was hotly discussed, as it did not have any known purpose or official meaning. The most popular theory was that the pilot had been disoriented somehow and had meant to tap out “DESCENT,” but this is unknown, and the meaning behind this last message remains just as mysterious as it always has been. It would not be until 50 years later that some pieces of the wreckage were finally found, when in 1998 two mountain climbers found parts of the plane up on Mount Tupungato, just 50 miles from its intended destination at the time. Despite this discovery and the official explanation that the plane probably went down in a snowstorm, it is still unknown just what downed the plane or what the enigmatic STENDEC message means.
Probably the most well-known and bizarre of any of the cases here is that of Frederick Valentich, who on October 28, 1978 departed on a training flight over the Bass Strait in Australia aboard a Cessna 182 Skylane light aircraft, on his way to King’s Island. During the flight, Valentich radioed Melbourne air traffic control to tell them that he was having engine troubles and that he was being followed by what first appeared to be some sort of large aircraft with four bright lights on it about 1,000 feet above him. He was then told that there were no other aircraft scheduled to be in that area at the time, nor were any showing up on radar, but Valentich insisted that he was witnessing one and that it was moving at very high speeds and getting closer, seemingly toying with him as it made several passes overhead. Valentich would say:
Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne, it seems like it’s chasing me. What I’m doing right now is orbiting and the thing is just orbiting on top of me also. It’s got a green light and is sort of metallic like, it’s all shiny on the outside.
When he was asked what model of plane it was Valentich couldn’t really determine it, not even if it was a civilian aircraft or a military one. All he was able to make out was that it had a “long shape,” that it was metallic and had lights, and that it was incredibly fast and maneuverable. At one point the strange craft then seemingly vanished, and Valentich complained that his engine was rough-idling. The mysterious aircraft then apparently appeared again out of nowhere, and Valentich made his last spooky transmission, the transcript of which follows:
My intentions are – ah – to go to King Island – ah – Melbourne. That strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again (open microphone for two seconds). It is hovering and (open microphone for one second) it’s not an aircraft.
The microphone is then left open for a full 17 seconds, during which time a strange, metallic scraping sound can be heard before the transmission goes dead. An air and sea search was launched soon after the incident, which covered 1,000 square miles without finding any trace of either Valentich or his plane and their fate remains a mystery to this day. It is especially odd, as flying conditions at the time were considered ideal, and Valentich had had enough fuel left to cover a further 800 kilometers. Considering the bizarre and baffling circumstances surrounding Valentich’s vanishing and the incredibly odd last radio exchange with air traffic control, the case has gone on to become almost legendary, with all manner of debate and theories flying about it.
On the more rational end of the spectrum we have the idea that Valtentich simply got disoriented, and that the object he saw was merely the lights of his own plane reflected upon the water as he flew upside down before crashing. After all, he was not a particularly experienced pilot, with only about 150 total hours' flying time under his belt and he had failed to get a commercial pilot’s license on several occasions, but this theory has been disputed due to the fact that flying conditions at the time were so perfectly clear. This has led to the theory that he committed suicide and intentionally crashed his plane into the sea, but there is no evidence of this, and even if he did want to kill himself why come up with the whole elaborate story he gave air traffic control? Some have suggested that Valentich staged his own disappearance, and this was all the according to his plan. This is somewhat supported by the fact that Valentich’s aircraft was never once actually picked up on radar, meaning he might not have even been where he said he was.
There is also of course the theory that Valentich really did encounter a UFO out there and that it had a role to play in the disappearance. Indeed, at around the time of the vanishing there had supposedly been a rash of UFO sightings in the area, and there were several eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen a UFO with a bright green light in the same area and at around the same time as Valentich’s strange incident. One of the weirdest claims made along these lines is that a man named Roy Manifold managed to capture a picture of a strange object in the sky with what looks like an exhaust trail as he was photographing the sunset off the coast with a time lapse camera just 20 minutes before the incident. Manifold claims that he did not notice the object until after the pictures had been developed and whatever it is appears to be moving fast.
Whatever the case may be, neither Valentich nor his plane have ever been seen again and there has never been an explanation for the eerier metallic scraping noise heard before that final transmission ended. The case has been the subject of countless articles, books, and intense discussions, and we seem to be no closer to really knowing what happened. What happened to Frederick Valentich? Did he crash? Did he disappear on purpose or commit suicide? Was he abducted by aliens? We may never really know for sure.
We may never truly know what happened to these doomed flights or under what circumstances they met their end. These are cases that have managed to firmly entrench themselves into some of the greatest air disappearances of all time, defying most attempts to dust off their inscrutable film of mystery and remaining shrouded n shadows. These final transmissions, these immortalized last moments, serve to wipe away some of that mystery, yet only leave us with a blurry peek at a truth that only those who have vanished will likely ever know.