In 1947, Orson Welles was quoted in The Evening Observer, saying of the recent surge of UFO sightings, “People are imaginative and gullible. I’ll bet 10 to 1 this will fizzle out.” It’s safe to say that Welles lost that bet.
Given the nature of unidentified flying objects — unidentified is right in the name — it’s no surprise that aspects of the phenomenon don’t quite add up and likely never will. Some of it can be chalked up to the unquestionable weirdness of seeing objects seemingly mock the laws of physics. Sometimes, however, it seems as though someone explicitly wants to make it harder for anyone to know what is going on. It can be hoaxers, happy to troll their neighbors, or government officials only too keen to tell you that you didn’t see anything. And if you did see something, it was a cloud, balloon, bird, plane, or the planet Venus.
Kenneth Arnold: father of UFOs
Kenneth Arnold’s June 24, 1947, sighting over Mount Rainier is considered the birth of the modern UFO era. According to “Report on the UFO Wave of 1947,” the nine objects he saw flew in a V, though each lower than the one before, covering five miles while he watched. The Atlantic quoted Arnold saying that they looked “like a saucer if you skip it across the water.” It was not their shape but their movement. The objects were rounded in the front, pointed toward the back, like tailless horseshoe crabs.
Arnold said in the Chicago Times, “Some think these things may be from another planet. But they aren’t harming anyone and I think it would be the wrong thing to shoot one of them down — even if it can be done.”
One explanation was meteors — albeit exhibiting behavior that would make them the strangest meteors ever. The Air Force called it a mirage. Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer employed by Project Blue Book, noted that Arnold was not consistent in his estimates of the objects’ distance or size. It might have simply been planes or atmospheric effects. The skeptics could not agree among themselves, except that it wasn’t aliens.
The Battle of Los Angeles
According to the Military Museum, the military was already on high alert when radar picked up unidentified objects 120 miles west of Los Angeles on February 24, 1944, and soon let loose on them. The objects, however, were indifferent to the assault of 1,440 anti-aircraft rounds. The Los Angeles Times reported that the battle killed five people on the ground via traffic accidents and heart attacks.
Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox said the next morning that there was no evidence of planes, labeling it a false alarm, but he didn’t help matters when he followed this up by saying that vital industries ought to move inland in case this was an attack. After speaking to witnesses, local Army commanders ruled that there had been between one and five unidentified objects in the sky. They guessed that it was either commercial planes in the hands of enemies or light planes launched from Japanese submarines.
Some said they saw a slow-moving silver disc. This was bolstered by a photograph of searchlights all fixed on a strange object. However, newspapers at the time tended to retouch photos to improve contrast. “UFOs, Conspiracy Theories and the New Age” noted that the object is less evident in the unretouched picture.
Mariana UFO incident: Play ball?
According to SportsLogos.net, though there have been countless UFO-related incidents through the years, only one besides Roswell has changed the name and mascot of a minor-league baseball team. It also has the not-inconsequential honor of being regarded as the first filmed evidence of UFOs.
Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects (also known as the Condon Report) described how, on August 15 (or August 5 — records differ), 1950, Nick Mariana, the general manager of Great Falls, Montana, baseball team the Electrics, and his 19-year-old unnamed secretary witnessed two bright objects moving slowly through the sky. He later described them in the Blue Book report as “like two new dimes in the sky.” Mariana had a film camera in his car, and he maintained that he recorded around 30 seconds of footage of the spinning objects.
Mariana thought that they took off at around 400 mph. When the Air Force looked at the footage, they knocked this down to 200 mph. Once the Air Force returned the film, 30 frames that best showed the objects had been removed, and they explained the film as the “reflections of two F-94 jet fighters that were in the area.” Edward J. Ruppelt, then-head of Project Blue Book, disagreed, also discounting birds, balloons, and meteors.
No matter, the Great Falls Electrics became the Voyagers, and they adopted a baseball-loving alien as their mascot.
