The Unresolved Disappearance of Frederick Valentich

“It seems to me that he’s playing some sort of game, he’s flying over me, 2, 3 times at a time, at speeds I could not identify”.

On 21st of October, 1978, 20 year old Frederick Valentich is flying a Cessna 182 light aeroplane from Moorabbin Airport to King Island.  Not long after commencing the over water section of the flight, between Cape Otway and King Island, at 7:06 in the evening, just before sunset, Valentich contacts Air Services at Tullamarine Airport with an unexpected request. “Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet, is there any known traffic below 5,000 feet?”  Working that evening for Air Services is Steve Robey, whose job it is to control air traffic outside of restricted airspace.  Robey quickly confirms in the negative that there should be no traffic before Valentich continues: “There seems to be a large aircraft below 5,000.”  Robey asks Valentich what type of aircraft it is before the young pilot replies: “I cannot affirm, it is 4 bright, it seems to me like landing lights”.  Here he pauses for a few seconds before adding: “The aircraft has just passed over me at least a thousand feet above”.  Robey asks Valentich if it is a large aircraft and the young man replies: “er unknown due to the speed it’s travelling, is there any airforce aircraft in the vicinity?”  Robey replies in the negative and a few seconds later Valentich says: “it’s approaching now from due east towards me”.  About 30 seconds pass as Valentich observes the mysterious craft, before he adds: “It seems to me that he’s playing some sort of game, he’s flying over me, 2, 3 times at a time, at speeds I could not identify”.  Robey asks Valentich what his altitude is and the 20 year old replies that he is at four and a half thousand feet.  The flight services officer then asks the young pilot to confirm that he cannot identify the aircraft.  “Affirmative”, Valentich replies.  Some seconds pass before Valentich says: “It’s not an aircraft, it’s (…2 seconds…). Robey then asks Valentich if he can describe the aircraft.  Valentich answers with: “as it’s flying past, it’s a long shape(…3 seconds…) cannot identify more than that (that it has such speed) (…3 seconds…) before me right now Melbourne…”.  Robey interrupts the pilot here, as he says “roger, and how large would the er object be.”   A few moments pass before Valentich gives his response: “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.  Twenty seconds later Valentich holds down the microphone for 5 seconds before adding “it’s just vanished”. A few seconds later he asks Robey if he would know what type of aircraft he’s got, is it a military aircraft?  Robey asks Valentich to confirm that the aircraft has just vanished, but Valentich doesn’t hear this message and asks Robey to repeat it which Robey does.  Valentich must see the craft again at this point though as he says: “now approaching from the southwest”. Distressingly, about 30 seconds later Valentich reports “the engine is rough idling.  I’ve got it set at 23, 24 and the thing is coughing”.  Robey responds “Roger, what are your intentions?“  The next reply Valentich speaks down the microphone is the last thing Valentich is known to have spoken to another human being: “my intentions are ah to go to King Island.  Ah Melbourne, that strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again(…2 seconds…) it is hovering and it’s not an aircraft.”  The audio tape of this conversation has never been released to the public, as it is classified by the Department of Defence.  The Department of Transport did however release the final 17 seconds of Valentich’s call before he and his light aircraft disappeared and were never heard from again.  The following is those final 17 seconds.

Audio of last 17 seconds of radio transmission that was released by the Department of Transport.
1st page of transcript of radio transmission
2nd page of transcript
3rd page of audio transcript

Frederick Valentich went missing that day and despite protracted air, land and sea search, neither he nor his cessna 182 L have ever been found.

Planned route of flight

Frederick Valentich was born in Melbourne on June 9th 1958 to Italian immigrant parents Guido and Alberta Valentich who hailed from the multicultural city of Trieste in the north east of the country.  Fred was the eldest of four children, who included his younger brother Ricky and his younger twin sisters Olivia and Lara.  The family lived in the Melbourne suburb of Avondale Heights, where they enjoyed a happy, suburban life like many other European immigrant families who lived in the same area. 

In 1974, Fred left school after completing year 10 at Keilor Heights High school.  While he was noted as being an excellent athlete by his P.E. teacher, his results in his other subjects were all average or below average, and he failed both of the maths subjects he took that year.   However, he did not want to let this stop him from fulfilling his dream of joining the Royal Australian Airforce.  Unfortunately for Fred, his poor academic results from school and his performance in the entrance examination he took for entry into the RAAF in 1976, meant that he failed in his application.  An examiner noted about Fred’s test results: “very low scores, indicative low I.Q. fit for unskilled work only”.  

Class photo of Fred from 1974 Keilor Heights High School

While disappointed with failing in his application to the RAAF, Fred was determined to prove that he could still become a civilian pilot, and so in February of 1977 he gained his student’s pilot licence, with a view to later gaining his commercial pilot’s licence.  Throughout 1977, Fred took and failed many of the testing components that are prerequisites for gaining one’s commercial pilot’s licence.  While he passed many of these components at subsequent attempts, he failed all 5 of his CPL theory exams, in both October 1977 and April 1978.  Despite failing in his attempts to become a commercial pilot, throughout 1978, Fred possessed the legal documentation required to pilot single-engine cessna aircraft by himself and carry passengers.  While he continued to study for another attempt at the CPL examinations throughout 1978, Fred built up his flying hours by flying light aeroplanes out of Moorabbin Airport on weekends.   Meanwhile, after Fred had failed all his CPL examinations in April of ‘78 he requested assistance from one Edwin Robert Barnes, a Squadron Leader attached to the Air Training Corps that Fred was studying in.  Fred had begun volunteering for no pay at the Air Training Corps in order to gain more experience.  Barnes saw his enthusiasm for his work and after Fred requested the squadron leader become his private tutor, Barnes agreed to help him in navigation and aircraft performance.  Thus Fred would regularly visit Barnes at his home on Sundays for his lessons, where Barnes was impressed with Fred’s enthusiasm and politeness.  Barnes noted that, while Fred was particularly bad at spelling, he felt that the young man had the capability and responsibility required to pass his next examinations in July of that year.  Barnes further noted that Fred was “of sober habits” and never partook in the consumption of more than one alcoholic beverage on the evenings in question.  

