It was New Year’s Day, 1979, when the world woke to the news that strange lights had been spotted by six people on a plane off the New Zealand’s South Island.
Was it a UFO? No, said the sceptics. It was Venus, it was squid boats, it was radar returns from a field of cabbages.
But 40 years later, the two pilots and four passengers are adamant it was none of the above and are frustrated at being unable to find answers.
New Zealand’s The Herald on Sunday tracked down each member of the group around the world. One is a mango farmer in Hawaii, while another is an 80-year-old newlywed after her royal wedding-themed ceremony at her retirement village the night before Meghan and Harry’s big day.
The case bought instant fame — but no fortune — for some, before bringing shame and anger when they were accused of hoaxing the sighting. It broke up a marriage.
At the end of 1978, Australasia was in the grip of UFO fever. In October, 20-year-old Frederick Valentich disappeared while piloting a small Cessna 182 aircraft over Bass Strait while heading to King Island in Tasmania. Described as a “flying saucer enthusiast”, Valentich informed Melbourne air traffic control he was being accompanied by an unknown aircraft.
Two months later across the Tasman, on December 21, Safe Air pilots Vern Powell and Ian Pirie spotted strange lights while flying from Blenheim to Christchurch.
A producer for Melbourne’s Channel 0 (now Channel 10), Leonard Lee heard the news and tracked down reporter Quentin Fogarty, who worked for the channel but was on holiday with his wife and children in Christchurch, staying at TV Onejournalist Dennis Grant’s home.
Freelance Wellington cameraman David Crockett was also hired, along with his wife Ngaire, who operated the audiotape recorder.
The group were invited to jump aboard Safe Air’s Blenheim-based Argosy plane, named Merchant Enterprise, late on December 30, which pilots Bill Startup and Bob Guard were taking on a newspaper run between Wellington and Christchurch.
Shortly after takeoff, the pilots noticed strange lights appearing and disappearing over the Kaikōura coastline about 30 kilometres west.
“While we were filming a stand-up to camera, Captain Bill Startup shouted to us that we should go to the flight deck immediately as something was happening again,” says David Crockett.
He managed to film a rapidly moving, bright white light.
“With the conversation coming through my headphones from the pilots and radar from Wellington, it all started to get very scary,” says Ngaire Crockett.
“I was able to stand up a couple of times and was able to see these bright light coming and going. [Quentin] was a real mess and grabbed hold of both my hands and started shaking. I didn’t have time to worry about myself, I had to help him.”
The plane landed at Christchurch to unload newspapers and the pilots asked the news team if they wanted to go back through the area they had traversed. Ngaire was too frightened so stayed in Christchurch. The others reboarded the plane with Dennis Grant in Ngaire’s place.
“David had used up all the film in his 16mm camera,” Grant says.
“Quentin called me sometime after midnight from Christchurch Airport to see if I could provide a fresh roll of film. I could — but there was a catch — I wanted to get on the plane for the flight to Blenheim.”
The plane took off at 2.16am. About three minutes after takeoff, the group saw a bright, round light to the right. The aeroplane radar showed a target in the same direction about 18 nautical miles.
Fogarty would later be heard saying on camera: “Let’s hope they’re friendly.”
Crockett filmed the light for several minutes as it appeared to travel along with the plane.
When they turned toward it, the light seemed to react by moving away from the aeroplane.
“The experience itself was extraordinary,” Fogarty says.
“Just being on the cramped, noisy flight deck of the Argosy barrelling down the coast in the dead of the night was exciting. Factor in a row of pulsating, hypnotic lights hovering outside the window, and it goes to another level.”
After landing at Woodbourne Airport at about 3am, the group stayed at the two pilots homes in Blenheim.
Startup’s daughter Tracy Moore remembers her father coming home in the middle of the night.
“Everyone was at our house talking about it in the middle of the night. They were talking about lights, unexplained radar.
“At one point, I remember dad saying it might be a good idea to report it to the police. It was during the Cold War, there was a bit of paranoia around. Mum said: ‘You can’t sit on this information’.
“It was scary at the time. It was a big unknown thing that had happened and we had all the adults around discussing it. There were certainly no jokes being made.”
