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The Star Ariel – Another BSAA Disappearance

Shortly after the disappearance of the Star Tiger, another BSAA Tudor mysteriously vanished – the Star Ariel.

Some aircraft gain a reputation for reliability and efficiency. Others acquire an altogether more sinister reputation. One such aircraft was the Avro Tudor airliner, created by Avro Chief Designer Roy Chadwick in 1944 using the wings, engines and undercarriage of the Avro Lincoln bomber.

The Tudor certainly wasn’t an ideal passenger aircraft, with high fuel consumption from its four Merlin engines, a tendency to swing on take-off and abrupt stall characteristics.

The Tudor had been designed in conjunction with the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC), Britain’s state airline, and it had been hoped that this company would become the main customer for the Tudor. But BOAC was distinctly unimpressed in particular with this aircraft’s high fuel consumption and limited passenger-carrying ability. In March 1947 the company announced that they were not interested in Tudor airliners because they believed that there was “practically no possibility of modifying them to produce an aircraft which is economic to operate.”

Very few operated the Tudor due to its reputation.
The Avro 689 Tudor II. All of the models had various issues an accidents.

The Tudor II

As a direct result of criticism from BOAC, Avro began work on a revised version of this aircraft, the larger Type 689 Tudor II. This featured a longer fuselage capable of carrying up to 60 seated passengers (at the time it was first flown in 1946, the Tudor II was the largest British aircraft ever). Initially, BOAC and other airlines were enthusiastic about this new version, and several orders were placed.

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Unfortunately, the Tudor II proved to have the same handling problems and high fuel consumption as its predecessor and interest rapidly declined. To the outrage of many people in Britain, BOAC announced in the summer of 1947 that it intended instead to purchase American Lockheed Constellation and Canadair North Star (upgraded DC-4s) aircraft for use on its North Atlantic routes.

Then, in August 1947, an accident in a Tudor II killed its designer. Roy Chadwick was travelling as a passenger in the first prototype Tudor II, G-AGSU, when it took off from Avro’s Woodford Aerodrome near Manchester. Immediately after take-off, it rolled to the left and crashed into trees near the airport boundary. The pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer were killed and Chadwick, who had been standing in the cockpit during take-off, was hurled from the wreckage and died of his injuries soon after. Four other occupants survived with serious injuries.

The wreckage of Tudor II, G-AGSU.
The wreckage of Tudor II, G-AGSU.

BSAA and the Tudor IV

The only British airline that seemed enthusiastic about the Tudor was British South American Airlines (BSAA). A modified version of the Tudor I provided with a lengthened fuselage capable of carrying up to 32 passengers was produced specifically for BSAA and identified as the Tudor IV. The first three Tudor IVs were delivered to BSAA in November 1947 and used on routes from London to the Caribbean.

However, just three months later, one of these airliners vanished without a trace while flying from the Azores to Bermuda. All BSAA Tudors were grounded after this loss. A subsequent Court of Enquiry found no intrinsic defects in the aircraft (though it was not able to discover what had caused the airliner to vanish) and BSAA Tudors resumed passenger operations in the late summer of 1948.

The Star Leopard was another Tudor IV much like Star Ariel.
The Star Leopard was another Tudor IV.

However, this unexplained loss left many people with concerns about the Avro Tudor. Was there really something wrong with this aircraft? In some newspapers, this aircraft began to be described as “ill-fated.” That view was soon to become even more prevalent when another BSAA Tudor airliner vanished without trace on a flight to the Caribbean.

Star Ariel

The first Tudor IV airliners delivered to BSAA had provided space for a crew of four: captain, first officer, second officer and radio operator. However, in November 1948, the first examples of a new version were delivered, the Tudor IVB. This was identical to the Tudor IV other than for the extension of the cockpit to provide space for a fifth crew member, a flight engineer, which also reduced the passenger capacity to 28.

