The time and place: It is Saturday 21 October 1978, Victoria, Australia: 17:19 pm – Young pilot Fred Valentich leaves Moorabbin Airport in a rented single engine Cessna 182L. When he filed his flight plan with the briefing officer at Moorabbin he told him he was on his way to collect some friends of his, along with some crayfish, from King Island, a flight of some 125 miles (201 km). He took aboard four life jackets.
He is 20 years old, has about 150 hours of flying experience and got his private pilot’s licence in September 1977. He is hoping to have another go at attaining his commercial licence. He’s failed before but he is of a persevering nature.
The weather is clear with a trace of stratocumulus cloud at 5000-7000 feet, scattered cirrus at 30 000 feet with excellent visibility and light wind.
While flying over Bass Strait, about halfway to his destination he radios Melbourne Air Flight Service and speaks to air controller Steve Robey. Here’s a transcript of their conversation which commenced at 19:06:
FV: Is there any known traffic below five thousand (feet)?
SR: No known traffic
FV: I am (seems to) be a large aircraft below five thousand
SR: What type of aircraft is it?
FV: I cannot affirm. It is [sic] four bright, it seems to me like landing lights. . . . The aircraft has just passed over me at least a thousand feet above.
SR: Roger, and it, it is a large aircraft? Confirm.
FV: Er, unknown due to the speed it’s traveling. Is there any Air Force aircraft in the vicinity?
SR: No known aircraft in the vicinity.
FV: It’s approaching right now from due east towards me. . . . [Silence for 2 seconds.] It seems to me that he’s playing some sort of game. He’s flying over me two, three times, at a time at speeds I could not identify.
SR: Roger. What is your actual level?
FV: My level is four and a half thousand. Four five zero zero.
SR: And confirm you cannot identify the aircraft.
SR: Roger. Stand by.
FV: It’s not an aircraft. It is—[Silence for 2 seconds.]
SR: Can you describe the, er, aircraft?
FV: As it’s flying past, it’s a long shape. [Silence for 3 seconds.] [Cannot] identify more than [that it has such speed]. [Silence for 3 seconds.] [It is] before me right now, Melbourne.
SR: And how large would the, er, object be?
FV: It seems like it’s stationary.1 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. [Silence for 5 seconds.] It’s just vanished. . . . Would you know what kind of aircraft I’ve got? Is it military aircraft?
SR: Confirm the, er, aircraft just vanished.
FV: Say again.
SR: Is the aircraft still with you?
FV: [It’s, ah, nor-] [Silence for 2 seconds.] [Now] approaching from the southwest. . . . The engine is, is rough idling. I’ve got it set at twenty three twenty four, and the thing is—coughing.
SR: Roger. What are your intentions?
FV: My intentions are, ah, to go to King Island. Ah, Melbourne, that strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again. [Silence for 2 seconds.] It is hovering, and it’s not an aircraft. [Silence for 17 seconds, open microphone, with audible, unidentified staccato noise. End of transcript.]
All Steve Robey hears after that is seventeen seconds of silent transmission, interspersed with strange sounds which sounded like metal scraping. It is 19:13 pm.
This is the last anyone in our known dimension ever heard from Fred Valentich. Here’s a link for those who would like to hear it:
The next few days witness a diligent search for the missing plane and pilot, involving a RAAF Lockheed P-3 Orion aircraft, eight civilian aircraft and several oceangoing vessels. Despite encompassing 1000 square miles it yields no results. The search is given up on 25 October 1978.
The incident evokes a flurry of conflicting opinions from UFO believers and sceptics alike, attempting to make sense of this event. Believers see it as evidence of a genuine abduction while those of a more cynical disposition simply see an inexperienced pilot losing control of his craft and spinning into the ocean.
Some of them are so determined to find a rational, prosaic explanation that they disdainfully resort to running down the character of witnesses, and especially the unfortunate Fred.
Aftermath to the disappearance: Developments but nothing conclusive
The Department of Transport embarked on an official investigation, which resulted in a lengthy 315 page report concluding that the incident was “probably fatal.”
This report is available on the National Archives of Australia website, having been diligently researched by one Mr Keith Basterfield of Adelaide, an expert in public records. It resurfaced after many years, having been buried among other dusty stuff like the boxed and labelled Ark shown at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Despite all his thorough research and not being a UFO believer himself, Mr Basterfield retains an open mind and has this to say:
“The only thing we can say for sure is that the plane and pilot disappeared while he was describing a UFO – which is one of those things that just makes people wonder.
Researchers have never been able to conclusively determine the source of the strange noises in those final 17 seconds of communication, or to detect any pattern.
