Originally published in Magonia 54, November 1995
In a 1979 survey of ninety leading ufologists, Ron Story found the case of Father Gill of Papua New Guinea was most mentioned when he asked for the strongest UFO evidence. 
Jerry Clark had acclaimed it as “History’s Best Case” in an article for Fate magazine the year before.  J. Allen Hynek termed it a “classic” and said he was impressed by the quality and number of witnesses and the character and demeanour of Reverend Gill.  In The UFO Experience he gave it the highest probability rating among the close encounters of the third kind.  Jacques Vallee thought it “one of the great classics in UFO history”.  The Lorenzens include an assessment of it by one of their APRO representatives as “one of the most important ever recorded” in their Flying Saucers: The Startling Evidence of the Invasion from Outer Space. 
It wasn’t hyperbole. There are 38 witnesses. No other entity case comes close to that number. Twenty-five signed their names to a detailed report. Five of them were teachers and three were medical assistants. There was agreement the object was circular, had a wide base, a narrow upper deck, a type of legs, four human figures, and a shaft of blue light which shone upwards into the sky at an angle of 45°. It was visible for hours. The Australian Air Force, while able to explain away some details of the case as astronomical bodies, confessed they could reach no definite conclusions and granted the seeming presence of “a major light source of unknown origin”.  Sceptics, including Donald Menzel, Daniel Cohen and Phil Klass, have not fared well in their criticisms of the case.  Gill answered the major charges convincingly when he was interviewed by Hynek. There’s been no confession or revelations pointing to a solution. While we don’t hear it mentioned much these days amid the din of things like Roswell and the Greys, it is not because of any resolution of the puzzle or the discovery of stronger evidence for UFOs. It’s still an impressive anomaly.
It of course isn’t impressive enough to make me believe in visiting extraterrestrials. Indeed the high point of the case highlights one of the core paradoxes of the UFO phenomenon. The figures on the deck waved back at the witnesses on the beach leading them to think it would soon land. Yet it didn’t. Why no contact, given this seeming friendliness? The case invites question after question about it that seem to cast doubts on a veridical extraterrestrial interpretation. Of all the places in the world to reveal themselves to this maximal extent, why Papua New Guinea? Why 1959 and never again? Why did it float about in the air for hours, slowly drifting, especially when most saucers of that era went blazing about at great speeds? Why do the drawings show a UFO much thicker than most of the saucers of that era? Why are the figures walking about on top of it; something we don’t see much of in reports nowadays? Why are the figures so human-looking; so unlike contemporary Greys? Guyorobo’s drawing shows branching legs that seem unlike anything else in the UFO literature, why? What is with that 45° shaft of blue light? Why is it pointed up instead of down as they usually are in cases with light beams? If it is a laser, as some suggest, what is it firing at, illuminating, or connecting? The case is so singular, one wonders if it even belongs with the rest of the UFO phenomenon.
Yet what is the alternative? Klass suggested it was a hoax.  This has its difficulties. Gill was an ordained Anglican priest. Even granting religious authority has lost some of its lustre in recent years in the wake of televangelism scandals, this is still a good mark in the case’s behalf. The involvement of five teachers similarly suggests a group of people likely to have a higher moral standard than average. The story told by Gill is oddly banal set next to most of the hoaxes in UFO history. The figures on deck seem only to be working and their interaction with the witnesses is limited to waving. There is no dramatic conflict, no sense of danger, no sense of horror, no indications of cheekiness. Gill’s field notes have an authentically clipped style of someone briefly noting events he is observing. There is a notable lack of narrative quality to the notes. They don’t build up to a climax and lack adjectives, superlatives, or flourishes of an imaginative sort.
Klass proclaims his disbelief over the Gill case mainly on a single point. He cannot accept that Gill would go to dinner with the prospect of a landing at hand. Gill acknowledged this seems odd to him in retrospect in his interview with Hynek. Yet the field notes provide a ready explanation:
Waving by us was repeated, and this was followed by more flashes of the torch, then the UFO began slowly to become bigger, apparently coming in our direction. It ceased after perhaps half a minute and came no further. After a further two or three minutes the figures apparently lost interest in us, for they disappeared below deck.
At 6:25 two figures reappeared to carry on whatever they were doing before the interruption. The blue spotlight came on for a few seconds, twice in succession. The two UFOs remained stationary and high up – higher than last night, or smaller than last night.
6:30 P.M. I went to dinner.
There was no longer any forward motion to indicate a landing was imminent. There was no more interest by the figures in Gill or the others on the beach. This suggests simple reciprocity. With the figures showing lack of interest in Gill, Gill probably lost interest in them in turn. He had watched them for four hours the previous night with no sign of a landing; why stand around another four hours when he could be eating? Indeed the point can be flipped around; why would a hoaxer include such a banal detail as figures going below deck and then returning to do unspecified work involving “occasionally bending over and raising their arms as though adjusting, or setting up something (not visible)”? Why doesn’t Gill claim they landed, exchanged greetings and moral platitudes, and invited him on board for a ride? That would be more in line with the stories we saw in the fifties.
