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 Case #14

Zanthus, Western Australia - August 22, 1968

The details of this 1968 report stem from a witness statement prepared by Capt. Gordon W. SMITH, then pilot for Murchison Air Services (operating under the name 'Australian Airlines'). The statement was part of an article published in the Australian Flying Saucer Review. A copy of the article was kindly forwarded to us by New York researcher Herb TAYLOR. Exact references were not known, but it was found that the same text also appears in an article written by Paul NORMAN of the Victorian U.F.O. Research Society and published in the March 1979 issue of the British Flying Saucer Review. It was Keith BASTERFIELD, a long-time researcher from North Adelaide, who finally located the original two-page report in a RAAF Department of Defence file under file series A703, control symbol 580/1/1, part 10, pp. 145, 160 and 218-223.

Captain Walter Gardin and myself were returning from Adelaide to Perth on a Charter Flight. The aircraft was an 8 place Piper Navajo, registration VH-RTO, returning empty from Adelaide. At first sighting I was asleep in the cabin, Walter was at the controls. We were cruising at 8,000 feet with a true airspeed of 190-195 knots and tracking 270' Magnetic.

At 0940 G.M.T. (1740 W.S.T.) Walter abruptly wakened me in great excitement and asked me to come into the cockpit quickly. I did so, and he asked me if I could see what he was looking at. At first I didn't, because I was still suffering from the effect of sleep. However, after about thirty seconds I could seen what he was excited about.

Some distance ahead at the same level, and about 50° to my right (I was in the right seat), I saw a formation of aircraft. In the middle was a larger aircraft, and formatted to the right and left and above were four or five smaller aircraft. We were on a track of 270° Magnetic and these aircraft appeared to be maintaining station with us.

As we had not been notified of this traffic, I radioed Kalgoorlie D.C.A. communications centre asking them what traffic they or RAAF had in our area. The answer was none. So I then notified Kalgoorlie that we had this formation in sight and they, in turn, notified some eastbound traffic of the danger of unidentified traffic 130 NM east of Kalgoorlie.

At about this time we lost communications with Kalgoorlie on all frequencies. We were receiving Kalgoorlie carrier wave with no voice propagation, only a hash and static. In the next ten minutes I transmitted about seven times and I believe Walter did about five times with no results.

Also at about this time we noticed that the main ship split into two sections still maintaining the same level, and the smaller aircraft then flew out left and right but staying at the same level and coming back to the two main halves of the bigger ship. At this time there appeared to be about six smaller aircraft taking turns of going out and coming back and formating on the two halves.

Sometimes the two halves joined and split, and the whole cycle continued for ten minutes.

The shape of the main ship seemed to have the ability to change, not drastically, but a change from, say, spheroid to a slightly elongated form with the colour maintaining a constant dark grey to black.

However, the smaller craft had a constant cigar shape and were of a very dark colour. Their travel out and back had a peculiarity not associated with normal aircraft in that they appeared to travel out and come back without actually turning like a normal aeroplane would have to.

At 0950 G.M.T. the whole formation joined together as if at a single command, then departed at a tremendous speed. It did not disappear as, say, gas would but it departed in about three or four seconds, diminishing in size till out of sight.

The weather at the time of the sighting was fine, with no haze above 5,000 feet and about 2/8 alto stratus cloud to the south of us and the other aircraft.


1. The distance from our aircraft to the UFOs would be impossible to gauge because the prerequisite to establishing distance is to know size and the size of these objects is unknown. However, for comparative size, the main ship compared with a Boeing 707 as seen from about ten miles away.

2. Immediately after the departure of the UFOs radio communications were restored.

3. Neither Walter nor myself had the presence of mind to check if any deviation existed in our magnetic compass or Automatic Direction Finding equipment whilst in the proximity of the UFOs.

4. The whole formation maintained the same distance and bearing from our aircraft for the entire duration of the sighting.

Captain Gardin and myself discussed the sighting at length during and after the event and came to these conclusions as to whether the UFOs were (a) Balloons, (b) Gases, (c) Tricks of Light, (d) Aircraft.

a) If the sighting were balloons we considered it impossible to see these balloons from thirty miles. This would have been the distance covered by the aircraft from the first sighting to the disappearance.

