Summary: Canadian UFOlogists search earth and sky for answers to the age-old mystery of whether we are alone or not Is anybody out there?
Canadian UFOlogists search earth and sky for answers to the age-old mystery of whether we are alone or not Is anybody out there?
A "huge ball of light ... at least twice the size of any airliner" was spotted over Edmonton by several witnesses on Apr. 19 at 10:30 p.m. As the object approached, its brightness faded to reveal at least five lights on the exterior. Eyewitnesses were "absolutely certain it was not a jet, plane or airliner of any kind." Duration of sighting: more than 10 minutes. Earlier that month, on Apr. 3, between 7:45 and 8 a.m. a witness in southeast Edmonton reported a "silver disc" flying below a jetliner. It maintained the same distance from the aircraft and did not leave a contrail.
These two recent sightings were investigated by Alberta UFO Study Group (AUFOSG). Established in Edmonton in 1990, AUFOSG began probing reports of UFO sightings and related phenomenon in Alberta. It became a private research group in 1994.
Founder Gord Kijek defines UFO as "an unidentified flying object. It doesn't mean an extraterrestrial spaceship because we simply don't know if they exist at all.
"We get a whole bunch of people reporting things. This year we've done three investigations where we've really gone out of our way to research," said Kijek. "Other UFO sightings we do over the telephone, or by e-mail. We'll just simply record that as an initial witness report.
"Nocturnal lights occur for 70% of all sightings. What a nocturnal light is, is a point of light in the sky that moves in a way the observer thinks is unusual. But from a UFO researcher's point of view, those are probably the least interesting because there's absolutely no information that you can gather from that."
Kijek is a serious, no-nonsense type who possesses a burning curiosity about UFOs. "I think of myself as an open-minded skeptic. In other words, if you were to ask me if I believe we're being visited by ETs, I'd say we have some very interesting anecdotal evidence but I'm not so sure that's indeed what's happening.
"But I would really like to find that evidence. And that's why I'm doing this," said Kijek. A "frustrated astronomy student," he recalls looking up at the stars as a kid and wondering if there was life up there. Somewhere.
And what does he know now that he didn't as a kid?
"This is a whole lot more confusing than it seemed at that time," laughed Kijek. "Every time you think you have an answer, you come up with a lot more questions."
"The majority of cases have a simple prosaic or natural explanation. And that may not be evident at face value. When you look into a lot of these cases, many of them lead to at least a probable explanation.
"But the ones that intrigue us are those last little five per cent of sightings that are so well-documented, so well-reported and the witnesses are so reliable and what they report is so exceedingly strange - that a natural explanation just doesn't seem to fit."
UFOs don't quite produce the terror they first stirred up 50 years ago, nor even command the same media attention. Nevertheless, they aren't going away.
Indeed, at least three million Canadians claim to have seen a UFO. Last year 263 such sightings were reported across the country - including 17 in Alberta - according to research by the Canadian Annual UFO Survey.
Chris Rutkowski co-ordinates findings for the Ufology Research of Manitoba (UFOROM) which for the last 12 years has compiled the annual national survey.
"Effectively, we are the X-Files division of Canada. We do get some reports from government military agencies and we are the ones that actually investigate," said Rutkowski during a telephone interview from Winnipeg. "Unlike what you see on TV or read about in books, most of the UFO reports we get are really quite banal. Simple lights in the sky that are certainly more likely to be airplanes or satellites and stars. That type of thing.
"Out of each year, for example, out of the 250 or so cases, only two or three are really good or interesting.
"But even saying that, it doesn't mean those are the reports of flying saucers - just puzzling cases that suggest science should study."
Since the beginning of the last decade, UFOROM has accumulated 3,000 Canadian UFO cases. Studied are details such as where a UFO was seen, the time of day, its colour, shape and observed behaviour.
UFOs were reported in the late summer and early fall more than at any other time of the year. Typical sightings lasted between five and eight minutes last year. Most UFOs were reported in Western and Northern Canada.
About 13% of all UFO reports are unexplained.
"I co-ordinate the research being done across Canada," said Rutkowski, who has been investigating UFO sightings for 25 years. Why the interest?
"I have a master's degree in astronomy. The UFO interest began in my undergraduate days. In the astronomy department, calls occasionally came in from people who'd seen UFOs and wanted to talk with somebody. None of the professors wanted to take the calls so I started taking them. I'm called a skeptic but I have a very open mind - I don't dismiss anything out of hand."
Canada is the only country that compiles and analyses UFO sightings and makes the information publicly available. "Sweden does this as well although their reports aren't online. But there's no comparable group in the U.S. or Britain.
"Canada is actually at the forefront of UFO research."
What percentage of sightings involve aliens?
"Very, very few reports that involve landings are made these days. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to name a couple over the past few years. It used to be very common but it seems to be supplanted by the abduction phenomena now," said Rutkowski. What are some of the more interesting Canadian UFO cases? "There are several, including 1967 in Shag Harbour in Nova Scotia and Falcon Lake, where a man was burned by a UFO. It was a very famous case and it was investigated by the U.S. Air Force. In Alberta, there's a very good case of triangular craft tracked by radar. Well-investigated. Very puzzling. Very strange. And up in the Yukon several years ago, where a number of people witnessed a very large craft flying over the trees."
What do you really think?
"As an astronomer I think there is certainly a possibility of extraterrestrials out there zipping around in spaceships but the distances between the stars are so great that it would be very difficult to reach here from there.
"We just don't have the physical proof yet. No chunk of something that we can hold on to and wave and say 'this is definitely from a UFO.' Nobody's come back from an abduction experience with a towel from the Mars Hilton."
Searching for proof is what the U.S. agency SETI Institute's Project Phoenix is all about. It searches for scientific evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. On contacting the agency, I was referred to its Web site: "Investigations of UFO sightings or alien abductions are not conducted at the SETI Institute. A practical reason for this is that the distance to the star nearest to our own is over four light years. That's about 24 trillion miles away. With our current rocket technology, it would take around 300,000 years to travel there. In addition ... there is no scientific evidence. Personal accounts are not physical or verifiable evidence. These reasons are sufficient to exclude UFOs from the research objectives of the SETI Institute."
Ashley Pachal is the former president of the UFO Society of Edmonton, an organization which closed shop two years ago. Why shut down?
"Lack of interest. We couldn't attract any new members. UFOs are being spotted but people are not paying as much attention to them. It's old hat now. They don't get excited. A lot of sightings don't even get reported."
Pachal believes many UFO sightings can be explained as "mirages. One of the common sightings - that a UFO followed a car or a plane - is pretty well a moon mirage. The moon is reflected by temperature inversion in the atmosphere around you. As well, when the mirage is breaking up it can appear to be making a sudden 90-degree turn. And in a minute or so, it's gone."
Still, many people continue to believe.
Rutkowski cites several polls in which 10% of Canadians say they've seen a UFO. "If you plug that number in, that's three million Canadians - that's a lot of people who have seen UFOs. It's the type of thing which I think should have a co-ordinated investigation and study at the scientific level," said Rutkowski.
Perhaps it's already being done.
The AUFOSG has an extensive Web site (www.aufosg.org) and offers a confidential UFO sighting report form. Kijek, whose site uses a tracker, said: "It's very interesting to see who some of the visitors are. Visits from the Pentagon, 33 visits from the U.S. Air Force, 23 times from the U.S. Navy, 43 times from Boeing.
"Now this could be just lunch-hour surfing. But when you take a look at all of those sites - the RCMP, NASA - when you see that volume ... There is a lot of interest in this topic but it tends to be a quiet under-the-covers type of interest - at least from official people."