Monday, October 4, 2021

Is the O'Hare Airport UFO Case still "A Great Case"?

Previously UFO blogger David Bates posted part one of his reply to my long, three-part article about "The New Yorker's Credulous Article on Pentagon UFOs,"   to which I replied here. Mostly, it was about the supposed "Kecksburg, PA UFO crash," which was based on misperceptions of a brilliant fireball meteor widely seen over hundreds of miles. Now we are looking at part two of Bates' reply, titled "The O’Hare Field UFO Remains a Great Case." He continues, "When Skeptical Inquirer’s Robert Sheaffer tries to debunk a pesky UAP sighting with a ridiculous scientific theory of his own, it doesn’t go well."

First, I should point out that this is not really Skeptical Inquirer's article: it is mine, from my Bad UFOs blog. SI's editor Kendrick Frazier asked me for permission to reprint the Blog article in his January/February, 2021 issue (all three parts of it), and I said OK. And I'm not affiliated with Skeptical Inquirer any longer, or with CSI(COP). I first became a Fellow of CSICOP in 1977. It was an exhilarating experience, meeting and talking with people like Martin Gardner, James "Amazing" Randi, Isaac Asimov, and many others. Unfortunately, over the years, CSI and its parent organization CFI have morphed into something more like Social Justice organizations than an unbiased evaluator of purportedly factual claims.

The author's photo of a partially-obscured hole-punch cloud, taken in Tucson, Arizona, March 6, 2014.

Bates' summary of the O'Hare Field case is as follows: 

Basically, on an overcast afternoon, an actual “flying-saucer”-like object was spotted over United Airlines’ Gate C17 in Concourse C by pilots, ground crew, mechanics and other witnesses in various locations. It was described as between six and 24 feet in diameter hovering below the clouds. Some said it was spinning like a Frisbee; others said it wasn’t. It was reportedly dark grey and silent, had no lights, and was very distinct against the low cloud deck, which witnesses estimated to be several hundred feet above it. Despite the variations and contradictions to be found in the testimony, witnesses agreed on one point: It was a clearly an object that was quite distinct from and separate from the clouds. Witnesses said it eventually shot almost straight up, vanishing in the blink of an eye and punching a perfectly round hole through the clouds that remained for a few minutes before closing. The UAP did not appear on radar.

Leslie Kean is a well-known UFO author and ghost experiencer who Bates is trying to defend from my criticisms, and those of other skeptics. Describing the O'Hare Field UFO, Kean says  “the suspended disc suddenly shot up at an incredible speed and was gone in less than a second, leaving a crisp, cookie-cutter-like hole in the dense clouds. The opening was approximately the same size as the object  and those directly underneath it could see blue sky visible on the other side,.” which sounds like a perfect description of a hole-punch cloud. However, her suggestion is preposterous. When objects pass through clouds (especially at high speeds), they do not leave crisp-edged holes in the shape of the object, like a cartoon character running into a wall. The result is a swirling mass of turbulent clouds, not a crisp, cookie-cutter-like hole. But UFO proponents have an explanation for this: "a high-energy, round object very likely to be emitting some form of intense radiation or heat while cutting through the cloud bank," according to Kean. Way to go, Leslie - when you encounter difficulties with your speculative hypothesis, invent something even more speculative and  improbable to fix it.

Hoaxed O'Hare UFO photo from Showtime's
UFO Series (hat tip to Danny Miller)

So, an actual 'flying saucer' supposedly appeared over UAL Gate C-17 at O'Hare field, but apparently not any other gates. Nobody saw it at gates C-15, or B-11, or any other gate. None of the air traffic controllers in the tower saw it. It was not seen on radar, despite somehow turning up in one of the most heavily radar-monitored locations anywhere. And nobody took any photos of this most amazing sight. Bates agrees with me that "no authenticated photographs have ever surfaced," although the recent sensationalist UFO series on Showtime purports to show a photo of the O'Hare UFO. But it's bogus. Writing in Above Top Secret in 2007, Jeff Ritzmann demonstrates that this photo is a fake, although producers of TV UFO "documentaries" don't seem to care..

In my article, I noted the similarity of the reported circular object to a "hole punch cloud." Two cloud layers were reported at O'Hare field at that time: One was an "overcast" layer at about 1,900 feet, the second around 8,000-9,000 feet. He writes that  "the temperature at 1,900 feet that day was 53 degrees — much too warm for a hole-punch cloud."

