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In Search of Gordon Cooper's UFOs (skeptical)

James Oberg - 10/4/2004

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Since his retirement from the space program two decades ago, Cooper (now in his 60's and an engineering consultant in Los Angeles) has become an outspoken advocate of the reality of UFOs.

The commercialization of astronauts has certainly been extensive, but one bizarre attempt reached astronomical heights. During the publicity blitz for Columbia Pictures' "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", toy UFO aliens appeared in stores around the world. A plastic model called "Authentic Bendable Extra Terrestrial Figure" even today sits on my desk, his (its?) right hand altered with glue to present the middle finger defiantly in my direction. On the back of the cardboard wrapper originally containing the "authentic" (whatever that meant!) alien was a sensational quotation from two-time space veteran Gordon Cooper.

The passage read: "Intelligent beings from other planets regularly visit our world in an effort to enter into contact with us. NASA and the American government know this and possess a great deal of evidence. Nevertheless, they remain silent in order not to alarm people. I am dedicated to forcing the authorities to end their silence"

Now, astronauts (or cosmonauts, for that matter) are not known to be frequent visitors at the United Nations. When they do came, it is usually to discuss their own space vehicles. But in March 1978, the same Gordon Cooper addressed a UN committee on somebody else's space vehicles: aliens from space were flying to Earth on exploration voyages of their own. The ex-astronaut declared that since it was a planet-wide problem it demanded international attention.

The United Nations maintained a stoic, even embarrassed silence, nonetheless. Part of Cooper's problem might have been that he was visiting under the auspices of the then dictator of Grenada, the madcap "Sir" Eric Gairy. Gairy's excesses and crackpottery, added to his alleged corruption and brutality at home, later led to the New Jewel coup-d'etat led by Maurice Bishop, and indirectly to the US intervention five years later.

Since his retirement from the space program two decades ago, Cooper (now in his 60's and an engineering consultant in Los Angeles) has become an outspoken advocate of the reality of UFOs. Personal experiences with UFOs contribute to Cooper's authority as a commentator on the controversial topic. His experiences have literally become legend....

Persistent accounts in some leading UFO books describe a UFO encounter with Cooper's Mercury-9 space capsule in May 1963. In addition, Cooper himself has talked about the disappearance of photographic evidence for a UFO landing at an Air Force Base in California where he had served prior to being picked for spaceflight. And most spectacular of all is his account of "fleets of UFOs" soaring over his Air Force base in Germany, where he began his pilot career in the early 1950s. Clearly, Cooper is a very experienced UFO witness, and a very persuasive one.

Cooper has been quite outspoken about his evaluation of the UFO phenomenon. As early as 1974 (three years after he left NASA) he was being quoted as saying, "People have seen flying saucers at close hand. And in many cases they have been verified on radar. It is ridiculous for anyone to say that they're all completely unreal"

In a letter to the United Nations on occasion of the November 27, 1978 discussion of UFOs, Cooper wrote believe that these extraterrestrial vehicles and their crews are visiting this planet from other planets, which obviously are a little more technically advanced than we are here on earth"

Earlier that same year, Cooper had been on late-night TV's Merv Griffin Show (April 10,1978) when the question of UFOs came up. Griffin asked Cooper if he thought any extraterrestrial visitors had "ever been here", and Cooper was explicit in his answer: "Yes, I think they have and are here regularly"

Griffin pushed into an even more sensational area: "There is a story going around, Gordon, that a spaceship did land in middle America, and that there were occupants and that members of our government were able to keep one alive for a period of time.... Is that a credible story" Again, Cooper didn't waffle. ~I think it's fairly credible" he replied candidly, "Apparently from everyone who has been abducted or who's had contact with UFOs, they seem to agree that the occupants are really not that different from what we are"

"I would like to see the time when all qualified people not trying to make a dollar selling some weird and way-out stories could really work together" Cooper told Griffin, "to really properly investigate these types of stories and either refute them or prove them.... I'm rather interested in maybe eventually in the near future putting together a few people of science and engineering, and so on, to properly investigate this type of thing" Later, in an interview in OMNI magazine (March 1980), he described his preferred research strategy: I’m not really of the school that feels you should go back historically and correlate all the sightings. I think we'll probably find out more by looking harder now and in the future" Elaborating, he also declared, "Very likely we'll find out about them sooner or later, but probably not just by analyzing past sightings"

"I've always been honest about my views on this subject" he added. "Because the astronauts have been so badly misquoted by irresponsible journalists, it's up to each of us to say what he believes in"

Perhaps related to Cooper's complaint about irresponsible journalists, a particularly amazing claim was described by paranormal publicist Timothy Beckley in 1980. Citing an interview in the "National Enquirer", Beckley claims that Cooper has revealed that, "There are those connected with our space agency -- NASA -- who (allegedly quoting Cooper) 'have had contact with the creatures on board UFOs', apparently right here on Earth" Beckley publishes several newspapers and magazines, and regularly advertises in the weekly grocery store tabloids.

