Our Unreliable ‘Eyewitnesses’.
Paolo Toselli

From Magonia 13, 1983

‘I saw it with my own eyes!’ How many times we have listened to this statement designed to avoid doubt, to reinforce certitude.Usually, but erroneously, one believes that the witness is a perfect recording apparatus, that all that passes before his eyes is recorded and may be plainly reproduced through well-contrived questions. Numerous experiments show, however, that testimony is remarkably subject to error.In order to discuss something as controversial as UFOs, it is first important to realize that the eyewitness is as much a part of the event as is the physical stimulus that led to the personal experience. In fact, an objective stimulus seems to be there in the first place in a UFO experience, but the whole thing is channeled through our own personalities and comes out as an experience with greater or lesser ‘subjectivity’ elements.

Perception is not just a simple reproduction of what we see. Some psychologists have argued that in order to comprehend an event that we witness, various aspects of the event must be interpreted by us. Only part of this interpretation is based upon the environmental input that gave rise to it; that is, only part comes from our actual perception of an event. Another part is based on prior ‘memory’ or existing knowledge, and a third part is inference.

As remarked by Haines:

‘In an honest attempt to reduce the emotional and intellectual uncertainty which inevitably accompanies a novel experience, the witness may add certain types of percepts from his memory and/or delete other types; this helps reconcile the often unreal quality of the original percepts with an acceptable, reality-based, final perception. For instance (…) a UFO witness may add certain visual details gleaned from his imagination or memory. The addition of these details usually makes the object he describes appear more similar to objects he believes others have reported. Thus, what may originally have been the perception of a vague, greenish haze seen hovering silently above an open field late at night, may be reported as a well-defined, light green object which flew slowly and evenly over the field without making a sound.’ (1)

Another process influencing the responses that will be made to an ambiguous, novel (unknown) event is the psychological predisposition (also known as ‘set’) of the witness. Many times the concept of ‘set’ is expressed in the psychological literature with the terms of ‘hypothesis’, ‘expectation’, ‘meaning’, ‘attitude; they are quite similar terms emphasising the general concept that a person is prepared or syntonized to receive some kinds of information; so the perception depends on set and stimulus interaction.

Ron Westrum, in a paper on UFO witnesses, touches upon this matter:

‘A considerable folklore has grown up around UFOs, as I discovered to my surprise (…) in the course of making investigation of UFO sightings. (…) This folk-lore tends to set up an expectation that certain kinds of things will be seen or will happen during a UFO experience and this affects not only what the witness feels he ought to relate to others but also what the witness remembers as happening.’ (2)

The question of ‘mental set’ is especially important to consider when dealing with certain UFO/IFO cases. Because so few data exist, the distortion of only one factor can make an identifiable object apparentIy unidentifiable.

An example of the ‘mental set’ effect is supplied to us by Philip Morrison. It is a case of three radio-astronomers; one of these was a friend of Morrison, who stood outside Washington DC some years ago watching a large cigar-shaped object in the air, perfectly silent, with lighted windows, moving very rapidly past them.’Independently, they told each other they had each certainly seen the most remarkable kind of unidentified flying object. Suddenly the wind changed, and aircraft engines were heard; the distance adjusted itself, and they recognized they were seeing an ordinary airliner, much nearer than they had thought but not audible because of some peculiar sonic refraction of the wind. A change of the perceptual set changed their entire view of the phenomenon.’ (3)

When we experience an event, we do not simply record that event in memory as a videotape recorder would. The situation is much more complex.

Usually, we don’t retain the pure experience, but we elaborate it before storing it. In fact, we store in memory not the environmental input itself, nor even a copy or a partial copy, but only fragments of the interpretation that we gave to the input when we experienced it. A vivid, detailed photographic resurrection of the past is not the most efficient way to remember. Memories of everyday events are more similar to a syllogism than to a photograph; usually we go gradually towards the past and only seldom do we recall it as a ‘snapshot’. A grown-up person usually uses (verbal) symbols, to organize his memory in such a way as to find what he needs. We constantly translate our experiences by means of intervening symbols, store them in our memory and recover them instead of our original experience. When we have to remember, we try to reconstruct the experience from the symbols.

Research indicates that the experiences people remember about an event are influenced by the label associated with the event. Labels are not neutral, they carry explicit and implicit stimuli previously associated with them. As remarked by Michael Persinger:

‘A confounding interaction arises when one uses a label which is already heavily ‘loaded’ with emotionally laden associations. For example, suppose an observer sees a pulsating luminous light with dark stimuli moving within it. If the person labels the observation as a landed UFO, there the observation is no longer ‘neutral’ since the previously learned associations of the word UFO may now contaminate the observation. The operation of this process could result in a report like: “I saw a UFO landed on the hill, it was slowly materializing and de-materializing,, and there were aliens moving within.” (4)

People’s memories are fragile things. The tendency to invent or to introduce new material taken from a different structure can increase considerably with the passage of time

External information provided from the outside can intrude into the witness’s memory, as can his own thoughts, and both can cause dramatic changes in his recollection. Usually, this happens when witnesses to an event later read or hear something about it and are subsequently asked to recall the event. Post-event information can not only enhance existing memories but also change a witness’s memory and even cause non-existent details to become incorporated into a previously acquired memory. (5)

Many people believe that their memories are absolute and constant. But, contrary to apparent popular belief, the evi-dence in no way confirms the view that all memories are permanent and thus potentially recoverable.

A witness’s confidence in his memories and the accuracy of his memories often have little correlation. People are often confident and right, but they can also be confident and wrong. To be cautious, one should not take high confidence as any absolute guarantee of anything.

Memory isn’t the only place where the recognition processes can go on the wrong track. Many psychologists think that the main errors and misunderstandings depend on the retrieval processes.

The conditions prevailing at the time information is retrieved from memory are critically important in determining the accuracy and completeness of an eye-witness account. Reporting is one of the most crucial factors in the UFO problem. There are numerous ways to influence (and often drastically distort) the recollection of a witness.

The manner in which a question is phrased and the assumption it makes have profound effects on the accuracy and quantity of eyewitness testimony. By using leading questions, for example, an attorney can ‘shape’ the testimony of an eyewitness. A leading quest in is simply one that by its form or content suggests to a witness what answer is desired or leads him to the desired answer. We all probably ask leading questions without realizing we are doing so.

Dr Elizabeth Loftus, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, has demonstrated how altering the semantic value of the words in questions about a filmed auto accident causes witnesses to distort their reports. (6) When witnesses were asked a question using the word ‘smashed’ as opposed to ‘bumped’ they gave higher estimates of speed ant were more likely to report having seen broken glass – although there was no broken glass.

To summarize the issues involved in question type and structure of testimony, the notion of cognitive set, defined in terms of the specificity of the questioning situation, is a useful tool and also helps to illustrate the negative correlation between accuracy and quantity of testimony. When giving unstructured testimony (i.e. free elaboration without the use of any questioning) the witness’s cognitive set is under the least restraint, and witnessesare are likely to give only testimony about which they are somewhat certain, causing accuracy to be high and quantity low. As the questioning becomes more and more specific, cognitive set becomes directed and narrow, accuracy decreases, and quantity increases.

The studies in this area indicate, then, that the witness should first be allowed to report freely, or in a controlled narrative fashion. This free report can be followed by a series of very specific questions so as to increase the range or coverage of the witness’s report. On the contrary, asking specific questions before the narrative can be dangerous because information contained in those questions can become a part of the free report, even when the information is wrong.Summing up, the reported testimony – viz., the UFO report – on which we are bound to work is conditioned by many facts that affect the observation and reporting of an event, whose effect nevertheless we aren’t able to quantify and estimate a posteriori.

It is essential, therefore, that UFO investigators recognize the factors that might influence how well a person perceives, remembers and reports an event.
The purpose of this paper is to present an invitation to probe the numerous problems involved in dealing with eye-witnesses.


  1. HAINES, Richard F. Observing UFOs; An Investigative Handbook. Nelson-Hall, Chicago, 1980, p. 41.
  2. WESTRUM, Ron. ‘Witnesses of UFOs and other anomalies’, in HAINES, Richard F. (ed.), UFO Phenomena and the Behavioural Scientist. Metchen, New Jersey, The Scarecrow Press, 1979, p. 91.
  3. MORRISON, Philip. ‘The nature of scientific evidence – a summary’, in SAGAN, C. and PAGE, T. (eds.), UFOs a Scientific Debate, New York, Norton, 1972, pp. 285-286.
  4. PERSINGER, Michael A. ‘The problems of human verbal behaviour: The final reference for measuring ostensible PSI phenomena’. The Journal of Research in PSI Phenomena, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1976, pp. 80-81.
  5. LOFTUS, Elizabeth. Eyewitness Testimony. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1979, p. 55.
  6. LOFTUS, E.F. and PALMER, J.C. ‘Reconstruction of automobile destruction: an example of the interaction between language and memory’. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, Vol. 13, 1974, pp. 585-589.



A Structured Approach to the Analysis of Non-Physical UFO Evidence.
Donald A. Johnson

First published in MUFOB New Series 10,  Spring 1978

Over the years, many students of the UFO phenomenon have come to realise that the solution to the UFO enigma is probably not going to fall into their laps in the form of that long awaited, indisputable piece of physical evidence. Any attempted explanation of the phenomenon based on the current supply of physical evidence would be deemed by most as wholly inadequate. In fact this lack of indisputable hard evidence has led many to speculate that the phenomenon may not have a physical dimension at all. Be that as it may, the stress put on the importance of physical evidence is undeniable. (1) Perhaps this emphasis may yet prove justifiable. However, it is also equally true that we have until very recently largely overlooked the possibility of gaining much insight into the problem through the systematic study of our most abundant form of data, the non-physical or ‘soft’ evidence.

This article is an attempt to provide a realistic and orderly approach to the problem of the analysis of ‘soft’ UFO evidence by inter-disciplinary study. Specifically, these recommendations are relevant to individuals involved in or interested in the study areas of psychology, history, statistics, sociology, anthropology and folklore. By ‘soft’ evidence we are referring to the psychological and sociological process involved in the experiencing of a UFO event, the generation of this experience into a report, the generalization and categorization or reports into a phenomenon, and the mythification of this phenomenon or a combination of phenomena into a folklore.If there are still any readers left at this point some clarification for their benefit will be attempted. We are defining the overall phenomenon as an ongoing process, and we are structuring it into four levels, of increasing abstraction, for the purposes of study. Basically the four levels of analysis visualised in this approach are:

1 – the witness
2 – the report
3 – the phenomenon
4 – the myth

In this model each level of the phenomenon poses separate and unique questions. By approaching the evidence through this structure the special talents of the scientific disciplines mentioned above (as well as others, the list is in no way meant to be exclusive) can be brought to bear in an effective manner.

The psychologist, for example, is interested primarily in the witness, his psychological profile, his perceptual abilities, his personality. His training allows him to judge properly the relationship between a hypnopompic hallucination and certain categories of close encounter UFO events. The sociologist on the other hand would more likely direct his energy to the report level of the evidence. He would be interested in the societal factors that motivate an individual to report his experience and in explaining the dynamics that permit bias to creep into an account. The statistician and historian are properly at home on the phenomenon level, both skilled in documenting factors responsible for such things as UFO waves. Finally, the social anthropologist and the folklorist are interested in the dynamics of myth building, the symbolism evoked, the techniques for the transmission of myth, and the cultural needs that are set or fulfilled by the UFO myth.

It should be noted that each discipline overlaps the structural levels to a greater or lesser degree, and none has exclusive domain over any one level. In any interdisciplinary study the objective is not to parcel out shares along lines of authority but rather to share knowledge and assist in the group’s understanding through the contribution of a different perspective.

The Witness.

Let us examine the current state of the phenomenon using the outline of the analytical model. We first approach the entire process from the level of the witness. On this level we are no so much concerned with what is described as who is describing it. In those situations where there is no logical explanation for the sighting, where we do in fact have a UFO and there is no physical trace, the person making the report must become the object of the investigation. (2) As our only tangible form of evidence the witness is extremely important. Ideally, we would like the full gamut of information on each individual witness: his history of mental health, his status in the community, educational level, perceptual abilities, his psychological profile drawn from a series of interviews and a battery of psychological tests.

In very few cases has all this information been obtained. Usually as the level of strangeness of a report increases the importance of this information increases proportionately. Therefore, it is not unusual that in the instances where this information has been gathered, it is for the high level close encounters – cases such as Betty and Barney Hill, Stella Lansing, or Parker and Hickson. However, for the majority of cases this extensive information on the witnesses is absent. There are some very good reasons for this. Most of it is very difficult and time-consuming material to obtain. Furthermore, there are ethical questions involved in compiling and releasing this information, and serious legal questions raised with the advent of now privacy laws in the USA.

This information does have value beyond determining whether a witness is a liar or a fool and there are some very real issues that could be resolved with it. For instance, is there a ‘selection effect’ for UFO witnesses? Why do some people go through their entire lives without seeing anything whilst others have several UFO experiences? Should the repeaters be disqualified or believed? Is there a correlation between demonstrated ‘psi’ ability and UFO experiences? Is there a correlation between mild cases of adaptive schizophrenia and UFO experiences? Are percipients of UFO events prone to hallucinations?

Many of these questions are speculated upon without any real evidence. The article Psychiatrv and UFO Reports by Grinspoon and Persky) is a good example of an attempt to relate psychological phenomena to UFOs without citing a single actual example from a UFO case!

As an example of research that would be useful in this area, Benton Jamison presented one research proposal at the 1976 CUFOS conference (4) which would test whether or not there exists significant sociological and psychological differences between a sample of people who have had a UFO experience and a sample of those who have not. In his proposal he recommends including measures of hypnotic suggestibility and beliefs about psychic ability in the witness testing.

Research in this area should be supported and encouraged both because of the importance of the questions rained and because the research could begin today, which is not true of studies which need physical data, which must wait for the evidence to come to them.

The Report.

The next level of the model is the report. Reports are what our perception of the enigma at the phenomenon level are exclusively based on. It is therefore very important that we understand the dynamics of reporting and the reliability of our evidence before we begin to make any conclusions on the nature of UFOs.

Basically the reporting process involves the following societal filtering effects: an individual or a group of individuals must conceptualise an event as unusual enough to make note of it, must be motivated enough to report it, and must have enough status and credibility to have the report accepted.Because we know there is a very definite selection effect involved in the reporting of a UFO event, a prime object of research in this area should be to obtain as close to a random sample of actual incidents as possible. Even obtaining the services of a professional opinion survey firm and going lack to the subject pool to collect a new independent sample of witnesses would not be carrying this effort too far. We could then compare the characteristics of such a sample to the population of reports we have on file to determine what some of the ‘laws’ of reporting this phenomenon are, and how badly biased our current sample of reports is.

For a further discussion on the nature of these societal filtering effects and how they affect the reporting of UFOs, I refer the reader to an excellent treatment of the subject by Dr Ron Westrum, in his article Knowing about UFOs, carried in two parts in MUFOB new series 5 and 6. (5)

The Phenomenon

As used herein, the phrase ‘the UFO phenomenon’ is defined as the product of the categorization of reports of extraordinary events which share as their common attribute the observation of unusual aerial objects. The word ‘phenomenon’ is therefore not synonymous with ‘event’ or ‘occuronce’ as it would be in its strict dictionary definition. It implies rather a compilation of events, and is hence an abstraction and not an event.

The Battelle Memorial Institute study that became Project Bluebook Special Report 14 established statistically that the population of true ‘unknowns’, i.e. unidentified reports, is significantly different in attributes from reports that can be attributed to misidentifications. (6) This makes it very unlikely that the UFO phenomenon can be attributed to any currently known natural phenomenon ‘if we just try harder’. It also means that we do, in fact, have a real and not just an imaginary problem On our hands. We should examine this problem both in terms of what we currently know about it and where we can go with that knowledge.

Perhaps our most important asset in this study is our ability to discern patterns within the UFO phenomenon. This is true because the presence of patterns reaffirms our original hypothesis that a certain set of events should be classed together. When we look at the phenomenon, we find some very strong patterns which might be categorized in the following manner:

1 – patterns in descriptions
2 – patterns in behaviour
3 – temporal patterns
4 – spatial patterns

There exists, for instance, similarities in the descriptions of objects including size, shape colour, number of lights, etc., and in descriptions of humanoids associated with those objects. One very obvious area for further research would be to continue the work started by the Batelle study to determine how their patterns co-vary with one another and how they correlate with patterns observed in occupant or object behaviour. An example of such a study is that provided by Fred Merritt. (7) By studying similarities in descriptions of ‘landing’ marks, and reports of the objects and occupants associated with these events he was able to cluster landing reports into five groups or ‘catenas’, one group of which he was able to eliminate as indicative of a ball lightning or similar atmospheric effect.

We also know that UFO reports occur with marked variance in frequency over time and that reports are not evenly distributed geographically. Ballester Olmos has found from statistical data that close encounters tend to manifest themselves in sparsely populated areas, whereas lights-in-the-sky reports have a random spatial distribution that is directly correlated with population. (8)

David Saunders has determined that the five year cycle waves (1947, 1952, 1957, 1967 and 1972) are characterised by negatively skewed distributions. (9) That is, they are waves that build slowly to a crescendo and taper off quickly, rather than waves that seem to be sparked by a few well publicised cases which peak early and taper off as interest dies. Saunders (1O), and Anderson (11) have linked the temporal aspects of UFO events with their spatial occurence. By following development of the major five year waves they separately traced the movement of reports outward and predominantly eastward from theoretical longitudinal starting points. Further research in this area may result in almost total predictability of when and where a major UFO wave may occur.

Finally, Saunders has also advanced the scientific case for orthoteny, or the heavy frequency of occurence of UFOs reports along certain great circle lines around the globe. (12) While the meaning of these ‘orthotenic’ lines appears to be beyond our present comprehension, their existence has nonetheless been validated.

Historians can be a valuable asset to this level of research by documenting the historical events that correspond and contribute to the presence of UFO reports over time. The ‘swamp gas’ fervour of 1966 is one obvious example. Time series analysis such as that done by Saunders could then be linked to an historical analysis of the cycles of public interest. The integration of these two forms of analysis could offer now insights.

The Myth

Finally we come to the analysis of the myth associated with UFOs. This subject is purposely treated last because the processes involved in the dynamics of myth development seem to draw upon all levels of the phenomenon for material. Just dealing with the term ‘myth’ is a problem in itself. On the one hand the word carries definite connotations of storybook images of things that ‘really can’t exist’; and it is often employed in the sense of ‘fiction’ or ‘untrue’. On the other hand, myth has also come to mean something quite different to anthropologists, folklorists and students of comparative religion. Myth in this sense is a dynamic processthat explains reality, or more exactly, how reality came to be. (13) It is this function of myth that sets apart from common folklore. As such it supplies models for human behaviour and gives meaning and value to life.

