Friday, December 1, 2017

Socorro 'Student Hoax' Tempest in a Pentagon Teapot (or something)

Well, the iconic 1964 reported sighting of a landed object with two occupants by Patrolman Lonnie Zamora in Socorro, New Mexico is certainly back in the news! Veteran UFOlogist Kevin Randle has written a new book about the case, and former Roswell Slides promoter Anthony Bragalia claims to have finally proven his earlier suggestion that Zamora was the victim of a hoax perpetrated by students at the nearby New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NMIMT).

Randle's new book is Encounter in the Desert: The Case for Alien Contact at Socorro. I confess I have not yet read it, so I won't comment on it. "Mrherr Zaar" commented on the Facebook group UFO_Pragmatism,
"I submit it does not present a single argument FOR [alien contact] at all. It is ultimately an exercise in explanatory nihilism which merely assumes that if something is unidentified that takes one “very close” to it immediately being extraterrestrial. (p. 249) He does not address any of the obvious problems. Zamora does not report seeing aliens – “Saw two people in white coveralls very close to the object. One of these persons seemed to turn and look straight at my car and seemed startled--seemed to jump quickly somewhat… I don't recall noting any particular shape or possibly any hats, or headgear. These persons appeared normal in shape--but possibly they were small adults or large kids.” Implicitly they are not wearing spacesuits or air supply face masks or protective gear like dozens of other ufo humanoid reports in the early decades. They seem okay with breathing our atmosphere. They don’t seem to be grays or reptoids or insectoids or a more distinctly alien shape."
As noted in my 2012 Blog entry A Socorro Student Hoax Confirmed?,  Bragalia was arguing that the incident was a student hoax perpetrated on Zamora, who the students did not like because he was a buzz-killer for their hijinks. On November 27, Bragalia published his latest piece on the incident (Link and commentary at

The newest wrinkle in Bragalia's tale is this:
This author has found and spoken to an involved perpetrator of the Socorro UFO hoax, a student at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in 1964. Using resources and clues obtained over years, the identification was not easy. There were many missed opportunities, embarrassing moments, and awkward calls.

There is also major disappointment over what was not shared and what cannot be shared. I cannot tell you with 100% assurance exactly how the hoax was performed (I was not told, but I will make a good attempt later in this piece). And I am unable, due to the requested anonymity, to tell you the names of involved people. But what I did learn is perhaps equally as important, just as enlightening.

The individual did not reach out to me – I contacted him by phone. Retired and in his 70s, he is a man of accomplishment. Though he never denied being a perpetrator, he also does not want his name associated with the event. How many of us would want to recount our youthful follies to our children? Who amongst us would wish our names on the net, revisiting embarrassing moments during our late teens or early twenties? Where are those of us who will come forward to publicly explain our tricks and lies from college?
And that is where it sits. If we believe that Mr. Perp replied truthfully to Bragalia, and that Bragalia correctly reported it to us, then we have something that resembles a confession. Except that we don't know who is making the supposed "confession," or exactly what he is confessing to. So, Believe it or Not.

In support of his "student hoax" claim, Bragalia provided the following photo, with the caption "The Small Figures in White Coveralls, New Mexico Tech Physics Department in the Mid-1960s." 

Definitely NOT from New Mexico Tech!
However, French skeptic Giles Fernandez pointed out that he had discovered several years earlier that this photo actually shows physics students from UC Davis visiting Intel, and suiting up in special 'clean room' suits, designed to prevent contamination of silicon wafers used in the manufacture of integrated circuits. It has nothing to do with Socorro or NMIMT. When this was pointed out to Bragalia, he blamed the error on his Webmaster, and said that the caption was being changed to "The Small Figures in White Coveralls, Similar to New Mexico Tech Physics Department in the Mid-1960s" (emphasis added). Why tech students in 1964 would be wearing suits similar to those used in contemporary Clean Rooms, designed to filter out the tiniest submicroscopic particles, was not explained. Or maybe he simply meant that the students had white overalls, like plumbers and handymen sometimes wear. How incredible would that be?

