From Barack Obama's enigmatic comments to two New Zealand journalists' scary encounter, the tales about UFOs refuse to die. by Tom Scott.
The silly season – the annual holiday period when the media scrambles to find stories
not about shark sightings and sunburn – began early this summer with an amazing item from the Middle East. Haim Eshed – a former Israeli space security chief, highly decorated general and university professor – told a Tel Aviv newspaper we are not alone in the universe. More than 20 species of aliens from various star systems walk among us.
Extraterrestrials from a "Galactic Federation" have made contact with world leaders. Co-operation agreements allowing them to discreetly explore our planet have been drawn up and signed.
These interstellar equivalents of Sir David Attenborough are monitoring us closely. Apparently, they're worried sick about our stockpiling of nuclear weapons. These ecotourists and interplanetary anthropologists have intervened several times – zapping intercontinental ballistic missiles mid-flight or disabling them in their silos before they could be launched – to prevent nuclear war. If they really want to make themselves useful, cures for cancer, male-pattern baldness and premenstrual tension wouldn't go amiss.
Stan Beezer, our landlord when we lived in a run-down sharemilker's cottage on the outskirts of Feilding, would have loved this story. Stan was a UFO buff, an evangelical believer in extraterrestrial visitations who was constantly on the lookout for potential converts. He had a large library of UFO books, which he pressed on to me after Mum mentioned in passing that I liked Popular Mechanics and National Geographic.
The books included Chariots of the Gods, by Swiss UFO researcher Erich von Däniken, in which he postulated that aliens had helped early human cultures build complex megastructures, such as the pyramids of Giza in Egypt and Aztec and Mayan temples in South and Central America. Another was The Flying Saucers Have Landed, by Polish-American ufologist George Adamski, who claimed to have travelled in alien spaceships. They were weirdly riveting and quite unnerving, obliging me to sleep for weeks afterwards with the lights on.
Lights blazing well into the night were a feature of the Beezer homestead. On misty nights, it was disconcerting cycling home from high-school dances past the clutter of Beezer outhouses and what looked like spotlights raking the heavens. It didn't help that their property sat on the crossroads of Makino Rd and Lethbridge Rd, which ran out to Feilding's cemetery.
Stan was so keen on a close encounter with an extraterrestrial that he tried to recruit my younger brother, Michael, into his UFO congregation. Mickey repaid him one summer when Stan went away on holiday by devising a rotating petrol sprayer, using string, a steel pole and a large, carefully punctured plastic bottle, to burn a crop circle the width of a UFO into his front lawn. Stan came home and never forgave himself for being absent when alien life forms paid him a call.
Reading Eshed's claims also reminded me that a good friend from my parliamentary Press Gallery days, Dennis Grant, was an eyewitness to what international experts at the time concluded was the world's first verified film encounter with a UFO. Grant attributed his rapid rise from regional news in Christchurch to TVNZ's chief parliamentary reporter in Wellington to the gravitas, authority and bogus wisdom that premature hair loss lent him. He was so protective of this image that he didn't tell me about his brush with aliens until I'd known him for 10 years – and only after I'd read his name in an article about famous New Zealand UFO sightings and pressed him on it. He reluctantly confirmed he was that Dennis Grant and told me the whole story – five hours of my life I'll never get back.
His involvement stemmed from a silly-season story in Australia. In October 1978, young Australian pilot Frederick Valentich went missing while flying a Cessna on a training flight from Moorabbin Airport, Melbourne, to King Island, in Bass Strait. He radioed air traffic control that he was being trailed and buzzed by a strange plane – his last words were a desperate wail, "It's not an aircraft!" – before strange "metallic scraping sounds" were heard and the transmission stopped.
No trace of Valentich or his plane was ever found. Wild stories were still reverberating in the newsroom of Channel 0 (later Channel 10) during the drowsy post-Christmas news period when a news editor read on the wire that strange, unidentified lights had been seen over the Clarence River mouth, on the east coast of New Zealand's South Island, by a Safe Air crew on a routine freight flight.
Knowing that one of their reporters, New Zealand-born Quentin Fogarty, was holidaying with his folks in the Wairarapa, the chief reporter demanded he check it out and file a story. Fogarty, who had been lying in the shade listening to test cricket, protested vigorously, then dutifully obliged. Recruiting a stringer news crew – cameraman David Crockett and Crockett's sound-recordist wife, Ngaire – he wrangled seats on a Safe Air Argosy on a late-night flight from Blenheim delivering Sunday papers to Christchurch. As they approached Kaikōura, strange lights appeared right on cue over the Clarence River mouth, tailing and buzzing their plane at astonishing speeds and otherworldly manoeuvrability.