Fogarty interviewed the pilots before flying to Melbourne to give the recordings to Channel 0. The footage featured on prime time news that night and a longer documentary piece screened later.
The news went around the world and was featured by major news media, including by the Herald and by CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite.
The sceptical reaction was immediate. Explanations included that it was Venus, drug runners, light reflected from cabbages or squid boats.
The Robert Muldoon Government ordered an inquiry by the Air Force, which concluded that the sightings could be explained by natural but unusual phenomena.
Leonard Lee travelled to the US to give the film to Bruce Maccabee, an optical physicist who specialised in laser technology and worked for the US Navy in Maryland, Virginia. He was also flown to New Zealand and Melbourne to interview witnesses.
He concluded the event involved unknown objects or phenomena fitting the definition of UFOs.
“One would think that the conclusion that several of the sightings involved unidentified objects flying with impunity in the New Zealand air space would have been sufficient to start an even deeper study of the UFOs,” Maccabee says.
“But it wasn’t. The sightings were relegated to the dustbin of history, forgotten by all except the witnesses and a few ufologists who discussed the various sighting events for years afterward.”
He says that 39 years after the Kaikōura footage emerged, in December 2017, major media carried reports of UFO sightings by US Navy personnel during training exercises.
He says they involved multiple witnesses and multiple sources of information such as battleship radar at sea level, radar in the Navy jet aeroplanes, visible and infra-red video cameras in the aeroplanes.
But the incident appears to have been forgotten.
“History appears to be repeating itself.”
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
The Herald on Sunday caught up with the pilots and passengers.
Journalist Quentin Fogarty, 72
After his world scoop, Dunedin-born Quentin Fogarty suffered from “nervous exhaustion” and ended up in hospital for a couple of weeks.
“The level of initial scepticism both surprised and, at times, overwhelmed me. I certainly did not expect to be accused of hoaxing the whole thing. That cut deep, it still does.
“The local daily tabloid in Melbourne branded me as the ‘UFO Reporter’, and that stuck for a short time, but it did not take long for me to be back in my role as a TV journalist reporting on more mundane matters.”
Fogarty, a father of four who still lives in Melbourne, says he endeavoured to report the story as accurately and as impartially as he could.
“We had film, our own eyewitness accounts and confirmation from the flight crew and air traffic controllers that we had stumbled into something astonishing.
Fogarty, who started his career at Dunedin’s Evening Star wrote a book about the experience in 1982, Let’s Hope They’re Friendly, and remains convinced that enhanced computer analysis of the film might get closer to finding answers.
“Forty years down the track, this is still unfinished business.”
Pilot Bill Startup, 85
Startup now lives in a rest home in Blenheim. He had a stroke a three years after the incident and had to retire from flying.
He wrote a book the following year, The Kaikōura UFOs, his daughter says, to clear up the misinformation doing the rounds. The same year, Startup then took his wife Shirley and children to visit Bruce Maccabee in the US.
Shirley, who died in 2012, was interviewed in 2008 and said a psychiatrist had thought the men had lost their faith in God and were seeing angels.
Startup, who was not well enough to be interviewed by the Herald on Sunday, told a documentary in 2009: “What it was all those years ago … I wish I knew. People can think what they want but they were not in the aircraft.”
Startup did not dwell on the experience, Moore says.
“Over the years there has been periodic interest, so he was being visited every one to two years from reporters all over. But he didn’t bring it up.”
She didn’t get the impression he truly believed it was UFO.
“He’d seen something that he did not know what it was, and his colleagues couldn’t come up with an explanation. He had no thoughts that he ever communicated to us.”
Co-pilot Bob Guard, 73
Guard has never said too much about the strange lights.
“One of the issues for me is we were just doing our job. We suddenly had to justify ourselves. We didn’t know what the hell it was.
“We didn’t expect to see anything. It was a bit tense as it got closer to the aircraft.”
“I got over it. Have I ever seen anything like that again? No I haven’t. Do I believe in UFOs? No I don’t. Pilots see a lot of unidentified flying things.
“Would I tell anyone if I saw anything like that again? No I wouldn’t. It’s not worth the hassle.”
Research followed the sightings but he says “some were a sham — they used newspaper articles for their research”.
