By Derek Cheng
New Zealand's most famous UFO sighting was a moving cluster of bright lights five times the size of a large fishing vessel that dazzled and spooked the occupants of a small plane during a routine newspaper drop.
The lights seemed to move with the plane as it flew off the coast of Kaikoura in 1978, moving away when the plane headed directly for it, and then disappearing after being witnessed for somewhere between 12 and 20 minutes. It was described as extremely bright, flashing and elliptical - and difficult to explain away as "conventional phenomenon".
But an official report by the Air Force disagreed, and said the sightings could be explained as an unusually bright sighting of Venus, bright lights from fishing vessels, or "freak propogation of radio and light waves".
It also noted that spurious radar readings in Wellington Air Traffic Control were common off the east coast of the South Island at the time.
Thousands of secret files on alleged UFO sightings from 1952 to 2009 were released by the Defence Force today, including sightings by members of the public and military personnel, as well as investigations by Government departments and agencies, media reports and letters from people claiming to be in touch with aliens and space ships.
Among the files is the report - What Really Happened in New Zealand by Dr Bruce Maccabee, for the NZ UFO Studies Centre - into the Kaikoura sightings.
The report does not try to explain what the object was, but concludes that it was hard to explain some sort of "conventional phenomenon".
The report relied on eight witnesses including Christchurch reporter Dennis Grant, who was the only one who took notes during the sightings, and a film that proved to be "a veritable tour de force of UFO images".
"The film contains pictures of airport lights, pictures of the airplane cockpit pictures of (Australian reporter) Quentin Fogarty at Christchurch Airport, and pictures of .... UFOs," the report says.
Evidence showed that the film was continuous footage from inside the aircraft. "Thus the film is not a hoax."
The report said the object, whatever it was, was never closer than 16kms to the aircraft while it was being filmed, though Mr Fogarty "remembers looking almost straight down on the object ... and the captain is quite certain that the plane passed over it."
The night of December 30, 1978, was meant to be just a regular run from Blenheim to Wellington to Christchurch and back to Blenheim to drop off some newspapers.
Aboard the south-bound four-engine turbo prop Argosy freighter were Captain Bill Startup, co-pilot Robert Guard, reporter Quentin Fogarty and a film crew including cameraman David Crockett and his wife Ngaire.
Eerily, the crew were shooting footage for a news story about a previous UFO sighting on a similar flight 10 nights ago in the early hours of December 21.
The plane took off at 11.46pm, December 30.
"During the flight south the pilot and co-pilot observed lights that were first seen in the direction of Kaikoura, from a point just southeast of Cape Campbell. Coincidentally, Wellington radar picked up and reported targets which were in the vicinity of the plane. It appears that at least two, and perhaps several, of these anomalous radar targets were observed by the passengers on the plane."
The camera man shot footage on the "anomalous bright objects" .
The airplane radar was not in use, but Wellington Air Traffic Control picked up something on radar within about 32 kms of the plane as it travelled towards Christchurch.
When the plane started turning east off the coast of Kaikoura, Wellington picked up further radar readings of something that appeared a few kilometres behind the plane.
"About half a minute later Wellington said there was a further target about four miles (6 kms) to the right of the plane. About 45 seconds after that Wellington told the plane that something was flying in formation with it. The plane and the unidentified target flew side by side for at least half a minute, after which the radar target reduced to that of the plane alone."
The plane then reported the object, "a flashing light", falling behind the plane. Wellington ATC confirmed this with their radar readings.
The plane landed in Christchurch at 1.01am, December 31.
"The crew discussed the sightings with the Christchurch radar operator, who described to the crew an anomalous target that was not particularly impressive to him."
Mr Fogarty and Mr Crockett decided to fly back to Blenheim. Christchurch reporter Dennis Grant also joined them. The plane left for Blenheim at 2.16am.
"About three minutes later, as the plane climbed through a low cloud cover, the pilot, co-pilot, and cameraman, who were all in the cockpit at the time, observed a bright yellow/white/orange light apparently at about their level, which would appear and disappear through the tops of the clouds. It was between 10 and 30 degrees to the right of the aircraft."
The captain was reading the object on his radar and thought the size of the "blip" was three to five times larger than a large fishing boat.
"By the time the plane was about 11 minutes out of Christchurch ... the bright light was about 70 to 90 degrees to the right of the aircraft and about 12 miles (19 kms) away and no longer on the plane radar."
The cameraman shot footage of the object, which ranged from "yellowish white elliptical shapes with reddish fringes to overexposed, nearly triangular and circular shapes".
