25 years ago on this day Frederick Valentich disappeared over Bass Strait in very strange circumstances. It is a mystery that still has not been explained. It was the extraordinary disappearance of pilot Frederick Valentich (left) over Bass Strait on October 21st, 1978, that thrust the subject of UFOs into the news headlines around the world. The Valentich mystery has endured as an insoluble enigma. The crux of the mystery is just what happened to the young pilot and his 182 Cessna light aircraft – VH – DSJ (Delta Sierra Juliet) – during that October evening. The circumstances behind the total disappearance of both pilot and plane have since been elevated into one of the premier mysteries of aviation and for many one of the most intriguing elements of the UFO phenomenon.
The fact that the mystery has lasted so long is a direct result of the incredible aspects at the heart of the affair. Twenty year-old Frederick Valentich, 47 minutes into what should have been a routine 69 minute flight from Moorabin, Victoria, to King Island, reported in a radio conversation with Melbourne Flight Service Unit controller, Steve Robey, of seeing an unidentified “aircraft” near him.
The only official report to emerge on the affair was an Aircraft Accident Investigation Summary Report, reference No. V116/783/1047. The basic relevant events and transcript of the conversation between Valentich and Robey – a “radio encounter of a weird kind” – included in the report are given here:
The pilot obtained a class Four instrument rating on 11 May 1978 and he was therefore authorised to operate at night in visual meteorological conditions (VMC). On the afternoon of 21 October 1978 he attended the Moorabbin Briefing Office, obtained a meteorological briefing and, at 1723 hours, submitted a flight plan for a night VMC flight from Moorabbin to King Island and return. The cruising altitude nominated in the flight plan was below 5000 feet, with estimated time intervals of 41 minutes to Cape Otway and 28 minutes from Cape Otway to King Island. The total fuel endurance was shown at 300 minutes. The pilot made no arrangements for aerodrome lighting to be illuminated for his arrival at King Island. He advised the briefing officer and the operator’s representative that he was uplifting friends at King Island and took four life jackets in the aircraft with him.
The aircraft was refuelled to capacity at 1810 hours and departed Moorabbin at 1819 hours. After departure the pilot established two-way radio communication with Melbourne Flight Service Unit (FSU).
Valentich reported in this transmission that “a large aircraft” appeared below him, then apparently passed over his aircraft. He felt it was an “unknown aircraft” particularly because of its apparent speed. It approached him from the east and seemed to be “playing some sort of game”, “flying over me two three times at speeds I could not identify”. Frederick Valentich emphasised, “It’s not an aircraft … it’s flying past, it’s a long shape.” Then he described, “it seems like its stationary. 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 sort of metallic (like) it’s all shiny (on) the outside.” One minute later Valentich said the object was approaching his aircraft from the Southwest. Then the Cessna’s engine started rough idling. Frederick Valentich’s last transmission was, “…that strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again. It is hovering and it’s not an aircraft.” 17 seconds of open microphone followed with metallic like sounds hear, perhaps like the rapid keying of the plane’s microphone, and then silence. An intensive air, sea and land search followed over the next 4 days. No trace of pilot or plane was ever found.
The weather in the Cape Otway area was clear with a trace of stratocumulus cloud at 5000 to 7000 feet, scattered cirrus cloud at 30000 feet, excellent visibility and light winds. The end of daylight at Cape Otway was at 1918 hours.
The Alert Phase of SAR procedures was declared at 1912 hours and, at 1933 hours when the aircraft did not arrive at King Island, the Distress Phase was declared and search action was commenced. An intensive air, sea and land search was continued until 25 October 1978, but no trace of the aircraft was found.
The official report also refers to the following points:
Location of occurrence: Not known
Time: Not known
Degree of injury: presumed fatal
Opinion as to cause (of “Aircraft Accident”): The reason for the disappearance of the aircraft has not been determined
Steve Robey, the FSU or Flight Service Unit radio controller, who spoke with Valentich during those 6 minutes leading up to his disappearance, said in a Melbourne Herald interview:
“I think at first he was a little concerned about this other aircraft flying around him, and of course I had to assume that it was another aircraft until it developed and became a little mysterious. Towards the end I think he was definitely concerned for his safety; I considered that he would have had to have been a good actor to have put it all together the way he did.”
Robey did not believe he had talked to a disorientated pilot,
“It was as though he was looking around for this thing as he was speaking on the radio … a young fellow with little experience; it was getting dark, and visual reference to the ground is fading. In a situation like this, if this is what happened, it is understandable he is getting a little bit uptight.
“It was a kind of rushed communication … it was as if he was startled… he was definitely concerned … it sounded as though it was rattling him.”
Apart from a very early attempt to suggest that Frederick Valentich may have been flying upside down, totally disorientated, with lighthouse lights producing his perception of an “unidentified aircraft”, the Australian Department of Aviation has never officially addressed the question of what Valentich may have been observing prior to his disappearance.
I tried to extract from the Department their opinion.
At first the then Assistant Secretary (Air Safety Investigation), Mr. G.V. Hughes, advised me that he was not clear as to what was meant by my expression, “…the stimulus of Valentich’s apparent UFO observation…”
“However, a great deal of consideration has been given to what Mr. Valentich might have been looking at when he described his observations. A considerable number of suggestions have been put forward by persons inside and outside this Department. All have been examined. The Department is not aware of any other official body having undertaken such an investigation into this occurrence,” Mr. Hughes wrote.
