Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Condensation trails passing in the moonlit night

Hi all,

Two of my recent blog post interests crossed over recently. Firstly, readers will be aware of my series of posts, about the work of colleague Paul Dean and I about the 25 October 1973 North West Cape incident. Secondly, I have been examining digital copies of the "Canberra Times" newspaper, held by the National Library of Australia (available up till 1992.)

Mystery aircraft:

Two civilian airline pilots reported seeing a mystery "object" leaving a condensation trail in the moonlit night sky, near Derby, Western Australia in the early hours of Monday 29 November 1982.

"The pilot of the Qantas aircraft, Captain Barry Roberts, told company officials yesterday that he had been flying at about 10,750 metres, when in the bright moonlight he noticed a newly formed condensation trail running from north-west to south-east. His aircraft was then over approximately the entrance to King Sound." ("Canberra Times" 30 Nov 1982, p.3.) This position put the aircraft at about 150 kilometres north-west of Derby.

Captain Roberts contacted Perth ATC who advised there was no other civilian aircraft in the area. The vapour trail was almost directly across the flight path of the Qantas jet which was flight QF2 from London, via Singapore to Sydney. The Qantas pilot estimated that the condensation trail was at a height of 11,400 metres.

"A few minutes later, according to a Department of Aviation spokesperson, the Singapore Airlines pilotadvised Perth that he too could see the condensation trail at about 12,300 metres but that the aircraft making it was not showing any running lights. The SIA pilot reported that the aircraft was heading north-east across air traffic route Amber 76. The Singapore Airlines aircraft was then 135 kilometres north-west of Derby." ("Canberra Times" 30 Nov 1982, p.3.)


The Department of Civil Aviation stated that apart from the Qantas and Singapore Airlines flights there were no known scheduled civilian aircraft in the area. "Department of Aviation officials were advised yesterday by defence authorities that none of their aircraft was in the Derby area at the time of the incident." ("Canberra Times" 30 Nov 1982, p.3.)

There was an ANZUS sponsored defence exercise in the area, called Sandgroper 82. However, all related air activity had ceased well before the Qantas and Singapore Airlines pilots reported the condensation trail.

Checks with the US Embassy in Australia revealed that a USAF "Starlifter" aircraft had passed through the airspace concerned. It had been on a flight to Alice Springs. However, it had passed through some 45 minutes before the two commercial aircraft. It was also flying the Amber 76 route.

The closest ATC or air defence radars were at Darwin and Perth, so there was no radar coverage to show what the cause of the condensation trail was.

It was reported that "A team of RAAF investigators was asked yesterday to interview the airline pilots over their reports..." ("Canberra Times" 1 Dec 1982, p.9.) It was also reported that "A senior specialist of the Bureau of Meteorology will make an urgent study of upper atmospheric winds...The study is part of an intensive investigation by the Department of Defence." ("Canberra Times" 3 Dec 1982, p.7.)

Winds at the height of the condensation trail were estimated as 110km/hr which would have quickly dissipated a fresh condensation trail.


What was the object which had created the observed condensation trail? Speculation fell into three categories.

1. "...the possibility being actively investigated now are that it was a smuggling operation, though these tend to take place at low altitude..." ("Canberra Times" 3 Dec 1982, p.7.)

2. "...or a Soviet electronic surveillance machine returning from an Indian Ocean sortie." ("Canberra Times" 3 Dec 1982, p.7.)

"The aircraft could have been a Soviet reconnaissance aircraft- possibly a Tupolev -TU126...from its base at Da Nang..." ("Canberra Times" 30 Nov 1982, p.3.)

"The aircraft could have flown over the Australian-US Communications station at North-West Cape..." ("Canberra Times" 30 Nov 1982, p.3.)

3. " It is now suspected that the aircraft...was a privately owned jet..." ("Canberra Times 7 Dec 1982, p.10.)

However, the bottom line on identity was "RAAF investigators have not yet been able to establish the identity of an aircraft which passed close to two airliners near Derby, Western Australia on Monday morning last week." ("Canberra Times" 7 Dec 1982, p.10.)


The fact that the RAAF were actively investigating the encounter, suggests to me that the most likely cause of the sighting of the unlit aircraft, was indeed a Soviet electronic surveillance aircraft. The fact that the four Canberra Times articles on the sighting were all written by Frank Cranston, Defence and Aviation correspondent only adds to my deductions.

Given the nature of the operations at the time at North-West Cape, it would be logical to suggest that the Soviets would wish to keep an eye/ear on the station.

I searched the Internet for any further information on this incident, but failed to find any.


1. "Airline pilots report mystery aircraft over WA" "Canberra Times" 30 Nov 1982, p.3.
2. "Mystery aircraft not yet identified." "Canberra Times" 1 Dec 1982, p.9.
3. "Weather expert called in to study mystery air trails." "Canberra Times" 3 Dec 1982, p.7.
4. "Aircraft puzzle not solved." "Canberra Times" 7 Dec 1982, p.10.

Other items of interest:

1. On National Archives of Australia file series E1327, control symbol 5/3/Air Part 1, at folio 5 appears a report of sightings of unknown aircraft from the light house keeper at Cape Leveque, Western Australia. Keeper Weston, in December 1976 claimed that he had been "...asked by RAAF Darwin to keep a look out for Russian jets." The RAAF stated "...the presence of Russian aircraft is thought unlikely..."

2. The "Canberra Times" dated 6 January 1977, page 1, reported that a Russian research ship had been seen by RAAF Orion aircraft, off Scott Reef, Western Australia. It had apparently been refused permission to put into any Australian port. The newspaper article said that the Russian embassy had ordered the ship to leave Australian territorial waters.

The exclusion from Australian ports seems odd, unless perhaps the vessel was actually a Russian electronic surveillance ship.

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