It was New Year's Day, 1979, when the world awoke to the news that strange lights had been spotted by six people on a plane off the New Zealand's South Island.
Was it a UFO? No, said the skeptics. It was Venus, it was squid boats, it was radar returns from a field of cabbages.
But 40 years later, the two pilots and four passengers are adamant it was none of the above and are frustrated at being unable to find answers.
The Herald on Sunday tracked down each member of the group around the world. One is a mango farmer in Hawaii, while another is an 80-year-old newlywed after her royal wedding-themed ceremony at her retirement village the night before Meghan and Harry’s big day.
The case bought instant fame – but no fortune – for some, before bringing shame and anger when they were accused of hoaxing the sighting. It broke up a marriage.
At the end of 1978, Australasia was in the grip of UFO fever. In October, 20-year-old Frederick Valentich disappeared while piloting a small Cessna 182 aircraft over Bass Strait while heading to King Island in Tasmania. Described as a “flying saucer enthusiast”, Valentich informed Melbourne air traffic control he was being accompanied by an unknown aircraft.
Two months later across the Tasman, on December 21, Safe Air pilots Vern Powell and Ian Pirie spotted strange lights while flying from Blenheim to Christchurch.
A producer for Melbourne’s Channel 0 (now Channel 10), Leonard Lee heard the news and tracked down reporter Quentin Fogarty, who worked for the channel but was on holiday with his wife and children in Christchurch, staying at TV One journalist Dennis Grant’s home.
Freelance Wellington cameraman David Crockett was also hired, along with his wife Ngaire, who operated the audio tape recorder.
The group were invited to jump aboard Safe Air’s Blenheim-based Argosy plane, named Merchant Enterprise, late on December 30, which pilots Bill Startup and Bob Guard were taking on a newspaper run between Wellington and Christchurch.