‘The longest night shift in my 34 years in Air Traffic Control was on December 20/21, 1978.’

Last Man Standing – John Cordy, Last Surviving ATC Witness to the Kaikoura Lights Sightings, 1978/79

John Cordy – Last Surviving ATC witness to the Kaikoura Lights Sightings 1978

“The longest night shift I did in my 34 years in Air Traffic Control was the one of December 20/21 1978 – in fact I think I am still doing it!  Why?  Because it was the one that started the whole story of “The Kaikoura Lights UFOs”, a story which has, and still is generating interest around the world.”

John Cordy, Dec 2018


John Cordy 2018

December 20/21 and 30/31 Dec of this year mark the 40th anniversaries of the Kaikoura Lights UFO sightings in New Zealand.  Back in 1978 when these events occurred, a worldwide UFO “flap” was in full-swing.  For New Zealand this culminated with the two major Kaikoura Lights sightings in December 1978, with news and film images of the second event going global, strengthened by ATC and aircraft radar return records, and visual sightings by pilots and many other witnesses who were baffled by the bright lights moving erratically in the north-east skies of the South Island.  But the initial sightings of anomalous lights on Dec 20/21, is a story less-told.

John Cordy, ATC

At the time, John Cordy was a senior air traffic controller at Wellington International Airport.  John, now aged 85, is the last remaining ATC who witnessed the Kaikoura lights/objects on radar.  He has spoken publicly about this experience and has appeared in a number of documentaries and articles for four decades.  John’s sharp intellect and wit, along with his exceptional memory of the events, make him the ideal interviewee.

John was born in Bristol, England, and joined the RAF at age 17, serving eight years as an airborne radio and radar operator.  On demobilisation he joined the ATC staff of the aeroplane and armament experimental establishment at Boscombe Down, England, and later transferred to Heathrow Airport, London.  In 1954, he had his own UFO sighting (http://www.ufocusnz.org.nz/content/1954—RAF-Members-and-Shackleton-Crew-Report-Unexplained-Green-UFO/88.aspx).  He migrated to Wellington, NZ in 1976 and eventually became Senior ATC at Wellington Airport.  John has been an aviation consultant on the staff of UFOCUS NZ for 11 years.

John Cordy, foreground, at Wellington radar control centre

This account of the initial 20-21 Dec sightings is largely told from John’s perspective when on duty in the Wellington Airport ATC control centre.  It also focuses on the observations of the crews of two Argosy aircraft, SAF and SAE, operated by Safe Air of Blenheim, NZ, who carried out night-time freight flights between Blenheim, Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington – and their communications with Wellington radar centre.

Multiple aerial lights sighted in the Blenheim area

John stated:  “It all started when I took over the night shift in the Wellington ATC Centre, and with it, control of all the airspace in an area roughly covering the lower North Island and the upper South Island.  At night, if you wanted to fly in this area, you needed to obtain a clearance from me!  Working with me was a fellow controller named Andy Herd.  The only aircraft we were expecting that night were a DC8 coming in from Sydney and two Safe Air Argosy aircraft doing their regular freight runs.

Meanwhile, further south at the Woodbourne RNZAF base near the town of Blenheim all was quiet, with the control tower manned by Civil Aviation employee, FSO Bill Frame.  However at around 11.55 pm, Warrant Officer Ian Uffindell, on security patrol, observed unusual lights in the sky not unlike those of a Bristol Freighter, some 4.5 miles from the airfield, and reported them to FSO Frame.  Both men watched the lights for some minutes, observing them move in a systematic and “controlled” manner; these observations and the communications that followed between pilots and ATCs were the first recorded details of the events of the Kaikoura Lights.

From the control tower and nearby deck, the men observed the stationary lights through binoculars and noted a large white light, with smaller white lights, one on either side.  At that time landing lights of an aircraft seemed a logical explanation, until they observed the beams of light shining down from the two side lights, rather than straight ahead.  FSO Frame decided to call Wellington ATC radar control centre adjacent to Wellington airport at around 0025, to ask if they had incoming aircraft or anything on radar, and John Cordy informed Frame they were waiting for a DC8 from Australia, not due for another 30 minutes.  There was no other traffic in the air, but Wellington ATC commented they had three unidentified “targets” on their screens.  All involved continued to watch the lights visually or on radar screen, while the lights – up to five at one time – moved slowly and changed positions in relation to each other.  Throughout the night, these anomalous lights continued to be seen on radar.

Targets on the radar

Wellington ATCs, Andy Herd, Geoff Causer and John Cordy

John described the situation in the Wellington ATC Centre: “We were checking out the radar and noticed some small targets in the area of Cape Campbell and the Clarence River mouth.  Andy Herd and I joked it was Santa, flight testing the sleigh for the Christmas run!  Then Blenheim flight service rang to see if we had any aircraft going in to Woodbourne Airport, as they could see lights in the sky – which made us sit up and take notice!  I should mention we were also getting phone calls from people in the Hutt Valley north of Wellington, from Blenheim and the surrounding area, and including some from various Police Officers asking about strange lights they could see in the sky.”

