Unidentified Flying Objects seem to be here to stay. Once, I wrote a piece Revealed: 5 secret solutions to the UFO mystery which I hoped would be my last word on mysterious lights in the sky but the interest continues. Recently I have been having a conversation in the comments section of the “Revealed” post with “Paul” discussing whether UFO sightings are proof of visitations by alien spaceships. I think some of the points raised are important enough to justify a post of their own.
(NB I use the term “ufologist” as shorthand for someone who believes UFOs are sightings of otherworldly craft.)
Paul asks if I believe that statements on UFOs by astronauts such as Major Gordon Cooper, Ed White, James McDivitt, Dr Edgar Mitchell, James Lovell and Frank Borman count as evidence for the reality of alien spaceships.I certainly do not.Every human, no matter how well educated or trained, is capable of error or eccentricity.There is also the distressing propensity of ufologists to selectively quote, exaggerate or misquote astronauts to boost their case.
Gordon Cooper, once told interviewer Yvonne S. Durfield “I don’t take UFO’s seriously. I would be very skeptical.” That was in 1960 but by the 1970s Cooper seems to have become a believer in alien visitations and has been associated with several UFO stories. He covers some of these in his autobiography Leap of Faith (2000), a book which has been criticised for some factual confusion. In the 1970s Cooper claimed that “hundreds” of UFOs had overflown his base near Munich, Germany in a 48 hour period during his fighter pilot days in 1951 (but none of his colleagues remember this, nor was it reported through official channels).
In 1957 Cooper was based at Edwards Air Force Base, twenty years later he recalled in an interview “…the case of one (UFO) that landed out on the dry lake bed (at Edwards AFB) right out from a number of camera crews we had who filmed it. And the film was there and was sent forward to the safekeeping somewhere in Washington, never to be seen again.” Ufologists often claim Cooper witnessed this himself, but he never said this, nor was the film classified (stills from it appear in at least one book). The object was identified by meteorologists who also observed it at the same time as the camera crew as a weather balloon.
Edgar Mitchell has never claimed to have personally seen alien spacecraft or beings, however he believes reports that others have done so.That is his privilege but it is not evidence of extraterrestial spacecraft.
Ed White and James McDivitt reported sighting an object they could not identify during the Gemini 4 mission in June 1965. At the time NORAD was unable to find the object in their catalogue of satellites and space debris and a UFO legend began. The mystery did not last long though, the object was in exactly the right location for the spent booster from the mission’s launch vehicle. The booster was not in NORAD’s database as it had only been placed in orbit 30 hours earlier and the list had not been updated.
James Lovell and Frank Borman are said to have reported a “large, spherical object” in orbit during the Gemini 7 mission in December 1965. This is not true.The pair did report sighting a ”bogey” which appears to have been the Titan rocket which placed them in orbit or even just a piece of debris shed by the booster.
Lovell and Borman have never claimed to have seen an alien spaceship..In an interview Borman said
Right after we got into orbit we were supposed to ‘station keep’ or fly formation with the booster. We were flying formation and taking photographs and infrared measurements and I started calling it a ‘bogey,’ which is an old fighter pilot term. Well, a lot of the UFO freaks on the ground picked this up and said we had seen a UFO because we had referred to our booster as a bogey.
Just this past year I got a call from a producer at ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ and they said, ‘We read your account about your seeing a UFO on Gemini 7 and would you come on the program?’ I told them: ‘I’d love to come on your program because I’d love to straighten that out.’
I explained what it was I saw, and I said, ‘I don’t think there were UFOs,’ and the producer said, ‘Well, I’m not sure we want you on the program.’
Paul goes on to say “these people are educated and trained well enough to tell the difference between a Chinese lantern and a UFO”. My response is no one is perfect. Military personnel, pilots, air traffic controllers and astronauts are widely said to be “trained observers” with superior abilities of visual identification and recall. Alas, this cannot be taken for granted. Even Allen Hynek, an astronomer who took UFOs seriously, said in The Hynek UFO Report (1977)
Surprisingly, commercial and military pilots appear to make relatively poor witnesses.
Here are some of many examples where military personnel saw things that were not really there or interpreted real objects as something else:
- RV Jones, a scientific advisor to the British government during the Second World War, reported (among many similar cases) how in 1940 or 1941 an antiaircraft artillery battery reported sighting a new German aircraft flying at extremely high altitude, which later proved to be Venus.
- Throughout WW2, allied aircrew consistently reported sightings of and even combats with German and Japanese aircraft types which we now know were not in service or sometimes never even existed.These misidentified aircraft included Spitfires in German markings, Messerschmitt Bf-109s in Japanese markings, the Heinkel He-113, Fw-198 (which in some recognition manuals looked like it had flown out of a Flash Gordon serial) and Aichi Ai-104.
