A young pilot who disappeared in 1978 might have been having a little fun, Spielberg style.
Today we're going back to 1978, when a young private pilot named Frederick Valentich rented a single-engine Cessna and literally flew off into the sunset, never to be seen again. Sadly there's nothing unusual about that; the fact is that small planes crash every so often. But something was different this time. The case of Frederick Valentich has been called Australia's most famous aviation mystery; not because he disappeared, but because his final radio transmissions reported a UFO. Ever since, a subculture of Australians, notably including Valentich's own father, believed he was abducted by aliens and may yet be alive somewhere.
The Australian Department of Transport's official accident investigation summary report gives a single line: The reason for the disappearance of the aircraft has not been determined. And that's all; a sparse epitaph for a young man's tragedy.
Frederick was only 20 years old, a member of the Air Training Corps, a volunteer youth cadet program sponsored by the Royal Australian Air Force. He'd had his private pilot's license for a little over a year, and had a corresponding amount of flight experience. He lived with his parents, and by all accounts was a fine young man with no serious problems and was happily pursuing his career of choice. One day in October 1978, he showed up at Moorabbin Airport in Melbourne to rent a plane in order to fly out to King Island, a round trip of some 560 kilometers, about three and a half hours worth of flight time. He was turned away due to bad weather over the ocean. So he returned a few days later to try again, and this time got his plane, a single-engine Cessna 182L.
He took off at about a quarter after 6pm in the evening of October 21, for what would be his first (and only) night flight over water. The weather was clear. King Island is about halfway between the main island of Tasmania and mainland Australia. To fly there from Melbourne, you typically don't fly a straight line, because that would mean you're over water nearly the entire way; and flying over water is, of course, riskier than flying over land. So pilots typically go from Melbourne, southwest along the coast, to Cape Otway, which is the closest point on the mainland to King Island. This longer route is mostly over land. However even this safest route includes a stretch of 85 straight kilometers over water.
Frederick's flight proceeded uneventfully. About twenty minutes after sunset, he turned away from the coast at an altitude of 4500 feet and began the long stretch over water. It was at that moment when he made his first radio call. Recordings of the actual radio conversation do exist; but for whatever reason, there aren't any publicly available copies, and documentary films of the disappearance have always made dramatizations from the printed transcripts, which are available.
Valentich: Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet. Is there any known traffic below five thousand?
Melbourne: Delta Sierra Juliet, no known traffic.
Valentich: Delta Sierra Juliet, I am, seems to be, a large aircraft below five thousand.
Melbourne: Delta Sierra Juliet, what type of aircraft is it?
Valentich: Delta Sierra Juliet, I cannot affirm, it is four bright, it seems to me, like landing lights.
Melbourne: Delta Sierra Juliet.
Valentich: Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet, the aircraft has just passed over me at least a thousand feet above.
The conversation continued this way for some five minutes:
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.
The conversation finally concluded after Valentich reported engine trouble:
Valentich: Delta Sierra Juliet, the engine is rough idling, I've got it set at twenty three twenty four and the thing is coughing.
(Twenty three twenty four means his engine power settings were typical.)
Melbourne: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger, what are your intentions?
Valentich: My intentions are to go to King Island. Melbourne, that strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again... It is hovering and it's not an aircraft.
Melbourne: Delta Sierra Juliet.
Valentich: Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne...
Melbourne: Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne.
His final transmission was at 7:12pm and 28 seconds. Melbourne declared an alert, which was escalated to a distress situation 21 minutes later.
Before we accept the popular explanation that Frederick and his airplane were abducted by a UFO, it's necessary to point out that a few things were fishy. First is that Frederick lied to everyone about why he was going to King Island. He told Moorabbin that he was picking up passengers, but there were no passengers there to be picked up. He told his family and girlfriend he was going to pick up crayfish, but there were no crayfish available on the island. He'd even told his girlfriend he'd be back by 7:30pm, which was clearly impossible. Neither story was true. So why was he going? We can't know.
Frederick knew he would arrive well after dark, and he knew that the airstrip on King Island was uncontrolled, meaning it had no control tower and nobody on the radio. He would have had to call in advance to have the runway lights turned on, and he should have known this. But he never made such a call.
Frederick also had a record of toying with the regulations, managing to have gotten himself into trouble three times in the first year of having his license. He once strayed into the controlled airspace around Sydney Airport, and twice flew into clouds on purpose when he was not yet rated to do so. When he disappeared, he had only recently received an official letter of reprimand for one of these two latter incidents. So he had, unfortunately, established for himself a reputation of being willing to bend the rules for his own amusement.
