By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Many UFO sightings may be much more boring than outer space aliens. A new Pentagon report says many can be traced to airborne garbage and foreign spying. U.S. sightings have a long history.
The Pentagon made headlines in June 2021 when it announced that it had no explanation for more than 140 reports of unidentified aerial phenomena, commonly known as unidentified flying objects or UFOs. However, a recently released report updated many of these cases, declaring them to be foreign surveillance efforts, weather balloons, and general airborne trash.
Many of the events remain classified, which the Pentagon claims is to allow other nations to continue to believe their drones remain undetected. However, this leaves room for conspiracy theories about visiting aliens.
John Winthrop, former governor of the province of Massachusetts Bay, reported strange “lights in the sky” several times in the early mid-1600s. In his video series How Science Shapes Science Fiction, Dr. Charles Adler, Professor of Physics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, provides a history of alleged UFO sightings in the United States.
I Kind of Want to Believe
“There was a wave of ‘airship sightings’ in the American West starting in 1896; people apparently looked in the skies and saw some sort of strange things that they interpreted as balloons, heavier-than-air flying machines, or even as alien spacecraft,” Dr. Adler said. “This was about a decade before the first flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903. However, speculation about flying airships abounded during those times.”
For example, Adler said, Samuel Pierpont Langley first experimented with flying craft in the 1880s. Jules Verne’s novel, Robur the Conqueror, was translated into English in 1887 and featured a man who invented an airship not dissimilar to a helicopter. With flying machines on the brain, it’s possible that many ordinary objects were mistaken for flying saucers.
There’s also a good chance that some sightings attributed to UFOs were lenticular clouds.
“Lenticular, or wave clouds, can from when warm air rushing up the side of a mountain suddenly cools at the top, condensing out the vapor,” Dr. Adler said. “They can seem to move very rapidly and have characteristic saucer or cigar shapes. There was an airship sighting over Mount Tacoma in the middle of the airship craze of the 1890s which was almost certainly due to lenticular clouds.”
This phenomenon continues to this day. In June 2015, the Houston Chronicle reported that in one month, 56 supposed UFO sightings turned out to be lenticular clouds.
The Strange Case of Barney and Betty Hill
Several supposed alien abductees have risen to prominence over the years due to their stories. Whitley Strieber and Travis Walton each had their experiences adapted into films—Strieber’s became Communion, starring Christopher Walken; Walton’s became Fire in the Sky, starring D. B. Sweeney and Robert Patrick.
However, one of the first stories by someone alleging to have been abducted by aliens came from Barney and Betty Hill, who gave two striking accounts: one in 1961 and another in 1964. The latter was given under regressive hypnosis and is, therefore, both more elaborate and receives more skepticism.
“The Hills, a recently married couple, were on vacation and traveling by car in New Hampshire on the night of September 19, 1961,” Dr. Adler said. “They both saw an unknown object in the sky which they examined with binoculars. They reported this to a local air force base, then returned home and slept. Betty wrote down several dreams in which humanoid aliens interrogated her.”
Nothing explicitly paranormal occurred in the Hills’ first story. They saw an aircraft, didn’t know what it was, reported it to an air force base, and Betty had some disturbing dreams. The story took a strange turn three years later when the Hills underwent hypnotic regression therapy and seemed to “recover” memories of being abducted and probed by aliens.
“Hypnotic regression therapy is particularly bad for creating [false memories] because people are very suggestible in a hypnotic state,” Dr. Adler said. “The hypnotist and the subject create memories between them that may have no basis in reality. It is possible that memories uncovered by hypnotic regression can be real, but how can one tell?
“In UFO cases, it is difficult because there is little objective evidence.”
How Science Shapes Science Fiction is now available to stream on Wondrium.