The Unknowns: Mystifying UFO Cases

 

I’ve never paid much attention to UFO sightings. I’ve read about the occasional incident but my curiosity never really expanded beyond those few cases. I just find that far too often the focus of UFO stories is on the mystery itself as opposed to the resolution of that mystery. Plausible explanations take a backseat to fantastical embellishments. There’s a “documentary” on Netflix right now, and I’m using the term “documentary” very loosely, about a man who claims to be harassed and pursued by aliens. In one scene, he literally has someone bob one of those alien masks you’d get for Halloween outside a window and it is played completely straight. We, the audience, are supposed to believe that this is a close encounter of the third kind when it looks like a close encounter of the trick-or-treat kind.

Nevertheless, this “documentary” did peak my interest and so I began to learn more about the UFO phenomenon, immersing myself in this expansive mythos of which I only had a very limited understanding. From the very start I was taken down this convoluted path of alien abductions, government conspiracies, and alien experiments that read like rejected drafts of The X-Files. But every now and again, I came across something a bit more credible. Stories that were genuinely difficult to rationalize. Nothing that would convince me the Earth is a galactic resort but mystifying stories all the same.

To get you on the same page as me, we need to go back to the year 1947. In the summer of 1947, news and government agencies across North America were flooded with reports of strange objects in the sky. This UFO mania was provoked by a pilot named Kenneth Arnold. On June the 24th Arnold was flying over the Cascade Mountains in the state of Washington when he observed a formation of nine saucer-like objects zooming across the sky. Unbeknownst to Arnold, this innocent description would come to popularize the term flying saucer. The scintillating discoids appeared to be traveling at a speed of some 2000 km/h, a speed yet to be achieved by any man-made airplane in 1947. Arnold initially suspected he’d observed some secret military test flight but the US Air Force quickly denied responsibility and merely dismissed the sighting as some form of optical illusion. But it wasn’t quite that simple. Not only was Arnold an experienced pilot but his story was corroborated by a number of witnesses on the ground who all described a series of oval-shaped objects traveling at a tremendous rate of speed. Furthermore, other sightings had been reported days before and would continue for many days after.

More than 800 cases in less than a month, including the famous Roswell incident. Publicly the US Air Force dismissed the sightings as nothing more than a combination of overactive imaginations and misperceptions of natural phenomena but internally the Air Force was just as mystified as the public and actually quite concerned. Hundreds of unrelated persons from all walks of life including high ranking military officials, scientists, engineers, politicians, and professional pilots reported uncannily similar experiences in the span of a few weeks. Both the public and the intelligence community crew increasingly convinced that something was hiding amongst the clouds. In late June of 1947 the Air Force covertly launched a preliminary investigation into the sightings as they suspected that some UFOs could be vessels of foreign or celestial origin. By late September the existence of advanced aeronautic vehicles could not be eliminated. While the majority of cases could be ascribed to natural phenomena, the maneuverability and evasive behavior displayed by some UFOs defied all conventional explanations. It was speculated that these seemingly mechanical UFOs could be part of some top secret military project, either foreign or domestic.

It was feared that the Soviet Union had seized German technology after World War II and developed some advanced aircraft capable of covert infiltration of US airspace. This led to the formation of Project Sign. A classified investigation that would attempt to determine whether or not UFOs posed a threat to national security. While the project members entertained a number of plausible causes, by the summer of 1948, a minority of credible and well documented UFO cases could not be resolved.

These cases became known as the unknowns. By process of elimination, Project Sign therefore concluded that the most probable explanation for the most inexplicable of cases was the extraterrestrial hypothesis. In other words, the unknowns did not appear to be from this Earth. However, once this report reached the Pentagon, it was rejected. The interplanetary explanation was thought to be unsubstantiated and so the report was ultimately scrapped. Project Sign was dissolved soon thereafter and subsequent investigations ultimately failed to ascertain the nature of these unknowns. Project Sign’s successor, Project Blue Book, merely concluded that it was statistically improbable that UFOs represented technological capabilities beyond our own. As the vast majority of UFO sightings are misperceptions of natural phenomena the presumption was that all UFO sightings are likely to be misperceptions. As such, funding for UFO research could no longer be justified as the threat to national security was evidently nonexistent.

Government sanctioned UFO research officially ended with the dissolution of Project Blue Book in 1969 and the Air Force has since proclaimed the issue resolved. Out of the 12,618 UFO reports in its collection, 701 were marked unknown upon its conclusion. Although, some would argue that many cases were mischaracterized and that more than 1,700 cases should be regarded as unknowns. While the US government may dismiss these unknowns as mere statistical anomalies, the fundamental question remains. What did people see? What kind of natural phenomenon evades resolution despite decades of scrutiny? Late in the afternoon on May the 24th, 1949, six civilians were on a fishing trip on the Rogue River in the state of Oregon.

