Congressional hearings presented a serious threat to the Air Force, since criticism of its investigation and “uncontrolled publicity” might harm its public relations program. Therefore, preventing or limiting congressional hearings became a major objective over the coming years. Though initially successful fending off inquiries, continued sighting reports in addition to constant pressure from NICAP and others to bring the subject to the public’s attention had placed the Air Force on the defensive. A turning point came in 1965, with a prolonged flood-tide of sightings that continued through 1967. Referred to as “the wave that would not die” by researcher and author Jacques Vallee, he also noted
many of the reports contained extremely valuable information, because the reports came, in a surprisingly large number of cases, from scientists and technically-trained observers, from policemen equipped with two-way radios, and from engineers.61
The increase in reports prompted widespread press coverage, and some of the first questioning—if not criticism, of the Air Force UFO program. With an outpouring of popular articles and UFO books, public interest grew enormously and for the first time the scientific community entered into the debate.
In late July 1965, an increase in reports soon became a massive accumulation at Project Blue Book, resulting in monthly totals for August only exceeded in the summer of 1952 and November 1957.62 It began in the earliest hours of 1 August. For more than three hours as many as nine UFOs cavorted over the missile complex surrounding Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, an important Strategic Air Command facility near Cheyenne, Wyoming.63
At 1:30 a.m., Captain Snelling of the Air Force Command Post, telephoned duty-officer Lieutenant Anspaugh at Project Blue Book to report “a large circular object emitting several colors but no sound, sighted over the city.” Following, the commander of F. E. Warren AFB, Colonel Johnson, also phoned to report the commanding officer of the Sioux Army Depot, Sydney, Nebraska observed five objects at 1:45 a.m., and a configuration of two UFOs over E-Flight. At 1:49 personnel at both E-Flight and G-Flight reported the objects, and security teams were dispatched to investigate.
At 2:50 a.m. nine more UFOs were observed. Captain Howell of the Air Force Command Post phoned at 3:00 to report a security team at missile launch facility H-2 “reported a white oval UFO directly overhead.” At 3:17, F. E. Warren AFB reported that a security team at missile launch facility B-4 observed a similar object 90 miles east of Cheyenne—oval and white with white lines on its sides and a flashing red light in its center—traveling at a high rate of speed then descending; and appearing to land 10 miles east of the site. At 3:25 a.m., E-Flight reported six UFOs stacked vertically. G-Flight reported one ascending, while at the same time, E-2 reported two more UFOs had joined the seven for a total of nine. At 3:35 a.m. Colonel Williams, commander of Sioux Army Depot, reported five UFOs heading east. At 3:40 a.m., G-Flight reported two UFOs, one at 70 degrees, and another at 120 degrees azimuth. Then three more stacked vertically came from the east, passed through the other two, and all five headed west. Finally, at 4:00 a.m. base commander Colonel Johnson said that Q-Flight reported nine UFOs; four to the northwest, three to the northeast, and two over Cheyenne in the south.64
Over the next several nights, a sudden and unprecedented wave of sightings erupted across south-central United States, soon spreading north to the upper Midwest. Authorities in Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas were deluged by UFO sightings.65 Police officers in Oklahoma watched objects flying in a diamond-shaped formation for thirty minutes. The officers, in three patrol cars at different locations, said the objects changed color from red to white to blue to green. In Wichita, Kansas, weatherman John Stockley tracked four to five unexplained objects on Weather Bureau radar; and radar operators at Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City, tracked as many as four UFOs, estimating their altitude at twenty-two thousand feet. According to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, several of the objects had dropped from 22,000 to 4,000 feet in a matter of seconds.66
In the early hours of 2 August Bob Campbell, a news photographer in Sherman, Texas, was monitoring conversations on his short-wave radio between Oklahoma and Texas Highway Patrols, of an unidentified object tracked on radar in Oklahoma. Soon he heard the object, described as a bright blue-white light, had been spotted in the area. Campbell grabbed his 4x5 Speed Graphic camera and drove to town to meet Police Chief Peter McCollum. The two men located the object about 13 miles east of Sherman hovering at about 45 degrees elevation over Highway 82. Campbell set up his camera and took four time-exposures at three minute intervals. It was later discovered that the same object was seen by a police witness thirty miles to the north in Durant, and a state employee seven miles south of Sherman.67
In the days following, Blue Book’s scientific consultant J. Allen Hynek, received a personal request to investigate the sightings from fellow astronomer Gérard de Vaucouleurs at the McDonald Observatory in Austin, Texas. Against the wishes of Blue Book chief Maj. Hector Quintanilla, who wanted to avoid more publicity, Hynek met with de Valcoulers, and later interviewed Bob Campbell on-location.
