The Swamp Gas Mystery

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1966 was a vintage year for UFO sightings around the world. Fifty years ago UFOs were sighted and reported in the UK, Russia, Spain, Australia, Brazil, South Africa, Holland, Trinidad and Canada and there were more or less constant sightings throughout the year in the USA. However, I want to focus here on a particular group of sightings which took place in Michigan between 14th and 22nd March 1966. Sightings of mystery objects were reported by large numbers of witnesses and these were widely covered in the press both in the US and elsewhere.

There are really two mysteries I want to look at here. The first is obvious: what was it that people were seeing in the skies over Michigan in March 1966? Were they misidentifying some natural phenomena? Was this a hoax? Or were these genuinely unidentified objects? The second mystery is related but quite separate: Why did the US Air Force very quickly propose a solution to these sightings that was so patently silly that it seriously undermined their credibility and inevitably led people to wonder whether they were trying to cover something up?

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Michigan is one of the Midwestern US States, located close to the Canadian border and to Lakes Michigan and Huron. Although it has huge industrial capacity in areas like Detroit, areas of Michigan comprise forests and small lakes where hunting, fishing and forestry are still important sources of jobs and inco me. One such area is around the small town of Dexter, in the southern part of the state. Located in Washtenaw County about ten miles north-west of Ann Arbor, Dexter is home to around 4,000 people and is bordered by the fast-flowing Huron river which led to the building there of a large sawmill in 1827 and a woolen mill in 1838. By 1966 Dexter was a prosperous town with a wide main street and a number of flourishing local businesses, just like many other small towns in the USA at the time.

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Downtown Dexter hasn’t changed much in the last fifty years

The wave of UFO sightings began on 14th March at 03:50 when Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department deputies B. Bushroe and J. Foster reported that they were near Lima Township and observing “suspicious objects in the sky, disc, star-like colors, red and green, moving very fast, making sharp turns, having left to right movements, going in a Northwest direction.”  The formal report later compiled by the Sheriff’s Department (logged as “Complaint No. 00967”) noted that Bushroe and Foster continued to watch the objects until they finally disappeared at around 05:30. The log also notes that deputies from adjacent Monroe and Livingston counties and officers from the Dexter and Ypsilanti Police Departments reported that they too were watching what seemed to be the same objects maneuvering in the same way. Several calls were logged from civilian witnesses who also appeared to be watching the same objects. At 04:56 an officer from Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department called nearby Selfridge Air Base and was told that they were tracking unidentified objects on radar over Lake Erie.  When they returned to the office, deputies Bushroe and Foster made a formal joint statement in which they noted that:

“This is the strangest thing that we have ever witnessed. We would have not believed this story if we hadn’t seen it with our own eyes. These objects could move at fantastic speeds, and make very sharp turns, dive and climb, and hover with great maneuverability. We have no idea what these objects were, or where they could have come from. At 4:20 a.m. there were four of these objects flying in a line formation, in a north westerly direction, at 5:30 these objects went out of view, and were not seen again.”

Three days later, at 04:25 on March 17th near the town of Milan in Michigan, Sergeant Neil Schneider and Deputy David Fitzpatrick of Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department reported three top-shaped objects with pulsating green and white lights making sharp maneuvers. The objects were said to be alternately hovering, rising and falling, making abrupt changes of direction while traveling at high speed and appearing to move in formation.  Schneider later said:

It was fantastic. Like something out of science fiction. You couldn’t believe the thing unless you stood there and watched it.

In the early evening of 20th March, Washtenaw County Sheriff’s deputies again reported seeing strange, fast moving flying objects showing coloured lights. At 20:30pm a call was received reporting a UFO landing in a wooded, swampy area just outside the town of Dexter. The first police officers to arrive were Washtenaw County Sheriff’s deputies David Fitzpatrick and Stanley McFadden. They interviewed Frank Mannor, a truck driver renting a nearby farmhouse who had seen the object land in the swamp and had set off to find out what it was accompanied by his son, Ron. Mannor explained that he had got to within about 500 yards of the object:

“It was sort of shaped like a pyramid, with a blue-green light on the right-hand side and on the left, a white light. I didn’t see no antenna or porthole. The body was like a yellowish coral rock and looked like it had holes in it—sort of like if you took a piece of cardboard box and split it open. You couldn’t see it too good because it was surrounded with heat waves, like you see on the desert. The white light turned to a blood red as we got close to it and Ron said, ‘Look at that horrible thing.’”

