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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 are UFOs only seen by lone individuals, why no multiple-witnesses sightings?

It is true that there are more single-witness UFO reports than multiple-witness cases. But, to indicate that by no means all interesting UFO reports entail lone witnesses, consider the following examples:

1. Case 9. Farmington, N.M., March 17, 1950:

In the course of checking this famous case that made short-lived press headlines in 1950, I interviewed seven Farmington witnesses out of a total that was contemporarily estimated at "hundreds" to "over a thousand." (Refs. 5, 25) It became clear from my interviewing that the streets were full of residents looking up at the strange aerial display that day. It was not only a multiple-witness case, but also a multiple object case. My checking was done seventeen years after the fact, so the somewhat confused recollective impressions I gained are not surprising. But that unidentified aerial objects moved in numbers over Farmington on 3/17/50 seems clear. One witness with whom I spoke, Clayton J. Boddy, estimated that he had observed a total of 20 to 30 disc-shaped objects, including one red one substantially larger than the others, moving at high velocity across the Farmington sky on the late morning of 3/17/50. John Eaton, a Farmington realtor, described being called out of a barbershop when the excitement began and seeing a high, fast object suddenly joined by many objects that darted after it. Eaton sent me a copy of an account he had jotted down shortly after the incident. A former Navy pilot, Eaton put their height at perhaps 15,000 ft. "The object that has me puzzled was the one we saw that was definitely red. It was seen by several and stated by all to be red and travelling northeast at a terrific speed." Eaton also spoke of the way the smaller objects would "turn and appear to be flat, then turn and appear to be round", a description matching an oscillating disc-shaped object. No one described seeing any wings or tails, and the emphasis upon the darting, "bee-like" motion was in several of the accounts I obtained from witnesses. I obtained more details, but the above must suffice here for a brief summary.


This once-headlined, but now almost forgotten multiple witness case has been explained as resulting from the breakup of a Skyhook balloon (Ref. 25). Skyhooks do shatter at the very low temperatures of the upper troposphere, and occasionally break into a number of smaller pieces. But to suggest that such fragments of transparent plastic at altitudes of the order of 40-50,000 ft could be detected by the naked eye, and to intimate that these distant objects of low angular velocity could confuse dozens of persons into describing fast-moving disc-shaped objects (including a large red object) is simply not reasonable. However to check further on this, I contacted first Holloman AFB and then the Office of Naval Research, who jointly hold records on all Alamogordo Skyhook releases. No Skyhooks or other experimental balloons had been released from the Holloman area or any other part of the country on or near the date of this incident. A suggestion that the witnesses were seeing only cotton-wisps was not only unreasonable, given the witness accounts, but was in fact tracked down by a local journalist to comments casually made by a law enforcement officer and overheard by another reporter. From my examination of this case, I see no ready explanation for the numerous disc-shaped objects moving in unconventional manner and seen by large numbers of Farmington residents on 3/17/50.

2. Case 10. Longview, Wash., July 3, 1949:

Many of the UFO cases I am citing are drawn intentionally from earlier years, in order to illustrate that the evidence for the existence of a quite real and scientifically significant phenomenon has been with us for a disturbing number of years. I discuss next a case on which I hold copies of material from the official investigative files, copies that state that this incident was "observed by 150 other people at an Air Show", in addition to the reporting witness, Moulton B. Taylor. I have interviewed Mr. Taylor and have obtained strong recommendations of his reliability from a former superior officer, Adm. D. S. Fahrney, under whom Taylor served in Naval guided missiles work prior to the incident. Taylor is an aeronautical engineer, and was airport manager at Longview, in charge of an air show that was to be held on the afternoon of 7/3/49, the day of the incident in question. A skywriting Stearman was at 10,000 ft at 10:40 a.m., laying down "Air Show Today", and hence holding the attention of a number of the personnel already at the airport, when the first of three unidentified objects flew over at high altitude. Alerted by one of the persons who first spotted the object coming from the northwest, Taylor got on the public address system and announced to all persons at hand that they should look up to see the odd object. Many had binoculars, and among the over 150 persons present were police officers, city officials and a number of Longview's leading citizens, Taylor emphasized. The object was observed by a number of experienced pilots; and, according to official file summaries, all agreed that the object was shaped much like a discus. It seemed to have metallic luster and oscillated periodically as it crossed the sky from northwest to southeast until lost in mill-smoke. Taylor described the motion as "a sculling or falling-leaf motion rather than a movement through the axis of the disc." Its angular size he estimated as about that of a pinhead at arm's length, or about that of a DC-3 at 30,000 ft, both of which come out to be near 10 minutes of arc (one-third of moon's diameter).

