Friday, 19 April 1918

This post is part of a series post-blogging the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918. See here for an introduction or here for a list of all posts.

G. T. Moyle, 19 April 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 183 is a report from Constable G. T. Moyle of the Hamilton police station, in the Western District of Victoria. It concerns 'an aeroplane' seen near Macarthur in the early hours of 11 April 1918 by John Sutton, a drover. Sutton had told several people in Hamilton of his strange encounter, but had not yet informed the police because 'he was in charge of a mob of cattle and that he could not get away, and he though [sic] people would make fun out of it'. Nevertheless, Moyle finds him to be 'of good character and most reliable', and his account matches what he had been saying in Hamilton.

Sutton's own statement is at NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 185 and 186 and that of his assistant Leo Green is at 187, though the typed versions at NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 179 and 180 are easier to read (and transcribe!) Sutton says that he and his assistants were 'droving a mob of cattle from Heywood to Cheviot Hills Penhurst'; on the night of 11 April they had camped for the night in 'Lyon's Lane about four miles north of Macarthur about two miles East of the main Hamilton-Macarthur Road' (presumably what is now Lyons Rd). The key part of Sutton's statement is as follows:

Just as we got into bed [about 3.10am] I saw a rocket sent up into the air for about three hundred feet. It then burst into a red flame. I drew the attention of Green to it. About five minutes later another rocket went up and burst the same way. This was about three quarters of a mile from us on a hill about three hundred feet high near a clump of pines. About four minutes later we noticed a large light in the sky -- it appeared to be coming down in a sloping direction to the clump of pines. About a couple of minutes later the light was on the ground. We then saw a man come to the front of the light, and we three recognised him as a man. A couple of seconds later a man with a lantern came from the bunch of pines to where the big light was. We could not hear the engines working for the row the cattle was making. About half an hour later he rose again and went in the direction of Port Fairy -- in a Southeasterly direction. The last we could see of the lights, he then appeared to be nearly a mile high. After the lights had gone, the man with the lantern went back in the same direction to the pines where he had first come from.

Sutton adds that:

I went to where I saw the light next morning, but all I could see was a fainttrack [sic] - it appeared like a motor track in the grass. There was no sign of petrol or oil about. I did not go to the the clump of pines to look.

Green's statement says little more than that Sutton's is 'true and correct'; the third witness is not identified (but is presumably another assistant).

This is an extraordinary story, one of the most puzzling incidents of the entire mystery aeroplane panic. What was going on? The scenario seems clear enough: in the middle of the night, a man waiting in the pines fires two rockets as signals for an aeroplane with a light coming from the coast; it lands and a second man gets out to meet the first man; the second man gets back in the aeroplane which then takes off again, returning to the coast; the first man returns to the pines. The local police took Sutton's statement seriously; at NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 184 there's an addition by Superintendent McKenna of the Hamilton station suggesting that the Macarthur police check the area in question 'to see if a suitable landing place for an aeroplane & the pines searched to see if any persons frequenting place', and 'Each tree should carefully be searched for wireless installation', since 'A wire run up a tree suffices for transmitting & receiving messages'. A mounted constable from Macarthur, J. C. Pickett, did investigate the site and talk to some of the locals, and his report is at NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 181 and NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, 182, again with a typed copy at NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, pages 177 and 178. He found nobody in the area who had also seen the aeroplane, but interviewed some people who had heard Sutton's story the following day; their accounts mostly correspond with Sutton's official statement. Pickett also searched the pines and looked for tracks, finding nothing other than 'a small wattle tree cut down close to the ground', and 'a track like that of a motor cycle' but 'no doubt this was made by Mr. Laidlaw who went out this gate in a car on the afternoon of the 11th instant'.

It's difficult to know what to make of this. On the one hand, Sutton was an apparently reliable witness and his statement was verified by another witness. He was willing to make an official statement after being tracked down by police. The story is reasonably involved, but seems to have been fairly consistent over a few days of retellings. If what Sutton said he saw actually happened, it would seem to be quite persuasive evidence that somebody was flying aeroplanes around the Victorian countryside when they weren't supposed to be.

On the other hand, Green's corroboration amounts to little more than 'I agree with what the bloke who pays my wages said happened'. And even setting aside the absurdity of the implied suspicion that enemy agents were making a secret rendezvous on the road to Port Fairy, a night landing in a country paddock would have been an extremely hazardous undertaking. The new moon happened to fall on that very date, 11 April, so there was no help there. Of course, the darkness was presumably why the signal rockets and the aeroplane's lights were needed. But even in the middle of the night out in the country, it's not exactly clandestine when there's a town only a few miles away. Sutton admitted 'I never saw an aeroplane but from the description and photos I would say this was one'; despite apparently watching for 30 minutes or more neither he nor his assistants seem to have gone in for a closer look.

If it wasn't German spies, or the proverbial Zeta Reticulans, then what did Sutton see? I don't have any good answers. The rockets could have been fireworks, though it's hard to see why anyone would be letting them off in the dead of night. It's suspicious that Venus -- always my debunking go-to -- was rising at almost exactly the same time that the encounter began and being at nearly maximum elongation, would have been startlingly bright. But it rose just slightly south of east and crept more northerly as it climbed higher in the sky; it's not clear in which direction the light was originally seen (though this could probably be determined with a bit of historical ground truth) but Sutton states that the light 'went in the direction of Port Fairy -- in a Southeasterly direction', which is not a good fit (and Port Fairy is much closer to due south from Macarthur than east). It could be that Sutton's sense of direction was not particularly acute; but then his job was droving cattle all over the countryside, so presumably it was as good or better than most. And it's hard to make the rockets fit Venus. So either it was all a hoax (perpetrated by, or on Sutton?) or else it really was German spies or Zeta Reticulans or maybe both.

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