Deputies Fitzpatrick and McFadden searched the area where Mannor claimed to have seen the object, but they saw only a pulsating bright light deep in the swamp. When they returned to their patrol car, several witnesses told them that an unidentified object had been hovering over the area of the swamp where the officer’s flashlights were visible. This object then flew off to the west at high speed. The deputies reported in and more than 40 police officers from Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department and the Dexter Police Department converged on the swamp where they were joined by local residents as they searched for the object.

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One of those who attended was Robert Taylor, the Dexter Police Chief, and he watched through binoculars “a pulsating red, glowing object” which included “a light on each end of the thing.”  Officer Robert Hartwell of the Dexter Police Department reported a large bluish object with red and white lights hovering above his patrol car. After a few minutes it was joined by three other similar objects which flew back and forth in formation and then they all disappeared. Several other police officers and civilians also reporting unidentified objects in the sky. None of the witnesses involved were able to identify the objects they saw in the sky. The following day, police officers and other witnesses produced a composite image at Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department Headquarters which illustrated what they had seen:

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The sightings round Dexter on 20th/21st March were extensively reported both in local and national newspapers and on television and this image was widely reproduced.

The next night (21st March), starting at about 22:30, eighty-seven witnesses in and around the McIntyre Halls of Residence at Hillsdale College, 50 miles southwest of Dexter, reported one or more lights moving over a nearby swamp. They were so alarmed that they called Hillsdale Civil Defense Director Buck Van Horn who came to the college and also watched the light. In the early hours of 22nd March two Hillsdale County Police Officers, Harold Hess and Jerry Wise, also saw the odd light.

“Over by the college, we saw a real brilliant light in the sky at a low altitude. You couldn’t look at it, it was so bright.”

The two officers drove their police cruiser to the college where they were much closer to the object and got out to watch.

“It wasn’t a chopper. There was no humming,” said Hess later. “I took my weapon out. Jerry told me to put it back. Whatever it is, I don’t think it’ll bother it one bit what you’ve got at your side.”

The two officers watched as the light split into two parts which went in different directions. When they tried to radio in a report, they discovered that their police radio was inoperable.

“We got into our patrol car and we couldn’t transmit. We just got static.”

The two police officers and the witnesses at the college continued to watch the light as it gradually seemed to move to the east and fade until it was no longer visible. Similar reports of strange lights in the sky were received by police from nearby Ann Arbor on the night of 21st/22nd march.

These new sightings received equally widespread reporting in newspapers and on television and Michigan Congressman Weston Vivian (himself a physicist and engineer) requested that the US Air Force send to Michigan an investigator from Project Blue Book, the Air Force project tasked with investigating UFO sightings. In response to Congressman Vivian’s request, the Air Force sent Dr. J. Allen Hynek to investigate. Hynek was a Professor from Northwestern University who had been involved with Project Blue Book since 1948 and had advised on hundreds of UFO sightings on behalf of the Air Force, though this was only the second time that he had been sent to undertake an on-site investigation.

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Dr J. Allen Hynek

Hynek arrived in Michigan on 23rd March, made a very brief tour of the sighting areas and conducted interviews with witnesses. A number of these witnesses later complained that Hynek’s interviews seemed perfunctory and he didn’t appear to be interested in what they had to say. It is claimed that Hynek’s on-site investigation of the Michigan sightings lasted less than three hours in total. In an interview given more than 30 years later to local newspaper the Ann Arbor News, Douglas Harvey, Washtenaw County Sheriff at the time of the Dexter sightings said that Dr. Hynek initially admitted he didn’t know what had been seen but felt it might be worth further investigation.

Dr. Hynek came into my office. We went out to the site where supposedly this object came down on the ground. Dr. Hynek in the car said, ‘There is something. We just can’t put our finger on it. We’ve been investigating this for quite a while.‘ ”

They then returned to Harvey’s office and Hynek asked if he could use the telephone in private.

“He was on the phone for quite a while,” Harvey said. “He came out and I said, ‘Well, Dr. Hynek. What do you think?’ He said, ‘It’s swamp gas.’ He tells me one minute he has no idea what it is. And then he makes one phone call to Washington and comes out and gives a statement that it’s swamp gas. Very strange.”

