An Ongoing Mystery: The Westall Flying Saucer Incident

The Westall Flying Saucer incident represents one of the best perhaps the best of the category of UFO sightings described as daylight, mass-witness, school-based sightings and landings. And it all happened in Westall, in what was then the City of Oakleigh, but which is now the City of Kingston.

It was the Wednesday before Easter: April 6, 1966. Westall was, and is, a small community – a neighbourhood – within the larger suburb of Clayton South, 21 kilometres from the CBD of Melbourne. This was just ten years after the very successful Melbourne Olympics, but somehow the celebratory and optimistic vive of that time had given way to a certain torpor, as Australia – even with the tyranny of distance – felt keenly the ever-present threats of the Cold War, and sank ever deeper into the mire of the Viet Nam War.

So, on this Wednesday in April, with the first school term about to finish the following afternoon, followed by two weeks of school holidays, it's a fair bet that the students, and teachers, were focussed on their imminent vacations. At about 10:15 that morning, however, two groups of students were involved in Physical Education classes on the school’s playing field, where the kids learnt and played cricket, hockey and football. One of the teachers, Miss Jeanette Muir, from New Zealand, was probably the first adult to notice the object, alerted to it by the cries – and shrieks – of her students. As the object had made no sound as it approached the school oval, it was right overhead when it was spotted. For several minutes about fifty Form 1 and Form 3 students, and their two teachers, watched as this silver/white, shiny, metallic-looking flying object, about the size of one or two cars, and shaped like an upside down bowl, flew low over their heads. It flew so low - as low as the tops of nearby gum trees and football goal posts - many students thought it was readying to land, or feared an imminent impact with the ground. Some of the students reacted with panic, and many became distraught. Miss Muir and another male teacher attempted to gather the students and shepherd them back towards the safety of the school buildings. The sight of this strange craft was overwhelming for many. It had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, but it seemed to be flying and hovering with intent, as if it was under control, indeed as if it was a vehicle with something inside. Mystifying for those watching, however, was the fact that it was clearly not an aircraft or a balloon: there were no windows; no visible engines or propellers; no wings or fins; no flashing navigational lights; no markings, or letters or numbers of any kind; no ropes or strings. Its shape was clear, its lack of sound obvious, but both incongruous; it was flying, not floating. For others, something else was startling: there seemed to be one, perhaps two other objects just like it, but further up in the sky, keeping their distance.

By this stage, one extremely agitated Form 1 student had broken away from her class and the control of her teacher, and had run back into the school building, bursting in on a Form 2 science class under the control of teacher, Mr Andrew Greenwood, blurting out that “there were flying saucers outside, flying saucers outside!” Mr Greenwood reacted harshly to the intrusion, attempted to settle his class, who were by now craning their necks at the windows which looked out towards the oval. A few minutes later, the recess bell sounded, and Mr Greenwood, with students in tow, went to look for themselves. He was the science teacher after all! When the excited student ran past the ablution block to burst in to the science lab with the amazing news, she had run past another Form 1 student who was standing nearby. This girl had a sick note and so wasn’t doing PE, but was watching from the sidelines. She had watched in utter amazement as she saw the objects first appear and silently fly in, and is sure that at least one of them flew down so low over the oval that it disappeared behind the wooden paling perimeter fence where, she presumed, it landed in the grassy paddock adjacent to the school. Later, classmates would lead her to that fence so that she could see the marks left behind from where the flying saucer had touched down.

Students at work at Westall High School 1963. Courtesy Leader Collection.

On the grassy oval, and in the adjacent asphalt quadrangle, pandemonium had broken out. Word of the arrival over the school of between one and three flying saucers had spread like a bushfire. Boys were shocked to see girls, still in their PE uniforms, hanging off the fences! When Andrew Greenwood and his class arrived, the closer flying saucer had begun to move away from the school, but was still very visible in the sky, above a copse of pine trees at a property called The Grange, about 400 hundred metres away. To the amazement of everyone watching, the larger (or closer) flying saucer flitted from one side of the sky to the other, as if it was just blinking off and then on again at spots hundreds of meters away. It ascended and descended and turned at incredible speeds. It was like watching a dragon fly trapped in a bottle, except this dragon fly had no wings, and the bottle was the size of the sky – a cool blue Autumn sky, with nothing but a few white fluffy clouds off in the distance. Nothing else, that is, until the silence in the sky was broken by the sound of five small planes suddenly appearing. Everyone at the Westall schools knew the sight and sound of planes very well. One of Australia’s busiest airports – at that time Melbourne’s second main airport – Moorabbin Airport, was a mere four kilometres away. The skies above Westall were constantly abuzz with the sound of planes flying in and out and doing their circuit-and-bumps training. So when these five planes appeared it was obvious that they were Cessna-like aircraft, and that the flying saucers bore no resemblance to them in any way. But these planes didn’t do what the planes over Westall normally did. They didn’t drone high overhead in the direction of the nearby runways. Instead, they flew low, down towards the flying saucer, as if trying to get closer to it. And every time they seemed to edge towards the strange craft, it just flitted away, as if playing a game with them of cat-and-mouse. And although these encircling cats outnumbered the mouse, the cats could not match this mouse’s speed nor agility. And then, without warning, the flying saucer descended behind the copse of pines and vanished, temporarily, out of view.

