Armidale, 21st September, 2014
On the 24th September, Astronomer David Reneke kindly bought to my attention a UFO/UAP sighting report from Armidale, NSW, which had been very recently sent to him by one of the witnesses, Sandy Sweeney. Having reviewed the original report details, I enlisted the assistance of my colleague James, an investigator with the Victorian U.F.O. Research Society (VUFORS), and Victorian UFO Action (VUFOA) and immediately initiated a detailed investigation.
At the time of writing this investigation has not yet been concluded, and I am presenting here a preliminary report describing the investigation thus far.
Narrative of Events
According to the initial report from Sandy:
“A group of us were returning home and what we saw was something of interest. Coming toward us from the SW was an object with three large orange lights, two in front and one behind. They were travelling very low and very slow. It appeared to be gliding and there was no noise It came from almost the centre of town and moving to the North. The two front lights were a short distance apart. It was very close and heading towards a large gum tree, two residential house blocks from where we were standing and would have come across my house if it hadn’t veered to the left to avoid this tree and then it slowly moved out of site into the clouds in the distance. It looked like a spotter of sorts and I would have liked to have seen underneath to determine a shape as it was totally indescribable. I’m thinking of ASIO and secrecy and drones and terrorism!! I did look at the UFO QLD web site with similar sightings from QLD residents in 2012 but nothing was identified in those reports. My daughter and son-in-law lives a block away from me on a hill, he could still see it far into the distance until the clouds blocked its visibility. We were able to view it for 10 minutes or more from our position. What didn’t connect was why this object veered to the left to avoid the tree! There was no wind or breeze it was a still night.”
Via both e-mail correspondence and phone interviews with a number of the witnesses, we soon establish all the essential narrative details. Starting at 8:42pm on the evening of 21st of September, 2014 no less than five people witnessed, essentially from two different locations, three distinct orange lights travelling toward the North-North-East above homes on the northern suburban fringe of Armidale. Two of the lights were close together at the “front”, and the third trailed well behind. No noise whatsoever was apparent. The witnesses closely watched the formation as it came towards them. The three lights then turned West to avoid hitting a large gum tree at the bottom of the street. The lights travelled in perfect formation off well into the distance over the landscape never to be seen again. During the event, one of the witnesses phoned a very nearby family member who was able to watch it from his house as well. Two of the witnesses then left the main viewing location and drove up the road to watch the event from the home of the family member they had phoned. At all times the lights were distinctly viewable by all, and appeared to have a degree of “purpose”, especially when they avoided the gum tree.
Specifically, Lee Townsend, was waiting at her mother Sandy Sweeney’s home after being dropped off, and was awaiting the rest of the family. As they arrived, Lee noticed the three orange orbs drifting towards them over the town. She brought this to the attention of Sandy, as well as her husband James Urquhart, and a family friend Bev Philp, as they arrived in the driveway. Perplexed, the four witnesses watched the three orange orbs moved silently straight towards them travelling in a nearly dead North direction. When it became apparent that the objects were very low, they gently changed direction to avoid a large gum tree at the bottom of the street, and moved off West-North-West. The objects appeared to actually turn rather than all move off “sideways” – much like a truck with headlights would turn, as if the three objects were all part of the same body. Lee called her father-in-law, just one street away, and asked him to go outside and determine if he could see the objects as they drifted over the horizon behind Sandy’s home and began to be obscured. Lee’s father in-law indeed saw the phenomena from his front doorstep upon receiving the phone call. He agreed it was moving silently off into the distance, seemingly West. At this point, Lee and Jamie got into their car and drove up the road to where the father-in-law was watching and continued to veiw the objects. They felt that the phenomena turned slightly North again, thus now travelling in a North-Westerly direction.
The witnesses were sent a package of documents by post, including a map and requests for descriptions of the relevant apparent elevation, bearing (azimuth), angular size and angular momentum. The maps returned to us were in close agreement, indicating the lights’ arrival from the SE: according to Sandy, beginning at a bearing of 120; according to Lee/Jamie, coming from a position a little further South - roughly SSE), moving to a position South of the witnesses. The lights then altered course (apparently just south of the trees), towards: according to one witness (Sandy) the NW, so arriving at a position, after the turn, of 220; according to another witness (Lee/Jamie), heading almost directly West. This was then followed by a course correction back to essentially the original heading, now NNW away from the witnesses. Finally, one witness (Lee/Jamie) indicated the course gradually curving eastward as the lights receded. The witnesses agreed on an apparent elevation of between 45 and 50 degrees. However, to which portion of the event this estimate referred, was not clearly indicated. This in one of the issues for which further, clarifying data will be sought. However, this data is sufficient to establish, in accordance with the reports received, that the lights were not low to the horizon, as is often the case when misidentifications occur. Working from these details, we next began the long process of collecting as much relevant data as could be secured.
