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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.

Meteorologists and weather observers look at the sky frequently. Why don't they see UFOs?

1. Case 26. Richmond, Va., April 1947:

To begin an answer to that rhetorical question, we might consider an observation made by a weather observer at the Richmond, Va., U. S. Weather Bureau station, about two months before the first national publicity concerning UFOs. Walter A. Minczewski, whom I located at the same Weather Bureau office where he made the sighting in 1947, was making a pilot balloon observation, when he spotted a silvery object that entered the field of his theodolite (which was trained on the balloon he had released). In the account that Minczewski sent me, he stated that "the bottom was flat and the top was slightly dome-shaped"; and when he tried to see it with naked eye, he could not spot it. (Typical pilot balloon theodolites have magnifications of about 20 to 25, and angular fields that are usually about a degree across.) It was a "clear bright morning" when he spotted the object, and it lay to his NNE at an elevation of about 45 degrees. Whether Minczewski really saw the upper surface or formed his mental impressions without realizing that the theodolite may have inverted the image is now unclear, and my questioning did not settle that point.


A report of this sighting is in the official files, a circumstance which greatly surprised Minczewski, since he had discussed it only with his fellow workers. In the ensuing two decades, he has never again seen anything like it. Clearly, the probability of an object crossing the small angular field of a meteorological theodolite is quite low, if only chance were involved here. He tried to track it but lost it, due to its high angular velocity, after about five or six seconds, he recalled. No obvious conventional explanation suggests itself for this early sighting.

2. Case 27. Yuma, Ariz., February 4, 1953:

Weather Bureau observer S.H. Brown was tracking a pilot balloon at 6000 ft over Yuma at 1:50 p.m. MST on 2/4/53 when first one and then a second unidentified object moved across his theodolite field, somewhat as in the preceding case. I obtained an account of this sighting from V.B. Cotten, Meteorologist-in-Charge at the Yuma station. The full account is too long for recapitulation here. Both objects appeared to be of the order of a minute of arc in diameter and appeared "almost round, a solid dull pure white color, with a thin white mist completely edging each object." The first object moved into the optical field and curved upwards to the west, with the theodolite oriented to about 53 degrees elevation, 157 degrees azimuth. About 20 seconds later, a second object entered the field and moved in and out of the field erratically two times, to rejoin the first object. Brown was able to track the pair thereafter, as they jointly changed both azimuth and elevation. Because he had a stopwatch at hand for the balloon observation (which he did not complete because of following the unknown objects), he was able to determine that he followed the pair of objects for five minutes (1350 to 1355), until he lost sight of them against a cirrus cloud deck to the SSW. At the termination of the observation, his instrument was pointed to 29 degrees elevation, 204 degrees azimuth.


This case is carried as Unidentified in the official files (see Ref. 7 for official summary). At times these objects lay near the sun's position in the sky, which might suggest forward-angle scattering of sunlight by airborne particles. However, initially, the objects were detected at angular distance of about 40 degrees from the solar position, which would not yield appreciable low-angle scattering. Furthermore, if these were airborne scatterers, they would almost certainly be separated by random turbulence within as long a period as five minutes, yet the observer's report indicates that they maneuvered together within angular separations of the order of the roughly one-degree field of such theodolites. The fact that the second object did go out of the field only to return to the vicinity of the first object strains the airborne particle hypothesis. Thus the official categorization of Unidentified seems reasonable here.

3. Case 28. Upington, Cape Province, December 7, 1954:

R.H. Kleyweg, Officer-in-Charge of the Upington Meteorological Station, had just released a balloon for upper-wind measurement and was shielding his eyes from the sun trying to spot the balloon to get his theodolite on it. Seeing an object east of the sun, moving slowly to the west, he thought it was his balloon and got the theodolite on it, only to find that it was white, whereas he had released a red balloon. An account in the Natal Mercury, January 28, 1955, quoted Kleyweg as saying that it seemed "like a half-circle with the sun reflecting off the sloping top." He had no difficulty following it for about three minutes, but then it began to accelerate and, after another minute, he was unable to track fast-enough to keep it in optical view (Ref. 10).


Kleyweg was quoted in the cited press source as saying, "I have followed thousands of meteorological balloons. This object was no balloon." A South African student doing graduate work in my Department, Petrus DuToit, has confirmed this sighting, having had an account of it directly from Kleyweg. An accelerating airborne half-circular object with sloping top seems best categorized as an unidentified flying object.

4. Case 29. Arrey, New Mexico, April 24, 1949:

Charles B. Moore, Jr., was with four enlisted Navy personnel making a pilot balloon observation preparatory to release of a Skyhook balloon at the White Sands Proving Ground in the middle of the morning of 4/24/49. The balloon was airborne and was under observation by one of the men when Moore became aware that a white object which he took to be the balloon was in a part of the sky well away from where the theodolite operator had his instrument trained. As Moore has explained directly to me in discussing this famous case, he thought the operator had lost the balloon. Moore took over, swung the 25-power scope onto the "balloon" he had spotted, and found that it was in fact an ellipsoidal white object moving at a rapid angular velocity towards the NE. With stopwatch and recording forms at hand, it was possible for the team of five men to secure some semi-quantitative data on this sighting; Moore disengaged the vernier drives to track manually, and followed the object as it sped from the southwest into the northeast skies. At its closest approach, it was moving at about 5 degrees/sec. Just before Moore lost it in the distance to the northeast, its angular elevation began to increase, as if it were climbing, a quite significant point. The object had a horizontal length about two to three times greater than its vertical thickness. Moore never got a sufficiently clear view to identify any finer details if any were present. Another balloon was immediately released to check the slim possibility that a high-speed jet from SW to NE might have carried some airborne object across the sky; but the winds were blowing more or less at right angles to the object's path to the 93,000 ft level, and were rather weak (Ref. 10). The angular diameter of the object was estimated at about a minute of arc (which in the 25-power theodolite would appear to Moore as about three-fourths the apparent size of the moon).


