Prosaic Explanations: The Failure of UFO Skepticism
by Bruce Maccabee
© B. Maccabee, 1999
In over 30 years of UFO investigation I have not studied a single sighting for which I could not find a prosaic explanation.
- paraphrase of a statement by Philip J. Klass
Could some UFOs actually be manifestations of Other Intelligences
(OIs)or Non-Human Intelligences (NHIs) such as extraterrestrials (ETs), visiting the earth and interacting with human beings? Or all reports of such sightings simply mistakes, hoaxes or dreams of the hopeful believers? It all comes down to explanation. If there were no sightings which are richly detailed, credible and yet unexplainable the UFO subject would be based totally on theoretical expectations, as is the so-called Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). SETI is based on the theory that we could detect electromagnetic radiation such as radio waves or light, that is radiated toward us, intentionally or unintentionally, by extraterrestrial civilizations.
If all sightings had reasonable explanations, then theoretical speculations about ET intelligences visiting the earth might be interesting but of little practical consequence. Ufology, if there were such a thing in the absence of unexplainable sightings, would consist of studying witnesses who, evidently, failed to identify explainable (identifiable) phenomena or who simply made up "tall stories" about ET visition. "Ufological science", if it existed under these circumstances, would consist of psychology, psychiatry and perhaps sociology.
There are skeptics who believe that this is exactly the what ufology
should consist of.
Noted UFO skeptic Philip J. Klass has provided perhaps the most straightforward statement of the skeptic's position on UFO sightings in his book "UFOS, THE PUBLIC DECEIVED" (Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1983, pg. 297) wherein he writes that the "Occam's Razor" alternative to unexplained UFO sightings, is this: "...roughly 98% of sightings are simply misidentifications of prosaic, if sometimes unfamiliar, objects by honest persons..(and) ... the balance, roughly 2%, are self-delusions or hoaxes by persons who like to spin tall tales and become instant celebrities." In other words, UFO reports are the results of misidentifications, delusions and hoaxes, period! There is not one case for which there is no "prosaic explanation." As evidence of this Mr. Klass has offered prosaic explanations for a number of famous sightings. Of course, Mr. Klass has not attempted to explain each of the hundreds of thousands of sighting reports which have been made over the last half century. However, he has proposed explanations for a representative sample of reports which are classified as "good" by most ufologists and, on this basis, he has generalized his statement to apply to the bulk of the UFO sighting reports.
Mr. Klass' statement is that he has provided the "prosaic" explanations for all the reports he has studied. A reader of Mr. Klass' analysis would likely assume that each prosaic explanation is, in fact, the *actual* explanation for a particular sighting. At least, that is what the typically logical but uneducated (in the deep lore of ufology)and trusting reader would infer from Klass' statement. It is also what the generally skeptical scientific community and the newsmedia would infer from Klass' statement. Unfortunately, his statement is wrong.
Klass would have the reader believe that he has correctly explained all the sightings he has investigated. If he were correct then his argument about misidentifications, hoaxes and delusions making up 100% of UFO sightings would be unassailable, at least for the sightings which he has investigated. (One can always imagine that some sighting(s) not investigated by Klass is (are) unexplainable, but that's not the point of this discussion.) However, in some cases he has offered prosaic explanations which are demonstrably wrong. In other cases he has proposed explanations which may not be provably wrong but which are are, at the very least, unconvincing. (Note that in the absence of confirmatory information it may not be possible to decide whether an explanation is correct, but it is possible to decide whether or not an explanation is convincing.) Hence Klass' claim is literally correct: he has offered prosaic explanations for the sightings he has investigated. But the logical inference that these are the correct explanations is wrong: there are sightings which he has investigated but has not explained. From the scientific point of view it is not sufficient to propose explanations that are incorrect.
To say that at least some of Klass' prosaic explanations, even explanations for well publicized sightings, are wrong is a strong statement. However, an even stronger statement can be made: Klass' analysis has demonstrated that at least some of the cases he has investigated have *no prosaic explanations.* Why is this? Because Klass, having analyzed these cases carefully, has proposed the only potential explanations that remain after all other explanations have been rejected. That is, there are no other potential prosaic explanations that make any sense. Hence when his proposed explanations are proven wrong there are no remaining candidate explanations and the sighting becomes that of a TRue UFO (TRUFO), which might be evidence of OI/NHI/ET.
As an example of a case for which Klass' proposed prosaic explanation is wrong, or, at best, unconvincing, consider the sighting by police officer Val Johnson of Warren, Minnesota. (See the above reference, page 223). Shortly after 1:30 AM, August 27, 1980, as he was cruising the countryside in his police car in an area of low population, he noticed a bright light that he could see through the trees of a small wooded area. Thinking it might be a landed airplane carrying illegal drugs from Canada he accelerated along a road toward the area of the light. Suddenly this light moved rapidly toward his car. He heard a noise of breaking glass and lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness he was leaning forward with his head against the top of the steering wheel. There was a red mark on his forehead which suggests that he might have bumped his head on the wheel hard enough to render him unconscious (he said he was not wearing his seatbelt at the time). After regaining consciousness he called the police station. It was 2:19 AM. He had been unconscious for about 40 minutes. He reported that something had "attacked" his car.
When another officer arrived on the scene a few minutes after Johnson's report he found Johnson's car nearly 90 degrees to the road (blocking the road) and skid marks nearly 100 ft long. Johnson was found in a distraught condition, in a state of shock. He said he recalled seeing the bright light rushing toward his police car and he recalled hearing breaking glass. The next thing he recalled was realizing he was sitting with his head on the steering wheel. He did not recall skidding to a stop. He complained about pain in his eyes and was taken to a doctor who could find no eye damage. He did not complain of a headache.
Of particular importance is physical evidence to the police car. One of the two glass headlight covers on the driver's side had been broken, there was a large crack in the windshield on the driver's side, a plastic cover on the light bar on top of the car had a hole in it, there was a dent in the top of the hood, and two of the three spring-mounted antennas were bent 60 or more degrees, with the bend occurring over a short distance (i.e., sharp bends). Examination of the antenna surfaces using a microscope showed that the insect matter ("bug tar") that coated the antennas was "stretched" at the bend, but there was no other disturbance of the insect matter. Evidently the antennas had not been scraped or rubbed when they were bent. Also, the electric clock in the car and Johnson's mechanical wristwatch both read 14 minutes slow, although Johnson was certain he had set both before he had begun his nightly patrol.
The damage to the car was physical evidence that something strange had taken place. Careful studies of the damage were made by the police department and by scientists working with the Center for UFO Studies. They could find no evidence or reason to believe that Johnson had damaged his own car. They could find no prosaic explanation for the sighting. Klass also investigated the sighting. He spoke to several people who knew Johnson and asked about his interest in UFOs. According to his friends he seemed no more interested in UFOs than in numerous other subjects. They could provide no reason to believe he would intentionally damage his car to create a UFO incident. He might "hide your coffee cup," one gentleman told Klass, but "as far as we know, he's never told any untruths."
Klass concluded his discussion of the Officer Johnson UFO sighting by
offering two alternatives. He wrote:
"The hard physical evidence leaves only two
possible explanations for this case. One is that
Johnson's car was attacked by malicious UFOnauts,
who reached out and hit one headlight with a
hammerlike device, then hit the hood and windshield,
then very gently bent the two radio antennas, being
careful not to break them, then reached inside the
patrol car to set back the hands of the watch on
Johnson's arm and the clock on the car's dashboard.
