Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Cold case 13 Jan 1965 Qantas aircrew - solved



I have been collecting UFO reports and cataloguing them since the 1970's. My catalogues are available on the net at http://www.project1947.com/47cats.htm

One of my catalogues is "A catalogue of Australian observations of UFOs from aircraft crew members and passengers."

One of the cases has always held my special interest, and was the reported observation of a UFO by the crew of an Australian Qantas aircraft, off the coast of New Zealand, inbound to Sydney, Australia on 13 January 1965. When the Disclosure Australia Project examined the Australian Government UFO files, there was some information on the case on RAAF file 580/1/1 part 4. A digitised image of the relevant two pages is available from the National Archives of Australia website at http://www.naa.gov.au/ Open the website, click on "RecordSearch," click on "search now as a guest," in the "keywords" box type the words "flying objects" and click on search. Scroll down to 580/1/1 part 4 and go to pages 121-122.

I always wanted to find out further details but didn't think this was possible, given the lack of complete information in the Australian RAAF file. However, with the recent release of some of the New Zealand Defence Force's UFO files (they still haven't released their Defence Intelligence UFO files) I was able to learn more. Particularly, that the Qantas sighting triggered a military response in NZ fearing there were inbound unidentified aircraft involved, and a search for unidentified surface ships.

New Zealand Defence Force file:

File AIR 244/10/1 Volume 1 is titled "Reports of UFOs" and covers the years 1959 to 1983. It holds a number of documents regarding the Qantas report.

Document one is a telex dated 13 Jan 1965 and labelled "Confidential."

"Attention DAFI RNZAF DCAS and RNZAF staff liasion officer. Further to Telecon DDOps RNZAF and S Intel HQOPCOM concerning sighting of UFOs by Qantas crew flight 363 Captain Shannon on 13 Jan. Following are pertinent points obtained from interview:-

Para One. Aircraft position 41S 167E Course 275M Height 20000 feet Time 130845Z Shortly after sunset.

Para two. Weather: Strata cloud tops 7000 feet, clear otherwise, vis 30-40, Nil jet streams, front approx 169E.

Para three. Objects: Single vapour trail appeared to north west traveling east at approximately mach one plus becoming seven distinct contrails apparently made by large aircraft in loose formation. Altitude angle from observers approximately 30 degrees. Height estimated as H35-45000 feet. Trail dissipated from rear.

Para four. Observers: All crew members observed trails from various parts of the aircraft and agree with little variation to above. Source considered reliable.

Para five. Other information: Second pilot also recalls that at approximately longitude 166E this morning on the Sydney-Wellington flight he noticed what he considered as eleven ships in group on his radar screen.

Para six. For DAFI: RNZAF advise surveillance radars at Wellington and Ohakea recording nothing at height within 15-200 mls except quote angels unquote south of Wellington speed approx 100kts. NZ press are aware of sighting has been reported and RNZAF has suggested to them that weather phenomena is possible explanation, at this stage."

There is a hand written file reference of 244/10/1.

Document two is an Air Department NZ Aeronautical Message Form dated 13 Jan 1965 and is handwritten. The hand notes read:

"Qantas flight 373. Chch-Syd ETA Syd 1153Z. Capt (illegible word) Shannon. Sighted 0850Z. Approx 300m due west Wlton 41S 168E. 2150 Mon 30000 ft 10 secs. 10 deg Due E-W.

Week before 2 objects Just above horizon E-W Mile apart. 2 weeks ago Flying crane (?) 50 ft off hilltop. Back of Wightmans Valley."

Document three is handwritten notes most of which are illegible. Can read "DCAS rang Ops" "requesting info" and "airborne."

Document four is a telex dated 13 Jan 1965.

"For RNZAF Ops

Phone number to contact Capt Shannon 15 mins after arrival is NU042 Sydney airport."

Document five is a single page handwritten note which is very hard to decipher. Readable are the words "130845Z," "20000," "275M," "Twilight," "35-40000," "Shannon in NZ tomorrow," "Check Qantas," "Comment-twilight."

