Quantcast

From the S&S archives

Is the sky falling? This man says maybe not

By STEVE DAVIS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 23, 1983

When a dozen luminous, disc-shaped objects flashed across a clear blue sky on July 2, 1952, near Tremonton, Utah, Navy Chief Delbert C. Newhouse pulled his car off the road, grabbed his 16mm movie camera and filmed what he knew was a bizarre sight.

Newhouse, who had more than 1,000 hours of aerial photography mission experience, shot 1,200 frames of one of the objects, which has been described as "two pie pans, one inverted on top of the other."

After rigorous examination of the 75-second film, Navy analysts concluded that the objects were not conventional aircraft, but some sort of "intelligently controlled" vehicles. They stopped short of calling them space vehicles. The Air Force, however, called them "possible birds."

On Christmas Eve in 1967, near Tucson, Ariz., a couple saw a blob of red light that caused their car engine and headlights to die. The light passed over their car and moved southward.

Four Army helicopter pilots were flying home after completing their annual flight physicals at Columbus, Ohio. At about 2,000 feet near Mansfield, Ohio, the helo pilot spotted a distant red light, the kind that might be atop a broadcasting transmitter. But no, he thought. Towers don't reach those heights. The crew was curious, so the pilot headed toward the light.

Moments later the crew could see a "wingless craft" hovering over the helo. The craft emitted a luminous green beam, drew the chopper up 1,000 feet as the frightened crew watched the altimeter, and then released it. The experience, in the words of one crewman, was like "looking into another world."

J. Allen Hynek has been peering. into that strange world for more than 30 years — long enough, in his case, for scornful skepticism to evolve into wonder.

Certainly, UFOs — or unidentified flying objects — are not the products of "swamp gas," as Hynek himself theorized in 1966. Seventeen years later, the man who was an integral part of the Air Force's Project Blue Book winces when reminded that he once offered for public consumption the explanation that UFOs were illusions created by luminous marsh gases released by decaying vegetation.

"That theory caused so much ridicule on both the Air Force and me that I began to revise my thought," he said. "I finally came to the conclusion that I couldn't keep calling those people (who reported sightings) deluded and crazy. Some, like air traffic controllers, pilots, engineers and balloon experts, had damn good qualifications."

Something happening up there

While Hynek has yet to see a UFO, he says he has studied enough reports and heard enough "eyewitness" accounts to conclude that something must be happening up there. While his attitudes have changed, the U.S. government's has not at least not publicly. The government, Hynek says, still passes the phenomenon off as science fiction.

"Based on the termination of Project Blue Book (in 1969)," an Air Force spokesman said, "The U.S. Air Force no longer tracks UFO."

The 72-year-old Hynek, professor emeritus of astronomy, Northwestern University, has been called "the Galileo of ufology." He is founder of the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS), still co-directs an observatory in New Mexico and is astronomy editor for Science Digest magazine.

He was also technical adviser for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," a 1977 movie directed by Steven Spielberg, who took the movie's name from one of Hynek's books.

Hynek calls the film an entertaining documentary about "hidden" phenomena that began even before pilot Kenneth Arnold's first official report of "flying saucers" near Mount Rainier, Wash., in 1947. Arnold's and hundreds of other UFO reports generated such public concern that the Air Force was directed to investigate. The result was Project Blue Book.

Seoul convention

Hynek was in Seoul recently to attend the International UFO Convention, where scientists, theologians and UFOers discussed a broad range of UFO-related topics. As always, Hynek refused to state flatly that UFOs existed. He merely repeated his belief that the only reliable data are the reports themselves — but that they continue to appear with such frequency as to merit scientific inquiry.

On the other end of the spectrum were the ardent believers — a group that also included some ardent hucksters who distributed catalogues offering books that told "the real story" of recovered saucers, alien bodies and government coverups.

True or no, these types of books and wild-eyed UFO evangelism hurt scientific study instead of contributing to it because. many people are discouraged from reporting their experiences, Hynek said. There are thousands — members of what he calls, "The Legion of the Bewildered Silent" — who think they'll be branded as weird or deranged if they. say they've seen something strange in the sky.

"If I saw an unidentified flying object while I was out flying alone, I'd keep quiet about it," said a pilot stationed at Osan AB, Korea, "Even if I had a co-pilot who saw it, I'm not sure we'd report it."

