|UFO Sightings and the Scientific Investigation of Them
Although fiction, one might say, has in a way prepared men for the appearance of UFOs, our understanding of their “objective” reality obviously cannot be derived from literature or human expectations and fantasies. Before we can understand what they might be, we must know something of the nature and reliability of the observations which have been made of them. Is there really something “out there” in the sky, or is the phenomenon entirely a matter of misperception on the one hand, and psychological and pseudo-religious will fulfillment on the other?
A reliable outline of UFO phenomena has been given by Dr. Jacques Vallee, a French scientist now living in California who has advanced degrees in astro-physics and computer science and has been involved in the scientific analysis of UFO reports for a number of years. His testimony is all the more valuable to us in that he has studied closely UFO sightings outside of the United States, especially in France, and is thus able to give a fair international picture of their distribution.
Dr. Vallee finds that although strange flying objects have been observed at various times in past centuries, their modern history as a mass phenomenon begins in the years during and just after World War II. American interest began with the sightings in 1947, but there were a number of sightings before that in Europe. In World War II many pilots reported strange lights which seemed to be under intelligent control, and in 1946, particularly in July, there were a whole series of sightings in Sweden and other northern European countries. Sightings in this “Scandinavian wave” were interpreted first as meteors, then as rockets or bombs, and finally as some new type of aircraft capable of extraordinary movements in the sky but leaving no trace on the ground even when they seemed to land. The European press was full of reports of this wave of sightings, and everyone in Sweden was talking of them; some thousands of sightings were reported, but not once was the hypothesis of “extraterrestrial” or “interplanetary” origin suggested. Dr. Vallee concludes that the wave was caused by actually existing but unidentified objects and not by any previously existing UFO rumor or expectation of “visitors from outer space.” In this and succeeding saucer waves he finds a total absence of any correlation between widespread interest in science fiction and peaks of UFO activity; earlier, also, there had been no saucer wave at the time of the American panic over Orson Welles’ 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. He concludes that “the birth, growth, and expansion of a UFO wave is an objective phenomenon independent of the conscious or unconscious influence of the witnesses and their reaction to it.”
The first publicized sighting in the United States occurred in June of 1947, when Kenneth Arnold, a salesman flying his own plane, saw nine disclike objects, looking something like “saucers,” flying near Mt. Rainier in Washington state. The newspapers picked up the story, and the flying saucer era began. Interestingly, however, this was not actually the first American sighting at all; other unpublicized sightings had been made in the months before this. There was also a UFO wave (with fifty reports) in Hungary early in June. Therefore, the 1947 sightings cannot all be set down to a hysteria over the Arnold incident. There were a number of other sightings in the American wave of 1947, chiefly in June, July, and August. Although some newspapers speculated on “interplanetary visitors,” these sightings were taken seriously by scientists, who assumed they were the result of advanced human technology, most likely American, or perhaps Russian.
A second wave occurred in July 1948, with sightings in America and France. In the United States there was a spectacular night sighting made by the pilots of an Eastern Airlines DC-3 plane of a torpedo-shaped craft with two rows of portholes, surrounded by a blue glow and with a tail of orange flames, which maneuvered to avoid collision and disappeared. In August of the same year there were many sightings in Saigon and other parts of Southeast Asia of a “long fish-like object.”
1949 saw reports of strange discs and spheres in Sweden and more UFOs in America, including two observations by trained astronomical observers. Small UFO waves, as well as isolated sightings, continued in 1950 and 1951, especially in the United States, but also in Europe.
In 1952 the first real international UFO wave occurred, with many sightings in the United States, France, and North Africa. At the peak of the wave, two sensational sightings were made above the Capitol and the White House in Washington, D.C. (an area under constant control by radar). In September there was a wave encompassing Denmark, Sweden, and northern Germany and Poland. At the same time in France the first UFO “landing” was reported, together with a description of “little men.”
In 1953 there were no waves, but there were a number of individual sightings. The most remarkable one occurred in North Dakota, where four objects hovered and maneuvered over an air filter station for three hours at night; an official report of this event consisted of several hundred pages, with accounts from many witnesses, mainly pilots and military personnel.
1954 saw the largest international wave yet. France was literally inundated with sightings, with dozens of reports every day in September, October, and November. In the French wave the problems facing a serious scientific investigation of UFO phenomena are well demonstrated: the phenomenon was so intense, the impact on public opinion so deep, the newspapers’ reaction so emotional that scientific reflexes were saturated long before a serious investigation could be organized. As a result, no scientist could risk his reputation by studying openly a phenomenon so emotionally distorted; French scientists remained silent until the wave passed and died.
During the French wave, the typical characteristics of later UFO encounters were often present: UFO “landings” (with at least some circumstantial evidence of them), beams of light issuing from the UFO to the witness, stoppage of motors in the vicinity of the sightings, strange small beings in “diving suits,” serious psychic and physical harm to witnesses.
Since 1954 many sightings have been made every year in various countries, with major international waves in 1965, 1967, and 1972-73; sightings have been especially numerous and profound in their effects in South American countries.