For comparison, he asked Campbell to provide several tests with the same camera and film, including time-exposures of the night sky, Venus, and a bright street light at an known distance. An examination of the original negatives by Air Force scientific advisors determined no reason to suspect a hoax. They also determined that the large luminous source moved up and down against a constant background in which faint star trails were evident.68
On 3 August the Air Force already had an explanation for the sightings in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. News accounts widely quoted a spokesman as saying the sightings were “astronomical in nature.”
The objects observed may have been the planet Jupiter or the stars Rigel, Capella, Betelguese or Aldebaran which were visible at the time of the reported sightings. The azimuth and elevation of the sightings supports this preliminary conclusion.69
To many this was just too much. A United Press International reporter in Wichita, felt constrained to comment, “Ordinary radar does not pick up planets and stars.” Professor Walter Webb of the Hayden Planetaium in Boston, and Dr. Robert Risser, director of the Oklahoma Science and Art Foundation in Oklahoma City were far more damning:
This is as far from the truth as you can get. Somebody has made a mistake. These stars and planets are on the opposite side of the earth from Oklahoma City at this time of the year. The Air Force must have had its star-finder upside down during August.70
The editorial reaction was almost uniformly hostile. The editor of the Richland News Leader ridiculed the explanation, adding, “Attempts to dismiss the reported sightings under the rationale as exhibited by Project Bluebook (sic) won’t solve the mystery … and only serve to heighten the suspicion that there’s something out there the Air Force doesn’t want us to know about.” The Fort Worth Star Telegram declared the Air Force “can stop kidding us now about there being no such thing as flying saucers. … It’s going to take more than a statistical report on how many reported saucers turned out to be jets and weather balloons to convince us otherwise.” The Christian Science Monitor remarked the sightings over Texas gave “the clearest evidence of all that something strange was actually in the sky.” Monitor natural science editor Robert C. Cowen later recommended “the long standing saucer mystery begs for thorough scientific study.”71
Curiously, in a July 1968 interview with Herbert Strentz, Quintanilla claimed that the 2 August news release was a mixup, “The newspapers had a field day—it was partly our fault. We should have explained that the release was only for Montana and Wyoming.”72 By fall, however, the Air Force had settled on an explanation for the sightings in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. “The sightings were due to a temperature inversion which caused astronomical bodies to appear to change color and move when viewed through layers of the atmosphere.”
And, “The Aquarid (Delta) meteor shower . . . was also probably responsible for some sightings,” and, “the one report of an object picked up on radar. . . . was a reflection from a ground object.”73
With the growing interest and publicity in 1965, the Air Force became worried. Hynek, increasingly disenchanted with Blue Book but unwilling to express his misgivings publicy, wrote to Colonel Spaulding of the Air Force Office of Information proposing a panel of civilian scientists carefully review the UFO situation and make recommendations about the programs future status within the Air Force. Acting on Hynek’s suggestion, Director of Information Maj. General E. B. Bailly wrote to the military director of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board requesting
a working scientific panel composed of both physical and social scientists be organized to review Project Blue Book—its resources, methods, and findings—and to advise the Air Force as to any improvements that should be made in the program to carry out the Air Force’s assigned responsibility.74
During the latter half of March 1966, one of the most widely-publicized events in the history of the phenomenon occurred over several nights in Michigan. Sightings by over 140 witnesses, including sheriff’s deputies and police officers across several counties caused a nationwide furor, prompting the Air Force to take steps that would culminate in the closing of Blue Book.