Fred in his Air Training Corps uniform

In July of 1978 Fred took 2 of his 5 CPL examinations for the 3rd time and the following Sunday, he turned up to Barnes’ home with his girlfriend Rhonda Rushton and two bottles of wine saying he wished to celebrate as he believed he had passed his two examinations.  Barnes declined a drink because he was on “reserve”, and told Fred that they would drink them when he was told that he had passed all of his exams.  In September of ‘78, Barnes returned from a holiday and received a telephone call from Fred in which the trainee pilot informed him that he had passed all 5 of his CPL examinations.  Fred had in fact failed 3 examinations for the third time and not taken the final 2, a fact Barnes only discovered after Fred’s disappearance when the Air Safety Investigation Branch of the Department of Transport wrote to him to request his assistance in providing a character reference for Fred.  In his letter to the ASIB, Barnes expressed extreme disappointment at Fred’s dishonesty and wondered whether Fred’s failure had something to do with his disappearance. 

Letter to ASIB from (Edwin) Robert Barnes 1
to ASIB from (Edwin) Robert Barnes 2

Throughout 1978, Fred was dating the formerly mentioned 16 year old girl, Rhonda Rushton.  On a number of occasions she had flown with Fred, and she considered her boyfriend to be a diligent and responsible pilot who understood the importance of being disciplined while flying.  About two months before his disappearance they had flown together to Newcastle.  On the return flight Fred had accidentally strayed into restricted airspace in the Sydney suburb of Bankstown.  Rhonda later recalled that Fred had become extremely agitated during this incident and remembered using a handkerchief to dab the sweat off his forehead.  Fred received a letter reprimanding him for this incident for his poor navigation skills.  

When Rhonda was interviewed by the Department of Transport 3 days after Fred’s disappearance, investigators were keen to understand Fred’s mental state in the days leading up to the 21st.  While Rhonda told the interviewers that Fred was a very sober young man, rarely drinking more than two beers on nights out, she also mentioned a couple of things which stood out to the investigators as unusual.  Firstly, about one week before the incident, she and Fred had driven out to the Dandenong Ranges where they had discussed the topic of UFOs and Fred had said “If a UFO landed in front of me now, I would go in it, but never without you”.  When pressed as to whether UFOs were a topic he often discussed or was heavily interested in, she said that they had talked about them only occasionally, and never in any depth and denied that he was any more interested in them than the average person.  The interviewer also claimed that Rhonda said she had seen newspaper clippings of UFOs that Fred kept as a hobby, something she denied 40 years later when questioned about this at an anniversary event held by the Victorian UFO Action group.  

Furthermore, according to Rhonda, Fred had lied to her previously about passing his meteorology subject.  According to her he had told her this false information when he first met her, but that 4 months later he had admitted to his lie.  But, perhaps the most significant piece of information that Rhonda later revealed was that, the weekend prior to his disappearance, 2 days before the trip to the Dandenong Ranges mentioned previously, Fred had asked Rhonda to marry him.  According to her he had proposed to her and given her ‘a friendship ring’, which was to be replaced at a later date by a more expensive ring which he had placed on layby.  He told her she could keep the friendship ring until he had enough money to pay the amount owing on the more expensive ring on layby at a jewellers near where he worked in Moonee Ponds.  He also told Rhonda to keep the engagement secret because he didn’t want to announce it until he had enough money to pay out the remainder of the layby which he was planning to do that Christmas.    Furthermore, he had planned to be engaged to her for 1 year because Rhonda was to turn 17 in the December and then after 1 year she would be 18 and she would have reached the legal age for marriage.  On the one hand, Fred’s plans to marry Rhonda may well be seen by some to be a sign of a young man who was looking forward to the future.  On the other hand, his tutor Edwin Robert Barnes, in his letter to the Department of Transport, saw his actions in proposing to Rhonda and giving her a temporary friendship ring as the behaviour of someone who was acting very strangely indeed and wondered whether he did it because he had planned to commit suicide on the 21st October.

Rhonda Rushton and Fred Valentich 1978

Years later at the 40th anniversary event of the incident held by the Victorian UFO Action group at Moorabbin Airport in 2018, Rhonda told a live audience that the Department of Transport had asked her some extremely inappropriate personal questions, the nature of which she was not willing to disclose.  Needless to say, this would be very unprofessional behaviour by a Government Department when questioning the grieving girlfriend of a missing man, especially since she was just 16 years old at the time and not accompanied by her parents.  In addition,, while she was being interviewed she felt intimidated because a bright spotlight was shone in her face throughout so that she could not see who was interviewing her.  

On the evening prior to Fred’s disappearance, Fred visited Rhonda at her home in Preston at about 9:15pm.  Rhonda told the DoT in her interview that Fred wasn’t his usual-cheerful-self that evening and appeared as though something was bothering him.  According to the DoT interview report of Rhonda’s interview he had agreed to take her out on the Saturday night after he returned from his flight. “In their conversation it became evident to her that he had forgotten he had agreed to take her out on Saturday night.  The forthcoming flight to King Island was discussed and together they evolved the schedule of departure: Moorabbin 4 o’clock; land King Island 5:30pm; pick up crayfish, leave 6 o’clock; land Moorabbin 7:30.  As it was a 20 minute drive from the airport to Preston she suggested Valentich put his good clothes in which to take her out, in his car when he left home early on Saturday.  Since the aircraft went missing, she had seen the car at Moorabbin, and was aware that no clothes were in it.”  

