The Kaikoura UFO sighting continues to baffle, 30 years on
Monday 20 Oct 2008 7:24 p.m.
It has been almost 30 years since unidentified flying objects were observed off the coast of Kaikoura during the Christmas/New Year break of 1978.
The sightings are to be marked soon with a commemorative flight, a gathering of enthusiasts and even a musical.
At the time, news of the sightings was reported worldwide and to this day they remain a huge source of controversy.
But the remarkable thing about the sightings is whatever was flying around that night was not just observed, it showed up on radar too and was caught on film.
It is one of New Zealand's biggest mysteries and one of the world's best documented sightings of a UFO.
"The most important thing I think about his story is that even to this day, the flight crew and the air traffic controllers are adamant that we saw something highly unusual that can't be explained in mundane terms," says journalist Quentin Fogarty. "Now, 30 years later, they still believe that."
Mr Fogarty was the reporter, with a news crew, that filmed the UFOs on an Argosy freight plane the night of the December 30, 1978.
He was not expecting to see anything that night. He had been asked to do a news story on a UFO sighting that occurred 10 days before.
"My employers in Melbourne said, 'Would you break your holiday and get on a plane and basically just do a re-enactment?'"
John Cordy was the radar operator on the night of the first sightings on December 20.
"We saw some little targets on our radar just down off Blenheim, Cape Campbell way, and we joked that it was Father Christmas having a practice run with Rudolf in the front, because it was just before Christmas," he says.
Then the UFOs followed an Argosy freight plane.
"This target then moved toward the Argosy, turned with it, then tracked with it for a good 20 to 30 miles. The target and the aircraft were at 90 degrees to each other the whole time. And Vern Powell's aircraft said they could see a big red light that was definitely airborne."
This sighting created quite a stir and worldwide media interest.
Mr Fogarty hired a freelance news crew in Wellington, and interviewed the people involved in the first sightings. He then boarded a freight plane to film the flight from Blenheim to Christchurch.
"I was in the bottom part of the aircraft doing a piece to camera, and the pilot put his head down," he says. "We were flying over Cook Straight at this time and said, 'You better get up here.'"
Then the almost unbelievable happened. UFOs appeared in front of the aircraft and were confirmed by Wellington radar.
"On the flight down, what we basically saw were pinpricks of light that turned into great globes of light, and they were airborne, and they were between us and the coast because we could see the coast and we could see the sea, and we could see these things shining down."
Once they landed in Christchurch, cameraman David Crockett restocked with better film and they headed back to Blenheim.
The lights followed them almost all the way.
The pilot that night was Captain Bill Startup.
"What it was, we don't know, that's all. I wish I knew," he says.
Mr Startup's wife Shirley remembers her husband arriving home with the film crew in the early hours of the morning.
"When they arrived home, the air was electric they were absolutely fizzing. So we open the cabinet and had a brandy," she says.
The next day Mr Fogarty was on a plane to Melbourne with the film, and that night presented the news.
"What you're about to see was not only witnessed by the five people on the aircraft - it was monitored on radar and was captured, as you'll see, on film," he said to the nation at the time.
The story went worldwide and brought every expert out of the woodwork.
"We got all sorts of people ringing us up telling us we're idiots," says Mr Startup. "We were fooling the public, we were putting a hoax out, this was all a big hoax for Christmas," says Mr Startup.
"I became a bit of an object for criticism and almost ridicule, because we were poo-pooed by the authorities, and sceptics came out of the woodwork and cherry picked the things that suited them and dismissed all the evidence, and said we saw this, we saw that," says Mr Fogarty.
Some of explanations for what they had a seen and filmed were Venus, squid boat lights and the lights of Wellington and Christchurch.
"People can think about that, but they weren't on the aircraft," says Mr Startup.
None of those involved are satisfied with any of explanations given by scientists and government officials.
"None of them to my knowledge or satisfaction have coordinated the visual sighting with the radar sighting," he says. "They've said the visual sighting was squid boats, it was Venus, it was Jupiter, it was the harbour lights. You name it, they can come up with all sorts of reasons for what it was.
"But they haven't explained why I can see Jupiter, Venus and the harbour lights doing 140 knots on my radar.
The famous Argosy plane of that flight is now owned by film maker Paul Davidson. He has organised a 30th reunion event that runs over three days in Marlborough.