Moore's sighting is carried as Unidentified in official files. Menzel (Ref. 24) says of it:

"This incident, kept in the classified files for more than two years, presents no serious difficulty to the person who understands the optics of the earth's atmosphere. The air can, under special conditions, produce formations similar to lenses. And, just as a burning glass can project the sun into a point of light, so can these lenses of air -- form an image. What Moore saw was an out-of-focus and badly astigmatic image of the balloon."

It would be interesting to hear Menzel present a quantitative defense of that astonishing disposition of this interesting sighting. Here five witnesses, with aid of a tracking device giving better than rough angular coordinate information on the movements of an unknown object, observe the object move through an arc of over 90 degrees that took it into a part of the sky about that same large-angular distance from the real balloon's location, and Menzel adduces a "lens of air" to explain it away. Astronomers find atmospheric scintillation a very serious observational problem because stellar images are often erratically shifted by tens of seconds of arc from their mean position as a result of atmospheric turbulence effects. In the 5/24/49 Moore sighting, Menzel is proposing that the atmosphere carried a refracted image of the balloon northeastward at a steady rate of excursion that finally totaled several thousand times the magnitude of refractive angular image-displacements known to occur with bad seeing. I feel obliged to repeat an observation I have made before: If the transmission properties of the Earth's atmosphere were as anomalous as Menzel assumes in his handling of UFO observations, he and his colleagues would be out of business. The official categorization of Unidentified for the Moore sighting seems inescapable. It might be added that, over the years, there have been very many UFO observations of significant nature from the vicinity of White Sands Proving Ground, many involving instrumental tracking, many made by experienced observers. A long and impressive list of them could easily be compiled, yet all have been slowly lost from official cognizance by a process that is characteristically at the heart of response to the UFO problem.

5. Case 30. Admiralty Bay, Antarctica, March 16, 1961:

This listing of UFO sightings by meteorologists could be extended very considerably by drawing on my file of such cases. To cite just one more that also indicates the global scale of the UFO phenomena, a very unusual luminous unidentified aerial object seen by a meteorologist and others aboard the U.S.S. Glacier at about 6:15 p.m. on 3/16/61 in the Antarctic will be mentioned. I have quite recently received, through French UFO investigator Rene Fouere, a rather detailed summary of this sighting by Brazilian meteorologist Rubens J. Villela, whose earlier account I had seen but paid little attention to (Ref. 10). The point I had missed, prior to reading Villela's detailed description of the circumstances of the sighting, was the very important feature of a low cloud overcast present at about 1500 ft above the sea. With three shipmates on the flying bridge, Villela suddenly saw

"a multicolored luminous object crossing the sky,"

an object which for a moment they took to be an unusual meteor.

"It was egg-shaped, colored mainly reddish at first, and traveled slowly from NE to SW at about 50 degrees above the horizon, on a straight horizontal trajectory. From its frontal part, several multicolored,perfectly straight 'rays' extended backwards, diverging outwards at an angle; green, red, and blue. Most striking of all, it left a long trail of orange color in the form of a perfectly straight tube which gave the distinct impression of being hollow, faintly comparable to a neon light."

Villela stated in his summary,


"Suddenly, the object divided in two. It was not an explosion, it was a controlled division in two equal parts, one behind the other, each egg-shaped as before and each radiating outwards its V-shaped lateral rays. Then the object shone with a slightly stronger light, changing color to blue and white, and disappeared completely. That's it -- just disappeared, abruptly."

His account emphasizes that the boundaries of the object(s) were definite and sharp, not diffuse. Villela's account indicates that a total of six persons were above-decks and saw this striking phenomenon. It is to be emphasized that, in the estimated 10 seconds that this lasted, the object was moving below a cloud deck that lay only about 1500 feet above the sea, so that, for the reported elevation angle of about 50 degrees, the slant range from observers to object was perhaps of the order of 2000 ft. Villela had the subjective impression that the egg-shaped initial form was about as big as a small airplane.


In a recent book aimed at showing that a majority of the most interesting UFOs are an atmospheric-electrical plasma related to ball lightning, Philip J. Klass (Ref. 39) cites the preceding case as a good example of the sort of observation which he feels he can encompass in his "plasma-UFO" hypothesis. To the extent that he treats only the breakup into two parts, he has some observational basis for trying to interpret this as something akin to ball lightning. But almost at that point the similarity ends as far as meteorologically recognized characteristics of ball lightning go. The highly structured nature of the object and its rays, its size, its horizontal trajectory, its presence in a foggy area with low stratiform clouds free of thunderstorm activity scarcely suggest anything like ball lightning. Nor does this account suggest any meteoric phenomenon at sub-cloud altitudes. I would regard this as just one more of a baffling array of inexplicable aerial phenomena which span so wide a range of characteristics that it is taxing to try to invent any single hypothesis to rationalize them all. The full spectrum of UFO phenomena will, I predict, come as a shock to every scientist who takes the necessary time to look into the wealth of reports accumulated in various archives over the past two decades and more. Official assertions to the effect that UFO reports in no way defy explanation in terms of present scientific and technological knowledge are, in my opinion, entirely unjustified. The Villella sighting seems a case in point. And meteorologists do see UFOs, as the foregoing cases should suggest.

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