Suddenly, one of them observed a round and scintillating object in the sky. It barely moved as it silently hovered some 1,500 meters above. It was difficult to discern any details with the naked eye but fortunately one of them had brought a pair of binoculars with eight times magnification. The binoculars revealed a clearly distinguishable metallic craft of unfamiliar design. It was round and flat, about 10 meters in diameter, and had a rounded fin on the roof. It had a reflective silver-colored surface that appeared to be somewhat dirty. It lacked any conventional means of propulsion and made absolutely no sound. After some two minutes of observation, the UFO gradually moved in the opposite direction of the wind until it disappeared with the speed of a jet plane.

Besides the corroborating accounts and detailed sketches, what makes this case so interesting is that two of the civilian observers were also employed at an aeronautical research facility so they had ample knowledge of aeronautics. Furthermore, the story never reached the public. This is important because if this was a hoax one would expect the hoaxers to seek media attention, yet the witnesses refrained from speaking to the press.

The story never reached the public eye until many years later when ufologists uncovered the case files which revealed that Project Blue Book had rather dismissively concluded it must have been a misidentified airplane or a weather balloon. So all we need now is a plane shaped like a pancake or a self-propelled balloon unaffected by wind. If you spend some time reading about UFOs you will soon come across an explanation that is repeated time and time again. Weather balloons. This is certainly true for some of the more famous cases. The Battle of Los Angeles? Balloon. The Roswell Incident? Top secret balloon. The Mantell Incident? Once again, a balloon. Unfortunately for proponents of the extraterrestrial hypothesis, it is often a rather convincing explanation.

However, it is far less convincing when the witnesses of a UFO are themselves launching a balloon. On April the 24th, 1949, a group of five balloonists had just launched a weather balloon in the New Mexico desert and were tacking said balloon with a special telescope. Suddenly, the person operating the telescope sighted another object in the sky and alerted the rest of the group who could all see the UFO with the naked eye. It had an elliptical shape and was white-, silver-, and yellow-ish in color. It was impossible to accurately determine its altitude and size due to the lack of reference points but it appeared to be flying at an extremely high altitude and moved so quickly across the sky it was difficult to track with the telescope. It remained visible for about a minute until it suddenly stopped its horizontal motion and disappeared by near vertical ascension into the clear blue sky. It made no sound and traveled crosswind. A year prior a very similar incident had taken place on the 5th of April.

Three balloonists in the New Mexico desert were observing a weather balloon when they spotted a UFO moving at a very high rate of speed. It had a round shape and was white-, gray-, and gold-ish in color. It flew erratically across the sky and performed vertical loops for about 30 seconds until it disappeared. The desert was completely silent yet the UFO violently maneuvered without making a sound. Then on January the 16th, 1951, two balloonists and a number pilots and civilians in the New Mexico desert observed two UFOs in the vicinity of the balloon they were observing. The balloon had reached an altitude of 35 km and, even though it was about 30 meters in diameter, the two UFOs were about three to five times larger and appeared to be flying above the balloon.

They had an elliptical shape and were white and gray in color. They orbited the balloon for about 40 seconds until they disappeared into the distance at a terrific rate of speed. These are just three examples of many similar cases and despite the fact that the spectators involved could not have been more qualified to identify aerial phenomena, none could explain what they had seen. Just before midnight on July the 19th, 1952, radarscopes in and around Washington D. C. picked up a cluster of 5 to 10 unidentified targets. There were no scheduled flights in the area and the UFOs did not adhere to any established flight paths. The possibility of a malfunction was quickly eliminated as radarscopes at three separate airports displayed the same unidentifiable targets. Eventually, the objects could be visually confirmed as orbs of light slowly moving across the sky. After a while the objects began to fan out, zooming across the night sky of Washington D. C. They flew above the White House, the Capitol Building, and many other restricted areas in a disorganized and unpredictable fashion.

On numerous occasion the UFOs performed sharp 90 degree turns and some would completely reverse course in a matter of seconds. Radar operators were baffled. No man-made aircraft could perform such maneuvers. Air traffic controllers, radar operators, pilots, military personnel, and countless civilians all reported sightings of UFOs. One pilot remained in close proximity to the UFOs for about 14 minutes, describing them as white lights with no recognizable shape. While some lights flew in parallel to the plane, others appeared to be flying outside the Earths atmosphere. The sightings by the pilot also coincided with the radar detections suggesting that these were indeed physical flying objects as opposed to radar misidentifications of some kind. After more than three hours, two jet fighters were dispatched to intercept the UFOs but moments before they arrived, the objects accelerated to speeds in excess of 10,000 km/h and disappeared out of sight.