There are a couple of strange things about this information.  Firstly, it is at least a 40 minute drive from Moorabbin Airport in Cheltenham to Preston.  But, more significantly, Rhonda now denies that she ever told the investigators that she told Fred to put his good clothes in his car.  She denies that she ever told them that they had agreed for him to pick her up at her house in Preston to go out that night.  In fact, at the 40 year anniversary event, Rhonda Rushton spoke publicly about how she and Fred had agreed to fly to King Island together.  That later they were going to go out for dinner to celebrate their 6 months anniversary together.

Interview with Rhonda starts at 1:05:00
ASIB interview report of meeting with Rhonda Rushton 24 October 1978 1
ASIB interview report of meeting with Rhonda Rushton 24 October 1978 2

In fact, in its final report summary written on 24th of August 1981, almost two years after the incident, investigator Barry Mahony also made a slanderous accusation about Rhonda with the following comment: “Frederick’s girlfriend seemed to enjoy the publicity limelight surrounding the disappearance.  She did not appear to be unduly concerned and gave the impression that she expected to see him again.”  

Fred’s father, Guido Valentich, was interviewed by the Department of Transport on October 25th 1978, the day after Rhonda Rushton’s interview.  Among other things he told them that Fred was a firm believer in UFOs and had read the book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, by Swiss author Elrich Von Danniken.  Published in 1968, the central tenet of the book was that many of the technological advances made by ancient civilisations were introduced to them by extraterrestrial beings.  Furthermore, Guido told the investigators that Fred’s beliefs in UFOs had not long ago been strengthened during a recent camping trip he had made to Gippsland with the Air Training Corps, when he had been allowed to view the RAAF’s secret files on UFOs.  However, Fred had refused to reveal the contents of those files to his family as they were classified and he took his duty not to reveal its contents very seriously.  Guido also told the investigators that Fred’s mother Alberta had recently seen a UFO and had called Fred and he had seen it too.  They described it as a large light, its size about ten times that of the largest star.  The object had remained stationary for some time before shooting off at a high speed. While Guido had not been present during this incident himself, his wife and son’s explanation of it convinced him that UFOs were real, and that the planet was regularly being visited by some sort of extraterrestrial intelligence.  Lastly, Guido revealed that Fred had worried about attack by UFOs, so his father had attempted to assuage his fears by telling him that if aliens did attack there was nothing they could do, so there would be no point in worrying about it.  

Guido Valentich
Guido interview with ASIB DOT 25 October 1978 1
Guido interview with ASIB DOT 25 October 1978 2

According to Guido, Fred had gone to bed at about 10:30 on the night of the 20th of October 1978.  In the morning he had a light breakfast of coffee, orange juice and cereal with his family.  He then drove to Puckle Street in Moonee Ponds where he worked as the Assistant Manager of an Army Disposals shop, a store which specialises in camping and outdoor equipment.  He started his shift here at 9am before finishing at noon, when he immediately drove from Moonee Ponds to Moorabbin Airport, where he had his first lecture at 1pm.  This meant that he would not have had time to get lunch before the start of his classes.  

Meanwhile, at Moorabbin Airport that morning, Vince Alfonso carried out the daily inspection of the Cessna 182, DH-VSJ, Fred would later that day fly to King Island.  The inspection was begun before 6am when Alfonso flew the aircraft to French Island as part of the routine examination that was to check the performance of the aeroplane.  Alfonso noted the plane performed “ok”.  There was a smell emanating from the heater, which soon dissipated, but this was not considered unusual.  More alarmingly, on the return flight to Moorabbin Airport a passenger noticed fuel emanating from the fuel tank on the right hand side of the aircraft.  After landing it was discovered that the cap was out of the tank and hanging from the chain, so Alfonso reported this anomaly to Southern Air Services.  The next morning when discussing the disappearance of Fred at S.A.S. he discovered that the cap had been repaired before Fred’s flight.  

Interview with Vince Alfonso

Fred’s classes finished at 5pm, after which he headed to the briefing office to submit his flight plan.  Fred lodged the flight plan at 5:23pm, and it stated a take off time of 5:45pm.  However, he did not actually take off until later as he was so hungry, having not eaten anything since morning. Later, both Rhonda and Guido told investigators as it was his normal practice to do so, he would have driven to the local McDonalds restaurant on the Nepean Highway near the Southland Shopping Centre and eaten a large meal that usually consisted of “2 Big Macs, 2 Cheeseburgers, a fillet-o-fish and some chips and most likely would have drunk a carton of coca-cola”.  Rhonda later said she believed Fred would have gotten take away and would have driven his car to the beach where he would have eaten his large meal while looking out to sea.  

It is believed Fred took the Cessna for refuelling at 6:10pm and waited in the cessna as it was being refuelled by mechanic Ronald Tyson.  Once done he was given the ok for take off.  Crucially, Fred did not actually take off from Moorabbin Airport until 6:19pm, a full 34 minutes after he had indicated he would in the flight plan.  This meant that by the time his cessna was to arrive at King Island the sun would have set and it would be almost completely dark.  Despite this, Fred made no phone call to the airport on the island requesting them to turn on the runway landing lights, as was standard procedure at the time.  In fact, there were a number of contradictions in what Fred told to different people in regards to his intentions for this flight. In the days after the incident the Department of Transport was told by Bob Hope, an instructor with Southern Air Services, that Fred had told him on the day that he had planned to pick people up on King Island.   He also told Darcy Hogan his briefing officer that he was going to pick up passengers on the Island, but no such passengers existed.   Yet, according to the Department of Transport he had told Guido and his friend Greg Reaburn that he was picking up crayfish on the island.  This was also strange, as the crayfisherman on the island, Cliff Day, said he had no contact with Fred regarding procuring any crayfish, and that they had sold out of cray fish early in the afternoon anyway.