Cooper's quotation about NASA's "UFO secrets", printed on the back of Columbia Pictures Productions' "alien figure", received widespread circulation. The quotation was subsequently reprinted widely, including in Margaret Sachs' "UFO Encyclopedia" (Perigee Books, G. P. Putnam, 1980), and in an article in the September 30, 1980 issue of the tabloid newspaper "The Star", published under the by-line of America's most respected ufologist, astronomy professor Dr. J. Allen Hynek.

Hynek later admitted he had made a mistake in allowing the newspaper to compile the article from his previous publications while paying him a fee for the use of his name as author -- since he hadn't reviewed the written material prior to publication. Such are the perils of UFO journalism. Cooper, too, was being victimized.

That statement attributed to him was finally too much for ex-astronaut Cooper. In August 1978 he filed suit against Columbia Pictures Industries for false use of his name. The suit sought two million dollars in damages and a "fair percentage of the profits, totaling not less than $750,000, for the use of his name and reputation. Part of the problem was that the quotation, according to Cooper, was entirely counterfeit: "The quotation attributed to me by Columbia Pictures is entirely a fabrication", he wrote in 1978, calling it fakery".

Yet in 1980 when a new version of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was released, Columbia Pictures used the same counterfeit quotation again in its promotional literature! And the lawsuit disappeared into the bowels of L.A. law courts, its resolution never disclosed by either party.

Despite his often involuntary association with such activities, the quality of Cooper's testimony has been universally recognized. His integrity, intelligence, and technical competence have never been questioned. If a man like Gordon Cooper, a veteran of travel through outer space, can believe in UFOs and can publicly testify to that effect, ordinary citizens are bound to conclude that there must really be something to the subject after all.

Indeed, anyone who ventures to raise questions about the validity of Cooper's UFO experiences runs the risk of appearing to want to smear a genuine American hero with the cinema-certified "Right Stuff" or UFO proponents, Cooper's accounts were too useful to risk solution; for UFO skeptics, Cooper's personal prestige called into doubt the practical value of such research (who wants to look like an unpatriotic iconoclast?). Besides, the stories deal with events several decades in the past, and experience has repeatedly taught the frustrations of attempting to track down clues and leads across such a span of memory-benumbing and records-losing decades.

But the Cooper incidents kept being flaunted in pro- UFO tracts, while the failure of skeptics to "explain" such authoritative and impressive testimony was portrayed as almost an admission of intellectual incapacity. I kept running into the same questions at lectures and seminars. The "UFO Bulletin" of APRO, a leading American flying saucer group, repeated the challenge in 1981, and editor Gordon Creighton of Britain's "Flying Saucer Review" made the same challenge over a radio debate in 1982. A recent major UFO book by Timothy Good ("Above TOP SECRET") endorsed the cases again.

The challenge has appeared in OMNI magazine and in tiny UFO newsletters, in letters and private conversations: "If you skeptics are so smart, how come you can't explain Gordon Cooper's UFOs" In late 1982, Dr. J. Allen Hynek blasted the British Broadcasting Corporation for its production of "The Case of the UFOs" (aired in the US on NOVA in October 1982) for avoiding any mention of Gordon Cooper's UFO experiences, which Hynek clearly portrayed as genuine and unsolvable. As recently as January 1, 1990, the "Current Affair" tele-tabloid show referred to Cooper's accounts of chasing UFOs in his jet.

I, too, had been interested in researching these stories. Could the Cooper UFOs be accounted for in terms of prosaic phenomena? Were Cooper's published recollections of the incidents, often after decades of hindsight, reasonably accurate? Were there any lessons about contemporary UFO research standards which an analysis of the Cooper cases could define? Those were questions well worth asking. Those were answers well worth seeking.


The most famous UFO associated with Cooper's name reportedly occurred on the Mercury-9 space flight in 1963.

