From New Dawn 173 (Mar-Apr 2019)
Over 40 years ago, during the early evening of 21 October 1978, pilot Frederick Valentich reported in a radio communication with Steve Robey of Melbourne Flight Service that “a large aircraft” which had “a long shape” and “a green light,” appearing to have a bright metallic lustre and four bright lights, travelling variously at high speed, approached his Cessna 182L aircraft (registration VH-DSJ) and apparently hovered in a stationary manner and also orbited above him.
After six minutes Valentich reported his aircraft’s engine was rough idling, and the strange object was “hovering, and it’s not an aircraft.” Having indicated he intended to fly on to King Island, Valentich’s communication terminated after 17-seconds of “metallic” noises.
Neither Valentich or the Cessna were ever found. The event became one of Australia’s greatest aviation mysteries, and the apparent UFO connection remains unresolved.
The areas that feature prominently in the Valentich incident – Cape Otway (his last land call), Bass Strait (the apparent location of his disappearance) and King Island (his apparent destination) – all have extensive precedents for UFO activity.
During a two-month period centred around January 1978, holidaymakers, fishermen, school teachers, local police and lighthouse keepers in the Cape Otway area reported seeing UFOs. During July 1977, local residents and the lighthouse keeper at Cape Otway saw an inexplicable brilliant light source that hovered out to sea for half an hour.
Bass Strait figures in UFO mysteries particularly in 1920 and 1944. The Melbourne Argus newspaper even described many people seeing “cigar-shaped” objects flying over Bass Strait as far back as 1896.
King Island’s 425 square miles played host to a wave of unidentified nocturnal aerial lights for at least three months prior to Frederick Valentich’s disappearance. Oval shaped lights followed cars and mystified local residents. Strange lights or flares appeared off the north of the island.
One of the most spectacular close encounters with a UFO in the area occurred at a wild and uninhabited part of the King Island coast, near Whistler Point, just before dawn, on 10 April 1976. “A beam of light” emanating from “a cross-shaped object” approached a duck-shooter’s car, in a direct line. The light display eventually receded directly along its line of approach, ending a silent inspection when it disappeared over the distant skyline.
Much suggests a UFO connection in the Valentich case, but unfortunately a final answer alludes us. Despite the provocative nature of the taped conversation between Valentich and Melbourne Flight Control before his disappearance, which refers to a possible UFO presence, the affair remains a mystery.
The Valentich incident is punctuated with haunting, or rather more appropriately, taunting clues that set one off in all sorts of conflicting directions. Many have come up with solutions varying from the bizarre to the sublime. Did a UFO abduct Valentich? Did Valentich contrive the whole affair? Did he, as many think, crash into Bass Strait, leaving no trace? Or are other prosaic explanations involved? A multitude of various lines of enquiry radiate out in all sorts of directions. Most take us away from the facts of the matter, namely that no trace of pilot or plane have yet been found.
The mystery resonates in the Australian consciousness in a place reserved for more mythic episodes like the haunting fiction of ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’. It has inspired dramatic works like the profound and confronting play ‘Sky’ and the bizarre and striking TV mini-series, ‘Locusts and Wild Honey’. We must remind ourselves that a family waits for an answer that so far has never come. I hope that someday they will find that answer.
Due to the tenacious efforts of Adelaide-based researcher Keith Basterfield in 2012, we can now study the previously restricted Department of Transport file V116/783/1047, available in digital format at the National Archives of Australia website. I last saw this file back in late 1982 while sitting in front of Mr A. Woodward at the Melbourne office of the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation. He had the file open in front of him while answering my questions. I tried not to be too obvious in reading the file in its upside-down perspective.
The released Valentich files provide hints at some possible answers, and it may be that ultimately the answer does not involve UFOs. Reconciling a detailed analysis of the released data with the extensive research done on the case by researchers over the years might help us come up with a final answer. But for now Frederick Valentich and his Cessna plane are still missing, so final closure eludes those who want to know.