It is not clear why he told different people different things about the purpose of his flight.  His girlfriend Rhonda Rushton, now believes he had no intention of landing at all and was just building up flight hours.  

It is believed Fred flew towards Frankston before heading out over Port Phillip Bay towards Point Lonsdale.  From here Fred flew along the coastline towards Cape Otway which he reached at 7pm.  Here he contacted Steve Robey at Air Services in Tullamarine Airport by radio to inform him he was commencing the over water section of his flight.  

Fred had been flying for 6 minutes over the open water before his first contact with Steve Robey, in which he enquired about whether there was “any known traffic below 5,000 feet”.  The 17 seconds of indecipherable static that is heard at the end of the tape occurred at 7:12pm.  It is not known what happened to Fred’s plane, but if he did crash into the ocean at this point, and assuming he was flying in largely a straight line from Cape Otway, the crash site would have been located about 40 km south south east of Cape Otway, not quite halfway to King Island.  This however, is disputed as we shall see later.

After the transmission of the 17 seconds at the end of the call from Fred’s plane, Steve Robey made numerous attempts to communicate with Fred, but received no reply.  He therefore initiated a safety measure known as an Alert Phase that would require a King Island Flight Service officer to duty, as the last employee had gone home for the day at 5 o’clock.  This alert phase also involved the activation of the island’s emergency procedures, one of which included turning on the landing lights at the runway. 
When Fred’s cessna failed to arrive at King Island at 7:33pm, the Distress Phase was declared, and an immediate ground, sea and air search was commenced.  

Brian Jones, the officer in charge at King Island Airport was called back to duty at 7:15pm after the Alert Phase was initiated.  He arrived at the airport, and put the landing lights on at 7:35pm.  At the same time that he arrived, his assistant Graeme Smyth also arrived to put the landing lights on for a cessna that was flying out of the airport, but had been delayed while waiting for passengers.  This other cessna was then used to fly around the island to search for Fred’s plane.  Despite the fact that there was excellent visibility, and they could see all the way to the Cape Otway lighthouse, they did not sight Fred’s plane.  That night a ship in the area was notified of the missing aircraft and conducted a search for Fred’s plane, but did not see anything.  Planes were also sent along the route Fred’s aircraft took, but as it was night it was difficult to spot anything in the darkness.  

With daylight, the search was given renewed impetus.  One aircraft conducted a land search of the island and another a coastal search, but found nothing.  3 vessels searched off the west coast and islands off King Island and the RAAF Orion searched off the north coast.  An oil slick was found here, but no wreckage could be located.  The next day the vessel ‘Nomad’ was sent to the area and a sample of the oil slick was taken for testing, to determine whether it could be from Fred’s cessna.  However, later it was determined that the oil was not of the type that would come from an aircraft. Debris consisting of fruit and vegetable boxes was also located near this site, but this was determined not to be from Fred’s Cessna 182.

A light aircraft also located some more debris to the north west of King Island, but as this plane was not fixed with integral navigation systems it needed to rise in altitude in order to sight land before fixing its position, and in doing so it lost sight of the debris and could not locate it again.  

After 3 full days of searching, the search and rescue operation by sea vessels was called off on the 25th of October.  Nevertheless, volunteers and friends of Fred’s continued to search by air and land.  Many of Fred’s friends felt that since no wreckage had been found in the ocean search, he must have turned the aeroplane around and crash landed somewhere on the heavily forested Cape Otway Peninsula.  Therefore, on the 26th a group of his flying buddies travelled down to the region and spent a number of days performing flyovers and searching the area by foot, which was also to prove fruitless.

The media became aware of the unusual nature of Fred’s disappearance as soon as the search and rescue operation was put in place on the night of the 21st, and the general public was able to eavesdrop on the radio transmissions.  This prompted the DoT to publicly release the transcript of the radio conversation between Fred and Air Services controller Steve Robey on the 22nd.  The fact that Fred had witnessed an unidentified aerial phenomenon right before he and his plane went missing became a huge story, and newspaper and radio journalists scrambled to interview all those who were close to Fred.  

On the 23rd of October, an article appeared in the Bendigo Advertiser titled ‘UFO Took Our Boy – Pilot’s Parents’ detailing Guido and Alberta Valentich’s belief that Fred may have been abducted by the UFO.  The interview, which had been conducted on the evening of the 22nd, after the first full day’s search had ended in failure, also explained that Guido and Alberta did not believe a proposed explanation that Fred may have turned the plane upside down or entered into an uncontrolled spiral after becoming disoriented.  Fred’s parents also expressed the view that the Department of Transport was attempting to cover up what really happened to their son.  

Bendigo Advertiser 23 Oct 1978 “UFO Took our boy – Pilot’s parents”

In the days after Fred’s disappearance, it became evident that one month earlier, a woman had written a letter to the editor, published in the King Island News on September 20 concerning recent accounts of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.  It stated: “We saw our first sighting two months ago.  We were driving into Currie and a slow moving light followed us down the North Road, and finally disappeared toward the lighthouse.  There were other sightings in Currie on the same night.  Some people further up north also saw a strange light passing over their house.  Then another (told) of seeing beautiful strange lights outside.  On going out to investigate the lights suddenly disappeared. Then last night…the strange light appeared again just up from Camp Creek.  On each of these occasions, the light has been very large and bright, and seems to light up the area as if it were daylight.”