The best known government investigation of UFOs was that undertaken by the United States Air Force shortly after the first American sightings in 1947; this investigation, known from 1951 on as “Project Blue Book,” lasted until 1969, when it was abandoned on the recommendation of the “Condon Report” of 1968 – the work of a scientific committee led by a noted physicist of the University of Colorado. Close observers both of “Blue Book” and the Condon Committee, however, have noted that neither of them took UFO phenomena seriously and that their main occupation was more the “public relations” task of explaining away mystifying aerial phenomena in order to calm public fears about them. Some “Flying Saucer” groups claimed that the Unites States government was using these investigations as a cover-up of its own knowledge of the real nature of UFOs; but all evidence points to the fact that the investigations themselves were simply careless because the phenomena were not taken seriously – especially after some of the stranger UFO stories had begun to make the subject distasteful to scientists. The first director of “Blue Book,” Captain Edward Ruppelt, admitted that “had the Air Force tried to throw up a screen of confusion, they couldn’t have done a better job… The problem was tackled with organized confusion… Everything was being evaluated on the premise that UFOs couldn’t exist.” The Condon Report contains some “classic” explanations of UFOs; one, for example, states that “this unusual sighting should therefore be assigned to the category of some almost certainly natural phenomenon which is so rare that it apparently has never been reported before or since.” The chief scientific consultant of “Blue Book” for most of its 22 years, Northwestern University astronomer J. Allen Hynek, openly calls the whole thing “a pseudo-scientific project.”
In its 22 years of investigations, such as they were, “Project Blue Book” collected over 12,000 cases of puzzling aerial phenomena, 25% of which remained unidentified even after its often strained explanations. Many thousands of other cases have been and are being collected and investigated by private organizations in the United States and in other countries, although almost all government organizations refrain from comment on them. In the Soviet Union the subject was first given public mention (which means government approval) in 1967, when Dr. Felix Ziegel of the Moscow Institute of Aviation, in an article in the Soviet magazine Smena, stated that “Soviet radar has picked up unidentified flying objects for twenty years.” At the same time there was a Soviet scientific conference “On Space Civilizations,” led by the Armenian astronomer Viktor Ambartsumyan, which urged a preliminary study of the scientific and technical problems of communicating with such “civilizations,” whose existence is taken for granted. The next year, however, the subject of UFOs became once more forbidden in the Soviet Union, and since then Soviet scientists have told of their researches and hypotheses only unofficially to Western scientists.
In the United States, the subject of UFOs remains somewhat off-limits for military and scientific men, but in recent years an increasing number, especially among younger scientists, have begun to take the subject seriously and come together to discuss it and suggest means of researching it. Drs. Hynek and Vallee speak of an “invisible college” of scientists who are now actively interested in UFO phenomena, although most of them do not wish their names publicly associated with the subject.
There are, of course, those who continue to deny the phenomenon altogether, explaining it as misperceptions of natural objects, balloons, airplanes, etc., not to mention hoaxes and psychological “projections.” One of these, Philip Klass, takes delight in debunking UFOs, investigating some of the sightings and finding them to be either natural phenomena or frauds. His study has convinced him that “the idea of wondrous spaceships from a distant civilization really is a fairy story that is tailored to the adult mentality.” Such hard-headed investigators, however, usually restrict themselves to cases where actual physical proof of a UFO has been left (the so-called “Close Encounters of the Second Kind,” as we shall see below); and even staunch defenders of their reality are forced to admit that there is very little of this even in the most convincing UFO sightings. The one thing that has persuaded a number of scientists in recent years to take the phenomena seriously is not the physical proof of them, but the fact that many serious and reliable people have seen something which cannot be explained and which often has a powerful effect upon them. Dr. Hynek writes of his investigation: “Invariably I have had the feeling that I was talking to someone who was describing a very real event. To him or her it represented an outstanding experience, vivid and not at all dreamlike, an event for which the observer was usually totally unprepared – something soon recognized as being beyond comprehension.”
This combination of the often intense reality of the experience of encountering a UFO (especially in the “Close Encounters”), and the almost total lack of physical evidence of it – makes the investigation of UFOs by nature not chiefly an examination of physical phenomena, but more an investigation of the human reports of it, their credibility, consistency, etc. Already this places the investigation somewhat in the realm of psychology, and is enough to tell us that the approach solely in search of physical proof is an inadequate one. However, Mr. Klass’ opinion that the “wondrous spaceships” are a fairy story for adults is perhaps also not far from the truth. One thing is the observation made of UFOs, and quite another is the interpretation which people give their (or others’) observations – the former could be real, and the latter a “fairy story” or a myth of our times.
Dr. Hynek has done much to remove some of the common misconceptions about UFO sightings. Thus, he makes it clear that most UFO sightings are not reported by cultists, unstable or uneducated people. The few reports made by such people are usually easily identified as unreliable and not further investigated. But the most coherent and articulate reports come from normal, responsible people (often with scientific training), who are genuinely surprised or shocked by their experience and simply do not know how to explain it; the stronger the experience and the closer the UFO is seen, the less willing the witnesses are to report it at all. UFO records are a collection of “incredible tales told by credible persons,” as one Air Force general has remarked. There can be no reasonable doubt that there is something behind the many thousands of serious UFO reports.