The UFOs maintained the same distance throughout whereas a free balloon would have a closure rate with us of 195 knots (our true airspeed) and would have at least passed us.

b) The same arguments as above.

c) If it were a trick of light, the colour of the UFOs should have changed at some time or another because the sun had had a considerable traverse, coupled with our westward travel during this time. Also due to the last two facts, any refracted light would have changed form drastically whereas the UFOs had very little change of shape or colour.

d) We conclude that the UFOs were in fact aircraft with th solidity of aircraft, except perhaps for the fact of the ability of the larger UFO to split and change shape slightly.

Comment - As with the BOAC Labrador case, the lateral movements of the smaller objects occurred in a very narrow band ("without actually turning like a normal aeroplane would have to"). Interestingly, this happened at the same time the "main ship split into two sections" which might suggest that the inversion layer became thicker at that point allowing more objects to enter the mirage duct.

In 2011 an update on the Zanthus case was published on ufos-scientificresearch.
. On this blog is a three-part article on the case written by Australian UFO researcher Keith BASTERFIELD. Published alongside the article are:

  • a transcript of a telephone interview with one of the witnesses, Capt. Walter GARDIN, conducted by Keith BASTERFIELD on September 15, 2011;
  • the contents of a short article on the case that appeared in The Daily News on August 23, 1968 (i.e. the day after the event);
  • the contents of a second, equally short article on the case that appeared in The West Australian on August 24, 1968;
  • some thoughts about a possible "paranormal connection" written by co-blogger Pauline WILSON.

With regard to the mirage theory, BASTERFIELD concludes:

This is a particularly interesting case, whether it was an unusual mirage as posited by Shough, or a "true" UFO.


Given all the data, from both from the original 1968 documentation, and this interview, albeit it is 43 years later (why did no one follow this case up at the time?), I don't believe that the mirage hypothesis is valid.

In my opinion, this event represents an excellent example of the "core" UFO phenomenon, and deserved a scientific investigation at the time.

Below is Martin SHOUGH's response to this conclusion, first posted on the Project 1947 list, a forum where researchers discuss historical UAP events.

* * *

Unfortunately the fact that it didn't get that investigation leaves us with some uncertainties and with significant unresolvable contradictions between the original statements and the new interview, which as Keith points out he obtained 43 years after the event.

When I was alerted to the fact that Keith had published fresh findings about Zanthus on his blog, a little while ago, I posted several comments, and subsequently Keith, myself and Wim VAN UTRECHT continued a short email exchange. I think some of the points raised would help provide a more rounded appreciation of the problems in interpreting this report.

I began by commenting on Keith's statements to the effect that local radiosonde profiles were being sought, but that there were no mountain peaks in the area of the sighting that might have been responsible for mirage images seen in an elevated duct.

In part I replied:

Yes, it would very interesting to see radiosonde profiles for that day. I wish you luck in getting hold of them. Hopefully your request will focus if possible on balloon locations to the NW of the sighting area, in the sighting direction, which could be more significant than conditions in the immediate vicinity of the plane because the ray paths might be passing for long distances through an hypothetical optical duct extending over a wide area far from the plane.

Connected with that, I'd point out that the (equally hypothetical) target(s) of this mirage - silhouetted peaks, or clouds etc - might conceivably lie at a distance of hundreds of miles from the plane, so the topography and weather of the immediate Zanthus area is possibly not so relevant.

Note a point made in my report on the Capt. HOWARD case (Note 81) that the radio signal loss during the Zanthus sighting could be consistent with a strong temperature inversion causing an optical duct. In dry air, such as might be the situation at altitude in reportedly very clear blue skies over a region like this, radio and optical ducting onset would be much closer in time than would typically be the case (radio wavelengths normally being affected disproportionately by the relative humidity). It could happen that radio waves were being refracted and prevented from entering the optical duct. When the duct broke down, or the plane emerged from it, radio and optical propagation might return almost simultaneously to normal.

Re Capt. GARDIN's late recollection of details which indicate vertical angular displacements that seem to possibly conflict with a mirage explanation - the 45 degree final ascent, and merging of the satellite objects from underneath - I am reluctant to place as much weight on material information recalled 43 years later that was not mentioned at the time. Capt. SMITH's account (I agree with you) did give the impression - not explicitly, but by (I would say) conspicuous omission - that observed motions were confined to a horizontal plane.

