The UFO Menace

December 20, 2017

Multiple Pages
The UFO Menace

Former Senate leader Harry Reid (D-NV) proudly claims to have slipped $22 million into the Pentagon’s “black” budget a decade ago to fund a secret Pentagon department to keep an eye on the UFO Menace. The Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, the former DoD agency started by the Senate majority leader, released video of a UFO said to have been filmed in 2004 by F-18 pilots sent to track a mysterious paramecium-shaped dot.

Reid says he launched the Pentagon office without needing to tell any fellow members of Congress other than the octogenarian Lions of the Senate Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Ted Stevens (R-AK), both of them now deceased.

So maybe there really is an Inner Party of all-knowing insiders after all? Perhaps your average Al Franken-level senator isn’t clued in to the really big secrets, but if you come from a small-population state without much political competition and keep getting reelected, finally they induct you into the club within a club that worries about the things that really matter, such as UFOs?

Or maybe flying saucers are a particular concern to constituents in Nevada (home to the secret Area 51 test-flight base), along with Hawaii and Alaska, home to extensive military radar? (My brother-in-law spent a few years in Anchorage keeping an eye on Soviet Bear bombers testing American air defenses.)

Or perhaps senile dementia is a bipartisan phenomenon?

A decade ago, a Capitol Hill technician who spent time around senators before and after the cameras were turned on told me that Reid, a former amateur boxer, was a punch-drunk old man propped up by his staff.

I have no idea if this was a palpable libel or something covered up by the Democratic-leaning press. As we are seeing with Weinsteingate, there are a lot of open secrets about the powerful that aren’t that open to the public. Heck, President Obama arranged for his own daughter to get an internship at…Weinstein Films.

“My guess is that the UFO craze that began in 1947 had something to do with the lavish postwar investment in aerospace R&D.”

The spread of ubiquitous camera phones in this century has reduced interest in UFOs. There remain unidentified flying objects, but when recorded on video, they mostly remain unidentified rather than jaw-dropping proof that Somebody Is Out There.

Still, it’s worth noting that the UFO craze that began in 1947 with pilot Kenneth Arnold’s sighting of “flying saucers” over Washington State, followed shortly by reports of the “Roswell incident” in New Mexico, was by no means wholly demented.

It tended to be fueled by reports from seemingly reliable figures, such as pilots and politicians. For example, future president Jimmy Carter saw a curious series of lights in 1969 that he called a UFO.

Now, this is often dismissed as no trustworthier than Carter’s claim while president to have been attacked by an enormous swimming rabbit. But the president really was attacked by an enormous swimming rabbit. (Things like that just seemed to happen to poor Jimmy.)

Americans spent a lot of time scanning the skies following their collective failure to notice what was coming out of the clear blue sky at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

For instance, America’s top aerospace engineer, Kelly Johnson, the founder of Lockheed’s Skunk Works, saw a curious phenomenon in the western sky on Dec. 16, 1953, that he thought was a flying saucer. The next day, he ran into the crew of a Lockheed Constellation that had been remodeled into a prototype Navy Airborne Early Warning airplane. They had seen the same inexplicable glowing shape. They then all filed detailed reports with the Air Force.

One thing to keep in mind is that for the first couple of decades of the postwar era, life elsewhere in this solar system seemed scientifically plausible. It was widely believed at the time that assuming there was anything unique or even unusual about humanity was a reactionary religious prejudice. It was often asserted that Copernicus had displaced human beings from the center of the universe and therefore it was undemocratic to assume that we didn’t have to put up with countless other intelligences, some of whom no doubt would be more advanced than us.

As physicist Enrico Fermi asked Edward Teller in 1950, “Where are they?” The pressing question was considered to be less how much evidence is there for aliens visiting us than why is there only a little evidence for aliens?

In the standard science-fiction model of the mid-20th century, Mars was envisioned as a sort of Tibet, a desiccated thin-air planet with a civilization high in philosophy but low in sex drive. Venus was assumed to be Mars’ opposite, a swampy Congo of teeming but barbaric life.

