Part 1 of this article documents an alleged UFO encounter on the Nullarbor Plain, as related by the Knowles family, the primary witnesses to the sighting. The sighting of the strange object was corroborated by a truck driver named Graham Henley. It subsequently emerged that the same or a similar object, was witnessed by some tuna fishermen, fifty miles away in the Great Australian Bight. They claimed a UFO buzzed their boat, and that the whole crew suffered the same kind of voice distortion that the Knowles family reported.
"We were a little bit skeptical at first, but after investigating we are treating the reports very seriously," said police sergeant Jim Furnell, of Ceduna, South Australia. He described the Knowles family as very distraught, stating “they were physically upset as if someone close had died. They were convinced it was a UFO.” Apparently, Faye Knowles made no mention of placing her hand outside the car, or of touching anything.
Aware of the experience of the tuna fishermen, Sgt. Furnell stressed that there was no way for the fishermen to know about the Knowles family's encounter, half an hour earlier, and some fifty miles away. The Royal Australian Air Force at Edinburgh, South Australia, was adamant that it had no aircraft in the region at the time, to account for the sightings.
Two further witnesses to the Nullarbor incident came forward, although they did not see the alleged UFO. Haulage operator, 'Porky' De Jong, traveled some unknown distance behind the Knowles family, in one of his trucks, driven by a friend called Anne. Mr De Jong and Anne were travelling from Perth to Adelaide. Around forty kilometres west of Mundrabilla, they spotted two people at the side of the road, waving at them. They drove on.
Some time later, they were overtaken by a speeding car with its headlights off. At around 04.45 they reached Mundrabilla, where they met the Knowles family and Graham Henley. They quickly established that it was the Knowles family who had attempted to flag them down and then overtaken them. De Jong said Faye Knowles was hysterical. Her sons were distraught, and one of them was ashen-faced. The mother sported a red blotch on the back of her left hand and continually said:"Someone's got to do something. Someone's going to get hurt."
The family insisted their sighting was not of a helicopter, due to the unfamiliar whirring noise it made. The truckers offered to take them back to check out the location of their encounter, but they declined. Upon studying the Knowles' vehicle, Henley and De Jong saw no black ash or dust in or on the car, just regular road road dust. They noted indentations at all four corners of the roof, as if the roof had been punched, and a smell which they said resembled Bakelite. The family journeyed on, but the truckers travelled to the scene of the incident. Very familiar with the area, they found no rubber on the road surface to corroborate a tyre blow-out. The Knowles' also said they had collided with a kangaroo whilst fleeing the object, shattering the driver's side mirror. There was no glass visible.
Continuing to where De Yong and Anne had seen the Knowles' car parked up at the roadside, they discovered a skid mark around fifteen to twenty metres long, as if a car had screeched to a halt. They also detected four sets of footprints leading into the bush, which looked as if they were made by people running. Also in the ground, they saw a car jack impression. The family claimed to have left the jack and jack handle at the location, in their haste to get away. Clothing was allegedly abandoned at the scene too, but the truckers found none of these items. Although unconfirmed, there is some evidence to suggest that the police retrieved the car jack.
Sceptics make much of the fact that the Knowles' drove straight past the police station at Eucla, close to the scene of their encounter, without reporting the incident. Instead, they drove non-stop to Ceduna, some 600 km from the scene, before stopping to file an official report. In all fairness to the Knowles family, they may have simply wanted to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the scene of the alleged incident.
Unfortunately for the Knowles', the whole affair quickly became a media circus. They were intercepted by a television crew from Channel 7, who demanded exclusive access to their story, in return for a fee. The television crew made it very difficult for researchers in the field of ufology, to get close to the Knowles'. Initially eager to co-operate and tell their story, the family quickly became disillusioned and distraught by the media attention, called an end to all interviews, and sought refuge with friends or family in the Melbourne area.
In the meantime, samples collected from the car underwent a series of scientific tests. An initial inspection was performed by a police crime scene examiner at Ceduna, ten hours after the incident. He confirmed superficial dents to the roof of the car, and collected samples for forensic analysis. Ufologists Keith Basterfield and Ray Brooke, in a subsequent inspection, confirmed the presence of dents, as well as the shattered mirror. The ufologists also inspected the blown tyre, and found it showed only minor signs of wear. But the whole tyre valve was missing, having been jettisoned during the blow-out. They found none of the reported black dust, and noted that apart from the minor defects listed, the car was in good condition for its age.
Despite collecting samples, the police performed no forensic analysis of the samples they collected from the car. Keith Basterfield obtained roughly half the volume of materials collected by the police, and passed it on to an independent laboratory for testing. The test revealed nothing unusual, just some sodium chloride, sodium, aluminium, magnesium, sulphur, silicon, potassium, chlorine, clay particles and calcium. Some copper and iron were also present, which may or may not have come from the testing equipment itself.
