Authors: Christian Lambright
“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”
What is the difference between a highly advanced, previously unreported aircraft, and an unidentified flying object? It became a significant question when I set out to determine what the evidence actually represents. What are the criteria for deciding what is and is not evidence? It may be easier to understand the confusion by starting with the simple question: What is the UFO phenomenon?
I can almost guarantee that most people will immediately think of flying saucers, and almost as quickly, aliens (typically from space). The truth is that those concepts do underlie what the phenomenon is all about even if those who claim to be studying it try to avoid saying so out loud. Several years ago, in what may have been an attempt to avoid saying anything specific, the public was presented with the amorphous term “Unidentified Flying Object”. It has led to endless confusion, in large part over what actually qualifies as an Unidentified Flying Object? To be quite frank, almost anything can if you go by the generally accepted definition.
With a few variations, a UFO is defined as an airborne object that is unidentifiable by the witness and remains unidentified after examination by individuals qualified to do so. The catch is that if you set out to find a mysterious object, but the only description you have is that it is an object no one can identify, how will you ever recognize it when you see it? How can you ever differentiate what it is from everything it is not? Surely it must have some unique identifying characteristics. Without any specific characteristics that define what you are looking for, you are lost! Perhaps not describing it as precisely as possible is a convenience, but it also helps perpetuate the mystery, and the result is a fairly useless definition.
An intriguing case I investigated years ago serves as an example of the problem, and by definition it would certainly qualify as a UFO experience. But what is it evidence of?
January 25, 1978, approximately 7:00 pm: A teenage boy in Robinson, Texas leaves his home on his way to visit his girlfriend. He travels a route that will take him to the west side of town and down a quiet gravel road. Riding along on his bicycle, looking across open fields, he notices a number of unusual lights in the distance. When he finally reaches the gravel road, he comes upon a strange sight near a house up ahead. About 150 yards away, four brilliant balls of light are circling a transformer at the top of a utility pole. He hesitates for a moment, and then, as he slowly draws closer, the lights suddenly move away toward the south and are lost in the distance.
Shortly after 7:00 pm, in Rosenthal, Texas (a few miles south of Robinson) two girls are driving home when they notice a dozen strange lights near the top of the next hill. For a moment they think they are seeing the running lights of a tractor-trailer rig. Soon however, they notice the lights begin to descend slowly toward the ground. Reaching their home, the girls race inside and alert their entire family. Everyone hurries to an upstairs window to have a better view of the hilltop a half-mile away where a single house sits by a narrow road that runs along the ridge.
As they watch, a car passes their home heading toward the top of the hill. It finally slows and, turning right onto the narrow road, moves cautiously east along the ridge. By this time, watching from their window, the family has become aware of a strange glow coming from behind the house on the hilltop. Suddenly, as the car approaches the lone house on the ridge, a brilliant light rises up from behind the house. The car stops quickly. The light begins to move toward the car as the driver frantically turns the car around in the middle of the road. Just as the light is about to reach it, the car races back the way it had come, with the light following all the way. At the main road the car squeals through a sharp left and heads back down the hill. The light continues straight across the road and over an open field, eventually being lost from view over the rolling hills.
A short while later, feeling safety in numbers, the girls and their mother decide to take a short drive up the hill to see what they can see. As they turn out of their driveway, another car passes, going ahead of them up the road. Both cars move up the hill and over the ridge and continue down the other side. The mysterious lights are nowhere to be seen. Near the bottom of the hill, the car ahead of them slows just before a small bridge, and then makes a right turn onto a narrow tree lined road paralleling a small stream called Bull Hide Creek.
The girls and their mother continue on across the bridge and finally come to an open field where they quickly stop. In the field are several glowing objects, and as the objects dim slightly, smaller white lights can be seen either on or near them. It takes no time at all for the women to decide to “get the hell out of there”, and they turn the car around and rush back over the small bridge.
As they cross the bridge and begin moving back up the hill, they look back and see another frightening sight. The car that moments earlier had turned onto the road beside the creek has now come to a full stop. Ahead of it, a large glowing light is hovering either directly over the road or just to one side. Suddenly, in a seemingly desperate act, the car lurches forward and appears to go directly under the object. As the car heads away, the light follows until eventually both are lost from sight. The woman and girls drive quickly back to their home and nothing more is seen.
To me there was no doubt that they had had a truly bizarre experience. At the time I lived only twenty minutes away, but I did not hear about the events until two weeks later. I learned of it from a friend whose daughter went to school with one of the young girls, and I tracked down both the family and the teenage boy. I spent a good deal of time looking for any physical traces that might support their story, but in the end the only traces left were in their memories. I was left with the simple choice of either believing them or not.
I have no doubt there were aspects of what they saw that convinced them there was intelligent control behind the objects. It was easy to understand. The lights had appeared near the only house on the hilltop and they had definitely responded to the two other cars involved. Unfortunately, the only question I could answer was whether I believed the witnesses were telling me what they saw honestly and with reasonable accuracy. I definitely believed them, for whatever it was worth, but in the end I was no closer to usable evidence.