By 1967, Frank Edwards gave these details of the event (in Flying Saucers -- Here and Now!, Lyle Stuart, New York). To the question, "Who was the first astronaut to see a UFO in orbit", Edwards responded: "On the record it was Major Gordon Cooper, over Muchea Tracking Station near Perth Australia, on his final orbit of Earth on a night in May of 1963. The object which approached him was also seen by the two hundred persons at the tracking station. It was reported twice on the NBC radio network before Cooper had been picked up by the rescue craft. He was not permitted to comment on it"

Other details appeared in Is Something Up There (Dale White, Scholastic Book Services, Doubleday, 1968): "The astronaut radioed the tracking station that he had sighted a greenish object moving east to west. This is contrary to the orbits taken by man-made satellites. Nearly one hundred persons, some of them technicians, saw the UFO appear on the Australian radar"

The story spread as years passed. In 1973, ufologist George D. Fawcett was writing: "The UFO... was seen, recorded and tracked by the Muchea, Australia, tracking station, where hundreds of technicians and newsmen saw and heard the reports. This was good enough for the experts Dr. J. Allen Hynek and Dr. Jacques Vallee, who (as mentioned earlier) used Fawcett's data (unverified) in their book Edge of Reality as follows: "Gordon Cooper reported a greenish UFO with a red tail during his fifteenth orbit. He also reported other mysterious sightings over South America and Australia. The object he sighted over Perth, Australia, was caught on screens by ground tracking stations"

In 1977, Leonard Stringfield's book "Situation Red - - The UFO Siege" (Fawcett Crest) reported further details: "According to a reliable and well-informed Australian businessman who visited my home in October 1975, a luminous green UFO with a red tail, witnessed by hundreds of Australians, flew in the opposite direction to Cooper's spacecraft. During the UFO's overflight, he learned from a military source that it caused an electrical outage at the Dry Creek Tracking Station and at the rocket range in Woomera, including a blotting out of radar. The low-level, football-shaped UFO was also witnessed by Australian scientists, and cameramen took sixteen thousand feet of color movie film of the object. My informant told me that he learned from a military source that the film was sent to Washington, D.C., for evaluation. No jet interceptors were scrambled, because the military feared they might be affected by the powerful force field created by the UFO". Stringfield added that Cooper denied reports "he had seen the UFO during his overflight of Australia".

What purported to be an actual transcript of the astronaut's description of his UFO encounter was published by UFO author Dan Wilson about the same time, in his book Our Mysterious Spaceship Moon (Dell, 1976, -- his editor, James Frenkel, assured me that "all the references are checked, within reason", and that Dell lawyers had reviewed the manuscript and determined there was nothing libelous in it). Wilson wrote, "Cooper described the object as being of 'good size', and claimed, 'It was higher than I was. It wasn't even in the vicinity of the horizon" This is indicated that the bogey (NASA's slang term for UFOs) was not a star or other object, either natural or manmade".

"The important thing to remember" continued Wilson" is that the incident was seen by all those present at the Muchea Tracking Station. And this included civilian observers as well as newsmen. In fact the entire incident was reported to the world at the time by NBC News. So something was seen out there -- not fabricated by a UFO writer"

This story must be unraveled in reverse order to the way it developed. Wilson's alleged quotation can be checked first, because he footnoted the source. What was actually happening was that on his third orbit, five hours into the flight, Cooper was describing auroral activity ("Northern Lights"). He reported, "Right now I can make out a lot of luminous activity in an easterly direction. I wouldn't say it was much like a layer. It wasn't distinct and it didn't last long, but it was higher than I was. It wasn't even in the vicinity of the horizon and was not well defined. A good size -- it was a good sized area. It was very indistinct in shape. It was a faint glow with a reddish-brown cast" And whatever it was, it wasn't a UFO, as Wilson's doctored excerpt of the transcripts would otherwise lead trusting readers to conclude.

In an OMNI interview published in March 1980, Cooper was asked about the reports of astronauts seeing UFOs in space. He replied, "It got so bad that there were deliberately falsified tapes of communications with the astronauts, where UFO material was simply edited in" Cooper explicitly denied that there had been UFO sightings on his two flights. In a 1978 letter to me, Cooper stressed "the non-occurrence of a sighting on Mercury 9. I have the original on-board tapes in my possession which also refute this"

The actual source of the original report, attributed to NBC radio news, remains obscure. In 1979 I asked the NBC Radio News archives to check on transcripts from the period, but according to Lyn Myers, executive producer of NBC Radio News (letter dated August 8,1979), "We... can find no transcript concerning an incident such as you describe". There the matter rests.