On January 17th 1949, a BSAA Tudor IVB, Star Ariel was on the ground at Kindley Field in Bermuda, awaiting instructions. This was one of three identical aircraft delivered to BSAA in November 1948 and it was returning to Britain (without passengers) after having completed a flight to Kingston in Jamaica. Another BSAA flight was approaching Bermuda, a Tudor IV named Star Lion. However, this aircraft suffered an in-flight engine failure. It was able to land safely, but it would clearly need repairs before it could continue.

Star Ariel was pressed into service as a replacement, and at 08:41 it left Bermuda bound for Kingston in Jamaica. The flight was planned to take under six hours and Star Ariel carried sufficient fuel for 11 hours of flight. It carried seven crew (Captain John McPhee in addition to a first officer, second officer, radio operator, flight engineer and two “Star Girls”, female cabin attendants) and all 13 passengers who had arrived in Bermuda on the Star Lion.

The Star Ariel was the previous model Tudor IV.
The later Tudor V was used by a few other carriers and was in service longer than the IV like Star Ariel. Photo credit – RuthAS CC BY 3.0.

Weather conditions were excellent, with little wind and no cloud cover above 10,000 feet. Captain McPhee filed a flight plan that took advantage of this fine weather by flying at 18,000 feet. At 09:33, Star Ariel sent a routine radio update to VRT, the WT radio station in Bermuda:


Less than ten minutes later, at 09:42, VRT received another message from Star Ariel:      


That was a little surprising. MRX was the WT radio station in Kingston and in general, aircraft would not switch to communication with that station until they were at least halfway from Bermuda to Jamaica. However, when VRT received no further position reports from Star Ariel, the assumption was that the aircraft was in contact with MRX.

In fact, and as would only become apparent later, this 09:42 radio message was the last time that anyone heard from Star Ariel.

The Disappearance

Confusion over just which station Star Ariel was in contact with led to a considerable delay in realising that something was wrong. The protocol was that an aircraft would not break contact with one radio station until it had made contact with the next station on its route. When VRT in Bermuda received the message that Star Ariel was switching to MRX, they, therefore, assumed that contact had already been made by the aircraft with that station.

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That was not the case. Star Ariel broadcast messages on a frequency of 6523 kc/s, which MRX was monitoring. However, there seem to have been some odd communication problems in the area on that day. During the whole morning of 17th January, the aircraft noted issues ranging from severe static to a complete radio blackout lasting ten minutes or more. These have never been explained and lasted until the early afternoon.

These radio problems certainly affected Palisadoes Airport in Kingston, Star Ariel’s destination, so it is possible that the station might not have picked up messages from the aircraft. However, other WT stations in New York, Nassau, Miami and Havana were also monitoring 6523 kc/s and none of them reported receiving any messages from the aircraft.

Map showing the route of the final flight of the the Avro Tudor IV Star Ariel.
In 1948, another BSAA Tudor IV disappeared – the Star Tiger.

It wasn’t until much later and well after the aircraft was due to have landed in Kingston that MRX first attempted to make contact with Star Ariel. There was no response and it was later still before it was understood that the aircraft had not made contact with any other radio station in the region. Only at that point was it realised that another BSAA Tudor airliner seemed to have disappeared.

The first aircraft sent to look for Star Ariel was another BSAA Tudor IV, the Star Panther. This aircraft took off from Nassau in the Bahamas at around 15:30, flew southeast until it intersected Star Ariel’s planned route from Bermuda to Jamaica, and then flew back towards Bermuda, searching the ocean for any trace of the missing aircraft. Nothing was seen. At the same time, another aircraft took off from Bermuda, flew 500 miles on the same route as Star Ariel and then flew back to Bermuda, following a search pattern on either side of the planned route, but it too failed to find any trace of the missing aircraft.

On 18th January the search area was expanded and joined by a US Navy Task Force including the aircraft carriers USS Kearsarge and USS Leyte and the battleship USS Missouri. For five days, dozens of ships and aircraft searched the ocean southwest of Bermuda. Although weather conditions were good, no wreckage, oil slicks, debris or bodies were found. The search was called off on 23rd January.

The USS Leyte helped search for the Star Ariel.
Even US aircraft carriers were drafted in to help the search including the USS Leyte.