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Douglas Harvey, Washtenaw County Sheriff

Following his on-site investigation, Dr Hynek held a press conference to discuss his findings on March 25th in the Press Club in Detroit. Such was interest in the case that more than 60 reporters from nearly every major news outlet in the US attended. Hynek offered a number of explanations for sightings around the US in early March, mainly claiming that these were misidentifications of the moon, stars and planets. However, for the Dexter and Hillsdale sightings he had a different explanation: These, he explained were due to swamp gas.

The media reacted with disbelief, derision and outrage. The headline “Air Force Insults Public with Swamp Gas Theory” in the South Bend Tribune the following day reflected the general reaction. Dozens of US newspapers, both local and national, accused the Air Force of deliberately trying to undermine the credibility of UFO witnesses and to suppress evidence. Newspaper editorials and cartoons poked fun at Dr Hynek’s pronouncement and many indignant witnesses told reporters they knew exactly what swamp gas looked like, and whatever they had seen, it wasn’t swamp gas. On the “Tonight Show” CBS News Correspondent Johnny Carson interviewed a California Institute of Technology scientist who said that the swamp gas explanation categorically did not fit the reported facts. Congressman and future U.S. President Gerald Ford was so concerned at the seeming attempt of the Air Force to cover up the Michigan sightings that he called for a congressional investigation.

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The Ann Arbor News of 26th March 1966 reacts to Dr Hynek’s announcement.

We can’t be certain if the swamp gas explanation originated with Hynek or Air Force personnel. Hynek implied in subsequent interviews that this was the explanation he had been told to offer by his Air Force employers, but in an unpublished book (UFOs, An Air Force Dilemma) written in 1975 by the head of Project Blue Book in 1966, Major Hector Quintanilla, he categorically states that it was Hynek’s idea. Wherever the swamp gas idea came from, the Michigan sightings and the Air Force reaction to them marked a significant change in the way in which the role of the Air Force in the investigation of UFOs was viewed. Before the “swamp gas” debacle, most newspapers seemed to go along with the notion that the Air Force were genuinely attempting to understand what was behind UFO sightings. After that there seemed to be general agreement that the main role of the Air Force was not to share what they knew about UFOs but to suppress this information as far as possible. In April 1966, following a further rash of UFO sightings in Ohio and a subsequent and not terribly impressive Air Force investigation, Ohio Congressman William Stanton said that:

The Air Force has suffered a great loss of prestige in this community … Once people entrusted with the public welfare no longer think the people can handle the truth, then the people, in return, will no longer trust the government.

In December 1969 Project Blue Book was officially closed and the US Air Force ended all public, formal investigation of UFO incidents. The US Air Force continues to collect and collate reports on UFOs (particularly those reports which come from military personnel and/or reports of UFOs near sensitive military bases) but it is claimed that these are treated in just the same way as any unverified intelligence report.

At about the same time that he lost his lucrative consultancy role with the Air Force, Dr Hynek realized that he actually did believe that UFOs might be worth serious, scientific study and he published a letter in Science Magazine where he noted that “Where there’s smoke, there must be fire”, a breathtaking reversal of everything he had been saying publically since 1948. He began to lobby the US Government and the United Nations to undertake serious research into UFOs. His proposals (none of which were taken up) generally involved himself as a leading light in any research project due to his extensive involvement in UFO research.

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A presentation to the United Nations on the need for investigation into UFO sightings. Dr Hynek is fourth from the left

Hynek went on to publish a number of articles in newspapers and magazines indicating that he believed that UFOs might even be of extraterrestrial origin, embarked on a lucrative series of lecture tours and guest appearances and became such a regular fixture on American television shows about UFOs that he was forced to join AFTRA, the television performers union. He also published a number of books including The Edge of Reality: A progress report on the unidentified flying objects (with Jacques Vallée) in 1975 and The Hynek UFO Report in 1977.

However, perhaps Hynek’s most famous contribution to UFO lore came in his 1972 book The UFO Experience: A scientific enquiry in which, just six years after the Michigan “swamp gas” sightings, he had revised his position to the point that he suggested a need to categorize UFO encounters. He suggested that Close Encounters (sightings at a range of less than 500 feet) should be classified as “First Kind”, where a UFO was seen, “Second Kind” where a UFO was seen and there was some physical effect such as radio interference, impressions on the ground, etc. and “Third Kind” where occupants of UFOs were seen. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was famously used as the title of the 1977 Steven Spielberg film about UFOs in which Hynek served as technical advisor in addition to making a cameo appearance as one of the observers watching the alien craft land in the final scene.