It may not be irrelevant that these new details tend to increase the strangeness of the event. No doubt GARDIN encountered attempts by various people to explain the sighting - possibly including mirage-type theories, of which the original story was at least somewhat suggestive [Capt. SMITH at the time wrote about refracted light tricks]. It would be natural to want to defend a contrary opinion in which the witness may have invested some public and personal capital over the years (as possibly also hinted at by the "psychic" revelations*).

A similar temptation appears to have influenced Capt. HOWARD (BOAC case 1954) in similar circumstances a decade or more after the event, as proven by detailed documentary evidence in my report on that case.

In respect of memory, I note that Capt. GARDIN now recalls that "the sun was above the horizon" and sky condition in the sighting direction was "clear blue sky". However your own findings are as follows:

A check of the astronomical sky using a software program indicated that at 0940GMT [1740 local] the Sun had set and was about 4 degrees below the ground horizon, some 20 degrees to the right of the aircraft's track.**

I look forward to your further work on this interesting case. Perhaps contemporary evidence will emerge that convincingly disproves the mirage theory.

Kind regards
Martin Shough

* Walter GARDIN revealed that during the event, and for six months afterwards, he felt that he was under the control of something/someone who was gathering information on people on Earth.

** I confirm Keith's result for the elevation of the sun from the approximate location:

Alt -4 9' 1" Az 281 10' 2"
Rises 6:10:44 Sets 17:25:26
Astronomical dawn: 4:45
Astronomical dusk: 18:50
Dark for 9h 55m

* * *

In a subsequent email exchange Wim pointed out that the solar elevation would be different for an observer in the aircraft at 8000ft and wondered if this might explain the discrepancy between the Walter GARDIN's memory that the sun was up in a "clear blue sky" and the known sunset time.

In reply (28.09.2011) I pointed out that the difference is too small to explain the discrepancy:

We could do exact calculations for various atmospheres, but using a quick approximation assuming a standard atmosphere the horizon dip is

1.75 arcmin x sqrt h(m)

which gives

observer's eye at 2m from the ground, dip = ~2.5 arcmin
observer's eye at 2438.4m from the ground, dip = ~86.4 arcmin

subtract the difference from 4 deg and you find that the sun's negative elevation in standard refractivity from 8000 ft = - 154 arcmin, or about - 2.6 deg.

So yes, the sun should have been well below the horizon. Of course, we are ignoring possible spectacular ducting conditions. If GARDIN's recollection is to be preserved, then maybe the sun's image was being ducted far over the horizon and raised into view by the same conditions responsible for an hypothetical UFO-mirage? That's not entirely a serious suggestion... I would rather think that he may have misremembered things.

As I understand it, Keith agrees with the conclusion that GARDIN misremembered a post-sunset twilight as a bright blue daylight. IMO this ought to emphasise the precariousness of relying on 43-yr-old memories of how the objects behaved to rule out an unusual ducted mirage image - for example, the merging of the satellites from below, and the 45-degree final ascent, both of which Keith recognises as being at odds with the implication (at least) of the original documents. I agree with Keith on that.

A further claim by GARDIN is that the satellites moved through arcs of 30 degrees, to left and to right of the main object, making an enormous lateral angular displacement that seems impossible to understand in terms of any kind of mirage.

Capt. SMITH's original RAAF report stated: "for comparison size, the main ship compared to that of Boeing 707 from about 10 miles"

This estimate corresponds to only 8 arcmin, 2 or 3 times the minimum angular size necessary for the eye to resolve some shape, but not large, only a spot in the sky.

GARDIN was interviewed 43 yrs after the event as follows:


Q3 (...) If the length of the larger object was one unit, what was the length of a smaller object?

1/10th to 1/5th of a unit.


Q5 If the length of the larger object was one unit, how many units to left and right did the smaller objects travel?

About 30 degrees. Two smaller objects went to the right and four to the left.


How dependable are these values?

