Thursday, January 23, 2014

Arizona's Amazing Telepathic Flying Triangle on Discovery Canada

The second segment of the second episode of Discovery Canada's reality-challenged series Close Encounters served up the famous Arizona Flying Triangle, the first half of the famous Phoenix Lights episode of March 13, 1997.  (Most accounts of these incidents conflate the two of them. One hearty cheer for Close Encounters for keeping them separate!)
The triangle, as depicted in Close Encounters. Most observers reported five lights. I counted 33 here.

The story as told depicts peoples' descriptions of the supposed "triangle," and their reactions to it. The Talking Heads in this segment were David Marler, former MUFON state director for Illinois, and Larry Lowe, described as a "journalist, pilot and witness." Neither is terribly well-known in UFOlogy, although Marler is a scheduled speaker for the forthcoming International UFO Congress near Scottsdale, Arizona, which I will be attending. Marler called this case "unique" because, he said, we have potentially thousands of eyewitnesses. But that means very little. Many people had gone outdoors to watch the bright comet Hale-Bopp, which was then near its greatest brightness. Clearly something flew over Arizona that evening between approximately 8:00 and 9:00, but the number of people who saw it adds nothing to its significance.

The episode tells of several witnesses' reactions to the strange, noiseless lights. The Johnson family thinks that the object "seems to be sending a transmission" to them, a "personal communication" from whatever "intelligence" is inside the object. Wow!

What did all of these people see? As investigative reporter Tony Ortega wrote in "The Great UFO Cover-up" in the Phoenix New Times on June 26, 1997, about three months after the incident, "Scottsdale resident Mitch Stanley knows what the March 13 "UFO" was. But will anyone listen?" Mitch Stanley, then 21, was outside observing with his ten-inch reflecting telescope. Because the Dobsonian mount of his telescope moves flexibly and freely, he was able to examine the lights under magnification. He clearly saw that they were airplanes: “What looked like individual lights to the naked eye actually split into two under the resolving power of the telescope. The lights were located on the undersides of squarish wings, Mitch says.” Stanley tried to give his account to reporters and local politicians who were making big deal out of the sightings, but nobody paid any attention to him, until he finally spoke to Ortega.

Later the retired Air Force Major and UFO skeptic James McGaha interviewed Stanley at length. Stanley was not familiar with the appearance of the A-10 aircraft, but the description he gave left McGaha with no doubt that he had seen a flight of A-10 Warthogs, a plane that McGaha worked with at Davis-Monthan AFB. These aircraft are used by Air National Guard units across the U.S. McGaha notes that the A-10 is the quietest jet that the Air Force has, so it is not surprising that many witnesses heard nothing.
A-10 aircraft flying in formation
UFO Skeptic Tim Printy found and interviewed yet another observer whose account has been ignored by UFO proponents. Rich Contry was driving west that evening on I-40 north of Prescott, and observed the objects in 10x50 binoculars:
I was on my way from Flagstaff to Laughlin Thursday when I saw the light formation reported on the radio the other night. I'm a pilot and was in the U.S. Air Force 4 years. Being in the mountains on highway 40, the night was clear and still. As the formation came towards me I stopped my car and got out with my binocs to check out what this was. As it came towards me, I saw 5 aircraft with their running lights (red and green) and the landing lights (white) on. They were also flying fairly slow and in the delta formation. As they went over me I could see stars going between the aircraft so it could not have been one large ship. The flying was like that of the Blue Angels or the thunderbirds demo team. Also as they went by their jets were not very loud because of the low throttle setting for flying slow but I did hear the jets as they went away towards the south.
In fact, there is even a video in existence of the "triangle," taken by Terry Proctor. In its 43-second length it clearly shows the motion of the objects with respect to each other. In other words, despite some observers’ impressions, what flew over was not a single solid object, but five unconnected lights flying in formation.

four frames from the Proctor video, showing actual positions of the five objects (lines added). Ironically, this screen cap is from a Discovery Channel (U.S.) program, "UFOs Over Phoenix."
But what aircraft were they? According to a May 1999 Reader’s Digest article by Randy Fitzgerald, "UFOs – A Second Look,"
At 8:30 p.m. the cockpit crew of an American West 757 airliner at 17,000 feet near Lake Pleasant, Ariz., noticed the lights off to their right and just above them.

"There's a UFO!" co-pilot John Middleton said kiddingly to pilot Larry Campbell. They queried the regional air-traffic-control center in Albuquerque, N.M. A controller radioed back that it was a formation of CT-144s flying at 19,000 feet.

Overhearing the exchange, someone claiming to be a pilot in the formation radioed Middleton. "We're Canadian Snowbirds flying Tutors," a man said... [Fitzgerald later added] “We’re headed to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.”
 (I knew Fitzgerald when I was living in the Washington, DC area. I did a few articles for him for a new magazine called Second Look, that was supposed to be an objective look at the UFO phenomenon. He put out a few issues, but it was not successful.)

