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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 there numerous photos of UFOs id they really exist?

Here is a question for which I regard available answers as still unsatisfactory. I concede that it does seem reasonable to expect that there should, over the past 20 years, be substantially more good photos than are known to exist. Although I do not regard that puzzle as satisfactorily answered, neither do I think that it can be safely concluded that the paucity of good photos disproves the reality of the UFOs. Many imponderables enter into consideration of this question.

1. Some general considerations:

If one had reliable statistics on the fraction of the population that carried loaded cameras with them at any randomly selected moment (I would guess it would be only of the order of one per cent) and had figures bearing on the probability that a UFO witness would think of taking a photo before his observation terminated, then these might be combined with available information on numbers of sightings to attempt crude estimates of the expected number of UFO photos that should have accumulated in 20 years. Then one would need to weight the data for likelihood that any given photo would find its way to someone who would make it known in scientific circles, and then this figure might be compared with the very small number of photos that appear to stand the test of the exceedingly close scrutiny photos demand.

A general rule among serious UFO investigators with whom I have been in touch is that the UFO photo is no better than the photographer (Hall). Many hoax photos have been brought forth. A UFO photo can be sold; this attracts hoax and fraud to an extent not matched in anecdotal accounts. Many photos have been clearly established as fraudulent in nature; far larger numbers seem so suspicious on circumstantial grounds that no serious investigator gives them more than casual attention.

An interesting, even if very crude check on the likelihood of securing photos of UFOs from the general populace is afforded by fireball events. on April 25, 1966, a fireball rated at about magnitude -10, arced northward across the northeastern U.S. From the total geographic area over which this fireball was visually detected, the population count is about 40 million persons. According to one account (Ref. 43), 200 visual accounts were turned in, and I infer that only 6 photos were submitted. The fireball was visible for a relatively long time as meteors go, about 30 seconds, and was, of course, at a great altitude (25 to 110 km). That 6 photos were submitted (at time of publication of the cited article) from a potential population of sighters of 40 million might seem to argue that perhaps we really cannot expect to get many photos of UFOs. However, one of the principal reasons for citing the foregoing is to bring out the difficulties in drawing any firm conclusions. A phenomenon lasting 30 seconds scarcely permits the observer time to collect his wits and to swing into photographic action if he does have a loaded camera. UFO sightings have often extended over much longer than 30 seconds, by contrast, affording far better opportunity to think of snapping a photo. But, on the other hand, sighting a UFO in daytime at close range, judging from my own witness-interviewing experience, is a far more disconcerting and astonishing matter than viewing a brilliant meteor. Thus one can go back and forth, with so little assurance of meaningfulness of any of the relevant weight factors that the end result is not satisfactory. I simply do not know what to think about the paucity of good UFO photos, though I do feel uncomfortable about it.

2. Case 40. Corning, Calif., July 4, 1967:

A case that may shed at least a bit of light on the paucity of photos involves a multiple-witness sighting near dawn at Corning, Calif., on 7/4/67. I have interviewed four witnesses who sighted the object from two separate locations involving lines of sight at roughly right angles, serving to confirm the location of the object as almost directly over Highway 5 just west of Corning. Jay Munger, proprietor of an all-night bowling alley, was having coffee with two police officers, Frank Rakes and James Overton, when he spotted the object through the front window of his place. All three rushed out to the parking lot to observe what they described as a large flattened sphere or possibly football-shaped object, with a brilliant light shining upward from the top and a dimmer light shining down from the underside. The dawn light was such that the object was visible by reflected light even though the object's beams were discernible. It appeared at first to be hovering almost motionless at a few hundred feet above ground, and all three felt it lay about over Hwy. 5 (which estimate proved correct from sightings made on the highway by the independent witnesses). Their estimates of size varied from a diameter of maybe 50 feet to about 100 ft. It was silent, and the three men all emphasized to me that the quiet morning would have permitted hearing any kind of conventional aircraft engines. All three said they had never before seen anything like it. Munger decided to phone his wife to have her see the thing, and by the time he came back out from phoning, the object had moved southward along the highway by about a quarter of a mile or so. At about that juncture, it began to accelerate, and moved off almost horizontally, passing out of sight to the south in an additional time estimated at about 10-20 seconds.

This case is relevant to the photo question since Officer Overton was on duty and had in his patrol car both binoculars and a loaded camera. When I asked him why he didn't try to get a picture of the object, he admitted that he was so astonished by the object that he never even thought of dashing for the camera. I asked Munger to go through the motions that would yield a time estimate of the period he was inside phoning, to get a rough notion of how long Overton, along with Rakes, looked at it without thinking of the camera. The time was thus estimated by Munger as about a minute and a half, possibly two minutes.