These UFOnauts would then have taken off Johnsons'
glasses, aimed an intense ultraviolet light into
his eyes, and replaced his glasses, while being
careful not to shine ultraviolet on his face.
Or the incident is a hoax. There are simply no other possible explanations."
Klass' amusing version of the "UFO/ET hypothesis" should not detract from the importance of his statement that "There are simply no other possible explanations." In other words, if it was not a hoax then there is no prosaic explanation for this sighting. Perhaps Klass realized that the hoax hypothesis was unconvincing at best and intentionally tried to make the UFO alternative seem silly. (One envisions "little green men" or "grey entities" molesting the police car and Officer Johnson, perhaps laughing gleefully as they hammered his car!)
The police department did not accuse Officer Johnson of damaging the police car. Yet, Klass' book, published about 3 years after the incident, clearly implies that this event had to be a hoax since it was clearly not a misidentification or a delusion (recall that, according to Klass, roughly 98% are misidentifications and the remainder are hoaxes or delusions). Several years after the publication of the book I challenged Klass to send a letter to the police chief of Warren, Minnesota, along with a copy of his book chapter so that the police chief would realize that he should charge Johnson with damaging the car. So far as I know, Klass never did send such a letter and Officer Johnson has never been charged with damaging the police car.
Klass is not the first to offer prosaic explanations. Dr. J. Allen Hynek, who, in his later years, became a strong proponent of UFO investigation (founder of the Center for UFO Studies in 1973), began his "UFO career" in 1948 as a strong skeptic/debunker. His explanations of a number of UFO sightings helped to set the tone of governmental UFO investgation in the early years. One of his most unconvincing explanations was that offered for the sighting by Mr. A. C. Urie and his two sons on August 13, 1947. They lived in the Snake River Canyon at Twin Falls, Idaho. According to the FBI investigative report of this case, at about 1:00 P.M. Mr. Urie "sent his boys to the (Salmon) river to get some rope from his boat. When he thought they were overdue he went outside to his tool shed to look for them. He noticed them about 300 feet away looking in the sky and he glanced up to see what he called the flying disc." This strange object was flying at high speed along the canyon which is about 400 feet deep and 1,200 feet across at that point. It was about 75 feet above the floor of the canyon (and so more than 300 ft below the edge of the canyon) and moving up and down as it flew. It seemed to be following the contours of the hilly ground beneath it. Urie estimated it was about 20 feet long and 10 feet wide and 10 feet high, with what appeared to be exhaust ports on the sides. It was almost hat shaped with a flat bottom and a dome on top. It's pale blue color made Urie think that it would be very difficult to see against the sky, although he had no trouble seeing it silhouetted against the opposite wall of the canyon. On each side there was a tubular shaped fiery glow like some sort of exhaust. He said that when it went over trees they didn't sway back and forth but rather the treetops twisted around, which suggests that the air under the object was being swirled into a vortex. He and his sons had an excellent view of the object for a few seconds before it disappeared over the trees about a mile away. He thought it was going 1,000 miles an hour.
Hynek offered the following "prosaic explanation" which became part of the official Air Force record on the sighting (see the files of Project Blue Book): an atmospheric eddy. Why this explanation? The object appeared pale bluish in color, like the sky, and the trees were moving around as if a swirling wind went over them. Hynek explained the blue color as a "reflection" of the blue sky in the hypothetical atmospheric eddy. He offered no explanation of how this eddy could appear to have the strange "hat" shape, be traveling at about 1,000 miles per hour, how there could be a fiery glow at one location on the side of the "eddy" or why the eddy would appear as a solid rather than transparent object.
With a little thought he could have realized that no atmospheric eddy
could reflect or bend light (as in a mirage) coming down from the sky
enough to redirect it toward the witnesses. An eddy is a density in homogeneity in the atmosphere which, in principle, might bend light by a very small fraction of a degree. However, for Hynek's explanation to work, the light would have to be bent five degrees or more, far beyond anything the atmosphere could do. Hynek's explanation is another failed prosaic explanation. Even Hynek realized this and repudiated his explanation years later (see "THE HYNEK UFO REPORT", Dell Pub. co, NY, 1977).
Another scientist with an excessive urge to explain was Dr. Howard Menzel. In his first book, entitled FLYING SAUCERS (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1953) Menzel offered a blanket explanation for sightings that occurred within the first 5 years of modern UFO sightings (1947-1952): misidentified atmospheric phenomena including the effects of the atmosphere on sunlight, unusual clouds caused by particular wind patterns and mirage effects (light ray bending in the atmosphere). He suggested several different atmospheric and cloud effects to account for the first widely reported sighting, that of Kenneth Arnold on June 24, 1947. In later books ("THE WORLD OF FLYING SAUCERS, Menzel and Boyd, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, NY, 1963; THE UFO ENIGMA, THE DEFINITIVE EXPLANATION OF THE UFO PHENOMENON, Menzel and Taves, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, NY, 1977) he offered other atmosphere-related explanations and one non-atmospheric explanation (water drops on the windshield of the airplane).
Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot, had reported seeing nine semicircular,
thin (compared to the length), shiny objects in a line flying southward
past the western flank of Mt. Rainier and then "in and out" of a chain of mountains south of Rainier. The objects were therefore about 20 miles east
of him (he was about 20 miles west and 10 miles south of Mt. Rainier and
flying east at the time). He timed their flight from Rainier, southward,
to Mt. Adams, a distance of about 50 miles. They crossed this distance in
102 seconds. Hence the direct interpretation of Arnold's sighting is that
these objects were traveling at about 1,700 mph. (This was about 4 monthsb
efore Yaeger exceeded the speed of sound in a test aircraft (October,
1947)). In reporting the speed calculation Arnold arbitrarily reduced the speed considerably to account for possible errors in his measurements. He
publicly stated that the objects were traveling at about 1,200 mph. Arnold
reported that he first saw the objects as they flashed or reflected the
bright afternoon sunlight when they were north of Mt. Rainier and last saw
them (by their flashes) as they passed Mt. Adams. The total sighting
duration was 2 to 3 minutes.
Dr. Hynek was the first scientist to try to explain Arnold's sighting.
Hynek couldn't except the large size and high speed implied by Arnold's
observation so he decided to ignore Arnold's claim that the objects went in
and out of the mountain peaks south of Mt. Rainier. By ignoring this statement (essentially implying Arnold's had made a mistake in the observation) Hynek was able to assume the objects were closer to Arnold. Hynek settled on a 6 mile distance which meant that the speed could have been much lower, like about 400 mph. Since this speed was within the capability of fast military aircraft a the time Hynek identified the objects as "aircraft," thereby also ignoring Arnold's description of the
Hynek's work was done secretly for the Air Force in 1948 (under "Project Sign", the first of three projects for UFO sighting analysis. The other two were Project Grudge [1949-1952] and Project Blue Book [1952-1969]). About 4 years later Dr. Menzel tackled Arnold's sighting. In his first book, FLYING SAUCERS, Menzel summarized the sighting and then criticized the Air Force for accepting Hynek's explanation and went on to propose a much more "obvious" solution. Menzel wrote, "(Arnold) clocked the speed at about 1,200 miles an hour, although this figure seems inconsistent with the length of time that he estimated them to be in view. From his previous statement they could scarcely have traveled more than 25 miles during the three minutes that he watched. This gives about 500 miles an hour, which is still a figure large enough to be startling.." Note that Menzel did not tell the reader that Arnold had timed the flight of the objects between two points. Instead, Menzel invented a travel distance of 25 miles, and implied that this distance was covered in 3 minutes (180 seconds). Hence he was able to assign a much lower, although "startling," speed of 500 mph.