By this stage about 300 of the high school’s 485 students had amassed on and around the oval, many climbing the high wooden fence on the school’s western boundary, and the wire fence at the foot of the huge high-tension electric power pylon that stood in the school’s south-western corner. Two huge pylons at either end of the extremities of the school property carried high-voltage power lines. The flying saucer had lifted off and over these power lines as it ascended into the sky from the school and moved south towards The Grange. At the sight of the flying saucer disappearing behind the pine trees, a huge group of students jumped the low wire fence that separated the school from the drainage ditch that ran alongside the dirt Fairbank Road on the school’s southern flank, and ran towards The Grange in hot, excited pursuit of the flying saucer. The cries of several teachers to return to the school property fell mostly on deaf ears as dozens of these 13-16 year-old adventurers traversed dirt tracks and paddocks in search of their quarry.

A “lucky” few arrived before the main horde of kids at the site beyond the pine grove. One Form 1 witness remembers arriving in time to see the flying saucer lifting off from where it had settled, or perhaps had been hovering. On the ground were two other girls – one fainted in the dirt, the other just getting up but still dazed. She thinks there were a few boys there too, keeping their distance. While she tried to take all this in, the craft ascended, turned onto its side, and then flew up and away at a great rate, vanishing from view. Another Form 2 student told of running after her Form 1 friend who was much faster than she, and finding her three-quarters of the way between the school and where the craft appeared to have landed. Her younger friend was hysterical and had already started running back towards the oval; she tried to calm her and question her but the girl was too wrought, and broke free from her friend’s worried embrace. The Form 2 girl then decided not to venture any further into The Grange and returned to school, in time to see her friend overcome, falling into the arms of a teacher. Shortly afterwards she watched as an ambulance arrived, drove onto the playing field, and transported her friend away. Forty-five years later she still wonders about her friend, as she never returned to school, and was not sighted again.

It appears that the flying saucer was on, or near the ground, beyond the trees, for only a few minutes. More and more students – and some teachers - arrived, fanning out across the expanse of The Grange, to find that the object had gone. Those who stayed back at the school were able to watch it ascend and fly away, but many of those at The Grange had this view obscured by trees. Those at the school attested to the incredible speed with which the main flying saucer, and the other two, departed – as if in the blink of an eye. The five planes, which were still circling overhead, were left in their wake as if they were standing still, although of course they themselves were moving at some speed. These planes then moved away from the view of the school, and they too, like the objects they were hopelessly attempting to pursue, were not ever seen again. For those brave souls who ventured to The Grange, however, an unexpected reward was waiting for them. Although the flying saucer had departed, left behind in its place was a huge and perfect circle of flattened grass, with the stalks of grass swirled around in one direction, with a distinct ring of discoloured grass around the perimeter. Many recall that the perimeter seemed to be singed, or a little burnt, or scorched. Others also recall three indentations in the grass around the circle. Strangely, for those who first arrived, there seemed to be no vehicular, animal or human tracks in the grass surrounding the circle. For these witnesses there was no doubting the obvious correlation between the bowl or saucer-shaped craft they had seen in the sky, and then descending to this spot behind the trees, and the tightly wound circle of flattened grass before their eyes.