Then there is the matter of motive. What would possess 25 people, including teachers and medical people, to risk potential scandal? What would possess Gill to drag so many people into a hoax and risk having them giving the game away? Even he could get a consensus to play a joke on Cruttwell, we are told by Cruttwell that the witnesses had told their stories to other Papuans who passed the news on to him. Did Gill ask them to lie to all these other people as well? With these people making up a religious community, one would expect any hoax to more likely involve an effort to supply miracles to buttress the faith. There is no religious detailing to Gill’s story at all. It makes too little sense for the hoax explanation to be credible.
This leaves us with the idea of a misinterpretation. Donald Menzel proposed that Gill had been viewing the planet Venus. It was near maximum brightness and “roughly in the position indicated by Father Gill”.Menzel saw the obvious objections: “Planets don’t appear to have men standing on them. Planets do not send out search lights.” His way round this was by assuming Gill had myopia and astigmatism. The men would be “slightly out of focus images of [his] eyelashes”. The search beam “could easily have been the effect of clouds”. He states we have no way of knowing whether the other people who signed Gill’s report actually saw what Gill saw.  Evidently Menzel did not see Cruttwell’s report for there was verbal confirmation of agreement by the witnesses of these details to the investigator and a drawing by Stephen Gill Moi also has four figures visible. Worst of all, Menzel asserts Gill “never even mentions” Venus as a point of reference, when he most certainly did: “I saw Venus, but I also saw this sparkling object…”  In a later account for a lecture Gill mentioned that he had seen Venus set on the prior night, but on the night of the sighting he became aware of the UFO because “there wasn’t one Venus, but two”.  When Gill met with investigators in the seventies, he provided them with his documented optometric history which effectively refuted Menzel’s scenario. 
Allan Hendry toyed with a variant of Menzel’s scenario, suggesting that Gill’s Venus was Mercury and the UFO was still Venus. “On all three nights, the time of disappearance of the main UFO never exceeds the time Venus sets … the coincidence of the disappearance of the main UFO and the time of Venus setting is provocative.” The long duration of the sighting is consistent with other cases involving astronomical misinterpretations. Against this, as Hendry was quick to point out, we have Gill saying the apparent diameter was five times the moon’s width, the bearing of 30° altitude in the WNW, and the basic similarity of the drawings by four of the witnesses.  His final assessment was that the case couldn’t be pushed any farther in terms of investigation: “At least we feel confident that the sighting was generated either by an extraordinary UFO as described, or by Venus distorted in size and shape by (amazing) atmospheric distortions (and memory spanning 18 years by Father Gill) … BUT NOTHING ELSE” (emphases and punctuation by IUR).
More recently Steuart Campbell has added a characteristically wild twist by suggesting the “sparkling object” involved a mirage of Mercury at first, and then later, tricked by discontinuities in observations created by clouds, the object was confusedly mistaken with mirages of Mars and Venus.  He doesn’t even try to account for the four figures or how dozens of people could be fooled by mirages for hours.
The case is probably even worse than you might guess. None of the sources give the coordinates of Venus that evening. When I finally got someone to provide the data, I learned Venus had an azimuth of roughly 285° when it set that evening – that’s 15° north of west. In the field notes of 26 June, we have an observation at 9:30 p.m. reading “‘Mother’ gone across sea to Giwa – white, red, blue, gone.” That’s the last it is seen that evening. Giwa is located along a line running 70° north of west (340° azimuth) giving a substantial disparity of 55°. This is pretty hard to argue away as normal eyewitness fallibility.I suspect most ufologists might accept that one person alone could hallucinate seeing a group of people inside or on a flying saucer, but not two. Having 25 people sign a report claiming they saw this and having them agree this is what they saw in the follow up is totally without parallel in the literature and without clear precedent in either abnormal psychology or Fortean history. It might be possible; perhaps they all drank from a keg of something spiked with an hallucinogen and Gill became accidental guide, but it hardly seems probable. This approach seemed as clearly counter-indicated as the hoax and ETH ideas. In saying “BUT NOTHING ELSE”, Hendry seemed to close the book on the case and it would be hard to deny that assessment was completely fair. No other alternative was obvious. I can’t say it troubled me much. Unexplained means unexplained. It happens sometimes.
Last year  I read a couple of papers by Paul Rydeen which compared UFO belief to cargo cults.  I’d seen the idea before, but they put me in the mood to acquire Lamont Linndstrom’s new treatise Cargo Cult to see if it might be a fruitful subject to explore. It was, but in a way I didn’t count on.