- KAL007, a Boeing 747 with 269 people on board, was shot down in 1983 by a Soviet military pilot who misidentified it as a military aircraft. All of the 747’s passengers and crew perished.
- In 1988, the crew of the USS Vincennes misidentified an Airbus A300 airliner as an F-14 fighter. Again the results were horrific.
Astronauts and pilots are not supermen and are as prone to error as anyone else. Even when accurately reported, their opinions are not evidence of extraterrestrial encounters.
Paul has sent me a link to a massive document listing UFO sightings by astronomers. He also notes how a poll which included 1800 members of amateur astronomer associations by the Center for UFO Studies in 1980 indicated that 24% of respondents had “observed an object which resisted [their] most exhaustive efforts at identification.” Personally I find this astonishing, certainly does not match my experience.Paul reports a similar survey by astronomer Peter Sturrock of members of the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1974.Of the 1175 members who responded 5% said they had experienced UFO sightings. Sturrock made a larger survey of the American Astronomical Society membership. Again, around 5% admitted having unexplainable sightings.This smaller number seems more in tune with my perception. Note this does not mean that 5% of astronomers have seen alien spaceships, this residual 5% will include errors and events where there was not enough time to identify the phenomena.This is not evidence of alien visitation.
Paul asks me my opinions on a series of videos alleging encounters between military aircraft and UFOs.This was right up my street as I have been a propellerhead as long as I have been a spacebuff.
(Paul’s first video showed MiG-21 fighters taking off followed by footage from inside an aircraft of something appearing to pass it at high speed, the narration claims this movie is classified as Secret by the Russian government but has been leaked. Unfortunately this specific video is also no longer available.)
This video is an utter hoax.The inflight movie was not made from a single-seat MiG-21, the visibility is much too good for a start (the MiG has a heavily-framed cockpit canopy), but the biggest giveaway is the ejector seat which is unmistakably a US-made ACES II.This footage was shot from the back seat of an American F-15B or D. I presume the conveniently blurred UFO was added later. This is definitely not a previously secret video release by the Russian military. Who ever created and broadcast this ought to be ashamed.
(Paul’s next video covered a UFO event involving the Belgian Air Force, unfortunately this specific video is also no longer available.)
The events which occurred over Belgium on 30-31 March 1990 are famed among ufologists. Allegedly, this is a dramatic and compelling case where a mysterious craft was simultaneously observed by eyewitnesses on the ground, tracked by radar stations and pursued by supersonic jet fighters, surely this is evidence of an extraterrestrial spacecraft in our atmosphere. But is that really what happened?
For some months, there had been a series of reports of night time overflights of Belgium (but not, it seems neighbouring countries) by triangular objects with star-like or flashing lights at their tips.On the night in question, witnesses on the ground reported such an object and this was apparently confirmed by military radar stations. A pair of F-16 aircraft was scrambled to intercept the apparent intruder and vectored towards the location of the radar sighting. The pilots then spent a frustrating 40 minutes being directed towards radar images which appeared and seconds later disappeared and at one point dived to ground level (yet no UFO landing was reported). The F-16s repeatedly flew over, under and right through the radar image of the UFO, without the pilots once seeing anything (many pro-UFO videos show footage of triangles of lights against the darkness and imply that these are gun camera shots from the F-16s, but no one in the air or on the ground photographed or filmed anything that night). Witnesses on the ground continued to observe the UFO apparently hovering in the south west (while the aircraft crew did not) but did not see it manoeuver as the radar images suggested. Eventually the UFO vanished and the fighters returned to base.The eyewitness reports and radar images disagree profoundly and the aircrew saw nothing. This does not seem very convincing evidence of an alien spacecraft.
What really happened? I can only speculate. The ground witnesses were looking towards the stars Sirius, Procyon, Rigel, and Betelgeuse as well as the planet Jupiter. Any combination of bright stars could be mis-perceived as the reported triangle. Turbulent atmospheric conditions can produce false radio echoes (and make stars scintillate and flash colours), perhaps this is what really happened.
In March 2004 the crew of a Mexican Air Force C-26 Metroliner recorded infrared images they were unable to identify. They appeared to show eleven very hot high speed objects.Nothing was seen visually or on radar by the aircraft’s crew (or indeed anyone else). This was a complete non-event.It has been conclusively shown that the recording shows the eleven burning gas flares on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. The flares were stationary, the apparent motion provided by the aircraft. The only mystery is how the presumably professional aviators were fooled.
Finally, Paul reminds me that it takes only one UFO encounter to be proven a genuine alien spacecraft for ufologists to be taken seriously.He is quite right.But that would require evidence rather than opinion or anecdote. In more than 65 years since Kenneth Arnold sighted “flying saucers”, no such evidence has appeared.
(Article by Colin Johnston, Science Communicator)