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Dr J. Allen Hynek in Close Encounters of the Third Kind

There were no further major waves of UFO sightings in Michigan after the night of 21st/22nd March 1966.

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Let’s start by considering just what it was that witnesses may have seen in the skies over Michigan in March 1966. A number of these sightings were made by Police Officers working for the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department and the Dexter Police Department including Douglas Harvey, the County Sherriff and Robert Taylor, the Dexter Police Chief. These are significant for several reasons. First, Police Officer’s are trained observers. They are aware of the need to observe carefully because they know that they may be required to later describe what they have seen in court and under oath. Second, because of this possible need to testify to what they have seen, most keep detailed notes of any events they may have observed, often as formal reports completed soon after an incident. And finally, experienced Police Officers tend to become very familiar with the area and the environment in which they work.

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These things make Police Officers good witnesses. They are familiar with what is normal in the area in which they work. Which means they are also good a recognizing anything that is unusual and they are trained to write down what they have seen as soon as possible afterwards. That’s why testimony by a Police Officer carries such weight in court. If a Police Officer claims to have seen a UFO, that’s something that needs to be taken seriously. If a whole group of Police Officers claim to have observed what seem to be several UFOs over the course of several nights, it’s very difficult to write that off as a simple misidentification of natural phenomena or a conventional aircraft.

Because of their working patterns, Police Officers are also more familiar with the night sky than most of us. Whatever it was that appeared in the skies over Michigan in March 1966, it was clearly something very unusual and very strange. “This is the strangest thing that we have ever witnessed. We would have not believed this story if we hadn’t seen it with our own eyes.” (Deputies Bushroe and Foster, 14th March), “It was fantastic. Like something out of science fiction. You couldn’t believe the thing unless you stood there and watched it.” (Sgt. Schneider, March 17th). It is impossible to reconcile these descriptions with a misidentification of a star, planet or other celestial body. And given that the initial sighting on 14th March continued for two and a half hours, that seems to rule out a sighting of a bolide or meteorite.

I suppose that we do need to consider swamp gas as a possible solution. Swamp gas (also known as Marsh or Bog gas) is formed by bubbles of biogas which is produced by the anaerobic digestion and fermentation of rotting organic material. A crust on the surface of swampy areas prevents oxygen from reaching the fermentation and a combustible gas with high concentrations of methane can be produced (wetlands are thought to be responsible for more than 70% of methane emissions on Earth). By some mechanism which is not well understood, this gas can occasionally spontaneously combust to produce small, flickering blue and purple flames on the surface of the swamp. It’s an eerie and very odd thing to see, but it is very difficult indeed to understand how swamp gas could account for any of the sightings described above. To make matters worse, the creation of swamp gas requires warm weather – in colder weather the decomposition and fermentation of rotting material slows and the production of combustible gas virtually ceases. That’s why swamp gas is most often seen in late summer, after a run of hot weather. In Ann Arbor, the average temperature peaks at around 8°C in March, much too cold for the formation of swamp gas.

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On 22nd March the local newspaper, the Ann Arbor News, carried articles reporting on the UFO sightings of the previous week. A number of professors from the University of Michigan were interviewed and asked for possible solutions. One of the suggestions put forward was swamp gas. So, when Dr Hynek arrived on 23rd March, perhaps it seemed to someone that a convenient sounding explanation for the sightings already existed? There certainly seems to be no rational basis for this suggestion and even Dr Hynek distanced himself from this theory as quickly as possible.

If they weren’t natural phenomena, is it possible that what witnesses saw were aircraft or helicopters? The descriptions of their speed and maneuverability would seem to rule out any known aircraft, but could these have been some sort of experimental craft, perhaps part of a secret US Air Force Programme? That’s perhaps not quite as unlikely as it seems – in 1966 just twenty miles from Dexter there was a research institute carrying out secret work for the US Air Force. During World War Two a giant manufacturing plant was built at Willow Run airport by the Ford Motor Company to produce B-24 bombers. Production of B-24s ceased when the war ended in 1945, but in 1946 the University of Michigan acquired hangars, peripheral buildings and even part of the Terminal Building at Willow Run in which to locate a new research facility – the Michigan Aeronautical Research Center (MARC).