Translating this understanding of myth to the UFO enigma we find a mechanism to explain the phenomenological reality of UFOs. Throughout the world we can find many examples of ‘living’ myths. Myths are alive in the sense that they are believed and used as examples to explain our day-to-day world. In our own culture science and technology have largely supplanted myth as the mechanism for explaining reality. The case of UFOs is one notable exmption.

The need to know is a universal human trait. Some social scientists describe it as the need for ‘closure’, that is, a need for predictability in an uncertain universe. When a strong man suddenly sickens and dies for no apparent reason, some reason needs to be created. In a primitive culture his death could be attributed to witchcraft. In our own culture we would ascribe it to virus, or unseen micro-organisms, such as ‘Legionnaire’s Disease’. The UFO is indeed a living myth in our own myth-less culture because, in the absence of an adequate scientific explanation of UFOs, myth is called upon to supply the answer.

What exactly is the ‘UFO myth’, then? That’s not an easy question. We know that myth is a product of empirically observed facts, beliefs, and some very strong human emotions. As such it represents a fairly awsome subject:

It seems to be impossible to guage the power of what Jung called the ‘modern myth’ of UFOs, a myth generated by our post-WWII encounter with a real phenomenon (made no less real by its failure to be universally recognised as such), sustained not only by years of rumor, denial, newspaper, radio and TV accounts, but by an unending stream of mostly unpublished UFO incidents, and charged psychically by virtue of its connection with almost universally held aspirations and fears.If this myth does have the power to create thousands or even tens of thousands of spurious UFO sightings on the part of people who show no apparent signs of malfunction or derangement, then some way must be found to explore the mechanism by which these sightings are generated on the one hand, and on the other to separate them from sightings of physically real objects. (14)

Anthropologists and folklorists have long been aware that the deciphering of myths is always a sticky business Some of the dynamics of myth are thought to be fairly well understood, mostly dealing with the techniques of myth transmission (through psychological studies of telling and retelling stories, through anthropological studies of cultures with active oral traditions, and through sociological studies of modern media) The importance of symbolism in myth to account for human needs is also recognised (through psychoanalytic analysis of classical mythology).

I think it would be fair to say that most people ascribe some form of alien visitation to the UFO myth, be it extraterrestrial or otherwise. Visitation by spacecraft is not the only aspect or message of the myth, however.

John Rimmer was the first to recognise the importance of the UFO as an anti-scientific symbol. (15) As such the UFO represents the forces of magic in a technologically dominated (and one might add technologically despoiled) modern world. The attractiveness of this symbolism should not be underestimated. Several millenarian movements have already developed around UFOs as agents of salvation. (16) This subconscious symbolism may also explain why the leadership of the scientific establishment is so threatened by the UFO question and have, right to the present, refused to examine the issue rationally and dispassionately.

We know that the myth encompassing UFOs is persistent. It has endured in more or less the same form for over 30 years. It may well have persisted in altered form for thousands of years before that. This raises the question as to whether the ‘real’ phenomenon behind the myth is the causal factor for that persistence, or whether the reality of the myth is so powerful and the symbolism evoked so very important that the success and permanence of the UFO story is guaranteed through time with little change.

In Passport to Magonia Jacques Vallée makes the connection between modern day UFOs and medieval myths. (17) He bases this connection on:

1 – similarities between the appearances of UFO occupants and the descriptions of elves and gnomes.
2 – similarities in the absurd, ludicrous behaviour of UFOs and UFO occupants and the antics and pranks of fairies.
3 – the religious and mystical motivations behind apparitions and percipient experiences.4 – the evolutionary process of the observation of objects from airships to dirigibles to ghost rockets to flying saucers.

Many of the similarities he provides between the UFO phenomenon and the fairy phenomenon do appear to be more than coincidental. Vallée states that he was forced to make a parallel between UFO reports and the main theses of fairy-lore because some details in in UFO reports were simply unbelievable unless taken in context with accounts of encounters with fairies. (18) This raises a few more questions. What share of these similarities between UFOs and other myths should be attributed to human factors? And how strange and divergent can these accounts get before we are forced to discard the hypothesis that they are caused by a real external phenomenon?

One of the areas where the greatest contribution by folklorists can be made is in documenting and relating to the UFO problem the differences in the development of myth that is the product of fiction, and myth that evolves from real events
and becomes imbued with mystical symbols.

We might speculate that real events, translated into myth, would have a more limited range of strangeness than ‘true’ stories that are the products of hoaxes or actual works of fiction (although even these are limited to a cultural frame of reference) The 1896-97 data reveals that the most reliable reports were of objects similar to objects seen today. (19) Hoaxes are the most elaborate in their descriptions of the airships, putting all the ‘bells and whistles’ imaginable on the object.

We have one last important question to consider under this topic. Does the phenomenon itself draw upon the myth for material? There seems to be some evidence that some of the important patterns of UFO events have occurred consequent to their popularisation in fictional accounts. The first association of UFOs with power blackouts occurs in a novel entitled Twilight Bar written in 1933, and the first reference to UFO effects on a car’s ignition system was also made in a novel published in 1950, well before the first major wave of car stoppage reports in the French wave of 1954. (20)

Whether these fictional accounts are coincidental or whether they were even incorporated in the UFO myth before real events occured is a matter for debate. If the phenomenon does in fact draw upon the myth – our perceptions and cultural representation of that phenomenon – then it either raises strong doubts about the physical external nature of the phenomenon, or, it brings us into the unattractive research position that the subject of our study responds to or even anticipates our observations!

The crux of the problem is succinctly stated in a reference by Hynek from one of Peter Usinov’s plays: “You mean they know we know that they know we know?” (21)


This article provides a conceptual framwork for the analysis of UFO evidence that hopefully will foster further inter-disciplinary interest in research on the UFO question. It is hoped that the few research proposals suggested as examples within will spark interest and generate other proposals from informed parties, so that when the eventual day comes that scientists are able to sit down and address the UFO problem with a respectable operating budget, a good outline exists for a plan of attack.


  1. See for example Billy Smith’s schematic chart and accompanying article in MUFOB NS 6, pp. 13-14 (Spring 1977). Also, Ray Stanford’s Journal of Instrumented UFO Research, shows some good examples of the sophisticated and expensive electronic gear that has been purchased to capture physical evidence.
  2. Bardley Earl Ayers, ‘The UFO Investigator: Reporter or Researcher?’ Proceedings of the 1976 CUFOS Conference (henceforth CUFOS 1973) pp. 11- 14.
  3. Grinspoon & Persky, ‘Psychiatry and UFO Reports’, UFO: A Scientific Debate, pp.233-246. Cornell University Press, 1972.
  4. Benton Jamison, ‘Some Proposals: Modest. Immodest and maybe Fundable’. CUFOS, 1976.
  5. Ron Westrum. ‘Knowing About UFOs’, MUFOB n.s.5 amd 6. (Winter 1976, Spring 1977)
  6. J Allen Hynek, The Hynek UFO Report.
  7. Fred Merritt, ‘A Preliminary Classification of some reports of UFOs based on shape and dimensions of imprint patterns. CUFOS 1976.
  8. V-J Ballester Olmos. ‘Are UFO Sightings Related to Population. CUFOS, 1976.
  9. Ann Slate, ‘Interview with Dr David R Saunders. Saga UFO Report. December 1976.
  10. David R Saunders, ‘A Spatio-temporal Invariant for Major UFO Waves ‘, CUFOS 1976.
  11.  Irving S Anderson, ‘The Periodicity of Flaps’ CUFOS 1976.
  12.  Ann Slate. op. cit.
  13. Mircsa Eliade, Myth and Reality (1953)
  14. Benton Jamison, op. cit., p.126.
  15. John Rimmer ‘The UFO as as Anti-scientific Symbol’, MUFOB 2,4, 1969.
  16. See e.g. Robert Bloch & David Taylor ‘Salvation in a UFO”, Psychology Today, October 1976; and Leo Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails.
  17. Jacques Vallée. Passport to Magonia, pp.160-161. (Regnerey, 1969).
  18. Jacques Vallss, ibid., p.111.
  19. Loren Gross, Charles Fort, the Fortean Society and UFOs, (1976).
  20. Jacques Vallss, op. cit., p.169.
  21. J A Hynek & J Vallee, The Edge of Reality.


A Newspaper Looks at the Airship.
Paul Screeton

Paul Screeton was a journalist with The Mail Hartlepool, the paper which, as the Northern Daily Mail in the period concerned, published a variety of reports which have been assessed for this article. Originally published in MUFOB new series 11, summer 1978


An elusive airship was attracting attention in early 1909; and after a period of arrant scepticism, belief was gaining ground that the rumours had substance.

In addition to a news item listing places in the south-east where the phantom dirigible had been sighted, there was a leading article on May 14th entitled:


“A theory has been advanced to me in explanation of the mysterious airship which has been seen flying in the neighbourhood of Peterborough. It is that the War Office has succeeded in constructing a really efficient airship and is experimenting with it in the dark to keep its existence and capacity secret.”

The next day a Berlin correspondent of the Daily Express reported that German expert opinion held that it was ascending from a German warship in the North Sea, upon which it landed again after each flight. Another report in that issue notes that during movement of troops in Gyppeswky Park, Ipswich, “the other night”, it was seen frequently. It was said to be oblong, making a noise like a motor car, moving at great speed and carrying a searchlight. So far only one farmer had seen it in daylight, but its nocturnal activity was considerable.

On May 17th the Chief Constable of Northamptonshire had investgated a PC’s report and decided it was “a balloon carrying lighted Chinese lanterns”, ie, a hoax.

‘An Irish Vision’ was the headline for the report of an airship seen over Belfast moving towards the Irish Sea – and interestingly a brilliant light was observed in the sky shortly afterwards. Such phenomena never exist in isolation, and an editorial column on May 19th linked two seemingly disparate mysterious activities:


“While some of us have been wasting our time and emotions over phantom airships and elusive airplanes, a method of invasion more sure and deadly is, perhaps, going on under our feet. A letter arrived today stating thus: While crossing from Hamburg on Saturday night, my interest and suspicions were aroused by hearing sounds of what I judged to be subterranean excavation while passing over one of the shallows to the north-west of the Dutch coast. The sounds were quite like running drills and were very audible, as the sea was quiet and calm. This information I volunteer in order the Government may sake inquiries into the matter.”

That same day the paper reported a night sighting of a broad cigar-shape, making a whistling sound and lit by two lights, over Cardiff.

This incident’s developments were reported the next day in the famous Caerphilly Mountain incident, involving Mr Lethbridge and the fur-coated ‘foreigners’. The Northern Daily Mail’s account of the incident concludes, “He was frightened, and so seemingly were the foreigners, for they jabbered loudly, jumped into the scareship (sic) and sailed off.”

A journalist was taken to the encounter site and marks were found on the ground. Slips of newspapers found on the spot show that almost all contained references to airships of the German Army. There was also a red label with instructions written in French, and a military term on it is called a “sinister touch” by the correspondent, noting that it would have been more impressive had it been in German.Yet looking book retrospectively over almost seventy years a number of aspects are month comment here:

  • Another Lethbridge, T C Lethbridge, was to involve himself in authorship of books on unorthodox subjects for an academic: ancient religion, dowsing, ESP, and even the ancient astronaut hypothesis.
  • In 1909 Mr Lethbridge of Wales was a Punch and Judy showman just as today Britain’s most controversial monster-hunter Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels, is a stage magician and puppeteer.
  • More significantly, just as at the Scoriton, Devon, landing involving Arthur Bryant and ‘Yamski’, baffling material appeared (and at other CEIII sites). And note the stronger French, rather than German connection.
  • The ‘foreigners’ were working on their machine and mechanical repairs have been a feature of many UFO incidents, perhaps to suggest a nuts and bolts function.
  • Another part of the account repeats the liklihood of the object being released from a steamer in the Bristol Channel, so paralleling the later notion of flying saucers coming from motherships.
  • In addition to tales of other sightings in that day’s paper there was a note of War Office action and its impounding of an object – an air-ship fender supposedly – found the day after an airship flow over Great Clacton. Here we have the shadow of military intervention with witnesses and removal of an artifact.

After such massive publicity, May 21st was no disappointment to readers either. A football shaped object speedily crossed Dublin Bay despite no wind, and a cyclist reported that near Dublin he saw a cigar-shaped object with two lights in front.

At which point enter Percival Spencer’s theory. He owned a company manufacturing airships. Within the past year he could trace two five-man airships sold to a firm in the eastern counties, and another to a man in Cardiff (where the publicised sightings were made. Conveniently or not, Mr Spencer took the opportunity to broadcast that for £250 he could provide more such machines.

More dampening followed with the announcement by the Admiralty that the ‘airship fender’ was one of their gun targets, used in practice, which had become detached, and credibility took another knock with a piece from the Cowes (IOW) correspondent of the Daily Chronicle:

“I have interviewed today a prominent official of the Isle of slight county asylum who expressed the opinion that the mysterious airship was a myth of supposed eyewitnesses who were bordering on ‘aviation insanity’. It is a nightly occurence that the inmates insist they see airships racing around the asylum and will describe their appearance in graphic terms. They are always accompanied by lights and a whirring mound.”

At which point the ‘sinister’ label takes a knock:

“The red label bearing an instruction in French which might have referred to the use of a motor tyre valve has been recognised by the Michelin company as a label attached to a brass pin which is affixed to the inner tube of their motor car tyres. The word ‘obus’ which is French for shrapnel also means valve plug. This disposes of the supposed significance of the discoveries made on the spot where the airship was seen.”

Nevertheless reports were made that day of a Monmouthshire sighting, and for several nights residents of Small Heath Birmingham had seen an airship, believing a local inventor was making trial trips.

Starting with the words “A sensation was created in the neighbourhood of Dunstable…” a report tells us on may 26th that a bamboo framework, powerful lamps and other wreckage was found plus a document stating that any finder would be paid £5. Upon sending a telegram the airship wreckage was removed, and the airship was said to belong to the British agents of a continental motor company and used for advertising purposes.

But the same issue of the Northern Daily Mail includes a piece entitled “Wearside Resident’s Story”. It seems to echo the phenomenon of wished for occurances happening to meet a psychological need:

“Sunderland people have of late had grievance because of the absence of airships which would insist on hovering over their district.
This feeling of injury has, however, now been removed since that section known as Southwick had yesterday an airship story of its own to gossip about. But in no jocular spirit are those who swear they saw the flying machine.”

This light in the sky had illumination radiating, and it chose to project it on a new Roman Catholic church above which it manouvered for three to four minutes before speeding off at tremendous speed. The stewardess of Southwick Club and others corroborated the account and said the noisy object was an airship with car.On June 5th an account of an airship over Jarrow Slake, on Tyneside, recorded “at times the object would be motionless and aj;. others would dart in different directions” (hardly dirigible behaviour).


By June 14th the paper was disclaiming the mystery of the Tyneside appearance, and said that a company was making experimental flights with the airship. True to form, someone came up with an all-encompassing bid to nix the tale and take personal credit. A Dr M B Boyd claimed that he had spent eight years perfecting his airship, though it had only been built for one year. The report however fails to answer most points, some of the discrepancies being:

  • Average speed 32 mph, so no fast disappearance.
  • Oval, rather than cigar shaped.
  • No car suspended
  • It had wheels so that on the ground it could be driven like a motor car
  • Although the arclight had been invented in the 19th century, searchlights of the type required extremely heavy equipment, and the only lights that could be used on an airship were dim, incandescent ones incapable of creating the extent of illumination claimed.

Dr Boyd’s claims are reminiscent of the self-proclaimed inventor from Worcester, Massachussetts, who became the focus of many press stories on the 1909 US flap, described in John Keel’s Operation Trojan Horse. Tillinghast boasted of taking his invention at least 300 miles non-stop at 120 mph. An early investigative reporter found fourteen men working at a secret shed near Worcester, Mass. but he was unable to confirm or deny the presence of an airship. Keel propounds an ingenious explanation involving an encounter between Tillinghast and ultraterrestsials. I prefer not to comment on this, but merely note the interesting comparison between the parallel mystery inventor tales documented by newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic.

All we know is that something was going on, and being reported as faithfully as the journalists of their day knew how.

Transformation of Ufology, part 2.
A look behind the scenes
Matt Graeber

<<< Continued from Part One

(e-mails from the Ufological upper crust) 

Let’s see what the ‘List’ and the lLeaders’ have to say about this growing internet UFO group phenomenon in their midst. How do they feel about their own organizations dwindling membership, declining journal subscriptions and public appeal in the age of the internet saucer-hucksters? (I have changed the names of the e-mail writer’s on this topic to avoid embarrassing the complacent and/or woefully inattentive). Most e-mail entries cited herein have been capsulized and edited by the author. Additional comments byme in italics.

Matt Graeber to Albert Benson, (a pseudonym) 12/12/2005

Albert, I’m wondering if the list members would be willing to post something on the growing internet presence of the Wisconsin group ( BUFO), that is attempting to” Turn” the Carbondale hoax of 1974 into another Roswell-like incident. There seems to be a rash of crash and non-crash saucer stories that are being promoted as Roswell-like events. If the list would log on to “carbondale,pa. ufo crash”, they can see for themselves how outlandish the yarn has become.

Mr Benson did contact his friends and colleagues on the list concerning the request. Here are several of the replies he received on the matter.

From Rick Yost to Albert Benson & the list: 12/16/2005

Hey Al,

“Particularly the ectoplasm and orbs they found at the portal”….

“The Carbondale crash was first promoted by the late flying saucer evangelist Robert D. Barry. He was PR man for the late right wing preacher Dr Carl McIntire’s 20th Century Reformation Hour ministry. Barry operated its one man press arm. He later had a weekly Saturday midnight TV show, “ET Monitor” on McIntire’s TV station.” They are both passed, now, but looks like other nuts are milking it.”

“By the way, Barry was the first one to report in 1989, about the same time same sort of claims were first made about Roswell, that the Kecksburg PA crash involved the recovery of alien bodies. He later withdrew that claim as an error, which was a surprise to me since I don’t think Bob ever heard a UFO story he didn’t like.” 