In the early hours of Monday 14 March, the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department was flooded with calls from citizens and law enforcement agencies reporting UFOs over southeastern Michigan. Deputies Buford Bushroe and John Foster watched a red and green object move up and down at high-speed and stopped in the sky. The object was later joined by three more similar objects that flew off in formation. Again on Thursday 17 March sheriff’s deputies observed four objects hovering in the sky that moved up and down. Through binoculars, they described one as appearing like a large top, which, while hovering, glowed in a variety of colors ranging from green to bright red. Sgt. Nuel Schneider commented that the object was “something out of these science fiction movies. You’d have to see it to believe it.”75
On Sunday 20 March, twelve miles from Ann Arbor near Dexter, Frank Mannor and his family reported something like a ball of fire landing in a swampy area behind their farm. Against the wishes of his wife, Mannor and his son Ronnie went to investigate. As they came over a knoll, they observed a hovering object with a blue light in front, with two small lights on the outer edges that intensified and turned red at times. He described the surface of the object as “coral-like” covered in a shimmering halo “like you see in the desert.” When they approached to about 500 yards, the entire object became bright light yellow, with the light running horizontally between the two outer running lights before the object took off with the sound of a ricocheting bullet over their heads.76
In the meantime, Mannor’s wife phoned the Sheriff’s department. While responding to the call, Patrolman Robert Hunawill of the Dexter Village Police observed an object hovering ten feet above his patrol car. “He said it resembled an airplane, had a waffle-like exterior and lights in the center and on its edges. He told officers the lights diffused toward the center of the craft when it accelerated. Washtenaw Sheriff Douglas Harvey said several of his deputies reported sighting the object from two different locations.”77 Deputies David Fitzpatrick and Stanley McFadden joined Mannor in a search of the bog. "While in the woods area," their report states, "a brilliant light was observed from the far edge of the woods, and upon [our] approaching, the light dimmed in brilliance....The brilliant light again appeared, and then disappeared. A continued search of the area was conducted with negative results. Upon returning to the patrol vehicle, the officers were informed that one of the objects had been hovering directly over the area where their flashlight beams had been seen, and then departed at high rate of speed.”78
The next evening at Hillsdale College, sixty-five miles southwest of Ann Arbor, eighty-seven female students and the college dean watched a glowing football-shaped object hover in a swampy area over a period of four hours. At one point the object darted toward the women’s dormitory before stopping suddenly and retreating back to the swamp. The women called Hillsdale County civil defense director, William Van Horn, who arrived with police to search the area. Unable to locate the object, he was escorted to the second floor of the dormitory, and observed the object at a distance of about 1500 to 1700 feet settled into a hollow. After about 10 minutes two dim lights began to grow in brilliance to red and the white. As the lights became more brilliant the object would rise to a height of approximately 100 to 150 feet, stop momentarily and descend. The lights were last seen at 4:30 a.m.79
The entire area, and much of the state of Michigan, was in a frenzy magnified by the national news coverage. Michigan Congressman Weston Vivian asked for an official investigation, prompting Quintanilla to send J. Allen Hynek to the scene. Three days later, at the “largest press conference in the Detroit Press Club’s history,” Hynek suggested that what people had seen “could have been due to the release of variable quantities of marsh gas,” whereby methane gas released by rotting vegetation is spontaeneously ignited.80
The press pounced on the solution, and “swamp gas” became an object of wide-ranging ridicule and humor across the nation. Time Magazine sneered, “The phenomenon that results is known to scientists as ignis fatuus—‘the wicked and devilish wills-o'-the-wisp,’ as Thackeray noted 126 years ago, that ‘gambol among the marshes and lead good men astraye.’” While The New Yorker was openly derisive. “We read the official expanations with sheer delight, marveling at their stupendous inadequacy. Marsh gas indeed! Marsh gas is more appropriate an image of that special tediousness one glimpses in even the best scientific minds.”81 The uproar was so adverse, that then Michigan Congressman and House Republican minority leader Gerald R. Ford formally called for congressional hearings on the subject.
Because I think there may be substance to some of the reports and because I believe the American people are entitled to a more thorough explanation than has been given them by the Air Force to date, I am proposing that either the Science and Astronautics Committee or the Armed Services Committee of the House schedule hearings on the subjects of UFO’s and invite testimony from both the executive branch of the government and some of the person’s who claim to have seen UFO’s. … The American public deserves a better explanation than thus far given by the Air Force, … I think we owe it to the people to establish credibility regarding UFO’s and to produce the greatest possible enlightenment on this subject.82
The House Armed Services Committee acted on Ford’s suggestion, and in April 1966 held the first open congressional hearing on the subject. The committee invited only three Air Force representatives to testify: Secretary of the Air Force Harold D. Brown, Blue Book chief Hector Quintanilla, and Hynek. In his testimony before the committee, Brown stated the Air Force view that no evidence existed UFOs were a national security threat or extraterrestrial in origin. Quintanilla made no formal statement. Reacting to press criticism following the Detroit press conference, and charges he was a “puppet of the Air Force,” Hynek finally broke rank. In his prepared statement he warned that the Air Force policy, in which all UFO reports had conventional explanations, was an example of a “poverty of hypotheses,” and called for a civilian panel of scientists to critically examine the UFO program. Committee Chairman L. Mendel Rivers agreed.
