Friday, January 30, 2015


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 UFOs. 
 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 Brews denied.
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.
(VFSRS/Charles Brew)
(RAAF/Charles Brew)
(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 manifestation." 
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 mentioned.
“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 some material.
“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"


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