Fred’s hired plane was specially equipped with a safety mechanism which would enable it to remain afloat for some time after any possible crash landing.
Suggestions that Fred either committed suicide or staged his own disappearance are not backed up by the facts. His plane wasn’t picked up on any radar in areas which differed from his flight path.
He was romantically involved, and his distraught 16 year old girlfriend was distraught. They had been going out for about 10 months at the time of his disappearance. Later his family found out Fred had put down a laybye on an engagement ring for her. Clearly, therefore, Fred had no death or disappearance wish. She was so upset that she became a virtual recluse for years and never appears to have recovered and married.
Melbourne police received reports of a mysterious light aircraft landing near Cape Otway at the time, but if this were true, what happened to it? Is this why a couple out on a fishing trip saw a police roadblock there that night?
Five years later a cowl flap from a Cessna washed up on distant Flinders Island. Experts from the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation report that it’s not unheard of for a cowl flap from such a plane to break off from the rest but that this hadn’t happened to any recent, modern aircraft.
In 2014 a small group of researchers including an astronomer put forward the theory that Fred had simply become disoriented by the optical illusion of a tilted horizon combined with seeing an alignment of Venus, Mars, Mercury and Antares. Increased confsion and disorientation caused him to start an erratic downward “graveyard” spiral which ended in his plane crashing into the sea.
They wrote off the green light he saw as the navigation light on the Cessna’s right wing tip.
Also in 2014 a UFO research group uncovered old evidence that an unidentified farmer from the region of Adelaide, South Australia saw the missing Cessna attached to a UFO which was hovering over his property the morning after Fred’s disappearance. He claimed that the Cessna was stuck to the side of this unidentified craft and leaking oil.
He reportedly used a stick to scratch the plane’s serial number onto his tractor but he never came forward with this sensational information as the few folk he did tell ridiculed his story.
The research group has been trying to locate the farmer, if still alive, as he might be persuaded to reveal what he witnessed after all this time.
This farmer would have had nothing to gain by making up a story like that, since he never told it publicly. Clearly fame or money isn’t what motivated him. Either he saw what he did or spent too much of Saturday night overindulging in his favourite tipple.
A plumber named Roy Manifold, on holiday at Crayfish Bay, not far from Cape Otway, took six photos of the setting sun on that fateful evening. He set the camera to take the shots automatically and didn’t notice anything strange at the time. But when they were developed he got a shock. One photo gives the impression of something rising from the ocean. Another shows a strange and unidentifiable object in the sky. A possible vapour or exhaust trail is visible. Film faults and processing defects were ruled out. You can view it here:
Numerous UFO reports from Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania as well as one from King Island were received on the day of Fred’s disappearance, between midday and 9 pm. There were too many of them to be dismissed as crank material.
It’s interesting to note that this particular corner of Australia encompassing Cape Otway, Bass Strait and King Island has long been regarded as a “hotbed” of paranormal or UFO activity.
A couple named Steve and Rita Wright were on a fishing trip that evening and clearly remember that the sea was dead calm and the weather was perfect. They also noticed that police had set up a roadblock at the access road to Cape Otway lighthouse. Did this have any link to the numerous UFO reports from the area that evening?
Fred’s father, Guido Valentich, held a regular vigil at Cape Otway near the site of Fred’s disappearance every year until his own death in 2000. In 1998 he had a plaque erected at the spot.
Quotes from the last guy to speak to Fred, Steve Robey:
“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.”
He didn’t believe for a moment that the guy he was talking to was disorientated. He is inclined to believe Fred really did see a UFO.
He had this to say at the unveiling:
The plaque you have placed here in his memory reminds us there are many mysteries in life that cannot be explained and may never be answered and must be accepted for what they are.
A weird and unsubstantiated report from Spanish researcher Manuel Carballal alleges that several witnesses spoke to a man claiming to be Fred Valentich, answering to his description and brandishing an Australian passport to prove it, who appeared in Plaza del Charco, Tenerife, Canary Islands in 1990 and claimed that he was part of a select group of humans who had been recruited by ETs. Here, however, this X-file like trail seems to run cold. Was this guy just a crackpot who’d been stoned too many times? If not, what is the unknown agenda of these ETs since our planet could certainly use a message from more intelligent beings?
So we are left with a tantalising mystery which may never be resolved in this dimension. Is Fred’s Cessna lying in pieces at the dark heart of Bass Strait, the result of a tragic accident or did something else entirely happen as possibly witnessed by an early-rising farmer?
The air and the sea are certainly places which hold many secrets not easily uncovered.