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Trained Pilots Are Still Mixed About the Valentich Disappearance

Among the most curious cases of a missing person ever to be reported, the disappearance of 20-year-old Frederick Valentich on October 21, 1978 has continued to haunt aviation experts and UFO researchers alike.

Valentich, as government documents pertaining to the investigation have shown, had been something of a UFO enthusiast at the time of his death. As he flew over the Bass Strait on the night of his disappearance, he had been in contact with air traffic control at Melbourne, and described a greenish illuminated object that was accompanying him as he flew, occasionally racing away, circling him, and performing other curious maneuvers.

According to officials with Australia’s Department of Transport, one theory had been that, “Valentich became disorientated and saw his own lights reflected in the water, or lights from a nearby island, while flying upside down,” as reported in the October 23 edition of the Toledo Blade. However, is this a plausible explanation for what may have happened?


Yes, and no, according to pilots weighing in on the matter. In response to discussion of the Valentich case on a recent edition of The Gralien Report Podcast, several opinions were sent along by pilots who chose to weigh in on the matter, resulting in a number of different opinions regarding the likelihood of the “upside down” hypothesis.

Two of the responses were quite thorough, and hence I present them here for consideration. The first arrives from a friend of mine, Bill, who after serving time as a pilot and with the U.S. Navy, offered these thoughts:

As a pilot, I must disagree. The reason they have gyroscopic instruments in the cockpit (not only a gyro-compass, but a Turn & Bank Indicator and Artificial Horizon) is because the human apparatus can be easily confused. When John (John-John) Kennedy flew his Cessna into Long Island Sound, he didn’t know he was in a steep turn, and thinking he was flying straight and level, he basically flew into the water. There are numerous cases of pilots being in physical attitudes drastically different from what they think. The problem is that the pilot thinks he’s flying one way, and he rationalizes that attitude. Part of the training for an Instrument Rating, which training I have taken and which Rating I have earned, is to let the instructor fly the plane while the pilot is not paying attention to what the instructor is doing. The plane is put into an “unusual attitude” and control returned to the pilot with the instruction that he is to recover the plane. It’s amazing what the mind tells the pilot is going on as opposed to what is actually happening. The pilot, then, has to refer to the instruments to determine the plane’s attitude, airspeed, altitude, etc., and take appropriate steps to return the plane to straight and level flight. While such an exercise never leaves the plane inverted, but I was surprised to read reports of student pilots or licensed pilots training for instrument ratings would actually turn the plane upside down in an effort to return to normal flight. Their mistake, in every instance, was interpreting the instrumentation incorrectly. 

My flight examiner (the guy who tested my proficiency and issued my pilot’s license) had a unique skill. He would change the plane’s attitude, airspeed and power setting so subtly that I did not realize what was happening. Once he gave control of the plane back to me with the nose low (thus accelerating), the power setting low (thus descending), and in a 45 degree bank to the left. The first thing I saw was the low airspeed (if the speed gets too slow, the wings stop flying and the plane drops), but I realized that it was accelerating. So instead of adding power to “recover”, I left the power alone, leveled the wings and raised the nose. Voila! (The examiner was suitably impressed).

What you might wish to do is to take a few hours of flight training with a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) and ask him to demonstrate recovery from unusual attitudes. You will see, right away, how much the human mind can misinterpret from physical discernment. Have fun, and realize that the Instructor will not let you kill him, and thus you are in no danger.

Offering an alternative viewpoint, Ian, a flight instructor, shared his feelings that the “upside down hypothesis” seemed unlikely:

I am a flight instructor with Training Squadron 28.  Part of our flight syllabus includes a short period of inverted flight either as a demonstration of what inverted flight feels like, doing aerobatics, or as part of unusual attitude recovery training.  If you are inverted due to aerobatics (or unusual attitudes) you have done some sort of severe multiple G pulling maneuver to get into that.  I’m not 100% sure his type of aircraft but I am pretty sure that it is not aerobatically rated and would rip the wings off.  Otherwise, if you just roll inverted you know it.  You hang uncomfortably in your seat held only in place by your harness.  It is not a comfortable feeling.  Even if you have severe vertigo (a debilitating mental situation that causes you to lose all sense of up and down) you would still probably figure out you were inverted quickly.  We had a case a few years back where as student and instructor got into an inverted spin and had to bail out.  They emergency opened the canopy (these aircraft are not ejection seat capable) and unfastened their harness and before they could dive our on their own, fell out of the aircraft and cleared it safely.  My point of that is even doing a high speed inverted spinning dive, gravity still pulled them out faster.  They were well aware that they were upside down.  

It is possible that he got into a death spiral; a situation where the pilot (usually not instrument rated or experienced) gets into a slow descending spiral into the ground (the JFK jr. crash is an example of this).  Valentich had a class-4 instrument rating-I don’t know the equivalent here in the states but if the conditions were conducive to him crashing in this manner I think the Australian government would have brought this up.  Plus it would have been very clear on radar as he would have been seen losing altitude and in a turn.

One again a skeptic puts out a theory about something they know nothing about.

It is interesting to hear from qualified individuals on the matter, as new evidence, or at least new interpretation as presented here, may help us learn new things about old cases. And yet, the mystery of Valentich’s disappearance remains just that: mysterious, if not baffling altogether. What really could have contributed to so much confusion, both on part of the young pilot in training the night he went missing, as well as the scores of researchers who have sought to understand the cause behind his disappearance?

