Some of you out there may be celebrating International Skeptic’s Day today, while others may be gearing up for the new X-Files miniseries which is set to start airing next week. Regardless, we thought it was a perfect time to offer a close encounter with Joe Nickell’s classic book, Real Life X-Files.
As a former private investigator and forensic writer, Joe Nickell has spent much of his career identifying forged documents, working undercover to infiltrate theft rings, and investigating questioned deaths. In this book, he turns his considerable investigative skill toward the paranormal, researching the most well-known and mysterious phenomena all over the world—spontaneous human combustion, UFO visitations, auras, electronic poltergeists, and many, many more—with an eye toward solving these mysteries rather than promoting or dismissing them.
Enjoy this excerpt from Real Life X-Files where he debunks a report of a UFO over Louisville, Kentucky:
Flying Saucer “Dogfight”
Did an extraterrestrial craft actually fire on a police helicopter? If not, what was the nature of a UFO that two officers reported attacked them over Louisville, Kentucky, in 1993? Is this the case that proves the reality of alien invaders?
The modern wave of UFOs began on June 24, 1947, when businessman Kenneth Arnold was flying his private airplane over the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. Arnold saw what he described as a chain of nine disc-like objects, each flying with a motion like “a saucer skipped across water.” Whether Arnold saw a line of aircraft or mirages caused by temperature inversion or something else, the flying saucer phenomenon had taken flight. Once again reality followed fiction. Popular science fiction magazines like Amazing Stories had been publishing wild tales of extraterrestrial visitations, complete with imaginative covers illustrating strange, circular spaceships.
UFO reports continue to be common. Most fall into two categories, the first being termed “daylight discs”—metallic, saucer-shaped objects. When properly investigated, these often turn out to be weather, research, and other balloons; aircraft; meteors; kites, blimps, and hang gliders; wind-borne objects of various kinds; and other phenomena. Photographs of such discs often turn out to be lens flares (the result of interreflection between lens surfaces), lenticular (lens-shaped) clouds, and other causes, including, of course, deliberate hoaxing. Many faked UFO photos have been produced simply by tossing a model spaceship in the air or suspending it on a thread. One fake photo, offered by a Venezuelan airline pilot, was made by placing a metal button on an aerial photograph and then rephotographing the view (Nickell 1994, 1995).
The second type of UFO sighting consists of nighttime UFOs—so-called “nocturnal lights” —which represent the most frequently reported UFO events. They are also the “least strange” ones, according to the late Dr. J. Allen Hynek, astronomer and former consultant to the U.S. Air Force’s UFO research program, Project Blue Book (1952-1969). According to him, “An experienced investigator readily recognizes most of these for what they are: bright meteors, aircraft landing lights, balloons, planets, violently twinkling stars, searchlights, advertising lights on planes, refueling missions, etc. When one realizes the unfamiliarity of the general public with lights in the night sky of this variety, it is obvious why so many such UFO reports arise” (Hynek 1972,41-42). (Note that balloons appear in both categories. They were extensively used in the past and were frequently reported as strange craft. A balloon can achieve high altitudes and, if caught in jet-stream winds, can reach speeds of more than two hundred miles an hour. Or it can stop and seem to hover, or move erratically, or execute sharp turns, depending on the winds. It can even appear to change its shape and color. Depending on how sunlight strikes the plastic covering, the balloon can appear to be white, metallic, red, glowing, and so on. In fact, so often have balloons of one type or another been reported as UFOs that, when lost, these chameleons of the sky have often been traced by following the reports of saucer sightings [Nickell 1989, 21].)
Most UFO researchers—proponents and skeptics alike—agree that the majority of UFO reports can be explained. The controversy is over a small residue—say two percent—of unsolved cases. Proponents often act as if these cases offer proof of extraterrestrial visitation, but to suggest so is to be guilty of the logical fallacy called argumentum ad ignorantiam (that is, “arguing from ignorance”). Skeptics observe that what is unexplained is not necessarily unexplainable, and they suspect that if the truth were known, such cases would fall not into the category of alien craft but into the realm of mundane explanations. But what about the attack on a patrolling police helicopter?
“UFO Fires on Louisville, Ky. Police Chopper” was the headline on the Weekly World News’s May 4, 1993, cover story, complete with fanciful illustration. But if the tabloid account seemed overly sensational in describing the “harrowing two-minute dogfight”—before vanishing into the night—it was only following the lead of the respected Louisville Courier-Journal. The Courier had used similar wording in relating the February 26 incident (which had not been immediately made public), headlining its front-page story of March 4—”UFO Puts on Show: Jefferson [County 1 Police Officers Describe Close Encounter.”
Unfortunately, the Weekly World News did not cite the Courier’s follow-up report explaining the phenomenon. Yet the tabloid’s tale contained numerous clues that might have tipped off an astute reader. The first sighting was of what looked like “a fire” off to the patrol craft’s left; the “pear-shaped” UFO was seen in the police spotlight “drifting back and forth like a balloon on a string”; after circling the helicopter several times, the object darted away before zooming back to shoot the “fireballs” (which fortunately “fizzled out before they hit”); and then—as the helicopter pilot pushed his speed to over one hundred miles per hour—the UFO “shot past the chopper, instantly climbing hundreds of feet,” only to momentarily descend again before flying into the distance and disappearing. That the “flowing” object was only “about the size of a basketball” and that it had “hovered” before initially approaching the helicopter were additional clues from the original Courier account that the tabloid omitted.
The Courier’s follow-up story of March 6 was headed “A Trial Balloon?” It pictured Scott Heacock and his wife, Conchys, demonstrating how they had launched a hot-air balloon Scott had made from a plastic dry-cleaning bag, strips of balsa wood, and a dozen birthday candles—a device familiar to anyone who has read Philip J. Klass’s UFOs Explained (Vintage, 1976,28-34, plates 2a and 2b). No sooner had the balloon cleared the trees, said Heacock, than the county police helicopter encountered it and began circling, shining its spotlight on the glowing toy.
The encounter was a comedy of errors and misperceptions. Likened to a cat chasing its tail, the helicopter was actually pushing the lightweight device around with its prop wash. In fact, as indicated by the officers’ own account, the UFO zoomed away in response to the helicopter’s sudden propulsion—behavior consistent with a lightweight object. As to the “fireballs,” they may have been melting, flaming globs of plastic, or candles that became dislodged and fell, or some other effect. (Heacock says he used the novelty “relighting” type of birthday candles as a safeguard against the wind snuffing them out. Such candles may sputter, then abruptly reflame.)
Although one of the officers insisted the object he saw that night traveled at speeds too fast for a balloon, he seems not to have considered the effects of the helicopter’s prop-wash propulsion. Contacted by psychologist and skeptical investigator Robert A. Baker (with whom I investigated the case), the other officer declined to comment further, except to state his feeling that the whole affair had been “blown out of proportion” by the media. Be that as it may, a television reporter asked Scott Heacock how certain he was that his balloon was the reported UFO. Since he had witnessed the encounter and kept the balloon in sight until it was caught in the police spotlight, he replied, ‘I’d bet my life on it.” To another reporter, his Mexican wife explained, “I’m the only alien around here.”
Hynek, J. Allen. 1972. The UFO Experience. New York: Ballantine.
Nickell, Joe. 1989. The Magic Detectives. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus.
—.1994. Camera Clues: A Handbook for Photographic Investigation. Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 15.
—. 1995. Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 190-92.