On Dec. 3, 2021, the @theoryarea TikTok channel posted a video about an Australian pilot named Frederick Paul Valentich who reported a UFO sighting shortly before disappearing along the Bass Strait in 1978. His body was never found.
We looked at the case and put together the known facts based on documentation and credible reporting.
Valentich disappeared on the evening of Oct. 21, 1978, which was a Saturday.
According to Australia’s Department of Transport official report on the incident, Valentich was flying a Cessna 182L which was registered under the letters “VH-DSJ.” He had 150 flying hours under his belt and was 20 years old on the night he vanished.
The report stated that he said he was going to fly over Cape Otway and then head to his final destination at King Island. It specifically mentioned that he departed from Moorabbin at “1819 hours,” or 6:19 p.m. local time. He arrived in the Cape Otway area 41 minutes later. Then, at 7:06 p.m., he got on his radio.
We transcribed the official report. It began with documentation of the events that occurred before Valentich and his plane disappeared:
The pilot obtained a Class Four instrument rating on 11 May 1978 and he was therefore authorised to operate at night in visual meteorological conditions (VMC).
On the afternoon of 21 October 1978 he attended to the Moorabbin Briefing Office, obtained a meteorological briefing and, at 1723 hours, submitted a flight plan for a night VMC flight from Moorabbin to King Island and return.
The cruising altitude nominated in the flight plan was below 5000 feet, with estimated time intervals of 41 minutes to Cape Otway and 28 minutes from Cape Otway to King Island. The total fuel endurance was shown as 300 minutes. The pilot made no arrangements for aerodome lighting to be illuminated for his arrival at King Island. He advised the briefing officer and the operator’s representative that he was uplifting friends at King Island and took four life jackets in the aircraft with him.
There were later conflicting reports that his trip to King Island was to pick up crayfish, not to pick up some friends. No evidence was later found that either was true.
The aircraft was refuelled to capacity at 1810 hours and departed Moorabbin at 1819 hours. After departure the pilot established two-way radio communications with Melbourne Flight Service Unit (FSU).
The pilot reported Cape Otway at 1900 hours and the next transmission received from the aircraft was at 1906:14 hours.
Next, the report provided a transcription of radio communication between Valentich and the Melbourne Flight Service Unit (FSU). We did not correct any grammatical answers. This is the report exactly as it was typed. The “note” at the beginning appeared in the original transcript. Valentich’s first and last communications took place at 1906:14 and 1911:09, respectively, which placed the conversation at just under five minutes:
The following communications between the aircraft and Melbourne FSU were recorded from this time: (Note: The word/words in brackets are open to other interpretations.)
Valentich: MELBOURNE this is DELTA SIERRA JULIET is there any known traffic below five thousand
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET no known traffic
Valentich: DELTA SIERRA JULIET I am seems (to) be a large aircraft below five thousand
FSU: D D DELTA SIERRA JULIET what type of aircraft is it
Valentich: DELTA SIERRA JULIET I cannot affirm it is four bright it seems to be like landing lights
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET
Valentich: MELBOURNE this (is) DELTA SIERRA JULIET the aircraft has just passed over me at least a thousand feet above
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET roger and it it is a large aircraft confirm
Valentich: er unknown due to the speed it’s travelling is there any airforce aircraft in the vicinity
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET no known aircraft in the vicinity
Valentich: MELBOURNE it’s approaching now from due east towards me
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET
// open microphone for two seconds //
Valentich: DELTA SIERRA JULIET it seems to me that he’s playing some sort of game he’s flying over me three times at a time at speeds I could not identify
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET roger what is your actual level
Valentich: my level is four and a half thousand four five zero zero
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET and confirm you cannot identify the aircraft
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET roger standby
Valentich: MELBOURNE DELTA SIERRA JULIET it’s not an aircraft it is // open microphone for two seconds //
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET MELBOURNE can you describe the er aircraft
Valentich: DELTA SIERRA JULIET as it’s flying past it’s a long shape // open microphone for three seconds // (cannot) identify more than (that it has such speed) // open microphone for 3 seconds // before me right now Melbourne
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET roger and how large would the er object be
Valentich: DELTA SIERRA JULIET MELBOURNE it seems like it’s 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
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET
Valentich: DELTA SIERRA JULIET // open microphone for 5 seconds // it’s just vanished
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET
Valentich: MELBOURNE would you know what kind of aircraft I’ve got is it (a type) military aircraft
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET confirm the er aircraft just vanished
Valentich: SAY AGAIN
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET is the aircraft still with you
Valentich: DELTA SIERRA JULIET (it’s ah nor) // open microphone for 2 seconds // (now) approaching from the southwest
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET
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)
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET roger what are your intentions
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 is hovering and it’s not an aircraft
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET
Valentich: DELTA SIERRA JULIET MELBOURNE // 17 seconds open microphone //
FSU: DELTA SIERRA JULIET MELBOURNE
There is no record of any further transmissions from the aircraft.