The crowd's attention to events in the sky did not lapse when the first object was lost from view, and, about nine minutes later, someone spotted a second object, whereupon the event was again announced via the public address system. Still a third object was brought to the attention of the crowd in the same manner at 11:25. The second object came out of the north, the third came from almost due west. In the third case, someone thought of timing the oscillation frequency (all three exhibited the same unconventional oscillation, with sun-glint perceptible in certain of the instances of tipping, Taylor mentioned). The oscillation frequency was clocked at 48 per minute. In the official report are height estimates and some disparate comments on color, etc., from several other witnesses, as well as remarks on other sightings in the same area on the same day. Full details cannot be recounted here, for reasons of space limitation. Taylor, in his statement submitted to official investigators, said:

"My experience in radio control of pilotless aircraft and guided missiles for the Navy at NAMU during the war, and over 20 years of aircraft study, does not permit my identification of the objects which were seen. They definitely were not balloons, birds, common aircraft, parachutes, stars, meteors, paper, clouds, or other common objects. The moved in a regular motion either straight or in curved lines. They were all at approximately the same altitude, but moved on different courses as indicated on the sketch. The oscillations were clearly visible and timed on the 3rd sighting..."


The official explanation for this case is "Balloons". I obtained information on upper winds over that part of Washington on that day (700 and 500 mb charts), and the flow aloft between 10,000 and 20,000 ft was from the southwest. The objects, all reported as about the same angular size, came from three distinctly different directions, all within a period of less than an hour. This immediately casts very strong doubt on the balloon hypothesis, as does the flipping motion, the sun glint, and, above all, the fact that no pilot balloon stations were located close upwind of Longview. Furthermore, a typical pilot balloon of about 1 meter diameter could be no higher than about 2500 ft altitude to subtend as large an angle as 10 minutes of arc. Taylor report (official files) gave transit times of 2-3 minutes for the unknowns to cross the Longview sky, and, during such a time interval, the normal ascent rate of a pilot balloon would carry it up by 1200-1800 ft. To then fit the angular-size requirements would clearly require that the balloon have been released at some nearby location, which fails to match known pibal-station locations at that time. Furthermore, surface winds were from the west, and winds a short distance above the ground were southwesterly, as indicated by pulp mill smoke-drift described in Taylor's report. This, plus the previously cited upper-flow directions, contradict the balloon hypothesis for all three directions of arrival, particularly those coming from north and northwest. To hypothesize that these were, say, Skyhook balloons coming from three different (unknown) sites, at three different high altitudes, but all so arranged that the apparent balloon diameter came out at about the same 10 minutes of arc each time is scarcely reasonable. In all, I can only regard the balloon explanation as untenable.

Disc-shaped objects have been sighted in dozens of instances, including Arnold's 6/24/47 Mt. Rainier sighting. In many, though not all, the odd flipping or fluttering motion has been described by witnesses (Refs. 8, 10). What the dynamical significance of this might be is unclear. We know no more about this in 1968 than we knew in 1947, because such observations have been ignored as nonsense -- or misidentified balloons.

3. Case 11. Salt Lake City, Utah, Oct. 2, 1961:

A midday sighting of a lens-shaped object involving one airborne witness and seven witnesses on the ground became headline news in Salt Lake City (Ref. 32). Accounts of the incident have been summarized elsewhere (Refs. 2, 10, 13, 25). A private pilot, Mr. Waldo J. Harris, was taking off on Runway 160 at Utah Central Airport at almost exactly noon on 10/2/61 when he noted what he at first idly viewed as a distant airplane. He noted it again in the same area just after becoming airborne, once more after gaining some altitude, and then became somewhat puzzled that it had not exhibited any appreciable change of position. About then it seemed to tilt, glinting in the noonday sun, and exhibiting a shape unlike any aircraft. To get a better view, Harris climbed towards the southeast and found himself at its altitude when he was somewhat above 6000 ft. By then it appeared as a biconvex metallic gray object, decidedly different from conventional aircraft, so he radioed back to the airport, where eventually seven persons were taking turns viewing it with binoculars. I have interviewed not only Harris, but also Jay W. Galbraith, operator of the airport, who, with his wife, watched the object, and Robert G. Butler, another of those at the airport. As Harris attempted to close in, he got to a minimal distance that he thought might have been approximately two or three miles from the object, when it abruptly rose vertically by about 1000 ft, a maneuver confirmed by the ground witnesses. They indicated to me that it took only a second or perhaps less to ascend. Just before the abrupt rise, Harris had been viewing the object on an essentially dead-level line of sight, with distant Mt. Nebo behind it, a significant feature of the case, as will be brought out in a moment.

