Being a kid in 1960s Clayton, a suburb on Melbourne’s outskirts, was to be a kid in a time and a place that was carefree and conventional. Backyard cricket, homemade lemonade, terry-towelling everything.
Dee Sadikay was this kid. Clayton-bred and conventionally carefree. But Dee was also a kid burdened by a secret. Dee had seen a plane shaped like a 20c piece. No tail, no noise, no pilot. On 6 April 1966 Dee was at Clayton South Primary School, two kilometres down the road from Westall Primary and Westall Secondary. It was recess when Dee spotted a disc in the sky moving east, slowly, horizontally. The disc tilted on an angle and disappeared. Another kid saw it too but refused to talk about it, and neither did Dee. She was seven.
Forty years on, sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, Dee flicked through the glossies. An article said, ‘We’ve kept our UFO secret for 40 years.’ That secret was also Dee’s secret. The Woman’s Day Dee held revealed the story of Sue Savage. How at 13, Sue, with more than 200 Westall Primary and Secondary students, witnessed three metallic discs descend, ascend, tilt on an angle and disappear.
Dee flung the magazine at the disbelieving receptionist, imploring her for a photocopy. The article was curated by Shane Ryan, an English teacher-cum-amateur UFO investigator. He urged readers to come forward with information. Dee did. What ensued was a sort of reunion, sort of meet-and-greet in Balwyn. Dee met Sue. Dee had lived 40 years isolated by her childhood glimpse of the extra-terrestrial and now she shared this glimpse with hundreds.
Dee says people are in denial, that people will believe what they want to believe. Dee is warm and effortless, and her home is winsome. Her partner Don has cut out newspaper headings that read ‘Don’ and stuck them to the fridge. Her lounge room is a visionary shrine to Marilyn Monroe, and her front door is painted purple. Bronson the cat licks shoes.
What Dee learned at seven was open-mindedness, ‘to watch the sky’. Tony Boast learned this too. Tony was a student at Westall Primary School. Tony, like Dee, was seven. He followed a throng of secondary students as they raced towards three ‘silver-like saucers’. Students clambered onto a buckling cyclone fence on the school’s edge and watched as the objects dropped into the Grange Heathland, the six-hectare green belt south of the school grounds.
Tony was ushered back to the classroom. The older kids disobeyed and leapfrogged the fence, running hell-bent for the Grange. Tony was told not to talk about it, but Tony told his mum. That Saturday he took her to the Grange. An older girl, screaming and hysterical, was being dragged by her parents to where the discs landed. She clutched the ground and snatched at plants. This memory, and the discs, are embedded in Tony’s ‘veins’. Tony’s mum’s too, who told her friends. Tony says his mum did not believe that children ‘should be seen and not heard’.
It was Tony’s mum’s friend who excitedly showed Tony the little-known 2010 film Westall 66: A Suburban UFO Mystery. The film documented Shane Ryan as he investigated the phenomenon. He urged viewers to come forward with information. Tony did.
Tony is a ‘salt-of-the-earth’ type. He was a motor mechanic, then a bus driver and now a BHP employee. He’s taken his grandson to an Evening with James Fox at Parkdale’s Shirley Burke Theatre. Fox is a quasi-famous American documentary filmmaker, pigeonholed by his titles I Know What I Saw and UFOs: 50 Years of Denial. The crowd twitters. Most are connected to Westall.
Fox speaks for an unprecedented and impassioned four hours about himself. Tony and his grandson listen keenly. Elizabeth, a last-minute-ticket buyer in the back rows tuts repeatedly. She wants to hear about UFOs, she wants to hear about Westall, not James Fox. Tony’s grandson asks Fox brazenly if the NSA has ever tapped his phone. Fox answers no. Tony says that upon telling his grandson of Westall he unleashed in the boy a zealous enthusiasm for all things extra-terrestrial.
Tony says he is quiet about his close encounter of the first kind. Tony has tolerated 51 years of disbelief. So has Sue Savage. Sue is vehement that ‘we are not the only ones’, that we are not alone. Sue’s dad once told her to ‘shut up’; she’s been asked if she was ‘on drugs’.
Sue was in eighth-grade science when a student barged in shrieking ‘Flying saucer! Flying saucer!’ The class bolted, Sue among them, the teacher Mr Greenwood in hot pursuit. But Sue was a ‘goody-two-shoes’ and hung back when kids ventured beyond the cyclone fence.
Sue never spoke of what she saw. Sue, like Tony, was told not to talk about it. She told her parents and later her own children, but received scepticism.
On the fortieth anniversary of the Westall UFO sighting Shane Ryan posted an ad in the Herald Sun for a sort of witness reunion. Sue went. Once there, Sue became one witness among many. Afterwards her daughter said to her, ‘You’re not stupid after all’. Sue, at Shane’s behest, told her story to Woman’s Day. She appeared in Westall 66: A Suburban UFO Mystery.
What connects Sue with Dee and Dee with Tony, and Tony with hundreds of others, is Shane. He was not a Westall student, Shane is from Shepparton. He now lives in Canberra. In 2005 Shane decided to write a fictional children’s book. He took inspiration from a flying saucer story he had heard 30 years earlier. That story was Westall. Shane ‘put the feelers out into cyberspace’ via Yahoo! Groups and witnesses responded in droves.
The fictional children’s book led to a nonfiction ‘novel’ that led in turn to a documentary. Witnesses still come forward with hair-raising accounts. Shane has anointed himself ‘sleuth-Westall-investigator’. It is a passion project and Shane has contacted and connected more than 200 people. They want to talk, they want to tell their story, they ask if it is now safe. Most are overwhelmed.
