Monday, May 19, 2008

The Arrival of the Saucers down under

(my July 2006 UFO History Keys column for the Ufologist magazine)
"Flying saucers" entered the mainstream in 1947. Initially perceived as an American passing fad newspapers in Australia picked up on the controversy. It wasn't long before locals were reporting their own "saucer" sightings. There were many reports before 1947 but it was this wide public manifestation and reporting that ushered in the "flying saucer" era which in turn would be recognised and defined as the UFO phenomenon. My web site documents some of the Australian pre 1947 sightings along with a few 1947 reports.An example of the Australian reporting of the period can be seen in the front page of the Sydney afternoon newspaper "The Sun" of July 8 1947 - "39 STATES SEE 'SAUCERS', MYSTERY DEEPENS, FANTASTIC THEORIES, 6 Claim They Saw "Saucers" Over Sydney, "Illusions," Claims Psychologist." Other Sydney newspaper coverage at the time included the following headlines: "First 'Saucer' Found Was A Balloon" (a reference to the Roswell story - The Sun, July 9), "MORE 'FLYING SAUCERS' REPORTED IN U.S." (Daily Mirror July 7), "TWO "FLYING SAUCERS" SEEN TO LAND IN U.S., Searchers Fail To Find Any Traces, Phenomena Seen By Sydney People." (Daily Mirror, July 8), (and in a measure of how quickly the treatment changed) "SAUCERS BEGINNING TO MAKE FOR SHELVES, Back-To-EARTH Flight Route, Festival For the Screwballs." (Daily Mirror, July 9) Inside the Mirror reported "FLYING SAUCER" GROUNDED ON RANCH Handed Over to U.S. Army DETAILS OF DISC KEPT SECRET. SKY GAZERS GOT IT IN THE NECK (this story announced "Sydney people have given up gazing into the heavens after "flying saucers") , The Sydney Daily Telegraph newspaper reported a similar evolution in reporting: "FLYING SAUCERS" REPORTED IN AMERICAN SKIES (July 7), "AMERICAN PLANES PATROL FOR "FLYING SAUCERS" (July 8), "It Was Only A Storm In A Saucer U.S.A. NOW LAUGHS AT DISC "Flights Of Fancy" (July 9), "Flying Saucers" Queer Tales Told By "Observers" (July 9). Sydney's "newspaper of record" - the Sydney Morning Herald chimed in with stories like "Students At Sydney University See "Flying Saucers"; Professor F..S. Cotton's Theory" (July 8) and "Sydney People Still Say They're Seeing "Flying Saucers" (July 9).It was a pretty tough gauntlet that any "saucer" spotter would have to run. The media treatment ensured that the UFO phenomenon's manifestations would remain largely marginalised and somewhat hidden.

One of the more interesting early cases was the following experience. In October, 1949, two men observed a UFO near Townsville, Queensland. One of them, Mr. J. Baxter, recalled the event in a 1967 letter to the UFO Investigation Centre:
“I was a commercial fisherman, fishing at the time for spanish mackerel,
with a chap named John Campbell ... It was a bad season, and we were fishing
desperately to get out of the red, (and) not to be easily distracted by anything
“Well! We were fishing off North Palm Island ... on a clear,
bright, sunny day, with perfect visibility, when we saw this object - a bright,
shining, metallic cigar shaped construction, (over 100 feet long) poised about
70 to 80 feet above the sea, and about 500 or 600 yards distant. “There was no
sign of wings, propellers, or portholes ....
“At the time we were making
circles in the boat, to try and excite the mackerel ... We would lose sight of
it (as they turned) for a minute or maybe two. But we kept watching it, mainly
because we were intrigued by the fact that it was motionless, just poised there,
between sea and sky....
“We had a noisy engine ... so we did not hear any
noise from it.... We watched it, as we made our tight circles, for maybe, half
an hour, and the while I was intently watching, the bow swund between us and it,
and it was gone - without any fuss, or even a contrail. This was incredible, and
really rocked us, that anything could get out of sight on a clear day, almost
instantaneously. Not even the modern planes of today could equal such a