Astronomical and Satellite Data
James undertook to assess the pertinent astronomical and satellite data. A careful check of all satellites with an apparent magnitude greater than 8 (effectively invisible to the naked eye), between the times of 8:30 and 8:55, indicated that whilst a number of satellites were present at different times, almost all were extremely dim and unlikely to have been observed at all, much less reported as bright, orange light sources. At no time did any individual satellite or collection of satellites traverse the sky on a manner that could possible account for the sighting details. Indeed, the only satellite of significant magnitude to appear in the relevant sector of the sky, in the time period assessed, was the ISS, which rose briefly to a position just above the horizon before almost immediately being eclipsed.
Two bright planets, Mars and Saturn, were present low in the sky west-south-west, in Scopio and Libra respectively. These positions render their potential significance to the case negligible, and thus they were excluded as part of any reasonable explanation. A major factor in this determination was both the planets’ being visible in entirely the wrong direction, and the significant degree of movement ascribed to the three, apparently associated, unknown lights. Further, at no time did any visible satellite appear in a position relative to Mars and Saturn that could account for the specific relative dispositions reported of the lights being investigated. Planetary bodies and satellites could thus be excluded as potential explanations.
Keith Basterfield supplied initial data from the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM). However, as the freely available data did not include readings from any period sufficiently close to the reported time of the sighting, an application to the BOM was made by Paul Dean to purchase a complete list of half-hourly readings including cloud cover, wind strength and average wind direction taken from the Armidale Airport weather station, situated some 8 kilometres from the witnesses’ position. Although data for winds aloft was not available, the ground readings secured show that the wind was blowing at 24 kilometers per hour, from 80 degrees – 10 degrees North of East. Maximum wind gusts were recorded as being 30 kilometers per hour. As the three orange lights were travelling from the South-South-East to the North-North-East, wind direction cannot account for their movement. When the reported phenomenon turned at the gum tree, they then travelled West, which would be in line with wind direction. This effectively excluded the possibility of any explanation in terms of any wind-blown object or objects. It should also be noted that the witnesses believed the lights to be extremely low – roughly at tree top level – thus the winds at the height of the lights, assuming the witnesses were even moderately correct in their estimate of altitude, could not have diverged significantly from those recorded at the Armidale Airport weather station. Also, as the lights eventually drifted off into low slung cloud far to the West, they vanished into low foggy cloud, meaning that certainly the phenomenon was not mistakenly reported as a being of low altitude. I wish to reference and thank the Bureau of Meteorology, Armidale Weather Station for this important data.
A thorough check of local media sources for any clues as to possible mundane sources for the reported lights revealed three separate sources of drone activity in the area: 1) A research project based at the University of New England; 2) A trial weed location project within the New England Weeds Authority, and 3) A surveillance operation run by an animal rights group, Animal Liberation NSW. An attempt was made to contact each of these groups to determine if their drones may have contributed to the UAP report. A University of New England representative responded only with the statement that “I am not aware of any such movements”. Animal Liberation responded by stating that their drone “…most definitely was not operating in the place and time you’ve provided”. The New England Weed Control Authority, at time of writing, has not yet responded.
Despite lacking a useful response from two potential sources of drone activity, it is possible to effectively rule out drones as a possible cause of the report, due to the details provided by the witnesses. We were able to determine the specific type of drones operated by each of the sources listed, and compare their characteristics with those of the unidentified lights, with negative results. This will be fully explicated in the final report. It should also be noted that the operation of such drones in populated areas is prohibited, and indeed it is most unlikely that such drones would be in flight in the hours of darkness. Further, the witnesses reported no discernible noise, despite the apparent close approach of the light sources, and whilst some drones produce very little noise, these tend to be those types utilised for military purposes. The type of drones identified as being employed in the Armidale area would most likely be audible at the distances indicated for the light sources in the witnesses’ accounts.
A suggestion was made – relative to the initial report received by David Reneke – that gliders may potentially serve as an explanation. In order to confirm our understanding that gliders were neither employed in darkness nor carried lights, we made contact with the President of the Victorian Gliders Association, who confirmed these points in no uncertain terms. Thus gliders too could be excluded from our list of possible causes. (Contents of email to be included in final report)
As is evident from the above, we have to this point been unable to establish any reasonable mundane cause for the reported sighting. As such, it seems reasonable to tentatively treat this as most likely a genuine UAP event, although until the investigation is finalised this conclusion is of course subject to revision. The ongoing investigation will continue to focus on the possibility of drone involvement as the most likely potential mundane cause. In any case, it is in modern times almost impossible to conclusively rule out drones as the cause of such Nocturnal Light reports, and it may be at best possible only to establish the relative probability of such an explanation. Further clarification of the witnesses’ reports will also be sought in furtherance of establishing more precisely the characteristics of the reported ‘lights’, which will further contribute to establishing the probability of potential explanations.
Finally, it is noteworthy that this report appears to fit clearly within the well established pattern of a common type of UAP report – involving many independent observations of amber coloured lights moving silently through the night sky. It may therefore be that any final ‘answer’ as to the cause of this report will require analysis of this event type more generally.