Image: UFO
Courtesy of Leslie Kean
Taken by farmer Paul Trent with his wife in 1950, this classic picture from McMinnville, Ore., is among the most thoroughly analyzed images in UFO history.
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Special to msnbc.com
updated 9/7/2010 8:59:32 AM ET 2010-09-07T12:59:32
Commentary

When I wrote my book about officially documented UFO reports, I fully expected the skeptics to react. That’s why I was careful to focus only on the very best evidence from the most credible sources in "UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record." Since 95 percent of all sightings are eventually identified, the book is concerned only with the remaining 5 percent — those UFO events that have been thoroughly investigated, involve multiple witnesses and ample data, but still cannot be explained.

That didn’t stop James Oberg, a space analyst for NBC News, from complaining that the book was based on a “questionable foundation.”

Image: Leslie Kean
Charles Miller
Leslie Kean is the author of "UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record."

In the biographical note appended to his commentary, he notes that he spent 22 years at NASA’s Mission Control and has written books about space policy and exploration. But he neglects to inform readers of something UFO researchers already know all too well: that he is a founding fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI, formerly CSICOP), a group whose aim is to debunk UFOs and any other unexplained phenomena that challenge our familiar ways of thinking.

For many years, Oberg, while retaining his stance as an objective student of the UFO phenomenon, has been a consistently vocal skeptic.  His long list of articles dealing with UFOs date from the 1970s and are posted on his website under the heading "space folklore,"  which accurately sums up his attitude towards the subject. He may be qualified to serve as an unbiased, expert consultant on Russian or Chinese missile systems, but not on UFOs.

Story: UFO book based on questionable foundation
Image: UFOs
Harmony / Crown
In "UFOs," Leslie Kean calls for more serious investigation of unsolved UFO reports.

His objection to my many varied cases has to do with his notion that pilots are poor observers. To buttress this idea, he quotes J. Allen Hynek referring to questionable statistics compiled in the 1960s by Project Blue Book.  He also cites Russian researchers describing two events in 1982 when pilot sightings were accurately identified as "military balloons" after the fact.

This is not surprising, since the vast majority of sightings can be explained, and this kind of identification is made all the time. However, such solved sightings — whether made by pilots or anyone else — have absolutely nothing to do with the cases presented in my book.

I wonder if Oberg gave "UFOs" a careful read. He spent many paragraphs quoting me concerning a report on aviation cases by French researcher Dominique Weinstein. The problem is, those are not my quotes. The chapter from which he extracted them was written by Jean-Jacques Velasco, head of the French government‘s UFO agency for over 20 years, as is obvious in his byline and narrative about French research.

Oberg gleefully proclaims that I have “faithfully vouched for” the cases in Weinstein's list, but actually, I have respectfully allowed Velasco to write his own chapter.  (About half the chapters in my book were written by highly credentialed authorities and expert witnesses.) If Oberg wants to discuss the Weinstein study, he'll have to contact Velasco.

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Oberg’s fixation on the question of the reliability of pilots as witnesses is not raised by the generals and aviation experts I have interviewed — officials who have studied pilot cases and interviewed pilot witnesses for decades.  As described in "UFOs," French Air Force Maj. Gen. Denis Letty initiated an extensive study of UFO data because competent pilots he knew personally were confronted by the phenomenon. Chilean Gen. Ricardo Bermudez was instrumental in the founding of his country‘s official UFO investigative agency in 1997 because of inexplicable sightings involving pilots.

Richard Haines, who has written more than 70 papers in leading scientific journals and published more than 25 U.S. government reports for NASA, was formerly chief of the space agency's Space Human Factors Office and served for 21 years as a retired senior aerospace scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center. Having studied pilot sightings and related aviation safety issues for more than 30 years, and having personally interviewed hundreds of pilots during that time, Haines has concluded that pilots are indeed excellent witnesses, given their thorough training, expertise and hours of flying time.

Haines is now chief scientist for the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena. Sadly, most pilots never report their sightings, as he points out in "UFOs."

Most importantly, the aerial cases documented in "UFOs" — and many more on the record elsewhere — involve multiple factors such as:

  • Sightings of long duration, allowing for accurate voice transmissions and the refinement of the initial identification.
  • Multiple witnesses — co-pilot, crew, passengers, other aircraft in different locations, and occasionally observers from the ground.
  • Onboard radar and ground radar recording the presence of a physical object, often corresponding exactly to the visual sighting.
  • Direct physical effects on the aircraft, such as equipment malfunction.

As an example, Brig. Gen. Jose Periera of Brazil, commander of air force operations until 2005, reports on an "array of UFOs" observed over his country in 1986. Two pilots chased one of the objects for 30 minutes. Numerous other pilots saw the objects. Radar recorded them. Six jets were scrambled from two Brazilian air force bases to pursue them. Some of the pilots made visual contact corresponding to radar registrations. Both military and commercial pilots were involved. Onboard as well as ground radar systems confirmed the presence of the objects.

“We have the correlation of independent readings from different sources,” Periera writes. “These data have nothing to do with human eyes. When, along with the radar, a pilot‘s pair of eyes sees that same thing, and then another pilot‘s, and so on, the incident has real credibility and stands on a solid foundation.”

