Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Disappearance of Frederick Valentich

When Frederick Valentich set off from Moorabin Airport in a light plane on the evening of October 21, 1978, his objective seemed simple enough. So simple, he was expected to be back in Melbourne in only a few hours. His destination, Kings Island in Bass Strait, was only a 90 minute flight away.

While Bass Strait had a reputation for treacherous flying conditions, the weather on the 21st was clear. Valentich, while only 20 years old, had already logged significant solo flight time and was considered a capable young pilot. He had planned the quick hop to the island to pick up some friends and some fresh seafood, to return with both to a family reunion later that evening.

About forty five minutes into his flight,Valentich reported to Melbourne Air Traffic Control that he was being pursued by another aircraft. Moving at high speed, Valentich reported that the unidentified object quickly overtook his plane and that it returned to fly past him several times. Shortly after 7 o'clock, he stated that the aircraft was approaching him again. This was followed by several seconds of white noise and then all contact with Valentich's plane was lost.

No trace of him, or his aircraft, has ever been found.

Guido Valentich holds a photo of his missing son.

Frederick Valentich had always wanted to be a pilot. His father, Guido, would tell reporters that it was all his son had ever expressed an interest in doing. He was so enthusiastic that he started flying lessons as a teenager, as soon as he was legally able, and by the time he turned 18 he already had his pilots license.

Twice rejected by the Air Force as his education was not up to the required standard, Valentich would take flights from Moorabin Airport, using an old RAAF training plane, as he attempted to build up his experience. If the Air Force remained unavailable, he hoped to become a commercial pilot. By October 1978, Valentich had attained a Class 4 instrument rating, significant for someone his age, and had 150 hours of flight time behind him.

Frederick Valentich with a Cessna, similar to the one he disappeared in.

On October 21 he filed a flight plan with Moorabin Airport advising of his trip to King Island. Although he failed to inform King Island airport of his flight, which would have been standard procedure, his flight appeared routine. The 235 kilometre round trip was expected to take about three hours. Valentich took off in a Cessna 182L at 6.19 pm and the first part of his flight proceeded smoothly. At 7.00 pm he radioed back to Melbourne Air Traffic Control as he flew over Cape Otway on Victoria's south coast; winds were light, visibility good.

It was only a few minutes later that things took a strange turn.

At 7.06 pm, Valentich radioed Melbourne again to ask if there were any other aircraft in his vicinity. Told that there weren't, Valentich reported that a large aircraft had just flown over him, about a thousand feet above his own plane.

Flight Officer Steve Robey, on duty at Melbourne Air Traffic Control, asked Valentich to identify the aircraft and the pilot told him this was difficult, due to the other plane's high velocity. But he stated that it looked metallic and had four bright lights on it, like landing lights. Valentich then told Robey that the other plane had circled above him for a few moments, 'orbiting' as the pilot put it, before vanishing.

At 7.09 pm, Valentich contacted again to report that the unknown plane had returned and was approaching him at high speed from the South East, from where it flew over him again. Valentich said that he thought the other pilot was 'playing a game' with him. Asked again by Robey to identify the other aircraft, Valentich was still vague, although he added that it had a 'long shape,' that its lights were green and that its exterior was 'all shiny.'

A minute later, Valentich reported another fly over by the other craft, this time from the South West.

At 7.11 pm, he also indicated that his own plane was showing some signs of mechanical difficulty; that the engine was 'rough idling.' Asked his intentions by Robey, Valentich confirmed that he was going to push on for King Island. At this time, he should have only been about twenty minutes flying time from his destination.

At 7.12 pm, only six minutes after he had first reported the other mysterious craft, Valentich sent his cryptic final message:

VALENTICH: That strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again. It's hovering and it's not an aircraft.

This was followed by 19 seconds of open microphone from Valentich's end, a squall of static and unidentified sounds, before all contact was lost.

Unable to communicate with Valentich, Robey raised the alarm and a Search and Rescue order was issued. Two RAAF transport planes were dispatched to search for Valentich's Cessna, although the advanced hour and poor visibility meant that not much was done on the first evening. The unusual nature of the incident, and the pilot's own description of encountering a UFO immediately before disappearing, meant that the story would be headline news the following day:

The local press reports the story.

The search would be continued the next morning, and for four days subsequent, but no wreckage or any other physical evidence would be found. A small oil slick was spotted on the sea's surface just near the Cape Otway lighthouse, where Valentich radioed shortly before his strange encounter began, but a subsequent analysis showed the oil was not aviation fuel and this clue was abandoned. After a two week investigation, the Victorian Department of Transport would conclude that the cause of Valentich's disappearance was 'unknown,' although it was presumed to be fatal for the young man.