I wonder how many young saucer enthusiasts ever heard of the Reverend Carl McIntire or, knew that the Roswell story didn’t include alien bodies until 42 years after the incident was first reported?
Albert Benson to Rick Yost & the list: 12/16/2005

Rick, I’m not talking about Kecksburg, but the Carbondale hoax of 1974. If you are interested to find out more about this blatant nonsense, log on to <carbondale,pa. ufo crash>, and check out the buffoonery at any BUFO site or link. Those pushing this hoax as ” Pennsylvania’s Roswell” are without doubt in need of an urgent reality check”.

To Albert Benson, Rick Yost & the list from Scott Morris a major UFO group leader: 12/16/2005

” My observation of Barry, who used to write regularly for Saga and its UFO magazine, was than nearly everything he said – excluding perhaps banal observations about the weather – could be automatically discarded. Too bad that one of his tall tales is still with us.”

I think the people who log on to the Carbondale UFO crash site should be alerted to this observation by one of Ufology’s major group leaders and long-time researchers.

From Albert Benson to the list 12/17/2005

” It’s bad enough that the bizarre crowd at BUFO ( Burlington UFO & Paranormal Radio) is pushing the Carbondale hoax of 1974 as a genuine occurrence, but they’re not content to confine their idiocy to that alone. Now they’re involved in an internet fantasy asserting that the little town of Olyphant PA. which is located about six miles from Scranton, is situated at the “centre of the universe” and modelled after ancient Egypt by alien race! This would almost be funny if it weren’t for the fact that for the uninformed public and the media, this is what passes for the face of Ufology.”

Albert Benson continues,

“And this type of crap only makes it more difficult to convince the scientific community that the UFO phenomenon is a real mystery that merits the most serious investigation on their part.”

Scott Morris replies on 12/18/2005

Al,” I agree that this is pretty dumb, but it doesn’t amount to anything consequential, much less a problem with scientists. My experience is that scientists who are so willing are perfectly able to separate Ufology’s sensible claims from the absurd ones. Scientists who are hostile simply use the latter as an excuse not to bother with the more substantive issues. Hard as it may be for some to believe, not all Ufologist’s problems are Ufologist’s fault.”

“The Carbondale silliness is perhaps worth noting, but nothing to get worked up about. UFOs and Ufology were long ago relegated to the fringes, and something relegated, even if unjustly, is going to attract fringe types. Surely, we have better things to do with our time than to waste it with ritual denunciations of the many nut jobs and liars who are out there, and have always been out there. They’re certainly an irritation, but they’re also no more than a sideshow.” 

Yet another valuable observation that is limited to the list membership. Scott is correct to point out that the list has far better things to do with it’s time than denounce the internet kooks…However, one wonders ” What might they do that they haven’t already done over the course of the last sixty years?
From Tim Connolly (a list member) to Albert Benson & the list: 12/18/2005

“At least this kind of thing provides fodder for ” Ufology-ology”, which consists of remote-viewing history texts which will be written on distant planets in the future of a parallel universe. 

Egads, more material for BUFO to promote!
Joel Simpson (a list member) chimes in: 12/18/2005

“Watch any established field on investigation ( nutrition, astronomy, genetics, linguistics, etc.) and you’ll always find the same sort of nuts looking for attention, and a great deal of confusion in the media…..” I agree with Tom that the tern “Ufology” as understood by the world at large ( not just by us) covers every conceivable aspect of modern culture, from Bermuda Triangles to flying lights, crystal skulls, dogu statuettes, Uri Geller, exobiology and Nostradamus. I’d rather avoid using it. When asked I certainly never say I research UFOs, and usually mumble something about “A strong interest in cataloguing unidentified phenomena recorded throughout history. 

I fully understand Joel’s embarrassment, and it’s too bad that those visiting BUFO/Carbondale sites and links are not privy to his insightful and candid remarks.

 I would also like to point out that Ufology is not actually an established field of investigation, rather, it is an investigative (and occasionally obsessional) hobby that has produced little if any evidence to verify the physical presence of UFOs in our skies. I certainly wouldn’t put it up there with Astronomy or Genetics, etc. 

 * * * * *

Baseless rumours and distortions that are left unchecked foster beliefs, expectations, fears and suspicions that not only are completely unwarranted, they are dangerous too

So, the question arises, why should the serious UFO researchers feel obligated to point out the absurdities, inconsistencies, contradictions and the fabrications of the many internet saucer zealots, charlatans and hucksters? The answer is quite simple. Not to do so is a failing of character, ethics and moral compass that would serve to protect the unsuspecting and the ill-informed from the distortion of repeatedly reading and hearing about, and finally accepting as true, the suspicions, fabrications and “delusions” that have been bandied about and thrust upon them via the net regarding the true nature of the phenomenon.

For baseless rumours and distortions that are left unchecked foster beliefs, expectations, fears and suspicions that not only are completely unwarranted, they are dangerous too. I’ve read lies about the character and professional efforts of an acting police chief who diligently worked shoulder-to-shoulder with UFO field investigators during the Carbondale PA incident of ’74, while also managing to professionally serve and protect his community, the many volunteers and the policemen under his supervision at the site.

Only to have his name and efforts dragged through the BUFOrian muck and malicious fabrications about him by internet saucer-hucksters like Mary Sutherland, and her investigator Ronald T. Hannivig who not only never met or interviewed the acting police chief, they were not even present at the scene while the incident was being investigated in 1974.

Yet, these same self-appointed experts also alleged that the acting police chief (Francis X. Dottle), wantonly participated in a cover up of the incident by tossing bogus evidence into a pond. They even went so far as to post the malicious remark that this fine public servant was not then (At the time of the incident), nor is he now, a friend of the people in the community he served.

These silly fabrications appeared at the <http://carbondale,pa.ufo crash> site which you may log on to and read for yourself. I ask, is it really inconsequential that a man’s reputation be besmirched by individuals who may be totally deluded and lacking any scruples? Should serious UFOlogists continually turn a blind eye to this sort of behaviour and self-serving promotional propaganda because it might be unpleasant, beneath their dignity and embarrassing to deal with?

Is it not shameful to remain silent and allow this sort of chicanery to infect the minds of young and elderly ill-informed people who search the net for reliable information on the phenomenon? I’ve even received two e-mail forwards from a researcher in which the communiqués sender claims that one internet huckster is involved in fraudulent online business practices and directly involved in the suicide death of a teenage group member.

Naturally, there are two sides (or more) to every story, so I’m currently attempting to learn and verify more about the matter. I’ll report my findings in a future Carbondale Chronicles entry for those who are interested in this rather shocking and sad story.

Is there not a lesson to be learned in the fact, that few European politicians and intellectuals of the day took the national socialist movement in Germany very serious when it first came on the political scene. So, impressionable young people, far too young to remember who Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill were, sit at their computer’s keyboard and unwittingly log on to saucer-huckster sites who are like sharks lurking in the internet’s waters for careless surfers to happen their way.

Interestingly, my grandson’s high school French teacher recently told me that 65-70% of his students thought that Germany had attacked Pearl Harbor in 1965 or 67. So, should the serious UFO researchers simply assume that this kind of historical ignorance is limited to today’s high school students? How could serious ufologists be so blind (and passive) as to believe that their not setting the record straight on the chicanery and many lies about the UFO enigma is matter of little or no consequence? If that’s the case, why the hell do they even bother to research the phenomenon at all?

If one thinks it’s silly to compare the absurd online UFO propaganda to that of the Nazi’s, one might do well to recall that well over fifty percent of the adult voting population of this country believe in the ‘reality’ of UFOs and would probably support a candidate who shared in their saucer enthusiasm. Perhaps a candidate who would simply promise to release any and all government papers on UFOs could win a close election, especially if that candidate were also a popular entertainment or sports celebrity.

So, while the studious UFO researcher’s utilize the same internet technology to e-mail pithy and complimentary notes for each others enjoyment, and an occasional pat on the back- many youthful UFO enthusiasts slip into the jaws of the saucer-hucksters deception, delusions, lies and distortions. In fact, in some cases they may even be gobbled up by a hucksters chronic, habitual and/or pathological lying.

But, the rub lies not in exposing the internet huckster(s) as a blemish on the face of Ufology.. it lies in the fact that many serious UFO researchers and organization leaders themselves have participated in their own brand of saucer-huckstering over the years (directly and indirectly- unwittingly and consciously). Moreover, calling attention to the speck in the eye of an internet huckster might provoke a response from the debunkers about the beam in the eye of the UFO organization and/or its leadership.

So, it seems that the boundaries between the proponent UFO camps are not very well defined any longer. There once was a sharp line between the organized groups and the kooky contactee movement. Now it just seems that some of the saucer group leaders and experts are more eloquent spokesman, (a.k.a. Classier salesman) than the internet throng. Yet all seem to be well-versed in the art of putting a particular “Spin” on a UFO incident or the phenomenon in general.

Considering that the organized groups have been doing so for almost 60 years, does point to a habitual behaviour pattern, especially since that pattern of behaviour has produced absolutely no incontrovertible evidence or data concerning the phenomenon’s true nature or origin.

What we have is a great deal of speculative fantasy, which stems not from hard spikes discovered in an objective database but, all-too-human wants, needs and desires concerning the phenomenon’s assumed importance and meaningfulness to mankind, and the equally-assumptive importance of the researcher’s own investigative efforts.

This near-obsessional behaviour pattern was first established by the baby-boomer ” Nuts and Bolts” school of Ufology which is presently on the verge of extinction. The bare bones of their contribution to Ufology will be that they successfully managed to dangle a promised carrot before the noses of the American public, the media and themselves for six decades.

It was they who pampered, endured and invited the hucksters of Ancient Astronaut tales and Bermuda Triangle yarns to their conventions and symposia. They even participated in the proliferation of Saucer-Crash Fantasies and the Abduction Mania. They did all this to promote membership numbers, draw larger crowds to their conventions, make book deals and seek increased journal subscriptions.

One asks, how much ‘objective researching’ is to be found in these business pursuits? ( e.g., what percentage of the monies collected actually went for research, after operating costs and salaries for the group’s top brass were siphoned away?) Moreover, if the internet hucksters are following in the path of the old guard with better and far more dynamic internet UFO presentations to entice the curious and the gullible, is that not but an extension of the sins of UFOlogists past?

The sociologists and folklorists of the future will look back upon the late 20th and early 21st.century’s transformation of Ufology into an “unbridled” entertainment industry (or “UFOOLogy” as it is more accurately described) and realize that the two terms differ only in the addition of one vowel. Ufology is no longer, nor has it ever truly been a purely pseudoscientific pursuit – it has blossomed into a full-blown sub cultural entertainment industry that has profound romantic appeal within our youthful society. Its roots lie in America, which Dr Carl G. Jung once called the land of science fiction and fantasy – but the American UFO malaise is now becoming a pandemic that has spared throughout the entire planet through the world wide web.

The fossil remains of it all will point to a mid-20th century belief in the existence of and pursuit of phantoms of the skies. 21st century UFOOlogy will probably seek out the phantoms through paranormal or spiritually-based investigative avenues, assumptions and beliefs – some of which may be serious, while most will probably be pure humbug. However, the answer will always seem to lie just beyond their grasp, around the next corner, over the next hill. (Much like the nuts and bolts camp’s carrot).

Such is the nature of true phantoms; they antagonise, mesmerize and befuddle the blind man who senses their presence but, can offer no definitive description of them.. except for hearing the curious beating of their wings and catching a faint whiff of their fleeting presence. Could it be that UFOs are modern man’s harpies?

The pantheon of UFO experts will continue to come and go, along with the parade of witnesses and the few remaining organized saucer groups. The UFOs however, will persist and endure the many ups and downs of UFOOlogical fantasy, theorizing, speculation and assumption – and in time, a new generation will take up the quest and start swinging their white canes at the fleeting phantoms. Could it possibly be that the canes will always be far too short, and the answer to the riddle of the UFOs will simply remain beyond our physical and mental grasp?

Example No.5 (UFOs from inner-space?)

Perhaps in some strange way “the UFOs are but a reflection of ourselves”, as James Moseley suggests – aimlessly flitting about like the modern man’s hopes, fears and aspirations on the phenomenon. Perhaps our ancestors were better equipped to assimilate these “signs in the skies”, for in their lifetimes things like these aerial displays were not only anticipated and readily interpreted, they were actually prayed for.

Have we somehow lost touch with the facility of mind that once fostered beliefs in visions, portents, divine warnings and angels yet, search the skies to once again experience? Or is it all just a growing new age mysticism and religiosity appearing in the guise of technological marvels that homotechnos currently beholds in awe, wonder and masked reverence?

Has the emotional and spiritual nature of our inner being been schooled out of us by the customs, demands and the technological advancements of modern-day living? Indeed, does everyone really think that such powerful human emotions would simply dry up and blow away because it was no longer chic or, politically correct to speak of them?

The organized group elites may scoff at such thoughts, in the same manner which they scoff at the internet huckster movement in their midst. They seem to have an overly confident Col. George Armstrong Custer attitude about what they perceive to be nothing more than a small hostile encampment that they “look down upon” from their lofty UFO research headquarters. However, their status in saucerdom, with the press, the entertainment media and the American public’s focus of interest is most assuredly headed for UFOOLogy’s happy hunting grounds.

– Matt Graeber


Gill Again, Part Two.
Magonia readers reply, and Martin Kottmeyer responds

These responses to Martin Kottmeyer’s article Gill Again, appeared in Magonia 55, March 1996

Sketch of the Gill UFO by Stephen Gill Moi (left), Ananais Rarata (centre), and Dulcie Guyorobo (right)


Dear Editor,

It was so reassuring to be told by Martin Kottmeyer that although the Gill case is “an impressive anomaly”, it is “of course not impressive enough to make me believe in visiting extraterrestrials”. After all, we would not want the armchair readers of Magonia to be disturbed in their complacent view that everything can be explained by recourse to the social sciences and folklore.

But my confidence in Kottmeyer faltered when I saw that although he mentions Cruttwell twice he does not seem to have consulted the Rev. Norman Cruttwell’s exhaustive investigation of the Papua and New Guinea sightings of 1958 – 59, for if he had he would have realised that the Gill sightings of the 26th and 27th June were but two of over seventy reported UFOs during the wave, which ranged from lights in the sky to seemingly structured solid objects.

It would be disappointing if Magonia were to be no different from all those other UFO magazines busy bolstering up the belief systems of `New Agers’, abductees, etc. all too willing to be economical with the facts when they don’t suit the dogma.I am still convinced that despite our growing sophistication concerning earth-lights, altered mental states, psychosocial forces etc., there is still a signal behind the noise that says that the most convincing explanation for the Gill case is that they all saw exactly what they said they saw up there.

In case anyone is interested the Rev. Cruttwell’s report was printed in full in Flying Saucer Review special issue number 4, published August 1971.

Yours sincerely, Michael Buhler, London E.l.

Dear Sir, 

I read with great interest Martin Kottmeyer’s article about the sightings of Father Gill of Papua New Guinea (Magonia 54). Let me bring forward some comments.

The elevation of the phenomenon is perhaps the major pitfall of the boat hypothesis. Note that Father Gill stated the following: “Venus was in its proper place, and then further up, more or less overhead, was another Venus” (Basterfield, p.21). By the way, another mention can be found in the text omitted in one of Kottmeyer’s quotations (paragraph taken from reference 17 in Magonia, page 13). The missing fragment reads “Well, why not wave to people up there? So we did.”

Concerning the location of Giwa and Boianai, I am not sure that Kottmeyer has it right for I have seen these places located differently in other articles. Is there a Magonia reader with good enough cartography as to settle the matter? [Editor's comment: The map was taken from the Readers' Digest World Atlas]

Finally it would be interesting to take a closer look at the details of the drawings and the circumstances in which they were made. We are told that the witnesses did the sketches independently. But why are the drawings of Rarata and Guyorobo so similar? And what about the way the witnesses choose to represent the upper shaft of light so conventionally with a broken line?

Has it any relevance that the object depicted by Father Gill is literally a `flying saucer’ while the sketches of Rarata and Guyorobo seem to be more akin to the spaceship of Adamski? By the way, is there any clue as to what the three rods on top of Rarata’s and Guyorobo’s drawings mean? Light rays? People? Aerials?

Yours faithfully,

Manuel Borraz Aymerich, L’Hospitalet, Barcelona

 Dear John

Martin Kottmeyer’s articles are usually watertight, but his explanation of the Father Gill sighting as a boat at sea springs too many leaks to float:

1. The UFO of June 27 was an all-terrain vehicle, crossing both land and sea. Though most descriptions are unclear, Rev. Gill said in a talk, four months after the event that the object “wandered over the sky a bit”. passed behind a hill, came back, then “shot right across the bay” (Keith Basterfield, An in depth review of Australasian UFO related entity reports p.27). Allan Hendry’s illustration (UFO Handbook p.274) approved by Rev. Gill, shows the UFO over land during the waving incident.

2. Even assuming gross error and the ‘UFO’ really was a boat, it had to lie close to shore. Gill’s distance estimate of 300-400 feet suits the proportions of the beings in his illustration, if they are of average height, and a location in the northwest or west assures that the boat stayed close to the westward-running shoreline. The sea is not a lake and seldom becomes mirror-smooth. A boat near to shore would have breakers and the unsettled weather of a night with intermittent rain to spoil the illusion of doubling or a false horizon.

3. Why would a squid-fishing boat work the shallow waters of a bay, if the purpose of the bright lights is to lure squid from the depths?

4. The most important point is that the UFOs were clearly seen in the sky. Gill describes the craft appearing above Venus, and Hendry (p.134) cites a 45-degree angle of elevation during the waving episode. Even allowing for a great deal of error in angle estimates, the witnesses would have to be remarkably disoriented to mistake a horizontal for an elevated line of sight. On the 27th it was not even dark, and given a background of shore and mountains two miles away to the west, opportunities for disorientation were minimal. The witnesses knew they were looking up.

Too many irreconcilable facts scuttle the boat theory.

Thomas E. Bullard, Bloomington, Indiana

 Dear Sir

Despite my long-standing admiration for Martin Kottmeyer, I must challenge his inadequate characterisation of my views on the Rev. Gill New Guinea UFO case of 1959 in his article in your November issue. According to Kottmeyer, “Klass suggested it was a hoax”. A more accurate characterization, as detailed in my book UFOs explained is that I believe the incident was a practical joke that went astray.

