In Search of the Real UFOs

John Harney
Magonia 49, June 1994

At a very early stage in the investigation of UFO reports it became generally accepted that if a significant number of verified reports remained unexplained after exhaustive investigation then these UFOs must be interplanetary spacecraft. Some people argued that there were no really good cases and that the whole business was just a manifestation of human irrationality and gullibility. Students of the subject thus became divided into believers and sceptics.
This made for lively debate, but it did little to advance scientific research on rare or unexplained phenomena. The reason for this state of affairs lies in the use of the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) by UFO enthusiasts as a blanket explanation for all unsolved UFO cases. The problem with the ETH is not that it is absurd. It is, indeed, perfectly rational. Many scientists have devoted a great deal of effort to setting up radio equipment and monitoring the output to see if they can detect signals from other civilisations which may or may not exist elsewhere in the galaxy. Why, many ufologists might ask, do they not simply study the best UFO reports, then they might learn something about the ETs?

The reason is that if they discovered signals which they could demonstrate were coming from a source umpteen light years away and that these signals were artificial, then that would be positive proof of extraterrestrial intelligence. This reasoning does not apply to UFOs, as no one sees where they go to or where they come from. The ETH is not a scientific theory, as applied to UFOs, because it can account for all reports for which conventional explanations are not easily found. A theory which so easily explains everything explains nothing. If you say that such and such a UFO was an alien spacecraft then you don’t have to bother investigating any further.

It is rather like a man who watches a conjuring act. He can’t imagine how the effects are achieved, so he comes to the conclusion that the conjuror has amazing paranormal powers. This saves him the effort of studying the literature on magic to discover how the tricks are actually performed.

It is this sort of attitude that has resulted in the neglect of some interesting reports. The question which arises is: Are there any good UFO reports for which a convincing physical or psychological explanation has not been found? Now there are some really stunning reports but few of them can stand up to critical examination. What we need are reports with the following characteristics, and I won’t spell out the reasons for them because they should be fairly obvious:
  1. Independent witnesses separated from one another;
  2. Reports made with all relevant details to a responsible person or organisation shortly after the event;
  3. No significant internal inconsistencies in the reports;
  4. No obvious explanation of the phenomena reported.
I will start by looking at three reports from the literature. I have chosen them because they are very different from one another and because one of them, which seems at first an excellent and baffling reports, unravels into a string of misidentifications.

St. Louis, Missouri, 14 July 1954

The incident occurred in the driveway and car park of the Propulsion Laboratory, McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, St. Louis. An object described as an irregular rectangle, 18 18 8 inches, pale milky white, and having the consistency of cotton candy or spun glass was seen. It approached from the east, descending from 30 feet to the ground. It stopped on the ground, then rose to 4 feet, made a right-angle turn to the north, advanced about 75 feet to an 8-foot cyclone fence, rose over it and eventually disappeared into the overcast. It was in view for about 3-5 minutes. It travelled at a speed of 3-8 mph. Five observers reported it, and it is believed that there were about 10 witnesses altogether. The farthest witness was about 200 feet away, but one witness followed it at a distance of only 5 feet. The wind at the time was south-east, about 2-6 mph.

The Blue Book explanation was debris in wind . Dr J. Allen Hynek rejected this explanation in view of the very light wind. (1) If the incident really happened as described it is very difficult to explain. If the object were a piece of lightweight packing material, such a light breeze might have been able to move it along the ground, but hardly seems enough to waft it into the clouds. As the sky was overcast there would have been no thermals which could send small objects soaring upwards. The Blue Book conclusion certainly seems to be at odds with the reported details of this case.

Gatchellville, Pennsylvania, 8 March 1977

Eleven witnesses in six separated groups saw a red ball of fire which was like a second moon in the sky at 7.30 p.m. It moved against the wind in a left-to-right wobbling motion for about 2-5 minutes, a few hundred feet above the ground. It was then seen to drop down towards the lawn of a house. A few minutes later someone called the fire department to deal with a grass fire,but when they arrived it had already gone out. Investigators found a burned patch of grass 100 30 feet with a hole of 1 foot diameter 132 feet to the south-east. It seems that the lawn grass itself did not support combustion (presumably too moist). Tests failed to show any traces of any combustible substances. The soil was said to have been burned black to a depth of 3 inches, as if it had been subjected to intense heat. Within the burned patch were three holes, 1 inch in diameter and nearly 3 inches deep forming a triangle 54 52 72 inches. The field investigator (from the Center for UFO Studies) did not reach the site until several days had passed, so these holes could have been made by some mischievous person after the event. (2)

The obvious explanation which suggests itself is ball lightning but this is itself a phenomenon which is still a mystery, as no one has been able to develop a coherent theory as to how the energy of a lightning ball could be contained. (There are still some sceptics who refuse to accept the reality of ball lightning.) From the description of this incident it seems that a very large amount of energy was released when the object hit the lawn. Ball lightning is a very complex phenomenon, and there are apparently a number of distinct varieties of it. There is no doubt a more detailed account of this case available, but my reference does not give any details of the weather at the time of the incident.

