Flight into Oblivion

Just in time to mark ‘World UFO Day’ (2 July) news reaches me of the release of a file on one of the most puzzling unexplained UFO incidents in which an Australian pilot and his plane vanished without a trace.

The disappearance of 20-year-old Frederick Valentich on 21 October 1978 on a flight from Melbourne to King Island in the Bass Strait has always intrigued UFOlogists. 34 years have passed but neither Valentich nor the Cessna aircraft he was flying have been found. During the flight the young airman reported seeing an unusual lighted object in the sky which buzzed his aircraft.

His last words to ground control were ‘it is hovering and it’s not an aircraft.’

Page 1 of the Aircraft Accident Investigation Summary report, part of the Australian DoT file on Frederick Valentich’s disappearance in 1978 (National Archives of Australia).

Since the story made headlines theories about Valentich’s fate have abounded, some more believable than others.  One of the most bizarre suggested the pilot had become disorientated to the extent that he was flying upside down and the lights he reported were those of a ship on the sea. Far more plausible was the possibility that Valentich, who had expressed an interest in UFOs, had engineered his own disappearance in a kind of sophisticated fake suicide. The pros and cons of the key theories are summarised nicely in Jenny Randles and Peter Hough’s 1988 book Death by Supernatural Causes? which mentioned the existence of an Australian Department of Transport file on their investigation of the incident.

The DoT investigation was completed in 1982 but the file (one of two that cover the inquiry) remained closed to the public until June this year when indefatigable Aussie UFOlogist Keith Basterfield used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a copy.

Keith’s summary of the contents can be perused on his UFOs-scientific research blog here and a PDF version of the complete 315-page file can be downloaded here.

The contents reveal that parts from a Cessna engine cowling  with a registration number in the correct range for Valentich’s plane were found in the area, and search planes sighted an oil slick and wreckage on the sea that could not be re-located. But neither could be conclusively linked to Valentich’s disappearance. The key document is an Aircraft Accident Investigation Summary Report dated 27 April 1982 that ends with an ‘opinion as to cause’. This states simply:‘The reason for the disappearance of the aircraft has not been determined.’

So we now have the file, but still no clear answers and even the most confident skeptics are left without a convincing explanation.  Indeed, I was sufficiently impressed by the continuing mystery to insert the Valentich incident in my revised ‘Top 10 UFO stories’ elsewhere on this blog.  In conclusion, I have to agree with my colleague, the Australian UFOlogist Bill Chalker, who said of this case:

‘Nobody really knows what happened, and unless someone finds the wreckage, or Valentich turns up one day, probably no one ever will.’

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1 Response to Flight into Oblivion

  1. lotharson says:

    Dear Dr. Clarke, are you aware of the recent CSISCOP “solving” of the case?

    I offered my own critical thoughts on this here:

    I fear that debunkers often tend to be as sloppy as the “True Believers” they oppose.

    Friendly greetings from Lancashire.

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