Mark Dunn Herald Sun, Australia
The mystery of what became of pilot Frederick Valentich who disappeared mid-flight off the Victorian coast 36 years ago while telling air traffic control he was being followed by a UFO might never be solved.
But recently unearthed papers do shed some light on the bizarre incident.
Air safety investigation documents reveal an engine cowl flap from the same model Cessna 182 aircraft he was flying in 1978 washed ashore at Flinders Island five years after he vanished.
But opinions were divided on whether the 30cm long component, broken in three pieces and corroded, came from Valentich’s doomed plane.
And now it appears the part may have been lost or scrapped.
Frederick’s brother Richard has called on aviation authorities to ascertain whether the cowl debris remains in storage somewhere. Modern tests could verify if it was in the salt water of Bass Strait for five years.
“If there is some evidence that can link it then it is worth pursuing,” Mr Valentich, 47 said.
In a bizarre coincidence, investigation documents held by the National Archives of Australia also show Frederick Valentich had spoken to his girlfriend about being taken by a UFO just a week before his Cessna disappeared.
Valentich told Melbourne air traffic control he was being followed by a long metallic, unidentified aircraft with four bright lights which at times moved at high speed or orbited above his plane, before reporting his engine was failing.
Nothing further was ever heard from him.
The Australian newspaper runs a story about Frederick Valentich’s lost plane.
An intensive sea search at the time found no trace of the plane or 20-year-old Valentich, who months earlier had accessed confidential RAAF reports about UFO sightings.
Conclusions that the young pilot who was apparently fascinated with aliens faked his own UFO abduction or crashed into Bass Strait as a result of disorientation are still rejected by the Valentich family and those who know them well.
The official Department of Transport investigation report listed a number of hypotheses, including “UFO intervention”, disorientation, hoaxes including a controlled landing on the sea and escape, a landing in a remote location, or a crash in which the wreckage has simply not been found.
But in the wake of a fruitless four-day search for debris off Cape Otway – by at least eight vessels and an Orion aircraft – the Dot stated “it seems likely that the aircraft did not crash in the sea between Cape Otway and King Island”.
Valentich, who had 150 hours flying experience, took off from Moorabbin airport at 6.19pm on October 21, 1978, to fly to King Island, northwest of Tasmania.
Numerous reports were made that night from members of the public of a “fast moving brilliant white light” but the Mt Stromlo Observatory near Canberra also advised the period was “the peak of the meteorite stream with 10-15 sightings per hour achieved”.
The Cessna cowl flap, with partial serial numbers matching the 182L model, was found on May 16, 1983 some 320km from Cape Otway, and prompted hope the mystery would finally be solved.
Pilot Frederick Valentich disappeared in 1978 while flying a Cessna over the Bass Strait to King Island.
But Steve Robey, the air traffic controller who spoke to Valentich on that fateful evening, doesn’t believe it’s from the same Cessna, registration VH-DSJ.
“It’s still an open case,” Mr Robey, himself a licensed pilot, said.
“If it was much closer to the area where he went down you would consider it, but it’s an extremely long way, to the point I discounted it.”
Mr Robey said he was in a unique position to judge Valentich’s mental state at the time and got to know his family in the years after as decent, sensible people.
There was nothing in what Valentich said over the radio to Mr Robey, at Melbourne air traffic control, which indicated a hoax or disorientation and loss of bearings.
“He sounded genuine when he was talking to me.”
Mr Robey said NASA analysts had assessed the audio transcript and found Valentich to be under genuine stress.
Conversely, a Dot assessment of the audio said Valentich’s recorded voice appeared to remain “matter of fact”.
Mr Robey doesn’t believe Valentich was confusing the lights he saw with bright stars or a meteorite shower or that he was somehow inverted and seeing reflections off the water or the Otway lighthouse.
“If he suffered disorientation and crashed into the water you think they would have found a lot of debris.
“Surely there would have been something found during the intense searches, oil or something.”
While some oil was found in the area, it was deemed to be too much to come from a light aircraft and must have been marine based.
“He wasn’t disorientated when he spoke to me,” Mr Robey said.
But he concedes Valentich may have become disorientated after he lost radio contact and may have crashed in a remote area of the Otway ranges and the plane is yet to be found.
Another option Mr Robey doesn’t discount is that Valentich was indeed taken by a UFO or interfered with by an unidentified craft.
“The simple fact there was so much activity at the time (in sightings).”
He cites the dozens of UFO sightings and reports of unexplained lights both immediately before and after the Valentich disappearance that night.
In another strange coincidence, Mr Robey said he was working at air traffic control about five days later and another light aircraft pilot radioed him during a navigational flight above East Sale and reported being passed three times by an intensely bright light travelling at jet speed, coming close enough to force him to land his aircraft.
