Summary: If a close look is taken at the best available evidence, it is possible to deal with what is known about UFOs, and what may reasonably be assumed. The point we will make is that the evidence to support the conclusion that UFOs are unknown aircraft/spacecraft seems to be overwhelming.
As long as men and women have talked about strange sights in the skies, two primary questions have been asked about what has come to be called Unidentified Flying Objects:
Are they real, or are they just honest mistakes?
If they are real, could they be ships from some other world?
In this century, it started with the "foo fighters" of World War II: glowing balls that flew in formation or "played tag" with military airplanes over Europe and the Pacific. Suspected of being prototype enemy weapons, they never displayed hostility and when the war was over, they were all-but-forgotten.
In 1946, the Scandinavian countries reported many hundreds of "ghost rockets" which flew low and silently, and often slowly. Efforts to blame them on nearby Soviet tests of captured German missiles failed when it was learned that no such tests had taken place.
The first major American wave of sightings of "flying discs" began in the early summer of 1947. Within two weeks, at least 1,000 sightings were recorded of fast silvery discs seen in the daytime. The first military studies concluded they were real and of unknown nature and origin.2
From then on, UFOs seemed to fly at will over all parts of the world: fast and exotic, untouchable and unproven. By the 1990s, there had been over 100,000 reported sightings, many by airline pilots and military pilots and other qualified witnesses.
Despite the steady accumulation of a vast quantity of information about the appearance and behavior of UFOs, little light has been shed on the two questions posed at the beginning. The armed services and universities, as well as private groups and individuals, have devoted a great amount of time to investigating UFOs, yet there is no consensus about their nature, origins or purpose.
Still, if a close look is taken at the best available evidence, it is possible to deal with what is known about UFOs, and what may reasonably be assumed. The point we will make is that the evidence to support the conclusion that UFOs are unknown aircraft/spacecraft seems to be overwhelming.
Most of what is "known" about UFOs comes from individuals' descriptions of what they say they saw. If the individuals are reliable and knowledgeable about the sky, the information stands a good chance of being useful. This is the source of the case's "credibility," one of the two primary criteria recognized by the late Dr. J. Allen Hynek, long a consultant on UFOs to the U.S. Air Force, and later the founder of the private Center for UFO Studies.
Dr. Hynek's other criterion is "strangeness," meaning the extent to which a reported observation differs from normal airplanes, satellites, meteors, etc. A large aluminum-looking sphere which maneuvers violently and changes speed abruptly, rates higher for "strangeness" than a somewhat peculiar light seen in the night sky.
It is the reports which rate highest in both "credibility" and "strangeness" that form the heart of the UFO mystery. Are they indeed convincing observations of unknown aircraft/spacecraft, or are they merely strangely shaped clouds or balloons seen under unusual lighting conditions, or some other natural or manmade phenomena?
Radar has played a major role in UFO sightings, repeatedly confirming the presence of something unidentified which responds to radar much as an airplane does. Clouds and other weather phenomena show up on radar, but any experienced operator can tell the difference between weather and something solid.
One popular explanation for radar/visual reports is temperature inversion. This was first brought to public attention following two nights of UFO sightings over Washington, D.C., in 1952. Inversions, the cause of mirages, probably never caused these or any other UFO reports. According to a 1969 study by the Air Force Environmental Technical Applications Center, the conditions needed to produce the UFO-like effects attributed to inversions cannot exist in the Earth's atmosphere.3
The most thoroughly investigated recent radar/visual UFO sightings occurred in Belgium and Russia. Military jet interceptors were launched following observations from the ground. Ground-based and airborne radars then confirmed what was being seen visually, including high speeds and violent maneuvers far beyond the capability of the best modern warplanes. In both countries, high government officials admitted they were baffled.
While the human eye can be fooled, and radar can be fooled, it is considered extremely unlikely that both can be fooled, in exactly the same way, at exactly the same time. Thus radar/visual reports rate among the most convincing of all types of UFO sightings.
UFOs have been seen high in the sky, near to the ground, on the ground, and even rising from water. If some UFOs have landed, it is reasonable to suspect that some of them may have left traces behind, and indeed that is the case. Imprints, residues, charred and broken tree branches and rocks are among the bits of evidence claimed for UFO landings. Furthermore, under microscopic examination, some residues exhibit strange and unusual characteristics.