Arguments in favor of the "student hoax" explanation
  • The late Stirling Colgate, physicist and former President of NMIMT, said in a letter to Linus Pauling that he knew the Socorro UFO incident to be a student hoax. When questioned by Bragalia about this, Colgate reportedly acknowledged the hoax, but was evasive and refused to give any details or to discuss the matter further. 
  •  Dr. Frank Etscorn, New Mexico Tech administrator and behavioral psychologist, reportedly affirms the event to be a hoax. One of his graduate students reportedly investigated and solved the "mystery" of what happened, and who was involved. Unfortunately, further details are not available.
  • In a long 1965 letter to Dr. J. Allen Hynek (who investigated the Zamora incident in person shortly after it occurred), noted UFO skeptic Dr. Donald Menzel and his co-author Lyle Boyd wrote
    "We come back to the speeding car, which started the whole business. We certainly would like to know more about this. You have made it clear that Zamora was a gruff type, who enjoyed giving out tickets. It seems entirely reasonable that he might have antagonized some of the local teenagers, who devised a hoax to get even. This explanation, I might add, independently occurred to both Lyle and myself. The whole thing could easily have been planned to come off about as it did. The car came into his line of sight from a side road. Which side road? Could it have been from the direction of the flame and roar? Apparently Zamora thought he knew the occupant of the speeding car (Vivian Reynolds?) Was this driver ever found and questioned as to what he heard or saw? Did Zamora have a regular patrol route so that his approximate whereabouts would be known at a given time?
    In other words, we see as the most likely possibility that someone planned the whole business to "get" Zamora."(p. 142 in case documents scanned by Paul Dean).
    One interesting thing that doesn't seem to have been discussed is the existence of an "aircraft graveyard" belonging to NMIMT quite near the site of the incident. The UFO investigative group Ground Saucer Watch (GSW) of Arizona wrote up "Socorro - New Mexico Revisited," published in the UFORA Newsletter, July-August, 1982 (p. 131 in the same scanned documents). They wrote,

    As the investigators were leaving the actual site, they noticed an area approximately 1 3/4 miles away, which gleamed in the sunlight. Extracting binoculars from their vehicle, they viewed what appeared to be an abandoned aircraft junkyard. Later, they discovered that the aircraft were part of the property of a local technical school - New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. This information was obtained from a clerk who works for the City Court system. He warned the researchers not to enter the storage area, because two men were recently convicted of breaking into this property. GSW's team became curious and decided a closer look at the area was warranted. They traveled on a road through the technical school's campus and came upon a barrier.
    Walking some distance away from the road they found a point at which the contents of the storage area could be viewed. To their amazement, the area contained a large variety of both segmented and intact aircraft. There appeared to be some Navy and Marine jet fighters, some Bell "X" aircraft and a nose section of a large ballistic missile.
    GSW determined that the property did indeed belong to NMIMT. They contacted C. B. Moore, professor of atmospherics, and a man who plays a significant role in UFO history quite independent of this, primarily because of his connection with Project Mogul. Moore told them that the junked aircraft were part of the Terminal Effects Program, which began in 1947, with most of the aircraft arriving during the 1950s. Moore replied to GSW that he had investigated the Zamora incident on his own, "and can assure you that there is little probability that it had anything to do with students or the Institute. If we can believe Officer Zamora (and there is no reason except for the strangeness of the observation that we should not), then it appears that he saw a Lunar Landing Module (LEM) but his observation was at least 12 months before the module was first tested here." A very strange comment, indeed!