Gill’s associate, Reverend Norman Cruttwell had become very interested in UFOs and had been named an official UFO observer in New Guinea for Flying Saucer Review. Crutwell asked his other missionary associates in New Guinea to assist by reporting local UFO sightings and many did so promptly. But it was almost six months before Gill reported his first UFO sighting to Crutwell, who gently chided Gill for not being more attentive.
On the night of June 26, 1959, Gill reported sighting a bright light in the sky around 6:45 p.m. and he reported that he and some natives spent more than four hours observing this UFO and what appeared to be human-like creatures atop it. The next night around 6 p.m., the natives alerted Gill that the UFO had returned and he joined them on the beach. As Gill later reported to Cruttwell, they could see human-like figures on the UFO. Gill reported that when he waved at one of the creatures, “the figure did the same”. Soon the UFO appeared to be approaching the shore, as if it were going to land.

What an exciting moment that must have been – perhaps Gill and his native friends would be the first Earthlings to shake hands with extraterrestrials! But then, according to Gill, “at 6:30 p.m., I went to dinner”. ETs could wait, the ‘inner man’ needed to be fed. At 7 p.m. Gill returned to the beach, but now the UFO had moved away and so he departed for church services.

Gill reporting these exciting events to Cruttwell in a letter that began: “Dear Norman: Here is a lot of material – the kind you have been waiting for, no doubt; but I am in some ways sorry that it has to be me who supplies it. Attitudes at Dogura in respect of my sanity vary greatly, and like all mad men, I myself think my grey cells are O.K…:”

It is my view that Gill was pulling Cruttwell’s leg, and never suspected that Cruttwell would take his fantastic (for the 1959 era) tale seriously. Once Cruttwell had publicized Gill’s story, it would be awkward for Gill to admit that he never dreamed that his associate would be so credulous. I do not believe that Gill intentionally created a hoax tale to try to embarrass his good friend and associate.

Sincerely Philip J. Klass, Washington, D.C.

In Magonia 57, September 1996, Kottmeyer replies to his critics:

Looks like I have some objections to deal with. Let’s start with Bullard’s four points.

1.  Bullard asserts that the UFO of June 27 was an all-terrain vehicle, crossing not just sea but land as well, the latter being inconsistent with a ship. In the talk some four months after the encounter the object “wandered over the sky a bit”, passed behind a hill, came back, then “shot right across the bay”In the original report these quoted behaviours are not associated with the events of the 27th, but the 26th. The wandering behaviour was reported in association with all the UFOs, and sounds consistent with autokinesis. In saying the object shot across the bay the original report adds, “It diminished to a pinpoint and vanished” which suggests the motion was not across the field of vision but along the line of sight. This vanishing would have involved speeds of thousands of miles per hour, but “there was no sound”, i.e. no sonic boom. This probably proves the interpretation was wrong. The description seems suggestive of the light just meeting the horizon as the boat was dropping below the curvature of the Earth. The closest thing I can find to something passing behind a hill in the original report refers to events in the 8:35 entry: “Another one over Wadobuna village”. (Seers, p.47) Cruttwell describes it as an object that “swooped up and away over the mountains”, (p.52) As the word ‘another’ indicates, this is not the same object that had the figures walking around on top of it.

The artist’s depiction of the object over land in Hendry’s Handbook was approved by Gill, but this may only indicate that he was satisfied the UFO was drawn correctly, The drawings in the original report are not framed by reference points in the locale of the observations, nor are there any verbal references to the object with the figures ever being seen over land.

2. Seas rarely are mirror-smooth, but I am not asking for miracles. Consider the miracle implicit in the assumption that Americans actually had silent flying platforms on manoeuvres in Papua in 1959. Consider the miracle of an alien vessel crewed by humans gratuitously levitating over the water for hours with no visible propulsion, no disturbance in the water beneath it attracting attention, and no deafening noise.

I suspect the postulated light-to-calm wind conditions necessary for the illusion may be reflected in a curious little detail that caught my attention in re-reading the report. Gill indicated there was a glow about the craft with figures. “The glow did not touch them, but there appeared a little space between their outline and the light”. (Seers, p.50) This is less mysterious than it first reads. What I believe is happening here is that exhaust was forming a cloud of smoke to the side of the boat and the light from the centre of the deck was casting shadows forward onto the cloud. Wind conditions would have to be minimal or the exhaust would have dispersed quickly. For a sharp thin space to be present the cloud had to be close and not enveloping the crew itself, making it unlikely the cloud was meteorological in origin.

3. I confess I know too little about squid to argue about whether or not they avoid shallow waters. Any squidologists out there in our readership?

4. Bullard quotes Hendry as giving an elevation of 45 degrees during the waving episode. Hendry was not quoting Gill in that passage. It is a blatant mistake. He was confusing the angle made by the blue beam of light with the angular elevation, In the IUR report Gill’s estimate was only 30 degrees. Bullard would inevitably reiterate that this is still much too high. I would agree if we could trust its accuracy. There is however no angular elevation in the field notes or Cruttwell’s report. This detail emerges first in the lUR re-interview and this makes it a decades-old memory. Even outside the issues of reliability of such memories, angular elevations are generally very inaccurate. Ask people to point to the mid-point between the zenith and the horizon and they don’t point at 45 degrees but down around 30 or 20 degrees and, rarely, even as low as 12 degrees. (Minnaert, pp.153-4)

One point of clarification: Bullard uses the word disorientation in describing the illusion I propose. In general usage this is thought to be synonymous with vertigo and I just want it understood that I don’t assert the involvement of vertigo.

Aymerich’s point about Gill saying the object was above Venus is a more substantial objection. If one regards the observation as infallible, then there is no ready explanation for it that I would risk offering. The observation is not in Gill’s field notes and is not signed onto by the other witnesses. It thus comes down to one man’s word. As such it is vulnerable to the standard doubts about memory (See Drake’s remark about the rapid decay of accuracy of memory encountered in investigating meteor reports in Sagan & Taves, p.254). It may involve a transpositional error or an unintentionally leading question like what Elizabeth Loftus found in her investigations of memory. There are other possibilities. I concede in advance there are no independent grounds for affirming Gill made such an error. Acceptance of the possibility hinges on how much one wants a solution or how much one wants the case to remain a mystery.

Acknowledging their oddness, I share Aymerich’s interest in wanting to know what those three rods drawn by Guyorobo and Rarata are.

Buhler proclaims his faith that the most convincing explanation for the Gill case is that they saw what they saw. Did he notice that Gill said he saw “a strange new devicee of you Americans”?  This isn’t a problem for you?

If I am guilty of sins of omission, let me reply that my critics are not innocents either. None take up the challenge to offer a better explanation. None acknowledge, let alone answer, the objections raised by the alternatives. Bullard wants a water-tight explanation which satisfies an absolute standard of correct vs. incorrect. None of the solutions advanced to date, even the fuzzy one of it being a part of the UFO phenomenon, squares perfectly in every detail. My failure to offer one is less a reflection of my incompetence than the intractability of the case itself. Frankly, I was simply trying to get an answer that floated better than the competition.

Buhler’s insinuation that I dodge uncomfortable details and ought to have discussed the other seventy plus cases in the Cruttwell report is to me a damn irksome thing to say. Can you show me any believer in the case who ever acknowledged any difficulties in their assumption this case involves an alien visitation or how different it is from all the other cases they hold dear? I am hardly alone in ignoring the rest of the report. Some I suspect fear the implications it was part of a general hysteria, an assumption which would be strengthened if they assessed the very much lower quality of those other cases. For the record, I ignored them because I had my hands full with just the Gill case.


  • M. Minnaert. The Nature of Light and Colour in the Open Air, Dover, 1954.
  • Carl Sagan and Thornton Page. UFOs – A Scientific Debate, Norton Library, 1954.
  • Stan Seers. UFOs: the Case for Scientific Myopia, Vantage, 1983



Down to Earth – UFO Investigation 1897 Style. Nigel Watson

From Magonia 44, October 1992.

It is hard to believe but spaceships and odd flying machines are constantly crashing onto the surface of our planet. This unusual form of pollution is not a new phenomenon and it does not seem all that rare either. At best the operators of these aerial contraptions seem to be reckless and incompetent navigators of the air, but before we protest to the government for new legislation to crack down on these menaces we had better look at the evidence. 

One of the first incidents occurred in Peru, sometime in 1878. A person who described himself as “A Seraro, Chemist,” told the South Pacific Times of Callao, Peru, that he found a huge aerolite. After digging through several layers of mineral substance he arrived at an inner chamber. Inside this he found the dead body of a 4 1/2-foot tall alien and beside it was a silver plate that was inscribed with hieroglyphics. This writing indicated that the vehicle and its pilot had come from Mars. The New York Times repeated this story for the benefit of its readership but it regarded the story as a poor lie, because:

 Undoubtedly, the Peruvians mean well, and tell the best lies that they can invent. Indeed, it can be readily be perceived that the heart of the inventor of the aerolite story was in the right place, and that his faults were those of the head. The truth is that the Peruvians have never been systematically taught how to lie. Very probably, if they had our educational advantages, they would lie with intelligence and affect, and it is hardly fair for us … to despise the Peruvians for what is their misfortune, rather than their fault. (1,2,3,4.) 

A similar story, in La Capital, describes the discovery of an egg-shaped rock near the Carcarana River, Santa Fe, on 13 October 1877. (5) Two geologists, Paxton and Davis, drilled into this curiosity and found: 

some cavities inside the hard rock. In one of them the men saw several objects such as a white, metallic hole-ridden amphora-like jar with many hieroglyphics engraved on its surface. Under the floor of this cavity they discovered another one which contained a 39 inch (1.2 metre) tall mummifiedbody covered with a calciferous mass. (6,7.) 

According to Fabio Picasso a couple of trips to the site were made by ufologists in the late 1970s. They found some blocked off tunnels that might be hiding the object, though what happened to the alleged remains is unknown. Picasso traces this story back to the 17 June 1864 edition of La Pay which tells of a Paxton and Davis who made an identical discovery near Pic James, Arrapahaya province. (8) 

The idea of a crashed spaceship, with chambers containing the remains of a small ‘Martian’ pilot and artefacts inscribed with hieroglyphics, obviously is a hoax or tall story. Newspapers simply used it as a filler-item and did not take it seriously. 

The form of this story can be seen as the template for the famous Aurora crash case. As noted in more detail below it features a dead pilot and the obligatory hieroglyphics. Furthermore, we can see these historical cases as being templates for contemporary crash/retrieval cases. (9,10.) Since so much interest is being generated by the Roswell, crash case (the Fund for UFO Research has funded research into this case to the tune of at least 30,000 dollars), and by the British Rendlesham forest incident(s), we should at least be cautious of these tales in the light of this historical material. 

The alleged Aurora crash case took place during the American 1896-1897 airship scare at the village of Aurora, Texas. (11) The story was first revealed on page 5 of the 19 April 1897 edition of the Dallas Morning News. It was written by S.E. Haydon a part-time correspondent to the newspaper and a cotton buyer. Titled ‘A Windmill Demolishes It’ . The full text went on to say that at: 

Aurora, Wise County, Texas, April 17. — (To The News) — About 6 o’clock this morning the early risers of Aurora were astonished at the sudden appearance of the airship which has been sailing through the country.

It was travelling due north, and much nearer the earth than ever before. Evidently some of the machinery was out of order, for it was making a speed of only ten or twelve miles an hour and gradually settling toward the earth. It sailed directly over the public square, and when it reached the north part of town collided with the tower of judge Proctor’s windmill and went to pieces with a terrific explosion, scattering debris over several acres of ground, wrecking the windmill and water tank and destroying the judge’s flower garden.

The pilot of the ship is supposed to have been the only one on board, and while his remains are badly disfigured, enough of the original has been picked up to show that he was not an inhabitant of this world.

Mr. T.J. Weems, the United States signal service officer at this place and an authority on astronomy, gives it as his opinion that he was a native of the planet Mars.

Papers found on his person – evidently the records of his travels – are written in some unknown hieroglyphics, and can not be deciphered.

The ship was too badly wrecked to form any conclusion as to its construction or motive power. It was built of an unknown metal, resembling somewhat a mixture of aluminium and silver, and it must have weighed several tons.

The town is full of people to-day who are viewing the wreck and gathering specimens of the strange metal from the debris. The pilot’s funeral will take place at noon tomorrow. 

This explosive encounter was largely forgotten until 1966. Then Dr. Alfred E. Kraus, the Director of the Kilgore Research Institute of West Texas State University, made a couple of visits to the crash site. Using a metal detector he found some 1932 car license plates, some old stove lids, and a few horse-bridle rings. There was nothing to indicate that several tons of unusual metal was still lurking anywhere in the vicinity. 

In the same year Donald B. Hanlon and Jacques Vallee took an interest in the case. (12, 13.) As a result of this a friend of Dr. J. Allen Hynek visited the site. (14) He found that judge Proctor’s farm had been transformed into a small service station, which was owned by Mr. Brawley Oates. Although Mr. Oates was neutral in his opinion about the incident he did send the investigator to Mr. Oscar Lowery who lived in the nearby town of Newark. 

Mr. Lowery revealed that T.J. Weems the alleged ‘authority on astronomy’ had been Aurora’s blacksmith, Jeff Weems. Even more damning was the fact that Mr. Lowery, aged 11 years-old at the time of the crash, remembered nothing of the incident. Furthermore, there had never been a windmill on the site. So even if the spaceship had existed the windmill had not! Mr. Lowery’s conclusion was that the whole story had been created by Haydon. 

Undaunted Hynek’s investigator went to the cemetery where he thought the pilot might have been buried. This was scrupulously maintained by the Masonic Order, and none of their records mentioned any Martian grave. 

The story of the Aurora crash now seemed to be destined to rot in the obscurity of UFO investigators’ files. Not surprisingly, the case failed to remain buried for long. On 21 June 1972, Hayden C. Hewes, Director of the International UFO Bureau, Inc. (IUFOB), said that his organisation decided to:

  • Determine if the event did occur;
  • Locate any fragments;
  • Locate, if possible, the grave of the UFO astronaut. (15) 

This research fired Bill Case, an aviation writer for The Dallas Times Herald, into a frenzy of activity. Beginning in March 1973, he published a series of articles that created a worldwide interest in the case. 

In the very first article he quoted the previously reluctant crash site owner, Mr. Brawley Oates, as saying that he thought there was some substance to the story. Indeed, he said that in 1945 he had sealed a well that had been beneath the windmill. As he worked on this task he found several metal fragments. He said: 

The pieces were about the size of your fist. But we didn’t think and simply junked them. Later we capped the well and drilled a new one, then we built a brick wellhouse on the site.

Next to this was placed a chicken coop. Thus, this historic location was hidden in a very rustic disguise. 

By mid-1973 Bill Case had obtained three eyewitness accounts of the crash which Flying Saucer Review writer Eileen Buckle regarded as ‘the most convincing evidence that an unidentified flying object crashed at Aurora in 1897′. (16) 

At Lewisville Nursing Home, 98-year-old Mr. G.C. Curley’s memory of the event was obtained. His statement appeared in the 1 June edition of The Dallas Times Herald: 

We got the report early in Lewisville. Two friends wanted me to ride over to Aurora to see it. But I had to work. When they got back on horseback that night they told me the airship had been seen coming from the direction of Dallas the day before and had been sighted in the area. But no one knew what it was. They said it hit something near Judge Proctor’s well. The airship was destroyed and the pilot in it was badly torn up. My friends said there was a big crowd of sightseers who were picking up pieces of the exploded airship. But no one could identify the metal it was made of. We didn’t have metal like that in America at that time. And they said it was difficult to describe the pilot. They saw only a torn up body. They didn’t say people were frightened by the crash. They couldn’t understand what it was. 

Then, 91-year-old Mary Evans said in a UPI report: 

That crash certainly caused a lot of excitement. Many people were frightened. They didn’t know what to expect. That was years before we had any regular airplanes or other kind of airships. I was only about 15 at the time and had all but forgotten the incident until it appeared in the newspapers recently. We were living in Aurora at the time, but my mother and father wouldn’t let me go with them when they went up to the crash site at Judge Proctor’s well. When they returned home they told me how the airship had exploded. The pilot was torn up and killed in the crash. The men of the town who gathered his remains said he was a small man and buried him that same day in Aurora cemetery. 

Charles Stephens, an 86-year-old resident of Aurora, added that his father Jim Stephens had seen the spaceship plummet from the sky. 

The validity of all three statements was undermined by Hayden Hewes who said that when his organisation checked them they were found to be false. Mr. G.C. Curley was actually called A. J. McCurley, who had been a teacher in Oklahoma at the time of the incident. Charles Stephens denied that his father had seen the crash, and Mary Evans said, ‘They wrote that up to suit themselves. I didn’t say it this way’. (17) 

In 1966 nothing more than scrap metal had been found at the crash site but during May 1973 a person from Corpus Christi called Frank Kelley found some unusual metal fragments there. 

Hot on the trail of this lead Bill Case noted in the 31 May issue of The Dallas Times Herald that samples had been sent to the North Texas State University, the American Aircraft Co.’ and the National Research Institute, Ottawa, Canada. 

According to Dr. Tom Gray of the North Texas State University, three of the fragments given to him consisted of common metals. But the fourth sample looked ‘as if it had been melted and splattered on the ground’. He went on to say that: 

First analysis shows it to be about 75 per cent iron, and 25 per cent zinc, with some other trace elements. But it lacks properties common to iron, such as being magnetic. It is also shiny and malleable instead of being dull and brittle like iron. 

In support of this analysis the American Aircraft Co., said that one of the seven samples given to them was unusual because it too was shiny and non-magnetic. 

According to Hayden Hewes, his group was unable to find Frank Kelley, and he believed that all the fragments he found was composed of ordinary iron. It was his contention that they were merely used to get the maximum publicity for the story. 

The Aerial Phenomena Research Organisation (APRO) was also highly sceptical about the claims surrounding the metal fragments. They said some of them were just bits of aluminium alloy with no special qualities. Another reason for their scepticism was the fact that the metal allegedly left in the ground for 76 years looked in too fine a shape for this to be true. 

In contrast, the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) and the National Investigations Committee for Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) thought there was an element of truth in the case. 

Members of MUFON using metal detectors even found a grave in the local cemetery that gave similar readings to the metal given to Dr. Tom Gray. This encouraged the elusive Frank Kelley to speculate that the body of the spaceman was clothed in a metal suit. 

On the heels of this discovery came the revelation that the grave had a tombstone with a cigar-shaped vehicle drawn on it. That the drawing could easily have been caused by a scrape from a metal object did not discourage anyone. Someone, or some group, thought the ‘tombstone’ was valuable because early in the morning of 14 June 1973, it was stolen. In addition, the thieves dug-up the metal fragments that had apparently caused the earlier metal detector readings. 