Mr Fogarty then noted: "The pilot has just told us that he is going to actually level off ... and head toward the object to see what happens."
The plane turned towards the bright light, "but even after a turn of about 90 degrees, the object was not directly ahead of the aircraft, as if the object had moved to the right".
The radar then lost the object, but the people in the cockpit could still see it ahead of the airplane.
After holding his course for one or two minutes, the captain turned back to his original flight path.
Writes Mr Fogarty: "It appears, in fact, to be losing its speed ... rising, coming back towards us again ... It appears to be coming straight for us ... It's getting a little bit brighter.
"It's now dropping right away behind us."
It disappeared by the time the plane finished its turn.
During the whole time the people in the plane were mesmerised by the light, neither Air Traffic Control in Wellington nor Christchurch picked up anything. "This may have been because it was too low to be picked up and/or because it was a weak target for 50cm radar."
As the plane approached a point south-east of Kaikoura, Wellington ATC again picked up readings of something within 32kms of the plane, which was at least once also picked up by the plane's radar.
"Occasionally, unusual bright lights were visible in the directions indicated by the Wellington control."
A photo at the time showed a "bright light which alternates in a regular, cyclic manner from bright white to dim red and orange. It apparently travelled in a series of loops, described as 'rolling and tumbling'."
Mr Fogarty decided that it was too much excitement for one morning, and said: "I, for one, am hoping that, uh, we've seen enough, and, uh, the rest of our journey back to Blenheim will be uneventful. I've had quite enough of UFOs for one night."
But about four minutes later, he noted: "We've got another one right in front of us ... very bright ... seems to be a long way away. Another one just to the left of it. The one flashed extremely brightly. They've both now faded ... The other one's flashing again. It's giving off an orange flashing light. It looks like an aircraft beacon."
The report notes as they neared their destination, Mr Fogarty may have been describing the Blenheim airfield beacon.
The plane landed in Blenheim at 310am.
"It is not the intent of this paper to offer an explanation for the unusual bright source. However one may note that the brightness, the size (20m or more), and the duration (it was seen for over 12 minutes) place rather severe requirement on a conventional phenomenon such as, for example, glowing plasma or 'ball lightning'."
However, a report from the RNZ Air Force found that the lights could be explained by "natural but unusual phenomena".
It explains the light sightings during the south-bound flight as "spurious" radar readings out of Wellington Air Traffic Control.
"The crew observed a pulsing type of white light that looked like a helicopter search light zooming on to the beach somewhere north of the Kaikoura Peninsula," the report said.
"It is difficult to explain the lights, short of them being some anomalous type of reflection or refraction, cars or trains. However it is most probable that the Wellington Radar returns were spurious."
Atmospheric conditions at the time were conducive to freak propagations of anomalous radio and light waves, the report said.
During the apparent confrontation with the object, when the plane turned towards the light and then back to its original flight path, the Christchurch radar reported nothing.
"The visual observation made by the crew is consistent with an unusual view of Venus. The bearing of the observation coincides with the point at which Venus would have been visible," the RNZAF report said.
"However, this observation was made at about 225am and Venus did not rise until about 328am. Nevertheless Department of Science and Industrial Research scientists have advised that with super refraction it would be possible to see the planet some time before its actual rising, and if it were seen it would have the appearance that the crew described.
"During the period an unusually large number of vessels sailed from Wellington, often at night, to position off Banks Peninsula. Not only would these vessels provide a good source for radar returns, but the lights that they use when fishing could explain some of the visual sightings of unusual lights."
The RNZAF report also came to the same conclusion about radar readings that were picked up in the same area during flights in the early hours of December 21, 1978.
On that night, crew on two Argosy flights from Woodbourne to Christchurch were asked to check out the Clarence River area, after Wellington ATC received odd radar readings.
Flying north from Christchurch, one of the crews "got the impression of the lights making rectangular patterns at irregular frequency".
The second flight found nothing in the region, either visually or on radar.
The investigation found that Wellington ATC was unreliable and gave "anomalous radar returns off the east coast of the South Island".
"This was proved by Department of Science and Industrial Research observation of the Wellington radar 8/9 January 1979 and taking a series of photographs of the radar presentation throughout the night ... On several occasions during the night when many large returns were painting on Wellington Radar, the observers on the coast could see nothing either in the air or on the sea in the positions passed to them by the Radar Controller."
Wellington controllers also told the investigation that the radar readings in the Clarence area and south of Wellington had been "anomalous" for several months.
Another report showed unusual radar readings from Wellington for the Clarence River area on December 25, 1978, which coincided with a sighting from a plane of "red light".