However, when the jets returned to refuel the UFOs returned to the skies. Some five hours after initial detection, the last UFO vanished from the radarscopes. But a week later, the UFOs returned once more. On the evening of July the 26th numerous UFOs were observed streaking across the skies above and around Washington D.C. They shared many similarities with the UFOs from the week before, appearing as orbs of light capable of extreme supersonic velocities.

The crew and passengers of some commercial flights could once again visually confirm the existence of many of the UFOs detected by radar. Four jets were dispatched during the night and two of the pilots did see something on two separate occasions. One pilot saw four white lights while the other saw a single white light. However, neither came close enough to make an accurate identification as the jets were easily outmaneuvered by the UFOs. Under mounting pressure from the public to explain this apparent invasion of the US capital, the Air Force held a press conference on July the 29th. At the conference they claimed that temperature inversions were to blame. It’s an atmospheric condition in which layers of warm air traps pockets of cold air which can result in false returns on a radarscope.

Conversely, the visual sightings were supposedly misperceptions of stars, meteors, or strange reflections of natural sources of light. In other words, it was all just a big misunderstanding and there was no cause for alarm. It’s a very odd explanation given that it completely disregards crucial pieces of information. For one thing, visual observations and radar detections were confirmed to be one and the same on numerous occasions. When pilots claimed they had visual contact with a UFO, ground personnel confirmed its existence and location on the radarscopes. When pilots claimed a UFO disappeared it simultaneously disappeared from the radarscopes.

Another glaring issue is that temperature inversions occurred on a daily basis throughout the summer of 1952 yet unidentified radar targets only appeared on the two nights in question. Personnel at Andrews Air Force Base were not quite sure as to what they had seen, claiming they may have seen meteors or other natural phenomena. But the senior air traffic controller at Washington National Airport was certain they had detected solid maneuvering objects while explicitly denying the possibility of weather related targets. Furthermore, none of the radar operators agreed with the Air Force’s conclusion. Everyone was certain that they had been tracking metallic flying objects. Even the National Weather Bureau disagreed with the temperature inversion theory claiming that such phenomena would appear as amorphous streaks across the radarscopes as opposed to sharp delineable dots. In spite of these glaring contradictions the Air Force concluded that temperature inversions were to blame and that nothing extraordinary had taken place. Though, somewhat paradoxically, the Project Blue Book files list the case as an unknown while simultaneously agreeing with the Air Force’s conclusion.

On April the 24th, 1964, police officer Lonnie Zamora was chasing a speeding car outside the city of Socorro in the New Mexico desert when he was alerted by loud noise and a bright flame in the sky. Believing it to be an explosion he broke off the chase and drove towards the light to investigate. The flame was blue and orange and appeared to be descending towards the ground about half a kilometer away. After a difficult drive through the rough terrain he noticed a white and silver-colored object about 200 meters distant.

It initially appeared to be an overturned car and he could see two men in white coveralls standing beside it. The two men seemed alarmed by Zamora’s presence and looked straight at him but after clearing a small hill, which momentarily obstructed his view, the two men had vanished. Zamora could now discern that it wasn’t a car but some kind of elliptical object, supported by four metallic legs. The white ellipsoid was about 5 meters in diameter and had a red insignia printed on the side.

He then proceeded on foot and was about 30 meters away when he heard loud thumps as if someone closed a door and then a smokeless flame, reminiscent of a welding torch, suddenly erupted beneath the craft. The flame was once again blue and orange in color and it produced a the same roaring sound that was increasing in frequency. Ever so slowly, the object began to rise. At this point, Zamora became frightened and the loud noise gave him the impression that the UFO was about to explode so he ran for cover behind his car. But after a while the UFO went completely silent and was now hovering some 6 meters above the ground. It’s speed gradually increased until it disappeared into the distance. While Zamora was the only person to observe the craft up close a number of witnesses had independently reported sightings of an oval-shaped UFO and a blueish flame before the story had reached the press. One particular witness had observed the descent of an oval-shaped UFO and a police car chasing after it.

A second police officer arrived within minutes and both the FBI and the Air Force would soon converge upon the site. The supposed landing site was thoroughly investigated and photographed. Grass and bushes had been burned and were still smoldering when the first officers arrived at the scene. Some of the burned plants were notoriously difficult to set aflame. The investigators also uncovered four wedge-shaped indentations in the ground and they appeared to be fresh as the dry topsoil had been pushed aside revealing the still moist subsoil.

A cluster of footprints were also discovered within the rectangular region of the indentations. No helicopters had been in the vicinity, the insignia on the craft could not be identified, the site was not radioactive, radar had not picked up any unusual activity, nor did the soil samples collected from the landing site reveal any evidence of chemical propellants. Some claim that vitrified sand had been collected which is when extreme heat melts sand into glass. However, others refute this claim so it’s difficult to know for certain. Nevertheless, none of the investigators believed it to be a hoax. The cluster of footprints were localized and did not lead away from the indentations. Assuming Zamora created the indentations himself and somehow managed to ignite the near-inflammable vegetation, he must’ve done so without leaving any evidence or footprints except for a small cluster near the center. Zamora was deemed highly reliable by everyone who knew him but more importantly by those who interrogated him. Despite plenty of opportunities to do so, he never capitalized on the sighting nor did he seem to appreciate the attention the story attracted.

