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Science and the UFO phenomenon:

"Statement on Unidentified Flying Objects"

This statement has been submitted by Dr. James E. McDonald, Senior Physicist, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, and professor, Department of Meteorology, The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, to the House Committee on Science and Astronautics at July 29, 1968, Symposium on Unidentified Flying Objects, Rayburn Bldg., Washington, D.C.

I created a table of content below; which was not part of the original scientific publication. The 56 pages publication is some 250Kb and I broke it in several files for acceptable web access speed.

Please go to the Science section of this website for more scientific papers by James E. McDonald and other scientists, plus comments and information regarding scientists' work and position about the UFO phenomenon.

Table of content

Dr. James E. McDonald.

Why aren't UFOs ever seen in cities? Why just in out-of-the-way places?

One cannot study the UFO problem long without being struck by the preponderance of reports that come from somewhat remote areas, non-urban areas. Similarly, one cannot escape the conclusion that more UFOs are reported at night than in day; For the latter, luminosity and its obvious effect on probability of chance visual detection may go far towards explaining the diurnal variation of UFO sightings (though I suspect that most students of the problem would conclude that there is a real excess of nighttime occurrences for quite unknown reasons). Why, some ask with respect to the geographical distribution, don't the UFOs, if real and if extraterrestrial, spend most of their time looking over our cities? That's what we'd do, if we got to mars and found huge urban complexes , some skeptics insist.

It is surprising to find scientists who do not see through the transparency of that homocentric fallacy. If it were true that we were under surveillance from some advanced civilization of extraterrestrial origin, the pattern of the observations, the motivation of the surveillance, and the degree of interest in one versus another aspect of our planet could be almost incomprehensible to us. Aboriginal natives under anthropological observation must find almost incomprehensible the motives behind the strange things that the field-teams do, the odd things in which they are interested. But the cultural and the intellectual gulf that would separate us from any intelligent beings commanding a technology so advanced that they could cross interplanetary or interstellar distances to inspect us would be a gulf vastly greater than that which separates a Harvard field-anthropologist from a New Guinea native. And, for this reason, I think one must concede that, within the argumentation carried out under tentative consideration of an extraterrestrial hypothesis for UFOs, incomprehensibility must be expected as almost inevitable. Hence there is more whimsy than good reasoning in queries such as, "Why don't they land on the White House lawn and shake hands with the President?"

Nevertheless, the evidence affords a fairly definite answer to the skeptics' question, "Why aren't they ever seen over or in cities?" They are.

1. Case 16. New York City, November 22, 1966:

A report in a 1967 issue of the NICAP UFO Investigator (Ref. 33) reads as follows:

"A UFO over the United Nations in New York City was reportedly seen on November 22, 1966. Witnesses included at least eight employees of the American Newspaper Publishers Association, who watched from their offices on the 17th floor of 750 Third Avenue at 4:20 p.m. on a bright, sunny day. The UFO was a rectangular, cushion-shaped object ... (which) came southward over the East River, then hovered over he UN Building ... it fluttered and bobbed like a ship on agitated water."

Witnesses mentioned were D.R. McVay, assistant general manager of ANPA and Mr. W. H. Leick, manager of the ANPA's Publications Department. I telephoned the ANPA offices and spoke at some length with Mr. Leick about the sighting. He confirmed that eight or nine persons went out on the 17th floor terrace, watching the object hover over the UN Building (as nearly as they could estimate) for a number of minutes as it rocked and reflected the sun's rays with a golden glint before rising and moving off eastward at high speed. I asked Leick if they reported it to any official channels, and he said that A.A. LaSalle called a New York office of the Air Force and was assured that an officer would be in the next day to interview them. -But no one ever came. Leick added that they also phoned a New York newspaper "which shall go unnamed," but "they weren't interested." It got to NICAP almost by accident, and NICAP sent up their standard witness-questionnaires which Leick said they all filled out.