Menzel went on to "solve" the mystery of Arnold's sighting: "Although what Arnold saw has remained a mystery until this day (1953), I simply cannot understand why the simplest and most obvious explanation of all has been overlooked.... the association of the saucers with the hogback (of the mountain range south of Mt. Rainier).... serves to fix their distance and approximate size and roughly confirms Arnold's estimate of the speed." (Note that Menzel, unlike Hynek, accepted Arnold's distance estimate). Menzel then went on to suggest that Arnold saw "billowing blasts of snow, ballooning up from the tops of the ridges" caused by highly turbulent air along the mountain range. According to Menzel, "These rapidly shifting, tilting clouds of snow would reflect the sun like a mirror...and the rocking surfaces would make the chain sweep along something like a wave, with only a momentary reflection from crest to crest."
This first explanation by a scientist with the reputation of Dr. Menzel
may seem slightly convincing, but only until one realizes that (a) blowing clouds of snow cannot reflect light rays from the sun (60 deg elevation angle) into a horizontal direction toward Arnold's airplane and thereby create the very bright flashes that Arnold reported in the same way that a polished metal surface or mirror would, (b) there are no 1,200 mph or even 500 mph winds on the surface of the earth to transport clouds of snow (fortunately!), (c) there are no winds that would carry clouds of snow all the way from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Adams (Arnold saw the objects pass Mt. Adams before they were lost to his view), (d)Arnold flew eastward along a path that took him south of Mt. Rainier minutes later and surely his plane would have been strongly buffeted (and perhaps destroyed!) by such high winds, but he reported, instead, very calm conditions, (e) an atmospheric oscillation wave can't bend or reflect light over an angle of nearly 60 degrees, which would be necessary to make it appear as if the sun had been reflected by objects nearly at Arnold's altitude, and (f) an atmospheric oscillation wave with a "phase velocity" of 1,200 mph is unlikely, but in any case, when traveling southward its crests would be oriented east-west, so if it reflected any sunlight at all (highly unlikely), the reflection would be in the north-south direction and not westward toward Arnold's plane. Furthermore, even if such amazing atmospheric phenomena had occurred, it is difficult to imagine how Arnold could have failed to realize that he was just seeing light reflected from snow blowing from the mountain tops, especially since he flew over the mountains about 12 miles south of Mt. Rainier on his way east to Yakima, Washington, just a few minutes after the sighting.
In case the first explanation wasn't sufficiently convincing, Menzel offered "another possibility:" he suggested that perhaps there was a thin layer of fog, haze or dust just above or just below Arnold's altitude which was caused to move violently by air circulation and which reflected the
sunlight. Menzel claimed that such layers can "reflect the sun in almost
mirror fashion." Menzel offered no substantiation for this claim. Perhaps
he was thinking in terms of a "forward reflection" from an atmospheric
layer when the sun is so low on the horizon (and nearly along the line of
sight to the reflection) that the light rays make a "grazing angle" with the layer. If so, then that explanation as applied to the Arnold sighting
makes no sense since the sun was at an elevation of 60 degrees and southwest of Arnold, who was looking east. Furthermore, layers form under stable conditions and violent air circulation would tend to break them up so there would be no "reflections" of sunlight. Again, one wonders how Arnold could have failed to notice that he was just seeing the effects of a haze layer.
Ten years after his first book, Dr. Menzel offered his third, fourth and
fifth explanations in his second book, THE WORLD OF FLYING SAUCERS:
mountain top mirages, "orographic clouds" and "wave clouds in motion". To support the third explanation he presented a photograph of mountain top mirages taken by a photographer many years earlier, and proposed by the photographer, as the explanation for Arnold's sighting. (This is the "official" Air Force explanation. It appears in the files of Projects Sign/Grudge/Blue Book along with Hynek's explanation. These files are available to be reviewed on microfilm at the National Archives.) The mirages appear as vague images above the tops of the mountains. (Actually the mirage is an inverted image of the top of the mountain.) These mirages can be seen under proper atmospheric conditions (requiring a stable atmosphere) when the line of sight from the observer to the mountain top is tilted by less than one half of a degree above or below horizontal. Unintentionally (or intentionally?) Menzel failed to report in his book the following information in Arnold's report: as the objects traveled southward he saw them silhouetted against the side of Mt. Rainier which is 14,400 ft high, much higher than the altitude of the saucers. Since mountain top mirages occur above the mountain peaks these objects were far below any mirage of Mt. Rainier. Of course, mountain top mirages stay above the tops of the mountains, so the mirage theory cannot explain the lateral high speed movement of the objects reported by Arnold. Nor can a mirage explain the bright flashes of light from the objects.
Menzel's fourth explanation was that Arnold saw orographic clouds which can assume circular shapes and often form in the lees (i.e., downwind of) mountain peaks. The clouds would, of course, be large but, as Menzel notes in his book, they "appear to stand more or less motionless." The lack of motion, as well as the lack of bright reflections, rules them out, so why did he even mention them? Also, Arnold would have realized they were just clouds as he flew past Mt. Rainier only minutes later.
Menzel's fifth explanation, wave clouds, is comparable to his first suggestion of "billowing blasts" of snow except that this time he proposed clouds of water vapor instead of snow. In his second book this explanation was supported by a photograph of such a cloud taken by a newspaper
photographer. However, this explanation, too, fails to account for the very bright reflections reported by Arnold, for distinct semi-circular shapes and for the high lateral speed. Again, Arnold surely would have recognized a cloud as he flew past Mt. Rainier.
In his third and last UFO book, THE UFO ENIGMA, subtitled "The Definitive
Explanation of the UFO Phenomenon," written in the early 1970's, (just before Menzel died), he again discussed Arnold's sighting and offered his sixth (and last) explanation: Arnold saw water drops on the window of his aircraft.
To support this explanation Menzel appealed to his own sighting of "UFOs" that turned out to be water drops that had condensed on the outside of the window of an aircraft in which he was flying. They moved slowly backwards from the front of the window. They were so close to his eyes as he looked out the window that they were out of focus and he thought they were distant objects moving at a great speed until, after a few seconds, he refocused his eyes and discovered what they were. In comparing his "sighting" with Arnold's, Menzel writes: "I cannot, of course, say definitely that what Arnold saw were merely raindrops on the window of this plane. He would doubtless insist that there was no rain at the altitude at which he was flying. But many queer things happen at different levels in the earth's atmosphere."
Although no one would argue with Menzel's claim that "queer things" happen at different levels of the atmosphere, this fact is irrelevant. Had Menzel bothered to carefully read Arnold's letter to the Air Force he would have seen Arnold's statement that he turned his plane sideways and viewed the objects through an open window to be sure that he was getting no reflections from window glass. (Fortunately Menzel did not propose water drops on Arnold's eyes!)