Much of the work undertaken by MARC is still secret but we do know that initial work involved Project WIZARD, an attempt to develop a defense against ballistic V-2 type rockets. Later MARC became involved in the development of lasers for missile guidance and in the US air defense capability and in particular defense against incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles. In 1972 MARC was wound down to become the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan and moved from Willow Run to Ann Arbor. So, it’s certainly true that in 1966 a secret US Air Force research establishment existed just twenty miles from the scene of major UFO sightings. This has led some people to suggest that there must be some connection. It’s tempting to go along with this, but there are some major objections.

First of all, there is no evidence that MARC ever worked on the development of any type of aircraft. This facility focused on missiles and in particular on anti-missile defence. That makes sense because Willow Run is not some isolated airbase like Edwards AFB in Nevada where it would be possible to test secret aircraft without being observed. Willow Run is a public airport close to Ypsilanti and some densely populated areas. In 1966 major airlines such as United were still flying regular scheduled flights out of Willow Run, though the volume of scheduled flights by major airlines had declined since a peak in 1958. Flying any secret aircraft out of an airport such as this would mean that it wouldn’t stay secret for very long. Simple common-sense tells us that, if the US Air Force wanted to test secret new prototypes, they had far more secure areas from which to do this. Finally, all the witnesses reported seeing flying objects which featured bright, coloured lights. It is surely very unlikely that, if the US Air Force was involved in the clandestine testing of some secret aircraft, that it would draw attention to these by festooning them with bright, flashing lights. If you add these factors together, it seems considerably less likely that some secret prototype flying out of Willow Run could account for the UFO sightings in Dexter.

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Main passenger concourse, Willow Run Airport, 1966

It has also been suggested that the final sightings, on March 20th/21st were a hoax perpetrated by students from Hillsdale College who had read press reports about the sightings on 17th March and launched a home-made balloon made from a plastic garbage bag with a candle inside. This certainly isn’t impossible, but it is difficult to reconcile this with reports from police and other witnesses who described a light so bright that they couldn’t look directly at it.

And what about the reasons for the perfunctory Air Force investigation and the laughable swamp gas solution? The logical conclusion is that the Air Force wasn’t really interested in investigating UFO sightings, which begs the question of why they would spend time and money on running a Project like Blue Book? The most popular theory amongst UFO believers is that the Air Force knows much more than it admits about UFOs and that Blue Book is nothing but a public relations exercise designed to hide this fact. Whole conspiracy theories have been built upon this which propose that the Air Force has secretly recovered a crashed UFO and/or dead aliens and may even be in contact with living aliens. However, this whole creaky edifice of mythos is built on a foundation comprising supposition, conjecture, hoax and outright fabrication. It’s a great story and all, but sadly there is no evidence at all to support the idea that the US Air Force knows more about the origin or cause of UFO sightings than it admits.

And a moments’ reflection tells us that this can’t be the reason for the swamp gas pronouncement in Michigan in 1966 (and this is typical of several dismissive and rather silly solutions proposed by Blue Book in the 1960s). By proposing the swamp gas solution, Project Blue Book attracted intense media and public interest in the activities of the Project which led many people to conclude that it must have a secret agenda. Surely, this is the very opposite of what we would expect if Blue Book really was intended to cover up some huge secret? I believe that Blue Book did have a secret agenda, but I don’t think it was anything to do with concealing a hanger full of flying saucers and dead aliens in Area 51.

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I don’t doubt that Police Officers and other witnesses in Michigan saw some very strange objects in the sky in late March 1966. The problem is, I can offer no explanation for what these might have been. No known natural phenomena fits the descriptions and a secret US aircraft also seems very unlikely. It is notable that the descriptions provided by witnesses of top and disc shaped objects with coloured lights and maneuvering at high speeds seem to agree with a large number of other sightings in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. I believe that these sightings were real in as much as witnesses were honestly trying to describe what they had seen. Unfortunately, the conflation in the popular press of unidentified flying objects with alien spaceships meant that many witness reports were often greeted with scorn and derision rather than any objective attempt to consider what they might have seen.

In the television interview given by Frank Mannor, his anger at the public reaction to his sighting is very clear when the interviewer asks him if he is now sorry that he told people what he saw:

“Yes I am. …It’s the reaction of people. They think you’re a nut. …Just leave me alone. If the thing lands right there by that pump, I’d never say a word. If he got out and talked to me, I wouldn’t tell nobody. That’s just the way I feel. I’m bitter and disgusted in the whole thing. If people are gonna act like that, I hope one lands right in the middle of Detroit.”