Thirty years ago Shane believed the Westall UFOs to be an urban legend. But there is a commonality in the witness accounts that Shane can now not deny. Three discs were seen over Westall, tailed by a light aircraft, on Wednesday 6 April 1966. Three discs descended into the Grange and landed. They then rose, tilted on an angle and reflected the sun. Children blinked and the three discs were gone.
Circular patterns flattened the grass in the Grange. Treetops were burned black. Authorities arrived, then the military, then US personnel. A girl named Tanya, overwrought with delirium, was carted off in an ambulance. Friends dropped by Tanya’s home that evening. A woman answered the door, told them Tanya and her family had never lived there, told them to leave and never come back. Tanya and her family were not seen again.
Men in uniform excavated the circular patterns, hauled the dirt onto the back of trucks and were not seen again. Media outlets were gagged. In 2013 the City of Kingston erected a playground in the now-renowned green belt. The jungle-gym is shaped like a flying saucer.
Shane says genuine UFO encounters follow a familiar trajectory. People are willing to believe that something was seen. But people are not willing to believe that something was unidentifiable. Shane says the uniformity in the Westall stories he meets makes mundane theories moot.
But Keith Basterfield has a mundane theory. Keith is a retired astronomer, now analytical ufologist. Keith believes 95 per cent of raw reports can be explained in conventional terms. Westall, he says, can be explained in conventional terms. Keith and Shane are friends. Shane tasked Keith with an assignment: find an alternative hypothesis to Westall. It was to include:
a) The US government
b) The Australian government
c) The Department of Supply
d) An unusual object
e) Light aircraft records
‘It was a nice challenge,’ says Keith. He completed it. A joint program between the United States and the Australian Department of Supply operated between 1962 and 1970 out of Mildura, Victoria. The program launched HIBAL balloons. A HIBAL balloon is 100 metres in length. It is affixed to a 180-kilogram payload that samples residue from nuclear tests at an altitude of a little under 100 metres. The balloons look like cling wrap, clear and reflective. They are tailed by a light aircraft, called a chase plane.
On 5 April 1966 a HIBAL balloon was launched from Mildura. Keith found a ‘chap’ who sat as an observer in the chase planes. Keith asked if HIBAL balloons went astray, the observer said, ‘Oh yeah! One ended up in Adelaide, another in Canberra, another halfway to New Zealand!’ Keith found the witness reports of two people from the morning of 6 April. Over Glen Waverley, north of Westall, a large floating object was spotted. A payload was attached, a hose trailed behind. Keith says the description fits a HIBAL. Keith’s job was done.
But George Simpson says Keith is a ‘strange cat’, and deems his hypothesis ‘ridiculous’. George says this in good humour. George is a UFO researcher too, he runs the Victorian branch of the Australian UFO Research Network. George works at a Ted’s Camera Store. His cousin-in-law is Paul Smith, who is a Westall witness. George did not know this until he watched Westall 66. Paul Smith, who did not know George knew, shared his experience with George.
George says in 1966 Paul was a market gardener. Paul watched as an object trailed by light planes disappeared into the dense pine of the Grange. Paul and George got talking and hypothesised ‘that a balloon would have been torn to pieces’. George says this is irrefutable proof that Keith’s ‘big balloon’ is ‘poppycock’.
Keith is unconcerned. He has no bias. Science says: table an idea, put up a hypothesis and debate it. Keith did, and it was debated. Mostly by George. Keith believes Westall is ‘too contaminated’ and not a good example of what he likes to study. He is only interested in ‘core’ UFO phenomena.
George’s own hypothesis rests on psychology. George spoke to UFO researcher Bill Chalker, who interviewed ‘Bob last-name-not-remembered’. Bob was the Westall Primary deputy headmaster. Bob told Bill he remembered returning to the school grounds during lunchbreak on 6 April 1966. Bob remembered the primary kids huddled in masses, quiet and nervous. Bob remembered having to counsel them. George questions why a balloon would cause the younger kids to quake in fear. Why a balloon would prompt the older kids to race hammer and tongs for a glimpse of the mind-boggling.
The Australian UFO Research Network estimates that more than 10,000 UFO sightings have been reported and processed nationally. In 1978 Frederick Valentich piloted a Cessna 182 from Melbourne to King Island. He reported a UFO by radio and disappeared moments later. In 1988 a mother and three sons avoided collision with a UFO when driving towards Mundrabilla on the Nullarbor. Their car was lifted from the road.
In 1966 Westall Primary and Secondary didn’t have the basketball courts, sand pits and paint job they have today. In 1966 kids bounded across farmland to reach the Grange. Kids bounded past Paul Smith the market gardener. Today kids would scamper through back yards and cul-de-sacs. Today kids have mobile phones. The flying saucer jungle-gym at the Grange is a poor rendition of the objects Dee and Tony and Sue saw. Complete with cherry-red slides and bright-blue climbing rope. But signposts nearby tell the story of Westall.
On one of them, a quote from Mr Greenwood the science teacher reads: ‘like a thin beam of light … half the length of an aircraft … it was silvery-grey and seemed to “thicken” at times … similar to when a disc is turned a little to show the underside’. Someone has graffitied over it in red texta.
Shane says that he does not know what people saw, only what people say they saw. For him it is still a mystery. Shane says it is frustrating and exciting, that it points to something important having happened. Shane says he has no agenda, he does not ‘interpret the data’ like Keith or George do. Shane is trying to record it, to let the information speak for itself. Dee and Tony and Sue all told Shane what they saw. They say that it was not a balloon. They say it was something else. Something both implausible and phenomenal.
Phillipa Grenda is a Melbourne-based photographer-cum-writer. This is her first published piece and she has no social media presence.