Document six is two pages of "Minute sheet" with handwritten notes. Readable words are "QF324/028 Dave Shannon," "WN," "1825ETA," "John Hawthorne," "NAC," Supervisor in charge," "1930," "John Drew," "Twilight," 'Satellite" and "Very bright."

Document seven is a copy of document one.

Document eight is a copy of document one with additional hand written notes "DDOps," "Copy given to US Air A."

Document nine is a copy of document 4 with handwritten note "OPsz" and "244/10/1."

Document ten is a one page RNZAF Message from HOBSONVILLE to RNZAFHQ WN Date/time group is 141600Z. Date stamped 14 Jan 1965. "Confidential."

"A Purple 1 January 14

B Brown 1 January 13

C Airborne132340Z on task 140100Z off task 141315Z Waterborne 141440Z x area searched 120nm either side of line joining Hobsonville and 36 south 167 east, plus 100nm either side of line joining 34 south 166 east 43 south 166 east.

X Unusually large number of high density cloud contacts. Up to 10 at one time were obtained up to a range of 70nm."

Document eleven is a "NZ Armed Forces Combined Message Form. File ref 244/10/1. From RNZAFHQ WN to DEPAIR "Confidential"

"Attention DAFI. HQOPCOM 131415Z refers

Para One. In view ref to radar repsonse in HQOPCOM signal para 5 search of area by maritime aircraft on Jan 14 revealed nothing except an unusually large number of high density cloud radar contacts. Up to 10 at one time were obtained at ranges up to 70NMS.

Para two. D of I RNZAF interviewed Captain Shannon at Wellington evening Jan 14. Shannon enlarged on report but nothing significant added.

Para three. Unless you have further information we propose to let matter drop. Press report has resulted in flood of UFO sightings."

Drafted by Hanson D of I."

Document twelve is a Department of Civil Aviation Area radar log Wellington ACC. 13 June 1965. It contains a table of times and notes as follows:

"2147 Radar echo 155 degM 70NM On heading of 180 deg M est speed 120kts

2152 Seven slow moving echoes bearing 150degM 20-40NM all leaving trails but suspect "Angels."

2158 Heading 150degM turning into 180degM at 40NM

2210 Response sighted at 132degM 50NM heading 135degM

2215 Response sighted at 180degM 55NM heading 180degM est speed 150kts

2220 Nat 371 asked if he could sight echo in his vicinity. No sighting.

2230 Echo speed approximately 100kts on comparison with DC3 speed. Echoes in SE quadrant continued to appear and disappear.

2305 Radar released.

Document thirteen is a memo from Air Traffic Control Centre, Dept Bldg, Stout Street, Wellington 14th January 1965 To Secretary for Civil Aviation Attention DOTS and CATS.

"Unidentified aircraft"

As requested herewith Air Traffic Controllers report detailing the action taken by this unit on the unidentified aircraft seen by Qantas flight Christchurch to Sydney on 13th January 1965."

Signed L Mexted Station ATC Officer.

"Minute to the SATCO Wellington from ACC. Date 14th January 1965.

Unidentified aircraft approaching Wellington.

132040 Radar released to technician.

132105 Air Traffic Control Officer at Auckland Control advised that Qantas outbound from Christchurch to Sydney had sighted seven high flying aircraft inbound Wellington at approximately 45000 ft Position 41south 168east at 2050.

132107 Asked technician to switch radar back to us. Discussed matter with Ohakea Air Traffic Control Officer.

132110 Endeavoured to contact Duty Air Staff Operations Officer.

132115 Wing Commander Tucker advised by phone. At the same time technician warned that a delay of thirty minutes required due defect at Radar head. Wing Commander Tucker required radar be made available regardless of delay, Technician instructed accordingly.

132130 Radar on and available. Radar search commenced. Mr Bowman arrived on duty. Commander Tucker phoned intention of using Air Traffic Control as co-ordination centre. Air Commodore Gill also on his way to Air Traffic Control Centre.

132145 Wing Commander Tucker arrived at the Centre and took control. Auckland Centre asked for more details. Pilot, Captain Shannon reported condensation trails but could add nothing further except ETA and aircraft call sign.