‘The Unexplained Files’ series on the Discovery Science Channel in September 2013 featured an excellent recreation of the extraordinary 1978 Valentich mystery. My friend George Simpson (based in Melbourne, Victoria) was instrumental in the accounting of this story on the programme.
On the programme, Steve Robey of Melbourne Flight Service was clearly still distressed about the disappearance of Valentich. Frederick’s younger brother Richard gave the family’s dimension to the story. Both these elements remind us that a disturbing and tragic element still haunts this mystery. George Simpson interviewed Roy Manifold who took some intriguing photos at the time and locality of Valentich’s disappearance.
Dr Richard Haines investigated the case and authored a book on it, Melbourne Episode: Case Study of a Missing Pilot (1987). He facilitated the airing of the strange sound heard at the end of Valentich’s last radio conversation with Steve Robey. I listened to the tape back in 1984 when I stayed with Dr Haines in California. Haines’ comment in ‘The Unexplained Files’ programme that the sound might be from contact between the Cessna and the UFO Valentich had been describing in the six-minute conversation, caused me to suddenly reconsider a very strange story I came across back in early 1995.
The Coonabarabran Times of Coonabarabran, north-west New South Wales, Australia, in its 17 November 1994 issue, carried brief details of an apparent close encounter with a diamond-shaped UFO near ground level on 15 November 1994, on the Mendooran road to the south of the town.
With the assistance of local police, I interviewed the four principal witnesses to this apparent close encounter. One of the area witnesses told me that I should seek out Laurie, a local businessman, who had a lot of UFO stories to tell.
One story was utterly startling and unbelievable. It was apparently connected to the Valentich mystery and initially told to me by one of the Coonabarabran witnesses who heard it through Laurie. Others encouraged us to ask Laurie about other stories. We did both, but the story in question stood out.
Laurie told us he had heard the story directly from a South Australian farmer who had bought a property in the north-west of New South Wales. The farmer had come into his business and the talk strayed onto UFOs. He shared with Laurie an experience he had on his South Australian property on the day following the disappearance of Frederick Valentich.
The farmer said he was harvesting lucern when he heard a loud screeching sound coming from the harvester. He thought it might have been a bearing, so he uncoupled the harvester from the tractor’s power drive and jumped off and went back to have a look. The farmer was trying to work out the source of the continuing noise when he became aware that he was in a shadow. He looked up and saw he was directly underneath a large “saucer” shaped object, and going by the size of his harvester; he estimated it to be about 30 metres across. The loud screeching noise continued.
From directly underneath the object, the farmer reportedly could see two concentric outer rings or bands that were counter rotational and were operating at different speeds. One went very fast, so fast that you had to blink to see that it was moving. The other one was moving very slowly in the opposite direction. There were two small protuberances that the farmer took to be rudders, and two large holes, one had “shimmering heat” coming out, the other was shooting small flames.
The farmer began to think there was something horribly wrong with this huge object and that it might crash down on him. He ran to get out from under it. He got the impression that one of the object’s engines had stopped working.
As he moved away the farmer looked back at the object which he could now see edge on. It had a large dome on top and what looked like a black weather seal along the base of the dome structure. He then noticed what looked like a “church door with a curved top, but no windows or handles were visible.”
He told Laurie the most unusual thing was that the massive object had a Cessna stuck to the outside of it – “the whole aircraft.” It was flat up against the side of the object with its tail hanging down. Laurie said he was not sure whether the farmer said there was engine oil running down the outside of the Cessna, but he could clearly see the plane’s registration markings. He found a nail and scratched the plane’s registration number into the paint of his tractor.
According to Laurie, the farmer said the object – “the saucer” – still accompanied by the screeching sound, then flew away over a ridge in the direction of a nearby Army range.
The farmer said to Laurie he told no one about what happened. He went into town later in the day. One of his neighbours saw him and apparently said, “I see you are doing some more crop spreading.” He said no, why do you say that. The neighbour said, “I saw the Cessna today up in your top paddock.” He replied to his neighbour, “There’s no Cessna in my top paddock.” The neighbour insisted, “Yes there is, I was up near there, I saw it there today.” The farmer said, “That’s interesting, I’ll have a look when I get home.”
