Frederick Valentich was 20 years old when he disappeared. His father believed that one day, the aliens would bring him back. Australia’s most famous case of alien abduction, Valentich’s lost flight is how the Bass Strait Triangle got its nickname.
Valentich was a pretty average Australian kid. His dream was to become a professional pilot: he applied to the Royal Australian Air Force twice and then settled for the Air Training Corps. He was studying part-time to become a commercial pilot but struggled with the examinations. He had a private pilot’s licence with about 150 total hours flying time and had completed his night rating.
The boy was enthralled with UFOs and the idea of an alien invasion. Shortly before he disappeared, Valentich claimed that he had seen a flying saucer, moving away very fast. His father said that his son was very worried about what would happen if the extraterrestrials attacked.
It was a sunny evening on the 21st of October in 1978, when Valentich booked a training flight in VH-DSJ, a rental Cessna 182 light aircraft at Moorabbin Airport near Melbourne. The weather forecast was good. He filed a flight plan for a trip to King Island, one of the islands of Tasmania.
The Bass Strait lies between Victoria and Tasmania. Pilots always try to reduce the amount of time flying over water, so rather than fly straight across the strait from Melbourne, Valentich’s routing would have taken him southwest along the coast to Cape Otway to then cross the strait to King Island, making it an 85-kilometre (50-mile) stretch across the water. Following this standard route from Moorabbin Airport to King Island Airport, it is a 90-min flight.
It’s not clear why Valentich was going to King Island. He told his family and his girlfriend that he was going there to pick up some crayfish. At Moorabbin he said that he was going to bring some friends back and took four life jackets with him for the return flight. He’d mentioned to his girlfriend that he’d be back by 19:30, clearly not possible with a 18:00 departure.
Another odd detail was that he didn’t phone King Island airport to tell them that he was inbound to them. The small airfield is uncontrolled and there would be no one there after sunset; he couldn’t land there unless he called to ask them to turn the runway lights on. He had the fuel to go there and back without stopping: the round-trip journey is about 235 kilometres (145 miles) and would take about three hours in the Cessna, well within its range. There was no danger, just that he was embarking on a pointless journey. It was simply odd, especially in combination with his unclear plans, and could imply that he had no intention of going to King Island that evening. He might have been up to something nefarious, smuggling along the coast. Maybe he wanted to be alone in the dark looking for UFOs and didn’t want to admit it on a flight plan. Or, it could have been a simple oversight, one that he would have been embarrassed about when he drew near the airport and realised there was no one there. All we know for sure is that he never made that phone call.
18:10 VH-DSJ was refuelled to capacity, giving it 300 minutes flight time.
18:19 Valentich departed Moorabbin Airport and flew southwest as per his flight plan.
18:43 The sun set. Valentich was flying in the dusk over water. Night flying requires a separate rating for visual flights in Australia because it can be disorienting. Flying at night over water is especially so, as the lack of lights means that there is no way of orientating yourself to the ground. So as the sunlight faded, Valentich would have seen a sky full of stars above and darkness below.
19:00 Valentich contacted Melbourne Air Traffic Control and gave his location as over Cape Otway on the south coast of Victoria. Cape Otway has a light-house, which makes it an easy visual reference point. He confirmed that he was proceeding to King Island. His flight plan showed that he would remain below 5,000 feet and that he had estimated it would take him 41 minutes to fly to Cape Otway and then a further 28 minutes from Cape Otway to King Island. He was right on schedule.
Valentich identifies himself by the final letters of the call sign of the aircraft, VH-DSJ. Melbourne Flight Service Unit use this callsign to make it clear who they are speaking to or, when used on its own, simply to acknowledge that the controller has understood what the pilot said.
19:06:14 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet. Is there any known traffic below five thousand?
19:06:23 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, no known traffic.
19:06:26 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. I am… seems to be a large aircraft below five thousand.
19:06:46 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, what type of aircraft is it?
19:06:50 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. I cannot affirm. It is four bright… it seems to me like landing lights.
The obvious first question is: what did Valentich see out there in the dark?
After the event, some people believed that there was nothing there at all. There were rumours that the whole whole thing was simply a hoax and Valentich was having a laugh before purposefully disappearing. But he had no reason to go and all of the evidence points to the fact that Valentich truly believed in extra-terrestial space craft. The air traffic controller said afterwards that he was convinced that it wasn’t a joke. He was sure that Valentich saw something.
19:07:32 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet. The aircraft has just passed over me at least a thousand feet above.
19:07:43 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, Roger. And it is a large aircraft? Confirm.
19:07:47 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Er, unknown, due to the speed it’s travelling. Is there any air force aircraft in the vicinity?
19:07:57 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, no known aircraft in the vicinity.
It’s possible that the lights were another aircraft small enough not to show up on Melbourne’s radar but it seems to be travelling too fast for that, unless it was military. There were no reports of military aircraft in the area.
Meanwhile, there were a number of reports of UFOs that night. Mt Stromlo Observatory advised that the night of the 21st was the peak of a meteorite storm and they recorded 10-15 meteorite sightings per hour. The uptick in UFO sightings was expected: studies show that 29% of UFO reports are the result of bright stars and planets and a further 9% are explained by meteors. The UFO sightings that night were almost certainly reactions to the meteorite storm. A meteorite might also explain a fast moving craft in the sky. However the meteorite storm doesn’t explain the four clear lights that Valentich reported over him.