Although teachers – and prefects – soon arrived on the scene to haul the students back to the relative safety of the school grounds, these older teens and adults themselves became witnesses too. One of them, the woodwork teacher, Mr Gerry Shepherd, found it difficult to believe the stories of flying saucers – he had not seen any – but he could not deny the sudden and unprecedented appearance of this circle in an area he knew like the back of his hand. The school used The Grange for its cross-country running, and students and locals used it for all manner of other activities – licit and otherwise! In the two decades Mr Shepherd taught at the school, he had never before, nor since, seen such a perfectly formed circle in such an unlikely place. Nor was the pandemonium of that day ever to be repeated in his career. As he described it, “Westall High School, as a teaching institution, ceased!” in the immediate wake of these extraordinarily unexpected events. The headmaster, Mr Frank Samblebe, and his staff, tried to wrest control back over his school, as was their responsibility, of course. At a school assembly called after all the students had been returned to the school grounds, Mr Samblebe made it clear to the student body that flying saucers did not exist, and that they had not seen anything of importance, and that, despite this, they were not to speak again of the day’s events, and most importantly, they were not to speak to the media which had begun to gather at the school’s front gates in Rosebank Avenue. Several students recall that standing alongside the headmaster at the assembly that day, were several people they had never seen before. Some recall that they wore dark suits, others that they were in dark blue uniforms; all agree that they were “from the Government”. Several students were to have up-close encounters with these “suits” in Mr Samblebe’s office over the following hours, and for them there was no doubt that they were there to put a lid on things and to keep what had just happened in Westall, in Westall.

Over the coming hours that day, and especially after school, however, many people, including students from the primary and high schools, and their families and neighbours, made their way down to The Grange to see the circle. They were gob-smacked by what they found, and for those students who went down with their parents, no doubt relieved that their parents now believed them. Unfortunately, for most of the Westall students, that wasn’t their experience…and to this day, after 45 long years have passed, many are still hurt that their own parents and siblings refused to believe them, or at least were reluctant to. Someone who definitely still believes that the students saw something extraordinary is Albie, a fire-fighter from nearby Springvale Fire Station, who, with his crew, was despatched that day in response to a report of something strange crashing or coming down amongst the trees at The Grange. To this day he clearly recalls the route their fire truck took as it crossed over busy Westall Road and negotiated the bush tracks and brambles, and heath and gum and pine trees that made up The Grange. The fire crew did not have exact coordinates, and so drove around looking for the “crash site”. When they arrived they found a swarm of school kids running around looking for where the craft had gone to; someone said it had skipped over the fence and into the adjacent Spring Valley Golf Course, but Albie said no such reports came in of that happening. Another branch of the emergency services had also been alerted that day. David, the then Deputy Controller of the Civil Defence Organisation, now known as the State Emergency Service, informed me they too had received a report of something in trouble – perhaps a crash - at The Grange. A crew was despatched from the Oakleigh depot, but they also arrived too late to see any craft, but in time to see the melee happening in and around The Grange. Both emergency crews returned to their respective stations with many unanswered questions.

Between the towering pine tree canopy, and the almost impregnable blackberries and heath, the volunteer fire fighters and civil defence crews may not have known exactly where they were going (or what they were looking for!) when they arrived at The Grange in Westall. However, it seems that the police and the military who arrived on the scene did. Twenty-four of the witnesses – including a teacher - have recounted memories of people in police and/or military uniforms (some say army, some air force, some aren’t sure) coming to the school or to the site of the circle at The Grange. Some recall police, army and fire vehicles responding within twenty minutes, and still remember the sight of their small convoy raising dust as they raced along what were mainly unsealed roads at the time. Another witness recalls about twenty soldiers dressed in khaki uniforms alighting from two jeeps and two long-bed trucks with camouflage tarpaulins over the top, taking charge of a paddock containing a circle. Another, an apprentice, who had two younger siblings at the school, remembers taking cover behind pine trees as he and his high school sister watched four soldiers – two enlisted men in camouflage and two others in officer dress – examine the circle with special equipment. Another, who was an electrical engineering student at nearby Monash University, rode down and met his uncle at The Grange, who showed him the circle. The following day he returned with mates from university, and was surprised to find the same place completely sealed off with barricades and soldiers on point duty. In the distance, however, near the paddock containing the circle, he could see soldiers alighting from trucks wielding what appeared to be Geiger counters and metal detectors. They were told to “piss off” by the guards in no uncertain terms! A week later he went back again. The barricades and the soldiers were gone, but so was the circle! At first he noticed that the grass had been cut between the road and the paddock, and then, in the paddock itself, the whole area had been burnt, leaving no trace of the remarkable circle he and his uncle, and hordes of others that day, had clearly seen. Several boys from the high school, who a few short years later became police officers themselves, clearly recall seeing two types of uniforms present around the school on the day of the sighting. One of the students was the son of a serving police officer and knew the uniforms well. Clearly, some were police and some were military. They were working together, or at least, alongside each other. Lastly, a freelance news reporter, alerted to the incident by a radio news flash, raced over to Westall only to find his path blocked at every entrance to Westall by a cordon of what he was later told were Commonwealth Police officers and cars.

