October 1978: A young Melbourne pilot takes off from Moorabbin airport in a light aircraft, headed for an island in Bass Strait. An hour into his flight, he radios air traffic control to report he is being pursued by a UFO. A few minutes after this, his radio goes dead in a burst of static. His name was Frederick Valentich, and no trace of him has ever been found.
Frederick Valentich had always wanted to be a pilot. It was all he had ever expressed an interest in doing.
He was so enthusiastic that he started flying lessons as a teenager, as soon as he was legally able. By the time he was 18 he had already obtained his pilots license.
Valentich would take flights from Moorabin Airport, using an old RAAF training plane, as he built up his experience. Longer term, his goal was to either join the Air Force, or become a commercial airline pilot.
By October 1978, Valentich had attained a Class 4 instrument rating, significant for someone his age, and had 150 hours of flight time behind him. While he was young and inexperienced, he had a steady temperament, and had impressed his instructors with his natural ability.
Halfway between Victoria and Tasmania, King Island is a tiny green spec in the middle of Bass Strait. Originally settled by whalers in the 19th century, the rugged, windswept island had gradually developed into a high end agricultural centre, famed for it's cheese and beef.
On October 21, 1978, Frederick Valentich filed a flight plan with Moorabin Airport advising of a trip to the island. The Valentich's were hosting a family get together, and Frederick was going to collect one of his relatives from King Island. While Bass Strait was known for its rough weather, on October 21 conditions were clear, the night still.
The 235 kilometre round trip was expected to take about three hours.
Valentich took off in a Cessna 182L at 6.19 pm, and headed south.
At 7.00 pm he radioed back to Melbourne Air Traffic Control as he flew over Cape Otway, on Victoria's south coast. Everything was fine at this stage; winds were light, visibility good.
At 7.06 pm, Valentich radioed Melbourne to ask if there were any other aircraft in his vicinity.
Told that there weren't, Valentich reported that a large aircraft had just flown over him, about a thousand feet above his own plane.
Flight Officer Steve Robey, on duty at Melbourne Air Traffic Control, asked Valentich to identify the aircraft.
Valentich told him this was difficult, due to the other plane's high velocity. But he stated that it looked metallic and had four bright lights on it, like landing lights.
Valentich then told Robey that the other plane had circled above him for a few moments, 'orbiting' as he put it, before vanishing.
At 7.09 pm, Valentich contacted again to report that the unknown plane had returned and was approaching him at high speed from the South East. He added that he thought the other pilot was 'playing a game' with him.
Asked again by Robey to describe the other craft, Valentich now added that it had a 'long shape,' that its lights were green and that its exterior was 'shiny.'
One minute later, Valentich reported another fly over by the craft, this time from the South West.
At 7.11 pm, he also indicated that his own plane was showing some signs of mechanical difficulty; that the engine was 'rough idling.'
Asked his intentions by Robey, Valentich confirmed that he was going to push on for King Island. At this stage, he should have only been about twenty minutes flying time from his destination.
At 7.12 pm, only six minutes after he had first reported the other mysterious craft, Valentich sent his final message:
That strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again. It's hovering... and it's not an aircraft.
- Frederick Valentich
This was followed by 19 seconds of static, and then all contact was lost.
Unable to communicate with Valentich, Robey raised the alarm and a Search and Rescue order was issued.
Two RAAF transport planes were immediately dispatched to search for Valentich's Cesna, although the advanced hour and poor visibility meant that not much was done on the first evening.
The press carried the story in the morning, highlighting the unusual nature of the incident, and the pilot's own description of encountering a 'UFO.'
The search continued for four subsequent days, but no wreckage or any other physical evidence would be found. A small oil slick was spotted on the sea's surface just near the Cape Otway lighthouse, where Valentich radioed shortly before his strange encounter began, but a subsequent analysis showed the oil was not aviation fuel and this clue was abandoned.
After two weeks, the Victorian Department of Transport would conclude that the cause of Valentich's disappearance was 'unknown,' although it was presumed to be fatal for the young man.
So what happened to Frederick Valentich?
The most likely explanation is that Valentich crashed his plane.
While it was considered unusual that no wreckage was found during the search, this was not thought of as conclusive evidence that he had not crashed. The difficulty of any search at sea, combined with the rough nature of the water, may have caused the wreckage to sink or disperse in such a way as to leave no trace.
Another difficulty for the search and rescue teams was that Valentich's Cessna was small enough that it did not show up on Melbourne Air Traffic's radar. So there was no way of verifying exactly where Valentich was, prior to his disappearance.
But the lack of evidence left the door open for other theories.
On the evening of October 21, Melbourne plumber Roy Manifold was driving along the Great Ocean Road, south of Melbourne, when he stopped to take some photos of the sunset.
At around 6.45pm, he claims to have seen a large object emerge from the water, several hundred metres off shore. The object was disk shaped, rose rapidly, and then sped off at high velocity, quickly disappearing from view.
Other witnesses also came forward to say that they had seen unusual lights in the sky over Bass Strait that night.
A local man and his two young nieces, never publicly identified, later reported to UFO investigators that they had seen lights near Apollo Bay.
Driving home along Barham River Road, after a rabbit shooting trip, these witnesses claim to have seen a set of lights, like those of a small plane, with a second green light hovering above.
The man thought the sight remarkable enough that he pulled his car over so he could watch the lights more carefully. The lights were moving from right to left, with a downward trajectory, and it took about 90 seconds before they disappeared from view behind the treeline.
The Manifold photos, Valentich's final radio message, and several 'eyewitness' accounts, have all helped the Valentich case become a favourite of UFO and paranormal investigators. A wealth of information about the disappearance is available online - most of it simple speculation - and there have been books, documentary films, and even a segment on the US TV show 'Unsolved Mysteries'.
Which brings us back to where we started.
The Disappearance of Frederick Valentich is not likely to be solved conclusively. But that's part of it's enduring fascination; somewhere, someone, something... there just might be that crucial piece of evidence, waiting to be discovered.