The flight deck and film crew all saw the lights, and they were recorded on film and tracked on the plane's own radar as well as by air traffic control in Blenheim, Wellington and Christchurch. The lights kept them company all the way, banking away only when the Safe Air crew commenced their landing approach to the Garden City. Understandably excited, David Crockett shot madly, using up almost his entire film stock. More rolls would be needed for the return leg – which Ngaire didn't want a bar of. She would return to Wellington on a commercial flight in broad daylight, thank you.
Fogarty could live without a sound recordist but not without more film stock. Sometime after midnight, he called his old friend from Christchurch newsroom days, Dennis Grant. Could he deliver some film stock to Christchurch Airport ASAP? Curiosity aroused, Grant demanded to know what for. Fogarty refused to tell him but begged for the film. Grant threw on some clothes, shot into TVNZ's Christchurch newsroom and somehow purloined film stock from a locked fridge. He continued to the airport, where Fogarty was waiting on the tarmac, one arm outstretched while the Argosy, engines gunning, was bracing for take-off. Grant gripped the film canister tightly and demanded a seat on the plane as the price for handing it over.
They were barely airborne when Wellington Air Traffic Control told them they had company again. The same darting, dancing lights followed them back up the coast. To this day, Grant has no explanation. The RNZAF conducted an official investigation and released a report attributing the strange lights to naturally occurring phenomena – atmospheric conditions, an unusually bright Venus that night, freak propagation of radio and light waves, anomalous returns on Wellington radar, etc.
Grant accepts that possibility, but bridles at the dismissive suggestion in the report that they witnessed the lights of a squid-fishing fleet or headlights of motor vehicles or trains.
"Japanese squid boats and motor vehicles don't tend to cruise at an altitude of 12,000 feet above the sea."
He says the film footage did not do justice to what they all saw with the naked eye. At one point, a very large light came close and cruised past so slowly that Grant had the uncomfortable feeling he was being watched. The scariest part was when it flew directly ahead of them, illuminating a vast swathe of choppy ocean like floodlights bathing a sports stadium.
General Eshed says former US President Donald Trump was briefed on the presence of aliens and the Galactic Federation and was going to announce it publicly, but was dissuaded on the grounds that Earthlings weren't ready yet – it would cause widespread panic and alarm. I think we are ready. Hollywood has been softening us up for years with such films as Close Encounters, ET, Avatar and Star Wars and television shows such as Star Trek and My Favorite Martian.
Trump came close to letting the cat out of the bag, telling eldest son Eric – who wanted to know if there were aliens and what was going on at Roswell – about the top-secret US Air Force base in Nevada, where, allegedly, eight interplanetary craft are kept in hangars and a number of alien corpses are stored in cryogenic tanks.
Reverse-engineering of alien technology at nearby Area 51 has apparently led to huge advances in fibre optics, night-vision goggles, Kevlar vests and anti-radar coatings used on Stealth bombers. In a 2020 interview, Trump discussed declassifying Roswell and said millions and millions of people wanted to know. He couldn't talk about it, but it was very interesting. Very Interesting.
In an interview with talkshow host Stephen Colbert, Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, gave a not-dissimilar answer. Discussing his time in office, Obama said getting information out of top-ranking officials was sometimes difficult. "Did you ask about aliens?" asked Colbert. "Certainly did!" Obama shot back with just a hint of a smile. Colbert waited a beat before leaning forward keenly, "And?" Obama's smile widened even further. "Can't tell you …"
I recently took my oldest grandson, Ralph, to the Epic Lego Creations exhibition at Auckland Museum. Among the many wondrous constructions is one entitled Roswell, depicting the UFO museum at Roswell alongside a crashed saucer in the sand surrounded by cacti, rescue trucks and men in black. As we were driving home, quite unprompted, Ralph announced that he'd recently drawn up clauses of a contract humans needed to sign with machines when they became "sentient". He's confident his legal template will also do for Earthlings and aliens. According to Ralph, if signed in good faith and strictly observed, humankind has nothing to fear from artificial intelligence and could peacefully co-exist with aliens.
We may not be ready for Eshed's revelations, but I know a 10-year-old who is. Now that is scary.