The final part of the report described the clear weather conditions at the time of the disappearance, as well as the search and rescue efforts that lasted for four days:
The weather in Cape Otway was clear with a trace of stratocumulus cloud at 5000 to 7000 feet, scattered cirrus cloud at 30000 feet, excellent visibility and light winds. The end of daylight at Cape Otway was at 1918 hours.
The Alert Phase of SAR procedures was declared at 1912 hours and, at 1933 hours when the aircraft did not arrive at King Island, the Distress Phase was declared and search action was commenced. An intensive air, sea, and land search was continued until 25 October 1978, but no trace of the aircraft was found.
The reason for the disappearance of the aircraft has not been determined.
A story published later by the AP said that “eight planes and an Australian air force maritime reconnaissance plane” were involved in the search.
The report from the Department of Transport was approved for publication by A. R. Woodward, delegate of the secretary, on April 27, 1982. The radio transcript itself was released and printed in newspapers within the days after the 1978 incident, which was “presumed fatal” for Valentich.
On Oct. 23, two days after Valentich’s disappearance, the Melbourne newspaper The Age printed news about how a “metallic sound” was heard by flight service personnel when Valentich mentioned that the engine was “rough idling.”
Department of Transport officials working at Flight Service said there was a “sort of metallic sound” over the radio before communication was lost.
A spokesman said last night it was possible Valentich was flying the plane upside down and crashed.
“He may have become disoriented and confused by reflection from the Cape Otway and King Island lighthouses,” the spokesman said.
“The lighthouses may have reflected off particules [sic] of cloud.”
The end of the partial radio transcript that was printed by the newspaper said: “Flight Service acknowledges and reports a sort of metallic noise over the radio before communication lost.”
A UPI report also published on Oct. 23 described the sound as the engine “choking” like a “metallic scratching.”
On Oct. 25, Herald Wire Services published a quote from a “veteran aviator” named Arthur Schutt, at the time the “head of an aviation company.” It said he “discounted suggestions that the pilot was flying upside down.” Schutt said: “In that half-light the pilot would have soon known if the aircraft had started to turn upside down. The carpet comes out of the floor and the butts fall out of the ashtray.”
After Valentich disappeared, the Associated Press published the headline: “UFO Enthusiast Missing After Reporting Craft.” It was printed on Oct. 24, three days after Valentich vanished.
Mr. Valentich’s father, Guido, said he hoped his son had been taken by a UFO and had not crashed.
“The fact that they have found no trace of him really verifies the fact that UFOs could have been there,” he said.
Mr. Valentich said his son used to study UFOs “as a hobby,” using information he had received from the air force.
“He was not the kind of person who would make up stories. Everything had to be very correct and positive for him.”
In the reporting from UPI, it published: “Valentich’s father had said his son has been interested in UFO’s for many years, and reported sighting one about 10 months ago.” He also said his son had wanted to fly since he was 12 years old. “He would do anything to get the money to be able to fly … he worked as a shop assistant in Moonee Ponds and even got a job in the foundry at GMH.”
Around Oct. 25, his father said he believed his son was being “held by people from another planet.” He also used the words “someone from another world,” and added: “They may want to hold him for a week or so before returning him.”
The AP also published that the Department of Transport mentioned that some purported eyewitnesses reported seeing an object in the sky:
Despite calls from other persons along the coast who claim to have seen a UFO Saturday night, the transport department was skeptical that a UFO was behind Mr. Valentich’s disappearance.
“It’s funny all these people ringing up with UFO reports well after Valentich’s disappearance,” Ken Williams, a spokesman for the department, said.
“It seems people often decide after the event, they too, had seen strange lights. But although we can’t take them too seriously, we can never discourage such reports when investigating a plane’s disappearance.”
The key words in the quote from Williams appeared to be that the eyewitnesses only notified the department of what they supposedly saw “well after” it had been established that Valentich was missing.
More information about purported eyewitnesses came from the Herald Wire Services on Oct. 25:
Bank manager Colin Morgan and his wife reported seeing a large glowing star-shaped object hovering in the sky for nearly one hour Saturday night near the town of Geelong, 35 miles southwest of Melbourne.
“It seemed to be cruising almost above us as we drove down a highway,” Morgan said. “It was bright and had green flickering lights at one end.”
Residents of King Island have reported sightings of strange bright and trailing lights over the past six weeks.
We were unable to find further information about the recollections of Morgan or his wife.
‘No Break in Transmission’
In another UPI news story from Oct. 25, it described a controversy over the radio transcript. Officials denied that they had edited out a “vivid description of an unidentified flying object given to air controllers” by Valentich. The claim was that there was “no break in transmission” after Valentich uttered what were believed to be his final words: “It is hovering and it’s not an aircraft.”
The rumor came from the newspaper named The Australian, which cited an anonymous source at the Department of Transport.
It appeared that nothing else ever came of the controversy over the transcript.
On Oct. 31, a UPI report published that Rhonda Rushton was the 17-year-old girlfriend of Valentich. After the official search had ended, she chartered a flight for two hours to search for her boyfriend, believing he was still alive.
The 17-year-old girl still firmly believes Valentich crashed near Cape Otway, Apollo Bay – about 100 miles from Melbourne – after turning back when he reported engine trouble about 12 nautical miles (13.8 miles) from land.
