It’s mere seconds after sunset on 21st October 1978, and twenty-year-old Frederick Valentich is piloting a light airplane over Bass Strait towards King Island, a small island north-west of mainland Tasmania. He’s startled by a mysterious aircraft flying over him, so he radios Melbourne air traffic control. On the other end is controller Steve Robey. Here’s the abridged transcript between Valentich (identified as Delta Sierra Juliet) and air traffic control. They would be the last words he spoke. His aircraft was never found.
“Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet. Is there any known traffic below five thousand?”
“Delta Sierra Juliet, no known traffic.”
“[There] seems to be a large aircraft below five thousand.”
“What type of aircraft is it?”
“I cannot affirm. It is four bright [lights], and it seems to me like landing lights.”
“It is a large aircraft, confirmed?”
“Er-unknown, due to the speed it's travelling. Is there any air force aircraft in the vicinity?”
“No known aircraft in the vicinity.”
“It seems to me that he's playing some sort of game. He's flying over me two, three times at speeds I could not identify.”
“Roger. What is your actual level?”
“My level is four-and-a-half thousand. Four-five-zero-zero.”
“Can you describe the–er–aircraft?”
“It's a long shape… I cannot identify more [as] it has such speed. It's before me right now, Melbourne.”
“Roger. And how large would the–er–object be?”
“Melbourne, it seems like it's chasing me. 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.”
“Delta Sierra Juliet—”
“It's just vanished. Melbourne, would you know what kind of aircraft [it is]? Is it a military aircraft?”
“Confirm the–er–aircraft just vanished.”
“Is the aircraft still with you?”
“It's now approaching from the south-west. [My] engine is rough-idling. I've got it set at twenty-three twenty-four and the thing is coughing.”
“Roger. What are your intentions?”
“My intentions are, ah, to go to King Island. Ah, Melbourne. That strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again. It is hovering, and, it's not an aircraft.”
Seventeen seconds of an unidentified noise, described as being "metallic, scraping sounds” are recorded. The transmission ends. This story is often repeated by UFO geeks; the case remains unsolved.
As the infamous tale goes, the bell rings to start recess at Westall High School in Clayton South, Victoria. It’s 6th April 1966, and children are playing cricket when a flying saucer appears not far from the schoolyard. Followed by another one. And, depending on whom you ask, another one.
A young girl bursts into her science teacher’s classroom. “Mr Greenwood! Mr Greenwood!” she screams. “There are these things in the sky.”
Mr Greenwood relies on the excited students to point out the UFOs, as their apparently white and grey colouring is hard to distinguish against the clouds. He sees five light airplanes engaging the UFO, which plays “cat and mouse” with the planes. Mr Greenwood is one of the few teachers who witnessed the flying saucers. Scientists have shown how accessing a memory edits and rewrites it, which makes Mr Greenwood’s testimony in 1967 a precious document, as it remains untainted by the decades that followed.
Word quickly spreads and up to two hundred people view the dance of UFOs in the sky, flying at impossible speeds. Witnesses describe them as “round, silver disks.” No windows, no doors.
Barbara Robins, a chemistry teacher, starts taking photos. These pictures, along with her camera itself, would later be confiscated by men in unidentified, camouflaged uniforms who arrived in military vehicles. (Curiously, Australians weren’t wearing camouflaged uniforms in the sixties, nor were the British. The US Air Force, however, were.) The fate of the photos is unknown.
One of the UFOs lands for a couple of minutes in The Grange—a grassy area adjacent to a pine plantation behind the school. A student named Tanya, reportedly the first person to approach the UFO on the ground, freaks out and is placed into an ambulance. She’s never seen at school again. A number of people including Kevin Hurley report seeing the tall grass flattened in “a big perfect circle,” before the area was cordoned off by the military.