When an incident such as this is cited to the skeptic who asks, "Why no UFOs near cities?", I find that his almost invariable retort is something like; "If that had really happened, why wouldn't hundreds to thousands of persons have reported it?" There are, I believe, two factors that explain the latter situation. First, consider the tiny fraction of persons on any city street whose vision is directed upwards at any given moment. In absence of loud noises aloft, most urbanites don't spend any large amount of time scanning the skies. In addition to infrequency of sky-scanning, another urban obstacle to UFO detection is typically restricted vision of the full dome of the sky; buildings or trees cut down the field of view in a way not so typical of the view afforded the farmer, the forest ranger, or a person driving in open country. Finally, in UFO studies, it is always necessary to draw sharp distinction between a "sighting" and a "report". The first becomes the second only if a witness takes the step of notifying a newspaper, a law enforcement office, a university, or some official agency. It is abundantly clear, from the experience of UFO investigations in many parts of the world, that psychological factors centering around unwillingness to be ridiculed deter most witnesses from filing any official report on a very unusual event. Again and again one learns of a UFO sighting quite indirectly, from someone who knows someone who once mentioned that he'd seen something rather unusual. On following such leads, one frequently comes upon extremely significant sightings that were withheld from official reporting channels because of the "ridicule lid", as I like to term it, that imposes a filter screening out a large number of good sightings at their source.

Returning to the 11/22/66 New York City report, I must say that, between the information NICAP secured from the witnesses and my own direct conversations with Leick, I accept this as a quite real sighting, made by reliable observers under viewing circumstances that would seem to rule out obvious conventional explanations. When the object left its hovering location, it rose straight upward rapidly, before heading east, Leick said. Although he and his colleagues may well have erred in their slant-range estimate which put it over the UN Building, their description of its shape and its maneuvers would appear to rule out helicopters, aircraft, balloons, etc.

2. Case 17. Hollywood, Calif., February 5-6, 1960:

A still more striking instance in which entirely unconventional object: were observed by many city-dwellers, where low-altitude objects hovered and exhibited baffling phenomena, is a central Hollywood case that was rather carefully checked by LANS, the Los Angeles NICAP Subcommittee (Ref. 34). The two incidents occurred just after 11:00 p.m. on two successive nights, Friday 2/5/60 and Saturday 2/6/60, over or near the intersection of Sunset Blvd. and La Brea Ave., i.e., in the heart of downtown Hollywood. I have gone over the site area with one of the principal investigators of these incidents, Mrs. Idabel Epperson of LANS, have examined press accounts (Ref. 35) that dealt (very superficially) with the event, and have studied correspondence between the LANS investigators and official agencies concerning this case. The phenomenology is far too complex to report in full detail here; even the 21-page single-spaced LANS report was only a digest of results of all the NICAP witness-interviewing carried out to substantiate the events. The LANS report summarizes object-descriptions given by eight witnesses Friday night and eighteen witnesses Saturday night, several of them police officers.

Cars were stopped bumper-to-bumper, according to employees of several businesses on the Sunset-La Brea intersection in the midst of the main events, with people gaping at the object overhead. Persons on hotel and apartment rooftops were out looking at the bright "cherry-red, circular light" that figured in both incidents, On the two successive nights, the red object first appeared at about 11:15 p.m., and on both nights it stopped and hovered motionless for periods of about 10 minutes at a time. The angular estimates of the size of the red light varied, but seemed to suggest a value of one-fourth to one-third of the lunar diameter, say 5-10 minutes of arc. Almost all agreed that the light was sharp-edged rather than hazy or fuzzy. The usual witness-variances are exhibited in the total of about two dozen persons interviewed, e.g., some thought the light pulsated, others recalled it as steady, etc.), but the common features, consistent throughout almost all the testimony, bespeak a quite unusual phenomenon.

On Friday night, the red light was first seen directly overhead at Sunset and La Brea. Two service-station attendants at that intersection, Jerry Darr and Charles Walker, described to LANS interviewers how, "... hundreds of people saw it -- everybody was looking" as the light hovered for at least five minutes over a busy drive-in there. Ken Meyer, another service station attendant a third of a mile to the north, estimated it hovered for about 10 minutes. Harold Sherman, his wife, and two others watched it in the later phases (also described by the above cited witnesses) as it resumed motion very slowly eastward. After proceeding east for a distance that witnesses roughly estimated at a block or two, it veered southeastward and passed out of sight. (It is not clear whether it was occulted by buildings for some witnesses, or diminished in intensity, or actually passed off into the distance.) No sound was heard over street-noise background.