Meanwhile Hayden Hewes and IUFOB had been trying, through proper legal channels, to exhume the body. This legal action, the publicity, and the crowds of visitors, did not please the Aurora Cemetery Association. Their attorney, Bill Nobles, said ‘We have no desire to stand in the way of scientific research’. Butwhen IUFOB persisted in wanting to locate and retrieve the body, he told them in a letter dated 18 March 1974: 

Please be advised that as in past instances the Cemetery Association feels obligated to resist any attempt to disturb the Aurora Cemetery grounds by any third parties seeking to investigate the alleged airship crash in 1897, and to reaffirm our position that any such attempt will be resisted with whatever means are available to the Association.

Even a request by IUFOB to examine the grave with a radar detection device was turned down by the Association. (17) 

None of the people involved in this story came out of it very well. If we return to the original 1897 report we might ask why S.E. Haydon concocted the story in the first place. The answer is that Aurora needed to attract tourists and business. By 1897 it had become the largest town in the county and had a population of about 3000. Unfortunately its prosperity was declining due to the effect of cotton crop failures, the bypassing of the railroad, a downtown fire and a spotted fever epidemic. By the 1970s Aurora had a population of less than 300. 

It might be thought that such a fantastic story would have attracted as much interest in 1897 as it did in 1973 – it is not every day that a spaceship drops out of the sky! The reason it was ignored was due to the hundreds of phantom airship sightings appearing in the press at that time. Alongside the Aurora report the Dallas Morning News of 19 April 1897 diligently recorded a long series of sightings and encounters. 

The newspaper files of the period contain several horrifying accounts of meteors crashing into the earth, causing damage to property, animals’ and humans. Ignoring them, the April 1897 newspapers hold many airship crashes that have not received much attention from ufologists but are equally valid (or should I say invalid?). 

For example, on the same day as the Aurora crash, 17 April 1897, Sam McLeary was travelling next to the Forked Deer River near Humboldt, Tennessee, when he came across an object that had crashed into some trees. Part of the craft was fixed into the ground and the rest of it was still lodged in the trees. The newspaper report claimed that: 

The larger portion consisted of a thin shell of bright white metal about 100 feet in length by 30in diameter, running to a point at each end. A tubular rib extends along each side and from this is suspended a framework carrying the machinery, with enclosed compartment for passengers or crew. The solitary occupant was unable to tell his story for though the weather is not cold his body and his water barrel were solid blocks of ice. The machine had evidently reached too high altitudes, and its manager had succumbed to the pitiless cold and for want of his control had fallen to the earth. 

Its engines were of strange and unknown construction. Screw propellers above and at each end and horizontal sails or wings at each side seem with the buoyant skill to combine all the principles of sea and air navigation … This much has been ascertained from observation and meagre notes found on board, but who or whence the solitary captain has not yet been discovered. (19) 

An even more intriguing sky craft exploded to the west of Lanark, Illinois, at 4.0 am on 10 April. This woke the inhabitants of the town who saw a bright ruby light shoot into the sky. The light got dimmer but it encouraged about 50 men to dress and ride out into the snowstorm to see what it was. It did not take them long to track it down to Johann Fliegeltoub’s farm which was half-a-mile to the west of the town. Here they found the frightened farmer’s family being shouted at, in a foreign language, by a person dressed in strange clothes. Nearby was the wreck of the airship and the mangled remains of two bodies. A third of the craft had driven itself into the ground. The ship: 

was cigar shaped and made of aluminium, about thirty feet long by nine feet in diameter, and the steady red glow came from an immense electric lamp that burned upon that part of the strange craft that projected from the ground. There were four side and one rear propellers on the machine, with a fin-like projection above it, evidently the rudder. An immense hole was torn in the under side of the ship, showing that an explosion had occurred, caused probably by a puncture from a lightning rod on the Fliegeltoub barn, as one of them was slightly bent. 

The strange creature who in some marvellous manner escaped from the wreck, is now unconscious. He or she is garbed after the fashion of the Greeks in the time of Christ, as shown by stage costumes, and the language spoken was entirely unknown to any one here, though most people are familiar with high and low Dutch, and even one or two know something of French and Spanish. 

The remains of the two persons who were killed were taken to the Fliegeltoub barn and straightened out on boards. It is firmly believed here that the airship was that of an exploring party from either Mars or the moon… (20) 

In the next report, filed by General F.A.Kerr, we are informed that by the afternoon Herr Fliegeltoub was charging a dollar a head for anyone who wished to see thewreckage in his barnyard. General Kerr only had to flash his press card to gain admittance, but within a few moments the import of the spectacle bore down on his mind. To steady himself he injected himself with a grain and a half of morphine, and swallowed three cocaine tablets. These soothed his jaded nerves and he was able to note that the previous report described the craft accurately. Inside it: 

was divided into four apartments, one large or general room containing the machinery of the ship, the principal part of which was a powerful electric dynamo, and there was also a tank of air compressed into a liquid. There were windows of heavy glass on each side of the room. Two of the other apartments were fitted up as sleeping rooms and the third was a bath room. There were many bottles of little pills in a cabinet in the large room, evidently condensed food. (21) 


The crowd was awestruck by the proceedings. I myself, to whom nothing is strange, returned to Lanark and securing a room at the hotel, sat up all night smoking opium and eating hasheesh to get in condition to write this dispatch

Walking from the ship to the Fliegeltoub house the reporter had to take a few more drugs. Here he:

found the unknown wanderer lying on a lounge, and I approached and examined him closely. He was about medium height and of athletic build, with long curled hair, dark brown in colour, and an extremely handsome face. He wore a white tunic reaching to his knees, and on his feet were sandals strapped with tin foil-wrapped braid. The tunic was embroidered with a coat of arms over the breast, a shield with a bar sinister of link sausages and bearing a ham sandwich rampant. 

A few minutes after I entered the room he awoke and sat up. Immediately everyone fled from the room except myself. After looking around for a minute he said in a language that I at once knew to be Volapuk, “Where am I?” I answered, “Near Lanark on the earth” and he said he was glad to be there and asked how it happened. 

I explained the circumstances to him and we had a long conversation, a report of which I reserve for another dispatch, but in brief he told me that he and his companions were an exploring party from Mars, who had been flying about over this country for some weeks.

About midnight he expressed a desire to see his wrecked machine and I went with him to visit it. When he saw the hole, with his fingers he bent the torn metal into its proper position, and stepping inside brought a pot of pasty looking stuff, which he spread over where the rent had been. He then ran hastily to the barn, picked up the bodies of his companions and carried them to his ship. Stepping inside he pulled a lever which set the propellers whirring, and the machine dragged itself from the ground. The operator then reversed the machinery, and shouting a farewell to me slammed the door and the airship rose rapidly into the air and finally disappeared into the night, though the red light was for a long time visible. 

The crowd was awestruck by the proceedings. I myself, to whom nothing is strange, returned to Lanark and securing a room at the hotel, sat up all night smoking opium and eating hasheesh to get in condition to write this dispatch. (21) 

We should warn our readers not to try this at home! Obviously the story was meant as a joke at the expense of the airship spotters, but it does have the detail and tone of “classic” contactee stories of the 1950s. The reporter, like the contactees, is the only person brave enough or privileged enough to talk to the alien; the being has superhuman strength; advanced techniques to repair the craft; the craft is a spaceship for the purpose of exploring planet earth; the alien takes away all the physical evidence. 

Lanark was the venue for another crash story only a few days later. At 3.35am on the morning of 12 April, the local telegraph operator heard a sound like a cyclone and looking out the window he saw a huge object slowly landing. The wings of the ship gently flapped and it would have settled without incident if the rudder had not demolished the wing of a frame house. After observing this the operator rang the alarm bells. Then: 

Soon after its landing a man not more than two feet in height came out of the ship. He wore an immense beard of a pinkish hue and his head was ornamented with some ivory like substance. He was heavily clothed in robes resembling the hide of a hippopotamus. His feet were uncovered near the ankles, but lashed firmly on the soles were two immense pieces of iron ore. About his neck was a string on which were 234 diamonds. 

When asked where he came from he made no reply, being apparently deaf. He said nothing and made motions, indicating he wanted something to eat or drink. He drank two buckets full of water and ate three sides of bacon, after declining to takeham, which had been tendered for him. A short time after three other persons, similar in stature and similarly attired, came out of the air ship by means of long peculiar ropes, which reached to the ground. They could not speak or hear. One carried a staff of gold. (22) 

Special trains were packed with expectant people including at least two ex-governors and 56 newspaper reporters.

 Unfortunately, a short note from W.G.Field of the Lanark Gazette timed at 3.10 pm on 12 April, succinctly stated that, ‘The air ship story is a fake.’ (22) 

In the state of Iowa two crashes into bodies of water occurred. The first incident was reported by John Butler and recorded in the 13 April editions of the Iowa State Register and the Evening Times-Republican. Although both carry the same account the dateline is different, so the incident either occurred at 11 p.m. on Friday 9 April or Saturday 10 April. It was on one of these nights that the citizens of Rhodes saw a bright light coming from the southwest. Crowds came out to see the heavenly vision and: 

It soon came so near that the sound of machinery could be heard, which soon became as loud as a heavy train of cars. All at once the aerial monster took a sudden plunge downward and was immersed in the reservoir of the C.M. & St. Paul railway, which is almost a lake, covering about eight acres of land. No pen can describe what followed. The boiling lava from Vesuvius pouring into the sea could only equal it. The light was so large and had created so much heat that the horrible hissing which occurred when the monster plunged into the lake, could be heard for miles, and the water of the reservoir was so hot that the naked hand could not be held in it. As soon as the wreck is raised out of the water a full description of the machine will be sent. 

Not long after dusk on 13 April, another strange meteor was seen by people in Iowa Falls. As it streaked across the sky it made a whirring noise. Apparently: 

The light and the dark form which seemed to follow it approached the earth at a terrible speed and parties living near the river declare that it struck the water and immediately sunk out of sight. Those who reached the point of the object’s disappearance first claim that the water was churned into a whirlpool and that for a long distance the water was seething and boiling. The theory advanced by many is that the airship while passing over this section became unmanageable and in the efforts of the people aboard to land shot downwards and plunged headlong into the river and after striking the bottom the propelling power of the ship dashed the waters into foam. Nothing can be seen from the surface and nothing has come to the surface that might indicate the nature of the ship or its occupants, and the supposition is that the occupants were killed or drowned and with them the secret of the ship. Searching parties are now being organised to search the river and if possible raise the wreck. Thousands are expected here every hour by special trains from all parts of the compass and the whole matter has caused a big sensation. The field is a green one for enterprising correspondents and the advance phalanx is expected in the morning. 

Any adventurous UFO investigators might profit from dredging the Iowa river or the C.M.& St. Paul railway reservoir. Though perhaps this is not as attractive a proposition as lurking in the Aurora cemetery! 

The Austin Daily Statesman of 20 April, no doubt tongue-in-cheek reported the statements of a ‘mystery man’. He proclaimed: 

It is my opinion that the airship, so-called, is nothing more nor less than a reconnoitring aerial war car from warlike Mars, investigating the conditions of the United States to see what reinforcements we’ll need when the country is invaded by the allied armies of Europe, the Mars soldiers having no confidence whatever in the American jingoes as real fighters. 

Asked, ‘With these soldiers of Mars cavorting around over our heads, do you think there is any danger to us of the earth?’ He replied: 

I most emphatically do. Last Thursday night (15 April) one of their aerial boats exploded and scraps of steel and pieces of electric wire were found on a school house, the roof of which workmen were repairing. They heard an explosion during the night, and just before it took place the aerial vehicle was seen sailing through the air. There is great danger in venturing out these nights. What if one of these fellows from Mars should tumble out and fall on you? 

Probably the best crash landing story was published in the 2 May 1897 issue of the Houston Post. In El Campo, Texas, an old Danish sailor called Mr. Oleson claimed that his traumatic encounter occurred in September 1862. He told John Leander that he had been a mate on the Danish brig Christine which was sailing in the Indian ocean when a storm wrecked it. He and five other members of the crew were washed onto a small rocky island. One of the men died of his injuries and they huddled together at the foot of a cliff as the storm continued to rage. It was then that: 

another terror was added to the horrors of the scene, for high in the air they saw what seemed to be an immense ship driven, uncontrolled in the elements. It was driving straight toward the frightened mariners, who cried aloud in their despair. Fortunately, however, a whirl of wind changed the course of the monster and it crashed against the cliff a few hundred yards from the miserable sailors. 

When they got to the wreckage they found that the craft was as big as a battleship and had been carried aloft by four huge wings. Furniture, and metal boxes with strange characters inscribed on them which contained food, were amongst some of the things they found in the jumbled mass. 

Then they came across the dead bodies of the ship’s crew. Altogether twelve of them dressed in strange garments were found. Their bodies were bronze coloured and were twelve feet tall. They were all male bodies, and they had soft and silky hair and beards. 

The stranded sailors were so shocked by their discovery that one of them was driven insane and threw himself off the cliff. The rest of them deserted the wreck for two days but hunger drove them back to it. After feasting on the ship’s strange food, they unceremoniously threw the dead bodies of the giant aliens into the sea. Emboldened by this activity they then built themselves a raft. 

Launching themselves on to a now calm sea, they tried to head for Vergulen Island. After sixty hours they came across a Russian ship heading for Australia, but their adventure had taken such a strain on them that only Mr. Oleson survived to reach land and safety. 

The newspaper report concluded by noting that: 

Fortunately as a partial confirmation of the truth of his story, Mr. Oleson took from one of the bodies a finger ring of immense size. It is made of a compound of metals unknown to any jeweller who has seen it, and is set with two reddish stones, the name of which are unknown to anyone who has ever examined it. The ring was taken from a thumb of the owner and measures 2 inches in diameter. 

Now Mr. Editor, many people believe those airship stories to be fakes. They may be so, but the story now told for the first time is strictly true. While Mr. Oleson is an old man, he still possesses every faculty and has the highest respect for truth and veracity. Quite a number of our best citizens, among them Mr. Henry Hahn, Mr. H.C. Carleton, Green Hill and S. Porter, saw the ring and heard the old man’s story. 

Having looked at cases which seem to involve an extraterrestrial dimension it is worth chronicling crash incidents that suggested that the experiments of a secret inventor had gone badly wrong. Our first example, published on 1st April 1897 in the Daily News-Tribune (Muscatine, Iowa), tells of a bright light seen at 2.30am by a night watchman and traveller. They were at the High Bridge when they saw a bright light, that changed white, red, purple, blue, white, in the southwest. It seemed like a ball of fire with a large, dark, conical object behind it. The thing dipped into the top of trees on the Illinois side of the river but managed to pass the bridge before it crashed with a thunderous roar. 

After a moment’s suspense a faint cry for help was heard, and then another still fainter, and when the watchers had recovered their frightened senses they both got into the wagon and drove hurriedly across the bridge, where they leapt out and ran to the place where the light was seen. There, in among the trees, was what looked to them like a painted boat with sails badly wrecked, while a man lay beneath groaning in great pain. He was carried to the cabin boat near by, inhabited by Henry Atwald, from Fairport, and made as comfortable as possible, he suffering such agony as to have it deemed inadvisable to remove him to town. 

Our informant quickly hurried back for a physician, he only being able to ascertain that the man was Prof. De Barre, of Tuscan, Arizona, and that the strange craft was his own invention, he being on his way to Chicago and that his accident was due to the steering apparatus becoming unmanageable in the high wind. 

1 April 1897, not surprisingly, was a good day for airship sightings. One was seen to crash into a large sycamore tree, on that day, in the Upper Cottonwood valley. One of the occupants was killed but the other one recovered long enough to talk about his adventures on board the airship, and that he had come from Topeka. The Chanute Tribune of 3 April 1897 indicated this was a hoax by a local gentleman, Colonel Whitley. 

This type of story was not exactly new, a very similar account is contained in the San Francisco Examiner for 5 December 1896. This edition declared: 

The hull of an airship is in a ditch on the ocean side of Twin Peaks, and for a time at least church steeples, clock towers and factory chimneys are safe from all but the soaring imaginations of the men who believe that “the prostrate leviathan of the air crashed down from dizzy heights and met all but complete annihilation in the bed of a foaming mountain torrent.” 

The man who built this craft, a Mr. J.H. de Gear, said he had worked according to the plans of an inventor who wanted to stay anonymous. Mr. de Gear had been trying to fly the craft when a strong wind made him crash. The ship, merely an iron cylinder divested of any machinery, was conveniently close to a saloon which enjoyed a boom due to this story. 

Much publicity was given to this crash case but the San Francisco Chronicle of 5 December 1896 revealed that it was a fake constructed by press agent Frank de Gear. The nearby Sunnyside Inn had paid him for his efforts at drumming up business. His brother, Jefferson de Gear, said he helped with the fake and that: 

“I was simply employed as an expert cornice-maker to build the machine and put it where it was found. Yes, it was built for exhibition purposes. It took over three bundles of galvanised iron to construct it, and the thing weighed over 400 pounds. I built it in two nights and one day, and had eleven men working on it Wednesday night. I think I deserve credit for the job: it was a good piece of work.” 

Another story, in the Daily Herald (St.Joseph,Missouri), of 6 April 1897 said that: 

Bethany, Mo., April 5. – (Special to the Herald.) Last night about 10.30 o’clock an airship was seen coming from the southwest at the rate of about 25 miles an hour, and looked to be about one-half mile high. It stopped for a few seconds over the court house, and then moved on toward the northeast, and went out of sight. This morning two men, John Leib and Ira Davis, living six miles east, brought word to town that an airship had fallen on J.D. Sims’ farm and a man was found dead. The coroner has gone to hold an inquest. 

More details are given in the Daily Herald’s 9 April 1897 edition. This says that two men who were operating the craft were killed and mutilated beyond recognition. The craft that ‘resembles a cigar in shape, and has three propellers on either side’ had come to grief against Sims’ flag post. Letters found in the pockets of the victims indicated they had come from San Francisco or Omaha. The ship was taken to a warehouse in Bethany for exhibition to the curious crowds. Just when we are about to believe this story the author of the report had to spoil things by signing himself “A TRUE FAKIR”.

This story possibly inspired a report from Highland Station that featured an airship that exploded there on the night of 15 April 1897. The Globe (Atchison, Kansas) of 17 April, went on to say that the injured pilot was found and he claimed he was Pedro Sanchez of Cuba. He conveniently took the airship wreckage away the next day. 