132150 Various radar echoes plotted in South East quadrant-suspected Angel. Liaison maintained throughout with Ohakea S.R.E. and echoes compared when relevant.

132200 Broadcasting news phoned requesting details of seven unidentified aircraft seen approaching Wellington. Air Commodore Gill instructed me to confirm the report but to add that the matter had been investigated and what was in fact seen was a peculiar cloud formation caused by a Jet Stream over the Tasman sea area. Mr Bowman and myself continued radar search throughout the period using long and short ranges and double checking of all echoes. An outbound DC3 bound Christchurch asked to visually check echo in his vicinity. Nothing sighted though, by comparison of blips this apparent angel was moving 100kts. We were plagued with string Angel paints. No aircraft echoes seen.

132305 Air Commodore Gill released radar watch.

Signed P L McDermott Air Traffic Control Officer."


The event:

At 0845 GMT on 13 January 1965, the crew of a Qantas aircraft, flying from Christchurch, New Zealand, and Sydney, Australia reported seeing an unusual event in the sky.

The aircraft was at 20,000 feet off the West coast of New Zealand.

The crew reported seeing, in clear sky, at an angular elevation of thirty degrees above the plane, just after local sunset, a single vapour trail to the north west traveling east, which became seven distinct contrails.

The only possible mention of the duration of the event is in document two, where a figure of 10 secs is shown.

The response:

There were two responses from the New Zealand end. Firstly, there was a search by radar for confirmation that "...seven distinct contrails apparently made by large aircraft in loose formation..." were in fact inbound unidentified aircraft. Despite the radar observation at 2152 of "Seven slow moving echoes... (document 12) no confirmation of any unidentified aircraft was made.

Secondly, a maritime aircraft was dispatched to examine the area of ocean off the West coast, mentioned in document one para five, for "eleven ships." No such ships were located.


It would appear to me, that there were no "unidentified seven aircraft" and no "unidentified eleven ships" involved in this event.

What did the Qantas crew observe at 0845Z, 2045hrs local time? There was one vapour trail which broke into seven trails, at an uncertain height above the aircraft. If the 10 seconds mentioned in document two is in fact the duration of the event, then I would suggest it was a meteor breaking up in the Earth's atmosphere.

Note addeed 26 July 2015.

Amateur astronomer Ted Molczan has an interest in visually observed satellite re-entries. I asked him to take a look at this case, and see if it could be explained in terms of a re-entry. Here is his response.

"I found no known re-entries that correlate with the sighting from 41S 167E, on 1965 Jan 13, near 08:45 UTC.

Of the 254 re-entry sightings I have catalogued, nearly 8 percent occurred on a date that differs from the USAF's catalogued date, typically by +/-1 day, rarely more than +/-2 days; therefore, I always check listed re-entries within 2 days of a suspected sighting. In this case, there were four, during Jan 11-14, none of which correlate.

Based on duration and described appearance, the 08:45 UTC sighting may have been of a meteor that broke up. I cannot rule out the possibility that it was the re-entry of an object of which there is no public record.

It was not unusual for the USAF to lose track of objects for long periods, during which they could decay without any record. Eventually, the USAF would estimate the date of decay, which could be far from reality. Those are called administrative decays. There are many in the USAF's catalogue, but experience may be required to recognize them as such.

A couple of recent examples of USAF limitations that could cause re-entries not to be catalogued:

On 2014 Sep 03 UTC, an uncatalogued piece of operational debris of a Russian spy satellite re-entered over the U.S., which was widely seen by the public. The USAF did not acknowledge the decay properly, and mistakenly catalogued the decay of the parent object on that date, despite it having made a controlled landing in Russia ~10 h earlier, on the day before (Sep 02 UTC). This is probably the only reasonably accurate news report on the events:


On 2014 Dec 28 UTC, a Falcon 9 2nd stage, that had been lost by the USAF, decayed over South America, and dropped several pieces of debris on Brazil. The decayed object was identified within hours by a fellow hobbyist, days before the USAF belatedly issued updated orbital elements and acknowledged the decay in its catalogue."

Thanks Ted.

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