    I am not suggesting that the aircraft graveyard necessarily played any part in this incident, but it is a damn peculiar thing to discover so close to a possibly aerospace-related incident. Might the scattered aircraft and missile parts have been used to create a hoax saucer? Might the area have afforded hoaxers a place to operate, and to hide?
Arguments against the "student hoax" explanation
  • How did the students make the balloon disappear so quickly?
  • How did the two students in white overalls make themselves disappear, especially since Zamora and Officer Chavez were walking the site of the alleged landing just a few minutes later? This would seem to require something like a magician's disappearing act.
  • Dave Thomas, founder of the skeptical organization New Mexicans for Science and Reason,  is a NMIMT graduate. To look into the possibility of a hoax originating with NMIMT students, he set up an internal website available only to those who are students, employees, or alumni of NMIMT. Its purpose was to allow people to tell what, if anything, they knew about the 1964 Zamora incident. While a few people expressed the opinion that it was a student hoax, there was no specific or useful information obtained from anyone. This strongly suggests that no 'student hoax' existed. 
Thomas has suggested an interesting possibility of what Zamora may have seen. According to documents obtained from the White Sands Missile Range, "on April 24, 1964, there were special tests being conducted at the north end of the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) involving a helicopter used to carry a Lunar Surveyor around for some tests... Surveyor was a three-legged, unmanned probe, which was used to learn about the moon before the Apollo program got there....The Surveyor tests were done with a small Bell helicopter that supported the craft from its side... The tests missions were manned by a helicopter pilot and a Hughes engineer - two persons, in white coveralls." Not only does the time of day of this planned test (morning) not match Zamora's sighting (which occurred just before 6 PM), but this is a long way from Socorro, about 80 miles as the helicopter flies. Still, as Thomas notes, "things don't always go "according to plan," and many tests which have defied completion by morning have been known to somehow get finished up in the afternoon." The possibility of the Surveyor testing cannot be ruled out.

What do I think Zamora saw?
A brand new way to fly in 1963
In 1996, engineer Eugene Robinson of Indiana University suggested that what Zamora saw was an early version of a propane-powered hot air balloon.  This  explanation has been largely ignored by UFOlogists. It was not even mentioned by Randle in his Socorro book. When asked why, he replied that it was a "non-starter." I'm not so sure about that.

The propane hot air balloon is a familiar sight today, but back in the mid 1960s it was quite new, as this article in Popular Mechanics (published just one year before the Socorro incident) shows.
"As of this writing, two of these new balloons have been sold and a third is on order... Raven is coming out with a new, larger model with an old-fashioned wicker basket that can carry two men standing up. Price tag: $5000." 
Popular Mechanics, April 1963.

The propane burners on such a balloon make a loud "woosh," as Zamora described hearing. It seems quite likely he may have seen an experimental two-man propane hot air balloon briefly land, then take off again. In fact, that suggestion seems to best match the details Zamora reported. Might this two-man balloon be what Zamora saw?

Some of Robinson's comments on the incident:
  • The reported flame colors (blue and orange) agree with the propane flame used by hot-air balloons.
  • Zamora never saw the full shape clearly. He lost his glasses before it rose enough.
  • He never saw the platform. It was behind terrain, then he lost his glasses.
  • The dust Zamora saw here could have come from the burner blast.
  • The envelope went straight up as it lifted and centered over the platform.
  • The envelope remained in this position until it had enough lift to raise the platform off the ground.
  • Once the platform lifted off the ground, the wind moved the balloon horizontally.
Given all these conflicting yet plausible explanations, it is difficult to say for sure what Zamora saw. Unless someone can explain convincingly exactly how the supposed "student hoax" was carried out, I will assume that the unexpected landing of a newfangled propane hot-air balloon is the most likely explanation for this classic UFO incident.


  1. I tend to agree that the most likely source of Zamora's sighting was an experimental/prototypical hot air balloon. I believe it was the late lamented James Easton who first alerted the world at large to Robinson's notion. James also, as I recall, established some striking similarity between the Raven logo and what Zamora reported seeing, which does strengthen the case.

    Given the persistent rumours of a student hoax, one has to wonder if some students were somehow aware of the balloon flight and ?perhaps were in cahoots with whomover was flying it, and set up the speeding car prank to draw Zamora in the right direction. There, two boids with one stone!

    On the other hand, the difficult-to-justify shiftiness of Braglia's sources do make one wonder about their authenticity. Lots of us have done daft and even illegal things in our youth but not had a problem relating them—often as jokes against ourselves—in later life. What makes these guys so different?

