The Lockheed UFO Case Revisited

The 1953 Lockheed UFO case has become a favorite among UFO enthusiasts. The case was unknown for decades, hidden in the files of Project Blue Book, but has gained many fans since being championed by several prominent UFO researchers. Canadian filmmaker, Paul Kimball, featured it in his oft-cited documentary, Best Evidence: Top 10 UFO Sightings (it was number five). UFO researchers often refer to the case as a solid example of an unexplainable UFO experience.

A refreshing aspect of the Lockheed case is that it hasn't been tainted by dubious interviews decades after the event, like the supposed Roswell Incident, for instance. Virtually everything known about the sighting is contained in the Air Force's Project Blue Book file. The entirety of the evidence consists of only 8 pages of testimony from the actual witnesses. But as we will see, UFO believers can still manage to obscure and confuse things, even when the evidence is so easily digested.

A quick note: I painstakingly created and maintain a facsimile transcript of the sometimes hard-to-read Blue Book microfilms and I encourage interested readers to take a look at the evidence for themselves. I also welcome corrections to my transcript.

Download Johnson Case Transcript

You can see the Project Blue Book microfilm record here.

The Case

Photo Feb 2, 2012 11:59 PM

The main witness in the Lockheed case was someone intimately familiar with unusual things in the sky, having himself created some legendary and near-mythical aircraft.

As chief engineer for Lockheed, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson designed cutting-edge aircraft like the U-2 spy plane and SR-71 Blackbird. He was also influential in the creation of the SkunkWorks, the secret projects division of Lockheed. Johnson certainly qualifies as one of the most famous of UFO witnesses.

On the late afternoon of December 16th, 1953, Johnson, noticed a dark object in the sky to the west of his ranch near Agoura, California. The object was a long thin distinct black ellipse with no visible detail. Johnson viewed it for a couple of minutes as it seemed to stand motionless against the brilliant sunset sky. He then sensed that the object was moving directly away as it got smaller and smaller and, after about 90 seconds, disappeared.

If that was the only thing that happened, this surely would have been a rather forgettable sighting.

Lockheed_WV-2_near_Hawaii_1954

But the next day, Johnson learned something startling. One of the Lockheed test pilots, Rudy Thoren, began to tell Johnson about his own UFO sighting while flying a Constellation WV-2 on a test run the day before over the Santa Barbara channel. Thoren, was quickly interrupted by Johnson as the chief engineer interjected his own story and the men decided that they had seen the same thing in the sky: a dark distinct object against the brilliant sunset that disappeared to the West. The witnesses in the plane were Roy Wimmer (pilot), Rudy Thoren (co-pilot/Chief Flight Test Engineer), Phil Colman (Chief Aerodynamics Engineer), Joe Ware, Jr. (Flight Test Supervisor) and Charlie Grugan (Flight Engineer).

Johnson wrote his personal account of the event the next day and, over the next month, four of the five men in the plane also wrote their own accounts (Grugan did not file one). Despite some reluctance by Johnson, fearing how flying saucer stories might affect his reputation, these accounts were forwarded to the Air Technical Intelligence Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and eventually ended up in the Blue Book files.
Photo Feb 2, 2012 11:38 PM

The Blue Book Conclusion: Lenticular Cloud

We don't know what the Air Force did with the case. We don't know if a full-fledged investigation followed or if the entire thing was ignored. All we have is their terse unadorned conclusion as to what caused the sighting: a lenticular cloud.

UFO proponents hate this. For them, this conclusion besmirches the name and talents of Johnson and his team. Paul Kimball, in a recent interview, said, "If these guys, the top test pilots and aerodynamic engineers and flight designers of their time, would mistake a lenticular cloud for a structured aircraft or object of some sort, no reasonable or responsible military would continue to employ these guys…the military gave a bogus explanation." Another UFO site calls the Air Force conclusion a "rubber stamp explanation".