The "bottom line" is that neither Hynek nor Menzel proposed reasonable explanations for Arnold's sighting, but that didn't stop the Air Force from accepting one of the explanations (mirage).
In 1947, shortly after Arnold's sighting and during the massive wave of
sightings that occurred between late June and the middle of July, other skeptical solutions to the sightings of Arnold and others were proposed. Howard Blakeslee, the Associated Press Science Editor, wrote an article that suggested "quirks of eyesight" could explain the saucer mystery. He
pointed out that anything looks round if it is too far away to see details.
"This law covers small things seen nearby and large ones at great distances." He described his own sightings of "flying saucers" which were bright reflections from distant aircraft. "Planes at great distances tend to look round when light is reflected from their sides." Blakeslee rejected the daytime meteor hypothesis (see below) and the hypothesis that upper altitude ice crystals formed "little round clouds." According to Blakeslee, "Nothing published in science or atomic studies gives the slightest clue to flying saucers unless the objects are aircraft."
Although I cannot now cite the reference, it is this author's recollection that someone claimed that flying saucers were actually "motes in the eye" (small particles such as blood cells which float in the fluid within each person's eyeball; motes are only visible when they move to an area between the lens and the fovea; when they move out of this area they "disappear"). These particles, when viewed against a bright sky, can appear as dark objects far away and thus may be mistaken for large objects at a great distance. Of course, they move whenever the eye does and this can impart "unearthly speeds" to the apparently distant, large objects. (Note: one can be temporarily fooled by motes, but a simple test is to turn the eye and stare in another direction. If the "object" moves with the eye, then it was a mote. If not, it could be (gulp) "out there".... a UFO??!!!)
Dan Nelson, an attorney in Oklahoma City, published his explanation in the "Daily Oklahoman" newspaper, July 29, 1947. On July 30 the FBI contacted him to learn more about his solution to the mystery. According to Nelson all sightings from inside vehicles, including airplanes, that had windows were reflections of sunlight from shiny objects onto the windows. The light reflected from these shiny objects was then re-reflected toward the eye of the observer who was looking through a window and could thus see the reflection silhouetted against the background as if there were a shiny object "out there", far outside the car. Naturally reflections such as this could do unnatural things such as pace a vehicle or suddenly accelerate, make fast turns and even suddenly disappear. According to Nelson, the vibration of a car, for example, would give the objects "an appearance of rotating" and "reflections (in the windows) caused them to appear flat or saucer shaped." Moreover, "...any number of objects might be seen according to the direction that the car is traveling and the number of bright objects being reflected onto the window. He further stated that these objects might be seen in an ordinary window in a house according to the lighting conditions..." Mr. Nelson told the FBI that he had not actually talked to saucer witnesses but "he believed that these reflections plus the excitement and hysteria caused by other reports has been the basis for most flying saucer reports." (Classic armchair theorist!!) Obviously
Nelson's explanation could not apply to Arnold's sighting, but Nelson
didn't know that since Arnold's full report was published until many years later.
Recently some skeptics have proposed that Arnold saw a flight of geese or pelicans heading southward at high altitude (about 9,000 ft). These birds were proposed because they can fly quite rapidly, perhaps up to 50 miles per hour. Of course they would have been quite close to Arnold for him to see them (80 ft objects at 20 miles subtend the same angle as 4 ft wingspan objects at 1 mile). Of course, these birds would not cause bright mirror-like reflections of the sun but, as skeptics often do, they ignored that "minor" detail or tried to imagine that Arnold incorrectly reported the bright "flashing" of these objects (perhaps assuming that Arnold got it wrong or simply lied about it). They also ignored Arnold's claim that he turned his plane (rolled down his window) and flew parallel to the flight path of the objects for a short time. Arnold did not report his air speed. However, because of the type of aircraft he was flying his speed would definitely have been above a stall speed of about 80 mph and probably above 100 mph. In any case he would have realized immediately that he was gaining on these objects. He would have realized that they were relatively slow compared to his speed and certainly he wouldn't have estimated the speed at anything like 1,700 miles per hour, or even 100 miles per hour. In other words, had they been birds, even if unrecognized by Arnold, he would have had no reason to think that he was seeing radically new aircraft with extreme flight capabilities, so his whole report would have to be a fabrication.
In June, 1997, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Arnold's sighting, San Francisco Examiner writer Keay Davidson published another suggested explanation: meteors. The details of the explanation are given in a small monthly publication by Philip Klass which he calls the Skeptics UFO Newsletter (SKUFON; issue #46 of July 1997). (One wonders why it took 50
years for this explanation to be proposed. Could it be that previous skeptics considered this to be just too "outrageous?") Mr. Klass has been writing articles and books purporting to explain UFO sightings for at least the last 30 years, yet he has not previously "explained" the Arnold sighting. (His first book, UFOS IDENTIFIED was published in 1968.)
According to Mr. Klass, writing in SKUFON, the new explanation was published by Mr. Davidson after some research that was "sparked by a conversation" with Mr. Klass. The exact nature of this conversation was not reported, but one may imagine Klass suggested that Davidson ought to check on the possibility that Arnold saw meteors. According to Klass, after some research Davidson discovered that "the number of meteor falls reaches a peak around 3:00 PM," in June in the northern hemisphere. Arnold's sighting occurred at 3:00 PM, June 24, 1947. Thus, according to Klass' article, the large number of meteors detected in June lends support to the meteor hypothesis. (The astute reader will note the careful, "lawyerly" use of words: "lends support to" which is not the same as "proves" or "is evidence for.")
Klass' SKUFON article mentions Arnold's statement that the objects seemed bright and shiny as if reflecting the sun. By way of comparison and
explanation Klass cites a 6:00 PM, June, 5, 1969 pilot sighting, which he
claims turned out to be several meteors, in order to point out that meteors, when seen in the daytime, can look as if they are shiny metal. These pilots saw the bright objects seeming to come toward them (i.e., they were looking along the trajectory of the objects) and thought they were looking at shiny metallic objects. The pilots thought the objects were close, when in fact they were over a hundred miles away.
Klass also points out that pilots can make errors (as if we didn't know that!). The implication is that if the 1969 pilots could mistake daytime
meteors for UFOS, then perhaps Arnold did, also. However, the Arnold
sighting was quite different from the 1969 sighting.
Arnold reported seeing repeated bright flashes at varying time intervals from nine objects traveling one after another, along a roughly horizontal trajectory. Their altitude was about 6,000 ft (since they traveled at the level of the mountain peaks south of Mt. Rainier). He realized that the flashes occurred as the objects tilted steeply to the left and right as they flew along a southward path. Arnold concluded that the flashes were a result of reflections of light from the sun which was high in the sky to the west (behind him). The objects flew southward past Mt. Rainier and, when they weren't tilted, he saw them as thin dark lines silhouetted against the snow on the sides of Mt. Rainier. When they were tilted but not aligned with the sun so as to make a bright flash, he saw them as semi-circular at the front with convex, somewhat pointed rear ends (one seemed to have a double concave crescent shape at the rear).