“Snowbirds” is the name of the Canadian Flying Demonstration team, similar to the Blue Angels. But that story does not check out – the Canadian Snowbirds were not in Arizona at that time. So what does that mean? Why would a pilot, apparently flying quite legally in a formation of five aircraft, misidentify his aircraft and his mission? Fitzgerald has gone so far as to suggest in a 2010 two-part Examiner article that the apparently deceptive reference to the Canadian Snowbirds may have been an exercise in “psychological warfare.” He notes that “When the first UFO sighting reports began coming in that night, the formation of lights were seen coming from the direction of Las Vegas along a commercially trafficked air corridor.” He suggests that this might have been some secret exercise involving technology developed at Area 51 near Las Vegas, possibly including “Holographic Deception Technology.”

Since there is now no recording of that cockpit conversation, we cannot be sure of the exact words used. But suppose that Middleton, repeating the conversation to Fitzgerald, misremembered the exact words? Perhaps it went something like this: “We’re Snowbirds, we’re headed to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base,” and Middleton then reflected, “Snowbirds, they’re the Canadian Flying Demonstration team.” Because in that case, he would have made a very understandable mistake: he confused two different flying groups that use the same name!

Since the 1970s, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson has operated a program called Operation Snowbird, which brings in Air National Guard pilots from snowy northern states for winter flying practice. It is operated by the Air National Guard’s 162nd Fighter Wing. This video explains the training functions of Operation Snowbird. Another Snowbird-related video shows A-10s zooming about and even dropping flares.

Fitzgerald notes in his Examiner article that “Once beyond the southern suburbs of Phoenix, the formation of lights followed Interstate 10 toward Tucson.” This is strange behavior for an extraterrestrial craft. One man told Fitzgerald, “This was so profoundly my most significant visual experience ever, like the hand of God coming down.” 

There were several more observers along Interstate 10 as the objects came down lower and approached Tucson, who described them as five separate objects, and not one huge one. The time was noted as 8:42 PM. These were the last sightings of the V-shaped lights.

March 13, 1997 was the last night of Operation Snowbird for the year, so obviously any aircraft that had flown off to other destinations, such as Las Vegas, had to return to Tucson. James McGaha reconstructs the story of the V-shaped formation as follows: Five A-10 jets from Operation Snowbird had flown from Tucson to Nellis Air force Base near Las Vegas several days earlier, and were now returning. The A-10 jets were flying VFR (visual flight rules), so there was no need for them to check in with airports along the route. They were following the main air corridor for air traffic traveling that route, the “highway in the sky.” (Why a UFO would follow U.S. air traffic corridors is a mystery.) Because they were flying in formation mode they did not have on their familiar blinking collision lights, but instead their formation lights. In any case, FAA rules concerning aircraft lights and flight altitudes, etc. do not apply to military aircraft. The A-10s flew over the Phoenix area, flew on to Tucson, and landed at Davis-Monthan. 

The Second Incident – a Flare Drop

Flare drop near Phoenix, March 13, 1997

Starting around 10:00 PM that same evening, hundreds if not thousands of people in the Phoenix area witnessed a row of brilliant lights hovering in the sky, or slowly falling. Many photographs and videos were taken, making this perhaps the most widely-witnessed UFO event in history. As explained in the Wikipedia article on the Phoenix Lights,
The U.S. Air Force explained the second event as slow-falling, long-burning LUU-2B/B illumination flares dropped by a flight of four A-10 Warthog aircraft on a training exercise at the Barry Goldwater Range at Luke Air Force Base. According to this explanation, the flares would have been visible in Phoenix and appeared to hover due to rising heat from the burning flares creating a "balloon" effect on their parachutes, which slowed the descent. The lights then appeared to wink out as they fell behind the Sierra Estrella, a mountain range to the southwest of Phoenix.

A Maryland Air National Guard pilot, Lt. Col. Ed Jones, responding to a March 2007 media query, confirmed that he had flown one of the aircraft in the formation that dropped flares on the night in question. The squadron to which he belonged was in fact at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona on a training exercise at the time and flew training sorties to the Barry Goldwater Range on the night in question, according to the Maryland Air National Guard. A history of the Maryland Air National Guard published in 2000 asserted that the squadron, the 104th Fighter Squadron, was responsible for the incident. The first reports that members of the Maryland Air National Guard were responsible for the incident were published in The Arizona Republic newspaper in July 1997.
Even many UFO proponents accept that that the video of the second incident - bright lights in a row - was in fact a flare drop, while maintaining that the first incident is still unexplained. But there are still plenty of people arguing that the sightings after 10 PM are unexplained.  Dr. Lynne D. Kitei, M.D. isn’t having any of this “flare drop” business. Her website says it promotes “Evolution to a New Consciousness.” She claims she was watching the Phoenix Lights two years before everyone else, and that her research proves  “we are not alone.” By some complicated analysis she claims to have proven that the objects could not have been flares, although I haven’t run across anyone who understands it. I heard her speak at the 2012 International UFO Congress, and some of her photos of UFOs appeared to me to be lights on the ground. Giving up her practice of medicine to become a full-time UFO promoter, “Dr. Lynne” (as she is sometimes called) has made a documentary film The Phoenix Lights, and has appeared on Coast to Coast AM, the well-known late-night paranormal and conspiracy-fest hosted by George Noory, to tell her tales.
Dr. Lynne with yours truly at the 2013 International UFO Congress