Around 0050 hours, John and Andy noticed a target on radar tracking south-east of Wellington Airport, which became stationary, and it would remain on their screens for the next three hours, moving in a manner that defied logical explanation.  They set up three radar target displays that worked in different ways, with the Moving Target Indicator on two of them eliminating surrounding “clutter”.  The returns indicated some movement, although the target was stationary, and the two ATCs discussed the possibility the object may have been spinning rapidly.  Thus began a busy and historic ATC night shift for John and Andy, communicating with the aircrews of three Argosy freight flights that night about the lights, now observed on Wellington radar, aircraft radar, and visually by the pilots.

Argosy pilot sightings

John asked the crew of Argosy SAF en route from Auckland to Blenheim, Graham Stewart and Bob Guard, to keep an eye out for the lights, however one target was identified as a ship, and the other two were obscured by cloud. (Bob Guard was co-pilot onboard Argosy SAF ten days later, when the spectacular sighting took place that would be filmed and publicised worldwide.)

Meanwhile, on their arrival at Woodbourne Airport, Capt. John Randle and FO Keith Heine, crew of the Argosy SAE freight aircraft due to fly south to Christchurch that night soon heard about the strange lights in the area from ground staff.  They flew out of Blenheim at 0110 and once airborne, ATCs John and Andy also asked this crew to look out for the unusual object they had on radar giving strong returns.  At first the pilots could not see the object until a change of course, but on a second turn they saw a display of unusual lights close to the coast which coincided with the echoes registering on Wellington radar, but observation was difficult from an altitude of 14,000 feet.  At 0129, John and Andy were excited to see the target move towards Argosy SAE, before turning slightly as if on an intercepting course, and stopping again.  The object performed several similar moves throughout the night.

John recalls:  “We considered the possibility that they were cars or trains, but felt they were something abnormal.  The lights were moving backwards and forwards in a rather random pattern over a distance of approximately three miles and they were coming in and going out.  There were between 3 and 5 of them.”

One of the detailed recordings of the events, NZ MOD UFO Files, 1080/6/897 Vol 1, map by Vern Powell

The lights continued to shine beams pointing downwards, sometimes intense and covering a wide area – as if looking for something.  They varied in brightness and occasionally moved vertically, ruling out ground lights such as trains and traffic etc for the ATCs.  At one point of the journey there were radar echoes close to Argosy SAE, which showed on the aircraft’s radar as well.  The aircraft landed in Christchurch, and after refuelling, took off for Auckland.  The crew made visual sightings of anomalous lights, including a bright light at “three o’clock” (just in front of the wingtip of Argosy SAE, but at a distance), which had a gold-amber tinge around the edge, rhythmically fading in and out to white.  As the aircraft approached Kaikoura, the crew had three echoes on weather radar matching returns Wellington was getting.  The targets were rapidly travelling south towards the aircraft at some 400-500 mph, until reaching 5-10 miles distant and then suddenly disappearing from the aircraft’s radar.

Off Cape Campbell the targets faded away, only to reappear behind the aircraft in a straight line of 5 targets.  One strong target moved in behind the Argosy and began tracking north on the same track as the aircraft.  ATC John Cordy asked the pilots to “turn around and take a look at the damned thing!  As you roll out 180 degrees it will be straight in front of you!”  For a second time, the crew saw a bright amber/white light, slowly and rhythmically changing colour.  Argosy SAE changed course over Wellington en route to Auckland, and they saw their last anomalous light descending towards the ocean south-east of Wellington at what FO Heine described as “supersonic speed, at least several thousand miles an hour.”  FO Heine later described the amber/white light he had seen as “strange”, and said he could not recall seeing anything like it in the sky before, or anywhere else.

At that time Argosy SAF was flying north with a fresh crew of pilot Vern Powell and FO Ian Pirie.  They took off at 0314, flying south from Blenheim to Christchurch along the same track as SAF was flying north, but separated by altitudes – they would pass each other.  The southbound crew of SAF, Capt. Powell and FO Pirie, soon got echoes on their weather radar as they approached Kaikoura, matching returns Wellington ATC was getting, and as they turned south-east at the Blenheim Beacon, the aircrew spotted lights in the area. Within five minutes, the Argosy drew abeam of the stationary object persistently appearing on Wellington radar, and the object suddenly moved, shooting from some 50 miles east of the aircraft to some 20 miles west towards the aircraft.  It stopped, and began tracking parallel to the aircraft at the same speed and some 2000-3000 feet above the aircraft.  The pilots described the light as “a massive bright light hanging in the sky”, “sometimes red/orange, sometimes white”, “brilliant”, “extremely intense”, “it was so bright we could see a reflection on the cloud!”

John Cordy recalled:  “There were only two of us in the room, but once we had a confirmation from pilot Vern Powell, that they could see something where we had radar returns, we felt very jubilant … we were not seeing things!   Very interesting stuff!  Roll on the next one, whatever it might be!”