As so often happens, there probably was some spark that set off the blaze -- but the actual stimulus was too minor to have left any trace. Some UFO enthusiast probably half-heard a garbled radio account, told associates about it, and developed the recollection at conferences and conclaves. Before long, the story had spread in so many garbled versions that the different tales appeared to be independent corroborations when in fact they were only multi-generation mongrels.

A minor footnote to Cooper's spaceflight UFO connection is a report from his second (and last) orbital mission, Gemini-5 in August 1965. Researcher Alan Frank Sandler found some air-to-ground voice transcripts which seemed to refer to a radar sighting of a UFO. He used this material in a movie, "UFOs Past Present and Future", and author Robert Emmenegger adapted the screenplay to a paperback book of the same name published by Ballantine in 1974.

On a pass across the US, the astronauts were told that Cape Kennedy radar was tracking another object "two to ten thousand yards" from their spacecraft. They were asked if they had seen anything, but they replied in the negative. "And that is the last that the public knows about what was sighted during the Gemini 5 flight", intoned Sandler. The story subsequently appeared in UFO magazines and newsletters.

If Sandler, who did the research in Houston, really believed that assertion, then it was only because his research was deficient. At the very next "change of shift" press briefing, two hours after the incident was reported, flight director Christopher Kraft (who, contrary to Sandler's claim, did not himself talk directly to the astronauts) answered a newsman's question about it: "The radars at the Cape apparently were tracking a side lobe which gave them two returns from the spacecraft.... We're fairly certain that it was some kind of phenomenon like that.... The Merritt Island and Patrick radars were tracking what appeared to be two objects with similar signal strengths about two to ten thousand yards from the spacecraft and we really believe they were tracking the side lobe". These comments were on transcripts of the conference, available to this day at the Public Affairs Office in Houston.

Kraft was referring to a not-uncommon problem with space radar. It is associated with the fact that the radar beam (which is used to obtain a reflection when the radar is operating in the "skin track", or entirely passive mode of tracking) is not a pure cone-shaped projection, but is accompanied by weaker parallel projections as well. Sometimes the target acquisition logic circuits can become confused by reflections of these "side lobes", and this is what NASA decided had happened. Gemini-5 was a particularly difficult flight to track, according to a post-flight report entitled "Network Performance Analysis for the GT-5 Mission" (U66- 11760). Explained the report, "Due to the fuel cell problem the spacecraft beacon was turned off for long periods to conserve electrical power. Therefore, more effort than usual was directed towards skin tracking.... Significantly, many stations scheduled to skin track were either unable to acquire, or were unable to lock on the target". So the incident was neither exceptional nor particularly baffling.

The last word on this incident should lie with the astronauts involved. Cooper and his co-pilot Charles "Pete" Conrad have denied seeing such UFOs, and Cooper's candor is unquestionable. Another witness whose testimony UFO buffs should trust is the "capcom", the astronaut who was talking to Cooper and Conrad during the incident. It was James McDivitt, who has never made any secret of his own UFO-related experiences in the space program. Neither of these men ever considered the Gemini-5 incident as having anything to do with UFOs.

Sandler had missed another trick by not digging deeply enough into the Gemini-5 material. Cooper had in fact described something which could well have been verbally converted into a UFO, during the post-flight crew debriefing. His co-pilot Conrad had started off with the remark, "Okay, now that satellite ---" to which Cooper replied, "Satellites --- we never saw any of the scheduled ones. There was one time when Pete and I thought we saw something and we didn't have time to identify it. We were in drifting flight and we never could identify it. I don't even know if it was a satellite. So many things are going by when you're drifting that it's difficult to say"

(It is not known what McDivitt, who had seen his own famous UFO while in the same kind of "drifting flight" just ten weeks earlier, thought about Cooper's comment.)

In OMNI, Cooper summarized the whole mythology: "To my knowledge, the only astronaut on any of the Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo missions who ever saw anything that might have been a UFO was Jim McDivitt, but he didn't get enough pictures to prove anything substantial. That's the only case, in spite of all the stories you hear" --- stories from the books and articles by Edwards, Vallee and Hynek, Don Wilson and Robert Anton Wilson, Sachs, Stringfield, Fawcett, and many others. So the famous Mercury-9 story is false -- it never happened.


Cooper had been a student at the USAF Experimental Flight Test School at Edwards AFB, California, from 1956- 1957. After graduation he served as an experimental flight test engineer and a flight test pilot at the Air Force Flight Test Center at the base. He was there when in 1959 he was selected as one of the "original seven" Mercury astronauts recently celebrated in "The Right Stuff".