This kind of case is actually fairly common the world over and almost anyone would label it a UFO sighting. The lights were unidentified and could justifiably have been called ‘flying objects’. Nevertheless, as Occam’s Razor goes (i.e. the simplest explanation tends to be the right one), the simplest explanation was: a) the witnesses saw something they could not identify, and b) end of story. You can’t explain it, but neither can you explain it away.
So much of what is held as evidence is not usable evidence. A light in the sky, a blurry image in a photo, even supposedly classified documents that are waved on television and touted in books are, in the end, no use at all for proving the case on the terms I set out for myself. Even in science we may be able to accept certain things as true without being able to physically lay our hands on them, but the conclusion had better be based on strong evidence.
For my part I have generally tried to rely only on cases of which I have personal knowledge. Too often stories and claims are repeated from book to book until they take on an air of validity simply because everyone seems to know them. Still, the right question can sometimes fracture what had seemed fairly solid, as in a memorable example that came to me in a telephone call about the famous (or infamous) Roswell case.
Several years ago, after seeing numerous television programs on this case, I began to notice that Jesse Marcel, the most widely represented witness to this ‘UFO’ event, never actually stated that he thought he had found part of a “flying saucer”. Throughout several television interviews I had seen, I noticed that no one ever seemed to ask him directly if
thought that was what he had found. The infamous newspaper headline at the time may have stated that a “flying disc” had been recovered, but what had Marcel actually seen? The interviews with him were certainly intended to present him as a witness in support of this being a crash of something otherworldly, so finally, out of curiosity, I called him at his home in Houma, Louisiana.
During our brief conversation I eventually asked him very matter-of-factly if there was anything in what he saw or found that made him think it was part of a flying saucer or crashed disc, etc. (I offered several terms just to be safe). His answer was an unambiguous “No”. He did make a point of saying that there was a truckload and a half of the material, something obviously very significant to him, but with that it was clear to me that what he had seen and said was being presented in ways that made it appear as support for a ‘crashed disc’ story.
This is not to say that the Roswell story stands or falls solely on Marcel’s testimony, or on my own. However, a simple question settled my mind on what seemed to be a very important issue. Whatever Marcel had found out there, from what he told me I had to conclude that he did not see anything that should have qualified as part of the UFO phenomenon. It may never be possible to resolve the Roswell story to everyone’s satisfaction, but a simple phone call was enough to convince me that my time would be better spent elsewhere.
Everything hinges on whether or not at least one vehicle seen in our skies has had characteristics and capabilities beyond anything of which we are technologically capable. Obviously, to be able to correctly and effectively make that determination, it becomes critically important to be able to identify those qualities and describe specific details.
Looking through the literature and historical records it is a simple matter to see that all along there have been reports clearly describing structured objects using terms that implied exactly that. A term like “flying saucers” does imply some structure, something that was constructed and looks like two saucers mounted rim to rim. “Airship”, a term more popular in the early 1900’s, also strongly implies a structured vehicle of some kind. The description given in the famous 1973 Coyne helicopter encounter was unambiguous and specific—a metallic gray cigar-shaped vehicle, with a slight dome on top, that paused directly in front of the helicopter in mid-flight.
With those pictures in mind, here is a working definition of my own that I believe is much more accurate and descriptive of the core of this phenomenon:
A vehicle (i.e. a structured, manufactured device) that by nature of its technological design, flight characteristics, or other capabilities, is beyond the scope of our current scientific, technological, and engineering capabilities.
This is the phenomenon in a nutshell. It makes no presumptions based on facts not yet in evidence and implies nothing about outer space, inter-dimensional travel, or any other possibilities. Those possibilities will not go away however, and in the end Occam’s razor may not yield a simple explanation.
Both the classic definition of a "UFO" (with all its variations) and my own do contain an implicit provision requiring expertise in judging the exotic nature of what is being reported. For better or worse it would take someone with a very specific skill set in terms of knowledge and expertise to know what the current level of our science and technology really is. The right evidence would have to come from the right expert to be irrefutable. What would be required is a brilliant idea and a proof of concept drawn directly from studying one of these vehicles, and this new concept would have to be widely acknowledged as totally new.
Fortunately, just such proof showed up one night, a concept demonstrated by someone with the authority, the expertise, and a solid reputation—and it made headlines.
“The best scientist is open to experience and begins with romance – the idea that anything is possible.”
My interest in the events surrounding Paul Bennewitz meshed with my interest in another incident that had occurred in New Mexico years earlier. In the early 1980’s, I had decided to create illustrations of some of the best UFO sightings on record. My plan was to get enough details from witnesses themselves to do a number of realistic paintings for an illustrated book. Of course, it all depended on finding enough cases that I was convinced were legitimate and that contained enough visual detail to make it worth the time. Unfortunately, the difficulty in meeting both those requirements eventually ground the idea to a halt, but along the way I did research a number of cases and managed to create several illustrations.