Video: Close encounters now on record

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    >>> have a tweet about representative boehner calling for bt obama to fire his economic team. the tweet says put geithner and summers on notice. if more jobs are lost per month, yes, fire them. after the ai zbrks coverup and solidifying too big to fail. not that i don't want to see that happen, but these guys have pretty well screwed the pooch, as they say. if you have something to share, log on now and tweet us your thoughts @dylan ratigan on the twitter. as we turn our attention from the issues that face our own nation to the issue tas face our galaxy. we turn to the topic of ufos vp. the prompter said pause for music. and i did. our next guest calling for a formal investigation of unidentified flying objects . leslie cain. ufo's government officials go on the record. there's the book. we discussed the book yesterday on the show. tole us the most valid ob observations.

    >> it brings up military people , generals, heads of government agencies that have investigates ufos . it's a grouping of the people bringing forward data. results of decades of research. government documents, physical evidence . all of them together, so, you know, when you read the cases, and the other important thing is they have written their own pieces for this book. i'm not just quoting them and telling them what you say. half the book is a compilation of pieces written by these individuals in their own words sfwlchlt the professor with us yesterday was basically saying you can rule out 93% of ufos . it's the 5% you can't rule out that you have to deal with.

    >> that's your premise?

    >> absolutely. i would agree 100%. the cases represented in the book are among the 5%. the 5% is sightings for which there's enough evidence that we can eliminate all options for explaining it. and in cases investigated enough that we know there's no explanation for them.

    >> you know there's no shortage in general. one of the issues that people have brought up as it pertains to the books is that pilots are not reliable sours. pilots by deaf nugs are skewed towards better safe than sorry. when they see something whether it's dangerous or not. their tendency is to observe whatever it is and split because they're flying an airplane and there's no reason to stick around and fly out. it doesn't mean what they think they saw is what they saw.

    >> i would disagree with that. i've spoke on the aviation experts. one has written an extensive chapter about aviation safety experts who happen to believe that pilots are best trained observe observers. they're trained to recognize everything in the sky because the safety of the passengers is at stake. they know what aircraft look like. what military aircraft look like. what bizarre weather phenomenon look like. they're trained. so i would have to disagree.

    >> what about the argument that unexplained or unidentified. if you can confirm unidentified. doesn't niecely mean that it is foreign or that it is from another galaxy.

    >> absolutely. nobody is claiming they're extra extraterrestrias extraterrestrials.

    >> what is the phenomenon?

    >> well, it appears to be some kind of technological craft. objects that demonstrate all kinds of capability we don't have around here. such as being able to hover and zoom off at the blink of an eye . they're demonstrating physics that we cannot explain. this is seen and over again. these is what the people are documenting. they show up on radar. without a doubt, there is something there. what it is is the question. it has not been explained yesterday.

    >> well, what is it?

    >> what we want to have happen now is for a proper scientific investigation to be done, to find out. everybody wants to know. a lot of people need to know .

    >> some people may not care.

    >> a lot of people don't care. especially the ones who have seen them and want answers. some of these people who have seen them, it changes your life.

    >> how does it change your life ?

    >> because you are seeing something so phenomenal that's not supposed to exist that everybody around you says can't be. you get ridiculed. but you have seen it with your own eyes. the governor of arizona was one these people. the former governor of arizona . he saw this thing in 1997 that hundreds of people saw in his own state. he didn't admit it until ten years later. it changed his life.

    >> you're rough on skeptics. you say nonbelievers are dishonest, irrational, fear and ignorance can't skeptics in the scientific process , don't you want them to be skeptical?

    >> yes. the process of skepticism.

    >> the introduction of the book you say you want skepticism. you have to define what skepticism means. if you're talking about people on the mission to move, they'll say anything to get across the point that ufos don't exist because they can't exist. they can't exist so they don't exist. these are people who don't study the data, can't read about it. they'll give you irrational explanations like the planet venus when the planet isn't in the sky. there's difference between a skeptic and a debunker. skeptics, we welcome. we're all skeptics.

    >> skeptics, yes, bunkers, no.

    >> i think if we discover we were being visited by extra tres extraterrestrials. which is a possibility.

    >> we can't talk about jobs.

    >> it's a pleasure.

    >> absolutely. leslie cain, authors of ufos , generals, pilots and government officials go on the record. could change the way we see ourselves. and it may change a job or two.

By NBC News space analyst
Special to NBC News
updated 8/27/2010 10:10:08 AM ET 2010-08-27T14:10:08

If we trust pilots to carry us through the air safely, and to guard our nation’s skies, then why can't we trust what they tell us about their encounters with unidentified flying objects?

That's the question posed by investigative journalist Leslie Kean in her new book, "UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record." It's a compelling question — but is it a good argument for the existence of something truly unexplainable?