Near Philo, Champaign county, Illinois, there came a more graphic account of death by airship. A cone shaped craft was seen fighting against a heavy west wind at 10pm on 15 April 1997. The Daily Gazette (Champaign, Illinois), of 16 April 1897, continues the tale:

When just south of Bouse’s grove the craft became unmanageable and came down with a crash on Jeff Shafer’s farm, about 100 feet from where George Shafer was disking. The team took fright and ran away, throwing Young Shafer in front of the harrow which passed over him, cutting him all to pieces. In the wreck of the ship, which covered a space nearly 100 feet square, were found the mutilated remains of three persons. They were partially imbedded in the soft ground and covered with blood, so that it was impossible to identify them, but from what McLoed (Norman McLoed was a witness to this event – N.W.) could see he judged to be Japanese. 

The report filed by “W.J.Wilkinson” concludes by saying that many are going to the site of the crash, and that more will be known once an inquest has been conducted. The game is given away, however, by this postscript: 

The Gazette has been unable to find out who this man “Wilkinson” is, and from all accounts, there is no such man living in Philo. The names of the people he uses in the account are genuine, and those of prominent people, but it is evident that they were not consulted before the account was sent away. 

I was intrigued by another crash story that sounded very promising. This related how a reporter had got to the summit of New York mountain, where he saw a fifty-foot-long cigar-shaped vessel ‘plunged deep into the mountain top.’ With the aid of ropes the reporter and fellow rescuers got to the broken ship wherethey found a badly injured old man. This was exciting news but the account in the Avalanche (Glenwood Springs, Colorado) of 4 May 1897 blows its cover by saying the man came from the North and is called “Santa Claus”, and the reporter wakes from his dream. 

There are many other crash stories which have variable reliability. The Jefferson Bee of 15 April 1897 said that an airship had crashed near the town on 10 April. A terrible sound was heard and the next day a craft was found. This contained four bodies that were mashed to a pulp, despite this it was ascertained that they had two faces, and two sets of arms and legs, and they were taller than earth people. This was acknowledged to be a hoax by the newspaper staff. 

A better case which received a good deal of publicity came from Pavilion township. This said that two old soldiers saw an airship in the sky followed by an explosion. The next day, 12 April, wreckage was found in the area and at Comstock township. (23) 

On the 17 April 1897 a flying drugstore was seen at Park Rapids. As it went over Fish Hook Lake it exploded and legs and arms were seen to fly everywhere, causing the fish to crawl out of the lake for some peace and quiet! (24) 

An abandoned cigar-shaped airship, with a broken propeller was found by Mr. Thurber, near Mead at the mouth of Dead Man Creek. (25) Someone calling himself “xxx” said an airship hit his friend’s windmill near Elmo. (26) There are many accounts of things falling from airships, and some of them are nearly as silly as the story in the Livermore Gazette of 16 April 1897. This claimed that the good citizens of the town made an airship crash so that they could use parts from it to decorate the place.

These accounts show that ufological holy grails such as Rosweil are far from being a new phenomenon. In the context of the airship wave as a whole crash cases were generally treated as a joke, but we can see that ufologists were ready to absorb such cases as the Aurora crash into the body of ufological lore because of their similarity to modern-day cases. In the airship wave people did not expect their accounts of crashes to be believed, their motive was to ridicule and shock into rationality the believers of the airship myth. In terms of the flying saucer myth it has taken time for serious ufologists to wholeheartedly believe in crash cases and retrievals of bodies, but those who have swallowed this pill must beprepared to accept that it has probably been poisoned by their own gullibility and by the work of “liars” who are unconsciously carrying-on a great American tradition.  


  1.  New York Times 17 August 1878.
  2.  New York Times, 14 August 1878.
  3.  Mr. X, Res Bureaux Bulletin, No. 17,12 May 1977, pp 2-3.
  4.   A detailed account of this story is contained in: Zerpa, Fabio and Plataneo, Monica L., “The Crash of a UFO in the 19th Century”, unpublished, circa 1979. They tried to find the location of the aerolite and the body of the alien, but their report concludes by saying, ‘this whole thing has the “ring” of an old Spanish “tale” from beginning to end. Much repetition, drawn out suspense, and no concrete evidence.
  5.  La Capital, (Rosario) 13 and 15 October 1877.
  6.  Picasso, Fabio, “Infrequent Types of South American humanoids”, Strange magazine No. 8, Fall 1991, p.23 and p.44.
  7.  Zerpa, Fabio and Plataneo, “La Caida de un OVNI en Pleno Siglo XIX”, Cuarta Dimension Extra September 1981, pp. 2-12.
  8.  Charroux, Robert, Archivas de Otros Mudos, Barcelona, Plaza y Lanes, p.341.
  9.  Nickell, Joe, “The ‘Hangar 18′ tales – a folkloristic approach”, Common Ground No. 9, pp. 2-10.
  10.  Roberts, Andy, “Saucerful of Secrets” in UFOs by John Spencer and Hilary Evans, Fortean Tomes, 1987, pp.156-159.
  11.  Also see: Simmons, H.Michael “Once Upon A Time In The West”, Magonia No. 20.
  12.  Hanlon, Donald B. “Texas Odyssey of 1897″, Flying Saucer Review, Sept. – Oct., 1966.
  13.  Hanlon, Donald B. and Vallee, Jacques, “Airships Over Texas”, Flying Saucer Review, Jan-Feb 1967.
  14.  Hanlon, Donald B. and Vallee, Jacques, letter in “Mail Bag” column, Flying Saucer Review, Jan. – Feb., 1967. 
  15.  Hewes, Hayden C. “The UFO Crash of 1897″, Offlcial UFO Vol. 1, No. 5, Jan. 1976.
  16.  Buckle, Eileen, “Aurora Spaceman”, Flying Saucer Review, July – Aug 1973.
  17.  Hewes, Hayden C.
  18.  ibid, p.30.
  19.  Nashville American, 18 April, 1897. T.B. p.209:2.
  20.  Daily Democrat, 10 April 1897.
  21.  Daily Democrat, 12 April 1897
  22.  Daily Times (Dubuque, LA) 13 April 1897
  23.  Evening News (Detroit), 13 April 1897
  24.  Hubbare Clipper (CA), 22 April 1897
  25.  The Chronicle of Spokane, 16 April 1897
  26.  Albany Ledger (MO), 21 May 1987

Most of this material is available in Eddie Bulard’s ‘The Airship Files’ and its Supplements I and II. Other excellent sources are Robert G. Neeley’s ‘UFOs of 1896/1897: The Airship Wave’ (both published by the Fund for UFO Research

Knowing About UFOs, Part 2. Dr Ron Westrum

Part 2. From MUFOB New Series 6, Spring 1977


Although the number of those with personal experience of UFOs seems quite large, one must remember that all experiences are not reported. In the Colorado sample, only thirteen percent of those who sighted a UFO reported it to other than family or friends(Lee, 1968, p226)(16). In evaluating information from official agencies this selection factor must be borne in mind. And in fact to get a true idea of the amount of ‘filtering’, one can compare the (about) 12,000 reports which the US Air Force received between 1950 and 1969 (Condon) with the number they should have received if all the reports had been transmitted.

Of 3.75 million (estimated) people who have seen UFOs, the Colorado study found that 13 per cent, or about 490,000, had reported their sightings. If the Air Force received, over the same period, about 12,000 reports, then there must have been an enormous attrition of reports when passing through the channels, even considering multiple-witness reports. Thus anywhere from one in fifty to one in three hundred (17) sightings may be represented by an official (USAF) report. Consequently, conclusions from Air Force data about UFOs must bear this fact in mind.

What do we know about the representativeness of the reports the US Air Force receives? Can we assume that only the best reports are passed on? To attempt answers to these questions we must examine both the reasons for reporting and those for non-reporting. Sighters whose reports reached the Colorado Project’s files indicated that the two strongest motives were 1) the feeling that strange objects should be reported, and 2) “I would want to know what it was” (Lee, 1968, p227) Given that the first motivation, mentioned by 43 per-cent of the sighters, could be seen as involving a sense of civic duty, one can well sense the bitterness and frustration felt by those making the reports when they are labeled liars or mentally ill. (18) Reporting is a risky business, and making a report is often an act of considerable courage.

The decision to report or not probably involves calculations about the positive and negative consequences that will personally accrue if a report is made. Many of those who have high credibility and are ‘high discriminators’ are precisely those who have the most to lose by making a report. Single-person sightings are probably under-represented in reports, since a greater degree of scepticism is applied to events that were witnessed by only one person. Even close kin may not believe ones unless it was witnessed by someone else (Fuller, 1966, pp.13,140,176; Michel, 1958, p.43). The more impressive a particular UFO sighting is, the more information the report is likely to yield — and the greater the scepticism on is likely to meet in reporting it. We have already mentioned the convincing effect that personal experience has on unbelievers. A good proxy for personal experience is the experience of a close friend or a peer. Other persons with whom there is a high identification tend to be believed more often than strangers — even when such strangers are more knowledgeable than one’s friends and peers. (19)

There is also a tendency for certain kinds of information to circulate only informally along colleague groups. This is particularly important in the case of scientists, since there observations are given special weight by both other scientists, and by the public at large. Page (1968) begins an article on detection of UFOs by noting that no astronomical photograph has recorded a UFO. This assertion is in itself interesting, as the Vallées (1966) had already indicated that more than one astronomical photograph was in existence and in fact one of them is reduced in their book. But the assertion is even more interesting in that Page admits in a footnote that he has been told informally that ‘anomalous trails’ had appeared on one set of photographs (20) which had not been reported in the public literature, and that in any case no special search for anomalies had been made. It is thus possible that an astronomer will know relatively little about colleagues’ observations of UFOs even if he has an active interest in them.

The fear of ridicule predisposes many scientists against reporting. Berthold Schwartz, a psychiatrist, notes that he interviewed a physicist who is now Professor and chairman of a university department. Although this person had experienced a UFO sighting at close range which he credited with a significant influence on his life, few of his colleagues were aware that he had had such an experience (Schwartz, 1972). Nor would he allow his name to be used in Schwartz’s writings. In my own interviews with about two dozen physicists and chemists in a university setting, I came across one case in which an apparently prominent physicist observed what would be called a “cloud cigar” in the jargon of ufology. He had not publicised the fact however, and had in fact sworn his friends to secrecy. Thus many reports — how many it is impossible to know — by scientists are kept not only from the public but from their colleagues at large. And the informal policies of scientific journals (see Hartmann, 1968, p.584) are such that the journals are unlikely to accept the papers of scientists who try to publish them. All of which contributes to the public and scientific impression that UFOs are not seen by astronomers. (see Jones, 1968a, p.230)

This tendency extends to the international concealment of research projects on UFOs carried out by scientists and others. Ruppelt (1956) mentions two cases of such concealment, both dealing with the relation of UFOs to exceptionally high atmospheric radiation. In one case a group of scientists at an Atomic Energy Commission laboratory had noticed that huge jumps in background radiation tended to be associated with local UFO sightings. Some years later they set up a recording apparatus on a local mountain, and found that in the one case in which a UFO had been seen near the mountain their recording apparatus showed a large jump in radiation level (see pp.264-270). In the second case a military installation found consistently that its radiation monitoring equipment tended to show higher radiation in areas where UFOs had been seen (pp. 270-271). In both cases no official report was made of the activities of these groups.

If UFOs were, for instance, outer-space vehicles, then those reports which involved close proximity to UFOs, or contact with their “operators” would be the most valuable, since they would yield the most information on the nature of the craft and their occupants. Since such reports are often sensational, however, and the rapporteursoften make money on the basis of their testimony, reports of contacts tend to be suspect. Project Blue Book had an admirably simple method of dealing with such reports they went into a file marked ‘crackpot’. Many amateur UFO investigation organisations also reject such reports (Vallée, 1966, pp 232-234).

It was previously the belief of the author of this paper that contactees represented a mixed group of hoaxers and psychotics. This may in fact be the case; but even if it is, the matter is more complex than it at first appears. Many contactees are apparently ‘silent’ According to his own account, Keel (1970, p.212) interviewed over 200 of them who had previously not divulged their experiences in a public way. (21) He estimates that they may number as many as 50,000 throughout the USA, although he does not disclose the basis for this estimate. Other contactees are inspired to attempt assassinations (Vallée, 1969, p.131); may play major roles in religious “miracles”, such as the one in Fatima, Portugal in 1915 (see e.g. Keel, 1970, pp.255-264); or even conspire to overthrow governments (Keel, 1970, pp.280-281). Depending on how broadly one wishes to define “Contactee”, one might consider that many of the world’s major and minor religions were started by alleged or actual contactee exper-iences. The real extent of the contactee phenomenon is beyond the scope of this paper, and can only be appreciated by reading Vallée and Keel.

It was previously the belief of the author of this paper that contactees represented a mixed group of hoaxers and psychotics. This may in fact be the case; but even if it is, the matter is more complex than it at first appears

The above considerations make it unlikely that the official reports represent a random sample of UFO experiences and even less likely that they represent the most informative reports. Ruppelt, while Director of Project Blue Book, once found out about a very important sighting (Ruppelt, 1956, pp.139-141) while riding on a plane with a man who had no idea who Ruppelt was; Ruppelt was the first and perhaps the only person he had confided in, because he was a complete stranger. This sighting, which correlated with another previously uncorroborated sighting, reached Ruppelt by coincidence. How many other sightings are not so serendipitously communicated? One does not know. It is clear though, that much that is important comes to light only after intensive search or completely by accident. Reporting is thus a haphazard process, and much filtering of reports takes place at the source.

It would be undesirable to suggest that all suppression of reports is unjustified. Clearly, society’s information-processing mechanisms are limited, and might be overloaded if all apparent anomalies were scrupulously reported. Hence, in making a decision as to whether to report or not, the individual may also be concerned with over-burdening social intelligent mechanisms. The more striking the observation, of course, the less legitimate this rationale becomes. My personal impression is that there are as many errors of overcaution in reporting as there are of temerity.

Contagion. Experience Generation vs. Report Release.

A point often advanced in favour of the hypothesis that waves of UFO sightings are due to hysterical contagion is that the release of a single prominent report prompts the release of many more. One distinction however, must be made that is often overlooked in this matter. Reporting may well be contagious, in the sense that a person may be motivated to report a UFO if other reports are being made. This does not necessarily imply, though, that the number of experiences of UFOs increases when this happens – which would be the case if hysterical contagion were involved. Rather, all that one can say is that the propensity to report increases. This is likely to mean that the conditional probability of reporting, given an experience, will increase; and it is likely to mean that reports which are hoaxes will increase as well.

Earlier we have indicated the small ratio of reports to primary experiences. There exists at any time, then, a large number of reports which can be “shaken loose” by a newspaper article, magazine or book. It is by no means true that the reports which are thus elicited are all second rate either. Heuvelmans, in his work on sea-serpents (1968), has noted that many good reports seem to be communicated after someone breaks the ice and tells about their sighting; others are then likely to write to the magazine or author of the article and relate their own experience. This sort of “report release” phenomenon may be involved in information about other kinds of anomalies as well.

Of course, if hysterical contagion is involved, all the reports which come in should refer to experiences which postdate the original report. Report release, on the other hand, is likely to involve reports that may be years old. Yet even this criterion is not unequivocal, since experiences after the original report are more likely to be reported than ones before it. And in the case where private, unpublicised experiences take place before the initial report is made (22), is the hypothesis of hysterical contagion still tenable? This is a question which sociologists might fruitfully attack withboth empirical studies and mathematical models, since the phenomenon of hysterical contagion often manifests itself in quite different ways, as one can see from the diverse kinds of collective behaviour grouped under this label (see the review in Kerckhoff & Back, 1968, ch.2); from bodily symptoms which are transmitted through personal observations to imagined incidents which are suggested by newspaper stories. Even neuroses like “shell shock” may be the result of social contagion.

Behaviour of Official Agencies

So far we have been largely concerned with those who have experiences with and report UFOs. Clearly one component of reporting, though, is the expected reaction of those to whom the report is made. We have already alluded to the role of communication media in generating reports, but government agencies also have a role in eliciting or discouraging reports. This role is particularly important where organisations, including other agencies, are in a position to make repeated UFO observations, and whose propensity to make reports will be related to the feedback they get from those who receive the reports. Ruppelt indicates in several places how important this feedback can bee in influencing the transmission or non-transmission of reports (1956 pp.146,159-161,169,10).

In looking at the interaction of official agencies, it is often useful to make a dichotomy between “locals” and “centrals”. The locals are those on the spot, in the field, who actually have the experiences. The centrals are those who have the job of interpreting the reports of the locals, often in political capitals far removed from the scene of the action. Should locals observe some anomalous phenomena and try to send a report to the centrals, trouble is almost necessarily bound to ensue. The locals consider them selves “high discriminators” and reasonably competent at evaluating what they observe. The centrals, on the other hand, have not made the observation that the locals have, consider such observations a priori impossible, and suspect that the locals are a bit barmy.

The communications from locals to centrals tend to arrive in written form, often with contextual facts and emotional ambiance extracted from them; in any case there is nothing to require the centrals to read the reports in their entirety. The centrals then suggest that the local, e.g., have been drinking too much (Ruppelt, 1956, p.99) or advise the locals about certain elementary sources of observational error that they may not have taken into account (Ruppelt, 1956, p.170). Regardless of the emotional tone of the locals’ reactions to these insults – which range from fury to despair — the reports are almost certain to stop coming, a result that the centrals do not seek to avoid.

In many cases the locals are not part of any agency, and submit reports, for instance, to the local Air Force base. If those at the base do not have a personal commitment to transmit the sightings, they may well wish to avoid unpleasant suggestions from their “centrals” and so tailor their information transmissions to match the expectations of their superiors.

Air Force officers are human, and therefore interpret their duty quite differently. Some went to great lengths not to submit a report. Others took a special delight in submitting all of the ‘easy’ ones out of a zealous loyalty to their service, because the re ‘identifieds’ they turned in, the highter would be the overall percentage of UFO reports explained. (Condon, 1968. p.22)

The centrals, too have their own higher echelons, whom they in turn must take into consideration:

The people on the UFO project began to think maybe the brass didn’t consider them too smart so they tried a new hypothesis: UFOs don’t exist. In no time they found that this was easier to prove and it got recognition. Before if an especially interesting UFO report came in and the Pentagon wanted an answer, all they’d get was an “It could be real but we can’t prove it”. Now such a request got a quick, snappy, “It was a balloon”, and feathers were stuck in caps from ATIC up to the Pentagon. Everybody felt fine. (Ruppelt, 1956, p.82)

Because of the often close dependence of agency behaviour on the perceived wishes of the higher echelons, the information which reached the latter may vary in a manner only partially related to external events, at least as such events reach the lower echelons.