Perhaps the most well known example of a physical trace case in the United States occurred in 1964 near Socorro, New Mexico, where a policeman reported seeing an egg-shaped craft sitting on slender legs in an open field. When it had flown away, he and a second policeman inspected the area where it had been parked and found depressions in the dirt, as well as still smoldering, blackened shrubs. The sighting was investigated within two hours by men from U.S. Army Intelligence and the FBI, followed a day later by the chief civilian scientific consultant to Project Blue Book (the official Air Force investigation of UFO sightings). All agreed that the primary witness was highly reliable. Later, the final director of Blue Book called this case the most puzzling of the approximately 12,500 in his files.4
The best documented example of a physical trace case in Europe occurred in Trans-en-Provence, France, where a farmer reported seeing a saucer-shaped craft land on his property and then fly away after a short while. Physical traces left on the ground were collected by the police within 24 hours and later analyzed in several French government laboratories. Microscopic analyses revealed anomalous biochemical and electromagnetic effects on the soil and vegetation. The director of the Service d'Expertise des Phénomènes de Rentrées Atmosphériques (SEPRA, formerly called GEPAN) at the National Center for Space Studies (CNES) describes this case as the most puzzling UFO case in the French government files.5
The involvement of the American government in the UFO mystery has long offered its own set of questions. Known investigations have produced ambiguous results, and explanations offered for specific cases have frequently been at odds with scientific reasoning. Sometimes, little-publicized official statements have supported the position that UFOs are real and unexplained.
Sometimes statements not intended for the public have been brought to the surface by UFO researchers:
July 30, 1947: "This 'flying saucer' situation is not all imaginary or seeing too much in some natural phenomena. Something is really flying around."6
Sept. 23, 1947: "The phenomenon reported is something real and not visionary or fictitious."7
Oct. 28, 1947: "It is the considered opinion of some elements that the object [sic] may in fact represent an interplanetary craft of some kind."8
Dec. 10, 1948: "It must be accepted that some type of flying objects have been observed, although their identification and origin are not discernible."9
In 1948, the U.S. Air Force opened a publicly-known UFO investigation called Project Sign. Later, it became Project Grudge and finally Project Blue Book. In 1955, the U.S. Air Force released a study of 3,200 UFO reports it had received between 1947 and 1952. The private Battelle Memorial Institute used the Air Force data to arrive at its own conclusions: of the cases for which there was some conclusion, almost 50% were either unexplained, or doubtfully explained. Moreover, it was determined that the higher the qualifications of the witnesses, the harder it was to explain the reports in terms of common phenomena.10
In 1967, as Project Blue Book was coming under increasing attack from the press and the public, the Air Force contracted with the University of Colorado to make a final study of UFOs. In contrast to the totally negative statements of the study director, Dr. Edward U. Condon, the body of the final report showed that about 30% of the cases studied were left without explanation.
Comments on individual cases by University of Colorado scientists included:
"This is the most puzzling case in the radar/visual files. The apparently rational, intelligent behavior of the UFO suggests a mechanical device of unknown origin as the most probable explanation.
"All factors investigated - geometric, psychological and physical - appear to be consistent with the assertion that an extraordinary flying object, silvery, metallic, disc-shaped, tens of meters in diameter, and evidently artificial, flew within sight of two witnesses."11
Following the recommendation of the University of Colorado, Project Blue Book was ended in late 1969, after almost 22 years of Air Force official investigations. It left behind approximately 12,500 case files, of which 585 were officially declared "Unknown." This means that the project staff felt it had sufficient information about a case, but were unable to supply a full explanation of it. Cases lacking sufficient information for meaningful analysis were kept separate. Furthermore, an official memo was released years later, under the Freedom of Information Act, that made it clear that "reports of unidentified flying objects which could affect national security... are not part of the Blue Book system." [emphasis added]. Such reports "would continue to be handled through the standard Air Force procedures designed for this purpose."12
In summary, it is apparent that the evidence - visual, radar and physical - strongly suggests that more than mistaken observations of conventional phenomena are involved in many UFO sightings. Witness testimony, backed up by official U.S. government documents, point toward the presence in the Earth's atmosphere of apparently manufactured craft that cannot be explained as mistaken observations of acknowledged aircraft, spacecraft, atmospheric or astronomical phenomena.
The Case For Extraterrestrial UFOs
If UFOs are not anything known, then they must be unknown. What says "unknown" more powerfully than "extraterrestrial?" In the absence of any specific knowledge of even a single extraterrestrial civilization, there are no constraints on theorizing about the nature, technology, and behavior of one or more hypothesized alien cultures.
But are UFOs extraterrestrial? Lacking proof, we must deal very carefully with any answers. It remains a possibility that some or all of the otherwise unexplained UFO reports will some day be explained in terms of as-yet-unknown natural phenomena, or secret highly advanced man-made aircraft and/or spacecraft.
Nevertheless, there are impressive reasons for speculating about the extraterrestrial origin for some UFOs, namely their shapes and their performance.
Shapes of UFOs
Most UFOs observed in daylight, when shapes and details can be seen, have been described as having simple geometric shapes: discs, spheres, cylinders and more recently, triangles.
Disc-shaped airplanes have been flown, but none is known to have exceeded 150 mph, nor to have other capabilities displayed by UFOs. Difficulties in stability and control have so far prevented any disc-shaped aircraft from getting beyond the stage of low-performance prototypes.
Spherical aircraft have so far been limited to gas-filled balloons, whose performance is at the bottom of the speed and maneuverability scales. Balloons can fly only as the wind blows and can be overtaken quickly by airplanes.
