The Westall '66 UFO
200 students watched a strange craft fly near their school in Australia in 1966. What did they see?
June 01, 2010
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By Brian Dunning, Skeptoid Podcast
Episode 208, June 01, 2010
Melbourne, Australia, 1966. A sunny, breezy day in autumn, April 6 to be exact. Field sports were underway for a morning class at Westall High School. A few students saw it first, and then a few more. They described it as a disk, gray or silver, about the size of two family cars, and about four football fields away. It hovered silently, and then descended out of view behind a row of pine trees to the south of the school. A few minutes later it emerged, only now it was being pursued by a squadron of five light aircraft, and now its movement was faster. The object, now described as a small, bright streak of light, darted about with the aircraft playing a game of cat and mouse. After 20 minutes the strange object and the airplanes pursuing it went out of view. As soon as they had the chance, some students scrambled toward the trees and found the grass flattened where the object had undoubtedly landed while it was out of view. Back at the school, students and staff were instructed not to talk about what they'd seen. Intimidated by the sight of military personnel, the students have allegedly remained silent ever since.
But as we almost always see with urban legends, the more time passes, the larger the story grows. 44 years after the event, retellings have expanded significantly compared to what was documented at the time, and this should always give us cause to approach modern revisionings with skepticism. New evidence coming to light is one thing, but with the Westall event, all we see are new anecdotes. A few adults who were students at the time, and UFO proponents who have interviewed former students, are now reporting greatly expanded versions of what happened. Does that make them wrong? Of course not. But if we want to determine the most likely account of what really happened, we go to the original sources. We go to the original documentation of what the witnesses reported 44 years ago, and we take the contradictory revisionings with a large grain of salt.
Let's start by having a look at the area. Westall High School, now called Westall Secondary College, is in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia called Clayton South. The land all about Westall is quite low and flat, and the coast is just about 10 kilometers southwest. Just to the south of the school was a natural open space called the Grange Reserve, mostly trees and scrub. Most of the Grange is still open space and remains today, including the row of trees visible from the school behind which the object was seen to descend. Beyond the Grange, about 4.5 kilometers, is Moorabbin Airport, which was then and still is a small but very busy general aviation airport. By number of takeoffs, it is in fact the third busiest airport in the southern hemisphere.
Its proximity to the school has contributed to both UFO researchers and skeptics suggesting the sighting may have been of an experimental military craft. However, I don't find this explanation very convincing at all. Australia didn't really have much of an aircraft industry in 1966. They'd been quite busy during World War II, but by the 1960's it was scaled way back, and most of Australia's aircraft industry was providing service and support to existing planes. There were a few exceptions. The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation was active at the time, but they did no design work, they merely constructed models in use by the Australians that had been designed overseas. At the time of Westall, they were busy producing the Dassault Mirage III fighter and were just ramping up for production on the Maachi MB-326 trainer. De Havilland Australia had developed two prototype jet trainers, the P17 and the F2, but both of these projects were cancelled in 1965 when the company shifted its focus to production of parts for Commonwealth's MB-326. The only other aircraft manufacturers in Australia were tiny and built only small civilian or agricultural planes. In 1966, none of these companies had anything like the skunkworks of American aircraft companies that we usually think of when we talk about strange experimental craft.
Of course, other countries did, not only the Americans, the Canadians, and the British, but also France, the Soviet Union, and others. Certainly any of them might have chosen to test advanced designs in Australia. The problem with this hypothesis is that all such designs have long been declassified and are now well known, and none of them would be a serviceable match for the Westall reports. Nobody had anything that hovered silently, darted about playing cat and mouse, or flattened grass when it landed. The closest thing I can find would be the flying saucer shaped Avrocar, which was desperately unsuccessful and had been cancelled five years before Westall. If we introduced the suggestion that maybe an improved version lived on in secret and was tested in the middle of Melbourne in broad daylight, we'd be on very thin ice. There's no evidence for that, and it would remain unknown to every aviation historian and author.
There was one strange craft launched that day, however: A weather balloon, reported the next day in the newspaper The Age as a possible explanation for the event. It was launched from Laverton two and a half hours before the sighting, 32 kilometers west-northwest of Westall. The Age reported that the wind was blowing from the west, and if it continued southeast near Clayton South, the balloon could likely have disappeared from view behind the row of trees, very close to 11:00am when the sighting happened. Despite being dismissed by UFO promoters, I find this balloon event to be a very plausible candidate for the first half of the sighting, when a silently hovering disc descended behind the trees.
The second half of the event had a much different character. Andrew Greenwood was a science teacher at Westall High School, and is the only staff member known to have reported seeing the object at the time. He gave a detailed account to the newspapers. Greenwood first saw the object when it rose into view from beyond the pine trees at the Grange. He described it as a silvery streak "like a thin beam of light, about half the length of a light aircraft." At first it appeared with only a single aircraft, but was eventually joined by five. He described a "cat and mouse" game that the aircraft played with the object, a game which lasted a full 20 minutes. The object moved side to side and its size appeared to fluctuate slightly. By the end of morning recess, Greenwood said he turned away, and when he looked again the object and the five airplanes had gone.
One man, who identified himself only as a former RAAF navigator, wrote a letter to the editor in the April 28 Dandenong Journal, in which he said that Greenwood's report was a "reasonably accurate" description of a nylon target drogue, like a wind sock, towed by one plane for the others to chase, and known to be in use by the local RAAF at the time. A "cat and mouse" game would be a fairly apt description of what happens when pilots undergoing training try to follow the drogue. For an explanation of why no pilots reported anything strange, he offered "Why should they? They were probably carrying out a normal...exercise and wouldn't dream that anyone could take a drogue for a 'flying saucer.'"
