The Valentich Disappearance: Another UFO Cold Case Solved
James McGaha and Joe Nickell
What did he see? The missing piece of the puzzle in a strange ‘UFO’ case involving the crash of a young pilot off Australia has been identified.
What is known as the “Valentich disappearance” is a strange occurrence in the annals of UFOlogy, one never satisfactorily explained—until now. One of us (Nickell) was asked to look into the case for a television show, and he queried the other (McGaha) who came up with the missing piece of the puzzle (as perhaps only someone who was both a pilot and astronomer could do).
The story begins in Australia about 19:00 hours (7:00 PM), or shortly after sunset (6:43 PM), on October 21, 1978. A young man named Frederick “Fred” Valentich—who had left Victoria’s Moorabbin airport at 18:19 (6:19 PM)—was piloting a light airplane, a rented single-engine Cessna 182L (registration VH-DSJ) over Bass Strait, heading southeastwardly for King Island. When what he thought was another aircraft seemed to pass over him, he radioed Melbourne Air Flight Service, and spoke with controller Steve Robey. Here is the (slightly abridged) exchange (with punctuation and capitalization added), taken from the transcript of the audiotape (beginning at 19:06:14):
Valentich: Is there any known traffic below five thousand [feet]?
Robey: No known traffic.
V: I am—seems [to] be a large aircraft below five thousand.
R: What type of aircraft is it?
V: 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.
R: Roger, and it, it is a large aircraft? Confirm.
V: Er, unknown due to the speed it’s traveling. Is there any Air Force aircraft in the vicinity?
R: No known aircraft in the vicinity.
V: 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.
R: Roger. What is your actual level?
V: My level is four and a half thousand. Four five zero zero.
R: And confirm you cannot identify the aircraft.
R: Roger. Stand by.
V: It’s not an aircraft. It is—[Silence for 2 seconds.]
R: Can you describe the, er, aircraft?
V: 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.
R: And how large would the, er, object be?
V: 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?
R: Confirm the, er, aircraft just vanished.
V: Say again.
R: Is the aircraft still with you?
V: [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.
R: Roger. What are your intentions?
V: 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.] ( Aircraft Accident 1982. See also Good 1988, 175–77; Chalker 1998, 964; Haines and Norman 2000; Baker 2000, 248)
Some versions of the transcript fail to match that of the accident report in important details. For example, instead of “[It is] before me right now,” one source (Chalker 2001, 629) gives “. . . coming for me right now.”
The communication ended about 19:12:49. Although an intensive air, land, and sea search was carried out until October 25, no trace of the Cessna was found. An oil slick discovered on October 22, some eighteen miles north of King Island, “was not established as having any connection with Valentich’s plane” (Good 1988, 178). The Bureau of Air Safety Investigation released its findings in May 1982, stating that “The reason for the disappearance of the aircraft has not been determined,” but that the outcome was “presumed fatal” (Aircraft Accident 1982). Suicide? Staged disappearance? Alien attack or abduction? Drug runners’ shootdown? Electrical discharge from a cloud igniting gas fumes? There were many “theories,” including those of “psychics” (Chalker 1998, 966–67; “Valentich” 2013). However, none seemed to explain both the disappearance and the lights. To understand what happened, we need to look more closely at Fred Valentich.
Fred Valentich was a twenty-year-old, inexperienced flyer with only about 150 total hours flying time and a class-four instrument rating (which meant he could operate at night but only “in visual meteorological conditions” [Aircraft Accident 1982]). He had twice been rejected by the Royal Australian Air Force, due to inadequate education. Having obtained a private pilot license in September 1977, he was studying part time for a commercial pilot’s license.
Unfortunately, he had failed all five of his exam subjects—not once but twice—and, just the month before, again failed three subjects. Further, his involvement in three flying incidents came to the attention of officials: once he received a warning for having strayed into restricted air space, and twice he was cited for deliberately flying blindly into a cloud, for which he was under threat of prosecution (Sheaffer 2013; “Valentich” 2013). In brief, Valentich may have been an accident waiting to happen.
Moreover, the young pilot was enthralled with UFOs, watching films and accumulating articles on the topic. Earlier that year, according to his father, Valentich had himself observed a UFO moving away very fast. And he had expressed to his father his worry about what could happen if such presumed extraterrestrial craft should ever attack (Sheaffer 2013; “Valentich” 2013). As we shall see, his deep belief in flying saucers may have contributed to his death—and not in the way some saucer buffs imagine.