19:08:18 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, it’s approaching now from due east, towards me.
19:08:28 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet.
[open microphone for two seconds]
19:08:49 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. 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.
19:09:02 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger. What is your actual level?
19:09:06 VH-DSJ (Valentich): My level is four and a half thousand. Four Five Zero Zero.
19:09:11 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet and confirm you cannot identify the aircraft.
19:09:14 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Affirmative.
19:09:18 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger. Standby.
19:09:28 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, Delta Sierra Juliet. It’s not an aircraft, it is…
[open microphone for five seconds]
19:09:46 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, can you describe the, er, aircraft?
19:09:52 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. As it’s flying past it’s a long shape.
Cannot identify more than that it has such speed.
[open microphone for three seconds]
[open microphone for three seconds] Before me right now, Melbourne.
Some of what he saw could be explained by fast-moving meteorites out of the corner of his eye. However, that doesn’t account for a hovering aircraft directly above him. James McGaha and Joe Nickell of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry believe that they know what he saw.
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.”
19:10:07 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger. And how large would the, er, object be?
19:10:20 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne. It seems like it’s a stationary. 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.
It’s not clear what Valentich might have meant when he said that was orbiting, possibly that he was flying in a holding pattern in order to get a better look at the “object”. What’s absolutely clear is that his entire attention is taken by the unidentified flying object. The mention of the green light is new.
19:10:48 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet…
[open microphone for five seconds] It’s just vanished.
19:10:57 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet.
19:11:03 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, would you know what kind of aircraft I’ve got? Is it a military aircraft?
This wasn’t really a conversation that he needed to be holding right at that moment. But Valentich’s curiosity was peaked.
19:11:08 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, confirm that the, er, aircraft just vanished?
19:11:14 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Say again?
19:11:17 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, is the aircraft still with you?
19:11:23 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet it’s ah no…
[open microphone for two seconds] Now approaching from the south west.
There’s a dangerous configuration that has killed many pilots, especially visual pilots who have not been trained to fly by instruments. It’s known as the graveyard spiral or suicide spiral and is common in poor weather conditions…and at night. The spiral is caused by well-known sensory illusions that affect us in aircraft. The pilot becomes disoriented and loses the ability to judge the orientation of the plane. He believes he is flying straight, with the wings level but in fact, he is pulling the yoke slightly, leading the aircraft into a bank. The aircraft starts to to fly a large circle and, if the pilot does not recognise the situation, the plane will begin a gentle spiral towards the ground.
For example, a pilot who enters a banking turn to the left will initially have a sensation of a turn in the same direction. If the left turn continues (~20 seconds or more), the pilot will experience the sensation that the airplane is no longer turning to the left. At this point, if the pilot attempts to level the wings this action will produce a sensation that the airplane is turning and banking in the opposite direction (to the right). If the pilot believes the illusion of a right turn (which can be very compelling), he/she will re-enter the original left turn in an attempt to counteract the sensation of a right turn. If the pilot fails to recognize the illusion and does not level the wings, the airplane will continue turning left and losing altitude.
The graveyard spiral is initiated by an unintentional turn or a return to level flight after an intentional prolonged turn.
Basically, you get disoriented and put the plane into a slight bank. Now that feels straight and level to you, so if you correct the turn, you feel like you are turning. So you don’t. And the plane very slowly and gently flies in circles that get increasingly tighter as the aircraft descends
Valentich said that he was orbiting and “the thing” was just orbiting on top of him, so he was probably in a low, slow turn. He did not have much experience with night flights and only had the most basic instrument training. It was dark and he was flying over water, with no horizon to help him to orient himself. He initially saw four white lights but then mentions a green light. His right wing-tip has a green light on it, a navigation light. What he’s seeing points to an aircraft that is not flying straight and level, it’s slowly spiralling down.
19:11:52 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. The engine is, is rough idling. I’ve got it set at twenty three/twenty four and the thing is coughing.
19:12:04 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger. What are your intentions?
19:12:09 VH-DSJ (Valentich): My intentions are ah to go to King Island. Ah, Melbourne, that strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again.
[two seconds open microphone] It’s hovering and it’s not an aircraft.
His engine is running rough but instead of wondering why this is, he’s still staring out the window at the UFO. Even when asked directly what his intentions are, he doesn’t consider breaking off the water crossing as a result of his engine trouble.
The rough engine coughing certainly sounds like a fuel issue. If he’s flying in a tightening spiral or even upside down, that will decrease the fuel flow, leading to exactly those symptoms. What Valentich needs to do right now is stop watching his UFO and fly the plane.
19:12:28 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne.
[17 seconds open microphone]
There were no further transmissions.
Melbourne declared a Search and Rescue alert immediately and at 19:33, when Valentich did not arrive at King Island, an intensive air, sea and land search started. They scoured the area for four days but were unable to find any trace of the aircraft.
Five years later, an engine cowl flap was discovered on Flinders Island, washed in from the sea. It was positively identified as coming from a Cessna 182 of the same batch as the rental aircraft that Valentich was flying. No other trace was ever found.
Frederick Valentich’s father joined the Victoria UFO Research Centre and continued to hope that his son was alive and abducted by aliens until his death in 2000.
And yet, there’s strong evidence that the young man’s belief in the extra-terrestrial led to his death. It appears that what should have been a brief distraction became a tragic event.
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