In my up coming Science and the UFO controversy column for the Australian Ufologist
magazine I've written a piece called "The Cosmic Tornados of OZ"
. Here is part of it as related to the fascinating 1963 experience of farmer Charles Brew near Willow Grove in Victoria.
The "Close Encounter"
series will cover the story with their usual flare. It will be dramatic and it will get some sense of the original. Shane Ryan and I will be giving commentary on the show. Back in about 1980 I visited the Willow Grove property. Sadly Charles Brew had passed away by then. His family showed me the location. It wasn't quite like this. The UFO may have been that close, but there was a steep immediate drop off of the land with hills in the near background and the weather - clouds and rain much more closed in. Still, its only an attempt at dramatic recreation.
I refer you to the more detailed story here and to Keith Basterfield's "cold case" review
Here for the first time is the real story behind the RAAF's strange embrace with their "close encounters" with "the cosmic tornados of OZ" - how Dr. Berson set the seed that unleashed a tornado that was the RAAF's "UFO problem."
Dorothy in “The Wizard of OZ” got taken to
OZ. Here is the story of how our knights
of the air – the RAAF in the form of the Department of Air (now Department of
Defence (RAAF)) – also got carried away by “tornados” but they were already
were in the real OZ – Australia – and a scientific reality check was always
there. The RAAF just didn’t pay too much
attention. So much for the RAAF’s
citation of “the scientific record” for their strange and toxic dance with
THE REMARKABLE WILLOW GROVE
At 7 am, February 15th, 1963, Charles
Brew bore witness to a something remarkable.
With his 20 year old son, Trevor, Charles was at work in the milking
shed on their farm, "Willow Grove", near Moe, Victoria. It was light, but rain clouds lay
overhead. Charles Brew was standing in
an open area, with a full view of the eastern sky. It was from that direction that he saw a
strange object appear and descend very slowly towards the milk shed. The objects approach was coincident with the
cattle and a pony reacting violently.
The 2 farm dogs fled. A local
newspaper even reported that the cows turned somersaults, a suggestion the
The UFO descended to an apparent height
of between 75 and 100 feet, hovering over a large Stringy-Bark tree. It was about 25 feet in diameter and 9 to 10
feet high. The top section appeared to
be a transparent dome of a glass-like material, from which protruded a 5 to 6
foot high mast or aerial. The
"aerial" appeared to be as thick as a broom and resembled bright
chrome. The top portion of the disc
itself was battle-ship grey in colour and appeared to be of a metallic
lustre. The base or underside section
glowed with a pale blue colour and had "scoop-like protuberances about 12
to 18 inches apart around the outside edge." This section rotated slowly at about one
revolution per second. This spinning
motion apparently caused the protuberances to generate a swishing noise,
somewhat like a turbine noise, that was clearly audible not only to Brew but
also to his son Trevor, who was located inside the shed near the operating
diesel powered milking machine units.
Charles Brew described how he felt his
eyes were drawn towards the object "as though beams of magnetic
current" were between it and him.
He also experienced a peculiar headache which came on with the approach
of the object. Even though Brew normally
did not suffer migraine, the use of tablets
did not subdue the headache.
After hovering for a few seconds the
object began to climb at roughly a 45 degree angle, continuing on its westward
course and passing up into the cloud deck again. Trevor did not see the UFO, but confirmed the
unusual sound, like a "diggerydoo" or "bullroarer" -
aboriginal artifacts which can produce pulsating wind rushing noise.
The first serious investigation of the
UFO event was conducted by Dr. Andrzej Berson, a principle research scientist
of the CSIRO Division of meteorological division, and his associate Mr.
Clark(e). They arrived at the site within a
few days of the event.
(Dr. Michael Swords drawing of the Willow Grove UFO
inspired by Charles Brew's description)
Flt. Lt. N. Hudson and Sqd. Ldr. A.F.
Javes of the RAAF interviewed Charles Brew on site on March 4th, 1963. While impressed with his credibility, the
weather at the time of the sighting - heavy continuous rain with very low cloud
and poor visibility, and with a fresh wind in an easterly direction, caused
them to focus on weather related explanations.
Their report describes the basis of their somewhat extraordinary
"explanation" for the incident:
"On 6th March, Dr. Berson and Mr.