When the U.S. Air Force was queried about both incidents, their (correct) initial response was that they knew nothing about them. Both UFO incidents that night involved aircraft of Operation Snowbird, and the Air National Guard has a completely separate command structure from the Air Force. Neither one knows much about the day-to-day activities of the other. Unfortunately, by the time that all of this was pieced together, all records of routine flight operations had been destroyed. But there is very little room for doubt that the famous “V-shaped formation” of lights was five Air National Guard A-10 aircraft flying into Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, and no doubt at all that the second incident was a flare drop. Perhaps because March 13 was the final day of Operation Snowbird, the Air National Guard pilots rushed to finish up all of their flying and flare-dropping before it ended!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Discovery Canada Serves up the Kecksburg Crash Yarn

Continuing the theme of the last two postings, on January 17, 2014 Discovery Canada returned to the realm of fantasy with the second episode of its fantasy-prone series Close Encounters. The first case of the episode depicted the tired old claims of a supposed saucer crash in the woods near Kecksburg, Pennsylvania on the evening of December 9, 1965. The talking heads were Stan Gordon, a UFO investigator who has spent literally most of his life investigating this case, and UFO author Leslie Kean, who we met in the first episode.
the crashed Acorn at Kecksburg, according to Romanski
The episode depicts the Kecksburg incident as told by volunteer fireman Jim Romanski. He received a phone call alterting him that there were reports of a plane crashing into the nearby woods. He rushed out to possibly render assistance. When they got to the spot, they supposedly found a massive, glowing metallic acorn, partially embedded in the soil. It had strange markings on it, like hierolglyphics.

Oh, no! The Men In Black turn up, to seize the Acorn!!

But no sooner did they begin to examine the object, when suddenly the Men In Black appeared (they didn't use that term, but it's obvious what they meant), followed by a bunch of soldiers. They ordered all civilians to leave the area. Romanski returned to his volunteer fire station, to find it was being occupied by soldiers, who would not allow him to enter. He then saw a military truck drive by,  hauling away the acorn to wherever it is that the government hides its secret saucer stuff. They had apparently managed to lift that massive, half-buried metal object into the back of the truck without the benefit of any heavy equipment. Heave-ho!

Such an incident of undeclared martial law would, of course, fly in the face of all American legal tradition and would itself be a matter of far greater concern than any falling acorn capsule. If it really happened, that is.
the military trundles off the mysterious Acorn, never to be seen again

What, if anything, crashed at Kecksburg that night? The reality is that a brilliant fireball meteor was widely seen across the eastern U.S. and Canada at about 4:42 PM on December 9, 1965, and studied extensively by scientists. Several scientific papers were published about it in astronomical journals. The supposed "crashing UFO" reported from Kecksburg matches exactly with the great fireball in time, and in direction.

Astronomers Von Del Chamberlain and David J. Krause of the Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University in East Lansing did an in-depth study of the reports of the Dec. 9th fireball from across a wide area of the U.S. and Canada. They published a scientific paper in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (Aug. 1967- Vol. 61 no. 4, pp. 184-90). This object was in fact over a hundred miles from Kecksburg, "disappearing at a point over land some 15 miles south-east of Windsor [Ontario]". (Witnesses typically greatly underestimate the distance to brilliant fireballs such as this. See many examples in UFOs Explained by Philip J. Klass.)  "The usual rash of early reports gave 'landing sites' for the object ranging from western Michigan to Pennsylvania... Loud sonic booms were heard in the Detroit-Windsor region." Using photographs of the object's trail from two different locations, Chamberlain and Krause were able to calculate the orbit of the meteor before it entered the earth's atmosphere. You can retrieve the full article on-line here .

Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 61 No. 4, pp. 184-190.
 Chamberlain published a second scientific paper about the fireball: Chamberlain, Von Del, 1968: Meteorites of Michigan, Geological Survey Bulletin 5, East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan Department of Conservation, Geological Survey Division, pp. 1-5.

Another article about it, titled "Great Lakes Fireball", was published in the February, 1966 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine, page 78. See part of the article here. In it, G. W. Wetherill, a professor of geophysics and geology at UCLA who investigated the incident, is quoted: 
The fireball was observed by many people in Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and to a lesser extent in neighboring states. In newspaper accounts, a great many supposed impact sites were reported, both in southwestern Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. Fragments were claimed to have fallen in Ohio and Michigan.
These imagined happenings arose from the impossibility of estimating the distance of an object in the sky. Almost everyone who saw the fireball thought it was much closer than it really was. When it disappeared behind a house or a tree many people thought it had fallen only a few hundred yards beyond. (emphasis added)