What has been portrayed as "an alleged case of suppression of photographic evidence of a UFO that landed near Edwards AFB" has become part of the Cooper UFO legend. His own words on the case, told in 1977 to interviewer Lee Spiegel for the "The Credibility Factor" (the UFO record), are as follows: he recalled "...the case of one that landed out on the dry lake bed right out from a number of camera crews we had who filmed it. And the film was there and was sent forward to the safekeeping somewhere in Washington, never to be seen again"

A detailed account of the incident appeared in Timothy Green Beckley's booklet, Hangar 18 (Global Communications, 1980). "After lunch this particular day", wrote Beckley, "Cooper had assigned a team of photographers to an area of the vast dry lake beds near Edwards". The team spotted "a strange-looking craft" which, in Cooper's words, was "hovering above the ground -- and then it slowly came down and sat on the lake bed for a few minutes" All during this time the cameras were supposedly filming away. Then, in words again ascribed to Cooper, "It took off at quite a sharp angle and just climbed straight out of sight" The film, sent off to Washington, vanished almost as quickly. As recounted in Penthouse ("Cosmic Coverup" by Tony Scaduto, October 1978), "Gordon Cooper says the film that he knows was taken of a UFO landing near the astronauts' training base in California has disappeared somewhere within official vaults....(It was) a film of the UFO that his men photographed, a film that has keen suppressed".

Early in 1979 I had only begun pursuing this story. My first step was a call to the Public Information Officer at Edwards, Paul Sewall. He readily recalled the incident Cooper must have been talking about, but with some differences. Although the widespread story was that the UFO had set down on Haystack Butte out on the range, the two witnesses to the incident only described it as slowly flying past them. They had indeed made a lot of theodolite (tracking camera) exposures, which had keen developed in a base lab and them sent away for analysis..

When I called John ("Jack") Gettys, one of the witnesses, he sent me a file of material on the sighting, which had occurred on May 3, 1957. He had never even realized that future astronaut Gordon Cooper had keen at the base at that time (he had no connection with the incident). He also proudly recalled that the case had been extensively investigated by a UFO researcher named Dr. James McDonald -- who had been one of the leading ufologists in the world in the 1960s. The "coverup" story seemed to be unraveling..

In fact, McDonald had described his findings on July 29,1968, during his testimony on UFOs to a congressional committee. This is the way he described it: "James D. Bittick and John R. Gettys... were at the time Askania cameramen on the test range, and spotted the domed-disk UFO just as they reached Askania #4 site at Edwards, a bit before 8:00 AM that day [JEO: Compare this with Beckley's account of "after lunch" -- evidently pure dramatization]. They immediately got into communication with the range director, Frank E. Baker, and asked if anyone else was manning an Askania that could be used to get triangulation shots. Since no other camera operators were on duty at other sites, Baker told them to fire manually, and they got a number of shots before the object moved off into the distance. Bittick estimated that the object lay about a mile away when they got off the first shot, though when first seen he put it at no more than 500 yards off. He and Gettys both said it had a golden color, looked somewhat like an inverted plate with a dome on top, and had square holes or panels around the dome. Gettys thought that the holes were circular, not square. It was moving away from them, seemed to glow with its own luminosity, and had a hazy, indistinct halo around its rim, both mentioned. The number of shots taken is uncertain: Gettys thought perhaps thirty. The object was lost from sight by the time it moved out to about five miles or so, and they did not see it again.... The photos were shortly taken by base military authorities and were never seen again by the men. In a session later that day, Bittick [was] informed that they had seen a weather balloon distorted by the desert atmospheric effects".

When I told Gettys in 1982 that McDonald had used his case in congressional testimony, the UFO witness was pleased but surprised. McDonald had never gotten back to him about the use he'd put his testimony to. So the pro- UFO people kept some secrets, too!.

Now, in fact those photographs did not vanish after all: they had been sent to Project Blue Book, at Wright- Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, per regulations (I even have talked to the officer who did the original Blue Book interviews, former Captain Hubert Davis, who had been greatly impressed with the witness's sincerity) . Years later the photos were pulled out of the retired Air Force files by UFO writers and investigators, as yet ignorant of the still-unpublished "Cooper connection". Two of the photos appear in Brad Steiger's paperback "Project Blue Book" (Ballantine, 1976) in the set of illustrations between pages 360 and 361. Wrote Steiger in the caption: "UFOs on target! Photos taken by United States military personnel" for case #4715, Edwards AFB, May 2 [sic!] 1957. But that case number did not appear on another list in Steiger's book, which included all "unsolved" cases. The Air Force must have found a satisfactory solution -- but what?

