I happened to catch the Unsolved Histories that dealt with UFOs. I now understand something about that program that I didn’t know for certain before. The experiments conducted are so much eyewash and have nothing to do with reality. All three of the experiments that were performed on that program were badly flawed and the results, while interesting, were virtually useless.
Taken in reverse order, I’ll look at the Mantell case, where a National Guard pilot died chasing a UFO, the Roswell case, which is, of course, the alleged crash of an alien ship, and finally the Arnold sighting which is credited with launching the modern UFO era.
For those interested in a complete examination of the circumstances surrounding the crash of Captain Thomas Mantell, all the relevant material is in a paper at www.virtuallystrange.net/ufo/updates/. For the Unsolved Histories experiment to be relevant, the producers should have reviewed everything that had been written about the case since January 1948. They avoided the eyewitness testimony of those on the ground, including the crew in the Godman Army Airfield Tower near Ft. Knox, Kentucky, the other pilots in the flight with Mantell, and dozens of others who reported the object in the afternoon sky.
For the experiment, and making it sound as if they were doing a scientific study, they used the services of a professional astronomer who would calculate the position of the sun in the sky to duplicate the condition from 1947. They also used information about a new type of balloon in 1947, known as a Skyhook, so they could create a model of the balloon with lighting that would be similar to that Mantell saw. They found one of the few working F-51 Mustangs, the type of fighter that Mantell have been flying. They were now ready for their experiment.
I would have believed the experiment relevant, except they were in California rather than Kentucky, they were in the middle of summer rather than winter, they were flying in the early morning rather than the middle of the afternoon, the Mustang they used was configured with a jump seat for a passenger when Mantell’s was not, and the sky was clear while the evidence shows that the sky was slightly obscured in 1948. And, of course, there was nothing in the sky for them to photograph. They had to add that to the tape later, to show us what Mantell might have seen.
While I thought it impressive that they reconstructed the Skyhook balloon on a small scale and duplicated the lighting conditions as best they could, all of this didn’t have to be done. If they had read the eyewitness statements, available in the Project Blue Book files, on-line at the NICAP web site, or on microfilm from the National Archives (Marked as RG 341, Records of the United States Air Force, Project Blue Book T-1206, Roll 2), they would have read descriptions that make it clear that the object was a balloon. It hung in the sky for hours, giving the witnesses a chance to study it, some of them using binoculars. When you read the descriptions, it’s quite clear that what Mantell saw was a balloon, probably 60,000 feet above him, made of a material that had a metallic sheen. A type of balloon that Mantell had never seen, and which fooled him. Nearly everyone who has studied the case now understands that Mantell chased a balloon. It was a conclusion reached without an elaborate looking experiment that was of little real value but that made good television.
Next they went after Roswell; suggesting that human memory is fallible and that people add and subtract from their memory over time. They suggested that memory might not be accurate, though the person relating the memory might believe that he or she is telling it exactly as it happened. So, is there something new in that?
Their experiment was to bring in some volunteers who would believe that they were going on a nature hike, but along the route, they would pass a crash site where there would be metallic debris and armed guards. Later, weeks later, they would be asked what they had seen and it would be compared to the videotape made from their helmet cameras.
Once again, there are problems with the experiment. First, the witnesses whose Roswell testimony is considered reliable all spent hours on the field and handled the debris. Second, armed men did not intimidate many of them, because they too, were soldiers. And finally, the implication of the experiment was that all memories are untrustworthy and that all people suffer from the same memory problems and that just isn’t true.
Their experiment was unnecessary if they were attempting to show that memories can, and the key word here is can, be altered over time. Psychologist Ulric Neisser conducted an experiment when the Challenger was destroyed in 1986. The day after the disaster he had the students in his freshman psychology class answer a short questionnaire about the explosion. These were simple questions about where they were when they heard and how they had learned about the disaster. He then filed those questionnaires away until the students were seniors. He then gave them all the same test with one additional question. He wanted to know how accurate they believed their memories to be.
According to the results, a quarter of the students didn’t have one memory that was accurate. In one case, for example, the student reported he had been home with his parents, but the truth was, he had been at college.
At the other end of the scale were those whose memories were completely accurate and that didn’t seem to be colored by the passage of time. So, what have we learned? That some people have memories that have been altered over time and others don’t. Some people remember an event accurately and some don’t. And that the experiment performed by the Unsolved Histories, while interesting, has nothing to do with the Roswell case, other than suggest that some witnesses, while honestly reporting what they remembered, might be in error. But there is no reason to believe that those talking with us today, or who have been interviewed in the past, were relating memories that have been altered, especially when those witnesses have their testimony corroborated by other witnesses and documentation.