My knowledge of lenticular clouds was limited, I don't think I have ever seen one in the sky but I have seen many photos of lenticulars, usually in UFO books. Most UFO authorities agree that lenticular clouds do sometimes cause UFO reports. But since lenticular formations are relatively rare, these mistaken reports must also be pretty rare. And anyway, the photos I had seen of this type of cloud didn't really seem to have much in common with the Lockheed testimony. So I agreed that the cloud explanation seemed unlikely, especially after seeing the Best Evidence presentation of the case, which was faithfully parroted by other UFO web sites.

 

I decided to delve into the actual evidence, the testimony of the men, and found a disturbing trend. In the video, it was obvious that the evidence was being looked at from one particular perspective, a pro-UFO one, and evidence that didn't tend to lead to a UFO conclusion was often being ignored or misinterpreted. 

Here's a few of the things I object to in this account:

Photo Mar 18, 2012 2:21 PM

The white shaded area defines where the object might have been according to Johnson's testimony. The green and blue lines enclose the area in which the plane may have been. The red shaded area is where the plane was when the object was first sighted. Image Created by Stray Cat at JREF Forums

1. The film uses a sort of faux-science to suggest that the location of the object can be accurately "triangulated" by using the known location of Johnson at his ranch and the location of the plane. In reality, the testimony does not allow us to know precisely where the plane was, much less its vector to the dark object. The graphic at right shows the true story of what we can determine from the evidence about the location of the object and plane. This is not really a major point but it does show how UFO researchers pretend to have some degree of precision in order to bolster their authority.

2. The film takes the words of the witnesses literally, when the meaning may have been figurative. For instance, several of the witnesses describe the object as looking like a flying wing headed straight at them, which could reasonably be interpreted as a featureless ellipse, much like Johnson described. Indeed all of the witnesses agree that they could discern no details in the black shape. Notice how the video takes this description and runs with it, clearly showing a flying wing-type aircraft. But now it isn't flying straight at us: we see it in the video from a low-angle. The object stops looking like a flying wing and actually becomes a flying wing with details that none of the witnesses ever reported.

3. One of the most obvious examples of how the video goes for maximum ooga-booga instead of truth is demonstrated in the descriptions of the "departure" of the object and how long that event lasted. Here is how the actual witnesses estimated that time:

"In 90 seconds from the time it started to move, the object had completely disappeared." -Johnson

"In the space of about one minute it grew smaller and disappeared." -Wimmer

"In probably an elapsed time of somewhere around a minute, the object had reduced in size to a mere speck and disappeared." -Thoren

"In just a minute or two it completely disappeared" -Ware

So far so good. The men all seem in agreement of the basic time it took for the object to disappear. Wimmer and Johnson both viewed the object almost continuously so their estimates are probably the most important ones. But now we come to one last estimate:

"…in a time, in the order of 10 seconds, [the object] disappeared from view." -Colman

Can you guess which estimate was used in the film and presented as absolutely precise and enabling them create to all sorts of other amazing figures like 130G acceleration? That's right. They chose the ten second figure! This is UFO science at its most impressive!

A Solution?

One thing that did strike me as I read the accounts is that these men weren't trying to fabricate anything. They seem to be honestly attempting to report what they saw without embellishment.

One of their first guesses as to the nature of the object was that it was a cloud.

"Thinking it was a lenticular cloud, I continued to study it." -Johnson

"I saw what I thought was a small cloud." -Wimmer

After viewing it for a while, they all decided that it couldn't be a cloud, mainly because its edges were too distinct. Indeed most of the images I have seen of lenticular clouds still look more or less like clouds. So I was fairly amenable to abandoning the lenticular explanation.

But then I came across this startling photo:

Photo Mar 11, 2012 9:18 PM

Photo Courtesy Mark Meyer Photography (photo-mark.com)
Johnson Drawing

Johnson's own drawing of the object.