  2. Tony Bragalia sent me the following comments for posting:

    The image of people in white lab suits is illustrative of what is commonly found in college chemistry and physics labs then and today. In the very same way that the speeder’s black car pictured in the article is only illustrative of what was used. It is not the actual vehicle used to lure Lonnie to the staging scene. My webmaster has been instructed to change the text below the people in white lab coveralls to add the words “similar to” the ones worn by students at NMIMT. I emailed you to ask you for Gilles Fernandes’ email address. You did not reply and I found his contact information on my own. I emailed him and thanked him for pointing out the error and we have since been cordially dialoging on the Socorro matter. In fact, we are about to establish conclusively that the International Paper logo was in commercial use well before the Zamora sighting which included a red insignia on the craft very similar to the IP logo. You also do not tell people something that you know that I did. I emailed everyone I had alerted to my new article on Socorro about the photo text clarification. You do not mention that, even though you know that I did it. Robert, I have received many emails from you over the years, including recently. You always are kind and respectful. Yet in your piece above, you are snide and questioning of me. I would not like to think that you are unpleasant and downright mean-spirited, like many rabid skeptics.

    I am stunned, Robert, that you disbelieve world famous physicist and College President Dr. Stirling Colgate and world-famous behavioral psychologist Dr. Frank Etscorn (who, as inventor of the nicotine patch, saved my life and millions of others.) These men of science were not speculating about whether or not it was a hoax. They knew it to be one. They knew their names! Colgate was friends with them! He asked them if they would come forward for me! For you to insinuate that these men are liars or are misinterpreting or are embellishing is frankly troubling. But not as troubling as Kevin Randle’s contention that Socorro represents an ET event. I have known Kevin for a very long time. I was frankly stunned that he could believe such an event was unearthly. Everything about Socorro is so very “1960s” and so very terrestrial, how Kevin cannot see this is beyond me.

    Anthony Bragalia


    My reply to the above is:

    I emailed Gilles to ask him if it is OK for me to give you his email address. A short time later he replied to me that he had already had heard from you, that you apparebntly already had his address. So, no need to reply.

    As for the misleading photo caption, I mention that it is being changed.

    I believe that your point concerning the age of the International Paper logo has been established.

    As for whether such credible people as Drs. Colgate and Etscorn might be "lying," perhaps not if you phrase it that way, but it is conceivable that they might be going along with a joke. A long-running joke that actually enhances the reputation of their Institution. Notice how they all avoid unambiguous comment, or any specifics.

  3. Great stuff, Robert. Always intriguing. But do we give alleged HOAX confessors any more or less credit than alleged whistleblower proponents?

  4. One thing's for sure: magazine covers were way cooler back in the 1960's.

  5. Bragalia insists that Colgate confirmed that he knew the student involved. This is odd because I have access to some of his exchanges with Colgate back in 2009. Particularly interesting is this exchange with Colgate:

    AB: Would it not then make sense to reveal -once and for all- the truth about the hoax at Socorro in 1964? Would it not help to promote what we both want- critical thinking and healthy skepticism about UFOs?

    SC: gladly, but I do not know who, when, but because I am sympathetic to your objective, have started inquiries at Tech. At the time student trust was of paramount importance and I never knew who, but was informed sufficiently to tell Pauling it was a hoax....

    AB: Don't you believe that you and your friend/s have an obligation to history and to truth to reveal what happened?

    SC: yes if we can find out.

    AB: My intuition- Was Stirling Colgate himself involved in planning, coordinating, executing or covering up the hoax?

    SC: Bull, you seem to be starting another mistruth...

    Notice he states he does not know who performed the hoax. He just was knowledgeable that it was a hoax. It is important to note that Colgate was very upset with Bragalia because of the way he twisted his words in his earlier articles. Throughout his 2009 e-mails, Colgate denied knowing anybody involved. He just knew that anybody could have pulled off the prank because it was a "no-brainer". I suspect that Colgate believed this but he never demonstrated how it was done or who did it. In his 2011 e-mail with Colgate, one can see Bragalia asking leading questions so he could get the desired response. I suggest that Bragalia publish the entire set of exchanges he had with Colgate and not his desired selections. One will see a slightly different story than the one he portrays on his blog.

  6. I realise that your main objective here isn't to disprove the extraterrestrial origin of something a now-deceased policeman may or may not have briefly glimpsed in New Mexico 53 years ago, but to find an excuse to argue with Anthony Braglia because you always have and always will.