Papua was where cargo cults first sprung up. Cargo cult belief involved the expectation that ships sent by one’s ancestors would some day arrive bearing cargo that would make them as wealthy as European colonisers. The Europeans perpetually spoke of cargo shipments from their distant home that were running late. World War Two escalated and shifted cargo expectations because of the immense sea and air traffic involving American shipments of troop supplies. GIs had spread the wealth around during their stay. Cargo rituals soon involved planes, airstrips, control towers, and radios. Could this milieu have been involved in the Gill case?
Gill said there was initially no thought that the sightings involved extraterrestrials. It was felt to be “a strange new device of you Americans”. Critics tried to paint Gill as a believer because the phrase Mothership was current in UFO lore, but the phrase is older than that and was used as a term denoting the boat in a fishing fleet to which the catches of smaller boats were centrally relayed. The original field notes confirm Gill thought the figures were “human”. Besides their friendly demeanour, indicated by their waving at the witnesses, the activities of the figures resemble the normal work you would see on a ship deck. Drawings and verbal descriptions include the presence of portholes and railings like you’d see on a ship. Was this all some kind of Cargo vision? The emotions seemed suggestive:
We all thought it was going to land. We were hoping it was going to land. We were in a state of what you might call anticipation. They came down and then they seemed to stop… And spontaneously, almost, we started to wave, just as though – we’re used to waving at people, boats are coming in all the time, small craft, and naturally we’re used to waving at people on these craft… To our surprise and we really were surprised, these people waved back. 
This is consonant with the sentiments of cargo expectations, but it is rather explicitly normal everyday behaviour as well. It’s hardly proof.There are also blatant difficulties. Why should an Anglican priest get caught up in the enthusiasms of Papuan religiosity? A missionary ought to be immune to some degree to the influence of a competing faith. One could perhaps wave this off with appeals to empathy in Gill. Turn around the charge that the natives would be pliant to his will and say he was pliant to their charms and mass psychology.
More troubling is the objection that Papuan expectations should have yielded an image more consonant with American aircraft. Aircraft don’t have deckhands roaming about topside. They don’t have railings. Where are the wings and tail section? Why is there this confusing mix of sea vessel and hovering aerial platform? form? Aerial platforms, moreover, were pretty much a theoretical fancy back then with a doubtful history in experimental trials. About the only source of the image in mass culture worth mentioning was the old Johnny Quest cartoon series and that came after the Gill case not before.
Then another oddity – Stan Seers reports a discussion he had with Gill about the shaft of light that emanated from the top of the craft. Gill “emphasised it was pencil thin and parallel, that is to say it did not spread, or increase in diameter as does an ordinary beam of light.”  Seers, writing in 1983, identifies this as a laser, which in 1959 was terrestrially unknown. Must be extra-terrestrial! He forgets, however, that laser light normally isn’t visible from the side without something to disperse it like particles or fog. It dawned on me then that this could make sense in the context of the other ship motifs. The 45° lines of light in the drawings of Gill, Stephen Gill Moi, and Ananias Rarata would simply be ship’s rigging, brightly illuminated. Yet that’s paradoxical if we are dealing with visionary construction of the image. Gill shouldn’t have been puzzled – it should be self-explanatory. Looking at the drawings again, Guyorobo’s branching legs suddenly made sense to me as also ship-related. They were fishing nets dropped into the water. But, same paradox, why wasn’t it self-explanatory if it was part of a vision? Solution: Forget about visions – this is a real boat!
But, that can’t be right. These drawings don’t look like the Flying Dutchman. Fishing boats don’t fly. Magonians are obliged to grant the idea of ships floating in the air is centuries old. Theorists in the field of meteorological optics have noted that the illusion of ships floating in the air is sometimes created by mirages. They are formed by light being bent and distorted in sea air which has stratified into layers of differing temperatures and thus differing refractive indices. Could that be the case here? I thought so for a while, but I bounced the idea off someone more knowledgeable about meteorological optics and was flatly told it was impossible. The problem is with the figures on the deck. The ship would have to be miles away over the horizon for the illusion to work and at that distance the figures could not be optically resolved. To the suggestion I made that mirages magnify images at times, he countered that mirages only stretch images in the vertical dimension. Looking at various drawings of mirage apparitions in the literature, it was clear this mechanism would not work. 
