Friday, January 6, 2012

The RB-47 Encounter of 1957 - UFOlogy's Best Evidence?

In the early morning hours of July 17, 1957, a U.S. Air Force crew aboard an RB-47, a plane loaded with the most sophisticated state-of-the-art surveillance and electronic countermeasures gear,  reportedly encountered and was followed across several southern states by one or more UFOs, seen visually as well as on radar. Some UFOlogists consider this the best UFO evidence of all time. It was investigated as Case 5 of the University of Colorado's Air-Force-sponsored Condon Report, which cited the absence of an official report supposed to have been written on the incident, and concluded "Evaluation of the experience must, therefore, rest entirely on the recollection of crew members ten years after the event. These descriptions are not adequate to allow identification of the phenomenon encountered."

A U.S. Air Force RB-47, carrying then-state-of-the-art electronic surveillance and countermeasures gear.
The UFO Casebook says, "An Air Force RB-47, equipped with electronic countermeasures (ECM) gear and manned by six officers, was followed by an unidentified object for a distance of well over 700 miles, and for a time period of 1.5 hr., as it flew from Mississippi, through Louisiana and Texas and into Oklahoma.
      "The object was, at various times, seen visually by the cockpit crew as an intensely luminous light, followed by ground-radar and detected on ECM monitoring gear aboard the RB-47.
     "Of special interest in this case are several instances of simultaneous appearances and disappearances on all three of those physically distinct "channels," and rapidity of maneuvers beyond the prior experience of the aircrew."

There is a brand new in-depth investigation of this case by Tim Printy, just published in his WebZine SunLite, January/February, 2012. It is one of the most complex cases in all UFOlogy. I cannot possibly give more than a brief summary here; Printy's analysis runs over thirty pages, and is enormously significant in the history of this major case, and thus in the ongoing debate over the reality of UFOs.

Printy begins by making what is, to me, a crucial observation: "It does seem rather odd that the UFO would decide to use an S-band radar signal to track or test an Air Force RB-47.  It is this clue that seems to have been glossed over/down played by those presenting this case as the best evidence."  In other words, the UFO seems to have been sending out (but only in this case) S-band radar signals with exactly the same characteristics as those used by the U.S. Air Force at that time. How strange is that if the UFO is sending out exactly the same kind of radar signals we do? So isn't it likely, then, that the source of the signals was not an extraterrestrial craft, but instead a misidentified terrestrial one?
The path of the RB-47 during its supposed "UFO encounter."

Printy notes how the late atmospheric physicist and Ufologist Dr. James E. McDonald interviewed the RB-47 crew and wrote a paper on this case. "McDonald’s stamp of approval had immediately made this case a “classic.”" The famous UFO skeptic, the late Philip J. Klass, "took on the case in 1971 and wrote a rather extensive study on the incident. Klass suggested that it was equipment malfunction, a bright fireball, an airliner, and reception of ground radar signals that made the event appear mysterious to the air crew." This analysis can be found in Chapters 19 and 20 of Klass' 1974 book UFOs Explained.

In the 1990s, UFOlogist  Brad Sparks, who styles himself as "the “RB-47 expert” in his email address, re-evaluated the case. Sparks concluded that Klass had erred, most especially in asserting that the RB-47 had, because of an equipment malfunction, erroneously picked up signals from the radar station at Kessler Air Force base in Biloxi, Mississippi, which was a training facility for radar operators and repairmen. That radar, said Sparks, was not operating at the time of the incident! Sparks wrote, "Since it was a nine-month course it was apparently run during the normal academic term from September to June approximately. In other words, there would not have been a class in session to operate the CPS-6B even in the daytime, let alone nighttime, in the midst of summer vacation, on July 17, when the RB-47 incident took place." 

Sparks simply assumed that, since this was not during the "academic year," the training radar would have been turned off! But Printy looked into the matter very closely of whether or not the Kessler radar was operational at the time in question. He found (as he, a retired Navy submariner, already surely knew), that military training schedules bear no resemblance at all to those of colleges! In fact, Printy found that the Kessler facility had been operating at maximum training capacity in July, 1957, and that some classes were indeed scheduled between midnight and 6AM.

Overall, Printy found that while Klass' analysis contains some errors, his overall conclusions still stand. If you have any interest in the RB-47 c ontroversy, or if you want to read one of the very finest research papers ever published about any UFO case, then I encourage you to read Printy's paper, and come to your own conclusion about this important and controversial UFO case.




  1. Just a small correction here. I did not determine there were any classes after midnight. I only mentioned that one former student thought they might have had some live operator training after hours. What I learned was that preventive/corrective maintenance was usually done on the midshift because the student techs tended to made a mess of things during the day. It is very possible that, in order to get the radar set back into working order for the 0600 classes, the crew fixed everything/finished their preventive maintenance during the midshift. As a final retest they would have to run the radar to make sure it operated correctly. It seems that the ECM operator, who was an instructor there, felt this was very possible because he expected the radar set to be operating when they flew near there.

  2. Maybe this was addressed elsewhere and I just missed it...but why weren't fighters launched to intercept the "craft"?
    A military craft over the US is followed by an unknown object for two hours during the Cold War and no one goes up to see what it is?