Clark(e) (of the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research
Organisation) Meteorological Physics division) were interviewed to see if
clouds give this type of phenomenon.
They agreed that a tornado condition could give this effect. The direction of rotation of Brew's report of
the object was consistent with known facts for the Southern Hemisphere. The blue-ish colouring has been reported
previously and is probably due to electric discharge and there would be a smell
of ozone. The only difference in Brew's
report was that the object moved from East to West because all previous reports
to the CSIRO Met section of this nature have been from West to East. Mr. Brew stated that the wind was fresh from
an easterly direction. However, (a)
meteorological report states that wind was westerly at 8 knots."
The report notes that the met report was
from a Yallourn observer, which is about 20 kilometres away, therefore local
variations in the weather would not have been unusual.
Despite this lack of rigour in
determining how relevant their hypothesis was, the RAAF officer' report
concluded, "There is little doubt that Brew did witness something, and it
is most likely that it was a natural phenomenon. The phenomenon was probably a tornado. There
was no reported damage along its path, therefore one could assume that it was
weak in nature."
The Department of Air responded to a
civilian UFO group enquiry about the incident with the following statement,
"Our investigation and enquiries reveal that there are scientific records
of certain tornado-like meteorological manifestations which have a similar
appearance in many ways to whatever was seen by Mr. Brew. The information available is such however,
that while we accept this is a possibility, we are unable to come to any firm
conclusion as to the nature of the object or manifestation reported." The official sighting summaries removed any
such doubt. By then the "possible cause"
was listed as a "tornado like meteorological manifestation." In correspondence with the Victorian Flying
Saucer Research Society, the CSIRO's Dr. Berson indicated, "we are unable
to come to any firm conclusion as to the nature of the object or manifestation
reported." It seems clear that the
RAAF were largely parroting the CSIRO's conclusions and taking things a little
further without any realistic justification.
Their musings pre-empted Terence Meaden's "vortex" hypothesis
by some 2 decades.
Dr. Berson and Mr. Clarke visited Charles
Brew at the Willow Grove property.
According to Brew, Dr. Berson was interested in the headache that he
had, and indicated that Berson had said that it tied in with their theory of a
possible electromagnetic nature of the incident. The CSIRO's field investigation had in fact
preceded that the RAAF by about a week. Brew indicated that the RAAF officers
told him that the object he saw was similar to those seen overseas and that it
was the best sighting they had looked at.
Dr. Berson & Reg Clarke (Source: Garratt, Angus & Holper "Winds of Change: 50 years of achievements in the CSIRO division of Atmospheric Research 1946 - 1996")
What the Department of Air referred to as
a "tornado like meteorological manifestation" elicited the following
emotive description from Charles Brew.
It mirrors the striking nature of his encounter with the
"unknown". He said, "I
wished it would come again. It was
beautiful. I could feel the life
pulsating from it."
Dr. James McDonald visited Charles Brew
during his 1967 Australian trip interviewing him at the site of the 1963
incident. McDonald concluded,
"like that of many other UFO witnesses, it is extremely difficult to
explain in present-day scientific or technological terms."
Despite the extraordinary nature of the
Willow Grove incident and the high level of official interest in it, the
sighting was listed in a subsequently released "Summary of Unidentified
Aerial Sightings reported to Department of Air, Canberra, ACT, from 1960"
as having a possible cause of "tornado like meteorological
Here is the real story behind the
development of the RAAF’s explanation of the Willow Grove UFO as a
"tornado like meteorological manifestation." Dr. Berson revealed it is a letter to Robert
Low, the project coordinator of the notorious Condon committee studying UFOs,
at the University of Colorado. Dr.
Berson was under the impression that the Condon Committee was going to do a
serious investigation of the UFO mystery.
So Dr. Berson shared his own research of
UFOs in Australia. In the letter dated
11 May 1967 he wrote:
“In connection with the Willow Grove
sighting in February 1963 which took place far from any industry, airport or
other place of interest, D.A. (Department of Air – or what became Department of
Defence (Air Force) – B.C.) took the trouble to send D.C.A. as well as an
R.A.A.F. team to the spot. They also
sent an employee and an Air Force Major to interview me at this Division. The apparent motivation of their visit to me
was the fact that, accompanied by a friend, I had visited the site of the
sighting some hundred miles from Melbourne and interviewed the person in
question. Although this was an
unofficial interview, my affiliation with C.S.I.R.O had been casually
“When they came to see me they wanted to
have an opinion of what possible known aerial phenomenon could have
produced the sighting and acoustic experience.