Not all agency personnel, of course, act in this manner; some often persist in forwarding reports of unexplained UFO sightings in spite of the sentiments of their superiors. When official channels bog down, informal channels often are used for communication. The higher echelons are not necessarily unanimous, and those among them who refuse to accept pat answers may find sympathetic lower officers who will surreptitiously forward reports, although this will sometimes be done only on a face-to-face basis (see Ruppelt, 1956, ch,1). Here again the informal communication that takes place among colleague groups is often the main channel along which much information travels and discussion takes place.

For several months the belief that Project Blue Book was taking a negative attitude and the possibility that UFOs were interplanetary spaceships had been growing in the Pentagon, but these ideas were usually discussed only in the privacy of offices with doors that would close tight. (emphasis RW) (Ruppelt, 1956. p.196)

It nonetheless appears true, at least in the period 1947-1953, that evidence by and large was looked into, reported, or destroyed according to what it was felt the higher echelons of the US Air Force desired (Ruppelt, 1956. pp.12, 160, 176, 229). This was also true of the orientation of Project Blue Book itself during this period. Nor is such behaviour a unique property of Air Force intelligence organizations (see Wilensky, 1967, ch.3).

These internal forms of suppression, subterfuge and deceit are harmful enough to the process of social intelligence: in warfare they have often extracted high costs (Wilensky, 1967). Where public opinion is aroused, however, external forms of disinformation are resorted to as well. The so-called Robertson Panel, a group of scientists who were called to evaluate the evidence for UFOs in 1953, recommended a public debunking campaign to take the “mystery” out of UFOs. The intention of the Robertson Panel was to discourage the “poor” quality reports so that there would be more time to process “good” quality reports. It is possible, on the other hand, that what would have resulted had their recommendations been taken seriously was a decreased propensity to report, which would affect “good” as well as “poor” reports. An Air Force disinformation campaign in 1949, although admittedly less elaborate than the one proposed by the Robertson Panel, hardly succeeded in quashing public interest. (Ruppelt, 1956, p.87). The disinformation campaign itself may have served to stimulate public interest, since it was obvious to many observers that the Air Force was being less than candid. This may be one of the “ironies” to which Jones (1968b) has referred: the process of concealment itself arouses interest in what is being concealed.


In forming his opinion as to whether or not UFOs are in fact “real” — whether extraterrestrial, ultraterrestrial, or whatever — the layman cannot be expected to weigh all of the considerations we have advanced here about the way in which social intelligence about anomalous phenomena is formed. The scientist is likely to be more concerned with those aspects of the phenomena about which he does find out, and to which he can apply the sorts of measurements and methods that to many scientists and laymen alike constitute science. Persons whose responsibilities are less easily circumscribed, such as the social critic and the policy-maker, however, cannot excuse themselves on the basis of either limited sophistication or specialised expertise. In making decisions about anomalous phenomena, they must take into account the network of social information which is responsible for keeping public and government informed about the external world. Mass hysteria over hoaxes and hallucinations constitutes only one danger; the opposite danger is ignoring forces which may have unsought effects on human life.



  • (16) The wording of the question in this way was unfortunate, because we do not know how many people reported sightings to no one at all; there is evidence, as we shall see below, that those who have such experiences by themselves are re-luctant to report them even to family members.
  • (17) One does not know how many sightings are multiple witness. Even if figures were available they might indicate selective reporting; multiple witness sightings being preferentially reported.
    (18) Not to mention having to change jobs or locations as a result of adverse publicity. (Lee, 1968, p.225)
  • (19) For instance, airline pilots tend to believe other airline pilots (Ruppelt, p.108 et seq.); generals tend to believe other generals (Op cit. p.125); radar operators tend to believe other radar operators (Op cit., p.169). This tendency is probably stronger the more elite the group.
  • (20) From the Smithsonian “Prairie” meteorite camera network.
  • (21) He did this by circulating in “flap” areas talking to people in the vicinity, etc.
  • (22) This was the case in the UFO wave of 1947, in which several sightings took place before Kenneth Arnold’s famous one (see Bloecher, 1967).


  • BLOECHER, TED, 1967. Report on the UFO Wave of 1947. NICAP.
  • CANTRIL, HADLEY, 1966. The Invasion from Mars, A Study in the Psychology of Panic. Harper & Row.
  • CONDON, EDWARD U., 1968 “UFOs 1947-1968″ and “Conclusions and Recommendations”, in Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, edited by Daniel S Gilmour. New York, Bantam Books.
  • FULLER, JOHN, 1966. Incident at Exeter. New York, G P Putnam’s Sons.
  • GILMOUR, DANIEL S., ed., Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects. 1968. Bantam.
  • HARTMANN, WILLIAM K., 1968. “Processes of Perception, Conception, and Reporting”. In Condon Report. (Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, cit supra)
  • HEUVELMANS, BERNARD, 1968. In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. New York: Hill & Wang.
  • HOVLAND, CARL, IRVING L JANIS, & HAROLD H KELLEY, 1953. Communication & Persuasion. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • IRVING, DAVID, 1964. The Mares Nest. Boston: Little, Brown.
  • JONES, R V., 1968a. “The Natural Philosophy of Flying Saucers”. Physics Bulletin 19: 225-230. , 1968b. “Irony as a Phenomenon in Natural Science and Human Affairs”. Chemistry and Industry: 470-477.
  • KEEL, JOHN, 1970. UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse. New York: G P Putnam’s Sons.
  • KERCKHOFF, ALAN C., and KURT W. BACK, 1968. The June Bug: a study of hysterical contagion. New York: Appleton, Century, Crofys.
  • LEE, ALDORA, 1968. “Public Attitudes Towards UFO Phenomena”. In Condon Report.
  • MENZEL, DONALD, 1960. “Flying Saucers”. Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • MICHEL, AIME, 1958. Flying Saucers and the Straight Line Mystery. New York: S G Phillips.
  • MUENSTERBERG, HUGO, 1915. On the Witness Stand. Garden City; Doubleday.
  • National Amateur Astronomers, Inc., 1969. Science and the UFO: A supplement to the Proceedings of the Third Nationwide Amateur Astronomers Convention. Denver, Colorado.
  • PAGE, THORNTON, 1968. “Photographic Sky Coverage for Detection of UFOs”. Science 160 (14th June): 1258-1260.
  • RUPPELT, EDWARD J., 1956. The Report on UFOs. New York: Ace Books.
  • SCHWARTZ, BERTHOLD E., 1972. “Beauty of the Night” FSR 18,4: PP-5-9, 17.
  • STRENTZ, HERBERT, 1970. A Survey of Press Coverage of UFOs 1947-1968. Unpublished Doctoral dissertation, Department of Journalism, Northwestern University.
  • US HOUSE COMMITTEE on Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1968. Symposium on UFOs. 90th Congress, Second Session (29th July)
  • VALLEE, JACQUES, 1969. Passport to Magonia. Chicago: Henry Regnery.
  • VALLEE, JACQUES, & V-J BALLESTER OLMOS, 1972. “The Sociology of the Iberian Landings”, FSR 18,4.
  • VALLEE, JACQUES & JANINE VALLEE, 1966. Challenge to Science,Chicago; Henry Regnery.
  • WARREN, DONALD I., 1970. “Status Inconsistency Theory and Flying Saucer Sightings”. Science 170 (6th November): 599-603.
  • WILENSKY, HAROLD L., 1967. Organisational Intelligence. New York: Basic Books.

Knowing About UFOs, Part 1. Dr. Ron Westrum

From MUFOB New Series 5 (part 1) and 6 (part 2)


In recent years there has been much concern among sociologists with the process known as “the social construction of reality”. Although several theoretical works have come out on this subject, there have been in comparison relatively few examples of attempts to find out empirically how this process works. Whatever the reason for the dearth of such studies, it is obvious that they are necessary to the refinement and validation of theory. It behoves sociologists therefore, to take a closer look at the effects of various processes of “reality negotiation” on beliefs held by various members of society.

One area sure to yield some interesting insights is that of “anomalous phenomena”, events which seem to violate widely held rules about the nature of physical reality. In deciding about the reality of sea-serpents, abominable snowmen and UFOs, both scientists and laymen generally recognise the problematic character of any decision eventually reached. In very few cases have those making the decision had the experience which often constitutes the sole evidence for the events in question. They must depend, therefore, on the reports of experiences of others. Faced with such “hearsay” evidence, usually from untrained observers, many scientists refuse to render a judgement, on the basis that reports do not constitute “tangible evidence” (see Jones 1968a) or that the events reported are “impossible”. (1) If the reports are detailed or the witness “reliable” however, some scientists may be tempted to hazard a guess as to the true identity of the phenomenon, particularly if it can be placed within a class of similar, but known, phenomenon. (2)

The layman is in a more ambiguous position as ordinarily he is accustomed to making judgements about natural events on the basis of the authority of “experts”, and generally has little training in evaluating the evidence on which their judgements are based. Nonetheless, the layman’s judgement, like the scientist’s, is based on an overall assessment of the plausibility of the reports at hand. His grounds for evaluating such reports may differ, but his problem and that of the scientist are the same: what information about the real world can be gained from the report, and with what degree of confidence?

The valid assessment of a report depends on knowledge of the social context in which the report was generated. It is a perennial concern in military intelligence, where the reliability of reports is of the greatest importance, and in the courts, where a host of rules known as the “law of evidence” governs what is and what is not admissible. Nonetheless, the rules of evidence are founded on commonsense rather than scientific demonstration, a difference which becomes important when, for instance one is considering the confidence which can be placed in eyewitness accounts. (3) And evaluation of sources of military intelligence often place more on the basis of the quality of the reports transmitted than scientific evaluation of the transmitter. This is not to say that there does not exist a corpus of experience and commonsense wisdom on how the reliability of informants should be evaluated; but this is very different from truly scientific knowledge of the same subject.

It is not only a question of informants, however, but of the social channels through which information moves. A brilliant observer may be rendered useless if the only channel between him and the evaluators of social intelligence is sensational press accounts.

Likewise, it is no secret that information transmission through intelligence hierarchies is less than perfect (Wilensky 1976, oh. 3). And finally there is the question of silence. Investigation dies before it begins if the observer tells no one of what he has seen. The greatest enemy of social consciousness of anomalies is the ridicule which silences those who have seen but dare not make witness of their experiences.

What we will attempt do do here is give some brief rendition of the kinds of social factors which affect public knowledge about one kind of anomalous phenomenon: UFOs.

The Ontological Status of UFOs

Before proceeding further in describing social intelligence processes about UFOs, the reader may be concerned about whether the author considers these objects to be real or imaginary, and to what class of concepts, if not objects, the discussion will be limited. The label “unidentified flying objects” was originally substituted for “flying saucers” as an attempt to be more agnostic about the phenomena in question (Ruppelt, 1956, p.7; Strentz, 1970, p,3) Even the former term however poses difficulties. Menzel (1960) suggests that the term is a misnomer because it implies that the sightings are “of material reality”, a view to which Menzel does not adhere. Objection could also be made to the word “flying”, since this assumes something about the propulsion of the phenomenon: and in any case some of the most interesting manifestations are seen on the ground. How to delimit this seemingly amorphous class of objects or events?

Both the taxonomic and the epistemological problems can be solved if we are willing to adopt Husserl’s operation of “bracketing” the concept of UFOs: that is we will treat as UFOs those experiences to which people attach the label “UFO”, without being concerned for the moment with whether these experiences in fact represent a particular kind of physical object or not. By thus dealing with experiences instead of objects (4), we can avoid the necessity of coming to a decision which the “experts” themselves are still debating (5).

We are not suggesting that the question of the physical reality of UFOs is unimportant, even for our discussion here. In fact we will later discuss the kinds of indicators sociologists might use in distinguishing epidemics of imaginary and real objects. Nonetheless both physical scientists and sociologists are very far from being able to resolve the issue, and hence for the present an agnostic truce is perhaps the most reasonable.

The Distribution of Experience:

There are two reasons why the distribution of UFO experiences is important: 1) because the spatial, temporal, and social distribution may in itself reveal something about the phenomenon and 2) the social standing of those who have such experiences will affect the transmission and credibility of their reports. Apparent lack of UFO sightings by astronomers has been adverse to the credibility of the phenomena (Jones, 1968a). Similarly, the “original” 1947 sighting by Kenneth Arnold attracted a great deal of attention because of Arnold’s excellent reputation (Ruppelt, 1956, p.30).

In 1966, 5% of a US national sample indicated that they had seen something that they thought was a “flying saucer” (Lee, 1968, p. 212). A 1968 study by the University of Colorado, which used the words “unidentified flying object” instead of “flying saucer”, found 3% of their national sample had see a UFO (Lee, 1968, p.224). Whilst there is doubtless some misunderstanding and possible deceit in the responses to these polls, it is unlikely that a better estimate of the number of “sighters” in the US will become available.

The geographical distribution of sightings is important, but unfortunately little information has been made public. It is known that in 1953 the distribution of UFO reports received by the US Air Force did not mirror the distribution of the population (Ruppelt, 1956, p.278): the geography of the 1947 “wave” of reports is known (Bleacher, 1967), and it has been suggested that certain “flap” areas receive a disproportionate number of sightings (Keel, 1970). Reports of UFOs tend to be unequally distributed in time (Vallée, 1966, ch.8), and this may imply that experiences are also unequally distributed: but since it is unlikely that reports are representative of experiences – due to various social filtering processes – extrapolation from reports to experiences is dangerous.

In regard to landings of UFOs, Vallée (1966, pp.156-170) has done an excellent analysis of the French wave of 1954 (6). Although his analysis is based on reports, his findings are nonetheless suggestive for conclusions about the distribution of primary experiences. He found that landings tend to be rural, that they tended to occur in circumstances where the locals would be “high discriminators” (7), and that those who made the reports tended to be respected in their communities, held a steady job, and tended to observe the landings between 9 and 11 pm. Only 15% of those who reported landings were alone when they saw the UFO, but this may reflect differential reporting. We will suggest below that one-person sightings are less likely to be reported then others, since shared experiences generally have a greater credibility.

A study by Warren (1970) established that college-educated, sharply status-inconsistent individuals reported proportionately the most sightings in the 1966 Gallup poll. These individuals also had a much stronger tendency to believe that what they saw represented an extraterrestrial vehicle (Warren, 1970, p.603). Warren explains this finding on the basis of the marginality (8) of such individuals, and in fact marginality could be expected to be involved in interest in anomalous phenomena generally. In as much as being integrated into a society requires a certain cognitive set, those less integrated will be less likely to hold this set, and thus more cognitively disposed to perceive or conceive of objects which do not fall within it.

The discrepancy between the findings of Vallée and Olmos and those of Warren might be explained by reference to the way in which the sightings in each case reached public attention. In the Warren cases, an attempt was made to survey a population for sightings. His finding that, among the college indicated, status-inconsistent individuals have more UFO sightings probably means that, exposed to the same stimuli, these persons tend to conceptualise them as UFOs more often. This tendency would seem to be borne out by the observation, that, given a UFO sighting, these persons are more likely than other UFO-sighters to give it an extraterrestrial explanation.

In the Vallée and Oleos cases on the other hand, we are dealing with a population of reports which has passed through a number of social filters. In this case individuals who had better standing in the community — i.e. ordinary, people — would generate reports that would better survive social filtering. One would also expect, although the evidence is not at hand, that group reports would be more likely to survive the filtering process than the reports of individual sightings. The status-inconsistent individual might have more observations of of objects interpreted as UFOs, but he and society might share a mutual disrespect which would not encourage reporting or transmission of his experience.

In discussing these clues to the nature of UFO sighters, it is important to distinguish the distribution of experiences from the distribution of reports. The former, if real unusual objects were involved, would represent a joint distribution of objects and potential observers. The distribution of reports, on the other hand, will represent the result of a social filtering process, and may bear an extremely biased relation to the actual distribution of sighters. Hence studies like Vallée and Vallée (1966) and Vallée and Olmos (1972) which fail to deal with the question of how the population of reports relates to the population of sighters, neglect the question of how representative the sample of reports is. (9)

Society at large, but particularly government agencies place a higher value on sightings by ‘reliable’ witnesses. In this case (10) this “reliability” seems to involve two factors: 1) honesty and 2) an ability to detect whether an object is really “anomalous” or not (11). While the need for the first quality is self-evident the second perhaps requires further definition. Detecting something anomalous in terms of current scientific knowledge requires aquaintance with the sorts of phenomena which might be mistaken for something truly “strange”: balloons high in the air, sundogs, ball-lightning, airplanes, and so forth. What is desired is some one who will have a low probability of mistaking for a UFO something which is not. Let us call such a person a “high discriminator”.

While reports from policemen are taken seriously because of their imputed honesty, reports from astronomers are given even more weight because it is believed that astronomers are high discriminators. As Ruppelt puts it, “astronomers know what is in the sky.” (12)

In view of the widely held belief that astronomers do not see UFOs, it is interesting to note that in 1953, an informal poll conducted among 45 well-known astronomers by J Allen Hynek revealed that 11% of them had seen some thing that they couldn’t explain, and that 23% thought that UFOs were a more serious problem than most people recognised (Ruppelt, 1956, p.283). A control group of non-astronomers, picked at random among Hynek’s aquantances, had a much lower frequency of UFO sightings, 1%. However, as we will see, the reporting of these observations by astronomers is infrequent.

Before we leave the distribution of experiences, one other point should be mentioned. This is the effect of primary experience upon those whose responsibility it is to report or evaluate other’s experiences. During the early years of the USAF’s Project Blue Book many former sceptics in the Air Force were converted to believers after their own direct experiences with a UFO (Ruppelt, 1956, PP-13, 178, 190, 203). Although Ruppelt does not say so, one can conjecture that the subsequent handling of UFO reports by such personnel was more sympathetic than it otherwise would have been. Similarly, observations by scientists of UFOs, even when not published, have been influential in making them personally more receptive to UFO reports and in some oases have changed the direction of their careers. One example of the latter is Dr Leo Sprinkle, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Wyoming:

On two occasions, each time in the presence of a person who shared my claim, I have observed unusual aerial anomalies which I could neither identify nor understand. My first observation of a “flying saucer” led me to change my position from that of a “scoffer” to that of a “sceptic” And my second observation forced me to change my position from “sceptic” to some thing like “unwilling believer”. (National Amateur Astronomers, 1969, p.13)

Sprinkle has since become very active as a UFO advocate. I have also found in talking to physical scientists that, experience, while seldom creating instant believers, often increases willingness to consider UFO reports.