The Hudson Valley UFO Flap
The Hudson Valley UFO Flap occurred between 1982 and 1986, according to Plane and Pilot Magazine, and involved sightings of one or more football field-sized, V-shaped objects, often compared to boomerangs, slowly drifting. The UFO caused a traffic jam on I-84, and according to “Unsolved Mysteries,” over 5,000 residents witnessed it.
The UnMuseum explained that J. Allen Hynek officially studied the Hudson Valley sightings and pronounced that this was genuinely unidentified. It loosened his skepticism, eventually leading him to co-author the book “Night Siege: The Hudson Valley UFO Sightings” about the incidents.
On August 25, 1984, officials declared that it was a hoax caused by six people flying ultralight aircraft in a tight formation. This was not satisfying, as the objects were solid enough to block the stars, far too consistent to be disconnected, too large to be a contingent of ultralights, and too silent. Dr. Hynek would have at once debunked the sightings with so simple an answer.
According to The Times Union, the nearby town of Pine Bush has an annual UFO Fair and Parade in honor of the sightings.
Fiorentina Stadium Sighting
The BBC reported that on October 27, 1954, in Tuscany, 10,000 fans in the Stadio Artemi Franchi for a soccer match went silent. Then they began to scream. The players on the pitch suddenly stopped playing to stare. Ardico Magnini, one of the players, recalled, “It was something that looked like an egg that was moving slowly … also there was some glitter coming down from the sky, silver glitter.”
According to These Football Times, the object remained for 15 minutes and dropped “silver flakes of a stringy-type substance.” This substance — an established UFO phenomenon called “angel hair” — was analyzed by the Institute of Chemical Analysis before it disintegrated. A spectrographic analysis showed that it contained boron, silicon, calcium, and magnesium, but that did little to explain what it was.
The skeptical explanation is that these thousands of people misidentified meteors. The threads? Only spiderwebs, though spiders do not employ boron or silicon when spinning. According to Football Italiana, when this was theory was ridiculed, CICAP, a skeptical organization, stated that the air force had been performing exercises that day and dropping a radar countermeasure called chaff, which also doesn’t satisfy the descriptions of the thousands who witnessed the object.
KTAR News reports that, for hours on March 13, 1997, thousands in Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico witnessed strange lights, including a V-shaped object over Phoenix. One witness who watched it fly over Granite Mountain estimated that it had to have been a mile wide, adding, “I’ve never seen anything even close to the colors from the exhaust that propelled that thing.”
At first, then-Governor Fife Symington made light of it, to the extent of having an aide dress as an alien for a press conference. Later, he admitted that he had seen the lights as well. As he was a pilot, he knew it was like nothing earthly, adding, “I don’t know why people would ridicule it.”
The Phoenix New Times reported that the lights were later explained as flares dropped by the military during a training exercise. The media outlet also interviewed Jim Dilettoso, a man who claimed he had done spectral analysis of footage of the lights and concluded that “these were not flares.” The V remains unexplained to many, though some suspect it might have been planes flying in formation.
No one requested radar information from the Federal Aviation Administration within two weeks of the incident, so the records for that night were deleted per standard procedure, stymying believers and skeptics alike.
USS Nimitz Tic Tac
New York Magazine interviewed Chad Underwood, a U.S. Navy pilot who, on November 10, 2004, filmed the now-famous “Tic Tac” UFO with the infrared camera on his F/A-18 Super Hornet.
The Tic Tac was one of a group of slow-moving objects seen ten miles off San Clemente Island. At 28,000 feet, they were too high and fast to be birds and too slow to be an aircraft. Then they “exhibited ballistic-missile characteristics” in plummeting from 60,000 feet to 50 feet above the Pacific Ocean without creating a single sonic boom. Underwood’s footage shows the 40-foot-long, white object hovering between 15,000 and 24,000 feet without detectable propulsion, even when it sharply banks left. When he screened it for other pilots later, there weren’t many skeptics, but they were keen to want to fly it themselves.
Lt. Cmdr. Alex Dietrich, who was piloting another fighter when the sighting occurred, told Global News, “I felt the vulnerability of not having anything to defend ourselves. And then I felt confused when it disappeared.”
