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Forty-three years ago today, Australian pilot Frederick Valentich’s Cessna 182L light aircraft mysteriously disappeared over the Bass Strait – a narrow strip of water between Australia and Tasmania.
The “flying saucer enthusiast” was headed for King Island, one of some 50 islands dotted in the narrow sea – but he never arrived at his destination.
The 20-year-old left Moorabbin Airport in the South of Melbourne at 6:19pm on October 21, 1978.
Just after 7pm, Valentich radioed Melbourne air traffic control to report that an “unidentified aircraft” was following him at 4,500 feet.
He asked if there were any other aircraft in the area and was told there was "no known traffic” in the region.
Valentich kept transmitting for another five minutes, telling Air Traffic Controller Steve Roby that the mystery aircraft seemed to be “toying” with him. Valentich saw that the shiny metal intruder had a bright green light on it, he said, as it first passed about 1,000 feet above him before circling around his Cessna to the west.
"It seems to be playing some sort of game,” he said. “He's flying over me."
The final transmission from Valentich’s radio was an unexplained "metallic, scraping sound" before it cut off altogether.
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The young pilot’s disappearance and apparent death contains layer upon layer of mystery.
His original flight plan is a matter of some debate. He reportedly told one friend that he was heading to King Island to buy some seafood while others were told he was going to pick up a couple of his mates.
Valentich also failed to inform King Island Airport that he was on his way, going against "standard procedure"
Historian Reg Watson told local radio station 936 ABC Hobart: ”He put his flight plan into Moorabbin but he never told King Island flight service that he was coming, therefore they never had the lights on at the airport.”
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That led some to speculate that Valentich planned to disappear, and may have deliberately crashed his plane into the sea.
But there’s no obvious motive for suicide: "He had a girlfriend, there was no problem there,” says Watson. “He wasn't suffering from depression and he got on well with the family."
And the background to the Valentich disappearance is Australia’s biggest “UFO flap” to date.
"For two months prior,” said Reg Watson, “lights in the sky, cigar-shaped objects, were seen from King Island.
"And I've spoken to witnesses on the north-west coast [of Tasmania],” Watson continued, “who actually saw a craft on the day 15 minutes before he went missing."
The sceptical explanation is simple pilot error. Some Australian Department of Transport officials speculated that "Valentich became disoriented and saw his own lights reflected in the water, or lights from a nearby island, while flying upside down.”
But Reg Watson, who spent over 30 years studying the mystery, believes the explanation is more dramatic: “I have to say, in my opinion, he had an encounter with a UFO — and I don't say that lightly.”
In 1982, a coroner’s inquiry into Valentich’s disappearance returned an open verdict with the 20-year-old listed as missing, presumed dead.
But the truth about Frederick Valentich may never ben known.
- Spaced Out
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