The UFO Experience: Conceptualisation

Just how does a person decide that he is having, or has had, an experience with a UFO? This is clearly a critical question, both in terms of the person communicating his experience to others and in terms of the experience being socially correlated with others. It is possible, of course, that the realisation will occur only after the experience has been discussed with other people. However, let us put this possibility in abeyance for the moment and consider the lone individual having an experience. How does the person decide that he is looking at something really unusual? Clearly his reality-testing is vital for any ultimate assessment of the significance of his experience.

In his study of the public reaction to the Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938 Cantril (1966) found that belief in the “invasion” was influenced by a lack of what he called critical ability. Briefly, critical ability was shown by those who made checks about the authenticity of the described events either through the internal evidence of the broadcast, or by checking the social context for counter-indications, such as routine programmes on other stations. Those without this critical ability, even when they were of a relatively high educational level, believed that the play was indeed a news broadcast and that the Martians were actually landing, etc. – except in the case of those who were lucky enough to discover by accident that the broadcast was a play.

In the UFO experience, we find the same division of ability. Those with critical ability try to use external checks of the validity of their own observations, try to test out alternative explanations or even seek a change of position of observation for a better view.

The object looked like the top of a parachute canopy, he told me; it was white and he thought he could see the wedges of panels. He said that he thought it was moving across the ground a little bit too fast to be drifting with the wind, but he was sure that someone had bailed out and he was looking at the top of his parachute. He was just ready to call the tower when he suddenly realised that this “parachute” was drifting across the wind.(Ruppelt, 1956, pp.161-162)

It is not unusual for UFO sightings to begin with the hypothesis that one is viewing something routine, and to discard this hypothesis as features of the sighting make it clear that this is untenable. For instance a group of scientists who thought they might be mistaking airplanes near their installation for UFOs had planes fly over to see if they produced the same effect (Ruppelt, 1956, p.226). Still other ways to make sure that one is seeing something correctly are to ask others if they can see it too, or having left the locale of the sighting to return to see if the object is still there: “I wanted to make sure it was there. To take another look to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. We did go back” (Fuller, 1966, p.64).

This checking of one’s perceptions against other explanations, against other’s perceptions and for constancy over time renders more valuable the reports generated in this way. The uncertainty as to whether one has really eliminated alternative explanations – i.e. that one has not been able to act as a “high discriminator” – seems to be responsible for much non-reporting of sightings. In the Colorado survey sighters who did not report what they had seen, most frequently (40%) gave as the major reason that “it was probably something normal that just looked funny for one reason or another” (Lee, 1968, p.228)

In contrast to this “critical” approach, the reaction that can popularly be called “hysterical” starts with the premise that what one is looking at is a UFO, and other details of the sighting are rationalised to agree with this hypothesis:

I really wanted to see a UFO. I remember saying aloud… ‘This is no natural phenomenon. It’s really UFOs, I… made an attempt to communicate with them. I had a flashlight … and signalled … in Morse code… No visible response elicited. After I came into the house I had an over-powering drive to sleep… My dog went over between the two trash cans like she was frightened to death … High frequency sounds inaudible to us? (Quoted by Hartmann, 1968, p.577)

It is ironic that the sighting in this case may have been the Russian satellite Zond IV re-entering the atmosphere. It is important to recognise that a hysterical reaction by itself does not imply that a UFO was not in fact seen. Many of the UFOs which are the result of “critical’ sightings get classified as “unknowns”, but the hysterical reactions could well have stimuli that are just as unknown. The reaction is as much a property of the observer as of the stimulus.

Interestingly, while “mass-hysteria” is seen as an alternative to UFOs being real, the credibility of a sighting (at least for males) tends to be enhanced by signs of extreme emotion. In the Exeter, New Hampshire sightings reported in Fuller (1966), those referring to the credibility of the witness’s reports repeatedly mentioned the extreme degree of fear shown subsequent to the sighting as evidence the witness was telling the truth. Hence an hysterical reaction in someone who is normally very unlikely to show this reaction tends to be interpreted as an indication that the person really did see something strange.

One point raised by Hartmann (1968) bears discussion here. He notes that many observers of what was probably the Zond IV re-entry attributed to it erroneous traits. He goes on to state (correctly) that this event shows that eye-witness testimony of celestial events is often faulty, and that therefore it cannot be used as a reliable indicator of what actually happened. This is of course a basic principle of forensic psychology. He the suggests that since this is so, that “it is conceivable and defensible that ell of the UFO reports could result from mistakes illusions, unusual conditions and fabrications” (p.589). This is logically correct.

However, much the same thing can be said about a variety of celestial phenomena. the absence of cameras has not precluded people in a variety of cultures, from Sumer to the USA, from making accurate astronomical observations. If civilization had disposed of all eye-witness reports of celestial phenomena on the grounds that some reports were inaccurate, the development of modern astronomy would have been much more slow. Hence one must condsider not only the fallibility of eye-witnesses, but also the capability of others. That eye-witness testimony is fallible does not mean that it is without use.


  • (1) Fielding makes an interesting observation about this word in Tom Jones. “Jones now declared that they must certainly have lost their way; but this the guide insisted upon was impossible; a word which in common conversation is often used not only to signify improbable, but often what is really very likely, and sometimes, what has certainly happened: an hyperbolic violence like that which is so frequently offered to the words infinite end eternal: by the former of which it is usual to express a distance of half a yard: and by the latter a duration of five minutes. And thus it is as usual to assert the impossibility of losing what is actually lost”
  • (2) Scientists have often been willing to guess as to the true nature of “sea serpents”, partly because they felt that such things represented a misidentification of which they knew the explanation. See Heuvelmans (1968)
  • (3) See for instance Munsterberg’s On the Witness Stand. (1915)
  • (4) This method of treatment was suggested to me by my former mentor Duncan MacRae.
  • (5) For opposing views on the matter the reader is directed to Gilmor, 1968, and US House Committee on Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1968.
  • (6) Vallée & Olmos (1972) have done a parallel study on Spanish landings 1925-1969 which reached similar conclusions.
  • (7) For instance in people’s backyards or on their way to work, etc.
  • (8) That status-inconsistent individuals are “marginal” is not tautological, and therefore must be proved. Marginality reflects dual group- or culture-membership, whereas status inconsistency refers to traits like education, income and so forth. Warren’s argument that status-inconsistent people are marginal is cogent, but not conclusive.
  • (9) Vallée and Olmos do note that of the 38 single-person sightings in their sample, 31 were by males and only seven by females. Even considering the possibility that Iberian females simply don’t get out as much as males, one can note that it is just as plausible that what is involved here is a greater propensity to report on the part of males.
  • (10) Obviously the question of reliability of information received through social channels is one of the capital questions of the sociology of knowledge. Our view of the world and its contents is profoundly affected by what we choose as a reliable source. The way in which certain persons and organisations become viewed as ‘reliable’ merits extensive empirical study.
  • (11) Hovland, Janis and Kelley (1953, pp.19-55) note that under conditions where a message lacks intrinsic credibility, evaluation of sources becomes important. Sources are usually evaluated in two ways: Trustworthiness and competence. This finding is borne out in the UFO field.
  • (12) Whether this is true relative to airline pilots, meteorologists or intelligence personnel is another question. What is important from the point of view of sociology is that astronomers are given special weight because of their perceived competence. 

Part Two, continued (with bibliography)

Vendetta With Venus. Jenny Randles

From MUFOB New series 14, Spring 1979

In this report Jenny Randles gives an on the spot account of how the details of a UFO report are misrepresented by investigators, the media and the witnesses themselves

The most surprising thing about writing this article is that I am actually here to do it. Why, you might well ask. The reason is that I live just two miles from the Greater Manchester town of Urmston. That, I am sure, explains everything!

Well, on Friday December 1st, 1978 it seems that the planet Venus – which has (I am reliably informed) a diameter of about 7690 miles – landed in some marsh-meadows in that town. If course I could not possibly have escaped the impact. Sadly, I also have to inform Peter Rogerson that he is no longer with us. He resides in that very town, so is now presumably writing about the meaning of angelic visitations in rather more than theoretical terms!

All of this apart, the story that I am about to relate has considerable importance for the modern-day ufologist. It demonstrates a number of things that can snare him in his search for truth – if he has a mind to that goal, as it seems most prefer the thrill of the chase. If they catch up with the answers too closely it may spoil their fun!

That Friday morning was cold, frosty and very clear. As I sleepily awoke at about 7.00 a.m. I glanced out of a window that faces south and saw a spectacular sight at about 30 degress elevation. My immediate reaction was : “Venus is bright today” and after a few admiring glances, passed it by to return to more mundane pursuits like bacon and eggs.

At 8.15 a.m. precisely I happened to look out of the same window to see if it was still visible. The day had dawned sunny with a cloudless sky, but the pinprick of white light was still there, having moved a little to the west (as expected). At 8.30 I happened to pass the room once again and glanced once more. After a brief search I could still find it. These two times are exact. What is more interesting, even if it is pure coincidence, is that on both occasions I wondered if anyone was mistaking the astronomical wonder for a UFO.

Meanwhile I got on with my days work, until at about 12 noon I received a Mr Alan Babcock of Urmston. I spoke to him for some time as he related his story, and quizzed him on several points. This was despite the fact that I knew what he had seen. A brief account of his report follows:

At 6.00 a.m. his wife Sharon was drying her hair in the bedroom when she noticed a white light in the south (bearing later determined as about 190 degrees). It was so unusually bright and large that she knew it was not a star. Then a ‘vehicle’ detached itself from the ‘star’ and sped to earth. In a few seconds it had landed on the meadows besides the River Mersey, a half mile or so to their south-east. As it fell to earth, a beam of light was shot from star to vehicle, and then back in reciprocation. the ‘vehicle’ itself was of course only seen momentarily in the pitch black, but it looked like a bee-hive with ‘tyres’ around it.

The funny ‘star’ had meanwhile moved, so she called her husband out of bed and told him what had happened. They both watched it for half an hour through the window-glass with a pair of binoculars. It seemed to have a flashing light on top which pulsed every four seconds or so. By now they were convinced it was a UFO – although Alan Babcock claimed he never really believed in them until that moment. They brought Mr Babcock’s brother to watch it before it was decided that Alan Should drive out to find the object that had landed. The time was now between 6.30 and 7.00 am.

It demonstrates a number of things that can snare him in his search for truth – if he has a mind to that goal, as it seems most prefer the thrill of the chase. If they catch up with the answers too closely it may spoil their fun! 

    Sharon was distressed, but let her husband go. He drove as far as he could and then proceeded on foot, eventually being stopped by the dark surroundings and the nearby river bank. Over to his right he saw some vague lights through bushes on the other side of the river. He stared at them for five or ten minutes despite the bitter cold. All he could really see were lights of different colours (but even five hours after he could not remember which colours), which seemed to be moving around. When I asked if all he saw were lights, he replied: “Well – I think so – there was a kind of vague shape – something like a dome – behind them” After they failed to move he convinced himself they were lights at the Shell oil refinery in nearby Carrington, and returned home in disgust.
When he confronted his wife with this account he realised several things. Firstly that the lights were not in the direction where she saw the object land, and secondly that the star was still in the sky, but not over where the lights had been. Sharon also pointed out that Carrington was west, and he was facing east (although he admitted that obtaining the exact bearings of were he was would be difficult.

With the star still there and looking like a “giant spider’s web” of light revolving around a central point, they called the police. At 8.00 a.m. with the day dawning two officers arrived. For thirty minutes, until the light faded in the brightening sky, they watched the star through binoculars. The police were positive that it was something odd, said Mr Babcock, and gave him a number to report the UFO officially. He did so, and was told that there had been several other calls to corroborate this, but they had no idea what it was. He then called the Manchester Evening News who decided to interview him and his wife within minutes. Finally, he had rung Granada TV who put him onto me, and also said they were considering interviewing him.

So I was faced with this story around 1.00 p.m.. I knew very well the bright star was the one I had seen, and found it interesting that Babcock had referred specifically to two times (8.15 a.m. and 8.30 a.m., when the police viewed the ‘UFO’) when I had also been looking on, and wondering!

My astronomical knowledge is rudimentary and I was not positive it was Venus that I had seen, although all the indications pointed that way. So I left the matter in abeyance and meanwhile tried the ‘official number’ and police station that Mt babcock had contacted.

The official number, as I had suspected, was Manchester Airport. I spoke at length to the Air Traffic Supervisor, who was most helpful. He explained that they had only one other report that day, over Stockport, and that there had been an aircraft in the vicinity that could probably explain it. Mr Babcock’s light they had not thought to be of any significance, and did not report it to the Ministry of Defence at West Drayton. The Supervisor totally refuted Mr Babcock’s claim that there had been several ‘corroborative’ sightings. The police also informed me that they had no other reports, and that the officers concerned thought the whole thing a waste of time. They regarded the light as a light. One said, “It could have been anything – probably a star or a satellite or something”. Both these sources accepted as very plausible my explanation that it was Venus.

My next port of call was the Manchester Evening News. They were abrupt and somewhat rude. Their basic approach was ‘we don’t want to know about any mundane explantions’. When i would not confirm that their precious sighting was a flying saucer, or even a UFO, the terminated the conversation.

At 5.00 p.m. the evening paper arrived. It contained a major splash on the sighting – quite unusual for the MEN (Manchester Evening News). Headed “MYSTERY IN THE SKY SCARES HOUSEWIFE”, it contained pictures of the Babcocks, and a large drawing of the ‘beehive’, plus white blob of light. The whole tone was that a UFO had landed in Urmston. The quotes from both the airport and the police totally contradicted what I had been told. In other parts they had been taken out of context to make it appear they were pronouncing the light a UFO.

Shortly after the paper reached the newsstands I spoke to Bill Skellon, an investigator for the DIGAP group, who also lived near Urmston. I had no intention of going any further with this report myself, but thought it might be interesting to see how the case developed, so when Bill said he was going to see the witnesses, I raised no objection. He set to work planning a full scale investigation.

That evening Peter Rogerson rang me to ask what I knew. I told him, and he had of course suspected that there was a mundane explanation of that sort.

On Saturday, Sunday and Monday investigations by DIGAP continued. They interviewed the witnesses several times and went to the scene on Urmston Meadows to look for samples, radiation, etc. Still nobody seemed to be looking for a natural explanation, although David Tarry, the DIGAP investigator who did most of the work on the case, was by Monday suspecting something mundane for the ‘landed object’ seen by the witness. In fact he felt that a farmer’s tractor lights might be to blame, a view subsequently echoed by Bill Skellon. At that moment I put David in the picture on the Venus situation.

The press had not been idle over the weekend. The MEN carried a follow-up piece on the Saturday, saying tht more people had seen the ‘spaceship’. Then one chap, unbelievably from the Natural Science Phenomena Society or something, drew parallels between the US Mars Lander and the UFO, which he proposed had landed in the Mersey to take soil samples! All of this totally omitted any reference to the obvious solution to the mystery, which I had offered on Friday afternoon, and which anyone with any sense should have suspected from learning about a 2½ hour encounter with a mostly stationary light.

Tuesday morning was the first to be clear again, and a quick glance at the southern sky at about 7.00 a.m. revealed our ‘UFO’. By now my colleague Peter Warrington, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, had checked out the position of Venus, and there was virtually no room for doubt that the cause of the main part of the Friday morning sighting was that planet.

On Tuesday evening David Tarry rang me to say that Granada Television wanted him to appear to talk about ‘the UFO’, and news had by now filtered to other parts of the country, via press agencies. Being a relative newcomer to the subject Tarry had declined the TV interview. When Granada then came to me I took the opportunity, without revealing, until I had got to the studios, what I planned to say. That evening they presented a short filmed report on the events, interviewing Mr and Mrs Babcock at the Urmston site. The influence of the investigators, to whom they referred on air, was noticable.

“Oh, yes”, said Mrs Babcock. “Several UFO investigators from the group have been to see us and were very interested. They showed us pictures of UFOs and we picked out which one it was”. They went on to talk, now in much more graphic terms, about the ‘object’ on the ground. Five hours after the events, when they rang me, it was just a set of lights. Bill Skellon, the investigator who had shown the UFO sketches says that the TV made it seem they had led the witnesses, but in fact they showed their drawings after the Babcocks described their sightings. It seems the landed object was now most like an Adamski Scout-Ship! Sharon had by now turned her two brief flashes of light into “beams of solid light”.

I have no desire to criticise the DIGAP investigators, I am sure they acted with honestly objective intentions. The point is, however, that they clearly had deeply affected the witness’s story, and it was now much more bizarre. At this point DIGAP have not yet published their final report, so it would be unfair of me to comment on their methodology; yet it seems odd to me that they should not look for the rational before exploring the irrational. This seems to be a failing of far too many UFO investigators, and perhaps a prime reason why we have so much apparently puzzling data.

It seems odd to me that investigators should not look for the rational before exploring the irrational. This seems to be a failing of far too many UFO investigators, and perhaps a prime reason why we have so much apparently puzzling data.

I did appear on Granada Television on the Wednesday and made my point by suggesting that viewers look for themselves at what the Babcocks had seen. At the same time I made no comment at all about the ‘beehive’ or the landed ‘object’ involved in the sighting. Considering my early involvement in the case it seemed clear to me that most if not all of the strange aspects of the case were attributable to the cold and unusually clear atmosphere distorting Venus at its most brilliant. No doubt frost on the window-pane, abberations in the binoculars or even sleep in the eyes of Mrs Babcock during the first two minutes of the observation were all contributory factors towards what was rapidly becoming a ‘classic’ landing.

It now seems that Mrs Babcock remembers some youths returning from the meadows, near where her husband saw the ‘landed’ object. This was around 9.00 p.m. on the Thursday night. It seems there was an ‘eerie’ sensation around the place and horses and cows grazing on the meadows were ‘acting up a bit’. Now we are getting associated effects intermixed with what is turning into a close encounter! One wonders what would have happened if the invetigators had found the remains of an illicit bonfire on the meadows. Would we have physical traces too?

In fact there is still more to add. Granada (tongue-in-cheek, we hope) announced that a certain UFO investigator – they named no names, so I cannot imagine who – connected the sighting with the mysterious disappearance of seven cats from the vicinity!

As a UFO investigator who comes across all sorts of strange encounters, most of much greater importance than this, I find it sad and horrifying that this whole thing can have been exploited out of all proportion. To most of the general public this is typical of UFO sightings and typical of UFO investigators. There is truth and untruth in that viewpoint. Yet here we see the genesis of a classic case, which I hope through MUFOB will remain classic no more to those few who care, the serious UFO reporters who know there is something strange behind some of the reports, although we may not agree among ourselves what precisely this is.

For those few, Friday December 1st, 1978 was a sad, but all too typical day.