That answer had been around since 1957, but not widely circulated in the UFO media for obvious reasons: the Air Force said it had been a weather balloon (as the witnesses had been told the very day of their sighting) and had the evidence to prove it. In a letter to a UFO newsletter in June 1957, Major Robert F. Spence of the Edwards AFB Office of Information Services wrote as follows: "The alleged UFO was conclusively identified as a balloon from a weather unit a few miles west of the observer's location. This was corroborated by an independent report which discloses that this balloon was being tracked at that time with precision recording devices. The data show that the balloon passed the observer's location at almost the precise time, bearings, elevations and speed reported by them.... Objects in the photographs, even after magnification, were found to be small white specks, alternately changing from elliptical to round in shape. These are typical of a number of similar reports received by the Air Force, which upon investigation were found to be balloons, the odd appearances being caused by specular reflection of sunlight and other atmospheric conditions peculiar to desert regions. It is the opinion of the Air Force that any attempt to attribute anything unusual or mysterious to the incident is unwarranted and not supported by the facts"

But oddly enough, even though the original sighting was published in numerous newspapers (and made national wire services), the explanation was written up in no newspaper that I have been able to find. Nor did the pro- UFO McDonald (who hardly could have failed to be aware of it, since he had been sent the same material by Gettys) mention it before the congressional committee. Of course, the explanation "weather balloon" elicits snickers of disbelief from anybody familiar with how the term was over-used for other cases -- but this case looks pretty solid..

There is no evidence that Cooper ever heard this explanation, but he evidently had same misgivings about the case. In 1978, in his second interview with Spiegel (this time for OMNI), he evaded any discussion of the Edwards case by saying, "I'd just as soon not get into the Edwards incident. I didn't get to see anything personally, it was all second hand evidence really" That it was, and Cooper's caution was commendable -- if perhaps a bit tardy. His name had already been interwoven with the incident, and probably permanently.

A careful reading of his previous testimony indicates that he had ascribed no ominous motives to what he honestly thought had been a "disappearance" of the film. Instead, he had testified, the UFO-related material had probably been gathered together in a storage room and just forgotten. As for deliberate cover-ups, he has always disputed such a notion. "If any UFO information is being suppressed" he told OMNI, "it's certainly not by the U.S.. Air Force, because I was at a high enough level to know about it" That's just the opposite of how many "UFO promoters" portray his feelings..

As to the accuracy of the rest of Cooper's recollection of the "Edwards UFO", eyewitness Gettys had this to say in 1982: "I am amazed that Gordon Cooper said the object landed -- as far as I know, he never even saw it.... His story sounds kind of funny to me" And Gettys -- who still does not believe the '"weather balloon" explanation -- was there; Cooper, contrary to legend, played no role at all.

Whatever the true identity of the 1957 Edwards AFB "balloon/UFO", it is clear that the "Cooper UFO legend" is quite inaccurate here. No coverup or information loss was involved. The "UFO" never landed. Cooper had nothing to do with the incident (he was not connected with the film crew in any official capacity, and they had never heard of him) but was only an accidental bystander. But as a certified hero, his persona has been exploited by others who spread the legend for excitement, for ego, of for profit. That's a theme that far predates the space age!


The most sensational UFO encounter of his life happened to Cooper while he was a fighter pilot in Germany in the early 1950s. "Hundreds of UFOs" flew over his airbase near Munich over a two-day period.

In the 1976 production of the long-playing record of UFO-related testimony, Cooper gave the following description of the incident: "A weatherman spotted some strange objects flying apparently fairly high altitude with some large binoculars while tracking a weather balloon, and reported, and before long the entire fighter group was out peering through binoculars at these groups of objects coming over, all heading generally from easterly to westerly direction, and all in very strange patterns resembling fighter formations. But unlike fighters they would stop, almost stop in forward velocity and change ninety degrees sometimes in their flight path. And within the next two or three days we had practically all the fighters we could muster on the base up flying as high as they would climb with guys with binoculars still trying to spot these strange devices flying overhead. We never could get close enough really to pin them dawn but they were round in shape and very metallic looking".

A year later, during an interview with Spiegel for OMNI, Cooper elaborated: "They were large groups of metallic saucer-shaped vehicles at great altitudes coming over in flier [sic?] formation in various sized numbers and for the greater part of two days these kept coming by. They were in fingertip formation, flights would cross under, back and forth, just the same kind of formations we used in fighter groups. They had the capability of changing directions a little faster than a typical fighter would, stopping, rapid starting, changing directions".