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  • Linley Kissick

    In the documents, it states the cessna was not detectable on radar, Valentich radioed his coordinates.
    There was also a meteor shower around the same time.
    Not saying a meteor knocked him out of the sky, but it could be why people saw flashing lights across the bay and inland.
    I have presented a talk on Valentich and have more talks planned.
    I will definitely give your podcast a listen.
    I have always been interested in this story and rode to Cape Otway just to see his memorial.
    I also worked with Steve Robey who was ATC.
    Thank you for this.. More ideas for updating my presentation for future talks

  • J.Griffin

    Below is an

    It really doesn’t sound like he was just flying around inverted.

    I have a bit of aerobatic flight experience-
    EVERYTHING must be stowed&secured.

    Anything such as a flight bag,nav tools such as pens&charts,sunglasses,beverages
    and even things such as old fashioned headset cords
    can cause serious problems.

    “Anything loose is on the roof”.

    as is far too common,
    such explanations are far more unlikely than what the skeptics are trying to explain away.

    It is quite possible that something other than alien abduction
    took place-
    inverted flight is not one of them.

    They are trying to explain the pilot’s visual experiences but the sensual experiences and the duration of the event are incompatible with that.

    As I said 3 years ago,
    the plane would also have already shut off from fuel starvation
    from flying inverted
    before he could have flown long enough to have had a radio contact
    of this duration.

    he clearly confirms his altitude at 4,500 feet-
    almost a mile above the water.

    It is HIGHLY unlikely that he even “flew into the water” from that altitude without him OR the controller noticing.

    In such an event,
    the controller would be monitoring him
    pretty closely to try to figure out what was going on-

    It would take about 3 minutes in a fairly serious dive to hit the water from that altitude.

    It is bizarre how unlikely such “explanations” of attempted debunkers can be at times…
    and that one came from the Australian DOT,
    (Dept. of Transport)
    as well.

    The transcript portion of the communication between
    F. Valentich and Melbourne Flight Service as released by the Australian Department of Transport follows: (FS – Flight Service, DSJ – Frederick Valentich aircraft designation).

    1906:14 DSJ Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet. Is there any known traffic below five thousand?

    FS Delta Sierra Juliet, no known traffic.

    DSJ Delta Sierra Juliet, I am, seems to be a large aircraft below five thousand.

    1906:44 FS Delta Sierra Juliet, What type of aircraft is it?

    DSJ Delta Sierra Juliet, I cannot affirm, it is four bright, it seems to me like landing lights.

    1907 FS Delta Sierra Juliet.

    1907:31 DSJ Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet, the aircraft has just passed over me at least a thousand feet above.

    FS Delta Sierra Juliet, roger, and it is a large aircraft, confirmed?

    DSJ Er-unknown, due to the speed it’s travelling, is there any air force aircraft in the vicinity?

    FS Delta Sierra Juliet, no known aircraft in the vicinity.

    1908:18 DSJ Melbourne, it’s approaching now from due east towards me.

    FS Delta Sierra Juliet.

    1908:41 DSJ (open microphone for two seconds.)

    1908:48 DSJ Delta Sierra Juliet, it seems to me that he’s playing some sort of game, he’s flying over me two, three times at speeds I could not identify.

    1909 FS Delta Sierra Juliet, roger, what is your actual level?

    DSJ My level is four and a half thousand, four five zero zero.

    FS Delta Sierra Juliet, and you confirm you cannot identify the aircraft?

    DSJ Affirmative.

    FS Delta Sierra Juliet, roger, stand by.

    1909:27 DSJ Melbourne, Delta Sierra Juliet, it’s not an aircraft it is (open microphone for two seconds).

    1909:42 FS Delta Sierra Juliet, can you describe the -er- aircraft?

    DSJ Delta Sierra Juliet, as it’s flying past it’s a long shape (open microphone for three seconds) cannot identify more than it has such speed (open microphone for three seconds). It’s before me right now Melbourne.

    1910 FS Delta Sierra Juliet, roger and how large would the – er – object be?

    1910:19 DSJ Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne, 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.

    FS Delta Sierra Juliet

    1910:46 DSJ Delta Sierra Juliet (open microphone for three seconds) It’s just vanished.

    FS Delta Sierra Juliet

    1911 DSJ Melbourne, would you know what kind of aircraft I’ve got? Is it a military aircraft?

    FS Delta Sierra Juliet, Confirm the – er ~ aircraft just vanished.

    DSJ Say again.

    FS Delta Sierra Juliet, is the aircraft still with you?

    DSJ Delta Sierra Juliet; it’s (open microphone for two seconds) now approaching from the south-west.

    FS Delta Sierra Juliet

    1911:50 DSJ Delta Sierra Juliet, the engine is rough-idling. I’ve got it set at twenty three twenty-four and the thing is coughing.

    FS Delta Sierra Juliet, roger, what are your intentions?

    DSJ My intentions are – ah – to go to King Island – ah – Melbourne. That strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again (open microphone for two seconds). It is hovering and it’s not an aircraft.

    FS Delta Sierra Juliet.

    1912:28 DSJ Delta Sierra Juliet. Melbourne (open microphone for seventeen seconds).