For Australia at least it would take a rash of sightings in 1950 to give a more substantial public launch for the UFO mystery down under. These included the sightings of Fred Bepps in Geelong Victoria during June 1950 and Alex Holland near Avoca Victoria in July 1950.
It is ironic that the reporting of a less compelling sighting in New South Wales in April 1950 on the front page of the "Sunday Sun" of April 23 (THEY CALL THESE FLYING SAUCERS Strange sight scares women) may have registered prominently in the consciousness of the "father of Australian ufology" Edgar Jarrold. Inside the same issue Jarrold was "profiled" in the Sun's "People: Human Stories" but not for any UFO or flying saucer angle. That would come with his own sighting in the following year (1951), which led to him to form his Sydney based UFO group - the Australian Flying Saucer Bureau - in July 1952. The Sun's 1950 "profile" described Jarrold as "a man with a secret" - "a book with such a weird plot that it frightens him whenever he thinks about it", a mystery novel called "Death's Darkness". Interviewed at the plaster factory where he worked Jarrold lamented the lot of a struggling writer. He indicated, "I received no encouragement from my parents, who simply bought me expensive accountancy courses which I never finished." The piece is accompaned with a photo of the 31 year old Edgar Ruce Jarrold. A better copy of the photo of Jarrold used in the article was kindly provided to me by his son Karl. The same column reported that E. Stanley Brookes of the Melbourne Society of Psychic and Occult Scientific Research had psychic circle "insights" into the nature of "flying saucers" - "radar-controlled war weapons ... being experimented with by at least two nations". Stanley Brookes, indicated he was also known as "the Graveyard Man" and "the only Australian Red Indian Chief". I think I get his "grave" drift .... lets put it down to the era and a bit of eccentricity.
Jarrold's past was rather colourful and interesting. Indeed during World War Two he languished for some time in an internment camp on the Isle of Man for expressing anti-British opinions and becoming a security concern. His internment was probably over extended because of the complication of his use of a false name - Roy Peter Simpson. He was eventually released returning to Australia in August 1943. An extensive security file exists and is accessible via the National Archives of Australia (File Series A367 Item C70388) Keith Basterfield of the Australian Disclosure project kindly provided me with a copy of the file in 2004.

There was of course evidence of earlier cursory interest by the military. Among the earliest of the still extant sighting reports in the Directorate of Air Force Intelligence (DAFI) files was a nocturnal light account at Bass Point, NSW, on July 16, 1950. The growing number of reports that involved official agencies and highly regarded sources served to heightened official interest, initially from two quarters, namely the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA).

The following report is striking not only because of the contents but also because of the calibre of the witness. Just one day earlier, the Minister for Air, William McMahon (a future Australian Prime Minister) had stated in parliament that the “flying saucer” reports were “probably based on flights of imagination”. Flight Lieutenant William Scott, the chief test pilot for the Government Aircraft Factories, was not given to “flights of imagination” and yet at approximately 1200 hours on August 14th, 1952, while flying in a Vampire aircraft, between 35,000 and 36,000 feet, near Rockhampton, Queensland, he observed something he could not explain. Looking east, towards the coast, Scott saw a large circular light at a lower elevation which could not be estimated due to bad ground haze. The light was the colour of an ordinary incandescent light globe. After approximately one minute a number of small lights (6 to 10) appeared to come from the main light. The smaller lights appeared to surround the bright light for about 2 minutes before disappearing. After a further 2 minutes the big light also disappeared. That report did not become public knowledge. It may have been embarassing for the Minister if it had. The report remained classified until I found it in DCA UFO files I was permitted to examine at the offices of the Bureau of Air Safety Investigations during November, 1982.

The first major sighting wave of real significance occurred in May, 1953, with the “Mackay Incident” as its cornerstone. On May 10th, the crew of an ANA DC3 aircraft observed “a strange object like a lighted glass dome” manoeuvring around them for some 5 minutes. The UFO was also observed from the ground by Mackay airport personnel.
Despite the delayed and tentative beginnings the UFO controversy in Australia is an extraordinary manifestation of a global phenomenon with many rich and potent expressions with numerous breakthrough cases and developments emerging from down under. Excellent examples can be found within the pages of the Ufologist magazine and in the published record of Australian groups and researchers. You can also find some on my web site (at the link given above) and in my books "The OZ Files - the Australian UFO Story" (1996) and "Hair of the Alien" (2005) (the latter focuses on the alien DNA paradigm strikingly revealed in the DNA study of the biological evidence involved in the Peter Khoury abduction milieu - a case study from Sydney Australia).
Images: The photo of Edgar Jarrold from 1950 was secured from his son Karl during my meeting and interview with Karl Jarrold (Bill Chalker)
The front page of the July 8 1947 Sun newspaper was acquired by Bill Chalker from the Sun newspaper microfilm file held at the NSW State Library (Bill Chalker)