The television crew from Channel 7 had also arranged for samples to be collected, which were tested at the Australian Mineral Development Laboratories (AMDEL). This laboratory had a worldwide reputation for excellence in its field. AMDEL found a similar composition to the previous analysis and concluded that the samples were consistent with dust from a tyre blow-out, and material ejected from brake linings whilst the driver braked heavily at great speed. The dents on the car roof, allegedly caused by the object grabbing the car, were not recent, and were deemed the result of ordinary wear and tear. The damage to the tyre was attributed to the car travelling on a deflated tyre for some distance. The smell, smoke or mist, and vibrations experienced during the incident, were attributed to running on a blown tyre in such a manner.
Further samples were taken from the car, some 1300 km from Mundrabilla, by the Victoria UFO Society (VUFORS). They sent materials to laboratories in Melbourne and California. It was later claimed, by paranormal researchers, that the sample tested in Melbourne contained a highly unusual concentration of potassium. However the Californian analyst who tested a portion of the same sample, found nothing unusual, just a cocktail of brake dust, regular dust, dog hairs, fibres and common elements such as carbon, oxygen, aluminium, silicon and calcium. Only trace elements of potassium were found, as well as traces of chlorine and sodium. Sadly, no conclusion of any worth can be drawn from any of the samples. As Keith Basterfield has pointed out (see Sources for reference), no-one took any control samples from the location of the incident, for microscopic comparison.
So what, if anything, happened on the Eyre Highway, on the night of January 20th, 1988? UFO believers hailed the incident as highly significant, citing the physical damage to the car, and the residue found on the car, as the best evidence yet, of an attempted alien abduction. UFO believers and the media alike exaggerated the physical evidence. Many chose to ignore the scientific evidence, which found nothing alien or unusual. One ufologist, Colin Norris, insisted that the Knowles family had been attacked by a scout vehicle from an alien mother ship, which he believed was “probably doing scientific tests”. Another researcher, Frank Wilks, hoped to hypnotise the Knowles, as he suspected there may have been “important details ... buried in the family’s subconscious ... I’m sure they could tell us a lot more about the encounter. We need to account for every minute of the incident. It there is a lapse in time that cannot be explained, the family may have been abducted and returned.”
Sceptics were equally keen to refute the UFO hypothesis. Some insisted that the family had been spooked by the rising sun, which may have been distorted by atmospheric conditions or some other optical illusion. Temperature inversions and St. Elmo's fire were also suggested as possible culprits. A physicist was sure a rare carbonaceous meteorite had fallen to earth on the Nullarbor, causing the glow and burning smell. Others blamed a rare type of electrical storm for the lights, ash and violent vibration of the car, as well as the strange physical sensations felt by the family. Some commentators even suggested that the car could have been lifted by a willy-willy (dust devil) or that the Eyre Highway's infamous undulations had caused the car to take off, when it was driven at high speed. It was also noted that the family had been on the road in excess of 24 hours, with hardly any rest, something which could easily lead to delusions and hysteria in such stark, isolated surroundings.
Despite all the research, scientific analysis and hypotheses, only a small number of facts can definitely be established about the Nullarbor incident. The Knowles family's car blew a tyre, and the road surface at the scene bore skidmarks indicative of heavy braking. The family and their dogs were left in a state of high distress by some kind of incident. Graham Henley, the truck driver, spotted the same anomalous object as the Knowles' did. Two more truckers saw the Knowles' and their car at the roadside, on two separate occasions around the time of the incident. Apart from these established facts, the rest is unprovable conjecture.
However, both proponents and opponents of the UFO hypothesis concur that something happened to the Knowles family. Although the possibility of a hoax must also be considered, their extreme distress after the event, as well as the physical evidence to support some kind of incident, rules out a hoax for most investigators.
As an interesting addendum to the case, Keith Basterfield received the following communication from the South Australian Police in the July of 1989, although he was a little sceptical of the information it contained. The letter stated:
“As a result of a conversation with an unknown truck driver, a Port Lincoln police officer has reported that the alleged UFO sighting could be attributed to a radio controlled helicopter. Apparently another un-named truck driver who regularly travels between Sydney and Perth is also a model aircraft enthusiast. When tired or on a rest break he allegedly flies model aircraft which he carries with him on his truck. He “buzzes” other truck drivers travelling along the Eyre Highway. However, despite numerous attempts, the police officer concerned has been unable to recontact the informant and is therefore unable to substantiate the claim.”
Has the 1988 Nullarbor UFO case been solved? Who knows. Despite certain inconsistencies in the eyewitness accounts, it remains one of the more credible UFO incidents to be reported in recent times. It is almost certain that something happened out in the desert. Precisely what, is impossible to say for sure, so maybe it is best to keep an open mind. But the Knowles family incident was neither the first nor last anomaly to occur on the Nullarbor Plain, as Part 3 of this article will show.