Green dot shows the approximate location of Kecksburg
Robert Young's article identifying the Kecksburg "crash" was published as far back as the Spring, 1991 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer magazine (Vol. 15 no. 3): "Old-Solved Mysteries: The Kecksburg Incident." An updated version of "Old-Solved Mysteries" begins on p. 177 of the book The UFO Invasion, edited by Kendrick Frazier, Barry Karr, and Joe Nickell. (Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1997).
Replica of the supposed Kecksburg Acorn

With Kecksburg, we are in exactly the same position we are in with the 1996 Yukon UFO: we know beyond any doubt at all what the object was, but people in the UFO community refuse to accept this. Of course, the fine folk of Kecksburg can hardly be blamed for embracing a fable that finally places their humble hometown "on the map." Indeed, they seem to have embraced it so fully that they have even erected a supposed full-size replica of the object in their town. Stan Gordon is a local UFO investigator who has made this one case virtually his entire UFOlogical legacy, so one should not be surprised to find him possessing a powerful will to believe in this case. Leslie Kean, however, has no such excuses. With all her experience and contacts in the UFO world, she surely cannot be unaware that the Kecksburg "crashed UFO" has been known to be the Great Lakes Fireball for more than twenty years.

The narrator commented at the end of the segment, "But some astronomers continue to believe the object may have been a meteorite consisting of iron compounds," which is quite false. No astronomer is suggesting that a meteorite crashed near Kecksburg and buried itself in the ground. Astronomers know that observers in Pennsylvania, just like observers in Ohio and Michigan, were wrong in thinking that fragments of the meteorite had fallen nearby. Whatever remained of that fireball - probably not much at all - fell about 15 miles south-southeast of Windsor, Ontario. "Almost everyone who saw the fireball thought it was much closer than it really was."

We should let Zippy have the last word on the Kecksburg story:

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Discovery Canada's "Close Encounters": Mars Mangles Missiles?

Continuing from the previous posting, the other UFO case examined in the first episode of Discovery Canada's miserable new series Close Encounters was the Oscar Flight incident at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, March 24, 1967. (The name "Oscar Flight" refers to a particular group of ten missiles.) The claims of UFOs supposedly interfering with missiles are complicated and confusing, and I will do my best to un-confuse them. However, the incident as depicted in Close Encounters is a relatively simple one. A bright, glowing orange UFO is allegedly seen over the base by security men, and then the Oscar Flight missiles were said to start going off-line, one by one. So let's examine that specific claim.

Cartes du Ciel shows Mars as seen from Malmstrom AFB around 12AM March 24, 1967, magnitude -1.0 
Guards reported seeing a bright glowing orange object in the sky (depicted in Close Encounters as a huge, angry, pulsating object hurling down beams). What might it have been? Surprisingly, nobody seems to have asked that question. Whenever witnesses report a bright object in the sky that is red or orange, the first thing to check is whether Mars might have been the culprit. Mars only appears conspicuously bright from earth for a period of a few months every two years. Sure enough, this was one of those times. Mars was only about 3 weeks away from its opposition of April 15, 1967, when it would be directly opposite the sun, and at its maximum brightness until the next opposition 26 months later. It would rise a few hours after sunset, and remain in the sky the rest of the night. The guards were very likely looking at Mars. (Mars will be reaching a similarly-placed opposition on April 8, 2014. Observe it in March, and you'll get a very good idea of how it appeared in March of 1967.) 
Mars as depicted on Close Encounters

They reported the UFO sighting on their radio. What happened next? According to former Air Force Lieutenant Robert Salas, the main proponent of this case, the missiles started going off-line one by one, a very troubling development to be sure - if it really happened. (In the U.S., UFOs appear to be peaceful, attempting to interfere with nuclear missiles. But according to the Russian-born UFOlogist Paul Stonehill, UFOs in Russia and the former Soviet Union are warmongering, and attempted to launch nuclear missiles.).

Security man writhes on the ground, menaced by the planet Mars.
The talking heads in this segment were Leslie Kean, and Kevin Randle. Kean wrote about the supposed Oscar Flight incident in chapter 15 of her book UFOs - Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go On the Record (see my review of it, ‘Unexplained’ Cases—Only If You Ignore All Explanations). Since Salas isn't a pilot, and certainly isn't a General, I suppose that makes him a "government official."

What proof do we have, other than the claims of Salas, that the Oscar Flight missiles actually went off-line? Frederick Meiwald, mentioned in the Close Encounters segment,  was Salas' crew commander at that time. In a 1996 letter to Salas about the incident, Meiwald discusses the guards' sighting of a "UFO" (which apparently upset them greatly), but said nothing about any missile failures, the most significant aspect of the alleged incident. So how do we know that the missiles went off-line? Because Salas claims that they did. And that is all. There is no documentary evidence, no paper trail of any kind, concerning the supposed Oscar Flight incident. And there is plenty of reason to expect that this incident would have left a long paper trail, if it were real. Former SAC missile crew commander and skeptic Tim Hebert summarizes where the matter stands:

1.  No mentioning of an incident at Oscar Flight in the 341st Unit History.
2.  No mentioning of an incident at Oscar Flight in the engineering and analysis report investigating Echo Flight [incident one week earlier].
3.  Bernard Nalty [historian of USAF ICBM program] makes no reference to an incident at Oscar Flight [but discusses Echo flight incident]. ("Nalty goes into classified details surrounding the issues affecting all of SAC's Minuteman wings back in the 1967 time frame. Why would an equally important situation affecting Oscar flight not be mentioned?")
4.  No statements supporting an incident at Oscar Flight from those individuals that were either topside at Oscar or in the field responding to a security violation.
5. [Capt.] Eric Carlson [crew commander] and [First Lieut.] Walter Figel [deputy crew commander] discount an incident at Oscar Flight.
6.  No one in the chain of command up-channeling reports to 15th AF and SAC HQ has come forward supporting an incident at Oscar Flight.
7.  Remote, but possible practical joke played on Meiwald and Salas can not be totally ruled out.
As for the Close Encounter narrator's claim that FAA radar detected a UFO over the base on that day, according to skeptic James Carlson (son of Capt. Eric Carlson), while it's true that 'something' was detected on radar, it was more than 120 miles from Oscar Flight (and radars pick up all kinds of things!).

Hebert summarizes where we stand with Oscar flight,
The above 7 points may be enough to rule out even a circumstantial case and cast reasonable doubt on any incident occurring at Oscar.  But in the end its up to the reader to decide one way or another and ask the all important question..."Did it really happen?"

So that sums up where things stand concerning the alleged "Oscar Flight incident." However, there was a genuine incident at Malmstrom just one week earlier, on March 16, 1967, where the missiles of the Echo Flight did indeed go off-line. But despite the claims made by Robert Salas, Robert Hastings, and others, it had nothing to do with UFOs! (Hastings is the guy who insisted that CSI(COP), and myself in particular, are disinformation agents funded by the CIA or somebody.)

James Carlson has written a long report on this incident, Echo Flights of Fantasy - Anatomy of a UFO Hoax. Among the discrepancies he notes,
The original documents Salas received state only that "Rumors of Unidentified Flying Objects(UFO) around the area of Echo Flight during the time of fault were disproven.” The loss of the ten missiles that went off of strategic alert was very well documented, as was the investigation that followed, but there has been no mention anywhere that a UFO was reported until Salas’ own claims were made public. There is also no mention of any similar loss of missiles at any other flight on March 16, 1967, or, for that matter, at any other time discussed in any other document published since.

... There were no reports by anybody about anything preceding the Echo Flight shutdown incident, which both Carlson and Figel reaffirmed in September 2010 as well. In 2006, Robert Salas and Robert Hastings adjusted their claims somewhat, asserting that the first report of a UFO came in after the missiles had already started to go off strategic alert, not before, basing this change on an interview conducted with Colonel (Retired) Walter Figel, Jr. Both Carlson and Figel, however, have very clearly insisted that this version of the story is also wrong; both officers insist that UFOs were never reported. This confusion is a result entirely of Robert Hastings’ insistence that the mere mention of the word “UFO”, in the context of a weak joke told by a maintenance technician who was asleep when the missiles startedgoing offline, qualifies as an official UFO report. This theory has no merit whatsoever, primarily becausean actual UFO report would have been forwarded as the signed testimony of the witness for further investigation by the Malmstrom AFB UFO officer, Colonel Lewis D. Chase, as regulations demanded. This did not occur, so very obviously, no report was made. In 1999, Robert Salas readjusted his version of these events once more, insisting that he was not  at November Flight when the missiles were taken off of strategic alert, presumably as Meiwald had confirmed three years earlier, but at Oscar Flight. He still asserted, however, that UFOs were reported at both missile sites -- E-Flight and O-Flight – on March 16, 1967, although no UFO sightings were recorded in the region by anybody on that date. There is also no mention anywhere of numerous missiles failing at any time at November Flight or Oscar Flight, whether the result of UFOs or anything else. It’s apparent that Salas was now making claims that had never been convincingly confirmed by anybody.
Tim Printy gives us a further examination of claims about Echo Flight in his excellent E-zine SUNlite2_2 and SUNlite 2_3. He, too, shows that UFOs had nothing to do with the missiles at Echo Flight going off-line.

So, in the case of Oscar Flight, a UFO was sighted [very likely Mars], but no missiles went offline. In the case of Echo Flight, missiles did go offline due to an electronic glitch, but UFOs had nothing to do with it. I can't un-complicate it any more than that.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Discovery Canada's "Close Encounters": The Worst UFO 'Documentary' Series Yet?

On Friday, January 10, 2014, the Discovery Canada channel ran the first episide of a new Series, Close Encounters. The series is expected to run in the U.S. in a few months. It tells us,
  • One Million UFOs are reported each year. [Dubious - MUFON receives less than 10,000].
  • 5% are unexplained
  • These are the "Close Encounters"!
Well, not really. "Close Encounters" are supposedly those cases where the UFO comes within a few hundred yards of the observer. The problem is, people are quite unable to accurately judge how far away a light in the sky is. The UFO literature is filled with reported "close encounters" with objects whose distance from the observer turns out to be measured in hundreds of miles, if not in millions.