It may be hazardous to try to draw any conclusions from such a case, but I do think it suggests the uncertainty we face in trying to assess the likelihood of any given witness getting a photo of a UFO he happens to see. A colleague of mine at the University of Arizona was out photographing desert flowers on a day when a most unusual meteorological event occurred nearby -- a tornado funnel came down from a cloud. Despite having the loaded camera at hand, despite having just been taking other pictures, and despite the great rarity of Arizona tornadoes, that colleague conceded that it wasn't till much later that the thought of getting a photo rose to consciousness, by which time the funnel was long since dissipated.

In the Trinidad, Colo., case of March 23, 1966 (Case 14 above), Mrs. Frank R. Hoch pointed out to me that she had loaded still and movie cameras inside the house, yet never thought about getting a photo. Again, the reason cited was the fascination with the objects being viewed. I think this "factor of astonishment" would have to be allowed for in any attempt to estimate expected numbers of photos, but I would be quite unsure of just how to evaluate the factor quantitatively.

3. Case 41. Edwards AFB, May 3, 1957:

Occasionally, one could argue, UFOs ought to come into areas where there were persons engaged in photographic work, who were trained to react a bit faster, and who would secure some photos. One such instance evidently occurred at Edwards AFB on the morning of 5/3/57. I have managed to locate and interview three persons who saw the resultant photos. The two who observed the UFO and obtained a number of photos of it were James D. Bittick and John R. Gettys, Jr., both of whom I have interviewed. They were at the time Askania cameramen on the test range, and spotted the domed-disc UFO just as they reached Askania #4 site at Edwards, a bit before 8:00 a.m. that day. They immediately got into communication with the range director, Frank E. Baker, whom I have also interviewed, and they asked if anyone else was manning an Askania that could be used to get triangulation shots. Since no other camera operators were on duty at other sites, Baker told them to fire manually, and they got a number of shots before the object moved off into the distance. Bittick estimated that the object lay about a mile away when they got the first shot, though when first seen he put it at no more than 500 yards off. He and Gettys both said it had a golden color, looked somewhat like an inverted plate with a dome on top, and had square holes or panels around the dome. Gettys thought that the holes were circular not square. It was moving away from them, seemed to glow with its own luminosity, and had a hazy, indistinct halo around its rim, both mentioned. The number of shots taken is uncertain; Gettys thought perhaps 30. The object was lost from sight by the time it moved out to about five miles or so, and they did not see it again. They drove into the base and processed the film immediately. All three of the men I interviewed emphasized that the shots taken at the closer range were very sharp, except for the hazy rim. They said the dome and the markings or openings showed in the photos. The photos were shortly taken by Base military authorities and were never seen again by the men. In a session later that day, Bittick and Carson were informed that they had seen a weather balloon distorted by the desert atmospheric effects, an interpretation that neither of them accepted since, as-they stated to me, they saw weather balloons being released frequently there and knew what balloons looked like. Accounts got into local newspapers, as well as on wire services (Ref. 44). An Edwards spokesman was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "This desert air does crazy things." An INS wire-story said, "intelligence officers at Edwards...would say almost nothing of the incident."


I have not seen the photos alleged to have been taken in this incident, I have only interviewed the two who say they took them and a third person who states that he inspected the prints in company with the two Askania operators and darkroom personnel. I sent all of the relevant information on this case to the University of Colorado UFO project, but no checks were made as a result of that, unless done very recently. It would be rather interesting to see the prints.

4. Photographic sky-survey cameras might be expected to get photos of UFOs from time to time. However, one finds that, in many sky-photography programs in astronomy, tracks that do not obviously conform to what is being sought, say meteor-tracks, are typically ignored as probable aircraft. Indeed, a very general pattern in all kinds of monitoring programs operates to bias the system against seeing anything but what it was built to see. Nunn-Baker satellite cameras are only operated when specific satellites are computed to be due overhead, and then the long axis of the field is aligned with the computed trajectory. Anything that crosses the field and leaves a record on the film with an orientation markedly different from the predicted trajectory is typically disregarded. Photographic, radar, and visual observing programs have a large degree of selectivity intentionally built into them in order not to be deluged with unwanted "signals". Hence one must be rather careful in suggesting that our many tracking systems surely ought to detect UFOs. There's much evidence to suggest that, if they did, the signal would be ignored as part of a systematic rejection of unwanted data. Even in the practices of the GOC (Ground Observer Corps), some units received instructions to report nothing but unidentified aircraft. (But for examples of some UFOs that did get into the GOC net, see Hall, Ref. 10.)

Although I am aware of a few photos allegedly showing UFOs, for which I have no reason at present to doubt the authenticity (for example a series of snapshots taken by a brother and sister near Melbourne, Australia, showing a somewhat indistinct disc in various positions), I must emphasize that the total sample is tiny. Compared with that, I have seen dozens of alleged UFO photos which I regard as of dubious origin. Other UFO photos of which I am aware are still in process of being checked in one way or another.

To summarize, I do have the impression that we ought to have more valid UFO photos than the small number of which I am aware.

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