The 1978 Kaikoura Lights Ufo Incident

In the latter days (or rather nights) of 1978, the skies over the Kaikoura region, [1] South Island, New Zealand, became the setting for a spectacular series of UFO sightings.

It allegedly began in the waning minutes of December 20, the first known sighting taking place at 11:55 p.m. when Ian Uffindell and Bill Frame, RNZAF officers at Blenheim (Woodbourne) air base at Cloudy Bay, reported strange lights in the night sky southeast of Cape Campbell: one large and two small, flying close together and acting as though under intelligent control. John Cordy and Andrew James Herd air traffic controllers at Wellington Air Traffic Control Center, Wellington, North Island, confirmed the event
 tracking the objects on their scopes.

At 01:10 a.m. December 21 the sighting was confirmed again, this time by Captain John Randle and First Officer Keith Heine aboard a Safe Air Ltd. Argosy cargo plane en route from Blenheim to Christchurch. The sighting was the first of two a second (single) object being spotted at 03:10 a.m. while the aircraft was on a later leg from Christchurch to Auckland.

At 03:25 a.m. Captain Vern Powell, flying a Safe Air Ltd Argosy, also while headed to Christchurch from Blenheim, reported to WATCC that he could see, to his east, what appeared to be a massive light its color fluctuating, stationary and about the size of a house.

These first sightings were just a precursor of what was to come.

On the night of December 30 and into the morning of December 31 a film crew consisting of Australian reporter Quentin Fogarty, cameraman David Crockett and sound recordist Ngaire Crockett, flying from Wellington to Christchurch aboard another Argosy, their intent to investigate the proceeding encounters, soon found themselves involved in an encounter of their own when unidentified lights once again appeared above Kaikoura. Observed from the cockpit by the pilot Bill Startup, the co-pilot Robert Guard and the film crew which has been called forward, the lights swarmed everywhere almost as if they were inspecting the aircraft, Wellington ATC confirming the melee on radar.

Other UFOs followed, some appearing and disappearing, some changing course synchronous with the plane, and one staying up close and personal until just before the aircraft landed at Christchurch.

After a brief turnaround, and some restocking of film, the Argosy once again lifted off (December 31 at 02:16 a.m.) but this time without Ngaire Crocket who supposedly had had enough of UFOs. She was replaced by reporter Dennis Grant.

At first it was quiet, though Wellington ATC was still observing targets around Kaikoura. Then at 02:19 a.m. something different, a very large object was observed by both film and air crew. Onboard radar placed it at about 18 miles (Wellington and Christchurch at 160 and 35 miles respectively saw nothing). By 02:25 it had approached to within 10 miles (16 km) and it was here that cameraman David Crocket took the shape changing and, unfortunately, mostly out of focus Jupiter-like images that were seen around the world. We say unfortunate, because later expert examination of the few images in focus (or almost so) showed the object to be bright and bell shaped with a small top and large rounded bottom. 

The entire episode, captured on film, [2] made international headlines. But despite the footage, eyewitness testimony on the ground and in the air, and radar confirmation from both Wellington and Christchurch the authorities dismissed the event, describing the lights as everything from Jupiter to Venus, squid boats and harbor lights.

To paraphrase Argosy pilot Bill Startup's response: They can think what they want but they haven't explained why I saw Jupiter, Venus and the harbor lights doing 140 knots (260 kph) on my radar. [3]

[1] The Kaikoura Peninsula is located in the northeast of South Island. It protrudes approximately three miles (five km) into the Pacific Ocean. The town of Kaikoura is situated on its north shore. The Kaikoura Mountains lie to the west and north.

[2] The footage of the Kaikoura lights was examined by Dr. Bruce Maccabee an optical data processing expert, formerly employed by the U.S. Navy, with an MS and PHD in physics. He concluded that the images and movements of the UFOs captured on the film are genuine.

Dr Maccabee states, “Some of the more technically interesting sightings are those in which radar plays a role. There are many ‘radar only’ sightings (with no coincident visual sightings). Of greater interest are the radar-visual cases in which (a) witness(es) report an object in the same direction and undergoing the same dynamics as a radar target.” “These New Zealand sightings may be the most “instrumented” in civilian ufology, with multiple witnesses, two independent tape recordings made during the sightings, color movie film, and ground and air radar.

[3] Warrant officer Ian Uffindell, who had watched the Kaikoura lights from the control tower at Woodbourne air base near Blenheim, believed the NZ government’s inquiry into the sighting was an insult. He wrote in a letter dated 30 January 1979. “It is my opinion that this inquiry was a farce from beginning to end and has done much to tarnish the RNZAF’s image in the public eye.”

As for an interview he had, at the time, with the investigating committee he was apparently cut short.

He said “I did not get very far before a guy on the panel asked me what I thought the lights were. I said I had an open mind and he asked if I was a Ufologist. I said I wasn't and that was the end of the interview.''

Mr. Uffindell retired from the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1985.

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