Although this sounds to me like a spot-on explanation for the second half of the sighting as reported in 1966, there's no evidence that anyone was conducting any drogue exercises there at the time. There's no evidence that they didn't, but we can't do any better than list this as one possibility.
Talk of military records leads us to the alleged secrecy that was imposed following the event. Did military personel show up and silence everyone to cover up the event? It does not seem likely, since newspapers widely reported the story, and everyone who's ever been interviewed about it has spoken quite freely; there is nothing about this story consistent with any kind of coverup having taken place. On April 14, the Dandenong Journal reported that the school would not permit any further interviews with students, and that students and staff at the school had been asked not to talk to reporters. Was this evidence of a government conspiracy? The principal, Frank Samblebe, gave a simpler explanation to the Dandenong Journal, published on May 5, 1966. He said "the flood of callers and phone calls from the Air Force down to the Flying Saucer Association interrupted the children's studies." Given this real-world concern of the school, it does seem reasonable that he would have asked the press to leave the students alone, and done what he could to enforce it at the front desk. From every single 1966 account I've read, this is the full extent of what's now being described as a "coverup" or a "conspiracy".
The Air Force personnel Samblebe referred to were probably four Air Force investigators who showed up on April 9, three days after the event, to look at what was said to be the landing site. A number of enthusiasts from various UFO groups accompanied them, but apparently nothing interesting was found, because nothing was documented from this visit. The newspaper interviewed one student who said she thought the tall grass looked merely like the wind had flattened it. Indeed the flattened circles were apparently so vague that witnesses couldn't agree whether it was one or three. Some reports say the Air Force men burned the area to hide the evidence, but according to the farmer who owned the land, he burned it himself to stop people from trampling onto his property. Today's expanded accounts often include much deeper military involvement, such as police and military "swarming" around the school and cordoning off the "landing site", and the circles appearing to be "scorched", but I didn't find a single record from 1966 to substantiate this.
Something else that's grown over the years has been the number of witnesses at the school. The Dandenong Journal reported at that time that only one teacher and "several" students saw the object, but by now that number has grown to 200. This number is probably artificially inflated by what behavioral psychologists call the bandwagon effect. When all of your friends say they saw something, you tend to say you saw it too, whether you really did or not, simply because you don't want to be left out or be considered inferior. Most of the witnesses were high school students, and that's an age when we tend to be highly conscious of our image and social conformity. Nobody wants to be the one who couldn't see the object. Some of the students most likely did see something, but it's fairly certain that at least some of the witnesses simply went along with the crowd in accordance with the bandwagon effect.
This introduces a serious problem. The descriptions of what was actually seen have now become diluted with made-up descriptions by an unknown number of students who didn't see anything, and there's no way to know which is which. Police investigators are keenly aware of this potential complication, and often have to account for it. In practice, this usually means finding commonalities among the accounts of witnesses who were in the best positions, and discounting aberrant reports, usually from those who were not in as good a position, and especially from those who come forward later after the general facts have become publicly known.
Employing this strategy, we can bring what probably happened at Westall into better focus. The commonalities of the reports from the witnesses in the best position all state that the craft was a great distance away, beyond the trees. This is probably what happened. Aberrant reports from a few students, such as those who report that it flew over the school, or that it landed in the schoolyard, or the one girl who said she touched the craft as it lifted off, are much less reliable and probably safely discarded. Such reports are sensational and most likely to make headlines, but to the investigator who knows his business, there is good reason to dismiss them. We can say with pretty good certainty that whatever the object was, it was too far away to easily judge its actual size. The best indicator we have of scale is of its second appearance, after it rose from behind the trees, when Andrew Greenwood reported it played cat and mouse with the light aircraft: Small and thin, and shorter than a light aircraft.
So what can we conclude about the Westall UFO? Not very much. The weather balloon is a likely explanation for the first half of the event, and the drogue is at least one very reasonable possibility for the second half. There's good reason to doubt that many of the story elements, like the military conspiracy and the craft having landed, ever happened at all. The story certainly has no holes in it that can only be filled with extraterrestrial aliens, and indeed no credible reason to suggest anything unusual. "I don't know" does not mean "I do know, and it was a spaceship", so for now, the Westall '66 UFO remains one of many question marks in the books, just not a very bold or especially intriguing one.
© 2010 Skeptoid Media, Inc.
References & Further Reading
Anderson, P. Mustangs of the RAAF and RNZAF. Sydney: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1975.
Anonymous. "Mystery Solution?" The Dandenong Journal. 28 Apr. 1966, Letters to the Editor: 21.
Beaufort. "The Story Of The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation." Beaufort Restoration. The Beaufort Restoration Group, 2 Sep. 2007. Web. 29 May. 2010. <http://www.beaufortrestoration.com.au/Pages/ProductionChild/Manufacturers/CAC.html>
Bell, D. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Directory of Airplanes, Their Designers and Manufacturers. Washington, D.C.: Stackpole Books, 2002.
Boeing. "Boeing Australia." Boeing. The Boeing Company, 7 Feb. 2006. Web. 27 May. 2010. <http://www.boeing.com.au/ViewContent.do?id=47382&aContent=History>
Damian. "Around Clayton." The Dandenong Journal. 5 May 1966, Editorial.
Editors. "Who Were 5 Pilots?" The Dandenong Journal. 21 Apr. 1966, Volume 105, Number 30: 1-2.
Editors. "Object Perhaps Balloon." The Age. 7 Apr. 1966, Newspaper: 6.
Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Westall '66 UFO." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 1 Jun 2010. Web. 6 Dec 2013. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4208>
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