The following night, an object which appeared to be the same, to those several witnesses who saw both events, again showed up overhead, this time first seen about one block farther east than on Friday night. Triangulation based on estimates of angular elevations as seen from various locations was used to approximate the height above ground. LANS concluded that, when first seen, it lay about 500-600 ft above the intersection of Sunset and Sycamore. A number of witnesses observed it hovering motionless in that position for about 10 minutes. Then a loud explosion and brilliant bluish-white flash was emitted by the object, the noise described by all witnesses as unlike any sonic boom or ordinary explosion they had ever heard. The sound alerted witnesses as far away as Curson and Hollywood Blvd., i.e., Tom Burns and two friends who asked LANS interviewers not to use their names. Condensing very greatly here the descriptions given to the interviewers by independent witnesses who viewed the "explosion" from various locations scattered over a circle of about a 1-mile radius yields a summary-description as follows: What had, just before the explosion, looked much "like a big red Christmas ball hanging there in the sky", was suddenly the source of a flash that extended downward and to the west, lighting up the ground all around one interviewee (Sone Rosi) on La Brea Ave. A "mushroom-shaped cloud", with coloration that impressed all who saw it, emerged upward and soon dissipated. Concurrently, as the red light extinguished, an object described by most, but not all, witnesses as long and tubular shot upwards. Angular estimates implied an object a number of tens of feet long, 70 ft from Harold Sherman's rough estimates. Clearly, it is difficult to explain how an object of such size could have materialized from a light at 500 ft elevation and subtending an angle of only 10 minutes of arc, unless it had been there all along, unseen because of the brilliance of the red light beneath it. Or perhaps the angular size estimates are in error. Some witnesses followed only the tubular ascending object, others saw only something that "spiraled downwards" beneath the explosion source. No witness seemed certain of what it was that came down; some spoke of "glowing embers"; no one gave indication of following it to ground.

Glossing over other details bearing on this "explosion" at an estimated 5-600 ft above Sunset and Sycamore, witnesses next became aware that the just-extinguished red light had evidently reappeared in a new location, about a block to the west. Police officers Ray Lopez and Daniel Jaffee, of LAPD, located at the corner of Sunset and La Brea, heard the explosion and looked up, seeing the light in its new location "directly overhead", as did many others at that intersection who then watched the red light hovering in its new location for about 8 minutes. (Space precludes my giving all pertinent information on time-estimates as set out in the 21-page LANS summary. For example, a good time-fix on the explosion came from the fact that E.W. Cass, a contractor living almost a mile west, was just winding his alarm clock, looking at it, when flare-like illumination "lit up the whole bedroom", just at an indicated time of 11:30. He went out, watched the hovering red light in its new location, and added further details I shall omit here. Others took their time clues from the fact that 11:30 commercials had just come on TV when they heard the peculiar explosion and hastened outside to check, etc.)

The red light, now over Sunset and La Brea, was roughly triangulated at about 1000 ft up, a figure in accord with several witness comments that, when it reappeared some 4-5 seconds after the "explosion", it lay not only somewhat west of its first location, but noticeably higher. After hovering there for a time inferred to be eight minutes, it began slowly drifting eastward, much as on the previous night when much less spectacular events had occurred. Larry Moquin, one witness who had taken rather careful alignment fixes using rooflines as an aid, remarked that, at this stage, La Brea and Sunset was filled with watchers: "Everybody was standing outside their cars looking up -- cars were backed up in the streets -- and everyone was asking each other, "What is it?".

After moving slowly but steadily (observers mentioned absence of bobbing, weaving, or irregularity in its motion) for about a block east, to its first location, it turned sharply towards the north-northeast, accelerated, and climbed steeply, not stopping again until at a very high altitude well to the north. From crude triangulation, LANS investigators inferred a new hovering altitude of over 25,000 ft, but it is clear from the data involved that this estimate is extremely rough.


Although I have done no personal witness-interviewing to date in the 2/60 Hollywood case, I can vouch for the diligence and reliability with which, the LANS group pursues its case-studies. The large number of interviews secured and the degree of consistency found therein seem to argue that some extremely unusual devices maneuvered over Hollywood on the two nights in question. Unless one simply rejects most of the salient features of the reports, it is quite clear that no meteorological or astronomical explanation is at all reasonable. Nor does any conventional aircraft match the reports.