The unexpected likelihood that humans were alone in the solar system suddenly rose during the mid-1960s with the first interplanetary probes’ disappointing findings. A 1965 U.S. Mariner fly-by of Mars lowered hopes that the Red Planet was habitable. And not until a Soviet Venera crashed into Venus in October 1967 was it definitively proved that Venus was too hellishly hot to support life.

So, outer-space visitors would have had to come from planets vastly farther away.

This raised questions of how they could go fast enough to get to Earth. And to get here in any reasonable amount of time, they’d not only have to accelerate to an implausibly high speed, they’d have to decelerate sharply upon arrival. This means they’d have to take half their fuel with them in order to brake, which is a daunting requirement.

For example, earlier this year a bizarre 800-foot-long and 100-foot-wide object from outside the solar system, ‘Oumuamua, zipped past Earth at a velocity of 59,000 mph. That’s only fast enough to travel one light-year every 11,000 years (the closest star is over four light-years away). But it’s still going fast enough to carry whatever it was on its way out of the realm of our sun’s gravity.

In the postwar era, it was assumed that the difficult engineering challenges of going faster would be progressively overcome, just as humanity had gone from inventing the steamship to landing on the moon in six generations. But nothing much in terms of faster travel has happened since 1969.

Another aspect of the postwar UFO craze that’s easy to forget is that the engineering mindset was not wholly divorced from appreciation for the paranormal. The aerospace, science-fiction, movie, and New Age worlds were by no means wholly distinct. All tended to flourish and overlap in Southern California.

For example, M.D., sci-fi novelist, and film director Michael Crichton claimed in his memoir to have witnessed numerous examples of Uri Geller-style telekinetic spoon bending at house parties given by Lockheed engineers.

Likewise, a bizarre but now forgotten fad that flourished in Southern California in May 1980 was centered in the aircraft and movie suburbs such as Burbank. During the last two weeks of that month, the Ventura Freeway was jammed with suburbanites on their way to pyramid power parties. It was like a Ponzi scheme, except with mystical pyramids actually made out of prosaic wire and fabric.

You’d go over to a higher-up’s house and sit with him under his pyramid while you gave him all your cash in return for your very own kit for building a pyramid out of coat hangers and cloth. The Ancient Egyptian emanations from his pyramid would ensure that you’d get even more cash back from the suckers you’d recruit to buy your pyramid kits from you while sitting under your pyramid.

This was a multilevel scam that was hard for authorities to debunk as a pyramid scheme because it came pre-debunked as…a pyramid scheme! Admittedly, this sounds like the nutty pyramid scheme that wrecked the nascent Albanian capitalist economy in 1997, but it really did happen in L.A. just 37 years ago.

A year or two later, the Reagan administration put all the aerospace engineers back to work in the defense buildup. Perhaps not coincidentally, the demand for books about spoon bending and pyramid power simultaneously cratered.

Finally, my guess is that the UFO craze that began in 1947 had something to do with the lavish postwar investment in aerospace R&D.

The scale of Cold War spending can be hard to grasp. Recent research, for instance, suggests that Jimmy Carter’s UFO was the result of the Air Force launching two rockets from Eglin AFB that evening to release exotic gases into the upper atmosphere. Why? I don’t know, but if you had that kind of budget, why wouldn’t you rocket weird substances into the sunset to see what they look like?

The gifted but doomed aerospace firm Avro Canada spent the 1950s building a genuine jet-powered flying saucer, getting it a few feet off the ground by 1959.

All sorts of bizarre aircraft took to the air during this period. For example, Northrop’s B-2 stealth bomber’s flying wing design was not originated in the 1980s. Northrop had first test-flown its YB-35 flying wing bomber way back in 1946.

Johnson’s Skunk Works churned out improbable airplanes, such as in 1954 the Mach 2 F-104 with wings only seven feet long, in 1956 the spindly U-2 high-altitude spy plane, and in 1962 the Mach 3 A-12/SR-71 Blackbird.

The Blackbird was so radical in shape that for national-security reasons it couldn’t be flown from Lockheed Airport in Burbank to Area 51 (yes, it’s real) in Nevada. It had to be trucked in giant wrapped packages, guarded by CIA men with submachine guns. When the convoy accidentally dented a Greyhound bus, the CIA agents handed the bus driver a little under $5,000 in cash to get his vehicle repaired, no questions asked.

