UFO Researcher Michael Hall joins me to discuss a stunning UFO memo provided by a high ranking military officer.
The term "UFO" (or "UFOB") was coined in 1953 by the United States Air Force (USAF) to serve as a catch-all for all such reports. In its initial definition, the USAF stated that a "UFOB" was "any airborne object which by performance, aerodynamic characteristics, or unusual features, does not conform to any presently known aircraft or missile type, or which cannot be positively identified as a familiar object". Accordingly, the term was initially restricted to that fraction of cases which remained unidentified after investigation, as the USAF was interested in potential national security reasons and "technical aspects" (see Air Force Regulation 200-2).
During the late 1940s and through the 1950s, UFOs were often referred to popularly as "flying saucers" or "flying discs" due to the term being introduced in the context of the Kenneth Arnold incident. The Avro Canada VZ-9AV Avrocar was a concept vehicle produced during the 1950s, which was a functional aircraft with a saucer shape. UFOs were commonly referred to colloquially, as a "Bogey" by Western military personnel and pilots during the cold war. The term "bogey" was originally used to report anomalies in radar blips, to indicate possible hostile forces that might be roaming in the area.
The term UFO became more widespread during the 1950s, at first in technical literature, but later in popular use. UFOs garnered considerable interest during the Cold War, an era associated with a heightened concerns about national security, and, more recently, in the 2010s, for unexplained reasons. Nevertheless, various studies have concluded that the phenomenon does not represent a threat, and nor does it contain anything worthy of scientific pursuit (e.g., 1951 Flying Saucer Working Party, 1953 CIA Robertson Panel, USAF Project Blue Book, Condon Committee).
As an acronym, "UFO" was coined by Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, who headed Project Blue Book, then the USAF's official investigation of UFOs. He wrote, "Obviously the term 'flying saucer' is misleading when applied to objects of every conceivable shape and performance. For this reason the military prefers the more general, if less colorful, name: unidentified flying objects. UFO (pronounced yoo-foe) for short." Other phrases that were used officially and that predate the UFO acronym include "flying flapjack", "flying disc", "unexplained flying discs", and "unidentifiable object".
In popular usage, the term UFO came to be used to refer to claims of alien spacecraft, and because of the public and media ridicule associated with the topic, some ufologists and investigators prefer to use terms such as "unidentified aerial phenomenon" (UAP) or "anomalous phenomena", as in the title of the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena (NARCAP). "Anomalous aerial vehicle" (AAV) or "unidentified aerial system" (UAS) are also sometimes used in a military aviation context to describe unidentified targets. More recently, U.S. officials have adopted the term "unidentified anomalous phenomenon" (UAP).
20th century and after
In the Pacific and European theatres during World War II, round, glowing fireballs known as "foo fighters" were reported by Allied and Axis pilots. Some proposed Allied explanations at the time included St. Elmo's fire, the planet Venus, hallucinations from oxygen deprivation, or German secret weapons. In 1946, more than 2,000 reports were collected, primarily by the Swedish military, of unidentified aerial objects over the Scandinavian nations, along with isolated reports from France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece. The objects were referred to as "Russian hail" (and later as "ghost rockets") because it was thought the mysterious objects were possibly Russian tests of captured German V1 or V2 rockets. Most were identified as natural phenomena as meteors.
The popular UFO craze by many accounts began with a media frenzy surrounding the reports on June 24, 1947, that a civilian pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine objects flying in formation near Mount Rainier in the United States. At the time, he claimed he described the objects flying in a saucer-like fashion, leading to newspaper accounts of "flying saucers" and "flying discs". Soon, reports of flying saucer sightings became a daily occurrence with one particularly famous example being the Roswell incident where remnants of a downed observation balloon were recovered by a farmer and confiscated by military personnel.
The story received scant attention at the time, but interest in it revived in the 1990s with the publicity surrounding the television broadcast of an Alien autopsy video marketed as "real footage" but later admitted to be a staged "re-enactment". Various UFO claimants said that they had interacted with the aliens driving the spacecraft and a few said they had visited the crafts themselves. In 1961, the first alien abduction account was sensationalized when Barney and Betty Hill went under hypnosis after seeing a UFO and reported recovered memories of their experience that became ever more elaborate as the years went by.
As media accounts and speculation were running rampant in the US, by 1953 intelligence officials (Robertson Panel) worried that "genuine incursions" by enemy aircraft "over U.S. territory could be lost in a maelstrom of kooky hallucination" of UFO reports. Media were enlisted to help debunk and discourage UFO reports, culminating in a 1966 TV special, “UFO: Friend, Foe or Fantasy?”, in which Walter Cronkite "patiently" explained to viewers that UFOs were fantasy. Cronkite enlisted Carl Sagan and J. Allen Hynek, who told Cronkite, “To this time, there is no valid scientific proof that we have been visited by spaceships". Fellow NICAP official Donald E. Keyhoe wrote that Vice Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, the first director of the CIA, "wanted public disclosure of UFO evidence".