The Courier 24 Oct 1978 “Hopes Fade for Pilot”

Soon other stories of sightings of unexplained aerial phenomena emerged.  A man by the name of John Snow contacted the Department of Transport investigators on the 23rd of October to inform them that, at about 11:45pm on the night of Fred’s disappearance, his 11 year old son had witnessed a long streak of greenish white light flash across the sky to the south of the Barwon Heads area, about 120km from Cape Otway.  A Mr P. Farr of Burwood, an officer in the RAAF reserve, contacted investigators to inform them that on the night in question he had witnessed what he described as “a shower of very bright metallic scintillations, to the south, high in the sky..about 30 bright centres.”  The Australian published an article describing a sighting by a technician who worked with the CSIRO named Wayne Bellew who witnessed a UAP whilst camping with his wife at Bateman’s Bay NSW on the night in question.  He described seeing a “bright white object performing wild stunts over the ocean…the thing was performing such incredible manoeuvers that any conventional pilot who tried it would have been guts over kneecaps”.

Perhaps the most startling UAP sighting made on the night of Fred’s disappearance came from a man named Don Cox and his wife from Valley View, South Australia, in a detailed letter to the RAAF.  Describing a bright shining object he and his wife witnessed from the garden of their home he wrote in his letter: “Having got my binoculars from within the house I focussed (on) this object…What I saw was a large triangular, yellow white light, laying on it’s (sic) side, with one side of the triangle in a vertical position. Within this triangle were iridescent lights.  I can only positively remember three of the colours, which were blue, blue green and orange, but feel sure there were also others.  My wife watched it for near enough ten minutes, and myself for a total of roughly forty-five minutes before losing sight of it behind a large gum tree two gardens away.  During the last stage of viewing this assortment of colours it transformed into a V shape, still on it’s (sic) side with the top half appearing to be the reflection of the lower portion, as one might view a boat sitting on the surface of the water.  I reported this matter to Edinburgh Airport at 5:45pm Monday the 23rd of October, and was told by a girl that this information would be passed onto the UFO investigations officer in the morning.  By now I was aware I had seen word for word exactly as the missing Melbourne pilot (meaning Fred) had described.  I rang again Edinburgh Airport the following day October 24th and spoke to an officer who told me he would try either to see me at my place of work or at my home in the evening.  As by the following day, the 25th, he had not made the effort to interview me, I again phoned and told him of my concern, pleading with him to heed this information which I felt so vital in the case of the missing pilot.  After confirming my statement with my wife over the phone, this officer subsequently visited my home and took a signed statement from me along with a diagram of the three stages that this moving light had taken.  I have no doubt in my mind that whatsoever I witnessed was exactly as the young pilot described who has gone missing…I am prepared to swear an oath or submit myself to any lie detector test to substantiate this my statement.”

One week after Fred’s disappearance, Air Services controller Steve Robey was involved in another UAP sighting incident.  In the vicinity of Sale, Gippsland a pilot reported seeing an extremely bright light heading from west to east.  A few minutes later the same pilot reported the same phenomenon and told Robey that if it happened again he would land the aircraft.  It happened again, an extremely bright light, travelling quickly from west to east, this time it was travelling below him.  As a result, the pilot landed the aircraft out of fear of being impacted by any similar objects.  At the time there was a military phone number that was provided to all Air Services personnel to report such incidents.  Robey contacted the number and soon afterwards he was interviewed by a man from the military about the incident.  

Meanwhile, the Department of Transport set about investigating the cause of Fred’s disappearance, an investigation that would not be completed for 2 and a half years.  It was this process that led to the interviewing of Fred’s girlfriend Rhonda Rushtion on the 24th of October, Fred’s father Guido on the 25th of October and many of Fred’s friends and peers.  As time went on and Fred and his plane were nowhere to be found, speculation mounted in the media as to whether the six minute transcript of the radio contact between Fred and Steve Robey was a full account of the conversation that transpired between the pair.  Despite the fact a number of UAP research organisations based in both Australia and the United States wrote to the Department of Transport urging them to release the full audio tape recording of the conversation. The DoT responded by declaring it had never been its policy to release audio tapes related to accident investigations.   

In January 1979, Fred’s father, Guido Valentich, wrote a letter to the Director of the Department of Transport for the Victoria and Tasmania region, G.Hughes, requesting a copy of the audio tape of Fred’s radio transmission with Steve Robey.  The department privately expressed reluctance to release the tape, expressing the view that it went against their normal procedures to release audio tapes from accident investigations, particularly ongoing investigations which had not yet concluded.  Guido was suspicious that the Department was trying to hide something, and believing that Fred had been abducted by alien spacecraft, he requested the help of veteran American UFO researcher Paul Norman.  Norman and Australian UFO researcher John Auchettl established a dialogue with the Department on Guido’s behalf and arranged a meeting with the DoT in which they requested a full, unedited copy of the tape.  The Department however, agreed only to supply an edited version which only included only the parts of the tape between 7:06 and 7:12pm – from when Fred had first reported the unusual aerial sighting until the final indiscernible 17 seconds.  Furthermore, the edited tape would not include any of the parts of the tape in which Steve Robey was speaking, nor the part of the tape that was recorded prior to 7:06pm.  While, Guido and UFO researchers Auchettl and Norman tried to insist on the full tape the DoT insisted that this would not be possible as those other parts of the tape were deemed confidential and it was only releasing the 6 minutes of Fred’s voice out of sympathy to Guido and his family.  Furthermore, they asked Guido to sign a document stating that he would not release the audio tape to the media and that he was to play it for family members only.  After much back and forth, in March 1979 the DoT finally released this edited version of the tape to Guido and the Valentich family.

Paul Norman and John Auchettl were both members of VUFORS or Victorian Unidentified Flying Object Research Society, a research group which professed an agnostic stance towards UFOs, but considered the phenomenon deserved closer scientific scrutiny than was offered by mainstream science or sceptical explanations for UFOs.  While VUFORS was simply seeking all available evidence in order to find out the truth of what had happened to Fred, the story was also ripe for charlatans and shysters to make a quick buck with pseudo-scientific explanations and false narratives of what had become of the 20 year old.

