Tuesday, June 21, 2011

King's "UFO vision" at the tragic end of the 1861 Burke and Wills expedition

150 years ago the epic Burke and Wills expedition was ending in tragedy. Within days both Burke and Wills would be dead, victims of an expedition gone wrong and paying the ultimate price in the harsh conditions of the Australian outback at Coopers Creek.

However even while death was only days away,William John Wills recorded in his journal for Tuesday June 23:
"Near daybreak King reported seeing a moon in the east with a haze of light stretching up from it to be quite as large as the moon and not dim at the edges. I am so weak that any attempt to get a sight of it was out of the question; but I think it must have been Venus in the Zodiacal light that he saw, with a corona around her."

Maybe Wills was right. After all he was the surveyor and astronomical observer for the ill-fated expedition. Between 1858 and 1860 he had worked as an assistant at Melbourne's Flagstaff observatory.

In his 1976 Boyer lecture historian Manning Clark stated:
"The story of Burke and Wills could be told to illustrate many things about life. Like all great stories it had everything.... To feel the full force of that tragedy one has to stand on the banks of Cooper’s Creek at the spot where Wills died. Right to the very end Wills had believed, like Mr Micawber, that something might turn up.... The most difficult thing of all for a historian is to learn how to tell his story so that something is added to the facts, something about the mystery at the heart of things."

Well, something may indeed have turned up. Astronomy software reconstructing the early morning sky for the period in question suggests that Venus was below the sunrise horizon, and the moon was in the west. So if these tentative reconstructions are correct we have a mystery on our hands. I suspect it was something prosaic that the lone expedition survivor - John King - saw that morning, 150 years ago. Perhaps given the dire and tragic circumstances closing in on the 3 men, that precision in observations may have understandably started to lapse.

What did John King see - Venus, the moon, a UFO?

Wills original journal which carries King's "vision" is held in the National Library of Australia. The account is excerpted here. A mosaic of film and books (fact & fiction) is also included.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Australian Department of Defence "lost" UFO files - where are they?

The Sydney Morning Herald reported today that "the Department of Defence has "lost" its X-Files." In response to the newspaper's FOI request after a 2 month search the department's FOI assistant director advised they could only find a very limited amount of files. The search included the Canberra National Archives of Australia (NAA)facility.

When Herald journalist Melissa Davey contacted me yesterday about the story I suggested that it could not have been a very thorough search, simply because a large part of the "missing files" are in fact located at the Canberra NAA facility. Indeed many of them are available to be "found" via anybody's computer internet search of the NAA site via digital copies. Some files are indeed missing but these seem to be due to shortsighted "house cleaning" activities by the DOD. The decision to destroy UFO (or UAS) files is completely out of step with equivalent organisations in other countries such as Britain and France. Fortunately many of the impressive cases that were in the destroyed files were preserved by researchers like myself. I copied many of these files during my research visits to the Russell Offices of the Department of Defence during the period 1982 and 1984.

Incidentally a computer search of the NAA records is best served by using the word "Flying saucers." Many of these file series can be read at your leisure via the digitised versions of the same files.

So the case of the "missing" Australian DOD "X-Files" has been solved. In fact the majority of the files were never "lost" just not found by the DOD FOI official who did not know the history of the DOD's relationship with the UFO "problem." Only a little research would have been needed to determine where the files actually were.

The bigger question is why the Department of Defence decided to destroy some of their UFO files, for what seems to be little more reason than house cleaning activities. Back in 1984 I directed a letter to the Director of Air Force Intelligence stating that the DOD UFO/UAS files should be preserved for posterity because of their value to UFO researchers, historians, and to many other disciplines. When the National Archives started storing many of these files, and ultimately digitising some of them I felt that preservation of the files was reasonably assured. Problem is you can't always count on efficient follow through. Incredibly myopic decisions were made within DOD around 2004 to destroy some of the UFO files still present in the DOD archives. The FOI decision maker at that time was Group Captain G. MacDonald, Director of Co-ordination - Air Force. More than 8 years of sighting files from 1974 to 1982 appear to have been destroyed. I hope that the process was not continued to any further extent. That is a matter that needs to be further examined. Fortunately a great deal of the DOD UFO files exist via their presence in the National Archives.

At least a substantial part of the Australian DOD UFO legacy has been preserved for future historical consideration.

Photo: Bill Chalker at the Russell Offices of the Australian Department of Defence in 1982.