The Pentagon never debriefed those on the USS Nimitz because there was nothing to debrief. It wasn’t a top-secret project. Spokesman Joseph Gradisher told NBC News, “The three videos show incursions into our military training ranges by unidentified aerial phenomena.”
O'Hare International Airport UFO sighting
Perhaps the object was looking for a runway. The Chicago Tribune reported the “flying saucer-like” object seen above the United terminal’s Concourse C in November 2006 stayed long enough to be seen by pilots, airline management, and mechanics — people who know what an airplane looks like and can identify aerial phenomena.
Witnesses were inconsistent in their description, saying it was 6 to 24 feet in diameter, spinning or stationary. However, they all agreed that it was gray and silent — and that it shot off into the clouds, leaving a circular hole in them.
The Federal Aviation Administration and United Airlines expressed no interest in investigating. Center for UFO Studies scientific director Mark Rodeghier said, “It’s an unknown object over O’Hare, and it’s seen by official personnel, and does United or the FAA take it seriously? … [H]ow can you not worry about something hovering over an airport after 9/11?”
Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Adler Planetarium, suggested that it was simply a weather condition called a “hole-punch cloud,” which doesn’t explain the hovering object. According to Wired, once the Chicago Tribune filed a Freedom of Information Act request, the FAA went from saying that they had no information to echoing claims of a weather phenomenon. FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said, “When the lights shine up into the clouds, sometimes you can see funny things.”
Stephenville UFO cover-up?
NPR reported that on January 8, 2008, residents of Stephenville, Texas, including a police officer and a pilot, saw a UFO as “bigger than a Wal-Mart.” It hovered for about five minutes before zipping into the sky. Pilot Steve Allen (who described its size in Walmarts) said it sped away at 3,000 mph, followed by fighter jets. To Popular Mechanics, he said, “The jets looked like they were chasing the lights, and the lights seemed to be toying with them.”
James Huse, a former Air Force navigation specialist, witnessed the objects and said its lights were “the reddest things I’d ever seen in the sky.” Angelina Joiner, a reporter, called Major Karl Lewis of the 301st Fighter Wing, who denied that they had anything flying that night. Personnel from other bases said the same. Twelve days later, the military did a 180, putting out a press release reading in part, “Ten F-16s from the 457th Fighter Squadron were performing training operations from 6 to 8 pm on January 8.” Lewis explained that there had been an “internal communications problem” that prevented the military from admitting this any sooner. When further pressed to release details of what the planes were doing, he said, “we fly like we fight.”
The world’s militaries must get more careful about these training maneuvers.
Ned: the Aurora alien
The official website for Aurora, Texas, assures anyone looking for Ned’s grave that what happened on April 17, 1897, was reportedly real. A slow airship crashed into Judge Proctor’s windmill, and the pilot, burned and disfigured, was far too injured. The local paper wrote “that he was not an inhabitant of this world.” Townsfolk gave him a Christian burial in the Aurora Cemetery — potential aliens are owed that sacrament, apparently.
The grave is enough of a tourist attraction that the headstone has been stolen more than once, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. Stratton Horres, a Dallas lawyer, offered a $1,000 reward for its return, but that may be too humble an offer for such a keepsake.
KERA News reported that researchers had tested the well where the wreckage was stored and dug metal out of trees as proof. In the 1970s, researchers pushed to exhume Ned, but, as Aurora city administrator Terri Wheeler said in 2016, “You cannot exhume a grave unless you notify the next of kin. And that’s how the cemetery association got the court injunction in 1972 to keep them from exhuming the remains.”
Was the crash only a homemade dirigible? A hoax? In the end, something was buried in the cemetery, though we may never know what.
Cape Girardeau UFO crash
KFVS 12 reported that, in 1941, Pastor William G. Huffman of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, was called by the sheriff to help the victims of a plane crash. There was a serious crash when he arrived, but it was far from an airplane. His granddaughter Charlotte Mann said in 2021, “There was a round silver disc that was broken open, and there were metallic shards in the field that had set fire to the field,” along with “three creatures.” By the time Huffman arrived, two had already died. The pastor did not feel comfortable administering last rites.