By way of contrast, meteors which are traveling fast enough to glow (or,
actually, to cause the air around them to glow) do not dim to the point of
being "not bright" and then brighten again, repeatedly. This is because, as Klass correctly points out, what causes the light is the high velocity of the meteor passing through atmosphere. The meteor is traveling so fast that it "instantaneously" heats the air as it passes through. (Note: Klass gives a meteor speed as 10,000 mph or 2.8 mi/sec. However, this is lower than that of any body entering the earths atmosphere from space. Free fall to the earth from a great distance would produce a speed of about 7.4 mi/sec at the earth's surface in the absence of atmosphere. Orbital speed, which is lower than meteoric speed but still large enough to cause a plasma in the upper atmosphere, is about 5 mi/sec.) This heating is a very rapid process caused by the meteor compressing the air ahead of it and raising the temperature (kinetic energy of the air molecules) to the point where the air becomes ionized (a plasma). In returning to the un-ionized state (free electrons reuniting with the atoms/molecules) the atoms/molecules give off light which appears to envelop the meteor (one does not see the meteor itself, but rather the envelope of heated air). The natural tendency of a meteor is to slow down as it meets with resistance while forcing itself at high speed through the atmosphere. If it slows to a speed low enough so that it no longer creates a plasma it will become dark (not giving off light) and will not again appear bright since there is no way for it to regain its lost speed. At the high altitudes of meteors (50 miles and up) the atmosphere is quite thin and easily heated to the plasma state by the speed of the meteor. Furthermore the air resistance is quite low, so the meteor can travel a great distance before being slowed to "sub-plasma" speed. However, as the altitude decreases the atmospheric density increases and it takes ever more energy from the meteor to maintain a glowing plasma. It is doubtful that any meteor would be still glowing at an altitude of 6,000 ft, but if it were, it would be quite large and eventually slowed to the point of hitting the earth. The suggestion that one.. or several... meteors could travel many miles horizontally at a speed high enough to glow while at an altitude of 6,000 ft is not supported by any known physics of meteors.
Klass points out that Arnold estimated he saw the objects for 2 ½ to 3 minutes. This included about ½ minute of time before they passed Mt. Rainier and another nearly 2 minutes after they passed Rainier. This would be "extra long" for a meteor (most burn out in a second or so; large meteors called fireballs can last many seconds). Hence Klass argues that Arnold's time estimate was probably wrong. He points out that "witnesses are notoriously unreliable in estimating the time duration of unexpected events" and cites the Mar. 3, 1968 reentry of the Zond Soviet space rocket as an example in which witness errors resulted in sighting duration estimates as low as 15 seconds and as high as 5 minutes.
There is an important difference between Klass' example of witness error
and the Arnold sighting: Arnold used a clock!
Klass acknowledges that Arnold used his dashboard clock to time the passage of the objects between Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams but Klass does not mention the time duration reported by Arnold. Instead, he writes as follows: "SUN questions whether Arnold...who was focusing his attention on the unusual obejcts while also occupied flying his aircraft... would have taken his eyes off the objects to carefully observe his cockpit clock." In other words, Klass questions the accuracy of the witness' claims about his own actions. If the actions seem illogical to Klass, then the actions are suspect and, of course, any data resulting from the actions are suspect.
So, why did Arnold do such an "illogical" thing as look at his dashboard clock as the objects were disappearing? Even though Klass used Arnold's letter to the Air Force as a reference, he does not tell his readers that Arnold wrote that he intentionally measured the speed: "I had two definite points I could clock them by" (he was referring to Mt. Rainier about 20 miles east-northeast of him and Mt. Adams about 40 miles south-southeast of him). He reported that he could see that the objects were flying southward so he looked at his dashboard clock as the first object passed the south flank of Mt. Rainier. He then watched the objects as they
continued southward. During this time the objects passed over a ridge that
is about 5 miles long. According to Arnold "the first one was passing the
south crest of the ridge" as the last one "was entering the northern
crest." Hence they covered a total distance of about 5 miles. By the
time they were passing Mt. Adams they were so far away he could only see
their flashes. At this point there was *no reason to continue watching
carefully* because they were fading out in the distance. Therefore he
wasn't missing anything by taking his eyes off theobjects to look at the
clock. The second hand on his clock showed that 102 seconds had passed.
(Note: he was able to pay attention to the objects even though flying the plane because, as he reported, the atmosphere was calm and clear and there
were no aircraft in his vicinity; the closest aircraft was roughly 15 miles
north and heading away from him.)
The calculated speed based on Arnold's measured time between Rainier and Adams is by itself sufficient to reject the meteor explanation (is this why
Klass did not report the calculated speed?). The objects traveled about 50
miles in 102 seconds, corresponding to a speed of about 1,700 mph, far
below any meteoric speed and certainly not enough to make the atmosphere
By way of comparison, if one were to hypothesize a meteor in a level trajectory traveling at essentially orbital speed but at an altitude of 6,000 ft, it would have required roughly 9 - 10 seconds to travel from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Adams. Even at Klass' underestimated speed of 10,000 mph the flight time between the peaks would be only about 17 seconds. One would hope that Arnold, using his dashboard clock, could tell the difference between 102 seconds and 10 (or 17) seconds.
Aside from the difficulty in imagining that Arnold could mistake 10 seconds for 102 seconds, the mere suggestion that a meteor, or nine such meteors, could travel at a meteoric speed at an altitude of 6,000 ft while glowing brightly is far outside the accepted meteor phenomenology. Meteors cool as they penetrate the lower atmosphere, or rather the speed decreases to the point that they are no longer ionizing the dense air. Hence the basic concept that Arnold saw bright meteors traveling past Mt. Rainier must be rejected.
Consider, now the number of explanations that have been offered for the Arnold sighting: quirks of eyesight (Blakeslee), motes in the eye, reflections in glass (Nelson), mirage (Hynek), blasts of snow (Menzel), haze reflection (Menzel), mirage (Menzel), orographic clouds (Menzel), wave clouds in motion (Menzel), water drops on the windshield (Menzel), birds/geese/pelicans (recent skeptics) and meteors (Klass/Davidson). With all these available explanations, surely the Arnold sighting has been explained?
The complete Arnold sighting and an in-depth discussion of the failed
prosaic explanationsis available from this author via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From studying the approach of the skeptics to explaining just the Arnold
sighting one learns Maccabee's First Rule of Debunking: any explanation is
better than none. The Second Rule is, if the first explanation seems
unconvincing or just plain doesn't work, propose another. The Corollary to
the Second Rule is (you guessed it!) if that doesn't work try yet another. The procedure of proposing explanations is part of the scientific approach to explaining UFO sightings. However, simple proposal of explanations is not sufficient. It is the "first half" of the method. The other "half" of the method is to test each proposed explanation against the information from the sighting and to decide whether or not it is, at least, convincing (you may not be able to determine whether or not an explanation is correct, but it is possible to determine whether or not it is convincing). Unfortunately Menzel, Klass and other skeptics, generally have not carried out the this second half of the scientific method. Menzel simply proposed explanations, one after another, as if it were logical to believe that the more prosaic explanations one could offer for a sighting, the more likely it is that the sighting could be (or has been) explained by one of the explanations. This, of course, makes little sense. Each sighting has one and only one explanation. Thus the analyst should pick the best, or most convincing, explanation out of a collection of potential explanations (by using the complete scientific method on each sighting and rejecting the unconvincing ones) and then publish that explanation and only that
explanation. As a "rule of thumb" to help the reader decide whether or not a sighting has been explained I would suggest that the larger the number of proposed, unconvincing explanations, the less likely it is that the sighting has been explained.