In 2007, airline captain Ray Bowyer saw two gigantic, bright yellow objects suspended over the English Channel, which he observed carefully for 15 minutes. His passengers saw them, another pilot on a second aircraft was also a witness, and an object was registered on radar.

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In 1986, three Japan Airlines pilots watched a series of UFOs for 30 minutes, communicating with air traffic control while radar operators picked up the objects in corresponding locations.

I could go on with many more examples, presented in detail in the book.

Oberg says pilots may misinterpret visual phenomena when forced to make a split-second diagnosis before taking immediate action — very rare cases, I would assume — and no one would disagree with that. But, just as was the case with the solved Russian sightings I discussed earlier, this is entirely beside the point with respect to my book, because the cases presented do not involve such a scenario.

In addition, "UFOs: General, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record" presents many other cases that do not involve pilots at all — but often military personnel and police officers — including:

  • The famous 1980 incident near RAF Bentwaters in Britain, involving the landing of a UFO and objects sending beams of light to the ground.
  • The 1981 "Trans-en-Provence" landing case in France, investigated by the official French agency GEPAN.
  • Belgian Maj. Gen. Wilfried De Brouwer‘s report on the wave of sightings in Belgium in 1989-90, which includes a spectacular photograph.
  • The 1993 "Cosford Incident" involving a UFO over two Air Force bases in Britain, investigated by the Ministry of Defense.
  • The 1997 Phoenix Lights incident that former Arizona Gov. Fife Symington described.
Image: Black triangle
Courtesy of Leslie Kean
This picture of a black triangle with lights underneath was taken in Petit-Rechain, Belgium, in 1990.

These are just a few of a host of cases with abundant data that don't rely on pilot observations — and which are still unsolved. It‘s the aggregate of cases, the accumulation of evidence and the long-running but unsuccessful attempts of qualified experts to resolve them that establishes the reality of a yet-unexplained physical phenomenon with extraordinary capabilities.

Oberg says that "if investigators are unable to find the explanation for a particular UFO case, that doesn't constitute proof that the case is unexplainable.” Fair enough. Perhaps there is some prosaic explanation still to be discovered. There‘s always that possibility, no matter how small.

But we remain in a state of ignorance concerning UFOs, leaving us with the conclusion presented in the book: We need a systematic, scientific investigation of the skies that actively looks for these mysterious and elusive objects.  In the meantime, all I ask is that devout skeptics like Oberg read the entire book before raising objections that actually have no bearing on the matter at hand.

Investigative journalist Leslie Kean is the author of the New York Times bestseller"UFOs: General, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record" (Harmony/Crown).  Her work has appeared in many publications including The Nation, International Herald Tribune and the Boston Globe.  She is also the co-author of “Burma’s Revolution of the Spirit” and co-founder of the Coalition for Freedom of Information.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Video: Close encounters now on record

  1. Closed captioning of: Close encounters now on record

    >>> 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.

Explainer: UFO cases that generate buzz

  • Image: Spiral
    Dagfinn Rapp via Space.com

    UFO investigators see references to rocket ships, aliens and astronauts that go back to the days when humans first put chisel and paintbrush to rock. More than 6,000 years later, objects that are unidentified — at least at first — continue to appear in the skies and generate buzz.

    Take, for example, the blazing pinwheel that appeared in Norwegian skies in December 2009, shown here. The sight sparked speculation that aliens were sending earthlings a signal. Other researchers speculated — and the Russian military later confirmed — that a missile failed.

    NBC space analyst James Oberg says the incident fits into a long tradition of UFO sightings over Russia that are caused by secret military and space activities. Even when there's a prosaic explanation for the sightings, they can provide useful information about covert activities.

    Click onward to learn about seven more UFO cases through time that generated buzz.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • 1897: Did an airship crash in Aurora, Texas?

    MUFON

    In the 1800s, sightings of UFOs, called airships, streamed in from across the United States, according to Mark Easter, a field researcher and international director of public relations for the Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON. Many of these sightings were explained as hot-air balloons, which were becoming a fad then. A reported UFO crash in Aurora, Texas, however, remains inadequately explained, according to a report by the group.

    Among the evidence recovered during MUFON's investigation is an unusual piece of metal with properties consistent with a crash landing, shown here in a black-and-white view from the report. What's more, remains of the alien pilot are said to be interred at the local cemetery. Requests to excavate the grave, however, have been denied. Why?

    A local historian concluded that the sighting was a hoax meant to drum up interest in the town at a time it was being bypassed by the railroad. Excavating the grave might expose the hoax. Oberg, however, says that cases such as the Aurora crash are immune to disproof — too much time has passed to rely on stories that could would have mutated and been embellished over the years, and there's no remaining physical evidence to study.

  • 1947: The 'flying saucer' sighting

    On June 24, 1947, former World War II pilot Kenneth Arnold was flying near Mount Rainier in Washington state when he spotted a chain of nine crescent-shaped objects that he said skipped across the air like saucers. Newspaper reporters, erroneously, called them "flying saucers."