No evidence of a hoax has ever been uncovered and Zamora’s integrity remained intact until his death many decades later. The Project Blue Book investigation failed to reach a conclusion. The most plausible explanation seemed to be that Lonnie Zamora had witnessed some kind of classified experimental aircraft. An explanation favored by the local population as well as Zamora himself. Given that the highly secretive military testing range known as the White Sands Proving Grounds is located right next door, this is certainly a possibility.

However, the unusual design and advanced capabilities of the craft observed still makes it difficult to believe. Unsurprisingly, the military denied the existence of such a craft. Many years later, the Air Force Captain in charge of the investigation recalled a strange phone call he’d received at the time. A high ranking military official at the Pentagon had called and personally questioned him about the case which he found to be highly unusual. He thought it was unconventional for a Colonel to be making such a call and so he wondered: “Why in the world were they so interested?” Why is it that even though half the global population walks around with a high resolution camera in their pocket, high resolution footage of flying saucers seem to be nonexistent? I’ve seen variations of this line of reasoning before and at first glance it may seem quite decisive.

While it is true that cameras are more readily accessible and video quality has improved significantly over the past few decades, so has the quality of forgeries. Thanks to software like After Effects almost anyone can create a convincing forgery which means that videos like these will never be the definitive proof they likely would have been a few decades ago. Imagine an ideal situation for a moment. Imagine that a reliable individual with no background in visual effects and no previous interest in UFOs captures an actual unidentifiable aircraft on a high resolution camera. Not some blob of pixels as if it was filmed by a Japanese adult film studio, nor some indiscernible streak that requires CSI-esque enhancements, but an actual clearly distinguishable craft that defy all conventional explanations.

Even then, the authenticity of that footage would inevitably come into question and it would in all likelihood be impossible to prove that it actually happened. I remember back in 2011, a UFO in Jerusalem was captured on video by multiple people from multiple vantage points. The case attracted worldwide attention as the multiple locations lent credence to the sighting’s authenticity. However, some time later a team of journalists tracked down the cameramen responsible and found that one was a filmmaker and film teacher while the others just so happened to be students at the same school. Drones have also made it far too easy to stage UFO sightings. Strange lights in the dark night sky performing seemingly impossible maneuvers? Drones got you covered. What appears to be a solid craft in the clear blue sky that looks noting like a conventional drone? Drones got you covered.

It’s become next to impossible to eliminate conventional explanations as virtually every person on the planet has gained easy access to the heavens above. At this point, nothing short of a spaceship landing in the middle of times square should be deemed convincing. This is at least in part why I choose to focus my attention on older cases as none of these problems existed a few decades ago. The first director of Project Blue Book, Edward J. Ruppelt, would later go on to write a book about the cases he and his team investigated. In it, he describes a drastic shift in the attitude towards UFO research following the rejection of the extra terrestrial hypothesis. The Air Force no longer sought to understand the nature of UFOs but rather sought to debunk the phenomenon at large. In his own words: “Everything was being evaluated on the premise that UFOs could not exist.” “No matter what you see or hear, don’t believe it.” Following the aforementioned Washington D.C. incident in 1952 this predisposition was only reinforced. Investigators were instructed to focus on cases they could solve and to never discuss the unknowns in public.

The subject was to be debunked and ridiculed and so it was. What had initially been perceived as a potential treat to national security had now, through an orchestrated public relations campaign, been reduced to a socially unacceptable pseudoscience. Ruppelt writes in his book: “This change in the operating policy of the UFO project was so pronounced that I, like so many other people, wondered if there was a hidden reason for the change. Was it actually an attempt to go underground, to make the project more secretive? Was it an effort to cover up the fact that UFOs were proven to be interplanetary and that this should be withheld from the public at all cost to prevent a mass panic?” “Maybe I was just playing the front man to a big cover-up.” Ruppelt is of course just speculating but, given that he was the head of the operation, it does make you wonder if there may have been some truth behind those concerns. Assuming the military is lying then how does one distinguish a lie about alien spaceships from a lie about classified aircrafts? We know nothing of either so the two deceptions would appear identical.

I mean, I want to believe but I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to believe in. After working my way through a few hundred cases I feel even more conflicted than I did when I began. Things where just so much simpler then. I could just laugh at a man pretending to be scared of a Halloween mask. No grand conspiracies. No extraterrestrials. None of that. Just mortal fear and a piece of plastic. Simpler times.

.

As found on Youtube