Before Harris could close his distance much more, the object began moving off to the southeast at a speed well above his light-plane top speed. It was soon an estimated ten miles or so away, but Harris continued his attempt to close. However, after seeming to hover a short time in its new location , it began rising and moving westward, at an extremely rapid speed, and passed out of sight aloft to the southwest in only a few seconds. Some, but not all of the ground witnesses, observed this final fast climb-out, I was told. Military jets were called, but the object had gone before they arrived.

Both Harris and the ground observers using binoculars attested to lack of wings or tail, and to the biconvex side view. Harris said he had the impression its surface resembled "sand-blasted aluminum", but his closest view was about 2-3 miles away, and its estimated size was put at about 50-60 ft diameter (and only a tenth as thick) so the impression of surface texture must be regarded as uncertain. All witnesses confirmed that the object "wobbled" during its hovering. Jay Galbraith said that, when Harris' Mooney Mark 20A was only a speck, they could see the disc rather easily by naked eye, suggesting that its size may have been substantially larger than Harris' estimated 50 ft. Galbraith's recollection of its final departure was that it climbed at a very steep angle, perhaps within about 20degrees of the vertical, he thought. Butler also recalled the final departure and stressed that it was a surprisingly steep climb-out, quite beyond any known jet speed. All remarked on 10/2/61 being a beautifully clear day.


Once again we deal with observed performance characteristics far beyond anything of which we have present knowledge: a wingless device that can hover, shoot straight up, and move fast enough to pass out of sight in a matter of a few seconds does not correspond to any known terrestrial craft. The official explanation was originally that Harris saw Venus. From astronomical data, one finds that Venus was in the Utah sky at noon in early October, but lay in the southwest, whereas everyone's line of sight to the southeast. Furthermore, Harris' statement that at one stage he viewed the disc against a distant mountain would contradict such an explanation. Finally, it is well known to astronomers that Venus, even at peak brilliance, is not very easily spotted in daytime, whereas he had no difficulty relocating it repeatedly as he flew. Menzel (Ref. 25) proposed that it was merely a sundog that Harris and the others were observing, and this was subsequently adopted as the official explanation. But sundogs (parhelia), for well-known reasons, occur at elevation angles equal to or slightly greater than the sun, which lay about 40 degrees above the southern horizon at noon in Salt Lake that day. Such a solar position would imply that a sundog might have lain to the southeast (22 degrees to the left of the sun) , but at an elevation angle that completely fails to match Harris' dead level viewing (against a distant mountain, to further embarrass the sundog hypothesis). Finally, to check the witness ' statements about cloud-free skies, I checked with the Salt Lake City Weather Bureau office, and their logs showed completely clear skies and 40 miles visibility. Sundogs cannot occur with out ice crystal clouds present. The only weather balloon released that morning was sent up at 10:00 a.m.; but, in any event, one would have to write off almost all of the observed details to propose that this incident was a misinterpretation of a weather balloon. As I see it, the 10/2/61 Salt Lake City sighting is just one more of the hundreds of very well-observed cases of machine-like craft exhibiting "flight performance" far beyond the state of our present-day technology.

4. Case 12, Larson AFB, Moses Lake, Washington, January 8, 1953:

NICAP's recent publication of long-inaccessible official report summaries (Ref. 7) makes readily available to interested scientists a large number of fascinating UFO reports. Many are in the multiple witness category, for example, the dawn (0715 PST) sighting at Larson AFB where

"Over sixty varied military and civilian sources observed one green disc-shaped object. The observations continued for fifteen minutes during which time the object moved in a southwesterly direction while bobbing vertically and going sideways. There was no sound. An F-94 aircraft was scrambled but a thirty minute search of the area produced negative intercept results."

The official summary also notes that the

"winds were generally from 240 degrees below an overcast at 12,000 ft. Thus the object would appear to move against the wind since it must have been below the clouds. There was no air traffic reported in the area."

No radar sites in the area had unusual returns or activity, according to the same report.


This green disc, moving against the wind below an overcast and seen by over sixty witnesses, is an official Unidentified.

