Sunday, August 22, 2010

Why have UFOs changed speed over the years?

It is one of those little ironies of historical memory that we sometimes forget why we took an interest in some things. Take flying saucers. How many of us realise that the reason they made headlines in 1947 was not because Kenneth Arnold thought he saw spaceships from another world; but simply because he reported objects travelling at “incredible speed”? Our local paper headlined it “Officials Skeptical of Report of 1200 Mile-an-Hour Object”. The next day: “1200 MPH Flying Saucer Story Has Teller Up in Air”. The initial Associated Press dispatch specifically has Arnold saying that “he could not hazard a guess as to what they were” and ends with him admitting, “It seems impossible, but there it is.”

The reason it seemed impossible was because back in June 1947 aeroplanes were not capable of even half that speed. They had not even broken the sound barrier quite yet, although they were edging up to it. Chuck Yeager would win that prize a mere four months after the Arnold report. In his report to the Air Force, Arnold mentions an Air Force pilot suggested he had seen “some kind of jet or rocket-propelled ship that is in the process of being tested”. A subsequent communication to the Commanding General of Wright Field has him adding that he “felt certain they belonged to our government”.

Curiously, Arnold’s drawing of the objects he reportedly saw bears a significant resemblance to a plane of the period known as the Flying Flapjack. It was reportedly the fastest naval aircraft of its time, holding a forty mile-an-hour advantage over the F4U Corsair. However, it never got past the experimental stage to mass production, because of problems with propeller vibration, And the Flapjack was not exactly a secret. It had been featured on the cover of Mechanix Illustrated a month before Arnold’s experience. A few people during and after the 1947 flap felt it was likely that Arnold’s Flying Saucers were actually Flying Flapjacks.

After the event
With the benefit of hindsight we can confidently say that Arnold’s objects weren’t Flying Flapjacks. And this is not just because there were denials by the relevant officials and because Flying Flapjacks did not travel at supersonic speeds. The behaviour of the objects was all wrong. Arnold said there were nine objects in a chain and they displayed erratic motions. Test flights are usually solitary affairs with at most a chase plane tagging along. Erratic motion would be unusual for a properly functioning high speed aircraft, and erratic motion by a chain of nine of them rather bizarre. Arnold must have made a mistake somewhere.

Arnold’s speed estimate for the objects was predicated on the assumption they were at least twenty-five miles distant. He based this on the fact that he had seen them swerve in and out of the high mountain peaks and specifically noted them disappearing “just behind a jagged peak that juts out from the base of Mount Rainier proper”. Their altitude, he said, was ninety-two hundred feet plus or minus a thousand feet. When one looks at the geological survey maps of the Mount Rainier area, however, there is an interesting surprise: there are no such peaks in that altitude range. The nearest contender would be Pyramid Peak, and it stands at only 6,937 feet, far outside his range of estimates.

This suggests that Arnold experienced an illusion of some sort. The best guess is that the objects temporarily disappeared when they rolled edgewise in front of the face of the mountain causing a loss of visual resolution. The angular size estimates put them near visual threshold and the optical clutter of the mountain, unlike the sky, probably contributed to the sense of a disappearance behind a feature of the mountain even though there wasn’t one to disappear behind. Arnold’s objects were probably considerably closer and thus much slower. Given the erratic motions, the chain-like grouping, and the horizontal trajectory, the likeliest explanation would involve waterfowl. Swans would be the best choice at the altitude Arnold was travelling.

Copycat sightings
Arnold’s report excited great interest and generated a wave of copycat sightings. Ted Bloecher collected some eight hundred and fifty-three reports from this 1947 craze. The reports exhaust the thesaurus of speed superlatives. Phrases include: fast, very fast, extremely fast, high speed, tremendous speed, terrific speed, great, incredible, inconceivable, rapid, swift, amazing speed. They hurtled, streaked, and flew like blue blazes. Fifty-three percent of the reports emphasize the speed of the objects seen. A few slow saucers made it into the papers, presumably because their shape seemed relevant. The reports mimic Arnold’s report in other particulars. More than contemporary reports, there was an unusual number of sightings involving multiple objects. They favoured horizontal flight. Most of them took place in the daytime, a striking contrast to later years, when UFOs favoured the night.