Another interview in the "National Enquirer" (March 28,1978) gave additional details: "I spent two days trying to get to them. We got as high an altitude as we could, and they were still well above us. Probably twenty or thirty planes, at least, went up after them. F-84 and F-86 jets, fairly high-speed jets. The UFOs came over in groups of four, twelve, sixteen, twenty. They came over regularly, at intervals, all day long for two days. They came right over the air base. We could only get to about 45,000 feet, but we did get close enough to see what they looked like. They were actually shaped like saucers. we had no idea whether they were looking at us, or what they were doing. And after two days they simply disappeared".

A search for primary sources was bound to be difficult. The incident was in 1951 (according to Cooper's UN letter in 1978), probably in the summertime. The location was Neubiberg Air Force Base, in a suburb of Munich. The unit was the 525th Fighter Squadron of the 86th Fighter Wing, which was assigned to Europe between 1947 and 1952. Since there were about twenty five aircraft per squadron and the 525th shared the base with the 526th and the 527th, there might have been upwards of a hundred additional witnesses involved, not to mention the inhabitants of the large city nearby..

In 1979 I wrote to contacts in Munich and received a negative reply: "Neither the Munich newspapers nor the police records of that period give any mention of the case", wrote Wolfgang Kuchler of "P.M" magazine. An inquiry to the Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center at Maxwe11 Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, obtained the declassified unit history records for the 86th for the period in question -- and there was no mention of anything remotely similar to Cooper's description..

As a last stab in the dark, I wrote to several Air Force related publications with a request for general information (such publications have special columns for people doing historical research, seeking contact with missing former buddies, or organizing unit reunions). Months passed with no further results.

A year went by. Then the break came: a letter from John Bonner in Los Angeles, who had flown with Cooper. He had been looking through an old pile of "Air Force" magazines and spotted my letter in the February 1980 issue. On March 10, 1981, he wrote: "Once, while in a large group formation, I spotted a large number of objects very high above us. I do not think anyone had a chance to climb up to investigate that time. Another time on a Sunday morning two of us were scrambled to intercept a large number of objects coming in from the east. We did not intercept these as they turned back before we got there" In a second letter two months later, in discussing the first sighting, he added, "I felt they were not balloons, stars or debris. I was suspicious of the Soviets. I guess I could not rationalize to myself what I saw" Bonner's descriptions did not tally with Cooper's at all, but he did provide another lead: a unit reunion for the 86th was planned for that very summer in San Antonio..

I immediately contacted the organizers and discussed my research. None of the people could recall the incident but they promised to ask around. On June 5-7, 1981, more than a hundred pilots gathered for the party (many of them had left Neubiberg before, or had arrived after, the date of Cooper's incident). On August 3 I called Colonel "Swede" Larson, the reunion chairman, and asked about my favorite topic. His reply was negative: ~I talked to a few people who might have known, and they couldn't recall the incident. I was there then, and I was a flight commander, but I don't remember anything either"

As a last effort, I wrote letters to two dozen people whose names were listed in a special directory published by the reunion committee and who had been contemporaries of Cooper in the 525th. The directory also contained a reprint of the December 1950 base phone book; recalling Cooper's comment that it had been a weatherman who first spotted the objects, I wrote off to every member of the base meteorological staff whose names were listed in that phone book, too. My letters went out across the country and beyond to Guam, Israel, Paraguay, and wherever the veterans of the 86th had dispersed..

The answers trickled in over the passing weeks. Nobody knew what "Coop", as they called their former flying buddy, was talking about (along with frequent testimonials to his honesty and integrity, which have never been in doubt). "I never experienced such sightings" wrote one. "If I had it would be indelibly inscribed in my memory, and I'd be happy to share any such recollections with you" Another former Air Force pilot who later entered the priesthood and became a state bishop wrote, "I recall nothing about any UFOs.... As to what Gordon Cooper saw, I have not the slightest idea" Another: "Absolutely no recall of any such incident".

One wrote: "I was at Neubiberg Air Base from July 1950 to July 1953 as Weather Officer and Detachment Commander. During this time I did not make any unusual sightings that could not be explained as light reflecting from a high-flying weather balloon, or as a lenticular cloud group over the mountains". Another pilot wrote: "I do NOT recall any comments that Gordon Cooper made concerning UFOs -- I was his squadron commander sometime in '51, then got the 86th Fighter Group later, and I never recall even hearing anything along that line.... I'm sure if these UFOs had become a serious subject during my almost 5 years at Neubiberg, I would have remembered something -- and I flew most every day during all those years".