The question that arises almost immediately is that of a practical joke, a hoax. However, the resources required to fabricate some device yielding the complex behavior (stop motionless, move against wind, explosively emit secondary devices, and finally, in the 2/6 event, climb to rather high altitude) would scarcely be available to college pranksters. The phenomena go so far beyond the gas-balloon level of hoaxing that one must have some much more elaborate hoax hypothesis to account for the reported events. Balloons must drift with the winds, and the LANS group secured the local upper-wind data for both nights, and there is no match between the reported motions and the winds in the surface-1000-ft layer. And, in any event, the alternation between hovering and moving, plus the distinct direction-shifts without change of apparent altitude, cannot be squared with balloon-drift. This would mean that some highly controlled device was involved, capable (in the 2/6 incident) of hovering in an almost precisely stationary position relative to the ground (Moquin sighted carefully, using structural objects to secure a fix when the red light lay right over La Brea and Sunset, and perceived no motion for many minutes). Yet the Weather Bureau was reporting 5 mph winds from the southwest at 1000 ft (triangulated altitude when hovering there). Only if one hypothesized that this was an expensively elaborate experiment in psychological warfare could one account for financial resources needed to build a device capable of simulating some of these phenomena. Such a hypothesis seems quite unreasonable in the 100-megaton age where ever present realities of weaponry pose more psychological strains than Disney-like pyrotechnics.

In fact, UFO sightings with equally peculiar phenomenology are so much a part of the total record that this Hollywood incident is not as unparalleled as it might first seem. In Hobart, Tasmania, I interviewed an electrical engineer who, along with a fellow engineer also employed by the Tasmanian Hydroelectric Commission, observed phenomena occurring in broad daylight over and near the River Derwent at Risdon that have the same "absurd" nature that one meets in the Hollywood case. The wife of a Texas rancher described to me an incident she witnessed in Juarez, Mexico, with about the same absurdity-quotient. We simply do not understand what we are dealing with in these UFO phenomena; my present opinion is that we must simply concede that, in the Hollywood case, we are confronted with decidedly odd UFO phenomena, in a decidedly urban locale.

There appears to have been no official investigation of these striking events (Ref. 35), and local newspapers gave it only the briefest attention. In the New York City case cited above, the particulars were phoned to a large New York paper, but the paper was not interested, and no account was reported. Similarly in the 2/4/68 Redlands case, the local papers felt it warranted only an extremely brief article. This pattern is repeated over and over again; newspapermen have been led to believe that UFOs are really no more than occasional feature-story material. On rare occasions, for reasons not too clear to students of the UFO problem, some one case like the Michigan incident of 1966 will command national headlines for a day or two and then be consigned to journalistic limbo. This, in company with scientific rejection of the problem, plus official positions on the matter have combined to keep the public almost entirely unaware of the real situation with respect to frequency and nature of UFO incidents. For emphasis, let me repeat that I do not see design in that, nothing I construe as any well-planned attempt to keep us all uninformed for some sinister or protective reason. The longer I reflect on the history of the past handling of the UFO problem, the more I can see how one thing led to another until we have reached the intolerable present situation that so urgently calls for change.

3. Case 18. Baytown, Texas, July 18, 1966:

Baytown, Texas, on Galveston Bay, has a population near 30,000. Several persons evidently saw an interesting object there at about 9:00 a.m. on 7/18/66. My original source on this case was an article that appeared in the 10/8/66 Houston Post from NICAP files. The article, by Post reporter Jimmie Woods, represents one of those rare UFO feature stories in which fact is well blended with human interest, as I found when I subsequently interviewed one of the principal witnesses, W. T. Jackson, at whose service station he and assistant Kelly Dikeman made the sighting. Both were inside the station when Jackson spotted the object hovering motionless about 100 yards away. (The Post said 1000 yards, but Jackson pointed out that Woods interviewed him while he was waiting on customers at the station and the reporter didn't get all of it correct.) Jackson explained to me that the object "lay right over the Dairy Queen." He described it as a white object that "looked like two saucers turned together with a row of square windows in between", and he thought it might have been 50 feet in diameter. He called Dikeman over, and they both looked at it for a few seconds and then simultaneously started for the door to get a better look. Almost at that moment it started moving westward. Dikeman was at the door before Jackson and had the last view of it as it passed over a water tower, beyond buildings and a refinery and was gone, "faster than any airplane." Jackson described it as pure white, and definitely not spinning, since he saw clearly the features that he termed "windows." Jackson kept the incident to himself for a time; when it got out, two nurses who were unwilling to give him their names because "they didn't want to be laughed at" stopped at his station and told him they had seen it from another part of Baytown.