Rapid City, South Dakota, 12 August 1953

Shortly after dark, the Air Defense Command radar station at Ellsworth Air Force Base, just east of Rapid City, received a call from the local Ground Observer Corps Filter Center. A woman observer at Black Hawk, about 10 miles west of Ellsworth had reported an extremely bright light low on the horizon to the north-east. The radar scanner was turned to cover this part of the sky and a well-defined, bright target was seen in the direction in which the light had been reported. The height-finding radar was then turned on the object and it was found to be at 16,000 feet.

The controller arranged to be put through to the GOC observer and together they compared notes on the object. The observer noticed that it was starting to move towards Rapid City. This was confirmed by radar. The controller sent two men outside to look and they saw the object. It made a wide sweep around Rapid City and then returned to its original position.

The controller then called on the pilot of an F-84 to intercept it. The UFO began to move when the pilot got within about 3 miles of it. The pilot chased it about 120 miles north, then had to turn back because he did not have enough fuel. He had gone beyond the range of the radar, but his blip reappeared a few minutes later, followed at a distance of about 15 miles by the UFO. Another pilot was sent up to intercept it and the same thing happened; this time the UFO went north-east.

When the object went off the radar scope it was heading towards Fargo, North Dakota, so the controller called the Fargo Filter Center. A short time later they called back to say they had reports of a fast-moving bright light.

The above account is a condensed version of the report given by Ruppelt. (3) However, Menzel explained the radar contacts as false images caused by a temperature inversion, and the visual sightings as the star Capella. (4) He had little but Ruppelt’s summary to go on, and his explanation was too simple, as we can see from the Condon report. (5) Hynek thought that the stars Capella, Arcturus and Betelgeuse, the planet Jupiter, and at least one meteor were involved in the visual sightings. The investigators agreed with Menzel’s theory about the radar echoes. The description of the sightings given in the Condon report gives a very different impression from that given in Ruppelt’s account.


I have chosen these reports in an attempt to demonstrate that not all serious UFO reports obviously point to the ETH as an explanation, even when they remain unexplained, and that the only thing that most UFO reports have in common is a belief by the witnesses in the ETH or a desire, often subconscious, to believe in it.
In rejecting the ETH as a blanket explanation
for all puzzling UFO reports it is important
not to substitute another blanket explanation,
such as mirages or ball lightning

A factor which might tend to weaken the first case is that the witnesses delayed for some time before making an official report. It thus seems likely that they would have compared notes in order to present mutually consistent accounts. It is also likely that the witnesses were all well known to one another, as they worked at the same place. It might be argued that they must have underestimated the wind speed and possibly failed to appreciate the local effects on wind speed and direction caused by nearby buildings.

The second case seems rather stronger. The height of the object was calculated by comparing the reports of the different groups of witnesses. The object seems to have contained far more energy and lasted much longer than the average lightning ball. It certainly seems worth adding to the list of possible or probable ball lightning reports. A number of good cases of ball lightning have no doubt been lost to science because they were reported as UFOs and published in the sort of book or journal which is unlikely to be available in most science libraries.

The Rapid City case is a good example of what can happen when people are predisposed to consider the ETH as a possible explanation for some UFO reports. A sighting of a bright star near the horizon by a Ground Observer Corps volunteer triggered off a series of visual and radar sightings of what appeared to those involved to be a single, puzzling UFO because of an unusual combination of circumstances on that particular night.

If the idea of extraterrestrial UFOs was not available to the witnesses to excite their imaginations it is most unlikely that two aircraft would have been sent chasing after stars.

Another lesson from this case is that accounts of UFO incidents, even in books by such authoritative writers as Ruppelt, can be very misleading and always need to be cross-checked with other sources.


The effects on witnesses of the ETH should always be considered when reading or investigating UFO reports. The ETH strongly distorts many reports of unusual phenomena, or normal objects seen in unusual conditions. Some good reports may be sightings of rare and poorly understood natural phenomena. Although it is desirable for there to be multiple independent witnesses, they are no guarantee that anything really strange or unusual has taken place.

In rejecting the ETH as a blanket explanation for all puzzling UFO reports it is important not to substitute another blanket explanation, such as mirages or ball lightning. In comparing new reports with cases described in the literature it should be realised that many of these are highly inaccurate summaries of the original reports, and some of them are totally false.

It is only by separating the ETH from the UFO that any progress is likely to be made in obtaining reliable information about the unusual natural phenomena which probably generate some of the more interesting UFO reports.


Hynek, J. Allen. The Hynek UFO Report, London, Sphere Books, 1978, 149-151
Hendry Allan. The UFO Handbook, London, Sphere Books, 1980, 120-121
Ruppelt, Edward J. The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, New York, Ace Books, 1956, 304-308
Menzel, Donald H. and Boyd, Lyle G. The World of Flying Saucers, New York, Doubleday, 1963, 167-170
Thayer, Gordon D. Optical and radar analyses of field cases, in Gillmor, Daniel S. (ed.), Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, New York, Bantam Books, 1969, 132-136