However, when it came to an official investigation of a possible UFO connection, a veritable bureaucratic “Catch-22” loomed large. Mr. Hughes advised me, “As you correctly state …, the RAAF is responsible for the investigation of reports concerning ‘UFO’ sightings, and liaison was established with the RAAF on these aspects of the investigation. The decision as to whether or not the ‘UFO’ report is to be investigated rests with the RAAF and not with this Department.”
At the time I was fortunately in a position to get a clearer picture of the RAAF role in the Valentich case. I had been given unprecedented direct access to the RAAF files. During my detailed explorations of the files in a number of visits to the Department of Defence in Canberra, I did not come across any documentation on the Valentich affair. The RAAF Intelligence Liaison Officer – DAFI told me that the RAAF did not investigate the affair because they were not asked to by the Department of Aviation! The RAAF saw it as more appropriately in the domain of an “air accident/air safety” enquiry. The Intelligence officer also volunteered that his personal opinion was that pilot disorientation was involved.
In November, 1982, I was finally given official permission to examine the Department of Aviation UFO files, but was specifically denied access to the Valentich files on the grounds that they were Air Accident Investigation files and not UFO files. Mr. Hughes of Air Safety elaborated,
“The file concerning this occurrence is no more or less restricted than any other accident investigation file. As a signatory to the International Convention on Civil Aviation, we subscribe to the Standards and Recommended Practices contained in Annex 13 to the Convention, in respect of aircraft accident investigation, specifically, when it is considered that the disclosure of records, for the purposes other than accident prevention, might have an adverse effect on the availability of information in that or any future investigation, such records are considered privileged.”
While in Melbourne examining the Aviation Department’s UFO files, I was able to have a lengthy discussion on the Valentich affair with Mr. A. Woodward, the signatory on the official Aircraft Accident Investigation Summary Report, dated May 27th, 1982. He largely reiterated the official department line, emphasising that they were treating the matter as only an “air accident” investigation. He dwelt on a long list of prosaic explanations ranging from diorientation, suicide, to the unlikely prospect of the plane being struck by a meteorite, but conceded that the affair was still unresolved.
Dr. Richard Haines, was a research scientist with NASA and an aircraft accident investigator, as well as an active UFO researcher, particularly in cases involving pilot witnesses. He took a particular interest in the Valentich incident. He was given access to the tape of the incident and undertook studies of it. He was not able to definitively identify the unusual sounds that appeared in the final 17 seconds of open microphone communications with Valentich. A metallic-like sound is noticeable. Dr. Haines found they were similar to the sound produced by the rapid keying of the microphone, but control testing did not confirm this absolutely. He published a book based on his study of the affair, MELBOURNE EPISODE – Case study of a missing pilot. He included 4 hypothetical accounts of what might have happened, namely “pilot disorientation/crash/death”, “deliberate pilot hoax”, “actual UFO in-flight abduction”, and “military weapons test”. While Dr. Haines seems to have favoured the final “hypothesis”, in reality the evidence for it is slight and speculative.
Many people reported seeing UFOs on the same day and during the night of Valentich’s disappearance. A number of these reports are difficult to reconcile with the hysteria and publicity that escalated rapidly over the affair, elevating it to an international sensation. Some 15 or more distinct sightings survived the gauntlet of civilian group investigations. They all occurred between midday and 9 pm, on October 21st. Six occurred in Victoria, one on King Island, and the rest in New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia. These reports seemed to confirm that something quite unusual was abroad that extraordinary day.
A strange series of photos taken out over Bass Strait, by Roy Manifold, a plumber on holidays at Crayfish Bay, near Apollo Bay, only some 20 minutes before Valentich began describing his encounter, revealed something unusual. He had taken 6 photos of the setting sun. He saw nothing untoward, with the camera set to automatically take the photo series, but upon development the fourth and sixth photos revealed apparent anomalies. The fourth photo showed what looked like a dense “black lump” in the water, giving the impression of something rising from the water. The fifth photo appeared normal. The sixth shows a strange mass situated in the sky directly over the position of the anomaly in the fourth photo, which looked like an object caught in flight with a possible exhaust or trail of material. Film faults and processing defects were ruled out. The RAAF suggested a cumulus cloud breaking up, but the timing of the exposures would have required the “cloud” to have moved into view at a speed of up to 200 mph. Now that’s some cloud for what was a calm day!
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, holiday makers, 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. We have seen in our history that Bass Strait figured 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 April 10th, 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.
There is much that suggests a UFO connection but unfortunately a final answer eludes us, preventing the comfort of certainty. Despite the provocative nature of the taped conversation Valentich had with Melbourne Flight Control prior to his disappearance that refers to a possible UFO presence, the affair still remains a mystery.
The Valentich mystery is punctuated with haunting, or rather more appropriately, taunting clues, that sets one off in all sorts of conflicting directions. Many have come up with all sorts of final solutions, that vary 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 some day they will find that answer.
Sadly Guido Valentich’s, Frederick’s father, passed away recently. He maintained a regular annual vigil hoping for a sense of certainty about the fate of his son. I spoke to Steve Robey in 1999. He indicated to me that he still feels the disappearance of Frederick Valentich is a mystery. Robey told me, “I don’t believe he was disorientated. I don’t believe he faked it or committed suicide. He sounded under stress and sounded very genuine… He was definitely concerned about what he was looking at.” He feels there is some sort of UFO connection and he feels that officials are keeping the UFO subject under wraps. “I lean towards a UFO connection.” He shared with me his knowledge of other UFO sightings, including ones he became aware of in his flight controller role.
It is indeed frustrating that this mystery has not been resolved, particularly for the Valentich family. If someone out there has information that can assist in settling the mystery please come forward.