  3. There is a simple fact that I have never seen explicitly recognised in debates surrounding those UFO cases which seem to provide the best support for the extra-terrestrial hypothesis (henceforth: ETH). Namely, that it is nearly always possible to provide alternative explanations for any phenomena one might wish to consider, even those we normally take to be the most difficult to deny. Well known examples from epistemology clearly demonstrate this: take any experience you undergo, the visual experience of the computer screen in front of you let's say. What explains that experience? There being a physical object which emits light which enters the eyes and causes some neural events which constitute the visual experience... right? But hold on, how can this be proven with absolute certainty? There is an alternative, sceptical hypothesis, which looks equally able to account for the evidence: there are no physical objects, no light, no eyes, no brain; no physical world whatsoever, only a disembodied mind and an evil, powerful demon hell bent on deceiving that mind into thinking there are such things as computer screens and all the rest.

    Intuitively, this hypothesis is absurd, but that's not the point; what is important to note is that it equally explains the evidence, i.e. the experiences people have. Any experience you have can be accounted for by the evil demon hypothesis. The only apparent knowledge which might be immune to doubt from what is probably the most far-reaching sceptical hypothesis ever conceived are simple mathematical truths like "2+2=4", claims like "all bachelors are male", and other simple so-called *a priori* and *analytic* truths. Thus, even such apparently obviously true claims like those that a person would use to report the mundanities of their everyday experience can be doubted by offering alternative hypotheses. It is hardly surprising, therefore, indeed it ought be be expected, that any UFO report whatsoever will also be able to be explained with a hypothesis which does not posit anything extra-terrestrial. Both sides in the debate would benefit from greater recognition of this fact.

    On the one hand, those in favour of the ETH would do well to recognise the major epistemic impediments there are to establishing that hypothesis, given that establishing the ETH requires ruling out alternative hypotheses, of which there will be a virtually limitless supply. On the other hand, those who prefer more prosaic explanations for UFOs would do well to recognise that simply offering an alternative explanation is not much of an achievement: alternative explanations are easy to come by even for those phenomena we know to be real (like the existence of everyday objects and so on).

  4. What proponents of prosaic explanations of UFO incidents might assert in response to this is something like the following: "fair enough, but: the ETH faces the burden of argument - prosaic explanations can be assumed likely to be true until proven otherwise; whereas the ETH can be assumed likely to be false until proven otherwise. Thus, all anyone contesting the ETH need do is show that it hasn't been proven, and to do that all one need do is offer an alternative, prosaic explanation for the purported ET phenomena. So long as ETH proponents can't rule out alternative explanations, the ETH can be assumed false."

    Consequently, what every single debate regarding UFO incidents comes down to is a burden of argument question: "does the ETH face the burden of argument, and if so *how much of burden?*" Before any debate about any UFO incident is to be productively pursued, the participants in this debate need to try to come to some sort of agreement regarding the argumentative burden. There are a number of options which might be ordered by the extent to which one must be *rationally* certain about the ETH in order to accept its truth. (When I say 'rationally' certain, I simply mean that one be in possession of a deductively valid, or strongly inductively forceful argument with premises that any rational observer should give at least a high degree of credence to.) For example, if one were to be as sceptical as possible regarding the ETH, one could demand 100% rational certainty. Given it is arguable we don't even have that degree of certainty regarding the existence of everyday objects, that seems to ask too much of the ETH. What about 75% rational certainty? This is what is sometimes used to give a figure to the degree of certainty required in most criminal cases to find someone guilty (hence the phrases: 'innocent until *proven* guilty', or 'beyond *reasonable* doubt'). This seems a more sensible demand to make of the ETH. But what if the ETH were to be established on what is sometimes called 'the balance of probabilities' - i.e. more than 50% rational certainty, but less than 75% rational certainty? Perhaps this is too low for some, but it may not be for others. Whatever burden of argument one chooses, the dialectic will struggle to make progress without one being agreed.

    Finally, this still leaves open the question of "what is to count as providing more than 50% or 75% or n% rational certainty?" This is a huge question I do not wish to settle in this comment; however, what seems clear is that both sides in this debate need to ask it of each other.

    To sum up, I have suggested that proponents of prosaic explanations need to do more than simply offer prosaic explanations; that is too easy to do. Rather, both sides in the debate need to come to some agreement over the terms of the debate. Key among those terms, I argued, is the extent of the burden of argument faced by the ETH and what would count as that burden being met. Without this kind of framework for discourse being established, any debate will struggle to reach any kind of agreement; will struggle, that is, to reach the primary goal that any debate ought to have.

  5. I skimmed over the walls of text from Aug. 5th and I can't help but think some serious editing is needed there.
    A couple of notes that may be useful to the author:
    Debate is probably the wrong term. It's more of a claim-explanation format.
    UFOlogists promote sightings, photographs, etc. to support their beliefs. The words "best evidence yet" are frequently seen.
    Skeptics examine this "best evidence" using science and diligent research. Mystery solved (although some incidents never die).

    As to the question of what proof is required, it's a simple matter. An alien or an alien craft would suffice.


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