Pilot Frederick Valentich disappeared in 1978 while flying a Cessna over the Bass Strait to King Island.
“I jokingly said to the guy next to me, ‘Here we go again’,” Mr Robey recalled.
Valentich’s father, Guido, who died in 2000, believed his son may have been abducted by aliens and the family visited the same spot at Cape Otway on each anniversary of his disappearance, where they erected a memorial.
But like the rest of the Valentich family, he never got the answers he needed.
Richard Valentich was 12 when his brother vanished but said there was no family fixation on UFOs.
“The concept of a UFO taking my brother is very far out there,” he said.
“Did he encounter something that made him crash? That may be more plausible. There’s a lot of theories out there but no one has proven anything.”
Mr Valentich said his brother would have been honestly and accurately describing what he saw, whatever it was.
He said his mother still held hope Frederick was alive, but the family just wanted to know, 36 years later, what happened.
“It’s like those people going through it now (with the Malaysia MH370 search), it’s the not knowing what happened.”
Royal Australian Navy research scientists were asked in 1983 whether the part found on Flinders Island, which was not buoyant, could have “walked” along the ocean floor from the Cape Otway search area over a five-year period.
The RAN responded by saying there were unusually strong sub-surface currents in that period which could have transported the debris that far.
But according to the-then Flinders Island airport manager Arthur Withers, whose son found the cowl flap opposite the northern runway washed up on a beach at Parry’s Bay, there were another two Cessnas of that type which lost similar parts during takeoff prior to 1983.
“The first thing we thought of is it may have been from the (Valentich) plane to King Island,” Mr Withers said. But given the other two incidents, it was more likely the cowl came from one of them but it was impossible to be sure.
Bureau of Air Safety Investigation (BASI) documents state the aluminium part was “greatly eroded” and that the “operating bolt, of steel, while heavily corroded, appears to have failed on impact or in flight (i.e. not by corrosion).”
Frederick Valentich went missing in 1978 while flying his plane from Moorabbin to King Island.
Despite new technologies which could help indicate the age of the flap and whether it had remained in Bass Strait for some years, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which replaced BASI, have no record of what became of it and it may have now been discarded.
Valentich disappeared a year after the films Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars were released and ignited an intense community interest in UFOs and the potential for extraterrestrial life.
Richard Valentich said he saw Star Wars with his brother but Frederick had what was, during the period, just a normal level of interest in UFOs.
BASI documents state Frederick – who was a member of an RAAF cadet program and had wanted to be an air force radio technician – was a “firm believer in UFOs” and that his mother had reported seeing one earlier in 1978.
“His (Valentich’s) belief had been strengthened recently when he was allowed to see the RAAF’s confidential files on UFOs at East Sale and Laverton,” BASI documents held by the National Archives show.
“He couldn’t discuss these details with his family as they were confidential.
“Frederick worried about attack from UFOs and what they could do.”
When investigators interviewed Valentich’s girlfriend, Rhonda Rushton, she told them of a conversation they had during a drive through the Dandenongs on October 15, 1978, just six days before he was last seen.
According to Ms Rushton, Valentich said: “If a UFO landed in front of me now, I would go in it, but never without you.”
Another twist in the case, identified in a Dot report, states Valentich told Ms Rushton he planned to meet her at 7.30pm on the evening of his flight to King Island.
Given his takeoff at 6.19pm, it was a time “he could not possibly keep,” the report states.
The Dot reports state Valentich gave two different reasons for taking his first night flight over water to King Island; telling family he was picking up crayfish but informing Moorabbin control he was collecting passengers.
But there was no crayfish at King Island at the time and no one identified as waiting for him.
Valentich had appropriate clearance and experience to undertake the solo night flight, but had struggled progressing towards his full commercial pilot’s licence.
Although he was only one subject away from obtaining that goal, he had twice failed five CPL subjects and received a counselling letter from authorities after straying into controlled airspace in Sydney.
Researcher Keith Basterfield, who uncovered previously unpublished investigation files in the national archives in 2012, said the case attracted endless speculation but he added:
“I think that we may never know what actually happened that night.”
While many have faced ridicule for their consideration of a UFO theory, a number of rational minds have pursued the case with objectivity.
The late Paul Norman, of the Victorian UFO Research Society, spent years interviewing people and investigating the case.
He chronicled three witnesses who each claim they saw an aeroplane descending at a steep angle with a much larger object with green lights flying just above it.
Based on the trajectory, Mr Norman concluded the Cessna crashed into the sea southeast of Cape Marengo between 5km and 20km offshore.
“The nature of the large object with green lights that accompanied the aeroplane during its steep descent remains to be identified,” he wrote.
Richard Valentich, his mother Alberta and his sister still visit their memorial to a long-lost brother and son at Cape Otway most years.
They stand on the cliff, look out across the sea and wonder.