The re-entry of the rocket booster Cosmos 2335, as depicted by Discovery Canada.

As you can deduce from the above promotional image, the series contains a large amount of re-enactment of supposedly unexplained UFO cases. We saw similar scenes in 2012 in the National Geographic's Chasing UFOs, which ultimately floundered because of the unintentional comedy of its "investigators" stumbling around in the dark with cameras and microphones seemingly hovering over every orifice, and ultimately finding nothing of significance. UFOs are not things that can be chased in real-time. But existing UFO claims can be endlessly re-enacted, and the reenactment can be sexed up to where even the original witnesses would not recognize it. Witnesses do not merely stand and look at a light in the sky. They fall to the ground and writhe while the light in the sky meancingly shines beams at them. As relief from the heavy drama, Close Encounters gives us talking heads who repeat every pro-UFO claim about the case, completely ignoring difficulties, inconsistencies, and - especially - rational explanations.

And what was the first UFO case of the first episode? Believe it or not, they chose the now-embarrassing 1996 "Yukon UFO" whose definitive explanation by Ted Molczan, Harro Zimmer, and James Oberg was published in this Blog nearly two years ago, on April 30, 2012. If you Google "Yukon UFO," that is the first page to come up. This Discovery Canada episode was filmed in March of 2013, so they can't say that they didn't know about the explanation. Before that explanation was published, space journalist and author James Oberg sent a courtesy note to Stanton Friedman, the "Flying Saucer Physicist." Oberg outlined the solution, and asked Friedman whether he wanted to reconsider his earlier strong endorsement of the case. Friedman's reply was clear and succinct: NO WAY JOSE.

Witness PEL2 drew the Yukon UFO passing below the Big Dipper
I won't repeat the details of the case here - you can read it in the linked Blog entry - but the supposed "close encounter UFO" reported by the observers matches up exactly with the flaming re-entry of  the rocket booster that placed the Cosmos 2335 satellite into orbit earlier that day. There is no possible doubt that this identification is correct. Ted Molczan is widely considered to be the top civilian authority on satellite observations and orbits. He is a major contributor to the satellite observing group SEESAT, containing the most serious and exacting satellite observers in the world. Harro Zimmer, another satellite expert, re-computed and refined Molczan's orbital calculations, and reached exactly the same conclusion. One of the observers drew the "UFO" passing under the Big Dipper, from left to right. Molczan's software drew the path of the decaying rocket booster, as seen from that location. It was exactly the same! Case Closed.
Molczan's software-generated plot of the decay of the rocket booster for Cosmos 2335
Discovery's "talking heads" for that case were Martin Jasek of UFO-BC, the original investigator of the case, and Chris Rutkowski, a Canadian UFO researcher who has had (at least until now) a decent reputation for objectivity. Rutkowski was participating in a Facebook discussion of the case a few days before the episode aired. I entered the thread to ask, "Chris Rutkowski, I'm just wondering if you were totally unaware that the Yukon UFO case was solidly debunked almost two years ago?", and gave a link to my Blog entry. Rutkowski replied, 
Robert: Of course. I am aware it was debunked, but not too solidly. I reviewed the analysis that it could have been a rocket re-entry, and I discussed it with the original investigator, Martin Jasek, who is also interviewed in the episode. We knew that some of the characteristics of the re-entry could have been be observable that night. One sticking point was the set of observations by the two cousins who observed the object simultaneously from two different angles, with one at an acute angle and the other directly underneath. Given the altitude of the re-entry and the small separation of the two witnesses' simultaneous observations, the two are not compatible. In fact, this is what I focussed on when I was interviewed for the episode. I recall that on camera I explained that there had been the suggested explanation as a rocket re-entry, but the cousins' testimonies were at odds with it. Whether that is reflected in the aired episode, I suppose we'll see... [it wasn't]
I replied,
...we know for certain that the Russian rocket booster body was right where the witnesses said they saw their UFO. The drawing of the UFO passing under the Big Dipper, left to right, matches exactly the calculated path of the flaming booster. If a UFO was also present, then two bright objects should have been reported, not one. Knowing how unreliable eyewitness testimony often is, it makes much more sense to attribute discrepancies to witness fallibility, guided by preconceived ideas about what UFOs are like, than to assume that a "real UFO" miraculously appeared at the same time and place as the flaming rocket body.
James Oberg jumped in with,
Chris, I'm going to elaborate on Robert's point: to suggest as you did that 'some' of the witness reports could be attributed to the simo reentry apparition is to require the 'UFO doppelganger effect' -- a TRUE UFO chose the reentry event opportunity to fly along the same path at a much lower altitude and speed, while also perfectly blocking its witnesses from ALSO observing the ongoing satellite reentry. Gribble expressed this hypothesis in the MUFON Journal about a 1987 reentry which seems to have sparked a vivid CEIII event that he wanted to believe. To call this merely a ''stretch" is to reinvent Spandex. When you seriously study the range of witness misperceptions from other documented reentries -- as Molczan and I have done, see -- you find there is NO witness perception to the Yukon event that does not have precedents in reports from earlier reentries. Of course that does not PROVE that Yukon wasn't different from every earlier reentry witness testimony, but it diminishes the likelihood substantially.
 In an email discussion, Oberg notes,
We should also point out that Rutkowski's and Jasek's approach to testing the reliability of the eyewitness testimony starts with Step #1: "Assume the testimony is reliable." I can't make this kind of stuff up. As Ted has already pointed out in detail, for example, the 'triangulation' approach to proving the object was nearby relies on implicitly assuming the object was nearby and 'overhead' as described by a witness, despite numerous instances from the case studies I've prepared in which people [who see the apparition high in the sky and think it's nearby] reasonably extend to it the vague description "overhead". How many times does that have to be shown to be 'the rule' rather than 'the exception' for bright fireball swarms even at lower elevation angles below 30 degrees?
Oberg has prepared the following resources to illustrate other cases in which observers made these same kind of mistakes in describing satellite reentries:
The absurdity is compounded by the fact that Molczan is Canadian, and lives right in Toronto, where the episode was filmed. He remarked, "they could have had my input for the cost of cab fare." But of course Discovery Canada had no interest in that. Not a hint of questioning or doubt appears in the episode. Sensation and ratings are the only goal, and troubling facts are things to be ignored. This is Tabloid TV at its worst. The once-factual Discovery Channel has now joined the purveyors of entertainment masquerading as documentaries.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Skeptics and Claims of "Earthquake Lights"