(from my May 2006 UFO History Keys column in the Ufologist magazine)
During May 2006 the release of a previously secret UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) report on UFOs, identified with the code name “Condign”, attracted a media response that characterised the UFO phenomenon as much a’ do about nothing, and if it was anything it was innocuous. In this case it was “UFOs (are) just plasma” (The Australian, May 8, 2006) or “UFO study finds no sign of aliens” (BBC, May 7, 2006). The inevitable media takes of “the death” of UFOs followed, one of the silliest being Rod Liddle’s “Who needs UFOs when you can play Sudoku?” in the Spectator (May 13, 2006). Other accounts were slightly more discriminating, such as Nature on line, which described the study as “pointless research”, based on poor science ( May 9 2006). Few took the trouble to go beyond the “Executive summary” of the 3 volume report, which was released a week before the full MOD release by a team of researchers led by Dr. David Clarke, who had secured the full report via a Freedom of Information request. His book “Out of the Shadows – UFOs, the Establishment & the official Cover-up” (2002), co-authored with Andy Roberts highlighted his credentials as a solid researcher, but his take on the subject has been sceptical.

More detailed examination of the 460 page study reveals a major problem, as the quality of the MOD sighting report data used was very limited, with most of them taking the form of a 2 page MOD sighting report form, with a mere 17 question prompt points. As the data extracted from these was so limited, the very obvious point is the data falls far short of a credible data base to extrapolate findings from with any serious degree of confidence. Any conclusions extracted from the severe limitations of the MOD sighting report forms would be fraught with uncertainty. Combine this with the dubious research and science that backs up the findings, one can only at best use the report as a helpful insight into the background and workings of MOD deliberations on “the UFO problem”. The MOD UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) reports are just very pale approximations of the more in-depth case studies that inform the deliberations of more serious sighting investigations undertaken in competent civilian investigations. An excellent summary study of such civilian data exists in, for example, in the 681 page book “The UFO Evidence – A Thirty-Year Report” by Richard Hall (2001). I certainly attach more credibility to that study than I do to the 2000 UK MOD “Condign” report.

The explanatory focuses of the 2000 UK MOD study are “plasmas”, and indeed the hypothesised “airborne buoyant charged bodies”, allegedly the result of atmospheric or environmental factors, or meteor activity, serve up a striking sense of deja-vu to researchers well informed on UFO history.

Plasmas as an answer for UFOs were examined in the 1960s and abandoned as an inadequate explanation. In fact it was plasmas that served as the late Philip Klass entry point into the UFO controversy. He wrote a book “UFOs Identified” (1968) which sought to explain away the more substantial UFO reports. Unfortunately his “explanation” was demolished by a leading atmospheric physicist, Dr. James E. McDonald, who himself had been engaged in a very detailed investigation of the UFO subject. His demolition can be read in his 1968 paper “UFOs – An International Scientific Problem”. The US Air Force’s commissioned study – the Condon report – had also examined “plasmas” as an explanation for UFOs and found them to be not a viable one. See the Condon report published as “Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects” (1969), specifically Section VI Chapter 7 “Atmospheric Electricity and Plasma Interpretations of UFOs” by Martin Altschuler. The Condon study even convened a Plasma UFO conference in October 1967.

Had the UK MOD analyst who prepared the 2000 “Condign” report properly considered these earlier examinations of plasmas I doubt if there would have been much left to sustain the report, and it would have been largely inconclusive, as the original limited sighting material it was based on, should have suggested. Instead the MOD report even lurches more uncertainly into “plasmas” spawned by meteors. Such dubious and uncertain connections are hardly new.

For example, even our own government minister Lord Richard Casey (External Affairs (now foreign affairs) and the CSIRO, and later Governor General) put forward meteors as a primary explanation as early as 1952 and also in 1954. In fact he had the then Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) head Alfred Brookes secure information from British intelligence and military science sources, specifically G. I. Turney, of the Directorate of Scientific Intelligence, MOD and Dr. Blount. Turney was the chairman of the UK MOD “flying saucer working party” which in 1951 concluded all UFOs were explainable by mundane sources (not plasmas I might add). Turney even wrote of Casey’s “meteor” hypothesis as being “entirely sensible, if not very original” (via Brookes ASIS memo to Casey, External affairs, February 23 1954).

So while the uncritical media and debunking skeptics might embrace the newly released 2000 MOD “Condign” report as the final nail in the UFO coffin, the UFO “corpse” is hardly dead and is very much in vital evidence through continued substantial sightings and robust and often impressive civilian research. In fact the MOD report is an excellent case study of an example of a dubious response of military intelligence to the UFO phenomenon.