5. Case 13. Savannah River AEC Plant, Summer, 1952:

A rather illuminating multiple-witness case was called to my attention by John A. Anderson, now at Sandia Base, New Mexico, but in 1952 working as a young engineer in the Savannah River AEC facility near Aiken, S.C. After a considerable amount of cross-checking on the part of both Anderson and myself, the date was inferred to be late July, 1952, probably 7/19/52. The circumstance giving a clue to the date was that, at about 10:00 a.m. on the day in question, Anderson, along with what he estimated at perhaps a hundred other engineers, scientists and technicians from his group were outside watching a "required attendance" skit presented from a truck-trailer and commemorating the 150th anniversary of the founding of the DuPont company, July 18, 1802. Anderson indicated that someone less than absorbed in the skit first spotted the unidentified object in the clear skies overhead, and soon most eyes had left the skit to watch more technically intriguing events overhead. A greenish glowing object of no discernible shape, and of angular size estimated by Anderson to be not over a fifth of full-moon diameter, was darting back and forth erratically at very high speed. Anderson had the impression it was at great altitude, but conceded that perhaps nothing but the complete lack of sound yielded that impression. It was in view for about two minutes, moving at all times. He stressed its "phenomenal maneuverability"; it repeatedly changed direction abruptly in sharp angle manner, he stressed. The observation was terminated when the object disappeared over the horizon "at apparently tremendous velocity."


Anderson said that the event was discussed among his group afterwards, and all agreed it could not possibly have been a conventional aircraft. He remarked that no one even thought of suggesting the unreasonable notion that it was an hallucination or illusion. Despite searching local papers for some days thereafter, not a word of this sighting was published, and no further information or comment on it came from within the very security-conscious AEC plant. He was unaware of any official report.

Months after hearing of this from Anderson, in one of my numerous rereadings of Ruppelt's book (Ref. 5), I came across a single sentence in which Ruppelt, referring to the high concentration of reports in the Southeast around September of 1952, states that: "Many of the reports came from people in the vicinity of the then new super-hush-hush AEC facility at Savannah River, Georgia." Whether one of those reports to the official investigative agency came from within Anderson's group or other Savannah River personnel on the 7/52 incident is unknown. If not, then we may have here a case where dozens of technically-trained personnel witnessed an entirely unexplainable aerial performance, yet reported nothing. Anderson knew of no report, and was unaware of any assembling of witness-information within his group, so the evidence points in the direction that this event may have gone unreported. If, as Anderson is inclined to think, this event was on July 19, 1952, it occurred only about twelve hours before the famous Washington National Airport radar-visual sightings; but this date remains uncertain.

6. Case 14. Trinidad, Colo., March 23, 1966:

A daytime sighting by at least a dozen persons, in several parts of town, occurred near 5:00 p.m. on 3/23/66 in Trinidad, Colo. Following up a report in the APRO Bulletin on this interesting case, I eventually interviewed ten witnesses (seven children of average age near 12, and five adults). This case came just a few days after the famous "swamp gas" UFO incidents in southern Michigan, which made headline news all over the country. As APRO noted in its account, the Trinidad case seems in several respects a distinctly better case, yet went essentially unnoted outside of Trinidad. (Press reporting of UFO sightings leaves very much to be desired; I concur in the cited APRO comment. However, press shortcomings in the UFO area are only secondary factors in the long failure to get this matter out into the open.)

The witness-variance that skeptics like to cite is fairly well illustrated in the results of my ten interviews. I wish space permitted a full exposition of what each witness told me, for it would not only attest to that well-known variance but would also illustrate the point made earlier, namely, that despite those bothersome differences in details, there nevertheless comes through a consistent core of information on observations of something that was of scientific interest.

Mrs. Frank R. Hoch paid no attention when her son first tried to call her out to see something in the sky. Knowing it was kite season, dinner preparations took precedence, and she told the 10-year-old boy to go ride his bike. The second time he was more insistent and she went outside to look. Two objects, domed on the top but nearly flat on the bottom, shaped like a cup upside down, having no rim or "sombrero brim", she said, were moving slowly westward from Fisher's Peak, which lies just south of Trinidad. Her son, Dean, told her he had seen three such objects when he tried to get her to come out earlier. (Mr. Louis DiPaolo, a Trinidad postman whom I interviewed, had also seen three objects.) Interestingly, when Mrs. Hoch saw the objects, one was between her and the ridge, the other just above the low ridgeline. The ridge is about a half-mile from the Hoch residence. A photo of the ridge, with roughly-scaled objects sketched on it, suggests an angular diameter of perhaps a degree (object size of order 100 ft), in disagreement with her earlier angular estimates. It was clear that Mrs. Hoch was, as are most, unfamiliar with angular-size estimating. The objects, Mrs. Hoch said, moved up and down in bobbing manner as they progressed slowly westward along the ridgeline. Occasionally they tilted, glinting in the late-afternoon sun as if metallic. No sound was mentioned by any witness except one young boy whose attention was drawn to the object by a "ricocheting sound", as he put it. DiPaolo's observations were made with 7x35 binoculars; he also described the objects as metallic in appearance and shaped like a saucer upside down. His attention had been called to it by neighborhood boys playing outside. Mrs. Amelia Berry, in another part of Trinidad, evidently saw the objects somewhat earlier, when they were farther east, circling near Fisher's Peak, but she was uncertain of the precise time. She saw only two, and remarked that they seemed to "glitter", and she described them as "saucer shaped", "oblong and narrow". Mrs. J. R. Duran, horseback-riding with a 12-year-old son on the opposite (north) side of town also saw two objects, "flat on the bottom, and domed on top, silvery", when her son called them to her attention. She described them as "floating along slowly, bobbing up and down, somewhat to the west of Fisher's Peak. She, like the other witnesses, was positive that these were not airplanes. No one described anything like wings or tail. A number of witnesses were so close that, had this been an unconventional helicopter, its engine-noise would have been unmistakable.