CBS Television broadcast a short piece on the Michigan sightings hosted by Walter Cronkite. This includes interviews with Frank Mannor and some of the students from Hillside College.

When a witness reports something that seems to be impossible, there is a temptation to assume that they must be mistaken. When large numbers of people including Police Officers report seeing something, we need to reconsider our definition of impossible. People in Michigan in late March 1966 saw things that make no sense in any conventional terms. However, rather than trying to find a prosaic explanation and then trying to distort their descriptions to fit, perhaps we should simply accept that these people saw what they claim? I have no idea what these things might be, though I’m confident that they cannot be conventional aircraft or any known natural phenomena. What we should be doing is trying to understand what these people saw, not telling them that they must have seen something else because that fits better with our preconceived ideas.

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Dr Hynek interviews Frank Mannor

And that brings us to the second mystery here, the reaction of the US Air Force to these sightings which seems on the surface to be just as peculiar as the sightings themselves. It’s probably helpful at this point to talk in a little more depth about Dr Alan J. Hynek and his role as the scientific advisor to Project Blue Book. In 1948 Hynek was a Professor teaching astronomy at Ohio State University close to Wright Patterson Air Force Base, the location for Project Grudge. Project Grudge was being wound up and would soon transform into Project Blue Book but the project team had been told to produce a final report that would provide an overview of the investigations into UFO sightings undertaken by the US Air Force to date. The Grudge team wanted someone with academic credentials to act as a consultant for the report and to suggest where misidentifications of stars or planets could account for sightings. Hynek was close at hand and seemed happy to oblige.

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Dr Hynek with Dexter Police Chief Robert R. Taylor in 1966

In the case of over two hundred sightings collected by Project Grudge, Hynek identified stars or planets which had been in the approximate vicinity of the sighting at the time. The Project team then took this one step further and declared that a misidentification of stars or planets was the probable source of these sightings, even when witness statements made this seem very unlikely indeed (Hynek was the originator of the suggestion that the object Captain Mantell was pursuing in 1948 was the planet Venus, though much later he admitted that this would not have been possible). Interviewed in 1985 for Omni magazine, Hynek said of this period:

“I’d go through them and say, ‘Well, this is obviously a meteor,’ or ‘This is not a meteor, but I’ll bet you it’s a balloon.’ I was a thorough skeptic, and I’m afraid I helped to engender the idea that it must be nonsense, therefore it is nonsense.”

Recognising the value of having an academic underwrite reports their reports on UFO sightings, the US Air Force retained Hynek as a consultant to Project Blue Book for the next eighteen years. According to Major Hector Quintanilla, the last director of Project Blue Book, Hynek’s consultancy took a very particular form. Every six months or so he would be sent a collation of all UFO reports received by Blue Book. Hynek would go through the reports and identify any where a known celestial body was in the vicinity of the sighting at the relevant time. Blue Book would then add these reports to their “solved” file.

At times, Hynek got more than a little sloppy. In 1965 for example, when analyzing a series of UFO reports from Oklahoma, Hynek confidently asserted that the actual cause of the sighting was the planet Jupiter or bright stars such as Rigel or Betelgeuse. Unfortunately for Hynek, one of the witnesses who had seen the UFO was Robert Riser, director of the Oklahoma Science and Art Foundation Planetarium who issued an angry refutation of this theory which noted:

That is as far from the truth as you can get. These stars and planets are on the opposite side of the earth from Oklahoma City at this time of year. The Air Force must have had its star finder upside-down during August.”

For all the years the Hynek worked as a consultant, he remained faithful to the US Air Force line and always seemed willing to provide a scientific rationale for ascribing a particular sighting to a stray weather balloon, a flight of birds, a meteor, Jupiter or, if all else failed, to a mass hallucination. As long as the Air Force paid his consultancy fee, Hynek seemed content to say whatever was required. It is claimed that, on occasion, the Air Force simply put his name underneath whatever crackpot theory they were attempting to use to write-off a particular sighting.

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Major Hector Quintanilla

And then there was the swamp gas affair. After March 1966, Hynek became the object of the sort of derision usually reserved for UFO witnesses when he proposed swamp gas as the solution for the Michigan sightings. He became known in the popular press as “Professor Swamp Gas” and for a time even the term “swamp gas” became a kind of synonym for any official piece of denial which lacked credibility. Hynek later said:

“The swamp gas episode boom­eranged like hell on me and the Air Force. I began to feel guilty about my skeptical attitude. And once you open the gates to the possibility that all these people can’t possibly be mistaken, then you see a lot of other cases in a totally different light.”