During the questioning following the formal testimony, Secretary Brown mentioned that he was considering a private study, outlined in an internal report prepared by the Ad Hoc Committee to Review Project Blue Book, chaired by Dr. Brian O’Brien.83 The O’Brien Committee recommended “that the present program be strengthened to provide opportunity for scientific investigation of selected sightings in more detail and depth than has been possible to date.” To accomplish this they further recommended that the Air Force (1) negotiate contracts with a few universities, selected on a geographic basis, to provide prompt and detailed investigations of UFO reports; (2) each Air Force Systems Command base designate an officer to work with the university teams for that area; (3) that a university or non-profit organization be selected to coordinate the work, and serve as liason to Project Blue Book. They thought that about 100 sightings a year might be subjected to this close study, and the reports be printed in full and publicly available on request.84 Hearing members seized on this and repeatedly endorsed the idea. Presented a fait accompli, and facing mounting discontent with the Air Force’s UFO policy, Brown directed the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to implement the O’Brien Committee recommendations.85
In September 1966, the Air Force revised Air Force Regulation 200-2, promulgating AFR 80-17, establishing policy of the Air Force UFO program. Originally classed as an Intelligence activity (denoted by the 200-series), the new regulation repositioned the UFO program under Research and Development, and reflected an earlier action transforming ATIC into the Foreign Technology Division (FTD) of the Air Force Systems Command at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.86
The O’Brien Committee recommendations were partly implemented, to the extent that AFR 80-17 ordered all Air Force bases to provide an investigative capability—and in October, after a difficult search, the Department of the Air Force contracted with the University of Colorado to conduct an independent scientific investigation of UFOs, directed by renowned physicist Edward U. Condon.87
Condon’s prestige helped to legitimize the study of UFOs, and a growing number of scientists took a closer look at the phenomenon during these years. For the time being, the Air Force was relieved of its public relations pressures as the focus shifted to the Colorado UFO project, and for the most part, the press and public adopted a wait-and-see attitude.88
The Colorado UFO project began with optimism in October 1966. But by January 1967 the twelve project staff were beset with disagreements on how to proceed. At a meeting with key Air Force personnel to check on progress, Lt. Col. Robert Hippler, Directorate of Science and Technology, rejected psychologist Michael Wertheimer’s belief that the project should be focused on a psychological study of the witnesses—and not their sightings. He did not want the Air Force to be subjected to yet more criticism for not taking the reports seriously. Project coordinator Robert Low then asked Hippler exactly what the Air Force expected from the project. Hippler’s response was vague, and briefly mentioned the costs of studying the subject.89 But a few days later, back in his office in the Pentagon, Hippler wrote to Condon:
When you have looked into some sightings and examined some Blue Book records and become acquainted with the true state of affairs, you must consider the cost of the Air Force program on UFOs, and determine if the taxpayer should support this for the next decade. It will be at least that long before another independent study can be mounted to see if the Air Force can get out from under this program. If the contract is up before you have laid the proper groundwork for a proper recommendation, an extension of the contract would be less costly than another decade of operating Project Blue Book.90
Astonishingly, Condon repeated the same ideas in a talk he gave several days later in Corning, New York. A 26 January article in the Elmira Star-Gazette, reported:
In an hour-long rundown on the government's interest in the field and the recollection of some baffling and spectacular claims by UFO ‘observers,’ Dr. Condon left no doubt as to his personal sentiments on the matter: “It is my inclination right now to recommend that the government get out of this business. My attitude right now is that there's nothing to it.” With a smile he added, “but I'm not supposed to reach a conclusion for another year.”91
Condon’s obvious lack of interest in the subject laid the project open to criticism, while alienating others whose cooperation the project vitally needed. This ongoing prejudice ultimately affected the projects ability to produce an objective study, and led, one year later, to the firing and resignation of several key project staff. The conflict within the project was eventually covered in the press. In May 1968 John Fuller and Look magazine published a sensational exposé of the project entitled, “Flying Saucer Fiasco.” In the article, Fuller revealed a memo discovered by project staff, written by Low to university officials before the contract had been signed:
Our study would be conducted almost exclusively by non-believers who, although they couldn't possibly prove a negative result, could and probably would add an impressive body of evidence that there is no reality to the observations. The trick would be, I think, to describe the project so that, to the public, it would appear a totally objective study but, to the scientific community, would present the image of a group of nonbelievers trying their best to be objective, but having an almost zero expectation of finding a saucer.92
The article had far-reaching effects, even prompting Indiana congressman J. Edward Rousch, to deliver a speech on the floor raising “grave doubts as to the scientific profundity and objectivity of the project.” He initiated a congressional hearing under the auspices of the House Science and Astronautics Committee on 29 July 1968. This second congressional hearing on UFOs prohibited participants from criticizing the Colorado UFO project openly, but the criticism was apparent nontheless.93
In late October 1968, the final report was completed and submitted for review to a panel of the National Academy of Sciences. The panel approved of the methodology and unanimously concurred with its conclusions.94 In January 1969, a 965-page paperback version of the report was released under the title, Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects. Condon’s general conclusion was
That nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge. Careful consideration of the record as it is available to us leads us to conclude that further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby.95
Reactions to Condon’s final report followed expected lines. Some pronounced the end of the UFO controversy, “like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut”except as Nature expressed it, “the nuts will be quite immune to its impact.”96 Most of the criticism, including that of Blue Book’s scientific consultant J. Allen Hynek, charge that the report raised more questions than it answered, and failed to add substantially to knowledge about the UFO phenomenon. Especially when considering that of the 91 case histories in the study—30 remained unidentified.97 It did, however, succeed in providing the Air Force with a justification for finally eliminating its UFO problem.
In December 1969, Air Force Secretary Robert C. Seamans, Jr., announced the long-anticipated termination of Project Blue Book. Echoing Condon’s conclusions, he stated that “the continuation of Project Blue Book cannot be justified either on the ground of national security or in the interest of science,” and concluded that the project did not merit future expenditures of resources.98
Following the announcement, Project Blue Book personnel delivered the administrative and investigation files for approximately 13,000 UFO reports in its custody, to the Air Force Archives at Maxwell AFB, Montgomery, AL, where they were available on request until 1975. Subsequently the documents were microfilmed by the Air Force, and in 1976 transferred for redaction and public release to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington, D.C.99
Current statement by the U. S. Department of Defense, not dated:
Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs)
This issue is no longer being investigated by the Defense Department. As you may know, the United States Air Force began investigating UFOs in 1948 under a program called Project Sign. Later the program's name was changed to Project Grudge, and in 1953 [sic, March 1952] it was changed again to Project Blue Book. On December 17, 1969, the Secretary of the Air Force announced the termination of Project Blue Book.
The decision to discontinue UFO investigations was based on a number of factors, including reports and studies by the University of Colorado and the National Academy of Sciences, as well as past UFO studies and the Air Force's two decades of experience investigating UFO reports.
As a result of these investigations, studies, and experience, the conclusions of Project Blue Book were:
- No UFO reported, investigated, and evaluated by the Air Force has ever given any indication of threat to our national security.
- There has been no evidence submitted to or discovered by the Air Force that sightings categorized as "unidentified" represent technological developments or principles beyond the range of present-day scientific knowledge.
- There has been no evidence indicating that sightings categorized as “unidentified” are extraterrestrial vehicles.
Between 1948 and 1969 the Air Force investigated 12,618 reported UFO sightings. Of these, 11,917 were found to have been caused by material objects such as balloons, satellites, and aircraft; immaterial objects such as lightning, reflections, and other natural phenomena; astronomical objects such as stars, planets, the sun, and the moon; weather conditions; and hoaxes. Only 701 reported sightings remain unexplained.
All documentation regarding the former Blue Book investigation was permanently transferred to the Military Reference Branch, National Archives and Records Administration, 8th and Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC 20408, and is available for public review. A list of private organizations interested in aerial phenomena can be found in Gale's Encyclopedia of Associations, available in the reference section of many libraries. Air Force Fact Sheets on this topic may be viewed, including one about the so-called Roswell Incident. The Naval Historical Center has compiled a bibliography.100