As part of my research into the PR Disaster Hypothesis for the Westall school sighting in 1966, in Dec 2022 I corresponded with Steven Thorn, the pseudonymous author of a memoir about the HIBAL project whose book I cited on my Westall pages. He worked at Mildura from 1963 for four years and wrote the book around 2018 (published 2021).
Some of Steven's memories in 2022 contradicted what he'd written about a few years earlier. He flew on the tracking plane for HIBAL missions and did not recall ever going further south than Charlton VIC (250km/160mi from Mildura), despite evidence of one mission reaching Bendigo (another 100km/60mi further southeast) and in his own book a mission that reached Salt Creek in SA (315km/190mi southwest). And he "did not recall any special NASA flights", only piggybacking by Adelaide University, despite describing special NASA piggyback missions in his book. I mention these examples only to show that memory is fallible.
Steven told me the crew was "sworn to secrecy" regarding the HIBAL missions, but that there was chatter in the tearoom.
He has no recollection of any HIBAL mission being associated with the Westall incident. He cannot explain why Flight 292 (the chase plane for the April 5, 1966, flight) is missing from the pilot Curwood's logs, calling it "strange and not like Curwood" who "was a stickler for correctness in records". He suggests the flight was aborted - which is interesting because we know the mission was in fact successful (the US Atomic Energy Commission has a record of the data collected from that launch). Is it possible the flight was aborted or canceled in order to leave no record, so that other authorities could take over the retrieval of the payload following its near-miss collision with a schoolyard that needed to be covered up?
Steven developed the radio command system that was used to cut down the payload at the end of a mission, or to terminate a flight that went wrong (e.g. "likely to terminate over a built-up area"). This was functional "by 1966" and, he claims, never once failed. However, we know that the system did fail in one respect, at least once - in 1969 (after Steven's time with the project) a runaway HIBAL from Mildura traveled 1100km (680mi) all the way to Queensland because the balloon failed to self-destruct after cut-down.
He said a balloon's position could always be tracked by radar. However, the above runaway balloon was lost to radar after jettisoning the payload, since it was the payload that included the radar deflectors (according to the declassified internal RAAF report). Steven explained that if not cut down, HIBAL can float for days without changing altitude much (except to sink at night, then rise during the day as the gas heats and expands). Given he has no knowledge or recollection of anything odd happening in April 1966, he suggested that if the Westall sighting was a balloon, it may have come from South America or the USA or somewhere else.
Steven believes there's no reason he wouldn't have been working on the day of the April 5th launch but there's no means of ascertaining this. However, he did provide clear evidence that a HIBAL balloon was sighted near the school on April 6th: I showed him the drawing below, an object with a trailing hose seen by a 7-year-old witness an hour or two before the Westall sighting, 40km (25mi) away (drawn from memory as an adult). Steven recognized the object, describing the drawing as: "a balloon that was partially inflated, which would be consistent with a balloon that had been floating for an extended period and slowly leaking".
The morning of the Westall sighting was only 16C (61F) following an overnight low of 14C, but the day before had been warmer 24C (75F). A HIBAL balloon drifting south would have have lost altitude overnight and then failed to rise the next day during the cool morning.
What can we conclude from this?
Some have theorized that what the schoolchildren at Westall saw was only the descending payload and parachute after cutdown. I doubt this for a few reasons:
Given what was seen (and eventually drawn) earlier that morning, it seems more likely that the witnesses saw a descending HIBAL with a slow leak - as described in my Westall pages. It's possible the small number of reports of multiple flying saucers come from sightings of the parachute. It's likely the payload ended up at the Grange, given the activity witnessed there, but it's also possible the payload had already been jettisoned hours earlier and the retrieval operation was only to recover the balloon.
Plenty of mystery remains about exactly what was seen at Westall. My thanks go to Steven Thorn for our correspondence and for writing his memoir that provided so much useful information about the technical apsects of the HIBAL project.
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