On numerous occasions, I have pointed out the value of going back to original source material, when researching cases. This was again brought back to me the other day, when I was re-examining a classic 1954 Australian radar/visual event, commonly known as the "Nowra incident."
One of the secondary sources which I located was a book titled "Flight Into the Ages: Incredible True Stories of Airmen on the Earth Plane and Beyond," published in 1991 by Felspin Pty Ltd of New South Wales. ISBN 0646074911.
The book's author was Ken Llewelyn, who was a senior Public Relations Officer with the RAAF. I'd like to reproduce some of the text on the case from pages 137-139 of the book, as it is often cited as an authoritative source of information on the Nowra incident.
Flight Into the Ages:
"First, however, consider the experience of a Royal Australian Navy pilot on 15 December 1954.
Lieutenant Shamus O'Farrell was flying a powerful Sea Fury aircraft on a standard night-navigation exercise from his base at Nowra, 160 kilometres south of Sydney, when he experienced an event which confounded experts in the Department of Defence. Shamus had taken off at dusk and been flying for about two hours. His British-built fighter was powered by a massive eighteen cylinder British Centauris radial engine and, apart from the RAAF's recently introduced Meteors, it was the fastest flying machine in the country, with a top speed of 400 knots.
The incident, which happened at about 8.00 p.m., is described in the pilot's own words: "From memory, I was just over 12,000 feet. It was a fine dark night. The stars were all out with no moon, no clouds, no bad weather and good visibility. A pleasant night for night flying.
'I had been airborne for about two hours and I was somewhere in the Goulburn region, near Canberra. When I left Nowra, the radar there was not working, but they were hoping to get it on line by the time I returned. The operators asked me to call so that they could do a check-tune on me as I came in. I was surprised when I saw two aircraft, one on either side of me, each with a single bright light above it, but with no navigation lights. In fact, it was quite a shock because everything was going well. I was keeping a lookout, constantly scanning from one side of the aircraft to the other. They came from astern and I looked out to one side and thought, "Gee, what is that?" I continued to look around and there, on the other side, was another one. And then I thought about it for some time to make sure I wasn't seeing things that weren't there. But sure enough, I could see two dark, cigar-shaped objects - not very long, about the size of a Dakota - but their central bright lights made their outline quite distinct. I could see no other details, no other lights - just one bright light centrally placed over the top of each mass.
"I became concerned at the presence of these objects and began to think about the situation again: "If I say too much they will think I am seeing objects that aren't there, and they will get worried; the best thing to do is to say nothing and just call up Nowra." I asked them, "Do you have me on radar?" Back came Petty Officer Jessop's reply, "Yes we have an aircraft coming in from the west - in fact we have got three. Which one are you?" And I replied, "I am the one in the centre." And then he said, "Fly a one-eighty for identification."
So I turned through 180 degrees. "Yes, I have got you turning in the centre," he said. I finally finished with a 360 degree turn because I lagged behind the other two aircraft, who had continued to move ahead. Then, when I came back up, they settled back into formation with me.
"I still believed they could be aircraft without their lights on I was expecting to see a red or green light or flashing lights, but each had a steady light. I tried to visualize other unusual combinations of lights which may have created the effect - even landing lights on the underside of an aircraft. But the lights were above the aircraft, or whatever they were.
"Nowra was worried after I called because they had started checking and found out that there were no other aircraft airborne on the east coast. All RAAF aircraft were on the ground and a civil aircraft that had been flying in the region had already landed. I was the only aircraft airborne.
"Then I started to think, "Well, who the hell are they? because I was cruising about 330 knots and, apart from the RAAF's Meteors, I knew everyone else would have trouble staying with me. They were in sight for about ten minutes - at all times in immaculate formation. Then, suddenly they left me and headed off to the north-east, going very fast. I was about to press the transmit button when Nowra radar contacted me and said, "Those other two contacts are leaving the screen fast to the north-east." I said, "Roger" and felt very relieved that they had gone.
"I later learned that they had headed over Marulan navigation beacon, where they happened to be an officer from the Department of Aviation carrying out repairs to the beacon. He looked up and noted the time when the two fast lights had flashed past. He noted the occurrence in a book. A short time later, and air traffic controller in the tower at Sydney's Mascot Airport, which was pretty quiet in those days, saw two lights coming over very rapidly from the south-west. He, too, logged the time in a book. Later the RAAF plotted out a straight line from where I was and then worked back from Sydney and the beacon. By checking my position on the navigation chart, they calculated that we had all sighted the same lights. The RAAF said the speed was extremely fast, and I know it was because they left me standing. They took off at two or three times the speed I was doing - probably around 1000 miles per hour.
When Lieutenant O'Farrell landed, he was surprised to see a big welcoming committee. He was met by Nowra's medical officer, who gave him an examination and asked if he felt all right. His pattern of drinking came under scrutiny, and his cabin (naval term for room) was searched and his Wardroom (Officer's Mess) bar figures were also checked for signs of excessive consumption. However, Shamus drank very little in those days. The twenty-five year old pilot became a minor celebrity and was questioned on a number of occasions by RAAF intelligence officers to try to find out exactly what he saw on the night of 15 December.
Shamus O'Farrell became one of the Navy's most experienced fighter pilots and amassed more than 4500 hours flying time before retiring with the rank of Commodore after his posting to Washington as a naval attache."
To be continued.