With which I agree. He objects to my suggestion that the hole was in a higher layer of clouds: 

a sky “completely overcast” with “dense clouds” poses no obstacle for Sheaffer’s imagined scenario: It “could easily” have happened.
Bates does not seem to know the definition of "overcast:"
Overcast or overcast weather, as defined by the World Meteorological Organization, is the meteorological condition of clouds obscuring at least 95% of the sky

So if clouds covered at least 95% of the sky, the meteorologist would record "overcast" conditions. And 95% is not the same as 100%. So there is no objection whatever to suggesting that occasional holes in a layer of "overcast" would allow relatively brief glimpses of whatever lies above it. Bates objects that

In preparing this article, we looked at more than 150 images of hole-punch clouds. They are, to be sure, fascinating phenomena. In all but a few of the images turned up in a Google image search, the cloud’s opening is nowhere near a “crisp cookie-cutter-like hole,” which was Sheaffer’s (apparently accurate) description of what the O’Hare UFO left behind.

However, the photo on page 47 of his much-hyped NARCAP report shows an almost perfectly round hole-punch cloud, with only a small feathery foreground cloud obscuring it. He also probably didn't see the photos of this phenomenon that were on a NOAA website, taken in central Wisconsin exactly eight days after the O'Hare field "incursion." Satellite photos show that weather pattern covering all of southern Wisconsin and adjacent northern Illinois.

As for that higher level of clouds, he writes, 

Had Sheaffer carefully read the NARCAP report’s collection of weather data, he would have known that there was a second cloud layer above: It was between 8,000 and 9,000 feet — and the freezing level was 1,000 feet above that. Hole-punch clouds occur naturally only when ice crystals form.

“You can’t get new ice forming in a cloud that is above the freezing point,” one meteorologist told me. “Typically, clouds need to be substantially colder than freezing, about five to minus four degrees Fahrenheit on average before they begin to form any ice.”
So he is saying, 'close, but no cigar for your hole punch theory.' But he neglected one important factor in the matter: airplanes.
Studies, including this one by Andrew Heymsfield and collaborators, have shown that aircraft passing through these cloud layers can trigger the formation of the heavier ice crystals, which fall to Earth and then leave the circular void in the blanket of clouds.

They concluded that aircraft propellers and wings cause the formation of those initial ice crystals. There are zones of locally low pressure along the wing and propeller tips which allow the air to expand and cool well below the original temperature of the cloud layer, forming ice crystals...

Andrew Heymsfield of the National Center for Atmospheric Research spoke with EarthSky some years ago, when his study first appeared. He told us:

This whole idea of jet aircraft making these features has to do with cooling of air over the wings that generates ice.

His team found that – at lower altitudes – jets can punch holes in clouds and make small amounts of rain and snow. As a plane flies through mid-level clouds, it forces air to expand rapidly and cool. Water droplets in the cloud freeze to ice and then turn to snow as they fall. The gap expands to create spectacular holes in the clouds. [emphasis added]


Airplanes can cause hole-punch clouds!

Do you think there might have been any airplanes flying around O'Hare Field at that time? 😏

Finally, we note how Bates complains, "Sheaffer’s “skepticism” regarding witness testimony (in this and other UFO cases) knows no bounds." Such words sound very naive to the experienced UFO researcher. Having researched claims about UFOs for over fifty years, I am well aware of the fallibility of human eyewitness testimony. Since Mr. Bates seems to naively trust such accounts as being basically reliable (as does Leslie Kean), I suggest that he start out by reading Allan Hendry's classic The UFO  Handbook, published back in 1979. Hendry was the chief investigator for Dr. J. Allen Hynek's Center for UFO Studies, and Hynek wrote the foreword to this book. Hendry's meticulous investigations into some extremely dramatic cases revealed them to be the result of colossal misperceptions by the observers. This made him very unpopular among UFOlogists.

Bates might also want to consider why the world's first scientific organization, the Royal Society in London founded in 1660, chose as its motto Nullius in Verba - "take nobody's word for it." More than 350 years ago, they recognized that science cannot be based upon mere, uncorroborated words. The lesson many UFOlogists have yet to learn is: Nullius in Verba.