What flew over the Northern Territory during the late 1930s? Where did it come from? Whence did it go? Seventy years on, the mystery remains unsolved.
In 1938 the Territory was a remote region being administered by the Commonwealth Government. Darwin, a small port with only a few thousand residents, was being rebuilt after a 1937 cyclone. The Darwin aerodrome, at the Parap Police Paddocks, handled only a few flights each day, and all of the aeroplanes landing and taking-off were familiar to Territorians.
The Darwin ‘mystery plane’, when it appeared, stood out and quickly became the talk of the nation.
At 6.00 pm, on 3 February 1938, a few Darwinites were enjoying the tropical evening outside a Darwin hotel when somebody yelled out, “Look there’s a plane!”
One of the witnesses, Mr Percy Love, a wharfie, said in a written statement, “Upon looking pretty well overhead I saw a grey coloured biplane fairly high and travelling towards the jetty or in an easterly of southeasterly direction. I thought it was the plane of the Katherine [flying] doctor but later on I considered it was too big a plane for this. I saw no strange marks on the machine or any distinguishing marks. I have good eyesight and had not any doubt that what I saw was an aeroplane”.
A friend, Mr William Williams, a Darwin Airport gardener, also stated: “I heard the sound of an engine in the air and, looking up, I saw an aeroplane of a grey colour flying in a southerly direction and at a fair height and fairly fast. I could see no strange marks on it but I noticed that it had wheels. I cannot say if it was a biplane or a monoplane... Mr Collins, the O.I.C. Darwin Airport, came along a few minutes after the plane passed... He stated that he had heard the sound of the plane’s engines. I had not been drinking and I have good eyesight.”
Civil Aviation Inspector Collins stated that the strange aeroplane sounded very much to him like a light commercial machine, powered by a 100 hp engine.
The local authorities, after the sighting, telephoned the Pine Creek and Katherine, aerodromes - the only landing fields within a 300 km radius of Darwin - and were informed that no strange aeroplane had landed. The (Royal) Flying Doctor Service confirmed its two aeroplanes were on the ground at the time.
And the sighting may not have been the first. In October 1937 a surveying team working on the Manton Dam water supply scheme, about 60 km from Darwin, had previously reported that a strange plane had flown over their camp at night.
The Territory skies seemed to have a ‘visitor’, and soon it returned.
Mr Maurice Holtze, the chief engineer at the Darwin Electrical Powerhouse, was on duty at 4.30 am, on 8 February 1938, when he too saw the plane, and in a statement said: “The diesel engine and the main dynamo were running and I heard the noise of an engine of an aeroplane passing directly overhead and possibly at a height of about 1,000 feet. I went outside and looked for the plane but could only see an orange coloured light, probably the engine exhaust, going away in a west by south direction and very straight. I watched it for two minutes until it disappeared. I am quite certain that it was aeroplane.”
An Adelaide Advertiser report added: “Mr Holze... said the machine had swooped low down over the power house, which was the only building in Darwin lighted up at that hour. It was travelling at high speed and he could see the glow from the lights in the cockpit.”
And Mr Holze wasn’t the sole witness that morning. The Argus said, “It was learned today that a policeman heard an aeroplane’s engine on Tuesday morning, and that a postal employee who was on duty throughout the night saw lights in the air over the harbour. These lights were at first thought to have been meteorological balloons, which have Chinese lanterns attached, or possibly falling stars, but no balloons were sent up that morning.”
The mystery plane also appeared over Darwin the next morning according to The Age report: “On Wednesday at 7.30 am another Darwin resident saw a plane flying northeast. As the weather had just cleared after heavy rain the plane was seen distinctly. It was described as a monoplane the colour of aluminium.”
On 11 February 1938, a high-level meeting, chaired by the Administrator of the NT, Mr C.L.A. Abbott, was held in Darwin to sift through the evidence but the group, which included military officers, could not reach a conclusion: The witnesses were of good character, but unauthorised flights over such a remote region were ‘impossible’.
However, two days later, at 4.30 am on 13 February, another sighting occurred and The Argus reported: “The machine was heard by an expert aero engineer. The report was not divulged owing to the scepticism with which previous reports had been received.”
With our lack of northern defences apparently completely exposed The Age editorial of 16 February 1938, proclaimed: “Last week it was reported two strange aeroplanes had flown over Darwin. The still unexplained incident may not have significance, but it is a pointed reminder that having lost the defence advantage of isolation, Australia must plan and prepare in the light of changed conditions. For the North a comprehensive policy of development and defence has become more than imperative.”
On 4 March 1938, a Mr Walter Alright, an oil company representative, also claimed a sighting, and The Argus reported: “It was after 3 am... He rushed outside and heard the drone of the engine, which came from the east, disappearing in the west. Mr Alright’s knowledge of aeroplanes is such that it would be unlikely for him to mistake the sound of a plane engine...”
The sightings subsided as abruptly as they’d begun in Darwin, but a National Australia Archives document reveals that they continued in the Territory for some weeks. The Department of Defence Minute Paper s.c.415/201/1292, reads in part:
“NT Police Station, Booroloola [reported] Local inhabitants heard [a] heavy noise like [an] aeroplane making from northwest towards Burketown [Queensland] on 12 March at 1600.
Another plane heard at daybreak on 19 March making from NT towards Camooweal [Queensland]... probably Flying Officer Clouston’s plane, as it left Darwin on 19 March.
Mission station, Groote Island. Natives report that a plane was seen over Woodah Island, lying approx. 15 miles northwest of Groote Island [Gulf of Carpentaria] at 1400 25 March.”
So what ‘visited’ the Northern territory in 1938?
With the benefit of hindsight, probably the most likely candidate was a Japanese spy plane.
However, the nearest Japanese land base, at the time, was on the Palau Islands, 1,920 km from Darwin; and there was no evidence to support the notion a Japanese naval ship capable of launching a plane was operating in our region. Also, why would a Japanese reconnaissance pilot on a sensitive mission circle low over Darwin and draw attention to himself? And where did the pilot refuel his plane after he flew deep into the vast Interior of Australia?
Another possible candidate was the RAF’s new long-range single-engined bomber, the Vickers Wellesley; perhaps the British were doing test flights from Singapore?
The Vickers Wellesley, a two-seat, low-wing monoplane with a large wingspan (22.73 metres) and a range of 1,786 kilometres, could perhaps have completed the round trip non-stop, but there was no confirmation if this.
Perhaps a criminal drugs and people-smuggling gang was operating a light plane from a secret base in the Arnhem Land Reserve?
Missions and police outposts in the reserve were alerted, but no suspicious activity was reported. An RAAF Gannet aeroplane, conveying Air Vice Marshall Williams and entourage to Singapore (for the opening of the new British naval base), was diverted to Bathurst and Melville Islands to search but again nothing was found.
Like in the Territory, many people in Scandinavia during the 1930s also reported seeing a solitary, grey, unmarked mystery aeroplane in the skies, and, like in the Territory, it some times circled low overhead before flying away. Like in the Territory, it appeared over the more remote regions of the Nordic countries, and, despite extensive searches on land and at sea its base was also never located.
Many ufologists feel a small percentage of mystery planes are ET craft in disguise.
Many thanks to Keith Basterfield for his help with this story.
• The Melbourne Argus, February 9 to 14, and March 5, 1938
• The Adelaide Advertiser, February 9 to 14, 1938
• The Melbourne Age, February 11, 16
• National Australia Archives, reference #. 56/3/2, Department of Defence - Air Board Documents, found at www.naa.gov.au
Source: The Australasian Ufologist Magazine Vol. 9 No.1 Pgs 12-13 (photos)