Cylindrical aircraft are unknown, as the lack of wings poses huge problems when it comes to such functions as taking off and flying level. Rockets and missiles are cylindrical and certainly are able to fly, but only as the result of great power in relation to their size. They can only fly upwards up at launch, and on a ballistic curve on their way to a target.
Triangle is the shape of delta-winged airplanes, though the flight characteristics of triangular UFOs removes them from this category.
It is entirely possible that some radical military aircraft having one or more of these shapes are flying from super-secret test facilities. But this would have to be a recent development unable to explain sightings of such craft during most of the past 50 years.
Performance of UFOs
Even more striking than the shapes of UFOs is their performance: speed, acceleration, maneuverability, silence.
Speed. UFOs have been tracked on military radar travelling silently at several thousand miles per hour well within the Earth's atmosphere. An airplane attempting this would create an inescapable sonic boom before melting from friction with the air.
Extreme Acceleration. Airplanes do not visibly accelerate in the air, though they show generally impressive acceleration during take-off. Drag-racing cars and motorcycles accelerate in a manner obvious to even the least experienced observer. In the case of UFOs, airline and military pilots have reported that they fly at the same speed as an airplane, and then display acceleration common only to anti-missile missiles. Veteran pilots describe their observations with words like "astounding" and "unbelievable."
Extreme Maneuverability. While airplanes can perform abrupt maneuvers, these are generally seen only in air shows. Even then, such flying is more often described by the outside observer as "graceful" rather than "violent," though the pilot may use the latter term. Impossibilities for airplanes (but not, apparently, for UFOs) include right-angle turns at high speed, and zig-zag flight.
Silent Hovering. While helicopters and VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) airplanes can hover, they produce noises whose quality and volume positively identify them. UFOs, on the other hand, appear able to hover with little or no motion for long periods without any sound. This remains well beyond the state of known science, let alone technology.
The U.S. Government, and many other governments, claim that although not all UFO reports can be explained, there is no evidence that Earth has been visited by aliens. Most scientists and leading journalists agree with this position. However, these same scientists believe that there must be many advanced civilizations on planets orbiting the billions of stars they estimate to exist in the universe. The gap between these two positions is generally explained by the assumed inability of even the most advanced society to travel the enormous distances separating the Earth from even the nearest stars.
Yet, there are thousands of sightings of novel, high-performance craft in our skies, reported by highly skilled and experienced observers. There are also hundreds of other reports of craft seen on the ground, and sometimes of humanoid beings in their vicinity.
The great conflict between official positions and trustworthy observations constitutes the mystery of Unidentified Flying Objects. A possible solution to this mystery is the suggestion that the official position is based on an elaborate cover-up. If it is a cover-up, what then is being protected, and by whom?
The answers to these questions generally focus on the issue of national security as well as fear of the public reaction to an official disclosure of UFO reality and its extraterrestrial origin. The question of extraterrestrial intention and the frightening aspects of the alleged abduction phenomena could be extremely disturbing. However, many researchers believe that it is the science and technology behind the national security veil which lies at the heart of the secrecy, and that:
fallen discs are being reverse engineered, repaired and/or copied, and being tested;
the technology is so advanced that we can barely imagine the science behind it (which could be based on a fundamentally different understanding of gravity and electromagnetic fields);
whichever nation masters this extraordinary technology will certainly be the most powerful nation on earth;
in the opinion of those in control, the guarding of this technology for defense purposes, far outweighs its potential value for other purposes - i.e. a non-polluting, cost efficient solution to our present energy and environmental crisis.
2. Memo from Lt. Gen. Nathan Twining, Commanding General of the Air Materiel Command, Wright Field, to Gen. Spaatz, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces, September 23, 1947.
3. Menkello, F.V., "Quantitative Aspects of Mirages," USAF Environmental Technical Applications Center, 1969.
4. Steiger Brad, ed. Project Blue Book, Ballantine Books, 1976.
5. GEPAN, Note Technique No. 16, Enquête 81/01, Analyse d'une Trace, Toulouse, March 1, 1983. (English translation published in the MUFON UFO Journal, March 1984.)
6. Air Force Base Intelligence Report, "Flying Discs," AFBIR-CO, July 30, 1947.
7. Twining, ibid.
8. Draft Intelligence Collections Memorandum issued by Brig. Gen. George Shulgen, Chief of the Air Intelligence Requirements Division of the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, October 28, 1947.
9. U.S. Air Intelligence Report #100-203-79, "Analysis of Flying Objects in the U.S.," December 10, 1948.
10. Air Force Project Blue Book, "Special Report No. 14 (Analysis of Reports of Unidentified Aerial Objects)," May 5, 1955.
11. Gillmor, Daniel S., ed., Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, New York Times Books, 1969.
12. Bolender, Brig. Gen. C.H., USAF, Memo re Project Blue Book, October 20, 1969.