Notwithstanding differences in the witness accounts (more of which would emerge from a more complete recounting), the common features of the observers' descriptions would seem to rule out known types of aircraft, astronomical, meteorological, and other explanations.

7. Case 15. Redlands, Calif., February 4, 1968:

A still more recent multiple-witness case of great interest was well documented by three University of Redlands professors shortly after it occurred on the evening of 2/4/68. APRO plans a fairly detailed summary report. Dr. Philip Seff kindly sent me a copy of the witness-testimony he and his colleagues secured in interviewing about twenty out of an estimated hundred-plus witnesses to this low-altitude sighting in a residential area of Redlands. Because I understand that Dr. Harder will be giving a fairly detailed report of this case to your Committee, I shall give only a much-abbreviated version. At 7:20 p.m., many persons went outdoors to investigate either (a) the unusual barking of neighborhood dogs, or (b) a disturbing and unusual sound. Soon many persons up and down several streets were observing an object round in planform, estimated at perhaps 50-60 feet in diameter, moving slowly towards the east northeast at an altitude put by most witnesses as perhaps 300 feet. Glowing ports or panels lay around its upper perimeter and "jet-like" orange-red flames or something resembling flames emanated from a number of sources on the undersurface. A number of odd physiological effects were remarked by various witnesses, and the animal-reactions were a notable feature of this case. The object at one point rose abruptly by some hundreds of feet before continuing its somewhat "jerky" motion to the east. It then hovered a short time and moved off with acceleration to the northwest.


The Redlands University trio inquired concerning radar detection , but were informed that the nearest radar was at March AFB, Riverside, and the beam clearing intervening ridges could not detect so low a target over Redlands. An interesting aspect of press coverage of UFOs, a very characteristic aspect, is illustrated here. The local Redlands-area papers carried only short pieces on the event; beyond that no press coverage occurred, as far as I have been able to ascertain. Evidently even the state wires did not carry it. (I think this fact deserves very strong emphasis. One has to see national clipping-service coverage, drawing upon many small-town papers, to gain even a dim glimpse of the astonishing number of UFO reports that occur steadily, but go unreported on state and national wires so that none but very diligent UFO investigators have any appreciation of the true frequency of UFO sightings. This is no "press clampdown", no censorship; wire editors simply "know" that there's nothing to all this nonsense about UFOs. A local story will be run simply for its local interest, but that interest falls off steeply with radial distance from the observation site.) Thus, we must confront a situation, developed over 20 years, in which over a hundred citizens in a city of about 30,000 population can see an utterly unconventional aerial machine just overhead and, almost by the time the dogs have stopped barking, press and officialdom are uninterested. Dr. Seff told me just last week that he had encountered a Redlands University coed who had seen the object (he hadn't interviewed her previously), and she seemed still terrified by the incident. I believe that your Committee must recognize an unfilled scientific obligation to get to the bottom of such matters.

8. Many other multiple-witness cases could be cited, some from my own interviewing experience, far more from other sources within this country and abroad. An October 28, 1954 sighting in Rome was estimated to have been viewed by thousands of people, one of whom was U.S. Ambassador Clare Booth Luce (Ref. 10) with her embassy staff. Mrs. Luce said it had the shape of a silver dollar and crossed the skies in about 30 seconds. A now-famous group of sightings of June 26/27, 1959, near Boianai, New Guinea, was observed by several dozen witnesses, the principal one of whom I interviewed in Melbourne, in 1967, Rev. Wm. B. Gill. Bloecher (Ref. 8) describes a number of mid-1947 incidents where the witness-totals ranged from dozens up to well over a hundred persons. Hall (Ref. 10) cites more recent instances. Many other sources could be cited to show that the intimation that UFOs are never seen except by lone individuals driving along some remote back road (a frequent setting to be sure!) does not accord with the actual facts. Multiple-witness UFO cases are impressively numerous.

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