Instead, Unsolved Histories trotted out the anthropomorphic dummies that the Air Force had used in ejection system tests in the 1950s and suggested that the Roswell witnesses might have been confused by the wreckage and dummies left by those experiments. They failed to mention that those experiments took place ten years later, only one experiment fell near Roswell, and that there is no evidence that a witness relating his or her experience about the alien craft had even been in a position to see the Air Force experiment. In fact, without being able to produce that evidence, this anthropomorphic dummy theory fails.
The Unsolved Histories crew again, should have reviewed the available literature. Maybe they would have then questioned some of the Air Force assertions. For example, Colonel Richard Weaver interviewed retired Lieutenant Colonel Sheridan Cavitt. In 1947, Cavitt was in the Army’s Counter-Intelligence Corps and was stationed in Roswell. Major Jesse Marcel said that Cavitt accompanied him out to the ranch where the debris had fallen. Marcel, of course, described metal that could not be dented with a sledge hammer, some parchment like material that could not be set on fire, and had loaded his car with debris to be taken to the Roswell Army Airfield. In later interviews he would explain that the material was something that had fallen to earth but that was something that had not been made on Earth.
When I interviewed Cavitt in the early 1990s, he told me that he had never been involved in the recovery of any balloon material which, unfortunately contradicts what he told the Air Force five or six years later. He was too busy in 1947 to worry about balloons. But when Weaver interviewed him, the story was different. Weaver asked, after Cavitt had described the scene that he and Marcel have found, "What did you think it was when you recovered it?"
Cavitt said, "I thought it was a weather balloon."
The next logical question, at least to my way of thinking, should have been, "Did you communicate this rather important bit of information to Marcel?"
Instead, Weaver asked, "Were you familiar with weather balloons at the time?"
Unsolved Histories didn’t bother with the testimony of Lewis Rickett, who worked with Cavitt in Roswell and whose story is completely at odds with him. Nor did they search for any of the documented and video taped interviews with Jesse Marcel, nor did they worry about finding any of those who had handled the debris to describe it. Instead they performed an experiment that was irrelevant but which looked good to those who don’t understand true scientific testing.
Finally, let’s look at the Kenneth Arnold sighting. Unsolved Histories found an aircraft like that flown by Arnold and they traced his course as he flew across Washington State in June 1947. Arnold said he saw a group of objects traveling at what he believed to be about the same altitude as he was flying and judged them to be about fifty miles away. He timed their flight between two points and calculated they were flying about 1800 miles an hour, or much faster than anything of that era.
During the experiment, Unsolved Histories determined, to their satisfaction, that Arnold couldn’t have made the observations as he claimed. The objects wouldn’t have been visible to him. They were suggesting that he had made a mistake and therefore there could be an explanation for his sighting. They came up with a reflection on the cockpit windows and the possibility of geese.
But here are the problems. If they had bothered with reading any of the material about Arnold, they would have known that he thought of reflections of some kind, and turned the aircraft to find out if that solution worked. He also thought of water on the windows and opened one to make sure that he wasn’t being fooled in that way.
As for the birds, if they were closer than he estimated, then they would have been flying slower. The problem is if they had been much closer he would have recognized them as birds. If they were farther away, then they would have been flying even faster, if he could have even see them.
And, they didn’t account for the sighting of Fred Johnson who told the Air Force that he had seen the objects about the same time as Arnold. Johnson even wrote that he had seen the objects through a telescope. So, there is independent corroboration for Arnold’s sighting, if Johnson is to be believed.
What we have in Unsolved Histories are producers who have the answers before they perform their experiments and experiments that are full of design flaws. Only the Arnold experiment adds anything to our knowledge of the case. In both the Roswell case and the Mantell tragedy, we have badly flawed experiments. A little on-line research could have saved them all some trouble, but then that wouldn’t have had the cloak of scientific investigation. And this ignores that the first step is to review the available literature so that you don’t duplicate the earlier investigation unless, of course, you are attempting to corroborate those results.
In the end, they solved nothing, though they drew conclusions. Had they bothered with the latest UFO research, they would have known that the Mantell sighting was solved long ago, that their information about the Roswell case was out of date, and that the Arnold sighting was not stand alone. They could have saved themselves some time and they could have attacked other sightings, maybe adding something to the research. In the end, they offered entertainment but not science.