Friday, February 19, 2010

TV Air Force, Real Air Force

Jack Webb's televised weekly homage (with assistance from former USAF officer William Coleman) to Project Blue Book, "Project UFO," ran on NBC-TV in the late seventies. Every week, things were much the same. An Air Force captain (played by two different actors as seasons progressed) and his faithful staff sergeant (eventually promoted to tech sgt.) sidekick investigated "real" UFO reports, and the case would be solved within a TV hour. However, even while TV Air Force personnel were solving everything in sight, events taking place far away from bright living room screens seemed another matter.

Australian TV news reporter Quentin Fogarty's book, Let's Hope They're Friendly, was published in 1982 and I wrote a brief review for the journal, Pursuit in 1983. While flying over New Zealand in 1978, Fogarty and his news crew filmed a very peculiar blob-like UFO (see photo) over Kaikoura, and radar confirmation was touted as the story became the talk of international news media. Further information may be found about this complex incident elsewhere (check out my links), and I would certainly refer one and all to Fogarty's excellent book, chronicling an event which actually encompassed a series of events. But my reason for bringing the case up now is because New Zealand, like other nations which decided to come clean -- we hope, reasonably -- about formerly secret UFO files is on the move, currently readying files minus personal information.

Though I've forgotten so much about the 1978 incidents, my intrigue was renewed when reading an article in The Press (New Zealand) dated January 23, 2010, written by reporter Charlie Gates. Discussing the pending file release, Gates writes:

Lights were seen in the sky over Kaikoura in December 1978 and filmed by an Australian news crew. Aircraft tracked the lights, also seen on radar. A man who worked for the Transport Ministry's civil aviation division when the Kaikoura lights were seen said he would like to see the government files. The man, who wanted to remain anonymous, said he was working at Christchurch International Airport at the time. He saw United States Air Force planes with unusual call signs touring the area and believes the full story about the lights has not been disclosed. "For the US Air Force to come all that way and spend three days here, there must have been something going on," he said.

Whatever the purpose of U.S. Air Force involvement, I think we can all agree that anything potentially insightful or jaw-dropping will not appear in the files. Still -- if the witness's account is correct, what would be the role of the USAF? Some might be inclined to say, aha! -- there was a military project and UFO activity was not involved at all. Others might be suspicious that the U.S. was very concerned about the Kaikoura incident, thus a, perhaps, enhanced U.S. Air Force presence.
I'll opt to speculate a bit further. Barely two months before the New Zealand film received widespread TV airings around the globe, 20-year-old Australian pilot Frederick Valentich disappeared over the Bass Strait, 130 miles south of Melbourne, following what seemed, by all accounts, pursuit by an unidentified object with four green lights and a metallic appearance. Chilling radio transmissions between the young pilot and distant control tower personnel paint a picture of a dangerous and, ultimately, deadly encounter. No trace of Valentich or his Cessna was ever found, though an oil slick discovered during search operations the day following final radio contact gave authorities a glimmer of hope -- until they determined the substance was unrelated to the Cessna.
If the Kaikoura occurrences presented to military officials as something special and glitzy -- strategically informative -- then concentrated official interest is exactly what one would expect. However, what of the raw nerve created by the Valentich incident just weeks before off the Australian coast? And there were other UFO sightings and witnesses wishing to be believed.
My pointless point: Said interested observer who worked for the Transport Ministry's civil aviation division in New Zealand likely won't learn much about U.S. Air Force involvement. Concealing the juicy stuff under national security labels is just too easy, even necessary now and then. My question is, why merely stew over Fogarty's news crew film when a young pilot conversing with a tower about a dramatic UFO encounter disappeared mysteriously? That was big stuff. If the USAF was on site in force in that general area, there had to be more going on, much more. It was all too coincidental. If critics suggest that the Kaikoura UFO event was somehow engineered by covert military, then I suppose they would assume that Valentich was also intentionally taken out by the same military operation, amidst some vast war game conducted for reasons unknown.

The New Zealand film, plus the Valentich disappearance, plus who knows? If the USAF really had flown into that part of the world on some UFO-related mission, the reason wasn't simply a film.

So, Quentin Fogarty authored a book to tell the world his story, and research scientist Dr. Richard F. Haines published in 1987 his thoughtful and heartbreaking account of young Frederick's apparent disappearance (Melbourne Episode: Case Study of a Missing Pilot) due to a bizarre encounter which, perhaps, rivaled the strangest of them all. Haines offered up several possible scenarios, not the least of which conjured an early "Star Wars" military experiment, during which the pilot and his craft might literally have been vaporized in error by "friendly" forces. Oops.
Aside from mysteries aplenty, there remained the often forgotten and tragic figure of GuidoValentich, a father mourning the presumed loss of his son, never able to gain closure through official channels. Too bad the Valentich affair and a dramatic episode high in the skies above Kaikoura couldn't have been featured on NBC-TV's "Project UFO." Capt. Ben Ryan and Sgt. Harry Fitz would have nailed down all the loose ends in an hour, with a little help from Joe Friday behind the camera.