A 1969 National Academy of Sciences panel reviewed the Condon Report and concurred with its finding, observing that, “While further study of particular aspects of the topic (e.g., atmospheric phenomena) may be useful, a study of UFOs in general is not a promising way to expand scientific understanding of the phenomena.” Referencing the panel's conclusions, the Pentagon announced that it would no longer investigate UFO reports. According to Keith Kloor, the "allure of flying saucers" remained popular with the public into the 1970s, spurring production of such sci-fi films, as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Alien, which "continued to stoke public fascination". Kloor writes that by the late 1990s, "other big UFO subthemes had been prominently introduced into pop culture, such as the abduction phenomenon and government conspiracy narrative, via best-selling books and, of course, The X-Files".
Notable cases and incidentsMain article: List of reported UFO sightingsBritain
- The Rendlesham Forest incident was a series of reported sightings of unexplained lights near Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk, England in late December 1980 which became linked with claims of UFO landings.
The most notable cases of UFO sightings in France include:
A Roswell Daily Record on July 8, 1947 reporting a UFO caseUnited States
- In the Kecksburg UFO incident, Pennsylvania (1965), residents reported seeing an object crash in the area.
- In 1975, Travis Walton claimed to be abducted by aliens. The movie Fire in the Sky (1993) was based on this event, but greatly embellished the original account.
- The "Phoenix Lights" on March 13, 1997
The USAF's Project Blue Book files indicate that approximately 1% of all unknown reports came from amateur and professional astronomers or other telescope users (such as missile trackers or surveyors). In 1952, astronomer J. Allen Hynek, then a consultant to Blue Book, conducted a small survey of 45 fellow professional astronomers. Five reported UFO sightings (about 11%). In the 1970s, astrophysicist Peter A. Sturrock conducted two large surveys of the AIAA and American Astronomical Society (AAS). About 5% of the members polled indicated that they had had UFO sightings.
Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who saw six UFOs, including three green fireballs, supported the extraterrestrial hypothesis for UFOs and said scientists who dismissed it without study were "unscientific". Another astronomer, Lincoln LaPaz, headed the United States Air Force's investigation into green fireballs and other UFO phenomena in New Mexico. LaPaz reported two personal sightings, of a green fireball and a disc. (Both Tombaugh and LaPaz were part of Hynek's 1952 survey.) Hynek took two photos through the window of a commercial airliner of a disc that seemed to keep pace with his aircraft.
Astronomer Andrew Fraknoi rejected the hypothesis that UFOs are extraterrestrial spacecraft and responded to the "onslaught of credulous coverage" in books, films and entertainment by teaching his students to apply critical thinking to such claims, advising them that "being a good scientist is not unlike being a good detective". According to Fraknoi, UFO reports "might at first seem mysterious", but "the more you investigate, the more likely you are to find that there is LESS to these stories than meets the eye".
In a 1980 survey of 1800 members of amateur astronomer associations by Gert Helb and Hynek for CUFOS, 24% responded "yes" to the question "Have you ever observed an object which resisted your most exhaustive efforts at identification?"
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The Robertson Panel and the Condon Report
An American obsession with the UFO phenomenon was under way. In the hot summer of 1952 a provocative series of radar and visual sightings occurred near National Airport in Washington, D.C. Although these events were attributed to temperature inversions in the air over the city, not everyone was convinced by this explanation. Meanwhile, the number of UFO reports had climbed to a record high. This led the Central Intelligence Agency to prompt the U.S. government to establish an expert panel of scientists to investigate the phenomena. The panel was headed by H.P. Robertson, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, and included other physicists, an astronomer, and a rocket engineer. The Robertson Panel met for three days in 1953 and interviewed military officers and the head of Project Blue Book. They also reviewed films and photographs of UFOs. Their conclusions were that (1) 90 percent of the sightings could be easily attributed to astronomical and meteorologic phenomena (e.g., bright planets and stars, meteors, auroras, ion clouds) or to such earthly objects as aircraft, balloons, birds, and searchlights, (2) there was no obvious security threat, and (3) there was no evidence to support the ETH. Parts of the panel’s report were kept classified until 1979, and this long period of secrecy helped fuel suspicions of a government cover-up.
A second committee was set up in 1966 at the request of the Air Force to review the most interesting material gathered by Project Blue Book. Two years later this committee, which made a detailed study of 59 UFO sightings, released its results as Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects—also known as the Condon Report, named for Edward U. Condon, the physicist who headed the investigation. The Condon Report was reviewed by a special committee of the National Academy of Sciences. A total of 37 scientists wrote chapters or parts of chapters for the report, which covered investigations of the 59 UFO sightings in detail. Like the Robertson Panel, the committee concluded that there was no evidence of anything other than commonplace phenomena in the reports and that UFOs did not warrant further investigation. This, together with a decline in sighting activity, led to the dismantling of Project Blue Book in 1969.
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