Klass followed the scientific procedure when he published his analysis of the Val Johnson case discussed above. Klass clearly stated that the only prosaic explanation was a hoax by Officer Johnson, all others having been rejected by the testimony and the hard evidence. He then left it up to the reader to decide whether or not he had made a convincing case for it being a hoax. However, he did not follow the scientific method in proposing the meteor hypothesis for the Arnold sighting, nor in his analysis of sighting that occurred in 1986.
Japan Airlines Captain Kenju Terauchi had been mildly interested in UFOs for years, but didn't get to see one close-up until November 16, 1986. He and two other crew members were flying a 747 Jumbo jet (designated JAL1628) that was trasnporting a load of wine from Paris to Tokyo (and they didn't have one drop to drink....nor one drink to drop!) when suddenly, while over northeastern Alaska, they were confronted with a startling event: the appearance of two objects or "crafts" right in front of their aircraft. These objects suddenly appeared and maintained a fixed distance, estimated at 1,000 ft, ahead of their aircraft for about 10 minutes (they were traveling at about 600 mph). The captain reported that he felt the sudden occurrence of heat on his face. Each object had two parallel vertical rows of yellowish lights that appeared like exhausts emitting flames. Each object rocked from side to side, with the rocking of the two objects being synchronous. Initally the objects were one above the other, but after several minutes they suddenly moved to a side-by-side orientation. They were not recognized as any known aircraft by the crew, which reported the event to the Anchorage, Alaska, Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). The ARTCC tracked the airplane on radar and tried to detect the objects but was unable to do so. About 10 minutes after their initial appearance these "crafts" suddenly disappeared from ahead of the airplane. Within seconds of the disappearance the captain noticed a strange light at the left side of the airplane, quite a distance away. He turned on his airplane weather radar and noticed a large radar return about 8 miles away in the direction of the faint glow. As the plane flew southward this light drifted behind the aircraft. Suddenly a lot more of it became visible (by self- glow or by silhouette) and the captain referred to it as a "gigantic spaceship." This caused the captain to request a decrease in altitude to get away from it. At the same time the ARTCC requested that the plane make a circle to see what was behind it. Nothing was seen, but a radar target was detected momentarily behind the aircraft. Subsequently the aircraft was flying southward toward Anchorage when the captain last saw the "gigantic spaceship" far to his left and behind him, that is, roughly north of the aircraft.
The complete report of this sighting along with analysis and a discussionof the proposed explanations has been published (International UFO Reporter, May-June, 1987, published by the Center for UFO Studies). An "email version" (without nice illustrations) is available from the this
author. The information above is enough, however, to allow a proper evaluation of the "prosaic explanations" proposed and publicized by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). The sighting occurred in November, 1986. The Federal Aviation Administration announced in early January 1987 that it was going to investigate the sighting because of all the press interest. (This is anomalous by itself since, so far as I know, the FAA never investigated any sighting before.) Less than a month later, and more than a month before the FAA announced the results of its investigation, CSICOP announced that the sighting had been explained by Philip Klass ("UFO Mystery Solved, " press release by the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), January 22, 1987 (Buffalo, NY)).
The press release stated that, "according to a leading UFO investigator" (Philip J. Klass) "at least one extraterrestrial object was involved - the planet Jupiter, and possibly another - Mars." The press release asserted that at the time of the sighting Jupiter was "extremely bright" at a -2.6 magnitude and would have been about 10 degrees above the horizon on the left side of the aircraft where the pilot first reported seeing the UFO. Mars would have been slightly lower and about 20 degrees to the right of Jupiter. The press release stated that "Although the very bright Jupiter and less bright Mars had to be visible to JAL Capt. Kenjyu Terauchi, the pilot never once reported seeing either - only a UFO that he described as being a 'white and yellow' light in his initial radio report to the Federal Aviation Administration controllers at Anchorage."
The press release could have mentioned, but did not, that Terauchi did report seeing numerous stars in the sky, city lights and a glow of sunset in the west.
The CSICOP explanation was based mostly on Klass interpretation of an
early version of the transcript of the audio tape made at the Anchorage
ARTCC. The radar tracking data were not made available until over a month
later and so Klass had no information on the precise locations and flight
directions of the plane at the times of the various sighting events.
Therefore he couldn't prove that Jupiter and Mars were in the locations or
sighting directions (relative to the airplane) that he stated in the press
release. On the other hand, there were rather explicit descriptions and
drawings by the captain which had been widely publicized and which
certainly were available to Klass but apparently he ignored them.
Klass made a major error in not waiting for the release of the complete
information package by the FAA because, if he had waited, he would have
found that the publicized versions of the sighting were quite close to the
descriptions of the "crafts" that were given by the crew during interviews. These descriptions rule out Jupiter and Mars as possible causes of the sighting. Without the FAA data package he did not know that initial
drawings were made only about 2 hours after the event. Nor did he know
that the other crew members, in separate interviews, supported the captain's report of the objects that appeared in front of the plane. Nor
did he know about the sudden rearrangement of the relative positions of the
objects from one above the other to one beside the other, a maneuver that
Jupiter and Mars would have difficulty carrying out during the time of the
sighting (!). Nor did he know that at the beginning of the sighting the two crafts were almost directly ahead of the plane and not in the direction
of Jupiter and Mars. Nor did he know that at the end of the sighting,
while the plane was flying southward, ROUGHLY TOWARD Jupiter and Mars, the
pilot reported the "gigantic spacecraft" was behind and to the left, in a direction nearly opposite to the planets.
The CSICOP press release discussed and rejected the FAA and Air Force radar detections. Curiously, however, it completely ignored the claim by the pilot that the airplane radar did detect a radar-reflective object at 7 to 8 miles in the direction of the UFO. Perhaps Klass rejected this claim, but if he had waited for the data package from the FAA he would have learned that the other two members of the crew confirmed the pilot's statement about the radar detection.
Thus, the Jupiter-Mars explanation is contradicted by the sighting directions to the UFO at various times, by the descriptions of the crew members and by the airplane radar detection. (Another "prosaic explanation" bites the dust!) Unfortunately, the "gullible" press did not know that at the time. The explanation was widely publicized. The explanation made the captain look like an idiot, but as far as the press was concerned, that's OK. Only idiots report UFOs. Having done their duty the newsmedia promptly forget about the sighting.
In retrospect it appears that the CSICOP press release which was marked "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE" should have been marked "FOR PREMATURE RELEASE."
The FAA finally did make a public report on the sighting on March 5, 1988 ("FAA Releases Documents on Reported UFO Sighting Last November," by Paul Steucke, Office of Public Affairs, Alaskan Region, Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA), U.S. Department of Transport, March 5, 1987
(Anchorage, AK)). This report concentrated on the controversy over the radar detections or non-detections by the ARTCC. It did not discuss the airplane radar detection nor did it discuss the visual sightings. It basically said that the ground radar did not support the claim of a sighting. This was not, of course, the same as saying there was no sighting, but the national press presented the FAA investigation results as if they proved there was no sighting. Perhaps the most important result of the FAA investigation was a data package which the FAA made available. This included radar data listing the exact airplane locations, headings and speed, the complete transcript of the ARTCC audio tape of the event and all the transcipts of the interviews with the crew members and air traffic controllers. With this data package anyone could have analyzed the sighting and concluded that Mars and Jupiter were not the solution.
