Socorro and the Skeptics

"The Pelican"
Magonia 91

One reader, on noticing the absence in the last issue of Magonia of its most noteworthy feature, wrote: "I hope The Pelican's absence was only temporary; he never fails to brighten the morning tea and toast." One feature which never fails to brighten ufology is the pick-and-mix approach to solving UFO cases. It also never fails to provide good reasons why ufology will never be taken seriously by mainstream scientists and politicians, apart from a few who have evidently gone soft in the head, usually due to the ravages of advancing age.

These are the sort of people who take Exopolitics seriously rather than seeing it for what it is a kind of role-playing fantasy game in which one can score points by winding up "serious ufologists" by cleverly getting them to write lengthy refutations of stories by "whistle-blowers" about alien activities which are too absurd to be worth noting.

However, back to pick-and-mix. The Pelican takes as his example the notorious Socorro sighting of 24 April 1964 when police officer Lonnie Zamora claimed to have witnessed the brief landing of a strange craft. Although a few UFO believers were of the opinion that Zamora had witnessed a brief visit to Socorro by a pair of ETs, most of them were rather more cautious and preferred to classify the case as unexplained, unless and until some further reliable information was forthcoming. However, some of them couldn't resist accusing Hector Quintanilla, the head of Project Blue Book at the time, of being a "debunker" even though he, too, listed the sighting as unexplained.

Sceptics were generally less cautious, as some seemed desperate to provide a mundane explanation, even if it had to be force-fitted by the usual process of ignoring awkward details. Here The Pelican must remind readers that he is not a sceptic - at least not in the manner of those for whom scepticism is practised as a kind of secular alternative to religion - despite the misinformation put about by certain unscrupulous American ufologists. The force-fitted explanations range from the almost plausible to the utterly ridiculous, so let us take a brief look at some of them.

One of the favourite explanations is that Zamora was startled and confused by the unexpected appearance of a hot-air balloon. These balloons, in their present form, were new and quite rare at the time of the sighting. This explanation seemed less likely when all efforts to find any record of such a balloon being in the area at the time failed. Another problem, ignored by many, was that a strong wind was said to have been blowing at the time, which would have made a hot-air balloon unmanageable. There is also the problem of how it could have disappeared over the horizon before anyone else arrived on the scene, despite being unable to travel any faster than the wind. Another theory, investigated by Quintanilla, was the possibility that it was the test of a lunar landing vehicle, but he found that these were not operational in April 1964. (1)

A similar explanation was offered which suggested that it might have been a test of a Lunar Surveyor. Such tests, involving the Surveyor being attached to a hrlicopter, were actually being carried out on the White Sands Missile Range on 24 April 1964, although apparently not at the time of the sighting. (2) However, it seems unlikely that the tests would take place so near a town and that Zamora would fail to realise that he was looking at a device attached to a helicopter. Again, there is the problem of how the helicopter, encumbered by the Surveyor, would manage to disappear from view before any other witnesses arrived.

Now we come to the obvious explanation, apparently first seriously suggested by Phil Klass, that it was a hoax. Although sceptics have pointed to inconsistencies in Zamora's account, and later alterations to it, those who interviewed him, including the sceptical Quintanilla, were convinced he was telling what he believed to be the truth. As the mayor of Socorro owned the land on which the incident took place, it was alleged that he conceived the idea of a UFO hoax which would enable him to develop the area as a tourist attraction. So he at least had a possible motive. But it has not been explained what motive Zamora would have had, or why he should be willing to get involved in something which could bring him and the local police force into disrepute.

A variation on the hoax theme was that Zamora was not a hoaxer but was the victim of a hoax devised by a group of physics students. As no one could identify these people or suggest what they could have rigged up to fool Zamora, then managed to dismantle and remove before anyone else arrived, then this explanation was taken seriously by hardly anyone.

The Pelican has saved the silliest explanation to the last. "A mirage of Canopus was the object reported by police patrolman Lonnie Zamora over Socorro (New Mexico) in April 1964. This appears to have been caused by an inversion over the Rio Grande valley, south of the town." (3) This is the verdict of Steuart Campbell, who has some pretty weird notions about mirages, ones not shared, needless to say, by experts on atmospheric optical phenomena. According to Campbell, mirages were also the causes of many other well-known UFO incidents, such as Trindade, a "mirage of Jupiter", the CashLandrum report, Canopus again. A mirage of Canopus also lured Frederick Valentich to his death in the Bass Strait, Australia. This shows that Saucer Logic can be used by sceptics as well as believers. Or perhaps that should be Inverse Saucer Logic?

Anyway, so far as the Socorro case is concerned, The Pelican remains perched firmly on the fence.

Notes :
  1. Hector J. Quintanilla, 'Project Blue Book's last years', in Hilary Evans and Dennis Stacy (eds), UFOs 1947-1997, John Brown, London, 1997
  2. David E. Thomas, 'The Socorro, NM UFO Explained?'
  3. Steuart Campbell, 'Mirages: Can mirages explain UFO reports?' www.astronomycafe.netfweird/lights/mirUFO.htm