"Swamp gas" explanations were then still featured in press discussions of UFOs, and Jackson volunteered the comment that there are no swamps nearby and that it was "too high for any gas formations" he knew of. "It damned sure wasn't no fireball," Jackson told the Post reporter, and also commented, "Feller, when you set there and count the windows it ain't no damn reflection." I received similar salty commentary on various hypotheses when I spoke with Jackson. No sound was heard, yet, as Jackson put it, "if it had been any kind of jet, we'd have been deafened." As in many other cases, a distinctly machine-like configuration, definite outlines, secondary "structural" features here termed "windows", add up to a description that does not suggest any misinterpreted natural phenomenon. That it hovered within a city of moderate size with only a total of two declared and two other undeclared witnesses is not entirely difficult to understand when one has interviewed large numbers of witnesses for whom the likelihood of ridicule was an almost sufficient deterrent to open reporting.

4. Case 19. Portland, Oregon, July 4, 1947:

In the course of cross-checking a sampling of the 1947 cases that went into Bloecher's study (Ref. 8), the numerous daytime sightings in central Portland on 7/4/47 seemed worth checking, especially because many of the reports came from police and harbor patrolmen. Here again, we deal with a case for which there are so many relevant details available that space precludes an adequate summary (see Ref. 8). I spoke with Sheriff's Deputy Fred Krives who, along with several other deputies, had seen some of the many objects over Portland from the Court House across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Wash. Krives recalled that over half a dozen deputies were outside looking at what they estimated to be about 20 disc-shaped objects in several subgroups racing across the sky at an estimated height of perhaps 1000 ft, heading to the southwest.

Both from contemporary press accounts and my own checks, it became evident that more than one formation of discs flew over Portland that day. Harbor Patrol Capt. K.A. Prehn, whom I located by telephone, told me that he had been called outside by another officer who spotted objects moving overhead towards the south. Their speed seemed comparable to that of aircraft, their outlines were quite sharp, and they looked metallic as they flashed in the sun. They occasionally wobbled, and their path seemed to be slightly irregular. Other officers with whom I spoke sighted discs from other parts of the Portland area; one of them, Officer Walter Lissy, emphasized that he recalled them as zig-zagging along at "terrific speed." Another officer, Earl Patterson, told me of seeing a single object that "made sudden 90-degree turns with no difficulty." I also obtained letter accounts from others in the Portland area who saw disc-like objects that day. Here was an early instance of unidentified objects maneuvering in full daylight over a major city.


The July 4, 1947 sightings (for which Bloecher gathered press accounts for more than 80 from various parts of the U.S.) were made the subject of a good deal of press ridicule, as Bloecher's study makes clear. However, after interviewing a number of the witnesses to the Portland sighting concerning their recollections of what they saw that day, I see no basis at all for rejecting these sightings. The official explanation for the Portland observations is "Radar Chaff", based evidently (Ref. 6) on a report that some aircraft had made a chaff-drop in that area sometime on that day. "Chaff" is metal-foil cut into short strips, typically a few inches in length, ejected from military aircraft to jam radar. The strips float down through the air, intercepting and returning the radar pulses. To suggest that numerous police officers would confuse strips of foil, so small as to be invisible beyond a few hundred yards, with maneuvering disc-like objects seems unreasonable. I doubt that anyone who had talked directly to these officers could have seriously proposed such an explanation. Herein lies a difficulty: In an overwhelming majority of cases, official explanations have been conceived without any direct witness-interviewing on the part of those responsible for conceiving the explanations.

5. Perhaps, for present purposes, the foregoing cases will suffice to indicate that there have been significant UFO incidents in cities. Many other examples could easily be cited. Elsewhere (Ref. 2) I have discussed my interviews with witnesses in a case at Beverly, Mass., on the evening of April 22, 1966, where three adult women and subsequently a total of more than half a dozen adults (including two police officers) observed three round lighted objects hovering near a school building in the middle of Beverly. At one early stage of the sighting, one of the discs moved rapidly over the three women, hovering above one of them at an altitude of only a few tens of feet and terrifying the hapless woman until she bolted. This case was quite thoroughly checked by Mr. Raymond E. Fowler, one of NICAP's most able investigators, who has studied numerous other UFO incidents in the New England area.

I interviewed witnesses in a most interesting sighting in Omaha in January 1966, where a stubby cigar-shaped object had been seen by a number of persons on the northwest side of the city. Urban UFO cases in other parts of the world are also a matter of at least journalistic if not yet scientific record. To sum up, though non-urban reports are definitely more numerous, urban reports do indeed exist.

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