1/10 or 1/5 of 8 arcmins is a *very* tiny speck, scarcely detectable. If these very tiny satellites are in a tight cluster near the parent object that's one thing, but GARDIN has these specks spreading out from the main blob so far that they are separated by up to 450 times its own diameter (across 60 degrees, a very wide expanse of sky). I find it a little hard to recognise this picture in the original report of a group of objects staying at a constant relative bearing. In fact I wonder if the "30 degrees" above should not have been "30 units", since this would be properly responsive to the question. In this case the lateral displacement is only 4 deg and the total subtense of the whole group would not exceed 8 deg, which seems to me a better fit to the intent of the (admittedly imprecise) original report.

But I accept that this last point especially is very speculative. Indeed Keith later posted on his blog a previously unknown contemporary newspaper account from The Western Australian, Saturday 24 August 1968, which cited an interview with Capt. SMITH in which a large lateral angle of motion is possibly implied:

He said that a big white object had flown on a collision course with their Piper Navijo aircraft for 20 minutes before speeding out of sight. It appeared to emit several big-dish-like objects which kept within a few miles of the main object then merged with it again.

A lateral departure of "a few miles" at a distance perceived as being in the order of 10 miles (Capt. SMITH's estimate of how far it would have been were it the size of a large airliner) does equate to tens of degrees. But as I emailed to Keith (29.09.11):

As usual with newspaper reporters we have to be cautious about the account... If we are to credit SMITH's own words in his own report of the RAAF file, this is utter garbage. The object(s) was/were not white, but dark grey or black. The objects were not at any time on a collision course, but on an apparent pacing course maintaining station. And the sighting lasted not 20 minutes, but 10 minutes.

Not exactly ace journalism!

So in summary Keith's dismissal of the mirage theory is in my opinion premature. The best arguments against it depend on late testimony of uncertain reliability. That's not to say that the event is *easily* explained as a mirage - far from it. In fact I'd want to argue that it exemplifies certain features of a small but significant class of similar cases (which Wim and myself have taken to calling "the blobs") which have features very suggestive of a type of mirage but other consistent features - for example quite large lateral apparent motions over a few degrees - that possibly imply something new in atmospheric optics.

Postscript - The two newspaper articles located by BASTERFIELD raise questions about the colour of the sighted objects. According to the The Daily News of August 23, 1968, Capt. SMITH stated that the object "first appeared as a white glow", but the article does not specify if Capt. SMITH also mentioned that the object/objects turned to a darker colour afterwards.

Similarly, The West Australian article, published one day later, reports: "He [Capt. SMITH " WVU] said that a big white object had flown on a collision course with their Piper Navijo aircraft for 20 minutes".

These descriptions are difficult to reconcile with the following lines from Capt. SMITH"s written statement to the RAAF:

- "The shape of the main ship seemed to have the ability to change (") with the colour maintaining a constant dark grey to black. However, the smaller craft had a constant cigar shape and were of a very dark colour";

- "If it were a trick of light, the colour of the UFOs should have changed at some time or another because the sun had had a considerable traverse, coupled with our westward travel during this time. Also due to the last two facts, any refracted light would have changed form drastically whereas the UFOs had very little change of shape or colour."

Possibly the one story could just have been recycling the other the next day, as does happen all too often, with the white "glow" becoming a white "object". Both articles were published within 48 hrs of the event and things may not have been clear at that stage.

A new element in the "The Daily News" story is that the distance of departure from the "main object" is specified as having been "3 or 4 miles". Next to SMITH's comparison of the main object"s size to a Boeing 707 at 10 miles - a constant in all sources -, the item from the "The Daily News" also gives an estimated actual distance between objects and plane, namely "about 10 miles ahead". If this is correct, a distance of departure of 3 or 4 miles would equate to a separation of 17 or 22 degrees.

The full contents of both newspaper articles can be read over at: zanthus-sighting-newspaper-article and zanthus-wa-1968-aircraft-encounter.

Regarding an additional attempt to try to arrange for a meeting with the second witness, Walter GARDIN, Keith BASTERFIELD sent us the following email on June 20, 2012:

Gardin neder did come to Adelaide for a chat with me. In addition, I have not been able to locate radiosonde details from Kalgoorlie, WA. Apart from truying to locate Captain Smith in the electoral rolls, I have not been able to progress my cold case investigation further.

The authors look forward to receiving additional reports and/or comments which may help assess the soundness of the mirage theory for this particular type of UAP sightings (to contact us, see our e-mail address on the contact page).