Apparently that is exactly what Klass did after my detailed article was
published by the Center for UFO Studies because several months later CSICOP
published ANOTHER EXPLANATION (recall Maccabee's First Rule of Debunking mentioned above!). This time it was moonlight on clouds! (Klass, P.J., "FAA Data Sheds New Light on JAL Pilot's UFO Report," The Skeptical Inquirer, Summer, 1987 (Buffalo, NY)). More specifically, the "crafts" were explained as reflections of moonlight from the clouds and "turbulent ice crystals." According to Klass the turbulent ice crystals "could have generated flame-colored lights" (he didn't explain how) and "this would also explain why the undulating lights would periodically and suddenly
disappear and then reappear as cloud conditions ahead changed. When the
aircraft finally outflew the ice clouds and the initial 'UFO' disappeared for good (the Captain) would search the sky for it, spot Jupiter further to the left and conclude it was the initial UFO." Klass attributed the airplane radar sighting to "an echo from thin clouds of ice crystals."
Klass's explanation verges on scientific garbage. Although the crew reported there were thin clouds far below the plane there is no reason to suppose that moonlight reflected off ice crystals in these clouds would
generate "flame colored lights." Klass' explanation certainly could not account for the heat which Terauchi felt on his face. Nor would it explain the peculiar parallel arrays of flames or yellowish lights associated with two independently flying objects that appeared ahead of and above the
plane, continuously for many minutes. Nor would it explain the sudden
rearranging of these arrays of lights. According to Klass the reflection
from crystals could explain the colors of the lights. However, the
reflected light would be basically the color of the moonlight. A
variation in color would occur only if the moonlight were "broken" into its spectrum by refraction of light in the crystals (similar to what happens with rain and a rainbow). But the spectrum of white light contains more than just the yellow, amber and green which were reported. Blue and red
should also have been noted if the air crew were looking at what would
essentially be a "rainbow."
The lights ahead of the aircraft were described as bright. The copilot compared them to headlights of oncoming aircraft. A reflection of the moon from thin clouds would cover large areas of cloud and would be dim or diffuse and not point-like.
Klass' explanation for the airplane radar target is total conjecture on his
part since the clouds were reported by the crew to be thin. Would there be
any return at all from such clouds? One might ask, if there were so many
clouds, why the radar didn't pick up numerous "blobby" returns on the right side and ahead of the aircraft as well as on the left where the "gigantic spaceship" appeared to be. And, of course, Klass' explanation does not account for the appearance of a "gigantic spaceship."
The bottom line is that Klass proposed two prosaic explanations for this
sighting but neither explanation was correct. Each one failed for physical
reasons when compared with the information in the sighting report. The
fact that he was able to propose seemingly reasonable prosaic explanations
was valuable from the standpoint of publicity for the skeptical viewpoint
and debunking sightings, but it was useless from the point of view of
scientific analysis of UFO sightings. This sighting, along with those of
Officer Johnson, Kenneth Arnold and A.C. Urie remain unexplained and, in my
opinion, will remain unexplained.
It is rare when the physics of the physical evidence in a sighting
absolutely proves a prosaic explanation is wrong. If there is physical
evidence associated with a UFO sighting it's value or pertinence is
generally disputed by the skeptics who find some justification for ignoring
the physical evidence and thereby removing an impediment to the accepting
the proposed explanation. However, in the case I am about the discuss the
physical evidence stands on its own and MUST be explained if the sighting
is to be rejected as evidence for the ET or OI/NHI hypothesis.
During the early morning of December 31, 1978 a series of sightings
occurred which made news around the world. While flying on a freighter
aircraft loaded with newspapers a TV news crew saw and filmed strange
lights which, in the opinion of the experienced air crew (pilot, copilot) were extraordinary. The complete story has been published (Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol 1 #2, 1981) and is available in "email version" from this author. The published article presents the in-depth analysis of the section of the movie film to be discussed here. It is sufficient for this discussion to describe the images in the film section of interest.
The TV news cameraman used a large Bolex electric camera with a telephoto
lens. He held this camera on his shoulder since there was no room in the
flight deck for a tripod. The flight deck has windows at the front and
sides positioned so that the fields of view of the pilot and copilot, added
together, is somewhat more than 200 degrees from left to right (pilot sits
on left side of th cockpit, copilot on the right). The cameraman sat in a
seat between the pilot and copilot and therefore had a field of view of
only about 180 degrees. This is important to understand because from his
position he could not film the right wing of the aircraft without placing
his camera lens directly in front of the copilot or sitting in the
Near the end of the flight of the Argosy freighter aircraft from Christchurch, New Zealand, to Blenheim, the Wellington Air Route Traffic Control Center (WARTCC) announced to the crew that there was a large radar target about 20 miles ahead of them. The cameraman also heard this report. The air crew and the news crew recall seeing a light appear ahead of the plane and the news reporter on board recorded a statement about seeing a flashing light "like an aircraft beacon" that suddenly dropped downward and was started"rolling and turning." He also said that he could see "orange and red among the lights."
Although it is impossible to prove from hard evidence that the cameraman filmed this same light (because there was no synchronization between the filming and the audio tape) it can be proven that this section of his film was taken in the same time frame, of several minutes duration. Moreover, the film does, indeed, show a flashing light. It's flash rate is about once per second. A movie camera creates a series of pictures, called "frames," which record the images one after another at a high rate of speed as compared to an ordinary camera. Looking frame by frame through the 279 frames (pictures) of the flashing light one finds that there are about ten
frames per cycle of the flash (nearly 30 cycles are on the film). During each cycle the images start large and white (overexposed) and they shrink in size and brightness to dim combinations of red and orange and then increase in brightness and size back to large and white. It is of
importance, for comparison with the proposed prosaic explanation, to note
that the large white images have NO trace of red associated with them; they
are "pure" white.
Klass, devoted three chapters of the above cited book (UFOS: THE PUBLIC
DECEIVED) to the famous New Zealand sightings. He proposed numerous
prosaic, though, in my opinion, wrong, explanations for the lights seen and
filmed and for the radar targets which were reported during the flight of
the aircraft, first southward from Wellington to Christchurch and then
northward from Christchurch to Blenheim. In Chapter 27 he discussed the
section of film which is of interest here. According to Klass'
description, the film shows:
"a light that fluctuates rapidly from dim
red-orange to a bright white, then back to
red-orange, then back to bright white at
approximately the flash rate of the red-orange
anti-collision beacons installed atop and
beneath the the Argosy's fuselage."
Here Klass refers to red rotating beacons which project narrow beams of
light that appear as red flashes to a distant observer. These top and
bottom beacons were recorded by the cameraman before the flight began. He
set up his camera on a tripod while the plane was still at the airport and
filmed the plane as the engines were warmed up in order to "run in" his
camera. The images of these beacons show that when the light is pointed at
the camera and is, therefore, brightest, the image consists of a yellow
central circle surrounded by a wide, red annular region, i.e., a red ring
around a yellow center.