Cape Girardeau UFO researcher Michael Huntington said that the Army Air Corps arrived, took all the evidence they could, including photographs of men holding the alien bodies, and swore everyone to secrecy, a command Huffman obeyed until he was on his deathbed, according to KFVS 12. When KFVS12 contacted the FBI, they received the reply, “We were unable to identify records responsive to your request.”
Mann doesn’t take this as evidence that this story might lack substance but that it had been officially squelched. She, after all, told people as early as the 1970s that she had seen the pictures of the aliens.
Chiles-Whitted UFO encounter: an estimate of the situation
According to History, the actual mystery may not be what happened on July 24, 1948, but why the United States government launched a top-secret investigation and then obliterated the final report, given the tepid title “Estimate of the Situation.”
Clarence S. Chiles and his co-pilot John B. Whitted were flying an Eastern Air Lines DC-3 from Houston to Atlanta when they spotted the object. Though there were 20 passengers, 19 of them were asleep. Chiles described the object, seen 20 miles outside Montgomery, Alabama: “It was clear there were no wings present, that it was powered by some jet or other type of power, shooting flame from the rear some 50 feet. There were two rows of windows, which indicated an upper and lower deck, [and] from inside these windows a very bright light was glowing.” The pilots saw it only ten seconds before it disappeared behind clouds.
The Atlanta Constitution went with the headline “Atlanta Pilots Report Wingless Sky Monster” when they reported it. Both Boeing Aircraft and the army made statements that it wasn’t one of theirs. Air Force officer Edward J. Ruppelt said he had seen the report, writing, “The ‘situation’ was the UFOs. The ‘estimate’ was that they were interplanetary!”
Thomas Mantell: murdered by UFO?
Thomas Mantell, a 25-year-old Kentucky Air National Guard pilot with more than 2,000 hours in the air, has the dubious distinction of being the first person killed by a UFO on January 7, 1948, according to We Are the Mighty.
Colonel Guy Hix, the base commander, described the object as “about one fourth the size of the full moon” and said it hovered, still, for over an hour. Another observer stated that it came near the ground before climbing quickly back to 10,000 feet, and it flew at more than 500 mph. Mantell and two others chased the UFO. His wingmen gave up at 22,500 feet, but, over the objections of the other pilots, Mantell kept climbing in pursuit. Once he passed 25,000 feet, he blacked out, and the plane spiraled.
The Voice Before the Void states that historian David M. Jacobs marked this as the turning point: “[T]he fact that a person had died in an encounter with an alleged flying saucer dramatically increased public concern about the phenomenon.”
Theories were that it was a Soviet missile or that an alien craft had shot Mantell down when he got too close. People variously claimed that his body was bullet-riddled or missing and that what was left of his plane was radioactive. Project Sign at first suggested that he pursued Venus and then said that Mantell had died chasing an object that would have been unknown to him: a Skyhook balloon, then top-secret.
Belgian UFO Wave
History states that 13,500 people in Belgium admitted to having seen flying objects between November 1989 and April 1990. The Week tells of one November incident where 30 people, including three unrelated pairs of police officers, all witnessed the same object, of which a police dispatcher said, “It made no noise,” but joked that it might be Santa Claus. Reuters explained this sighting as a Soviet satellite breaking up in the atmosphere. However, The Week reported that skeptic Brian Dunning said this same sighting was a helicopter.
The sightings tapered off after a March 30, 1990, incident in which two Belgian Air Force F-16s chased the objects. Chief of Operations of the Air Staff General Wilfried De Brouwer wrote, “The [Belgian] pilots tried to intercept the alleged crafts, and at one point recorded targets on their radar with unusual behavior, such as jumping huge distances in seconds and accelerating beyond human capacity.” The Belgians asked the UK’s Ministry of Defence to investigate, but the Ministry stopped once it was clear that the objects were not a threat.
The most famous photo of the sighting (not the one above), the so-called Petit-Rechain picture, was a hoax. “We managed to trick everyone with a piece of polystyrene,” said one of the hoaxers.
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