“He always told me that’s what he’d do if he got into trouble over the sea,” she said.
A group of Valentich’s friends, armed with transceivers, were also in the heavily timbered mountains and bush tracks searching for a trace of the plane. They said: “We want to search the area because the official search was concentrated on the sea and not the land. There are quite a few of us who have known him for years and we still think he is alive.”
The story also printed that Rushton said Valentich once told her that “‘if a UFO did come to Earth he’d go back with it,’ but not without her.” In the same article, it was printed that Valentich’s father denied the idea that Valentich’s story was all staged and was a hoax, and that he was alive and in hiding somewhere.
The final line of the report also mentioned: “Two other light aircraft have disappeared in the same area in the last 10 years.”
In the days following the disappearance, an oil slick was found in the area where Valentich was believed to have vanished. However, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, tests concluded that the oil did not come from an aircraft, but rather a “marine diesel engine.”
The Plumber’s Photograph
According to the Nanaimo Daily Free Press, a Canadian newspaper, 20 minutes before Valentich’s first radio call, “a vacationing plumber named Roy Manifold was photographing the sunset over Bass Strait.” On Jan. 20, 1982, the newspaper printed:
From a spot called Crayfish Bay he took six shots but noticed nothing odd or unusual as he did so. When developed however, the fourth and sixth photos in the series showed some inexplicable detail.
On the fourth picture, a dense “black lump” was noticed which seemed to be stirring up in the sea, giving the impression of an object rising from the water. The fifth photo is a “normal shot” of the setting sun. The sixth photograph shows a strange mass situated in the sky directly above the position of the lump and disturbance seen in No. 4.
The mass or object is accompanied by a trail of small, bright, blue shapes and the impression given is one of tremendous speed or an exhaust being trailed from the main object.
We found one of Manifold’s pictures. It appeared to show what might have been nothing more than an out-of-focus fly on the lens or a bird passing by.
The Best Possible Explanation
In 2013, the Skeptical Inquirer published, “The Valentich Disappearance: Another UFO Cold Case Solved.” It was authored by James McGaha and Joe Nickell.
McGaha was described as an astronomer, pilot, retired U.S. Air Force major, and the director of the Grasslands Observatory in Tucson, Arizona. Nickell is an author and also had a number of credentials listed to his name.
The two authors wrote that Valentich had received an “inadequate education,” leading to him being “twice rejected by the Royal Australian Air Force.” They also published that the pilot had been involved in “flying incidents” that led to two citations and a warning. One of them was purportedly “for deliberately flying blindly into a cloud.”
In a detailed explanation, McGaha and Nickell laid out the facts on how Valentich’s own words in the transcript appeared to provide the answers on what he saw and why he disappeared:
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.”
This would line up with what Valentich described as the engine “rough idling,” which perhaps would have produced the “metallic” sound heard by the flight service.
The complete breakdown from the two authors also pointed to the likeliest explanation for the “UFO,” described by Valentich as “four bright” lights that looked like “landing lights.” They believed the pilot connected the dots between planets and stars that were visible on that night in 1978, and the “power of suggestion” could have filled in the space, giving it the “metallic” look that Valentich described.
As for the “green light,” the authors believed they found that answer as well. “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 lot of information has been printed in the aftermath of what was believed to have been Valentich’s final flight. We will update this article if more details come to light in the future.
Aircraft Accident Investigation Summary Report. Commonwealth of Australia and Department of Transport, 21 Oct. 1978, https://www.atsb.gov.au/media/5226347/197802563.pdf.
Cunningham-Tee, George. “Tasmanian ‘Devil’s Triangle’ and Unresolved Mysteries.” Nanaimo Daily Free Press, 20 Jan. 1982, https://www.newspapers.com/image/324881443/.
“Friends Searching for Missing Pilot.” Pacific Daily News and UPI, 31 Oct. 1978, https://www.newspapers.com/image/609823698/.
“‘Held by People from Another Planet’?” The Miami Herald and Herald Wire Services, 25 Oct. 1978, https://www.newspapers.com/image/628232035/.
“Investigation Turns to Pilot’s Life.” The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Oct. 1978, https://www.newspapers.com/image/121177716/.
McGaha, James, and Joe Nickell. The Valentich Disappearance: Another UFO Cold Case Solved | Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Nov. 2013, https://skepticalinquirer.org/2013/11/the-valentich-disappearance-another-ufo-cold-case-solved/.
“No Trace Found of Pilot Who Reported UFO.” Tucson Citizen and UPI, 23 Oct. 1978, https://www.newspapers.com/image/583212949/.
“Officials Deny Description of UFO Given by Airman.” Daily World and UPI, 25 Oct. 1978, https://www.newspapers.com/image/227971593/.
“Pilot Was On Training Flight: UFO Enthusiast Missing After Reporting Craft.” Toledo Blade and Associated Press, 23 Oct. 1978, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1350&dat=19781023&id=6hFPAAAAIBAJ&pg=3318,4275388.
“Son Believed Alive on Another Planet.” The Bangor Daily News, 2 Nov. 1978, https://www.newspapers.com/image/664387741/.