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UFOs on TV, UFO landings, UFO controversy, 2002:

The following article has been published in the newspaper Florida Today on November 3, 2002, and on their web site!NEWSROOM/indexcox.htm

Network Joins Search For 'Truth'

Sci-Fi digs for UFO info, but is it a hoax for ratings?

By Billy Cox

It was a marketing strategy every bit as calculating as the buildup for "The Blair Witch Project." Armed with the latest Roper Poll numbers indicating 72 percent of Americans believe the federal government is withholding information about unidentified flying objects, the Sci-Fi Channel staged a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 22 to declare its designs on learning the truth.

Former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta, left, wants the government to spill the beans on UFOs. Meanwhile, former Air Force Col. William Coleman, right, who is a documentary filmmaker and Indian Harbour Beach resident, still feels bamboozled by the government.

Sci-Fi announced its partnership with a new group called the Coalition for Freedom of Information, directed by Washington lobbyist Ed Rothschild. Its leading voice was former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, an avowed "X-Files" buff whose call "to open the books about the government's investigation of UFOs" could've come right out of Agent Fox Mulder's mouth.

Meanwhile, over there in the margins, like an asterisk in fine print, was Sci-Fi's centerpiece -- a 20-hour miniseries called "Taken." Set to premiere on Dec. 2, the project concerns alien abductions, and its executive producer is Steven Spielberg.

If it sounded familiar, perhaps that's because, just a year and a half ago, the same National Press Club venue was the site of a similar action by the Disclosure Project. That's when a gallery of former government witnesses called for open hearings on UFOs in Congress, so far to no avail.

But there's an even longer view, stretching for decades along the slippery slopes where show biz and high-level government intrigues have generated little more than additional layers of confusing mythology. Decades after his own byzantine encounters with former Air Force Col. William Coleman, now retired in Indian Harbour Beach, a documentary filmmaker remains bamboozled.

"I still don't know what happened, and I was right in the middle of it," says Robert Emenegger, who now works for a public television station in Fayetteville, Ark. "It was like being in a Kafka play. Bill once joked with me, 'One day I'll take you out on a boat and tell you what it really was, but then afterwards, I'll have to kill you.'"

The controversy began 30 years ago, when Emenegger and producer Alan Sandler were approached by a military officer about the possibility of airing footage of an actual alien spacecraft landing at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. Today, Emenegger's story has become the gold standard as evidence of a government disinformation program surrounding UFOs.

"Coleman's a fascinating character, a real player," says San Francisco's Paul Meehan, author of "Saucer Movies" in 1998. "When I watch 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,' which involved a UFO landing at a remote location, recorded in secrecy by the government, I can't help but wonder if Spielberg was influenced by what was rumored to have happened at Holloman."

Don Berliner, who chairs the Fund for UFO Research in Alexandria, Va., has known Coleman since the latter had a Pentagon office. To him, the USAF's public information chief from 1971 to '74 remains an enigma.

"Certainly Bill was one of the most objective Pentagon spokesmen I ever met," says Berliner. "He had to spout the party line, but I think he tried to be as honest as he could within those constraints. When it comes to (UFOs), I think he's a conflicted man."

For his part, Coleman, who worked the Air Force's official study of UFOs in the 1960s -- called Project Blue Book -- the Emenegger controversy was always much to do about nothing. Today, at 78, the survivor of 155 combat missions says the footage in question never concerned UFOs.

"There was nothing extraordinary on there that I could see," Coleman says. "All I know is, we would not release the film because there were special lenses on the cameras involved, and we didn't want our technological abilities getting into the public domain."

Skeptic at first

According to Emenegger, the journey that would lead him to Coleman began in 1972-73. Emenegger was producing commercial television ads when he hooked up with Sandler, who was interested in doing military documentaries.

While discussing ideas on advanced research projects at Norton Air Force Base outside Bakersfield, Calif., Emenegger says security officer Paul Shartle, chief of the base audio-visual department, asked, "What would we think if there had been a landing of alien craft at Holloman Air Force Base, that they were met by some of the officers, and that TV camera people had filmed this landing?

"Well, I was a skeptic. I thought this UFO stuff was a lot of BS. But Shartle described the film in great detail, descriptions of the aliens, that it happened in May 1971. But it was all handled semi-officially. What was so strange to me was, at the time, he told us this film was unclassified. Shartle said if you want to pursue this, bury it along with things like laser and dog training and holography; otherwise, if you ask just about UFOs, a lot of red flags are going to go up. So that's what we did."

Emenegger says he and Sandler "went through the motions" of filming assorted Air Force projects, with the understanding that they would get exclusive access to the Holloman footage at the end of the line. In 1973, as a precondition for release of the film, they met with Coleman, and others, at the Pentagon, to submit their script (even though they hadn't seen the footage) for technical accuracy.

By that time, Project Blue Book had been terminated for nearly four years, after a University of Colorado committee concluded the phenomenon reflected neither advanced technology nor a threat to national security. Coleman had joined Blue Book in 1962, following a conversation with Air Force Secretary Gen. Eugene Zukert.

"Before I took the job, I knew I needed to explain my own sighting to him," Coleman recalls. "After I told him the story, he said, 'Good, you're just the guy for the job. You've remained objective, and that's what we want on the program -- to tell the truth.'"

Coleman's sighting is now legendary among UFOlogists. In 1955, while piloting a B-25 over Alabama, he and his four-man crew attempted to pursue a silvery disc reflecting mid-day sunlight. The object cast an oval shadow when it dropped to the deck, then eluded the bomber with a series of evasive maneuvers. Although Coleman collected and filed individual eyewitness reports from his men, the account never turned up in the Blue Book archives.

Exactly what happened when Coleman met with Emenegger and Sandler depends on who you talk to.