Other veterans of Cooper's unit concurred. "I was a pilot and weather officer at Neubiberg 1948 thru 1951, but I can't recall any reports of these sightings" wrote one. Another pilot, a retired brigadier general, wrote: "No, I am not aware of any UFO sightings. I'm fairly certain that I would have heard about it" Another: "I was at that time 'A' flight commander and was therefore 'in the know' of most of the flying activities in that area. I flew at least 25 hours each month. The flying saucer report made reference to by Cooper is unknown to me" Another: "I never heard mention of it before. At that time I was Wing Communications Officer .... If true it was one of the best kept secrets" The base weather officer at the time wrote: "I draw a complete blank: can remember no facts, no discussions -- in fact, not even a rumor" And another Neubiberg veteran flier had absolutely no recall of any such incident".

In all, a total of more than a dozen men had responded to my letter (including commanding officers and weather officers) : their opinions were unanimous that no such event had occurred at Neubiberg..

Cooper, in his first interview with Spiegel for the "Credibility Factor" record, had made a possibly relevant comment. When asked if it hadn't been exciting to return from the UFO chases and compare notes with his fellow pilots, Cooper had replied cautiously, "Yeah, it was [but]] I'm not sure we really ever realized the impact of it, at that point in time, really" What Cooper seemed to be saying was that the incident itself seemed hardly memorable when it happened, which would explain why no other witness could remember it thirty years later. But if so, one is forced to ask how accurate can Cooper's own memory be under the same circumstances?.

One more comparison is possible, thanks to yet another freak stroke of luck. During an idle luncheon conversation late in 1982 (four years after I had become interested in researching the case), the talk turned to the topic of UFOs. One retired NASA engineer began to regale his table with an account of UFOs seen by his friend Gordon Cooper (I was at the table, and hadn't even initiated that topic -- what an extraordinary coincidence!). All the familiar elements came out, including the "fleets" over several days, the inability of the jets to reach them, and the bafflement and frustration of all the pilots. But two new factors appeared: first, the event was supposed to have happened in the "American Middle West" [later clarified to mean the Rocky Mountains or New Mexico, but NOT California or the "Midwest"], and second, there had been an official explanation provided for the UFOs, an explanation which the pilots had rejected: seed pods. My story teller recounted Cooper's reaction to this explanation: "Seed pods at 50,000 feet", he described Cooper snorting with derision.

This account was based on a conversation which took place at the NASA installation on Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, in late 1963, more than a decade before Cooper publicly referred to his UFO experiences.

But is THIS version of the account accurate? That question remains open, but at least it shows that Cooper was telling some sort of UFO story privately for years. The account also suggests that Cooper's story has undergone considerable evolution over the years, as well.

So the "fleets of UFOs" story must remain "unsolved", in large part because the story's reliability must be judged highly questionable. The popular version of the legend, placing the action in Germany in 1951, simply cannot have occurred as Cooper has described it -- if the vast majority of the witnesses are to be believed.


What can be learned about the UFO world from Cooper's association with and exploitation by it? Several interesting and uncomplimentary conclusions can be reached.

Through it all, Cooper's behavior has been exemplary. He has been candid in his feelings and curious about UFOs and other topics generally considered "far out", but he has every right to such interests.

This candor and cooperation has been met with exploitation and misrepresentation from UFO promoters and publicists. From Beckley's "Hangar 18" fantasies to the Columbia Pictures Industries false advertisements to Dr. Hynek's explicit endorsements , Cooper has found himself on the receiving end of frauds and fabrications attached to his name. His usefulness to UFO proponents is based on his honest advocacy of serious UFO research (a desire shared by many serious researchers in the field, including myself) and on the UFO stories associated, not always accurately as we have seen, with his name. The image appeared good -- all the more reason for UFO promoters to carefully avoid checking up on the UFO incidents even though (if they paused to think about it) their past experiences would have warned them that Cooper's decades-old recollections were quite probablys (better than 90%) based on prosaic, explainable stimuli. But solving the cases was the last thing the UFO promoters were interested in. People who have used Cooper's stories to "prove" the reality of UFOs (respected ufologists such as Frank Edwards, Leonard Stringfield, J. Allen Hynek, and less respected ones such as Timothy Beckley) seem to have neither known nor really cared about the real truth behind the stories.

Their goal evidently was to piggyback on Cooper's reputation to further their own ufological careers, not to take the opportunity to see what Cooper's actual experiences could teach them about the real UFO phenomenon. The truth behind Cooper's stories was the last thing that seemed to interest them.

© Copyright James Oberg. All rights reserved.

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