A very Happy New Year to all!

For some reason, in the first few days of this new Year, skeptics on Facebook seem to be gushing all over claims about supposed "earthquake lights," supposedly caused by piezo-electric effects of rocks being squeezed by seismic forces. Such lights, it is said, might explain many reports of UFO sightings.

You wouldn't know it from what skeptics are saying, but there is nothing new in this. Such claims have been circulating for years. In the 1970s, Canadian scientist Michael Persinger received much publicity for 
"his 1975 Tectonic Strain Theory (TST) of how geophysical variables may correlate with sightings of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) or Marian apparitions. Persinger argued that strain within the Earth's crust near seismic faults produces intense electromagnetic (EM) fields, creating bodies of light that some interpret as glowing UFOs or The Virgin Mary. Alternatively, he argued that the EM fields generate hallucinations in the temporal lobe, based on images from popular culture, of alien craft, beings, communications, or creatures."
Persinger's "correlations" between earthquakes and anomalous sightings were so loose that minor earthquakes hundreds of miles away, months previously, could be cited as causal factors.

Most of the recent postings refer back to news stories reporting on a paper in Seismological Research Letters by Robert Thériault, France St-Laurent, Freidemann Freund, and John S. Derr (for which the copycat bloggers don't bother to provide a proper citation. It is here.). I wrote about Derr in my Psychic Vibrations column, Fall, 1992 (page 69 of the book):
Elsewhere on the UFO front, geophysicist John S. Derr got much public attention this past April when he told the Seismological Society of America that some UFO sightings may be caused by impending earthquakes. Tectonic strain, says Derr, may cause luminous phenomena, known as earthquake lights, which can be manifested as a strange glow in the sky or even as mysterious-looking balls of electricity that float in the air near fault lines. Working from a computerized list of UFO sightings, after supposedly eliminating objects that were explainable in other terms, he claims to have found a correlation linking UFO sightings with the epicenters of future earthquakes.

Actually, the tectonic strain theory is nothing new. It was first popularized in the 1970s by psychology professor  Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Ontario, with whom Derr collaborates. Persinger claims that tectonic strain correlates well with not only waves of UFO sightings, but other “Fortean events” as well. He explains that intense columns of electromagnetic energy may cause objects to move about in a manner suggesting “poltergeist activity,” while as the electromagnetic intensity increases we might see what are described as “animal mutilations,” or hear of people mysteriously electrocuted, giving rise to reports of  “spontaneous human combustion.”

More than twenty years have passed since this claim was made, and yet the proof still eludes us.

A claim is made, and one blogger copies another, who copies another, etc., each imagining that they are contributing something to the world's store of knowledge (but in reality are just doing this to get a few bucks from some on-line publisher). This is to be expected - but what's troubling is when skeptics plunge in to this, whole hog, without the least hint of proper skepticism. (I won't mention any skeptics' names - not this time).

This story contains a few 'red flags' that should have been caught by an experienced skeptic. For example, one of the papers cited in support of the hypothesis is from the Journal of Scientific Exploration, a non-skeptical publication that typically runs articles supporting fringe science claims. Kendrick Frazier, the editor of The Skeptical Inquirer, wrote that "The JSE, while presented as neutral and objective, appears to hold a hidden agenda. They seem to be interested in promoting fringe topics as real mysteries and they tend to ignore most evidence to the contrary. They publish 'scholarly' articles promoting the reality of dowsing, neo-astrology, ESP, and psychokinesis. Most of the prominent and active members are strong believers in the reality of such phenomena."