Fortunately, the military, police and emergency services weren’t the only ones called. A couple of female students raced outside and down the street to the phone box outside the Westall shops in Rosebank Avenue and called a TV station. Local residents called the district newspaper The Dandenong Journal. By the afternoon, a TV crew from Channel Nine was at the front gate attempting to interview excited witnesses. Several students managed to give their version of the events before a police officer and a teacher intervened and ordered the students back inside. The story, including vision of the interrupted interview, aired on Melbourne TV news that night. The Dandenong Journal was able to interview Mr Greenwood and a Form 2 student, Marilyn Eastwood. Both teacher and student were severely reprimanded by the headmaster for doing this. The story, deliciously, was the leading front-page story for two weeks running, and remains an important primary document from the event. Strangely, even though the newspaper’s contract photographer is sure he took photos of the circle at the time, they were not published as part of the articles. Incredibly frustratingly, Channel Nine, after a search in both its Melbourne and Sydney film archives, was not able to locate the original news story which all of the witnesses recall watching that April night. I contacted the original news reporter, who had clear memories of the story as, although flying saucer reports were fairly common at the time, he had never covered one then nor since that involved schools and with so many witnesses – and in broad daylight. He put the loss of the film containing his news story down to the vagaries of time!

Front page of the Dandenong Journal in which a report on the Westall Flying Saucers affair was published,1966. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

Investigators from the Victorian Flying Saucer Research Society arrived on the scene two days later – Good Friday. By this stage however, the school was closed for the vacation, and the students had dispersed for the Easter break. They did manage to speak to some locals, however, and take photos of the circle in the grass. The Society now says it cannot locate those photos, nor any investigation notes that may have been taken. The Dandenong Journal writers Des Carroll and Dave Oakley, as well as a Government meteorological physicist, Dr F.A. Berson, attempted to follow the incident up with the school authorities, local residents, Moorabbin Airport, the Department of Air, and the Army, but were told they knew nothing. Victorian researchers, Paul Norman and Peter Norris, contacted American atmospheric physicist and researcher Professor James McDonald, and he interviewed both Andrew Greenwood and Dr Berson in 1967 whilst visiting Melbourne, and his notes have become an important source of information about their reflections on the incident. Andrew Greenwood has always stood by his story, without being able to offer an explanation for what he saw. He told Professor McDonald that Miss Muir had also seen the object when it first appeared, but that she had clammed up about it and would not talk. He believed three teachers in total had seen the object, but would not have been surprised if there had been more, but that such was the adverse reaction from Headmaster Samblebe, and others, towards those who spoke up, nothing more would probably be said.

In April 2011, Westalls’ flying saucer witnesses gathered to remember and to seek answers. Despite the passage of time, around 50 people made their way back to the modest quadrangles and playing fields of Westall Primary School, to mark the 45th anniversary of the day flying saucers appeared, out of the fine, blue autumn skies over Melbourne, in full view of hundreds of people at the two Westall schools and surrounding areas.

Reunion at Westall of those associated with the Unidentified Flying Object incident of 1966. Members of the media were present to record the occasion. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

Those gathered included former teachers and students from the high school, former students from the state (primary) school – one of whom is now that school’s bursar, a former university engineering student, a former market garden worker, and a former engineer at the local bakery who was also then a parent of two state school students. Two of those present had stood within arm’s reach of the flying saucers as they sat on the ground, in grassy paddocks adjacent to the schools. Two of those present had vivid memories of being called to the headmaster’s office and being grilled about what they had witnessed. Others had clear memories of seeing uniformed police officers and soldiers – one was even tapped on the shoulder by one and ordered back into the school!

As part of the gathering, the witnesses and their friends recreated the events of the day by retracing their steps. Starting at the high school science room where a girl burst in from her physical education class to let teacher Andrew Greenwood know that there were flying saucers outside; to the headmaster’s office where, apparently, the phone rang hot that day with everyone from the air force to journalists trying to make contact with Frank Samblebe; to the playing fields of the high school and the state school; and then finally down to The Grange where a flying saucer was seen to descend behind century-old pine trees.

And so, the search continues. It seems that the answers to the mystery of Westall 1966 lie within the memories of a few remaining people who were in charge that day…and that only their willingness to talk will break the back of this 45-year-old riddle. As always, we rely on fellow citizens to be honest and courageous, open and transparent…as the witnesses have been… for knowledge – of ourselves, and our world – to progress, and for truth to prevail.

11 June 2012
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