    However, since you consider that pointing out gaping holes in fringe theories about ancient UFO cases put forward by obsessive elderly cranks who haven't done their research properly is vitally important, even if these people are technically skeptics who don't think the disputed object was anything extraterrestrial, may I point out a few small problems with your own theory?

    Since a few minutes of internet research seemed to suggest that the number of hot-air balloons in the USA in 1964 was extremely small, and there happened to be a museum dedicated to the history of hot-air ballooning in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I thought they might be able to shed some light on the affair, if a balloon was indeed the culprit.

    In particular, I wondered whether a two-man team who habitually wore light-coloured one-piece aviation suits and, in the tiny and eccentric world of early sixties American hot air ballooning, had the kind of reputation which suggests they might have been flying a balloon irresponsibly at that specific time and place. Also, I wondered whether the marks supposedly made by the craft matched the shape of whatever landing-gear two-man balloons of that era might have had. So, unlike you, I emailed an expert on balloon history. I quote:

    Dear sir,

    Thank you for contacting us. The modern hot air balloon was not "invented" until 1960, however, there were a number of events in the early 1960's when manufacturers began to market and promote this "new" form of air sport. Despite this, the first flight of a modern hot air balloon in Albuquerque was not until the 1970's.

    It is likely that Zamora was aware of modern hot air balloons because of their early notoriety, even if he had probably not seen one in person at the time of his incident in 1964. In addition, the size of the envelope would have been much larger than what Zamora described as the size of the craft. A two-man hot air balloon would have been at least 40,000 cubic feet, and it would not have had "landing gear," but simply a wicker gondola. The flame would have been aimed vertically upward, above the gondola, and not below it or pointed to the ground.

    Thank you again for your interest in ballooning history, and all the best with your research.


    Paul D. Garver, Manager
    Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum

    It would appear that your own theory is no less a load of hot air than anyone else's! Not that it matters any more than the potboiler Kevin Randle had to write because in the end even he finally ran out of things to say about Roswell. I expect you'll be having a go at the Cottingley Fairies next, if only you can find someone willing to argue with you about them for several years.

    1. Dear Count Otto,

      Thank you for sharing your droll erudition with us once again. Actually, you might be surprised to hear that I am coming to agree with you on this, to some extent. Did you see what Kevin Randle wrote on his Blog just a few days ago? He quite seriously suggested the possibility that Zamora just made the whole thing up. It's like, he went from "Zamora saw extraterrestrials" to "Zamora didn't see anything" in about sixty seconds.

      As for the Cottinglyey Fairies, actually I did write about them. See chapter 8 of my 1996 book "UFO Sightings." While I haven't heard anybody defending them recently, let us not forget that the Great and Powerful Jerome Clark defended the Cottingly photos as authentic back in the 70s.

  7. Hollywood has portrayed manned balloon flights going back to the silent film era. The 1962 episode "The Balloon Girl" of the hour-long series "Frontier Circus" had actress Stella Stevens flying around in a sealed hot air balloon. Youtube (50:54):

    The "F Troop" 1966 episode "Bye, Bye, Balloon" had a balloon powered by a heat source. The balloon basket had long feathered streamers hanging from the bottom that could resemble flames from a distance. See the clip here (:27):

    Balloons also factored in 1966 episodes of "The Avengers" and "Batman." Not saying this is what Zamora saw, just pointing out he had ample opportunities to change his story if he realized he saw a manned balloon instead.

  8. (Hey, that worked! Thanks.)

    As I've said before, if we can't accept Zamora as a reasonably credible witness and so discount fundamental features of his narrative then there's not much point in considering his story as anything more than another "UFO" fairy tale--a fiction of little reality.

    However mistaken he was at first, then puzzled by what he saw, then frightened and thoroughly shaken, it's not very likely, not reasonable, that he could completely misinterpret and so not accurately report what he saw.

    Zamora told a story of seeing a machine and two men, then the strange machine flew away. If these were two hoaxsters and their flying machine, they should have been working for NASA!

    The doppelganger principle strikes again.


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