Notably, it turns out that both Frederick and his father, Guido Valentich, had long been firm believers in UFOs and aliens. Guido has always been on record saying he believes Frederick remains in the custody of aliens, and that Frederick had always been concerned about what to do in the event of a UFO attack. Frederick seems to have been someone with a preoccupation with aliens.
Taken altogether, these irregularities strongly suggest that we should consider explanations for his disappearance other than UFO abduction. This is compounded by the fact that scraps of his plane were eventually found, making it unlikely that it remains held by aliens. Five years after the disappearance, part of a Cessna 182 engine cowl, in the proper range of serial numbers to have been a match for the plane he rented, washed ashore on Flinders Island, Tasmania. The Royal Australian Navy's Research Laboratory could find no aircraft losses consistent with the wreckage other than Valentich's.
But the most significant point to consider is that this was Frederick's first night flight over water. These conditions are not too dissimilar to those which contributed to the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and his two passengers in 1999. Kennedy was flying at night over water with no visible horizon, no points of reference. It's easy to become disoriented in such conditions. Kennedy repeatedly banked left and right trying to level out, making things worse, and all the while his rate of descent increased until he struck the water nose-down.
It's a type of accident that's all too familiar. Spatial disorientation is a virtual death sentence. There's a popular cautionary tale among pilots, taught in many safety videos and seminars, that the average time between becoming spatially disoriented and death is a mere 178 seconds. Such pilots are often unaware of their plane's attitude relative to the ground, usually due to loss of visibility and spatial disorientation. The figure of 178 seconds comes from a famous simulator research project, and though the study's date and methodology have come under question, the figure of just about three minutes has been repeatedly confirmed by real-world air crashes such as Kennedy's and probably Valentich's.
But there's more to this story. For me, the most striking part of the Valentich story came when I read the radio transcripts. The language sounded familiar, almost too familiar. And then I looked at the year of the event, 1978. Had there been a radio conversation talking about unidentified traffic and landing lights in pop culture around that time? It turned out there had. Listen to this:
Aireast 31: Indianapolis center, do you have any traffic for Aireast 31?
Indianapolis: Aireast 31, negative, the only traffic I have is a TWA L-1011 in your six o'clock position, range 15 miles, and an Allegheny DC-9 in your twelve o'clock position range 50 miles. Stand by, I'll take a look at Broadband, over.
Aireast 31: Aireast 31 has traffic at two o'clock, slightly above and descending.
Indianapolis: Aireast 31, roger, I have a primary target about in that position now, I have no known high altitude traffic, stand by I'll check low, over.
Aireast 31: Aireast 31, the traffic's not lower than us; it's one o'clock now, still above me and descending.
Indianapolis: Aireast 31, can you say aircraft type?
Aireast 31: Negative, center, no distinct outline. To tell you the truth, it's hard to describe, it's rather brilliant. That's the brightest of any collision lights I think I've ever seen. Alternating white to red. The colors are a little striking.
TWA 517: Center, this is TWA 517, the traffic now looks like extra bright landing lights. I thought Aireast had his landing lights off.
Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind had been released less than a year before Frederick Valentich made his radio report, in which he replicated every major element of the famous air traffic control scene. The movie was a favorite of UFO fans and captured the imaginations of young people. Pilots in particular loved the air traffic control scene. Frederick was all three; he was young, he was a pilot, and he was obsessed with UFOs.
Could Frederick have simply been having a little fun trying to copy a favorite movie scene? From what's publicly known about him, it would seem to be very much in character. There's no way to know how wrong or right this hypothesis might be, but suppose Frederick was playing Close Encounters, maybe hoping for some notoriety. He circled to give the radar guys something to see, possibly starving his carburetors. Suddenly he was paying attention to his engine instead of to the horizon, in the dark over water for the first time; and before he knew it he had 178 seconds to live.
There's no way to know how similar this might be to what happened, but there seem to be plenty of possibilities other than abduction by aliens. The goofy sensational explanation might be fine for a popular TV documentary, but it obscures the true facts and the true dangers. There's absolutely no reason to believe that Frederick Valentich wanted to die, or wanted to become a Department of Transport statistic. He wanted to fly, and he did it to the best of his ability and as often as he could. My guess is that if he'd survived, he'd want other pilots to be more wary of spatial disorientation, instead of the risk of UFO abduction over the Bass Strait. Let's give Frederick Valentich the courtesy of not being remembered as mere flying saucer fiction.
Correction: An earlier version of this described King Island as being "halfway between Australia and Tasmania." Pedants were offended by that so I fixed it.