Noticing that the flash rates of the upper beacon and the light on the
film were, for all practical purposes, equal, Klass proposed that the
flashing light on the film was actually the upper beacon. How could this
have been done since there was no way the cameraman could directly film the
beacon from inside the aircraft? Klass writes:
"(the cameraman) would not have been able to
film the topside beacon directly. But its
intense illumination could have been reflected
off one of the aircraft's rotating propellor
blades when the beacon rotation rate and the
propellor speed were roughly 'synchronized'.
Such syncronization would have occurred when
(the captain) began to throttle back for his
descent (into Blenheim), possibly increasing
the propellor pitch angle. A short time later,
when he throttled back further, the requisite
synchronization would have been lost and the
(UFO image) would mysteriously disappear."
The images on the film vary considerably in shape and size from frame to
frame. Klass offered the following explanation of the image shape changes:
"If (this section of film shows) a reflection
of the beacon from the curved surface of the
propellor blades, whose rotation rate was not
perfectly synchronized with the rotating topside
beacon, it readily explains the remarkable
changes in shape, size and appearance of the
(UFO) images that occur in a fraction of a
The actual explanation for the shape change is straightforward and has
nothing to do with a hypothetical temporary synchonization of the beacon
and the propellor rotation. Since the cameraman supported the camera on
his shoulder in a moving, vibrating airplane most of the images were
smeared by camera motion. However, some images were either not smeared or
were smeared very slightly. This is because the camera pointing direction
vibrated about some average position. Each movement of the pointing
direction away from the average direction would reach a maximum amount of ex
cursion and then the motion would momentarily cease as the cameraman forced
the camera motion to reverse direction and move back toward the average
pointing direction. Hence the frames obtained during moments of direction
reversal, the "stationary frames," contain images that were not smeared or
smeared very little. The brightest white images in these stationary
frames are nearly circular. The white and red-orange images that occur
between stationary frames were stretched by the camera motion into "hot
dog" shapes (elongated). Those stationary frames which contain the
dimmest, smallest images show a nearly equilateral triangle consisting of
an orange "dot" image just above two side-by-side red "dot" images.
Klass points out in his book that I rejected his hypothesis that the UFO
image could have been a result of filming the reflection off the propellor
of the beacon. Unfortunately, however, he did not describe my objections
to his hypothesis even though he should have known what they were because
of our extensive discussions of this sighting in numerous letters long
before he wrote his book.
My first objection is not based on physics but on the fact that the
cameraman, from his middle seat, could not have filmed in the direction of
the propellor without putting his camera in front of the copilot or sitting
in the copilot's seat, and neither the cameraman nor the copilot recall
either such event.
The second objection is based on fundamental physics (optics/photography)
and is, in fact, devastating to Klass' "prosaic explanation." (As mmentioned above, I made him aware of this objection but he did not include it in his book.)
The clues have already been given and the astute reader may have already
deduced the second objection. It is most evident in the comparison of the
bright, overexposed UFO images with the bright, overexposed beacon images.
As I stated above, the cameraman filmed the red flashing upper (and lower)
beacon before the plane took off. The film shows that when the beacon was
pointed toward the camera the images were relatively large and consisted of
a yellow central circular area surrounded by a wide red annular region.
The yellow center is caused by overexposure to the extent that the film
cannot produce the correct color (it produces pale yellow rather than red
because more film color layers than just the red-producing layer have been
exposed by the extreme intensity of the light). The red annular region is
a result of light scattering sideways in the film. As the light scatters
sideways from the extremely bright central region of the image the
intensity decreases to a level at which the film can produce the correct
color, in this case, red. (Example: had the light been green there would
be a pale center with a very green annulus around it.)
This is completely different from the bright white images on the UFO film,
however. A careful examination of the overexposed images shows that the
centers are white and there is NO red annular region. That means that
these images were absolutely NOT made by filming a red light, whether
directly, as by having the camera film directly toward the beacon, or
indirectly, such as by reflecting the beacon light off the rotating
propellor blades. (There is another optical/photographic reason for
rejecting the "propellor-reflected-light" hypothesis: a reflection off
propellor blades would be extremely weak because they do not "fill up" the space. After all, propellor blades "disappear" and you can "see through them" when they are rotating rapidly. Any reflection under such
circumstances would be extremely weak and unlikely to cause any overexposed
images. Instead any images would be dim and diffuse.)
Hence Klass' explanation is rejected for perfectly good physical reasons.
(Note: a True UFO might be able to violate physics as we know it, but
known objects such as beacons, cameras and film cannot violate physics as
we know it. The previous argument against the beacon hypothesis is based
on well known optical physics.)
The logical, skeptical response to the absolute rejection of this
explanation would be, of course, to propose another explanation. For
example, knowing that the airplane was flying many miles off the east coast
of the South Island of New Zealand, and knowing that there were beacons
along the shore, the first logical suggesion would be that the film shows
one of these beacons. However, all shoreline beacons have been studied and
found to be either too weak, have the wrong flash period, the wrong color
or are simply too far away (or a combination of the above). There is no beacon that could account for the film. Yet another logical suggestion
would be another aircraft. However, there were no other aircraft flying in
that area of New Zealand at the time according to the air traffic
controller who was monitoring the Argosy flight to Blenhiem. So, how
about a boat on the water? There are no flashing lights such as this on
boats (which have steady lights that do not change color). Moreover, there is a question as to whether or not the cameraman, while sitting in the seat between the pilot and copilot, could have turned his camera downward at a
sufficient depression angle to film a boat. It is to be noted that the
extreme overexposure of the white images implies a very bright source. It
is also to be noted that the dim triangular images (orange above
side-by-side red "dots") are not characteristic of any beacons or boats or aircraft lighting in New Zealand. Yet another suggested explanation is an emergency vehicle on land near Blenheim. Aside from the fact that
emergency vehicles do not carry lighting of the type that would create
images such as this, the pilot checked with the authorities and it was
determined that no such vehicles were traveling the New Zealand highways
and byways, at least not near Blenheim or along the northern east coost of
the South Island, where the plane was heading, at the time.
As a last resort one might propose a distant planet. Huh? Yes, such as
Venus on the horizon, fluctuating in brightness and color as a result of
random atmospheric refractions. However, Venus, the only astronomical
light source that could have produced images remotely like these, was not
visible at the time.
Now you know the reason that Klass proposed the upper beacon explanation:
he was aware, from our considerable correspondence on this sighting, that
all the other explanations had failed. The only remaining light that had a
remote chance of explaining the sighting was the upper beacon because of
the near equivalence of the flash rate. Then Klass had to propose an
auxiliary hypothesis to explain how the beacon could be filmed from inside
the aircraft by reflection off the propellor. This was very clever, but
unconvincing to the experienced optical physicist. But the final rejection
of his hypothesis is based on the images of overexposed red lights as
Without any other known sources of light to create the film images this has to be considered unexplained and I know of no reason to believe that it will be eventually explained. It is a TRue UFO.
Although only a few sightings have been discussed here, they are important
because they remain unexplained after analysis and even after "prosaic
explanations" have been offered by the skeptics. The failure of UFO
skepticism, from the scientific point of view, has been to allow such
explanations to be tacitly accepted by the scientific community. If UFOs
were "ordinary science" the proposed explanations would have been
rigorously analyzed...and probably rejected... rather than simply accepted.
Scientific ufology needs skeptics, but skeptics who are capable of
recognizing when a sighting simply cannot be explained by any "prosaic