Despite a considerable variety in the reports, the form of the objects was always consistent with a type of aircraft. Propellers were often seen, one witness even claiming it was larger than the rest of the plane. Jet pipes, pilot’s cockpits, glass domes, fins, legs, and antennae featured on some of the objects. Smoke, vapour hails, and rocket flames repeatedly marked their flights. A wide range of aerobatic stunts turn up among the reports: loop-the-loops, roll manoeuvres, banking, weaving, climbing, diving, tipping, circling, and swooping. Some “UFOs” buzzed cars, but unlike decades later, the car engines never died. It has been thought significant that animals sometimes reacted to the objects, yet a close reading suggests it wasn’t because of their spooky alien-ness; the saucers were doing barnstorming manoeuvres.

Notable by its absence is any indication of extraterrestrial technology: no lasers, heat rays, paralysis rays or gases, mind control rays, power rings, levitation of people or objects, denaturalisation, matter interpenetration, space-suited entities, robots, remote eyes, or even simple observation ports. Nobody was looking for aliens and nothing was seen to suggest any were there.

Things have certainly changed since 1947, and the oddest, simplest proof of this is in the statistics about the speed of saucers. Where 53 percent of the cases of 1947 emphasize speed, statistics from 1971 showed only 41 percent of cases mention it. By 1986 it had fallen to 22 percent. Inversely, there has been a startling shift in the presence of hovering in UFO reports. Only 3 percent of Bloecher’s 1947 population of reports involve hovering. That any are present at all may have something to do with either the fact that the Flying Flapjack was known to possess a vertical landing and take-off capability or with the fact that 1946 saw the first licensing of commercial helicopters. By 1971 hovering appeared in 39 appeared of reports and by 1986 it swelled to 49 percent. Hovering has moved from practical insignificance to become the dominant mode of presentation, showing up over twice as often as high speed.

Speed shift
A fuller appreciation of this shift can be gained by illustrating it by reference to the most popular cases. In the early years, speed estimates were a standard detail. Mantell’s UFO purportedly travelled over 360 miles an hour. When the UFO in the Chiles-Whitted case kicked in its blazing afterburner it went to speeds of 500 to 700 miles an hour; Great Falls: 200 to 400 miles an hour; Lubbock Lights: 1,800 to 18,000 miles per hour; Tremonton: 3,780 miles per hour; Nash-Fortenberry: 12,000 miles per hour; Washington Nationals: 100 to 130 miles per hour; Lakenheath: 12,000 miles per hour; Levelland: 600 to 800 miles per hour; Trindade: 600 to 700 miles per hour.

Cases from the 1960s, by contrast, rarely give speed estimates. In the Socorro case there is only talk of a slow descent and an easy climb. In the Exeter incident we encounter a “falling leaf motion” and UFOlogists indicate this is a repetitive, one even says almost universal, feature of saucer motion. The Spaur UFO chase involves speeds of around 80 miles per hour, and nobody comments on how slow this is compared to the 1950s. Herb Schirmer was told by aliens that they can travel at 150,000 something, but he isn’t sure if it is miles per hour or something else.

We can find a couple of speed estimates in the 1970s. In the Coyne helicopter incident, we are given the figure of 700 miles per hour. In the Kaikoura classic we get the estimate of 10,800 miles per hour. We also get a hint of great speed in the Joe and Carol abduction of 1976 with stars said to be shooting by as they travel in the craft. Allan Hendry dismissed this as obviously inspired by Star Trek visual conventions.

When we come to the 1980s the most striking speed estimate comes from the Westminster flap where objects crawled across the sky at 25 miles per hour. This is argued to be too slow to be terrestrial. Similarly, in the Gulf Breeze incidents, proponents focus on the ability of the objects to perfectly hover amid a 15 miles per hour breeze as proof of non-terrestriality. In an analysis of the 1992 Williamsport, Pennsylvania UFO wave published in Timothy Good’s Alien Update the objects are all described as slow, very slow, or stationary. The statistics don’t even list a category for high speed! The UFOlogist professes they are extremely slow – much slower than a Piper Cub can safely maintain its slowest speed. In 1947 the saucers were faster than any aircraft known and prompted speculations they were powered by atomic energy. Now they are miraculous because they are too slow. The shift in rhetoric is such a complete inversion it would be hilarious if it wasn’t so astonishing.