When Hynek was called to testify about his role in investigating the Michigan sightings before the House Committee on Armed Services on April 6th 1966, his plaintive opening comment to the Chairman was:

“The press has recently treated me rather unkindly. They have described me as ‘a puppet’ of the Air Force and stated that I say only what the Air Force tells me to say.”

Given his performances to date, Hynek couldn’t really argue if the press had this perception of him. It appears that from 1948 to 1966 Hynek was a willing dupe paid by the US Air Force to add supposed scientific legitimacy to rather silly efforts to explain away troublesome UFO sightings. It is also clear that, by the early 1960s and possibly much earlier, the stated purpose of Project Blue Book and its real purpose were very different. The US Air Force claimed that the purpose of Blue Book, like Projects Sign and Grudge which had gone before, was to investigate UFO sightings. At a Congressional hearing in 1966 Harold Brown, Secretary of the Air Force, was asked to explain the role of the US Air Force and Project Blue Book in investigating UFO reports. Secretary Brown explained that:

“Within the Department of Defense, the Air Force has the responsibility of investigating reports on unidentified flying objects and of evaluating any possible threat to our national security that such objects might pose. In carrying out this responsibility, let me assure you that the Air Force is both objective and thorough in its treatment of all reports of unusual aerial objects over the United States.” 

However, the “investigation” into the Michigan sightings (like many other later Blue Book investigations of this period) was very far from objective and thorough. After the press reaction to the Michigan sightings, even Hynek became disenchanted with Blue Book. He later claimed that Blue Book was known within the Air Force as “The Society for the Explanation of the Uninvestigated ” and that under the direction of Major Hector Quintanilla “the flag of the utter nonsense school was flying at its highest on the mast.” He also described Sergeant David Moody, by 1966 the only other permanent member of staff at Blue Book other than Major Quintanilla, as “the master of the possible: possible balloon, possible aircraft, possible birds, which then became, by his own hand (and I argued with him violently at times) the probable.

The public perception of Blue Book worsened in April 1966 when another high profile UFO sighting was investigated. On the night of April 17th/18th two Police Officers (one of whom was an Air Force combat veteran with experience as an air gunner in Korea) spotted a “disc-shaped, silvery object with a bright light emanating from its underside, flying at about 1000 feet in altitude” near Ravenna in Ohio. The ensuing chase lasted for thirty minutes and involved police officers and vehicles from several other jurisdictions, all of whom reported seeing this object maneuvering rapidly and flying at times as low as 50 feet from the ground. This time, Major Hector Quintanilla himself came to Ohio to investigate. After a brief interview with just one of the Police Officers involved, Quintanilla confidently announced that what they had seen and chased was the planet Jupiter.

Before 1966 the general assumption amongst people in the US seemed to be that, if the US Air Force said that UFOs weren’t real, then that must be so. After 1966, Blue Book’s credibility was fatally undermined and far fewer people took its explanations seriously. No surprise then that by December 1969, Blue Book had been shut down and its staff reassigned to other roles.

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You might think it odd that the US Air Force wasn’t taking UFO sightings more seriously. I certainly do. After all, some very credible sightings originated with Air Force personnel and pilots. At the very least, and even if UFOs had no physical reality and were purely psychological in origin, the fact that highly trained pilots were reporting seeing them should have been of interest to the Air Force. Yet it seems that Blue Book carried out very few actual investigations (they only sent Hynek to Dexter following a direct request by Michigan congressman Weston Vivian). What they generally did was to take reports from other parts of the Air Force or from other witnesses and used people like Hynek to generate possible explanations that could be used to claim, with no real evidence or justification, that the sighting was solved and that therefore no UFO was involved.

Project Sign may have begun as a genuine attempt to investigate UFO sightings. By the mid sixties, after it had transformed into Blue Book, this project appears to have had a quite different role. We can even identify the date at which this change took place: Hynek said at a symposium organized by the Committee on Science and Astronautics in 1968 that the Air Force had little interest in seriously investigating UFO reports after 1953. Did something happen in 1953 that gives a clue to why Blue Book might have changed its approach?