"I looked at it just as a commercial venture on their part, a couple of guys out to make some bucks," says Coleman. "But in terms of (releasing) the film they were so interested in, I showed it to my people and they said no. Not because of anything on the film, but because of the particular camera lenses. They said they didn't want the Soviets to know our capabilities."

'Bizarre' event

Sandler couldn't be reached for comment, but Emenegger says what happened next was especially "bizarre," given how they had already done location shots on-site at Holloman, and even interviewed eyewitnesses off-camera.

"It wasn't some clandestine adventure. Everyone had been very cooperative, in terms of allowing us access. We made no secret of what we were working on. In fact," Emenegger says, "I talked to the head radar guy there and said, 'I'll bet you were really amazed in '71 when that thing came down,' and he said, 'You mean the flying bathtub?' I said, 'Yeah,' and he said, 'You really don't talk about things like that.'"

"So I'm at the Pentagon with Bill, and he's saying how we need to be careful about certain things because of national security, blah blah blah. And then he said, 'Let me set you up with George Weinbrenner,' who was the commander of foreign technology, which was in this half-underground bunker with all these surveillance cameras."

"And I asked Weinbrenner about the landing of an alien ship at Holloman, and instead of saying, 'What the hell are you talking about?' he started talking about how difficult it was to get information about Soviet aircraft, and about how easy it was to get stuff on our planes. Then he starts talking about spying. And he draws a picture of a MiG on the wall, and I'm thinking, god, my question was about an alien landing at Holloman, and Weinbrenner was going on about how the Soviets have developed weather alteration patterns, and that's where the really big problem is."

"I thought I was in the Twilight Zone."

Hold the film

The Air Force never released the film. Emenegger says he got several different explanations from Coleman.

"I love Bill. He can do no wrong in my mind, even though he can stretch things," says Emenegger. "But one time, he told me it was because of the camera lenses. Then he told me it was because the real incident involved the landing of an SR-71, which was supposedly classified at the time. Once, he even told me it was because we didn't have diplomatic relations with the extraterrestrials."

"I'd bet my life that Bill never saw the film. You know how people sometimes play a role, where you're talking about something that they don't know about, but they don't want to let on, so they play along? That's what our conversations were like."

"The film I saw was made at Vandenberg (AFB)," Coleman says. "What I saw, I didn't get excited about. Sometimes when you launch missiles, you'll get a light phenomenon called halations, which can look like UFOs. They can be seen rising with the missiles, they can even be seen going in the opposite direction. This is what we were dealing with. As far as the Holloman stuff, I'm not sure what they were talking about."

TV exposure

Despite the confusion, the Sandler/Emenegger documentary nevertheless made it onto the airwaves in 1974. Called "UFOs: Past, Present and Future," it was narrated by "Twilight Zone" host Rod Sterling. Coleman appeared on-camera, and the feature earned a Golden Globe nomination. In 1980, an expanded version called "UFOs: It Has Begun" was released. Supported by stock footage, the Holloman landing -- which does show the descent of a curious glowing orb against a desert backdrop that Emenegger is at a loss to explain -- is presented, according to Sterling, as "an incident that might happen in the future, or perhaps could've happened already."

In 1988, Shartle would tell his side of the story on national TV. During a two-hour special called "UFO Coverup: Live," Shartle described the 16mm film as having documented the arrival of "three disc-shaped craft," one of which landed and opened the door to three "human-size beings" with gray complexions, tight jumpsuits, and "thin headdresses that appeared to be communication devices." The ETs were then met by Air Force officials, who escorted them away.

Additional corroboration Shartle might've provided died with him last year in a car wreck.

"It's a good metaphor for the UFO situation in general," says Dr. Colm Kelleher, of the National Institute for Discovery Science, a Las Vegas research organization. "It's very difficult to pin down, and unfortunately, we didn't realize just how important Shartle was until it was too late to interview him."

Coleman says he never met Shartle and doesn't know what to make of his story.

After leaving the Pentagon, Coleman went on to become an advisor to "Project UFO," an NBC prime-time series produced by Jack Webb ("Dragnet") that ran from 1977 to '78. Each episode lifted a page from the Blue Book files and turned it into a dramatization in which some cases were solved, while others remained mysteries.

"From the Air Force point of view, we never got close enough to any technology that would make (further study) worthwhile, to spend money that way," says Coleman, mindful of renewed calls for UFO glasnost on Capitol Hill. "You follow me? It wasn't promising enough. I never saw anything that would get us excited, and I had all kinds of clearances."

Coleman predicts there will be no earth-shattering documents recovered through new Freedom of Information Act initiatives, and that congressional hearings on more recent events will be unproductive because "we haven't had any interesting cases involving high-performance aircraft in years."

At the National UFO Reporting Center in Seattle, which has been collecting data since 1974, director Peter Davenport says it fields some 25 calls a day, the best of which get posted on its Web Site daily. The most dramatic recent video footage, linked up at, was taped over Albany, N.Y., in October, and is now reportedly in the possession of the FBI.

"It's a shame," Davenport adds, "that Mr. Coleman wouldn't consider what happened over Waldorf (Maryland) interesting."

In that early-morning July 26 incident, witnesses reported seeing F-16s chasing a glowing UFO for more than half an hour near Washington. But a North American Aerospace Defense Command spokesman contradicted the civilian witnesses, and reported the pilots made no visual contact: "Everything was fine, so (the planes) went home."

"Well, that would put them (military spokesmen) in the position of lying, and I don't think that happened," Coleman says. "Our policy was always to find out the correct answer before you speak. Because if you start ad-libbing too soon, you may damn well tell a lie and create something you can't stop."

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This page was last updated on December 9, 2002.