Some thought Valentich might have staged his disappearance, but the evidence does not support that hypothesis (Good 1988, 180). Nevertheless Valentich did give two contradictory reasons for his flight to King Island: (1) to pick up some friends (as he told flight officials), or (2) to pick up crayfish. However, these reasons were found to be untrue (Aircraft Accident 1982; “Valentich” 2013). Valentich had not even followed standard procedure to inform King Island airport of his intent to land there (“Disappearance” 2013).
So what was Valentich really up to—in addition to wanting to log more hours of flying experience? Possibly he had decided to look for UFOs again but, rather than admit that, offered others more legitimate-sounding reasons for his flight. In short, he may not simply have encountered a UFO but instead went looking for one. If so, his “encounter” is not surprising. As a “True Believer,” observes Robert Sheaffer (2013, 27), Valentich was “probably inclined to assume anything is a ‘UFO’ if he could not immediately identify it.”
So what did the young pilot see? Having clear skies, he described four bright lights that he mistakenly (as he later admitted) first thought were an airplane’s “landing lights” (that is, white points of light). They were above him and—except for his own movements (more on this later)—seemed to be just “hovering.” Then twice and quite correctly, he realized “it” was definitely “not an aircraft.”
As it happens, a computer search of the sky for the day, time, and place of Valentich’s flight reveals that the four points of bright light he would almost certainly have seen were the following: Venus (which was at its very brightest), Mars, Mercury, and the bright star Antares. These four lights would have represented a diamond shape, given the well-known tendency of viewers to “connect the dots,” and so could well have been perceived as an aircraft or UFO. In fact, the striking conjunction was shaped as a vertically elongated diamond, thus explaining Valentich’s saying of the UFO that “it’s a long shape.”
As to the UFO’s other characteristics, the “metallic” or “shiny” appearance could have been due to the power of suggestion alone. Having connected the dots, Valentich would likely have gone on to fill in the area as solid, even “metallic.” We must remember that Valentich’s impressions are those of someone who was confused about what he was seeing.
The “green light” could have been part of this confusion also. Remember, Valentich’s first description of the UFO involved only four bright white lights; he made no mention at that time of a green one. It could actually have been nothing more than the Cessna’s own navigation light on its right wing tip. That green light—or its reflection on the windshield—could easily have been superimposed onto the UFO sighting.
A witness on the ground, who described having seen a green light just above Valentich’s plane, had not mentioned that aspect of his story at the time. However, many years later—after the green light was made public—he did mention the detail, but he is only identified by a pseudonym. Nevertheless, he said (in the words of his interviewers) that “Its color was similar to the navigation lights on an airplane” (Haines and Norman 2000, 26)! If the Cessna was indeed close enough to the land as to be seen by the man and his two nieces, there is a simple explanation: that the airplane’s attitude (a steep angle of bank) was such that its right wing tip was up, and so its green navigation light appeared above the Cessna. As the witness stated, the light was positioned “like it was riding on top of the airplane,” and it kept a constant position, according to the witnesses (Haines and Norman 2000, 26). But again, there are problems with the main witness’s description. As his interviewers acknowledge, his “recollection of the angular size of the airplane’s lights is too large by perhaps several orders of magnitude” (Haines and Norman 2000, 28). (Incidentally, misreadings by amateur writers have now converted Valentich’s “green light” into multiple “green lights” [e.g., “Disappearance” 2013].)
But what about the UFO’s movements when it was not “hovering”? It is now clear—since we have identified the UFO as probably a conjunction of four celestial lights—that it was not the UFO moving in relation to the plane but rather the opposite: the plane moving in relation to the stationary lights. There is actually evidence from the transcript that this is so. After the UFO has repeatedly seemed to fly over him, Valentich says, “What I’m doing right now is orbiting, and the thing is just orbiting on top of me.”
This points to what was really happening to the poor inexperienced pilot. Distracted by the UFO, he may then have been deceived by the illusion of a tilted horizon. That can happen when the sun has gone down but still brightens part of the horizon, while, of course, the rest of it gets gradually darker farther away. This imbalance of lighting can cause the horizon to appear tilted, so that, in compensating by “leveling” the wings, the pilot inadvertently begins—not to orbit (circle), but to spiral downward—at first slowly, then with increasing acceleration.