The visit had been announced the afternoon before and I had prepared
“My answer was that perhaps some saucer
shaped lee-wave cloud previously hidden by the canopy of the low rain clouds
suddenly and for a few seconds was exposed to ground view by a freak break in
the clouds. I showed them pictures of
the famous Heard Island saucer shaped lee-wave cloud and of a similar one
photographed in England and published in Scorer’s book.
“As another possible, but not likely,
explanation I suggested similar exposure of a vortex cloud, a kind of incipient
tornado whose funnel shape descended but did not make ground contact.
“I finally mentioned the possibility of
birds descending through the rain cloud in ring-shape formation and freak
concentration. (My visitors later
settled arbitrarily for the second alternative).”
Dr. Berson wrote that the Department of
Air (RAAF) explanation of the Willow Grove event as a “tornado-like
meteorological phenomenon revealed “how arbitrarily and superficially this
identification, and for that matter probably many others, have been made.”
In an interview with journalist John
Hallows (published in an excellent 3 part series “An Open Mind on UFOs” in the
Australian newspaper on 15 May 1968), Dr. Berson was anonymously quoted, “In
one incident at Moe, Victoria, which I also investigated myself, the official
inquirers plumped arbitrarily for a natural explanation which was in fact – and
this is in my field – the least likely of all.”
In the article there was further elaboration: “The scientist, a UFO
sceptic, could not suggest any natural cause for incident.”
Indeed a year earlier Dr. Berson was
suggesting to Robert Low of the Condon Committee some real science that could
be done, inspired by the Willow Grove UFO event. He wrote of “the distribution of total
magnetic intensity (as recorded by an AN/AsQ-1 airborne magnetometer installed
in a D.C.3 aircraft) in a part of Gippsland surrounding the site of the Willow
Grove sighting” demonstrated “a possible magnetic field relationship.”
Dr. Berson wrote Low, “Following a
discussion with a geophysicist in the Antarctic Division of the Department of
External Affairs I venture to suggest to you that a statistical investigation
should be made on the following lines: place and/or time of (low level?)
sightings of high credibility rating be correlated with magnetic data such as
high hourly geomagnetic K index at observatories and the world-wide K index.
These have been published since 1955 and are available to 1962, or possibly
1963 inclusive (J. Bartels, A. Romana and Veldcamp, IAGA Bulletins No. 12). A collection of indices for the years 1932-61
has been also compiled by Bartels (IAGA Bulletin No. 18). Berson’s suggestion was not fully acted upon
but the final report of the Condon Committee did had a chapter on
“Instrumentation for UFO Searches” by Frederick Ayer II. Dr. Claude Poher did a study based on
magnetic field measurements at Chanston-la-Foret (France) in 1973.
In 1976 Dr. Poher criticised the
Department of Air (Department of Defence (Air Office) UFO “Summaries” for their
often implausible conclusions. At the same time the French equivalent to NASA –
CNES – were forming GEPAN – their UFO/UAP study group which continues today as
GEIPAN. Dr. Poher was its first
director. The DA/DOD/RAAF were certainly
a long way behind the curve, perhaps being led astray with their own poor
science (or lack of science) by the remarkable cosmic tornados from OZ.
Here are Dr. Berson's letters to Robert Low (1966 & 1967) which references his growing UFO interest, initiated by his contact with Mr. I. S. Groodin around 1956 (a fellow member of the CSIRO's atmospheric research division), his intermittent connects with "D.A." (Department of Air or the Department of Defence (Air Office), namely the RAAF and DAFI - Directorate of Air Force Intelligence) shared with CSIRO associate Reg Clarke, his communications with Dr. James McDonald, all of which would fuel his concern that UFOs were a serious subject. He anonymously commented in a John Hallows article series in "The Australian" newspaper in 1968. His correspondence with Low reveal his thoughts about a UFO science in the making.
Note: some replication in the scans occur because of the old foolscap format of the original letters.
(Thanks to Jan Aldrich for the copy of the correspondence)
Berson & Groodin appear in this 1953 photo from "Winds of Change"