In 1963, when an A-12 crashed on its way back to Area 51, the crash site was immediately “sanitized.” Civilians who stumbled upon it were given a prearranged cover story that the crash was merely a run-of-the-mill F-105, but an F-105 carrying a nuclear bomb, so they had better head over the horizon fast. They were paid off in cash, perhaps $25,000 each, and informed never to speak of what they had seen.

In reading about UFOs, it sometimes seems like there’s a certain Jungian tendency for humans to project shapes they not only want to see but want to build onto whatever it is they saw. Carl Jung himself published an influential 1958 book, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, arguing that UFOs were a collective projection of anxieties over nuclear war.

A more prosaic interpretation is that defense contractors tended to see what they hoped to get a contract to design.

For example, that day in 1953 that Kelly Johnson saw a flying saucer over the Pacific, a magazine article had been published on Avro’s R&D work on building a real flying saucer. Three years later, Lockheed added to that Constellation that had also observed Johnson’s UFO a new round radar dome (“rotodome”) mounted above the fuselage that, indeed, looked like a flying saucer.

Coincidence or synchronicity?

When the Skunk Works began working on its stealth fighter in the 1970s, early designs included a flying-saucer shape. Johnson’s successor Ben Rich laughed:

Several of our aerodynamics experts, including Dick Cantrell, seriously thought that maybe we would do better trying to build an actual flying saucer. The shape itself was the ultimate in low observability. The problem was finding ways to make a saucer fly. Unlike our plates, it would have to be rotated and spun. But how? The Martians wouldn’t tell us.

It’s also possible that besides reflecting the hopes and dreams of government contractors, flying-saucer mania reflected government disinformation.

The late science-fiction novelist Jerry Pournelle told me in 2000 that when the Soviets were testing their Fractional Orbit Bombardment System for outwitting the U.S. distant early warning system in the Arctic by attacking from the south, an occasional missile would come down over Latin America, embarrassingly. After the first accurate reports would come in from observers, according to Jerry, Soviet KGB agents in Spanish-speaking countries would flood newspapers with absurd accounts of little green men to discredit the accurate tales.

The 2013 documentary Mirage Men argued that the U.S. government had been up to much the same in the West. Rather than the government suppressing awareness of UFOs, perhaps the government promoted flying saucers to cloud public awareness of what it had stumbled upon in the interests of keeping accurate information out of the hands of the Russians?

For example, the Roswell incident was dismissed by the government as a mere weather balloon that crash-landed. In reality, it was part of the top secret Project Mogul: a high-tech strategic reconnaissance balloon made out of state-of-the-art synthetic substances that was supposed to float across the Soviet Union checking for atomic-bomb tests. When the UFO conspiracy theorists revived Roswell in the 1970s, perhaps the government found it useful to encourage flying-saucer paranoia?

In turn, the Soviets devoted much money to spying on Lockheed’s Skunk Works. A Soviet electronic warfare ship disguised as a fishing trawler was often stationed off Santa Monica to try to pick up radio signals from Burbank. Experimental aircraft on the runway at Lockheed had to be trundled back into hangars whenever Soviet reconnaissance satellites appeared overhead.

No doubt the Soviets also had local agents trying to learn more about what was flying out of Area 51. Soviet espionage had proved hugely effective at learning American secrets during the 1940s, using indigenous communists such as teenage atomic-bomb prodigy Ted Hall. But the McCarthy era disabled the Communist Party USA, so 1950s Soviet spymaster Rudolf Abel, as portrayed in the 2015 Spielberg movie Bridge of Spies, spent most of his time in New York painting.

If the U.S. government really did spread flying-saucer rumors to confuse witnesses out West, it was hugely successful. The stealth fighter, for instance, was apparently unknown to the Soviets from its Have Blue predecessor’s first flight at Area 51 in 1977 until the Pentagon announced its existence in 1980.

The stealth fighter, which bounced radar beams away, was so alien in form that it looked like it had been designed by one of those ETs they keep locked away at Area 51. Ironically, America’s strategically successful stealth program was based on a Soviet physicist’s equations. Yet the feds managed to keep the Soviets so distracted they never figured that out until it was too late for their empire.

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