The book's main themes are the extraordinary stories of strange aerial encounters in Europe, South America and even the United States. In these stories, investigators have failed to pinpoint phenomena to explain the sightings. And because the primary witnesses are pilots, the accounts are considered more credible than run-of-the-mill UFO reports. But are they really?

Kean asserts that pilots are the best describers of aerial phenomena. “They represent the world’s best-trained observers of everything that flies,” she writes. “What better source for data on UFOs is there?... [They] are among the least likely of any group of witnesses to fabricate or exaggerate reports of strange sightings.”

This may sound like a plausible assumption, but others who have studied the raw evidence disagree. Experienced UFO investigators realize that pilots, who instinctively and quite properly interpret visual phenomena in the most hazardous terms, are not dispassionate observers. For pilots, a split-second diagnosis can be a matter of life or death — and so they're inclined to overestimate the potential threats posed by what they see.

Story: Skeptic misses point behind UFO book

One of the world’s first genuine UFO investigators, Allen Hynek of Northwestern University, came to believe that some encounters really could have otherworldly causes. But he was much more skeptical about the reliability of pilot testimony. "Surprisingly, commercial and military pilots appear to make relatively poor witnesses," he wrote in "The Hynek UFO Report."

Hynek found that the best class of witnesses had a 50 percent misperception rate, but that pilots had a much higher rate: 88 percent for military pilots, 89 percent for commercial pilots, the worst of all categories listed. Pilots could be counted on for an accurate identification of familiar objects — such as aircraft and ground structures — but Hynek said "it should come as no surprise that the majority of pilot misidentifications were of astronomical objects."

The authors of a Russian UFO study came to the same conclusion. Yuli Platov of the Soviet Academy of Science and Col. Boris Sokolov of the Ministry of Defense looked into a series of sightings in 1982 that caused air defense units to scramble jet fighters to intercept the UFOs. Platov and Sokolov said the sightings were sparked by military balloons that rose to higher-than-expected altitudes.

"The described episodes show that even experienced pilots are not immune against errors in the evaluation of the size of observed objects, the distances to them, and their identification with particular phenomena," Platov wrote.

Susceptible to overinterpretation
Ronald Fisher of the International Forensic Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami is a lecturer who teaches staff members at the National Transportation Safety Board how to interview eyewitnesses at “critical events” such as airplane crashes. He stresses the importance of eliciting raw sensory impressions first, before asking for the witness’s interpretation of what they think they saw.

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“Once they start focusing on their interpretation, that will color the memory of their perceptions,” he told 

“Pilots are susceptible to overinterpretation, especially of vague, rapid and unclear experiences,” he continued. “The less clear the situation, the more your general knowledge and your expectations [contribute].” Passage of time is an enemy of accuracy, because it gives witnesses the opportunity “to use their general knowledge to construct the memory of what they experienced.”

As witnesses of things seen while flying, pilots were a special case. “The cost of a false negative is greater than the cost of a false positive,” he explained. “It’s probably a safety mechanism.”

The body of UFO reports is replete with cases of spectacular misinterpretations, and pilots are frequently involved. So it's prudent to use caution when evaluating the testimony of pilots.

Intelligent UFOs ... or sensible pilots?
UFOs are often reported as maneuvering intelligently, and Kean argues that a particularity of the different types of maneuvers reported by pilots serves as proof that UFOs are real and are acting with intelligence. But that logic actually ends up supporting the idea that a pilot's circumstances affect what he or she reports seeing.

Kean refers to the “Weinstein List,” a compendium of 1,300 UFO reports from pilots, assembled by French investigator Dominique Weinstein in 2001. It is described as containing only those “cases for which adequate data is available to categorize the [cause] as unknowns.”

"One crucial point I have noted, which is shown in Weinstein’s study, is that a UFO's behavior tends to depend on whether the encounter involves a military aircraft or a civilian passenger plane," Kean writes.

"Neutrality usually seems the general rule with commercial airlines or private planes, whereas an active interaction often occurs between UFOs and military aircraft. Military pilots usually described the movements of UFOs as they would air maneuvers of conventional aircraft, using terms such as follows, flees, acute turns, in formation, close collision, and aerial combat," she says.

For Kean, this constitutes evidence that the UFOs are guided by intelligent pilots. "These incidents clearly demonstrate that in no way are these examples of natural events, but rather that UFOs are phenomena with a deliberate behavior. The physical nature of UFOs has been proved," she says.

But a much simpler explanation makes more sense: The difference is due to "observer bias." People see what they expect to see, and combat pilots expect to encounter combative bogies. Civilian pilots mostly fear accidental collisions.

The different behavior that is perceived by the two categories of pilots doesn't necessarily mean the unidentified flying objects themselves behave differently. It's more likely that different kinds of pilots draw upon differently developed instincts as they react to perceived threats — and thus they bring different interpretations to stimuli that are actually similar.