On 23rd April 1979 an article by reporter David Elias appeared in the Australian which detailed the claims of a New Zealand confidence trickster by the name of Colin Amery who falsely claimed to be a clairvoyant.  According to the article, Amery claimed that he had conducted a seance the previous Saturday in which he had communed with Fred.  Amery further claimed that Fred had told him during this seance that he had been “taken by a community in space and that the reason his aircraft had not been found is that it disappeared from any physical existence”. Amery also reported that Fred had told him that sixty seconds of the radio transcript of his conversation with Steve Robey had been “edited out and suppressed” and that Fred was “safe, but no longer (has) a physical body, I am in light, but can move to wherever I want to be”.  

The Australia 23 Apr 1979 “Seance ‘reaches’ UFO kidnap pilot”

Despite Amery’s claims, others suggested that he was simply trying to publicise his book New Atlantis: The Secret of the Sphinx a book that “looks forward to a new and golden age of Aquarius that will succeed the present cycle of chaos and destruction”. 

“New Atlantis the Secret of the Sphinx” by Colin Amery

In October 1979 Michael Fields, writing for the American magazine “Ideal UFO Quarterly” made the false claim that the Department of Transport had released only an edited version of the true transcript and published a story that they claimed was the true version of Fred’s radio conversation with Steve Robey.  Strangely the narrative of this article was written like a long comic book story, but interspersed with some of the real dialogue from the transcript the Department of Transport had released one year previously.  Furthermore, there were extra details included that were not in the original transcript, most notably the parts in which Fred describes the unidentified aerial phenomenon as being a 100 feet long tube, with green gas emanating from it, windows showing lights on in the interior and that just before the call ends in indecipherable noise, Fred reports suffering from a scorching pain.  

Idea UFO Quarterly “UFO Collides with Plane in Australia” by Michael Fields 1979

Local Melbourne based charlatans also attempted to profit from Fred’s story by giving credence to Ideal UFO Quarterly’s bogus story.  That same month, author John Pinkney, who has made a career out of writing books about ghosts, the supernatural and conspiracy theories, wrote an article published in Rupert Murdoch owned Melbourne Tabloid, Truth.  Now disbanded, Truth was a British style weekly tabloid newspaper that contained photos of bare-breasted page 3 models and usually published sensational scoops on personal scandals.  Pinkney’s article was included in a section of the newspaper titled “The Outer Limits” next to a photograph of him which was captioned “John Pinkney: Australia’s Leading UFO and Supernatural Investigator”.  The article reported on the publication of the story in Ideal UFO Quarterly, and Pinkney mysteriously concludes his article with the line “Some of the pilot’s comments in the American magazine tally with notes I was given last October”.   

Truth Weekend Magazine 24 Oct 1979, “Pilot ‘censored'”, John Pinkney

Despite the publication of these two articles, Ideal UFO Quarterly’s completely fictitious account was quickly dismissed by the one person who had first-hand knowledge of the nature of the conversation with Fred. Steve Robey himself has always maintained that the transcript released by the Department of Transport is exactly how the call played out.

In 1980, a book named the The Devil’s Meridian, which included a section on the Valentich disappearance, was written by authors Kevin Killey and Gary Lester.  The central thesis of the book was the idea that there was an area of the Bass Strait, the so-called Bass Strait Triangle, in which a number of unexplained disappearances of both ships and aircraft had occurred.  It provided a historical analysis of other ships and aircraft that had gone missing without a trace in the previous 150 years.  

On the 28th February 1981 Melbourne tabloid newspaper, Truth, published an article in which they claimed that a filmmaker by the name of Brian Morris intended to make an expensive documentary about Fred’s disappearance.  The article, by Brian Blackwell stated that Morris intended to import the same type of cessna 182 L aircraft from the United States before hiring a helicopter to tow the plane over the Bass Strait and ditch it into the sea.  This would be done to see what happened to the wreckage of the plane.  The film was to be largely based on the previously mentioned book by Kevin Killey and Gary Lester, The Devil’s Meridian.  Morris stated that it was his intention to include an interview with former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, who claimed to have seen a UFO.  He also expressed his belief that the documentary would cost in the region of $600,000 to produce.  It is not known what happened to Morris’ film project, but it was never made.  

Melbourne Truth 28 Feb 1981, “New Bid to Solve UFO Riddle”, Brian Blackwell

The Department of Transport finally released their accident investigation report summary of the Valentich Disappearance in August 1981.  It stated that it could not be determined what happened to Frederick Valentich and his aircraft, but it did offer 5 possible hypotheses. 

1. That Fred experienced disorientation which caused him to crash the plane into the sea.  However, it noted that if this had been the case that it was unusual that there had been no wreckage discovered.

2. That Fred intentionally landed the cessna on the sea, before attempting to escape, either successfully or unsuccessfully.  It implied that if this had been the case the aircraft may have sunk to the bottom of the sea completely intact, either with or without Fred’s body inside.

3.  A controlled landing elsewhere.  It suggested the possibility that Fred was not where he said he was and that he may have intentionally deceived the public by intentionally landing elsewhere.  

4. Crashing on land while attempting a controlled landing.  It suggested this as a possibility, and that if this was the case, the wreckage simply had not been found yet.  

5. UFO intervention.  The DoT then falsely added to this item, in a comment that is uncharacteristically speculative of a goverment department, that there were: “no sighting observations of a brightly illuminated craft large enough to take on board a cessna 182”.  In fact there were at least 15 sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena reported to either the Department of Transport investigators, news media or to the RAAF, on the night in question.  