At a most critical time therefore, when he should have been in fully alert mode, paying attention to his instruments, he was instead engaged in something that was extremely distracting: flying while excitedly focusing on, and talking about, a UFO. This, as we can now see, was a recipe for disaster. With Valentich succumbing to spatial disorientation, his plane (like that of young John F. Kennedy Jr. over two decades later) began what is aptly termed a “graveyard spiral.”
Further corroboration of this may come from the pilot’s statement that the engine was “rough idling”—just seconds away from his final contact. The plane’s moving in a tightening spiral would cause an increase of G-forces with a consequent decrease in fuel flow, resulting in the engine’s rough running. Or, at that point, the Cessna may have already inverted, producing the same effect because that plane had a gravity-fed fuel system.
Not surprisingly, Valentich’s airplane going missing while he was radioing a UFO report prompted talk of extraterrestrials and abduction. Indeed, it spawned later reports of other UFOs allegedly seen on the night of the Cessna’s disappearance. These provoked a skeptical Ken Williams, spokesperson of the Department of Transport, to tell a reporter, “It’s funny all these people ringing up with UFO reports well after Valentich’s disappearance” (“Pilot Missing” 1978).
Just a month after the disappearance, the pilot of another Cessna sighted the outline of what he believed was a submerged aircraft, but on another pass over, he was unable to confirm that observation (Good 1988, 178). Now thanks to yeoman’s work by Australian researcher Keith Basterfield, who rediscovered the “lost” official case file, we have new information. As he explains, “parts of aircraft wreckage with partial matching serial numbers were found in Bass Strait five years after the disappearance.” (Qtd. in Sheaffer 2013, 27.)
Fred Valentich’s UFO has now been identified. That is, we can show that a group of four bright lights, consistent with his description, was within his sight at the time he was reporting his UFO. This is the long missing piece of the puzzle that awaited solving because the case required expertise from astronomy as well as aeronautics.
The identification underscores the inescapable fact that the disappearance was simply a fatal crash. Ironically, it might never have occurred but for the young pilot’s fascination with UFOs. If not actually the reason for his evening flight, as we suspect, the fascination nevertheless was part of why it ended tragically.
We can now reread the transcript of the exchanges between Valentich and an air traffic controller with a new understanding. In our mind’s eye we watch in horror as—distracted and disoriented—the young pilot unexpectedly enters the “graveyard spiral” that carries him to his death. n
CFI Librarian Lisa Nolan provided considerable research assistance.
1. Haines, using special filters, believes the word stationary is actually the phrase chasing me (Haines and Norman 2000, 24).
Aircraft Accident Investigation Summary Report. 1982. Department of Transportation, Commonwealth of Australia. Ref. No. V116/783/1047, April 27.
Baker, Alan. 2000. The Encyclopedia of Alien Encounters. New York: Checkmark Books.
Chalker, Bill. 1998. Valentich Disappearance. In Clark 1998, 2: 964–68.
———. 2001. Valentich (Bass Strait, Australia) UFO encounter. In Story 2001, 628–31.
Clark, Jerome. 1998. The UFO Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition: The Phenomenon from the Beginning, in two vols. Detroit: Omnigraphics.
The Disappearance of Frederick Valentich. 2013. Online at http://marvmelb.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-disappearance-of-frederick-valentich.html; accessed June 12, 2013.
Good, Timothy. 1988. Above Top Secret: The Worldwide UFO Cover-up. New York: William Morrow.
Haines, Richard F., and Paul Norman. 2000. Valentich disappearance: New evidence and a new conclusion. Journal of Scientific Exploration 14:1, 19–33.
Pilot Missing after UFO Report. 1978. Associated Press story in Waterloo Courier, October 24; cited in “Valentich” 2013.
Sheaffer, Robert. 2013. Psychic Vibrations column, Skeptical Inquirer 37:2 (March/April) 26–27.
Story, Ronald D., ed. 2001. The Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrial Encounters. New York: New American Library.
Valentich Disappearance. 2013. Online at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentich_disappearance; accessed May 20.