I recently came across an old (March 1979) issue of Fate magazine, which promised “The World’s Mysteries Explored.” One featured story was headlined: “Did UFO Abduct Aircraft?” As I suspected, that case was one destined to become a classic of UFOlogy, one that I would eventually have a hand in solving—at the request of a television show—in 2013.
The strange story begins in Australia, shortly after sunset on October 21, 1978. A twenty-year-old pilot, Fred Valentich, was flying his Cessna over the Bass Strait when he radioed Melbourne air control. He reported a “strange aircraft”—first hovering over him, and then orbiting him. The UFO, he said, had “four bright, it seems to me like landing lights” and was “at least a thousand feet above.” Then, soon, Valentich’s radio fell silent and he (a UFO enthusiast) disappeared with his plane. At first, some thought the incident was a hoax, while others saw it as one of the most mystifying “saucer” cases, and still others would opine Valentich and his plane were abducted by extraterrestrials.
What had really happened to pilot and plane? I mentioned I had had a hand in answering that question. That is, I began to research the case—gone cold for 35 years. I obtained the best possible transcript of the exchange between young Valentich and Melbourne Air Flight Service, and began forming hypotheses. My most important contribution was to bring in my secret weapon.
He is Major James McGaha, USAF retired, a former special-operations pilot and an astronomer. As such, he has a unique knowledge of both the sky and airplanes. McGaha began with the data I had gathered as to place and time, using it to do a computer recreation of the sky in question. He readily identified Valentich’s four points of light as Venus, Mars, Mercury, and the bright star Antares, which together formed a diamond shape.
Naturally this perceived UFO could not have orbited Valentich, so McGaha brilliantly realized that it was the airplane that had been turning. That is, Valentich was disoriented and making a “graveyard spiral” (like young John Kennedy Jr. over two decades later). He obviously plummeted to his death.
Some five years afterward that scenario was confirmed when parts of Valentich’s Cessna were finally identified. The solution had awaited someone—like McGaha—who was both an astronomer and a pilot. (See James McGaha and Joe Nickell, “The Valentich Disappearance,” Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 2013, 46–49.)