And there ended the official investigation.

So what happened to Frederick Valentich?

The most likely explanation is that the young pilot did crash. While it was considered unusual that no wreckage was found during the search, this was not thought of as conclusive evidence that he had not crashed into Bass Strait. The difficulty of any search at sea, combined with the rough nature of the waterway in question, may have caused the wreckage to sink or disperse in such a way to leave no trace.

Further complicating the search was the fact that Valentich's plane was small enough that it did not show up on Melbourne Air Traffic's radar, so there was no way of verifying exactly where Valentich was prior to losing contact. The search parameters were based around where Valentich said he was before he disappeared, and nothing more. He could have been mistaken and so inadvertently sent the search party off in the wrong direction.

More sinister explanations were also floated.

Instead of accidentally mis-reporting his location, it is possible that Valentich could have deliberately mislead Air Traffic Control about his location and used this as a cover to disappear. At the time of the incedent, Valentich's Cessna would have had enough fuel in it to fly another 800km, more than enough to get him out of the vicinity of the search. And, as mentioned, he was not visible on radar, so his escape would have gone undetected. He could very well have never been in the vicinity of Cape Otway at all.

But this theory, while possible, also seems unlikely. No reports surfaced after the crash of an unidentified plane landing anywhere in Victoria. And Valentich's friends and family would describe him as a happy, affable young man and so an unlikely candidate as a runaway.

So if an accidental crash is the most likely explanation, what of Valentich's reports of being repeatedly buzzed by an unidentified aircraft?

Some aviation have speculated that the young pilot could have become confused or disorientated, attempting such a long flight on his own. Or even that he may have seen his own plane's lights reflected in the ocean and mistaken them for another aircraft. While either theory is possible, they are both impossible to prove or disprove.

Which then leaves the most entertaining notion of all; UFO abduction.

In the thirty plus years since Valentich's plane disappeared, the incident has proved a popular one for UFO-ologists. A quick Google search of Valentich's name will bring up a long string of UFO sites, many more than actual news reports about the incident.

Artists depiction of the disappearance, from a UFO website.

And it's easy to see why.

As well as the pilot's disappearance and bizarre final conversation, there's also the mysterious sounds heard over the radio in the twenty seconds prior to the loss of contact. These sounds, recorded on tape along with Robey's conversation with the pilot, were examined by both RMIT in Melbourne and researchers at the San Jose university in the United States. US based analyst Dr Richard F. Haynes, a UFO researcher, described the sounds as consisting of:

'Thirty-six separate bursts with fairly constant start and stop pulses bounding each one. But with no discernible patterns in timing or frequency.'

Meaning... not very much. Neither the the researchers in Australia or the US, at university or otherwise, were able to determine very much about the sounds; neither what caused them nor what they may have had to with the plane's disappearance.

And then there are the eyewitnesses.

On the evening of October 21, Melbourne plumber Roy Manifold was driving along the south coast when he stopped to take some photos of the sunset. At around 6.45pm, by his estimation, he claims to have seen a large object emerge from the water several hundred metres off shore and then fly away at high speed, quickly disappearing from sight.

One of the photos taken by Roy Manifold

As in many of these types of cases, the photos Manifold took are blurry and inconclusive and debate ranges over what, if anything, they actually depict.

Other witnesses also stepped forward to say that they had seen unusual lights in the sky over Bass Strait on the night in question.

Most notable among these are a group of witnesses, a local man and his two young nieces, never publicly identified, who reported themselves near Apollo Bay. Driving home along Barham Valley Road after a rabbit shooting trip at dusk, these witnesses claim to have seen a set of lights in the sky, like those of a small plane, with a second green light hovering above it. The man thought the sight remarkable enough that he pulled his car over so he could watch the lights more carefully. He described the lights as having a downward trajectory and it took about 90 seconds before they disappeared from view behind the treeline.

A photo of the location on Barham Valley Road where a witness said he saw
lights on October 21. The photographer, a UFO investigator, has added a line
 that indicates the path the witness said the lights followed while he was watching.

Although this witness was not, as far as I could find, called to participate in any official investigation and so has never had his testimony heavily scrutinised. In any case, it is also vague enough to have any number of possible explanations.

Which brings us back to the beginning.

A young man with a love of flying disappears during a short, routine flight leaving no physical evidence of what happened to him other than the tape of an unexplained radio conversation. The sheer absence of any hard evidence about this case is one of the main reasons it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions about what happened. Valentich most likely crashed and the debris from the plane was most likely not found for any one of a number of quite mundane reasons. But there's enough doubt, and enough mystery, to keep speculation churning.

Enough, even, to warrant the attention of Robert Stack:

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