THEY flew into the mountains and vanished almost 53 years ago. Yesterday, the fate of 11 high-flying passengers and crew became clear after their lost British plane Star Dust was found in the Andes.With the wreckage were human remains preserved by the permanently freezing temperatures on top of the 6,800ft Tupungato peak in Argentina near the border with Chile.
After more than half a century, British Foreign Office staff in London began trying to trace passengers' relatives to help to confirm the identities of the dead.
The aircraft was an Avro Lancastrian and is now thought to be the last of its kind in the world. It vanished trying to climb above a storm on a British South American Airways scheduled flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago on August 2, 1947.
At the controls was a former Second World War pilot, John R Cooke, 29. A leather boot with an RAF inscription was among the wreckage found by a group investigating a climber's claim to have sighted a crashed plane in the distance.
Yesterday, a former colleague of the pilot, Captain Donald MacIntosh, now 77 and living in Crieff, Tayside, Scotland, recalled the difficulty of the route: ``You would fly at a normal height of eight to 10 thousand feet across the pampas from Buenos Aires, then you had to climb as far as you could. Everyone needed oxygen. If you became too iced up you would have fallen out of the sky. The whole thing was a bit hairy.''
The body of the aircraft appears to have shattered but the search team of five climbers and a number infantrymen found fuselage, engine parts, a propeller, a piece of wing and an oxygen canister in ``near perfect'' condition.
Major Osvaldo Quinones said: ``We found the torsos of at least three people. We came across several dozen bones, and among them was the almost intactly preserved hand of a woman.'' An Argentine federal judge has ordered DNA samples to be taken to try to determine identities.
The five crew of Star Dust were British and the six passengers are believed to have included two Britons, one Swiss, one Palestinian and a German. They were listed as missing, presumed dead.
The plane may originally have flown from London, as the Avro Lancastrian could cross the Atlantic without refuelling.
It was reported to have made an unscheduled landing at Mendoza on the way from Buenos Aires owing to bad weather. At 3pm, Captain Cook radioed Santiago, saying: ``The weather is not good, but I will attempt the crossing at 8,000 metres to avoid the storm.'' It was his last contact.
The rediscovered aircraft first flew on November 27, 1945, and was converted into a Mark III Lancastrian in early 1946. The Avro company, based in Cheshire, adapted its plane from the wartime Lancaster bomber.
Yesterday Harry Holmes of the Avro Heritage Group, which cherishes memorabilia of the now defunct company, said: ``This would be the only Lancastrian left in the world. It's a very special find. Anything that clears up a mystery after all this time is fascinating and the occupants will be able to get a decent funeral.
``Aircraft have been found in deserts in Australia and in the Sahara 20 or 30 years after they were lost, but for one to be found nearly 53 years later with bodies preserved in the snow sounds unique.''
The Times, London