Guard stopped working for Safe Air in 1990 and went on to work at Air Nelson. He was the flight operations manager when he retired, aged 65, in 2010.
His children and grandchildren were aware of the story but it is not “something that has taken over their lives”.
Sound recorder Ngaire Crockett, 80
The Crocketts, who had five children, separated soon after the incident.
Ngaire is now Ngaire Gilmore after her new marriage to husband Ray Gilmore.
The pair, who met during a blind date eight years ago, married in a surprise ceremony at the Julia Wallace Retirement Village in Palmerston North the day before Meghan and Harry’s nuptials this year.
Residents dressed up in royal wedding theme for happy hour but didn’t know they were attending a real wedding.
“Has this film changed my life?” asks Gilmore.
“I guess it did. We had phone call after phone call and people knocking on our door. David and the reporter became so obsessed that the doco was all they talked about. I switched off as we had five children and it was effecting all our lives.”
Cameraman David Crockett, 85
David Crockett dealt with health a handful of effects after filming the strange objects.
“To this very day, the incident has never left my mind. I am also reminded of the event by people who come up to me and say, ‘I saw you the other night on the Discovery or Science Channel’.
“The effect this historic sighting has had on all of us has certainly included a fair amount of stress. As for me, I was sleepless for several nights, and after having performed several overseas lectures on this sighting, became quite depressed.
Crockett, who now lives in Hawaii where he worked as a mango farmer, made a documentary about the incident, and gave lectures, which took him around the world. He is hoping to make a new documentary to mark the 40-year anniversary.
“It substantially changed my life. At that time in the history of the UFO phenomena, sceptics thought we were crazy, and criticised us in many ways. In 1978, most persons would not seriously consider that these were real object and may even originate from other planets.”
TV journalist Dennis Grant, 66
Over the years Grant has amassed a massive collection of a newspaper and magazine stories. He’s scoured official records in Australia and New Zealand and lodged official information applications for long-forgotten files.
“The results are overwhelmingly unhelpful in explaining the lights and what they were doing in the lonely summer skies of New Zealand. Forty years on I’m still very curious.
“My grandkids love to hear the story of my brush with UFOs, I just wish I could provide an ending.”
Grant was working at TV One (now TVNZ 1) in Christchurch in 1978 and now lives in Australia.
“I was a young journalist back then, fired with the zeal of telling stories untold, and I helped tell this story. But the rest of the world, the scientists, the officials, the military and — saddest of all for me — the media, were all consumed with indifference. Incurious.”
So does he believe in UFOs?
“I am entirely sceptical of the notion of little green men, Martian anal probes and all the rest of it. I note that the number of UFO sightings has greatly diminished since video and digital cameras and phone cameras have became readily available. However, what we saw that night over Kaikōura was unidentified and still is.”
The decommissioned Argosy now sits on land near the Marlborough Airport owned by Blenheim filmmaker Paul Davidson.
He purchased the aircraft in 1991 after hearing it was to be scrapped, telling the Safe Air general manager he would pay what he would have got from the scrap dealer.
The aircraft had special meaning to him — in 2009, Davidson made a documentary, featuring interviews with the pilots and crew from 1978.
Davidson, whose home is on land adjacent to the aircraft, has restored and refurbished the aircraft and runs flight simulation experiences, complete with in-flight movies telling the story of Safe Air — and meals.
Passengers can dine at the Argosy Cafe, next to the plane, which acts as a terminal where they can collect their boarding passes and go to their gate for the experience. There is also memorabilia on display.
“We put it back together and tidied it up. It’s unique to Marlborough.”
From Thursday, to coincide with the first strange sighting, Davidson will be running a UFO-themed experience.
His documentary will be screened, lights will be dimmed on-board and a “spooky atmosphere” created.
“People can sit in actual seat Captain Startup sat in.
“It’s the only place in the world where you can do that.”
So, does Davidson believe in UFOs?
“I believe in the possibility of them.
“I got to know both pilots with my documentary. They got sick of people saying ‘It was probably the lights of cars, or lights of squid boats’. These were professional pilots. ‘We know what Venus looks like, this was not Venus’.
“Everyone on board has said the event had a traumatic effect on their lives.”
• The accounts were pulled together with the help of Bruce Maccabee.