I put in some observing time at a nearby lake to double check the limitations of visibility of humans on ships. For Gill to be able to observe humans waving at him, the ship definitely had to be well under a mile in distance. Forget mirages.One of the days I picked for observing involved very calm conditions. The sailboats crept very slowly across my field of vision. The surface was close to mirror-like. The ship hulls doubled. The sails only partly doubled. This I expected and felt would explain the thickness of the saucers drawn by Guyorobo and Rarata. The sky’s blueness was mirrored in the water and I noticed the horizon was virtually invisible, so well did the colours match and nearly blend. At night, one could imagine the horizon completely lost. I also observed on this occasion discontinuities in the water that ran at a mostly horizontal angle to the real horizon. They were undoubtedly related to a slight wind. Some ran across the field of vision between me and a sailboat. One of these discontinuities was fairly close to the shore and seemed rather stable over the period of observation of roughly an hour. I am unaware of the precise reason for this stability – if it involved a miniature sea-breeze effect, water currents, or whatever. Move this into the night, illuminate it by boat light, and one might get the effect of a false horizon.
We do know that there is a type of night fishing that takes place in Pacific regions. Squid fishermen rig their boats with powerful incandescent lamps of many thousands of watts to lure squid up from great depths.  Such a boat could account for the observation “It was sending a bright white halo – throwing it up on the base of the cloud”. That’s hardly typical of Venus! Such a fishing vessel would also account for the slow drifting motion of the object and its long presence in the area. Other types of boats would have traversed such an area in a much briefer period of time.We have here, I think, most of the elements needed for an acceptably unparadoxical resolution to the Gill classic. It is basically a real-world example of one of those double-interpretation perceptual puzzles. Look at a drawing one way, you see a duck; look at it a different way and you see a rabbit. Look at the Gill saucer one way and you see a hovering saucer decked out in lasers, landing legs and windows. Look at it a different way and you see a brilliantly lit squid-boat with rigging, fishing nets draped in the water, portholes, and men too busy to do more than wave at the natives they see onshore. Nobody is hallucinating or lying or behaving stupidly. The situation simply invites two interpretations and Gill’s party locked into the wrong one, tricked by a false horizon which led them to think the image was hanging in the air.
Can we be certain this is what really happened? There are still things we might feel uneasy about. Could dozens of people really be fooled this way for hours without somebody on site tricking out the correct answer? How likely is it that squid-boats visit the region so rarely that Gill and everyone else never were able to put two and two together on a later occasion, like when wind conditions were different? Though I consider these unanswerable, my retort must be. “Well, do you have a better solution?” Hoaxes, Venus-induced hallucinations, and extraterrestrials seem a good deal harder to swallow than this scenario.
That this is a disappointingly unrevolutionary solution, I fully concede. It is also rather boring from a psycho-social perspective. My hope that Cargo belief would provide a key to the case was thoroughly dashed in the end. I almost feel obliged to apologise for what feels more like tying up an old loose end than the offering of useful insights into the nature of the UFO phenomenon. Still, it was history’s best close encounter. Excelsior, I suppose.
STORY, Ronald D., UFOs and the Limits of Science, Wm. Morrow, 1981, p.23
CLARK, Jerome, “Close Encounters: History’s Best Case”, Fate, February 1978, pp38-46
HYNEK, J. Allen, The UFO Experience, Ballantine, 1972, pp.167-172, 270. HYNEK, J. Allen, Hynek UFO Report, Dell, 1977, pp.216-223
The UFO Experience, op. cit., p.270
VALLEE, Jacques, UFOs in Space, Ballantine, 1977, pp.156-159
LORENZEN, Coral and Jim, Flying Saucers: The Startling Evidence of the Invasion from Outer Space, Signet, 1966, pp.175-178
HYNEK, 1977, op. cit., p. 217
CLARK, ibid. HENDRY, Allan, “Papua/Father Gill Revisited”, IUR, 2, #11, November 1977, pp.4-7 and December 1977, pp.4-7
KLASS, Phil, UFOs Explained, Vintage, 1976, pp. 277-289
SAGAN, Carl and PAGE,Thornton, UFOs: A Scientific Debate, Norton Library, 1974, pp.148-163.
SEERS, Stan, UFOs; The Case for Scientific myopia, Vantage, 1983, pp.48-49
BASTERFIELD, Keith, An In-depth Review of Australian UFO Related Entity Reports, Australian Centre for UFO Studies, June 1980, p.21
HENDRY, December, op. cit., p.5
CAMPBELL, Steuart, The UFO Mystery – Solved, Explicit, 1994, pp.66-67
RYDEEN, Paul, “Cargo of the Gods”. Anomalist, 1 (Summer 1994), pp.83-88. RYDEEN, Paul, “UFOs and the Cult of Cargo”. Strange Magazine, 9, (Spring-Summer 1992), pp.6-9, 52-53
BASTERFIELD, op. cit., p. 26
SEERS, op. cit., p. 36
CORLISS, William, Rare Haloes, Mirages, Anomalous Rainbows and Related Electromagnetic Phenomena, Sourcebook, 1984, and chapters in the Condon report.
SHEAFFER, Robert, The UFO Verdict, Prometheus, 1981, p. 216.