    "The phrase 'flying saucers,' which are assumed to be round like a saucer, spread so quickly that people began seeing not what he saw but what the reporters had misdescribed," Oberg said. The technical description of whatever Arnold saw has rarely been reported again, the space analyst added.

    Other researchers, according to MUFON's Easter, put the sighting in the historical context of the post-World War II atomic weapons program. This activity, he notes, could in theory attract extraterrestrial attention. Plutonium for the bombs was processed at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation east of Mount Rainier.

    "If there's some surveillance going on, these things, whatever they were, it just makes sense they would be hugging the east side of that mountain when Arnold saw them," Easter said. Doing so, he noted, would have helped shield them from detection by radar.

  • 1947: The Roswell incident

    Justin Norton  /  AP

    Did UFOs crash-land in the desert outside of Roswell, New Mexico, in July 1947? According to the official line from the U.S. military, the answer is no. At the time, fragments of strange debris collected by a local rancher were explained away as an experimental weather balloon gone awry. In 1994, the military changed its story, saying that the balloon was actually part of Project Mogul, a covert operation to monitor Soviet nuclear blasts.

    Oberg is satisfied with that explanation, but some members of the UFO community view the military's explanation as a cover-up of another kind. MUFON's Easter, for example, lends credence to a theory that the military shot down two spaceships that were checking out nuclear weapons being developed and tested in New Mexico. One crash site was cleaned up before it leaked to the press; the other became known as the Roswell Incident.

    Amid the buzz, one thing is certain: The mystery has generated income for merchants in Roswell who play up the incident, including this unquestionably fake alien on display at a local museum.

  • 1952: UFO buzz hits Washington

    Image: Aerial view of Nyirangongo
    Gail Shumway  /  Getty Images

    By 1952, according to MUFON's Easter, UFO fever was at such a high pitch that sighting reports started to clog telephone networks. The buzz hit a crescendo during two consecutive July weekends with a series of visual and radar sightings over Washington, D.C.

    The military explained the wave of sightings on a temperature inversion, which can cause interference with light and radar. Skeptical members of the UFO community, however, see the time frame as the beginnings of a government-orchestrated mission to squelch the UFO phenomenon by making fun of the people who reported the sightings.

    Oberg says the government was concerned about the flood of calls - it was interfering with communications. Security experts reasoned that enemies could purposely spread UFO panic to tie up lines of communication as they dropped bombs on U.S. cities. Instead of debunking the UFOs - which was an option studied - the military shored up its communications systems.

  • 1967: Malmstrom missile site shuts down

    Robin Loznak  /  AP

    Some UFO researchers say an inadequately explained sighting at a nuclear missile launch site near Malstrom Air Force Base, shown here, in March 1967 bolsters the case for a connection between nuclear weapons development and UFOs.

    According to a MUFON investigation into the matter, retired Air Force Capt. Robert Salas, who was stationed at the site, said sightings of UFOs with pulsating red lights were followed by a rapid shutdown of the missiles' targeting system. The military admits the shutdown occurred, but its own investigation concluded that the UFO sighting was a rumor.

    Oberg says he'd like to know more about the events surrounding this incident. He notes that the tale sounds similar to a case in Russia in which officials used UFOs as an excuse to explain why nuclear equipment was faulty.

  • 1980: A diamond in the sky

    BJ Booth  /  UFO Casebook

    In December 1980, Betty Cash, Vickie Landrum and Vickie's grandson Colby were looking for a bingo game in Texas when a diamond-shaped UFO appeared in the sky. Moments later, the UFO seemed to be escorted away by a fleet of helicopters - some similar to a type used by the U.S. military, according to various accounts of the UFO incident known as the Cash-Landrum Case.

    After the incident, Cash and the Landrums reported symptoms such as nausea and burns that some experts believe to be radiation poisoning. Cash spent more than two weeks in the hospital. The trio sued the U.S. government for compensation, but the case was dismissed because a government connection to the incident could not be shown and the medical condition of the alleged victims prior to the incident remained sealed under privacy protection laws.

    "That was an interesting case in the sense that it was one of these outliers that have a bright light being carried away by helicopters low across the skies," Oberg says. "That's really bizarre and as far as we know, that, if accurately reported, was the only case where that ever really happened."

  • 2008: Did fighter jets chase Texas UFOs?

    NBC Nightly News

    Dozens of people in rural Texas near Stephenville reported seeing a large object with bright lights flying low and fast in the skies on Jan. 8, 2008, apparently chased by F-16 fighter jets. At first, the Air Force denied they had jets in the area at the time. Two weeks later, the military admitted that there were indeed jets in the area, and suggested that the residents might have seen one of the jets as a UFO.

    The admission satisfies some people as a reasonable explanation. Many such sightings turn out to be military operations. Others, however, remain unconvinced that the larger object has been adequately explained.

    Oberg says even he has been fooled by jet overflights. When the line of jets passes overhead, the lights of the leading jet can be seen long before any sound arrives from it. By the time the second and third jets fly over, the roar is evident and it looks as if the jets are chasing the "silent" light out front. "I was shocked by just how gripping, how persuasive, the illusion was that the roaring jets were following a silent light in front," he says.

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