Hovering wasn’t absent in the 1950s, but it had a curious habit of being associated with disreputable cases like the Maury Island hoax and Desvergers. All the contactee cases had ships which hovered inches or feet above the ground. In Truman Bethurum’s account the saucer could move faster than one could bat an eye, but as it landed it abruptly decelerated so the aliens could demonstrate “how slowly this monster could be brought down”. Interest rarely focused on this ability of hovering. In the Daniel Fry case the emphasis remained on speed. We are meant to be impressed when he tells us he went from White Sands, New Mexico to New York and back in half an hour. The given speed: 8,000 miles per hour. In the 1961 Eagle River case the flourish we are supposed to note is how a tree was bowed over in the wake of a saucer take-off. The Professor Johannis contact, revealed in 1964 (backdated to 1947), has the teller being rolled over and over in the dust because of the air-shock of his saucer’s take-off. I would guess the Father Gill classic of Papua New Guinea was the first reputable case to display hovering, but it was too little known for a long time to consider it a factor in starting the trend to slower saucers noticeable in the 1960s.

Why did this shift from fast to slow take place? The simplest answer has to be the fading of memory. Arnold’s report lost its fascination as newer, better, shinier cases crowded it out for public attention. Cases like Socorro, Exeter, the Swamp Gas saucer of Dexter, Flynn, and The Interrupted Journey of Barney and Betty Hill captured people’s imaginations and became the models to which later experiences would be compared. The search template of what should be considered wondrous filtered out what seemed irrelevant. In 1947 people looked for speedy things and things that looked like discs, and ignored the slow stuff and the lights floating around at night. There was a heavy bias to misinterpreting flocks of birds.

Later, people searched for bright lights and slow, hovering objects and, as Allan Hendry showed, people had a bias towards misinterpreting stars, planets, and aeroplane lights.

UFOs in the movies
It is possibly relevant to also consider how the image of saucers changed in film over the years. Initially, movies followed the model set by Arnold’s report. Bruce Gentry: Daredevil of the Skies (1949) and The Flying Saucer (1950) show brief glimpses of saucers flashing by at high speeds. The plots indicate they are not alien, but man-made. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) initially emphasises speed in radar tracking reports, but the landing involves the saucer settling to earth with a soft glow as befits a powerful, but peaceful visitor. The scene is aesthetically impressive and had to be a factor influencing contactee stories. It Came from Outer Space (1953) and War of the Worlds (1953) emphasise speed with craft trailing sparks and ploughing into the earth. The latter, however, also presents futuristic aerial tanks slowly rising and hovering over the landscape. Hovering and slow movement are presented in Invaders from Mars (1953), Devil-Girl from Mars (1955), and The Cosmic Man (1958). Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) suggests speed in many key scenes, but hovering and gyrating in place are also present.

The aesthetics of anti-gravitational hovering reached iconic status with the arrival of The Invaders TV series in the mid-1960s. The image of a slow landing was repeated weekly at the beginning of each show. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) reprises some examples of speed from UFO lore, but hovering dominates the pivotal scenes of Neary’s first encounter and the arrival of the mother ship. The ship in E.T. (1981) moves in a languid fashion even in its final rainbow-coloured acceleration. The TV series The Greatest American Hero (1981-83) presented a hovering mother ship with a glowing power ring that would serve as the model of the Gulf Breeze incidents. Wavelength (1983), Starman (1984), Cocoon (1985), Uforia (1987) and Fire in the Sky (1993) demonstrate a modem trend to slowness and hovering as a cinematic convention which parallels contemporary UFO trends. One could make a case that cinema showed an earlier trend to slowness than UFO lore and may have had a causal role in the shifting template of what makes UFOs mysterious, but it also can’t be denied the films initially imitated life. Its role is not dominant in shaping perceptions.

The cultural dimension

Saucers flying like blue blazes are no longer a dominant part of our definition of a UFO experience either in film or lore. In an age where supersonic transports routinely cross the oceans, multi-mach jets are a staple item in every country’s military, and space shuttles regularly escape the bounds of earth, speed no longer seems so magical as it did at mid-century.

Levitation unassisted by helicopter rotors and rocket flames remains impressive and so defines alien-ness in a way high speed no longer can. Twelve hundred miles per hour is no longer incredible.

Does this prove UFOs are unreal phantoms that blend in with their times? No. Strictly, it only proves that there is a cultural dimension in our assumptions about what constitutes the behaviour of a flying saucer. People do not report everything that is present in the sky but select only what is presumed to be interesting. What is interesting changes year to year, decade to decade, century to century. We’ve forgotten that Kenneth Arnold was interesting for reasons that no longer interest us. That, in itself, is interesting.

Text by Martin S. Kottmeyer
Source: TPM The Philosopher's Magazine
This article is taken from Why Statues Weep edited by Wendy M. Grossman and Christopher C. French, a collection of the best articles from 21 years of The Skeptic magazine