That afternoon, Westall High principal Frank Samberle calls an emergency whole school meeting. Students are told ‘the truth’—that the mysterious object was simply a waylaid weather balloon—and to never speak with the media about what they saw. The Dandenong Journal reports on the incident and Channel Nine runs a 6pm News bulletin on the event that night. Federal and state government agencies refuse to comment. Many years later, UFO researchers locate the bulletin’s film canister among Nine’s records. Strangely, unlike the thousands of other canisters still housed in the archive, the film has been removed.
“I know what I saw,” says one of the witnesses in the 2010 documentary Westall ’66. “And nothing’s ever gonna shake me from that.
I know what I saw.” Witnesses, breaking the principal’s censorship, have continued to speak out, including at a gathering last year at Kingston Arts Centre to mark the fifty-year anniversary. They reminisce about crying at the sight of the UFOs, believing they were seeing the end of the world.
The Westall UFO incident is probably the most famous UFO incident in Australia. It has absorbed thousands around the world—in part because having over two hundred people witness a single incident is extremely rare in UFO lore. The incident was a hot playground topic when my mother enrolled in Westall High a few years following, and it remains so. It sparks questions that still baffle us: were the US military covering up an actual UFO? Or perhaps an experimental aircraft they didn’t want the public to see? Can so many people be mistaken about what they saw? What really happened that day?
There are two ways to hunt for extraterrestrial life. One is to look for evidence on Earth, through the examination of UFO sightings—mythologised events such as Frederick Valentich’s disappearance and the Westall UFO incident—and through secretive state-sponsored programs. In December 2017, The New York Times revealed that the US Defense Department ran a classified program from 2007 to 2012 to explore extraterrestrial encounters and investigate reports of unidentified flying objects. The program cost $28 million a year. Footage shared online by the Defense Department shows a confrontation between a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet and an extraordinary, oval-shaped, unknown object. “Look at that thing, dude,” a Navy member gasps in the video. When US aircraft technology is outclassed by another non-US-made aircraft, it implies that it’s either not an aircraft—or it’s an aircraft from another world.
The other—and I would argue better—alternative in the hunt for alien life, is to look outwards. Programs like SETI have, for six decades now, had backyard sci-fi enthusiasts monitoring space in their spare time for possible signs of intelligent life. For those with the capital to support the cosmic search, though, ambitions are expanding. The latest hope for alien hunters is the billionaire entrepreneur and physicist Yuri Milner, a 56-year-old Russian who’s determined to find out if we’re alone in the universe.
Launched in 2015 at a cost of over $126 million, Milner’s The Breakthrough Initiatives is a three-part program that uses cutting-edge science and technology to back its search. Supported by legendary figures of the ET-enthusiast community like Stephen Hawking, Frank Drake and Ann Druyan, and with Mark Zuckerberg as one of the three board members, Breakthrough Listen aspires to scan over a million stars and a hundred nearby galaxies for alien radio or laser signals. One of the key pieces of equipment they’re using is the Parkes Telescope in New South Wales—a radio telescope, affectionately nicknamed ‘the Dish’, which played a key role in receiving images of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Publishing its first results last April after analysing petabytes of data, Breakthrough Listen is by far the most exhaustive search of its kind ever undertaken.
As well as just listening to space, the program also wants to make contact. Its second arm, Breakthrough Starshot, will send a swarm of 1,000 probes, each “the size of a postage stamp,” to the nearest star to our Sun. The aim is to develop a proof-of-concept, un-manned spacecraft capable of travelling to Alpha Centauri at 20 per cent the speed of light, and then transmitting data back to us. It will take about twenty years for a spacecraft to reach the star system, and about four years for Earth to receive a message confirming its arrival.
Fully-funded programs like this are far more effective ways to search for extraterrestrial life than military operations interrogating human ‘witnesses’. UFO chasing too often relies on metamorphic stories that live inside our credulous brains. We’re better off looking out than in.
This is an excerpt. The rest of this piece is in The Lifted Brow 37. You can purchase a copy here.
Every time Nick Taras finishes a paragraph – usually about space, aliens, God, comedy or American football – he plays "This Is How We Do It" and takes a bath.