Summary of accident investigation in to Valentich disappearance by the Air Safety Investigation Bureau of the Department of Transport

The summary report was delivered by hand to the Valentich family on 12th May 1982.  A copy was also sent to the owner of the aircraft Dr. C.Day, Southern Air Service, and the Victorian Coroner that month.  

In 1982 the Air Safety Investigation Bureau (ASIB), which had been a branch of the Department of Transport, had its name changed to the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation (BASI), an operationally independent unit, no longer of the Department of Transport (DoT), but now a branch of the Department of Aviation (DoA).  

In December 1982, Fred’s father Guido Valentich received a telephone call from a filmmaker by the name of Ron Cameron.  In the phone call, Cameron claimed that two divers contacted him to inform him that they had located 3 or 4 aircraft wrecks off Cape Otway, and that they had identified one as Fred’s Cessna 182 L, DSJ.  Cameron claimed that the divers had requested $10,000 in return for revealing the location of Fred’s plane.  A story in the ‘Herald’ evening newspaper on the 15th of December then elaborated on this story.  Cameron claimed to have seen photographs taken of the underwater aircraft and believed one of them bore the same markings as Fred’s plane.  He further claimed that the photograph revealed the cockpit of the cessna, but that Fred was not inside.  Cameron told the newspaper that he intended to make a documentary film about the disappearance, and conduct a salvage operation in recovering the aircraft.  

The Herald, 15 Dec 1982 “Film Man: I’ll Find Riddle Plane, Bill Hitchings

After this article was published the Coroner’s Court of Victoria contacted BASI expressing concern that these private individuals were publicly declaring a desire to interfere with possible evidence in determining the cause of a deceased person.  Therefore, in January 1983, the J.Sandercock, the director of BASI, contacted Ron Cameron to explain to him the sensitivity of the issue at hand and to arrange a meeting where he hoped to explain to him that any salvage operation could only be carried out in the presence of both someone from the Coroner’s Court and a member of BASI.  

Then, on 11th January 1983, on the day Sandercock was to meet Ron Cameron to discuss the salvage operation, another article appeared in the press, this time in the Sun titled: ‘UFO Plane Photos Upset Father’.  In the article written by John Beveridge, Guido expressed his dismay that the divers were attempting to profit from the salvage operation of Fred’s plane.  Filmmaker Ron Cameron was also interviewed again where he stated: “The plane was a little bit twisted, but in one piece.  Once we get a line down to it we will be able to bring it to the surface in half a day.”  

BASI director J.Sandercock immediately cancelled his meeting with Ron Cameron on seeing the article, expressing dismay that there had been so much media attention around the planned salvage operation.   Then, according to Ron Cameron, the two divers in question pulled out of the deal to show him the location of the wreck, as they were unhappy that he seemed to suggest that he did not fully trust them in a radio interview on the topic.  

BASI memos imply scepticism about Ron Cameron’s claims, and they expressed the opinion that he was simply trying to drum up publicity about the affair in order to attract funding for his film.  Regardless, like Brian Morris’, the film was never produced and there were to be no more newspaper articles about the supposed wrecks.

The Valentich disappearance was back in the news for different reasons however, in May of 1983, when BASI received a package from Arthur Withers the Airport Manager of Flinders Island, a similarly sized island to King Island, but lying 350km to its east.  The package contained some debris, an engine cowl flap from a Cessna aircraft that had washed up on the beach on Flinders Island, very close to that island’s airport runway.  The debris had been found by Withers’ son Robert, and it was accompanied by a letter that stated that they believed it to be from Fred’s cessna 182 L – DSJ.  The debris was in 3 pieces and heavily eroded, but BASI immediately set about attempting to determine whether it was in fact from Fred’s plane.

Engine cowl flap debris found off Flinders Island in May 1983, was it from Frederick Valentich’s plane?

The partial serial number visible on the debris, indicated that it came from a range within which DSJ’s serial number fell, meaning it was definitely possible that it was DSJ, but not certain.  The debris however, was not buoyant and so Sandercock wrote to the Royal Australian Navy Research Laboratory to try to understand if it was possible for a piece of debris which could not float to be transported over such a long distance and end up at Flinders Island.  

In October of 1983, Ian Jones of the Ocean Sciences Division of the RAN Research Laboratory replied that indeed it would be possible for the debris in question to have travelled across the bottom of the sea particularly during days when the ocean currents were strong.  Since almost 5 years had passed since Fred went missing it would have been entirely possible that this debris could have been carried to Flinders Island in that time. 

While some are convinced that this cowl flap is almost certainly from Fred’s plane, others are not.  There had been two other known events when cessna aircraft taking off from Flinders Island airport had lost the same piece of engine cowl flap.  Given that this piece was found so close to the runway, it is believed to be more likely to have come from one of these planes.  Modern scientific analysis would be capable of determining whether the piece had been in salt water for 5 years, but unfortunately the debris in question has been lost by the Department of Aviation and so unavailable for testing.  

In October 1988 Guido received a telephone call from celebrated Australian journalist and television personality, Ray Martin.  On the phone call, Martin urged Guido to release his copy of the audio tape of Fred’s last radio transmission.  Guido, unsure as to the legality of such an action contacted BASI to enquire as to whether he was still bound by having signed the agreement six years previously not to release the audio tape beyond his own immediate family.  Sandercock told Guido that the agreement still stood, and as result the latter had to disappoint Ray Martin.

In 1998, VUFORS researcher Paul Norman interviewed an anonymous man who claimed to be witness to a startling sighting on the night of Fred’s disappearance 20 years previously, which he had.  The sighting, which the man had not reported at the time, took place on the Great Ocean Road, at Barham River, about a kilometre south of Apollo Bay.  The anonymous man stated that just beyond the bridge here, he pulled over his car where he and his two nieces, looking in an easterly direction towards the sea, observed a cessna aeroplane slowly descending in a diagonal direction.  While light was fading, as it was dusk, he could clearly make out the cessna and its distinctive white navigation light and red wingtip light.  But, more astonishingly, the cessna was being pursued by a much larger craft, illuminated by a green, circular light travelling on top of and slightly to the rear of the cessna.  He and his nieces stood watching this event for half a minute until both aircraft disappeared from view to the northeast  It was clear that if the cessna had continued on its diagonally downward trajectory it would have splashed down in the sea just off the coast near Apollo Bay.  

