The Great UFO Car Chase

"The Pelican"
Magonia 70, March 2000
The Pelican has been wondering, somewhat disingenuously, how it is that different accounts of the same UFO incident can give the reader very different impressions as to what really happened. Take the famous incident of 17 April 1966 when Dale Spaur and Bamey Neff chased either a UFO or the planet Venus depending on which version you read across part of Ohio and into Pennsylvania.

The Pelican has indulged in some ufological exegesis on two accounts of the incident, a credulous one by J. Alien Hynek (1) and a sceptical one by Robert Sheaffer. (2) Together they serve only to deepen the mystery rather than providing enlightenment.

So far as the Pelican is concerned, the biggest mystery in this case is: Why did Spaur and Neff chase the UFO or what they thought was a UFO in their car? Hardly any ufologists express surprise when they hear of cars chasing UFOs, so perhaps the problem needs to be spelled out clearly. If police officers in a helicopter spot a stolen car then they can easily follow it and relay its position to officers on the ground, who can then arrange to intercept it. On the other hand, if police officers in a car spot a stolen helicopter they would not be able to chase it very far because a car is constrained to follow the roads, but a helicopter can easily move in any direction. Attempts to use a car to chase any airborne object would be useless, as well as endangering other road users.

Well, given that the two officers were crazy enough to attempt to chase something in the sky, what could they have really been chasing? According to the believers, they must have been chasing a UFO because there were a few other reports of the object having been seen. Sceptics insisted that Spaur and Neff had been chasing Venus. Sheaffer says that the sky at the time of the incident was "quite clear", but does not give the source of this vital piece of information. Hynek does not mention the state of the sky.

As the UFO was seen in the east when the chase began, Sheaffer says that if it really was a UFO the men should have seen two objects the UFO and Venus. But surely he means three objects? Hynek says: "On that morning Venus was just a few degrees to the upper right of the moon." So, surely, if the men started chasing Venus, would not the fact that it remained in the same position relative to the moon tend to destroy the illusion that it was something moving through the atmosphere? Neither Hynek nor Sheaffer discuss this problem.

Anyway, Spaur and Neff were chasing something which, Sheaffer decided after studying their accounts of the incidents and a map of the route they took, remained in the eastern sky, rising slowly throughout the chase. Sheaffer thus concluded that they were chasing Venus, because it was very bright and in the east at the time. Or was it the moon? How could they have failed to notice it if, as mentioned above, it was close to Venus? It is all very puzzling to the poor old Pelican.

However, if someone saw the object, from a different vantage point, being pursued by the police car, then it must have been a Genuine UFO. It so happened that Officer Wayne Huston was monitoring the radio conversation between Spaur and his office in Ravenna. Huston was at East Palestine, Ohio, where he saw the object when the pursuing police car was still about five miles away. He said: "As it flew by, I was standing by my cruiser. I watched it go right overhead. It was shaped something like an ice cream cone with a sort of partly melted down top. The point part of the cone was underneath; the top was sort of like a dome. Spaur and Neff came down the road right after it. I fell in behind them."

This is taken from Hynek's review of the case. Sheaffer manages to give an entirely different impression, by rubbishing Huston's testimony. He writes: "It can be shown, however, that Huston's account of the object's approach is internally inconsistent. Huston claims that he first sighted the object when cruiser P-13 was about five miles away. But he told Weitzel that the UFO appeared to pass overhead in a matter of seconds, leaving him little opportunity to observe the object. If Huston actually did spot Floyd when it and its pursuers were reportedly five miles away and if the object's speed did in fact match P-13's 80-85 m.p.h. velocity at this point, Huston would have had the object in view for at least three and a half minutes."

So, did Huston underestimate the time the object was in view and thus get a good look at it, or did he just get a fleeting glimpse and thus get a false impression of the details, or was he telling a pack of lies? This is where we need a good investigator. Both Hynek and Sheaffer rely heavily for their accounts on the work ofWilliam Weitzel, who investigated the case for NICAP.

According to Hynek: "Much credit must go to William Weitzcl, instructor in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, Bradford Branch, who with care, industry, tact, and persistence brought together the many details of this Close Encounter account."

Sheaffer is less impressed. "Unfortunately, Weitzel's enthusiasm for the UFO phenomenon caused him to overlook some obvious inconsistencies and, worse still, to be blind to significant changes in the witnesses' stories as time passed."

Both Hynek and Sheaffer agree that the case was not properly investigated by Project Blue Book, which was at that time headed by Major Hector Quintanilla. As Sheaffer puts it: "There was in principle no reason that' Quintanilla could not have launched an in-depth investigation into the sighting, and after a period of weeks or months he might have produced an entirely satisfactory explanation for every major aspect of the sighting. But the news media pressure was on."

Thus, in the absence of a proper Blue Book investigation the task was left entirely to amateurs, who no doubt had their own axes to grind. But apart from any criticisms of their efforts, this case raises another important issue the question of the reliability of eyewitness testimony.

Sheaffer's technique in dealing with UFO reports is to doubt the accuracy of testimony whenever acceptance of it would leave sightings unexplained. In his book The UFO Verdict he devotes a chapter to discussing the problem of witness reliability, but much of the iIiaccurate reporting he mentions seems to arise from the fact that the witnesses did not know what they were looking at.

However, he gives as one example the crash of a de Havilland 110 fighter at the Farnborough Air Show on 6 September 1952 in which 28 spectators were killed and 60 injured. He quotes the writer Stephen Barlay who said that of the thousands of eyewitness reports received only one letter was of some use and that most witnesses "got the split-second time-sequence of disintegration backwards, filled in bits with imagination, and preferred theories to reports". (3)

But the Pelican has discovered another, probably more reliable, account of this air crash investigation written by the man who was given the task of examining the wreckage, aircraft engineer Fred Jones. (4) Jones gives the true reasons for the disappointing reports from spectators. "In the event. .. it transpired that fewer than a dozen witnesses had told stories that coincided with the now known facts of the disintegration. They all described correctly what they had seen but, by a quirk of circumstance, all those thousands of people saw the accident only after it started, and the few who did get it right were over near to Cove Radio Station, and nearly under, or to the starboard side of, the aeroplane as it approached the aerodrome."

Jones was looking for evidence of what happened at the start of the incident and eventually obtained it from a cine film taken by a professional cameraman. An important point to consider is that many witnesses were not in a good position to see exactly what happened. Even more important is the fact that it all happened so quickly. The starboard wing started to buckle, then the wing was tom off and the aircraft disintegrated. Jones remarks: "All this takes time to describe, but it actually occurred in less than half a second." The Pelican wonders how many readers could accurately remember a fairly complex sequence of events presented to them unexpectedly, and lasting for only half a second? No, this is not a good example of witness unreliability.

Back to the great UFO chase. Can we make any sense of it? Not much; there are too many loose ends, and accounts of it have become too distorted by either credulity or scepticism, though, as Sheaffer says, we would have a satisfactory explanation if it had been competently and impartially investigated at the time.


1.  Hynek, J. Alien. The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry, Abelard-Schuman, 1972
2.  Sheaffer, Robert. The UFO Verdict: Examining the Evidence, Prometheus Books, 1981
3.  Barlay, Stephen, Aircrash Detective, Hamish Hamilton, 1969
4.  Jones, Fred. Air Crash: The Clues in the Wreckage, Robert Hale, 1985.