April 1966: the 'Westall UFO' suddenly appears in the sky over the suburbs of Melbourne. Was it a weather balloon, an experimental plane, or... something else?
Clayton South, south east of Melbourne, is an average middle class suburb a short distance from the CBD. Established in 1929 as the city expanded, the Clayton area today is the very picture of modest, well kept ordinariness.
There are houses and apartment buildings, and a number of schools and parks. One of Melbourne's best universities, Monash, is a short distance away, as is one of Australia's best golf courses, in Kingston Heath.
But Clayton South has as extraordinary footnote in the history of our city; it is also the site of Australia's largest mass UFO Sighting.
April 6, 1966 seemed a typical autumn day for the teachers and students heading into the two local schools, Westall High and Westall State school, the adjacent primary. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, a day like any other.
Around 11.00am, a class of students at the high school were playing a game of cricket on the sports oval. Other children milled around at the end of their morning break.
All of a sudden, something unusual appeared in the sky. An object, a silver-grey disk or saucer, moving slowly over the school, heading south.
The shock caused by the saucer's appearance was immediate. Children shrieked, ran around in panic, while several threw themselves to the ground in fright:
'We were out playing sport on the oval. One of the kids yelled out, "Look! Look up in the sky! It's flying saucers!" And i remember we all looked up and it really was; a flying saucer.'
- Terry Peck, eyewitness
The commotion drew more students and teachers, who ran outside to see what was happening. As many as 100 witnesses at Westall High indicated they saw something in the sky, although their testimony as to what, varies.
Andrew Greenwood, a science teacher, said he saw a silvery-green disk, about twice the size of a family car.
Joy Clarke, a second form student, said she saw 'three flying saucers.'
Some witnesses reported hearing engine noise coming from the object, or that they saw a light aircraft pursuing it. Other witnesses have refuted these aspects.
The object's trajectory took it over the high school and then over the primary school, where its appearance again caused pandemonium. Children in both schools ran around chaotically; crying, yelling, pointing at the sky.
'All the students were just running all over the place, hysterical. My girlfriend and I just sat on the fence - climbed the fence at the school boundary - and we were crying, thinking it was the end of the world.'
- Mary Eastwood, eyewitness
Next to the primary school was an open patch of vacant, overgrown land, called Grange Reserve. The object lost height once it was over the reserve and was witnessed descending behind a stand of trees. A number of excited students made to pursue the craft, some by climbing the school fence.
But after a short pause, probably no more than a couple of minutes, the object ascended from the trees again and departed the area, heading north west. It was soon lost from view, never to be seen again.
Witnesses who made it into Grange Reserve shortly after the object's final disappearance reported seeing a flattened circle on the ground.
Back at the high school, in the immediate aftermath, Principal Frank Samblebe called an assembly. He told the stunned students to calm down, and warned that the incident was not to be discussed.
'He didn't want to hear any more about this nonsense. We were not to discuss it ever again.'
- Susanne Savage, Westall student
The press coverage the following day was mixed. The local newspaper, The Dandenong Journal, made the 'Flying Saucer Mystery' its front page.
While The Age ran a smaller, more measured, item in its local news section, claiming the UFO to be a damaged weather balloon. And it is this second story, the weather balloon, that has come closest to being accepted as an 'official' version of events.
But if it was a weather balloon, it should have left a paper trail in the government archives. These have been researched thoroughly by private investigators, but no documents or other evidence of a weather balloon in the area has ever come to light.
State and Federal governments have both denied involvement in the incident, in any capacity.
The absence of any formal explanation has allowed a number of theories to take root. The Westall UFO has a global profile as one of the world's most well known UFO sightings, and is one of the few to feature a large number of credible witnesses.
In 2010, researcher Shane Ryan appeared in a documentary - 'Westall '66' - discussing his investigation of the incident, based on research over a five year period. Through a public appeal, Ryan was able to uncover previously unknown witnesses to the event, and he also spoke to a number of sources within the government, and the armed services.
Ryan's investigation lead him to conclude that the cause of the incident was most likely the crash landing of a secret government aircraft, although he was never able to have this confirmed, on the record.
'It's obvious to me that all those people saw something very strange and unusual. And somebody within the government really didn't want the story to get out.'
- Shane Ryan, nvestigator
Ryan's frustration mirrors that of the witnesses to the event, who are now resigned to the fact the truth behind what occurred will probably never come out. As time passes, and memories get hazy, the 'Westall UFO' looks set to remain one of Australia's most intriguing unsolved mysteries.
A small information board at Grange Reserve, sometimes known as 'UFO Park', marks the location of the event.