The Disappearance of Frederick Valentich

A pilot and ardent believer in UFOs, Frederick Valentich disappeared over the Bass Strait between Australia and Tasmania after reporting to air traffic control that he was being accompanied by an unidentified aircraft.

Born in May 1958, Frederick Valentich appears to have set himself on a career in aviation from an early age. While he was a member of the Royal Australian Air Force Air Training Corps, he was twice rejected by the RAAF itself due to inadequate qualifications. Attempts to become a commercial pilot proved equally fruitless, with Valentich recorded as having failed all five licence examination subjects twice.

Frederick Valentich, photographed shortly before his disappearance. Image: Australian Department of Transportation

By the time of his disappearance he had accumulated some 150 hours flying time, and held a class-four instrument rating. Valentich’s father described his son as an ardent believer in UFOs. His fear of encountering them possibly contributing to erratic behaviour while flying, such as twice deliberately flying into cloud and straying into controlled air space near Sydney.

On 21st October 1978, at the age of 20, Valentich told officials he intended to flying to King Island, off the north-western tip of Tasmania. He told two conflicting reasons for the flight to different officials. He first said that he was going to pick up friends, before later stating he intended to collect a shipment of crayfish. Neither story is likely to be true. He also failed to inform King Island Airport of his intention to land there.

Valentich departed from Moorabbin airfield in a Cessna 182L light aircraft at at 6:19pm. 45 minutes later, he radioed Melbourne Air Traffic Control to report that an unidentified aircraft was following him. He described a large object of unknown design, illuminated by four large landing lights and moving at high speed. After passing around 1,000ft above him at speed, the craft circled around and approached him again. Valentich believed that the unknown pilot was deliberately toying with him.

A Cessna 182L similar to the one piloted by Valentich. Image: Christoph Mathy/Wikicommons

After moving closer and beginning to orbit around his Cessna, Valentich was able to see that his pursuer had a shiny, metallic surface and green lights. Air Traffic Control confirmed that there were no known traffic in his vicinity.

Valentich then reported that he was having engine problems. After being asked to identify the unknown aircraft, Valentich sent his last recorded message: “it’s not an aircraft”. His transmission was then interrupted by a noise described as a metallic scraping before cutting out.

A search was launched the the missing airman, including civilian aircraft and ships as well as an Australian Air Force plane. Despite covering over 1,000 square miles over four days, no trace of the missing plane was found. An investigation into the disappearance by the Australian Department for Transport was unable to determine a cause of the presumed crash. Five years later an engine cowl flap from a Cessna 182, presumed to be Valentich’s, washed ashore on Flinders Island.

A number of explanations have been put forward to explain the disappearance. Some researchers have pointed towards Valentich’s evasiveness ahead of the flight as evidence that he had staged his own disappearance. Melbourne Police also received a report of an unknown light aircraft landing close to Cape Otway, southwest of Melbourne. 

Cape Otway Lighthouse, close to where both an unknown plane landing and a UFO were reported on the day Valentich disappeared. Image: Christoph Settgast/Wikicommons

Some Department of Transport officials speculated that Valentich had become disoriented and had inadvertently began to fly his aircraft upside down. In this case, the lights he had reported above him were, in reality, the lights of his own plane reflected off the water below. However, some aviation experts have rejected this explanation due to the model of aircraft Valentich was flying: a Cessna 182L uses a gravity feed fuel system, meaning it would rapidly cut out if flown upside down. The possibility of suicide has been floated, although colleagues and doctors that had met Valentich dismissed the possibility outright.

A 2013 investigation by retired USAF pilot James McGaha and paranormal investigator Joe Nickell proposed that Valentich had entered a so-called ‘graveyard spiral’. A sensory illusion when pilots become disorientated, particularly due to losing track of the horizon, a graveyard spiral is caused when a pilot attempts to climb when the wings are banked and the plane is descending. This results in a rapid increase in the speed of descent, similar to water swirling down a drain.

A graphic explaining two potential causes for a crash when a pilot becomes disorientated, known as a graveyard spiral and graveyard spin. Image: Federal Aviation Administration

Some ufologists believe that aliens were responsible for Valentich’s disappearance, either by destroying his aircraft or abducting him. Some investigators have claimed that there are witness accounts of unidentified flying objects in the sky above the Cape Otway Lighthouse from the day that Valentich went missing.

Since Valentich’s disappearance the waters between Tasmania and the Australian mainland have sometimes been referred to as the Bass Strait Triangle, in reference to the notorious Bermuda Triangle in the Atlantic Ocean. Ships disappearing or being wrecked in the area have been reported both before and after the disappearance of Frederick Valentich, with the most recent coming in 1979 when a racing yacht taking part in the Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race disappeared. Rumours have long persisted that wreckers are responsible for disappearances, deliberately luring ships onto rocks with false lights, but the root causes are far more likely simply weather conditions and incomplete mapping.

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