Skepticism, ridicule, grounding

The pilot cited official skepticism, ridicule from his peers and possible grounding for psychological evaluations as reasons why he wouldn't report a sighting.

He admitted, though, that if there were others — especially radar men — who also saw the object, he'd be less hesitant to acknowledge a sighting.

"There's safety in numbers," he said. "But I'd never crawl out on the UFO limb by myself."

"I was actually asked to get interested in UFOs by the Air Force," said Hynek, who was teaching astronomy at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, when some blue-suiters from nearby Wright-Patterson AFB paid him a visit.

"When the Air Technical Intelligence Center got the job of trying to figure out just what the hell those strange flying saucer stories were all about, they needed an astronomer to see how many could be explained away as meteors, planets, twinkling stars, and so forth," Hynek said.

"So each month I'd go to Wright-Pat and they'd hand me a stack of reports and I'd say, 'This one's a meteor,' `This one's the planet Venus, or `This one's a balloon.'"

An occasional fly in the ointment

Every once in a while, however, Hynek would find a report that stumped him, one that didn't have a logical explanation.

"At the time I was such a complete skeptic that I thought if we'd try harder, we'd eventually solve all the reports," Hynek said.

Hynek's thinking, during his years as an Air Force consultant, underwent nearly a 180-degree turn.

"I was part of Project Blue Book for about 18 years," he said, "and I saw what went on. I know that Blue Book had a job to do, but they were under about 30 different sets of orders to play things down, don't get the public excited."

Hynek said there was a lot of nonsense to deal with in the job, which caused Blue Book to develop into "a public relations thing."

"Blue Book personnel spent most of their time answering letters from dear little old ladies who were scared," Hynek said. "There were so many bothersome reports that the Blue Book officials used to joke, `Why don't those damn things swim? Then we could give them to the Navy!'"

Hynek is still critical of the project's unscientific, "all-is-nonsense" approach to the 13,134 UFO reports.

"It had become clear to the general public that reporting strange UFO events to the Air Force was not only pointless as a serious scientific matter, but was apt to bring ridicule to the reporter," Hynek said in his book, "The Hynek UFO Report."

Air Force grounds project

In October 1966, the Air Force — which wanted out of the UFO business altogether — commissioned the University of Colorado to examine selected UFO reports. There the short-lived Condon Committee, which sporadically studied the reports for two years, concluded in their final report that nothing of scientific value would come from the study of UFOs. Using that conclusion as partial justification, the Air Force disbanded Blue Book, Hynek said.

Though many of the 13,134 reported UFO sightings were written off as "birds," "the moon," and other natural phenomena, about 6 per cent — more than 750 — of the Project Blue Book cases still stand as "unidentified," Hynek said.

"A major wave of UFO sightings hit the Untied States in 1973 but no one was tending shop," Hynek said. "So I founded the Center for UFO studies to investigate the reports."

70,000 sightings

The center, comprised of about 40 interested university professors and scientists, has on computer file about 70,000 UFO reports from 140 different countries. Hynek said he and the CUFOS staff are methodically studying the UFO phenomena by cross-referencing sightings, plotting the demographics of sightings and cataloging all available data on UFO activities — things that Blue Book did not do.

Hynek said he and his colleagues forced the government to release 135 UFO-related documents under the Freedom of Information Act. When they sued for more, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. "A lower court said release of the material would give away U.S. radar information and jeopardize national security," Hynek said.

Military uses

The military, however, might benefit from an organized scientific study of UFO phenomena, Hynek said, adding that CUFOS recently published 441 UFO reports involving vehicle interference.

"If we could figure out how that happened that would have tremendous military value," he said. "If we could stop the onslaught of enemy vehicles the same way UFOs are reported, and I stress, reported to have done, it would be great."

For Hynek, it comes down to the simple fact that UFOs are worthy of scientific attention. "One thing I will say, after having talked to thousands and thousands of people, is that — at least to them — it's been a very real experience," he said.

Speculation, he said, should not be limited to flying saucers. UFOs may be holographic images or psychic phenomena. And why should "aliens" come from outer space? Why not a "parallel reality"?

"What level of reality it's on, whether it's nuts-and-bolts hardware or whether it's some sort of psychic reality or a combination of the two, I don't know," he said.

"But you'd be surprised at the number of people I've talked to who have been really upset, puzzled, and bewildered by the experience they say they've had. It's affected their lives profoundly."