Researchers Paul Norman and Richard Haines then wrote a paper about this sighting in which they suggested that, based on this witness description, it was highly probable that Fred had changed course when he encountered the UAP.  They hypothesised that Fred become somewhat disoriented when he first saw it, and turned away from King Island and back towards the coast of Victoria.  Then, at 7:10pm on the transcript Fred states: “what I’m doing right now is orbiting and thing is just orbiting on top of me”.  Normans and Haines suggested at this point Fred was facing towards the Victorian coast before doing a complete 360 degree orbit and continuing towards the coast.

It was soon after this that Fred reported his engine coughing, at which time Norman and Haines suggested, Fred began to lose altitude.  The 17 seconds of indecipherable sounds, they suggested, was possibly caused by Fred’s plane dropping to an altitude when ground to air radio transmission was made impossible due to the curvature of the earth preventing a direct line of sight between the radio tower and the aircraft.  It is believed Fred continued towards the Victorian coast for several more minutes, all the time losing altitude and then turned to the right at 7:16pm heading towards the northeast about 1 to 2 kilometres from the Victorian coast.  It was soon after this, they believe, Fred and the UAP were brseen by the anonymous man and his nieces while continuing a gradual diagonal descent, before disappearing beyond their line of sight and splashing down about 6km out from Apollo Bay at roughly 7:21pm.  

The Norman and Haines paper concluded by recommending an underwater search be conducted at this location, but as of July 2020, this has not occurred. 

Sadly, in the year 2000, Fred’s father Guido passed away, without ever having found an answer as to what happened to his son on that day in 1978.  His mother Alberta and his brother Ricky and sisters Lara and Olivia, still travel to Cape Otway each year to remember Fred and are still looking for answers as to what happened to him.

In researching this episode I was contacted by a source who informed me that, while it has never been released publicly by what is now called the Air Safety Transport Bureau (formely BASI), there are in fact multiple copies of the original 13 minutes Valentich/Robey audio tape.  This source made the claim that an anonymous person who had previously worked for the Department of Transport at Tullamarine Airport had taken recording equipment into their place of work and made a recording of the original, non-edited tape.  This tape has since fallen into the hands of certain anonymous private UAP researchers.  Despite this, these individuals have never released the tape publicly, as technically, the tape is the property of the Department of Transport.

As of July 2020, Frederick Valentich is still officially listed as a missing person, and as far as we know, nobody knows what happened to him.  His family members still hold out hope that one day some evidence will come to light revealing what his fate was.

My name is Eamonn and you’re listening to Melbourne Marvels, a podcast about interesting events that have happened in the Melbourne area throughout history.  I am releasing this podcast in recognition of national missing person’s week in order to highlight the plight of families who suffer from not knowing what happened to their missing loved one, as is very much the case with Frederick Valentich.  I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to the podcast. 

If you would like to reach out to me to ask me about anything in the podcast, please feel free to do so.  You can contact me by email on melbinmarvels@gmail.com or you can follow me, on Facebook at Melbourne Marvels, on Instagram at melbinmarvels, or on Twitter on @melbinmarvels.  If you would like to support this show, please do so by either leaving a 5 star review for the podcast on itunes, or writing a positive review on the Facebook Page.  Leaving these positive reviews will mean that the show is exposed to more people online.  You can also support the show financially by seeking out the podcast on Patreon and donating as little as $1 per episode.  This really helps with the expenses of the upkeep of the show.  For example, I must pay an annual fee for the webpage, I have also paid for equipment I’m using to record the show and I also pay for monthly subscriptions to newspapers.com.  I really appreciate any support you can manage, but don’t feel like you have to donate, especially in these difficult financial times, as I wouldn’t want anybody to pay who is not able to afford it.  

I would also like to thank independent researcher Paul Dean for being a valuable source of information on this incident.  Thank you also to George Simpson of VUFOA for giving his time to discuss this case. I would also like to thank Rhonda Rushton for answering the questions I put to her about Fred.  I would like to thank the following musicians from freesound.org for allowing their productions to be used as part of the soundtrack to the podcast: Erokia; Ispeakwaves; samplingsamthemarylandman; josefpres; erh.

Eamonn Gunning 4/8/2020

Sources

Valentich 40, a video record of an event marking the 40th anniversary of the Valentich disappearance

Haines, Richard F., and Norman, Paul, 2000. Valentich disappearance: New evidence and a new conclusion. Journal of Scientific Exploration (Vol. 14 No. 1, 2000)

National Archives of Australia: www.gov.au File numbers:

V116/783/1047; (Includes Department of Transport Investigation Report and newspaper reports about incident)

M116/783/1047 PART 1; (Includes Department of Transport Investigation Report and newspaper reports about incident)

A9755 parts 1-24 (RAAF UAS Reports)

NB: After completing this podcast and blogpost I learnt that researcher Keith Basterfield was largely responsible for the digitisation of the above files. While I didn’t rely on his blog in my research for this work, he is probably the most important researcher on this topic and you can view what he has to say on it by visiting his blog here.

Newspapers: The Australian; Melbourne Truth; The Herald; The Sun; Bendigo Advertiser; Courier (Ballarat)

Magazines: Idea UFO Quarterly

Music Sources Artists from freesound.org

Erokia; Ispeakwaves; samplingsamthemarylandman; josefpres; erh