Saturday, September 13, 2014

Westall '66: an unsolved Melburnian mystery

Little green men, alien abductions, extraterrestrials living among us …all too often, the notion of life from other planets loses credibility because of the whole whacked-out Weekly World News angle. Which can make it hard for folks who experience genuine intergalactic encounters to be taken seriously. But when 200 people witness a UFO only to get shut down by authorities and told it was just a stray weather balloon… well! That’s even more absurd than the idea of Hilary Clinton adopting a baby alien.
 Yet (joking aside) this is what happened to staff, students and neighbours of Westall High School in Melbourne’s southeast back in April 1966. At around 11 o’clock on an apparently normal Wednesday morning, their reality was turned inside out by the appearance of a silver disc hovering and then landing just behind a line of pine trees in nearby Grange Reserve. It eventually shot off at jaw-dropping speed, but not before some kids were able to run over and get a closer look.

So what was it? Some 48 years after the event, this remains a mystery. Judging by the recollections of some of the witnesses in the documentary Westall '66: A Suburban UFO Mystery, it sure as hell wasn’t a weather balloon or experimental aircraft like they were told. But they soon realised that if they talked about it, they’d be considered crazy.

These drawings are stills from the evocative animated sequences by artist Lee Whitmore that illustrate some of the recollections recounted in the documentary Westall '66: A Suburban UFO Mystery
Immediately after the event, the school principal called an assembly, where he told the students that all they'd seen was a weather balloon. He banned them from speaking to the journalists that had congregated outside (although some did) – and as a result, there wasn’t a lot of media coverage. Channel 9 news reported on it at the time, but the film has since gone missing.

Local newspaper The Dandenong Journal ran a couple of stories, but never got to the bottom of it:
"The Dandenong Journal - 1966 14th Apr - page 1" by Photo or scan of newspaper page, and intellectual property owned by The Herald and Weekly Times Ltd, News_Corporation. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of The Herald and Weekly Times Ltd via Wikipedia -

Not wanting to come across like a crackpot is a powerful motivator to shut your trap for most people; even more so for adolescents, I guess, at that stage of life where you just want to fit in. But even teachers felt the pressure. One was visited by some mysterious government types who told him that if he didn’t keep quiet, they’d spread rumours that he was an alcoholic. Another, who’d taken photos of the flying saucer, had her camera confiscated.

Westall '66 gives the witnesses a chance to speak about the incident without fear of judgement. Not all the stories are consistent: some mention seeing two flying saucers; others remember the UFO playing a game of cat and mouse with a group of small airplanes. Some recall getting so close to the craft that they could feel the heat emanating from it. Others remember a large circular imprint of flattened grass where the object had landed. There's even talk of a girl called Tania who got to Grange Reserve first, fainted, was taken off in an ambulance and never seen again.

Cover illustration from The Clayton Calendar, a school publication from the time
In the days that followed, students and other locals saw official-looking men in suits at the site of the UFO landing and at the school, but nobody knows who they were associated with. The Australian military? The US military? ASIO? Researchers into the event have come up against a brick wall in terms of archived documents or reports; even the RAAF’s records of UFOs for 1966 don’t mention Westall.

Fascinating stuff. 
There is now an extraterrestrial-themed kids' playground at The Grange, complete with flying saucer! (Pic: Weekend Notes, Melbourne)
And the theories keep coming. Just last month in The Herald Sun, there was an article claiming that the silver disc seen by the Westall students all those years ago was in fact a special silver balloon used to test radiation levels post-Maralinga, which had blown off-course after being launched from Mildura.

While I couldn’t possibly do justice to the quirks and convolutions of this confounding slice of Melburnian history in one blog post, I can definitely recommend the documentary, following researcher Shane Ryan's quest to uncover the truth. Spoiler alert: he doesn't.
These witnesses are definitely not crazy. The official cover-up is like a plot from the X-Files. And I simply can’t get Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “It Came Out of the Sky” out of my head…


  1. Maybe it was a secret US military craft, under experimentation in Australia during the war.

  2. HI Peter, yeah, that seems like a fairly reasonable possibility, considering that there were US military personnel here at the time, but don't you think it's odd that no official documentation has been found about it?