The Westall '66 UFO

200 students watched a strange craft fly near their school in Australia in 1966. What did they see?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Aliens & UFOs, Conspiracies

Skeptoid #208
June 1, 2010
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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.

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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.

Brian Dunning

© 2010 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

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. 25 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4208>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 83 comments

Well put, Rob.

There is often a sort of "herd mentality" that needs "rational" or comfortable explanations within a framework of mundane or common causes for phenomena that are unusual in some way.

To be fair, most unusual phenomena certainly do have common causes, quite adequately explained by rational and critical reasoning.

But when such comfortable framework is questioned, even with substantial concrete evidence backing the questions, the first response is denial, often followed by anger and/or attacking the "messenger", with of course the inevitable name-calling and references to unrelated subjects, as you also say.

The instances on Skeptoid of this type of behaviour since I've been posting on this fine site, are numerous, and continue right up to the present day, on various subjects.

The continued denial, ignoring of straight questions, and repeating of side issues related but not pertinent to the Kaikoura Lights sightings are classic examples of the above.

Macky, Auckland
November 10, 2013 4:11pm

Yes,this is even more unbelievable than most absurd UFO stories.
I note that no women got abducted for sexual experimentation in this case,but that seems to be more of an American fantasy.

nick cox, singapore
April 3, 2014 1:21am

It is insulting to say that what we saw that day wasn't real. I will never forget what I and others saw, even if I try to. It was something unearthly and i wish id never seen it.

Tsper, Surrey
April 6, 2014 1:58pm

@Tsper, you're living in Surrey? Is that in England? Are you Australian?

Joe, Ireland
April 11, 2014 2:55am

"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." - ummm, why are these reports less reliable, and why can they be discarded ? logic would dictate that the reports from people who were closest to the object would be the most important of all. but i guess that would create a huge problem for the debunkers, so they have to abandon logic in order to keep their beliefs intact.

tim clewlow, melbourne
April 17, 2014 9:44pm

I recently saw this story on a TV show about close encounters. In the show they made it seem like the children had an up close personal view at this object. But in reality it was several hundred yards away. The idea that it could have been a weather balloon makes alot of sense to me. When I was a kid, several people in our neighborhood saw a shiny metalic saucer object hovering in the sky at around 300 ft. Everyone was in shock at what we were seeing. We just knew that we were witnessing a UFO, there was no doubt about it in our minds. Word soon spread across the area and it reached the local radio stations news team. They immediately got to work trying to figure out what this object was. Then about an hour later it came over the radio that a local weather station had released a weather balloon and it had drifted into the area of our neighborhood. We were all dissapointed, cause we wanted so bad for it to be real. But anyway, it was incredible how much that weather balloon resembled the classic flying saucer UFO we all relate with ET and UFO's.

Martee Quillen, Lawrenceburg, TN
May 11, 2014 2:55pm

I do believe that there is other life out there (around other stars), but for them to reach us with these huge incomprehensable distances they would have to come, and show us a silvery grey metallic object, and hover around for a while then leave ??? Sounds kind of crude and less advanced than I'd give them credit for if a being can make it all the way here. If they were that far advanced to reach earth from these "crazy" distances, surely a super intelligent being just wouldn't hover a bit then leave. Surely, being so far advanced they would know we aren't any threat to raiding their planet. Ask those scientist who actually know and understand the distances that must be traversed, if they believe stories such as this and I'd bet the vast majority do not but still believe there is other "life" out there. also if they were so super advanced and found out ways to get through space via "worm holes" etc. then to me a logical "alien" would have made some sort of solid contact or tried to communicate w/ us on our level. They'd have no fear of us, sort of like how we try to communicate with dolphins or our pet dogs,... we have no fear of them taking over !!! Humans have sent out messages and satellites yearning to contact other intelligent life so if some other life would make it all the way here and just hover around for a bit, perhaps abduct a few people ??? doesn't add up to me. Now I must go and search for Bigfoot !!

jf, pennsylvania
May 16, 2014 9:11am

I find it amusing that posters continue to apply Earthman thinking and "logic" when they speculate about the actions and motives etc of aliens whose science (perhaps inner science) may have solved the problems of traversing the vast distances in their inter-stellar travels.

They could be so alien, that their thought processes may be quite incomprehensible to us, unfathomable, a complete mystery.

Questions of why any alien craft or entity should necessarily behave according to our customary rules of conduct or typical flight patterns et al are Earth-bound restrictions based on our own narrow science-based experiences, and having thus apparently long solved the problems of space travel, why should they also not already be here, invisible to our perception and instruments ?

And have been here for a long time, or at least for multiple visits right back in history.

I'm not saying they have, or that I necessarily believe that aliens are here, but using our own reasoning processes in order to try and explain why any aliens should or should not be visiting us is meaningless, really.

Another thing that should never be forgotten is that the world public is almost NEVER up with the play on scientific enquiries and results, nor strange happenings, nor covert plans engineered by a few but which affect us all, either immediately without our knowing, or ultimately with even then only partial understanding of what has actually taken place.

And there are plenty of examples of that.

Macky, Auckland
May 16, 2014 3:48pm

Macky I think it is normal for us to try to figure out why beings from another world would come here and using our human common sense or logic is all we have. I or for all I know, everyone on the planet can only use type of thinking so its all we have for now. Sure, I agree we have no way of figuring out their motives if this visiting life is so vastly different than ours but I would be confident in believing that they are doing it for some sort of reason and if they are intelligent enough to make these "crafts" that can do the unimaginable to us (at least for now) I think the odds would be in the favor of them to do a little more than just hover around for a bit. Thats why I think these stories of us seeing alien crafts are absurd. I believe some of these people really do see something sometimes but for us to say that it was alien spaceships is again crude. ...Perhaps these aliens are tired of their restuarant choices and just looking for a better 'burger joint".

jf, pennsylvania
May 16, 2014 7:45pm

jf, yes I agree with most of what you have said in your last post here. Human common sense and logic is all we've got, and we have to do our best with that.

But I go back to the point of alien thought processes and motives that may be quite incomprehensible to us, and ask why shouldn't aliens simply "hover around for a bit" ?
After all, apart from us only guessing what their motives may be, the hovering could be the only time that their craft is visible to terrestrial observers, and the bulk of their investigations/burger acquisitions etc may be invisible to our senses and instruments.

Only a thought. I'm not trying to put a case for the existence of hovering alien spaceships.
UFO's are just that, UFO's. The mental leap to they being alien spaceships is premature, to say the least.

The point I was trying to make is that some posters come to an unsupported conclusion that aliens have not visited Earth/are not visiting Earth/would not do what has been observed/do not exist, simply because of their own Earthbound thought processes and motives towards what they believe to be logical or reasonable.

They arriving at such a conclusion on such grounds is just as premature as those that assert that UFO's prove alien visitation/existence, in my opinion.

Macky, Auckland
May 17, 2014 5:32pm

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