Image from film of Kaikoura lights (Dec 1978) by Quentin Fogerty

As the aircraft climbed to 10,000 feet it drew level with the light some 30 miles east.  The aircraft flew straight for the next 40 miles and the object kept pace parallel with the aircraft for 10-12 minutes.  The pilots had the advantage of observing it all that time as they proceeded on auto-pilot, describing it as “pear-shaped”, “extremely bright, much brighter than a full moon”, and it “appeared to have its own light source”.”  They saw the object disappear and advised Wellington radar, who confirmed they had lost the radar return, then both the light and radar contact returned as confirmed by radio exchanges indicating that the aircrew and controllers were looking at the same thing – an airborne object some 30 miles east of the aircraft – definitely not a planet as some later asserted.

As the aircraft turned for Christchurch the object fell back and was lost from view, and as the Argosy dropped into airspace controlled by Christchurch the object was lost from Wellington radar.

But the activity did not stop there.  Before descending to Christchurch, Capt. Powell turned on the aircraft’s radar again, and there was a huge return, a target moving so fast it was leaving a trail of previous echoes on the screen. It passed through 15 miles on the screen in 5-7 seconds – roughly 3 miles per second, or 10,800 knots.  Visually, the crew observed an intense white/blue strobing light approaching the aircraft, before swerving to the left of it some 10 miles distant.  They watched the light for around 10 minutes as it headed away at great speed.

Ten days later, on December 30/31, worldwide interest would be piqued by the phenomenal sightings that took place and the film of strange lights that would come to be known as the Kaikoura Lights.

Spurious radar returns, or just spurious critical comments?

Over the years, a number of so-called “experts” have appeared in documentaries worldwide, claiming the radar at Wellington Airport was faulty, and suggesting the returns John and Andy saw were false.  None of these people have contacted John to discuss these issues.

John responds to such comments: “Detractors say the radar was unreliable and known to give false returns, and they imply that we controllers did not know how to differentiate between them and “real” returns, yet they and many thousands of others are quite happy to leave their safety in our hands when they fly.  An “expert” in one documentary in particular claimed the Wellington radar had a “notorious!” propensity to showing spurious returns, “angels” and so on, but while these experts expect us to recognize their professionalism, they are it seems quite content to ridicule ours implying that we would not know a spurious return if it were to jump off the screen and bite us!  We were all well aware of these sometimes spurious returns, could recognize them for what they were and if they had been present, then we as professionals would have switched off the radar and changed to a system known as “procedural control”.  I wonder why these “experts” cannot consider these sightings, any sightings in fact, using ALL of the information.  Or are they trying to mollycoddle the public and lull and mislead them into the notion that there is nothing to get concerned about!  We know what we saw.  We know the radar was not malfunctioning.”

Unsatisfactory explanations for the public

Satirical cartoon from the Dominion Post newspaper 1979

Investigations into the Kaikoura Lights (both events) by the Air Force, government departments, and specifically the Dept of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), resulted in some unusual, if not imaginative explanations for these sightings.  They ranged from Venus (quickly discounted) to squid boat lights reflected off clouds, to city lights reflected off flocks of birds.  Wing Commander J. B. Clements, who wrote an official report on the unidentified visual and radar sightings stated in his summary: “Almost all the sightings can be explained by natural but unusual phenomena.  The few for which the evidence to date is inconclusive may well be explained in due course when current investigations are completed.”

The whole investigative process became mired in claims and counterclaims that achieved little in terms of public information and confidence.  The media had a feast.  However, sadly, those who perhaps suffered the most were the professionals involved in the sightings – the pilots and ATCs – men of professionalism, and highly skilled and experienced.  The pilots were accustomed to their routes and were well aware of what they may see in terms of planets and other natural features, as well as lights from trains or international squid boat fleets, common near NZ fishing boundaries at that time.

Dr Bruce Maccabee, US physicist and optical data analyst, examined the film from the second event, yet little credence was given to his work by authorities in NZ at the time.  Today, he still maintains the Kaikoura Lights rank among the top 10 UFO sightings worldwide and he has extensive analysis of the film and events on his website:  http://brumac.mysite.com/

The ambiguous and vague “official” NZ results of investigations were not convincing, considering many members of the public had seen these lights themselves.  Although some of the Kaikoura Lights sightings material was included in the NZ MOD UFO files released in 2010/11, it remains to be seen what may still exist in possible intelligence files, or yet-to-be released files.

John Cordy 2018

John states:  “I just wish that someone would examine all parts of the Kaikoura Lights story as one cohesive whole, because I still find myself wondering.  Most of the “explanations” proffered by “experts” have been most unsatisfactory with none of them taking into account all of the evidence from both events, but instead seeming to confine themselves to something that fits within their comfort zones.”

John Cordy 2018

“What had we seen?  I wish I knew.  So, what sticks in my mind?  I wish I knew what the objects were and why they were flying in our airspace.  These 20/21 December sightings were overshadowed by the anomalous lights filmed on the later night, but they have left a lasting impression on me. I know at the time Andy and I both thought that anything could happen and we would not be surprised!  And I still find myself wondering what and why?”

Suzy Hansen © 2018


UFOCUS NZ interviews with our staff member, John Cordy

Startup, Capt. Bill, with Illingworth, Neil, ‘The Kaikoura UFOs’, Hodder & Stoughton,1980


Australian film crew’s image of Kaikoura light