10 solved UFO cases from the Weinstein List

What all this means ... and doesn't mean
There’s no reason to argue that all the pilot reports are caused by exactly the same stimuli. UFO reports that are linked to rocket launches or booster re-entries are relatively easy to explain, because the location and timing of the events can be correlated with the accounts from startled and mistaken witnesses.

For other stimuli, such as fireball meteors, secret (or illegal) aircraft operations or natural atmospheric displays, documentation of their transitory existence usually doesn't exist. The main value of the solved UFO cases is to allow a definitive calibration of pilot testimony in general.

Thus, I am not dismayed by the fact that I can't explain every case Kean mentions in her book, because experience has shown that finding the real explanation — even if it turns out to be prosaic — is often a massive effort involving as much luck as sweat. If investigators are unable to find the explanation for a particular UFO case, that doesn't constitute proof that the case is unexplainable.

This is just a fact of life, for UFO sleuths as well as other breeds of investigators. The same is true for murders, kidnappings, accidents, illnesses — for all the catastrophes that befall humanity. We don't need to conjure up alien murderers or kidnappers to account for unsolved crimes. Not finding Jimmy Hoffa isn't proof he must be on Mars.

So the “not proven” assessment makes it even more important to keep our eyes and minds open — to vigorously observe, accurately perceive, and precisely relate unusual aerial perceptions. Something really new could still be discovered. Or something critically important could be masquerading, by accident or design, in a manner that leads too many people to pay too little attention.

Accepting every UFO claim uncritically or rejecting every claim automatically would be equally unjustified. And quite possibly, equally harmful.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg is a 22-year veteran of NASA Mission Control in Houston, and the author of numerous books on space policy and exploration.

Explainer: The Weinstein List: 10 UFO cases closed

  • "Science in the USSR" via James Oberg
    These 14 sketches are based on drawings made by an airline pilot during the Minsk UFO sighting in 1984, and published in the journal Science in the USSR in 1991. The sketches show the sequence of bright lights witnessed by the pilot — and provide evidence that could help crack the case.

    The "Weinstein List" is a compilation of 1,300 UFO reports drawn up by French investigator Dominique Weinstein and cited by Leslie Kean's book "UFOs." The list is supposed to describe cases of "verified unknowns," where thorough investigation has eliminated any possible prosaic explanation for the sightings. But that's not true.

    Just relying on my own familiarity with one class of pseudo-UFO stimuli — namely, missile and space activity — I found many cases listed whose prosaic explanations had already been published in the UFO literature. Nevertheless, they were presented on Weinstein’s list as provably anomalous, and faithfully vouched for by Kean.

    Click the "Next" label to page through 10 of the solved UFO cases on the Weinstein List.

    — James Oberg, NBC News space analyst

  • 1967, Russia

    Airline pilot reports UFO flying above his plane. Engines stop, and start again only when UFO disappears. Explanation: Secret Soviet nuclear warhead test was fireballing 50 miles overhead. Any effect on engine was pilot-induced.

  • 1972, Chile

    Pilot reports amber light overhead. It's an accurate description of the surplus hydrazine propellant being dumped by the Soviet Molniya 2-2 satellite.

  • 1977, Russia

    Pilot reports a pulsating light flying "alongside" his aircraft. The light was the far-distant launch rocket for the Kosmos-958 satellite.

  • 1980, Russia

    Military pilot reports that a round object more than 300 meters in diameter "played" with his plane and then disappeared. The object was the Kosmos-1188 booster, at a distance much farther than the pilot thought.

  • 1981, Argentina

    Air crews report a bright round object flying at about 180 meters altitude. They were actually seeing the final fuel dump from the Kosmos-1317's third-stage booster, at a height of 600 kilometers high.

  • 1984, Belarus

    Image: Soviet map
    Courtesy of James Oberg

    Flight crew reports a glowing yellow object that changed shape in the sky. It was actually a sub-launched Soviet missile.

    Get the full story behind the Minsk mystery.

  • 1985, South America

    Pilots report two objects, one of them "banana-shaped." This was an accurate description of a distant sunlit cloud of rocket fuel, spewing out from an expended rocket after the launch of Japan’s Planet-A probe toward Halley's Comet.

  • 1987, China

    Military pilot reports a bright orange rotating object that climbed and disappeared at great speed. He was watching the post-insertion fuel dump from a Japanese satellite.

  • 1990, Germany

    RAF fighter pilots see a formation of UFOs over the North Sea, while a British airliner crew reports two mysterious lights nearby. This was caused by the fireball disintegration of a falling rocket stage.

  • 1994, Kazakhstan

    A cargo 747 crew reports seeing a brilliantly luminous object with a contrail corkscrewing above them. The crew is convinced it was from outer space. It was actually a Russian supply ship headed for outer space, launched several hundred miles in front of them.


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