Most of the recent 'earthquake lights' stories refer to the above photo, said to have been taken in Tagish Lake, Yukon Territories, in either 1972 or 1973. WTF - we don't know for sure when that photo was taken? Then exactly how do we know these are supposed "earthquake lights"? Well, according to a paper co-authored by Thériault,
At the beginning of the 70’s, around 10 am on a Canada Day (1st of July) long weekend, a couple boating on the Taku Arm of Tagish Lake, southern Yukon, saw 7 yellow luminous globes on the nearby flank of Lime Mountain... in the early 70’s, the only years when Canada Day occurred on a weekend is in 1972 and 1973. In both years, a strong earthquake happened in July.
OK, an earthquake occurred that month. Good enough.
Of the two, the most likely candidate that could be linked with the observed globes of light is the Cross Sound earthquake (ML 6.7), as it happened on the 1st of July 1973 at 06h33 LT, hence just a few hours prior to the EQL sighting (if we assume that the latter were effectively seen on that day). This earthquake was followed the same morning by two aftershocks, first an ML 5.2 earthquake at 08h12 LT, followed by a ML 4.1 earthquake at 09h03 LT (AEIC, 2012).
If we accept the best-case result (1973), the epicenter of that undersea earthquake was approximately 160 miles from where the photo was taken, 3 1/2 hours later.

I changed the contrast & brightness on that photo (no photoshopping). That bottom light is in front of the trees! Oops. Also we picked up two more small lights on the right. I don't know what these little orbs are, but they sure as hell are not "earthquake lights"!

Other photos presented as supposed "earthquake lights" are even more obviously bogus.
Supposed "earthquake lights" seen in San Diego, several weeks after an earthquake!

Compare that photo to this one, properly labeled on the Weather Underground as an iridescent cloud!

Supposed "earthquake lights" from Santiago, Chile prior to a major earthquake

Compare the photo from Chile to this one, properly labeled "iridescent cloud"!
In each case, red on the top, blue on the bottom. Go to Google Images, and enter "iridescent clouds." You will see plenty of images like these, a phenomenon related to the colors seen in soap bubbles. Also check Wikipedia, "Cloud Iridescence," for more. Apparently checking Wikipedia, or doing any research, is too much trouble for supposed "science bloggers." Or for many "skeptics."

In 2007 the excellent Blog Forgetomori, from Brazil, posted a story about possible earthquake lights in Peru, followed soon afterward by the suggestion that these were very likely flashes from electrical transformers shorted out by the earthquake.  Frankly, they look like they could also be lightning flashes. It's truly remarkable how mutable "earthquake lights" are. Sometimes they look like small globes, climbing up a mountain. Sometimes they look like flashes of lightning. Other times they look exactly like iridescent clouds. Earthquake lights can look like anything at all, when you are avidly seeking evidence for them.

Here is a widely-posted YouTube video from China, supposedly showing earthquake lights (red on top, blue on bottom):

Compare that video of "earthquake lights" with this photo of iridescent clouds

A few of the uncritical recent articles about supposed "earthquake lights" are:

I'm sure that you can find more. 

I am not saying that it is impossible there could be such a thing as "earthquake lights." What I am saying is that I have not seen any convincing proof that such things exist. I am aware that there exist copious anecdotal accounts of earthquake lights. I am also aware that there exist copious anecdotal accounts of supposed extraterrestrial spacecraft, angels, Bigfoot, etc. Until solid evidence is presented, I will regard all of the above alleged phenomena as highly dubious.  

Nor am I denying that there are likely as-yet unexplained phenomena associated with earthquakes. In fact, I will tell you about one. To the reader this is, of course, an anecdotal account, but I know it to be accurate. In April of 1984, I lived in the Silicon Valley, working in an office on the northeast side of San Jose, on Berryessa Road, east of First Street. On April 24 I went out for a walk after eating lunch, as I often did.  There was a seldom used, perhaps totally unused, railroad track crossing nearby. Suddenly, I heard the railroad crossing signal alarm start up. I had never seen any train go by there, so I walked quickly toward it to see the train. I arrived there - and there was no train. Very curious, I thought. As I continued my walk, I felt myself swaying and I thought I must be having an unexplained dizzy spell. Then I saw that nearby buildings were being evacuated, exactly as I had done in drills. I realized that we had just experienced an earthquake. At 1:15 PM, the Morgan Hill earthquake, magnitude 6.2, had struck. The epicenter was in the mountains east of San Jose, no more than about ten miles from my location. Apparently, some sort of pressure wave from the soon-to-erupt earthquake had triggered the railroad crossing signal. How much time had elapsed from the triggering of the crossing alarm to the earthquake? I cannot say for sure. It was not a long time, but more than a few seconds. I had time to walk to the crossing, stand there puzzled for a bit, then continue my walk. I would estimate the interval as perhaps two minutes.

For several years, I lived in a house whose back yard faced a mountain where, in the valley on its other side ran the San Andreas Fault no more than two or three miles away. I would often go outside to look at stars, but I never saw any earthquake lights. I figure that if they would be seen anywhere, they would be seen there. Not some place hundreds of miles from a fault.