He went up to the top paddock and saw no plane, but he did see three tyre marks and some tracks from a plane. He followed the tracks to where they ended, and there was “a pool of ’flamin’ engine oil” on the ground.
I recorded the story from Laurie on two separate occasions, one over the phone in January 1995 and face to face in Coonabarabran one month later in the presence of my friend Robb Tilley. Laurie was impressed with the story. Robb and I simply did not know what to think. Getting further information proved elusive.
As I had lived through the Valentich mystery unfolding at the time in 1978 and had written extensively about the research and investigation of the extraordinary events, I was acutely sensitive to the bizarre and strange aspects. I also had contact with Guido Valentich, Frederick’s father, and I knew that he had been exposed to various claims about what had happened to his son. He even helped me investigate one claim, which ultimately ended in no real resolution, just another unverifiable claim. Sadly, Guido passed away without a definitive answer to his son’s disappearance.
With Laurie’s account from the farmer, I had yet another extraordinarily bizarre and unbelievable claim. Laurie told me the farmer returned on another occasion with the Cessna’s registration number. It was DSJ, the number of Valentich’s Cessna. This in itself was not convincing for me because that information was widely reported at the time of the plane’s disappearance.
I did not want to burden the Valentich family or authorities with yet another unverified story. The biggest problem for me was that Laurie couldn’t recollect the farmer’s name. He told me he had written all this down in notes, but he had not been able to find them. I stayed in touch with Laurie for a while, but despite attempts to come up with a name, without his notes we couldn’t progress the investigation unless we had a vast amount time and resources available.
I circulated a brief account on Paranet (a favoured research Internet facility) at the time but nothing came of it. The story stayed a sleeper until Dr Haines’ comments on the Discovery Science programme. I immediately accessed my notes and tapes and began to evaluate whether the considerably improved resources of the Internet, social media and other resources would now allow another attempt at getting to the heart of the story. Sadly, I learnt that Laurie passed away about seven years ago.
I contacted George Simpson and shared the story with him. We both agreed that despite the bizarre nature of the story, we should try to see if we could track down anyone who had knowledge of the story and see if we could get a name for the farmer. We have since tracked down all sorts of clues.
I described the results of our investigation of this bizarre story in a report on my OZ Files blog entitled “Strange Days, Strange Tales – a Valentich connection” back in October 2013 (see the
Victorian UFO Action (VUFOA) put on a 40th-anniversary event that featured a panel of people involved in the Valentich affair and its investigation including Steve Robey, Rhonda Rhuston and George Simpson. Videos of the event are available on VUFOA’s YouTube channel. The 3rd edition of Jerome Clark’s massive two-volume work The UFO Encyclopedia appeared in 2018 with my report on the Valentich disappearance.
While there is now a wealth of data on the case, what happened to Frederick Valentich and the Cessna he was flying remains a mystery.
For further information on this case, see my work: “The Missing Cessna and the UFO: a preliminary report on the Bass Strait-King Island Affair”, Flying Saucer Review, Volume 24, No. 5, March 1979, 3-5; “Vanished – A report on the Valentich – Bass Strait Affair”, Australian UFO Researcher (No. 56 & 57, No. 58 & 59, No. 60, January 1979 through to December 1979). This report included details on the widespread UFO activity on the same day as the incident, the precedent for UFO activity over Cape Otway, Bass Strait and King Island, precedents for UFO-related plane disappearances or crashes; “Valentich-Bass Strait (Australia) affair”, in Ronald Story’s The Encyclopedia of UFOs, 1980; “Vanished? The Valentich Affair re-examined”, Flying Saucer Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, 1984; “1978 and the RAAF” and “Frederick Valentich and Delta Sierra Juliet – Vanished?” in my lengthy online document “UFOs Sub Rosa Down Under” at www.theozfiles.com/ufos_subrosa4.html and www.theozfiles.com/ufos_subrosa6.html; I also describe the affair extensively in my 1996 book The OZ Files – the Australian UFO Story.
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