All BSAA Tudor airliners were immediately grounded and none would ever fly passenger services again. In December 1949, the Chief Inspector of Accidents in Britain released a report on the accident that ruled out bad weather as a possible cause, noted that there were no known faults with the Tudor that could have caused a sudden catastrophic in-flight break-up and, just like the report into the loss of the Star Tiger 12 months before, concluded that:

“Through lack of evidence due to no wreckage having been found, the cause of the accident is unknown.”     

The Ill-Fated Avro Tudor?

In some ways, the disappearance of Star Ariel is even more baffling than that of Star Tiger 12 months before. Star Ariel was flying at a high altitude and in good weather. In the event of anything other than a sudden in-flight structural failure (and there is no reason to suspect that), it should have had time to broadcast a distress message.

It is possible that the problems affecting radio communications during the morning of 17th January might have prevented Kingston from receiving transmissions from Star Ariel, though it does seem likely that one of the other WT stations monitoring 6523 kc/s would have received such messages. It also seems very odd that the extensive search that followed, which was conducted in good weather, failed to find any trace of the aircraft or her crew or passengers.

The mysterious disappearance of the Star Tiger and the Star Ariel also helped to build the myth of the Bermuda Triangle which was first mentioned in print in the 1960s and popularised in 1974 by the publication of The Bermuda Triangle by  Charles Berlitz. This suggested giant waterspouts, inter-dimensional portals and even UFOs as an explanation for the loss of ships and aircraft in this region. There is no evidence at all to support any of these theories, but there is no doubt that the unexplained loss of the Star Ariel does represent a strange and baffling mystery. 

All BSAA Tudors were subsequently withdrawn from passenger service and re-fitted for freight operations. No one could be certain what had caused the loss of the Star Tiger and Star Ariel, but passenger confidence dropped and, one year after the loss of Star Ariel, BSAA ceased to exist.

An Avro Tudor parked on a grassfield at Stansted airport.
The Tudor’s career was plagued by accidents. It was the end of the Tudor and BSAA. Photo credit – RuthAS CC BY 3.0.

One man disagreed with concerns about the Tudor: former RAF Air Vice-Marshal Don Bennett. Bennett had been Chief Executive with BSAA at the time of the loss of the Star Tiger and became so incensed with the official enquiry that he resigned. In 1948 Bennett formed Airflight Limited, a small charter and cargo airline. Airflight purchased two Avro Tudor airliners that had been converted for freight operations. One of these aircraft, Star Girl, a Tudor V, was reconverted for passenger operations and on March 5th 1950 this aircraft was used on a passenger charter flight from Belfast in Northern Ireland to Llandow aerodrome in South Wales.

On approach to Llandow, the pilot appeared to lose control, the aircraft stalled and plunged to the ground, killing 75 of its 78 passengers and all five crew members in what was, at the time, the worst civilian aviation accident in the world. That marked the end of the Avro Tudor as a passenger airliner, but it was not the last crash of a Tudor.

In 1951, a Tudor V carrying freight crashed while attempting to land at RAF Bovington. The aircraft was destroyed but all seven occupants escaped. In January 1959, A Tudor II crashed when it swung violently while attempting a take-off from Brindisi Airport. Two crew members were killed and four were injured.

In 1953, Air Charter Limited (ACL), a private British air charter service, purchased four ex-BSAA Tudor IVs which had been placed in storage. These were converted for freight operations as the Avro Super Trader IV. In April 1959, An ACL Super Trader IV was chartered to take personnel and top-secret equipment from Britain to the Woomera Rocket Range in Australia.

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It vanished while flying from Ankara in Turkey to Bahrain. Six days later, the wreckage of this aircraft was found on Mount Süphan in eastern Turkey. None of the twelve occupants survived the crash. No distress call was received from this aircraft and the cause of the crash was never clearly established. Persistent rumours suggest that this aircraft was carrying nuclear warheads, but this has never been confirmed.

A total of just 38 of all variants of the Tudor Airliner were built. No fewer than seven of these aircraft were lost to crashes, a higher loss rate than any other post-war airliner. No wonder the Avro Tudor is remembered today as “ill-fated.”

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