In 1952 there had been a dramatic rise in reported UFO sightings culminating in a wave of visual and radar sightings over Washington DC in July. The public reaction came close to panic and even the CIA became interested. Not because they believed that UFOs posed a direct threat to the US, but because they were concerned that a UFO flap could be used by the Soviet Union to conceal intelligence gathering overflights or even preparations for an invasion.

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The CIA commissioned Dr. H.P. Robertson, a respected physicist from the California Institute of Technology to convene an advisory panel of scientists to examine the evidence for UFOs and recommend further action. The panel, which became known as the Robertson Panel, included a number of prominent US scientists including Frederick C. Durant, president of the International Astronautical Foundation. In January 1953 the panel issued a secret report (the Durant Report) to the CIA director of the Office of Scientific Intelligence, Dr. H. Marshall Chadwell which concluded in part:

“We cite as examples the clogging of channels of communication by irrelevant reports, the danger of being led by continued false alarms to ignore real indications of hostile action, and the cultivation of a morbid national psychology in which skillful hostile propaganda could induce hysterical behavior and harmful distrust of duly constituted authority. To minimize the concomitant dangers alluded to above, the Panel recommends that the national security agencies take immediate steps to strip the Unidentified Flying Objects of the special status they have been given and the aura of mystery they have unfortunately acquired. We suggest that this aim may be achieved by an integrated program designed to reassure the public of the total lack of evidence of inimical forces behind the phenomena.”  

The Durant Report remained classified for eighteen years but it seems that following the issue of this report, the debunking of UFO reports rather than their investigation became regarded as a matter of national security. Though it was never officially admitted, the principal role of Project Blue Book seems to have changed at the same time from seriously investigating UFO sightings to quashing public belief in UFOs by providing “solutions” for as many reported sightings as possible. By 1966 it was doing this so clumsily that the proposed solutions were often more far-fetched than the sightings themselves and this became counter-productive because it helped to generate conspiracy theories which claimed that the US Air Force knew much more about UFOs than they were publically admitting.

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The approach of Blue Book, either intentionally or unintentionally, also created a climate where those reporting UFOs were likely to be treated with scorn by the popular press. Consider Frank Mannor’s anger at the response to his reported sighting. There is no reason to suppose that Mannor was anything but genuine in what he reported, but partly because of the Air Force reaction, he found himself widely derided as a “nut”. The Blue Book files also contain an angry letter from two Police Officers involved in sightings in 1966 in which they claim that the Air Force reaction to their reports has “destroyed their reputations.” In those circumstances, I don’t think I would be inclined to report a UFO sighting. Would you? I wonder how many sightings have gone unreported because of this? But this ties in very nicely with the recommendation in the Durant Report that all public agencies  do everything they can to assure the public that there is no evidence to support UFO sightings.

I have no explanation for what it was that witnesses saw in the night skies over Michigan in 1966. Whatever this was, it was sufficiently strange and disturbing that it deserved a more detailed investigation than the perfunctory effort carried out by Dr Hynek on behalf of Project Blue Book. The mystery of why Project Blue Book consistently proposed silly solutions to reported UFO sightings seems easier to solve. By 1966 the US Administration did not regard UFOs as a threat to national security. However, following the Durant Report, it did regard widespread belief in UFOs as a possible security threat and it seems certain that after 1953, Blue Book was one of the public agencies used to undermine this belief whenever possible.

What Blue Book’s hostile, skeptical and mocking approach also helped to accomplish was marginalization of anyone reporting a UFO sighting. We won’t ever know if this was intentional or not, but it almost certainly helped to suppress the reporting of UFO sightings. The sheer volume of reports by sensible, responsible, rational people make it clear that there are genuine sightings of some very odd things flying around over the planet earth. That certainly doesn’t mean that these things have an extraterrestrial origin. It may not even mean that they have any concrete, physical reality – this may be some complex psychological manifestation which we do not clearly understand. If pilots, police officers and other responsible, sensible people are seeing real unidentified flying objects, we need to know what those objects are. If groups of these same people believe they are seeing something that isn’t really there, we need to know what is causing this. However you look at it, this is a genuine mystery and one which deserves far more serious analysis than it received in 1966.

Related pages: The Mantell Mystery

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Full text of the Durant Report

Full text of Major Hector Quintanilla’s unpublished 1975 manuscript for UFOs: An Air Force Dilemma

Selected local newspaper reports covering the 1966 Michigan sightings

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