This photo, taken in Wyoming, shows a very compact lenticular cloud much more like what the men described seeing in 1953. Of course, this is still clearly a cloud. But I began to wonder what this cloud might have looked like from much further away. In the photo above, either the cloud is very large or the camera is very close to it. It fills a good portion of our visual field. This was not the case for the Lockheed witnesses. Johnson doesn't say how large the object was in the sky but he strongly implies that it was rather small, comparing it to an aircraft flying near Point Mugu, some 30 miles away. From my work in visual effects, I know that taking an object with fuzzy edges like a cloud and making it smaller causes the edges to become more distinct. So I decided to simulate what the same cloud might have looked like from much further away. This is not a real photo; it was created as a demonstration using Photoshop (click on the image for a larger view):

 

Photo Feb 28, 2012 7:40 PM

This photo has been manipulated in Photoshop for demonstration purposes only.

This is much more like what the men described. The edges of this cloud are now so distinct that it loses it's cloud properties and just becomes a dark object with no discernible detail. In other words, it looks exactly like what was being described by the Lockheed staff. And note that I used the entire real cloud to make this image, including the wispy tail on the left. But details like the tail disappear as you get further away (here simulated by making the cloud smaller). Another detail that vastly improves the illusion of a solid object is the silhouette effect caused by the brilliant sunset, exactly the same conditions during the Lockheed sighting

"…the sun had gone down below the horizon but the sky was red and this object was perfectly silhouetted against this red background." -Thoren

So now I began to think that there could be something to the cloud idea but there were still some issues to consider. Other than its distinctness, what else convinced the men that they weren't seeing a cloud?

Well, there isn't much. Johnson says that the fact that it didn't move was one factor. This may show that Johnson wasn't really very familiar with lenticulars, which very often hang in the sky held motionless by two opposing air masses until they dissipate. 

Animated 6

Sequence courtesy Donald Collins

Of course, one other part of the account must be addressed: the departure. As I looked at videos of lenticular clouds dissipating, I noticed how, as the clouds got smaller, there was sometimes the impression that they were moving away. Here is an imperfect demonstration of this principle. I realize that these clouds don't look that much like saucers but hopefully you can get a feeling for the illusion of motion.

This is part of my working theory of the case: that the departure was actually the dissipation of the cloud.

The way that the witnesses described the departure certainly fits in with this theory: 

"the object had reduced in size to a mere speck, and then disappeared." -Thoren

"I suddenly realized it was moving away from us heading straight west. In the space of about one minute it grew smaller and disappeared." -Wimmer

"When I got the glasses focused on the object, it was already moving behind the first layer of haze. I gathered its speed was very high, because of the rate of fore-shortening of its major axis." -Johnson

Johnson also reported that the object took a long shallow climb (this was not reported by the men in the plane, interestingly). I am suggesting that this apparent climb is also caused by the dispersing cloud as the top or bottom disappeared unevenly.

One nagging issue for me was that I honestly had no idea how long it would take for a cloud to dissapate. The theory requires it to be around a minute. I started work on writing this article without knowing the answer to this question but I knew that this one issue could invalidate the whole idea.

Some Additional Info

Earlier this year, Tim Printy, publisher of the skeptical UFO newsletter (SUNlite) pointed out a thread at the JREF forums discussing this case and I was happy to see that several folks there had independently seized upon this same scenario. The thread generated much helpful data, including some evidence from UK forecaster, Nigel Bolton, that the December 16th, 1953 weather conditions were ripe for the formation of lenticular clouds.

Just a few days ago I found some amazing lenticular cloud videos on YouTube that were shot right near the same locations of the Lockheed case. Here's one taken in Santa Clarita, looking to the west towards Santa Barbara:

 

I spoke with Chris, who shot these clouds (and many more, check out his site) and shared the theory with him. I was delighted with his reply:

Indeed your theory is quite likely. Lenticulars can form in a nearly limitless variety of sizes and shapes. When you add variations in lighting (sun angles, etc.) and point of view, many visual effects are possible.

A cloud which is forming or dissipating more-or-less overhead would be difficult to mistake for solid object moving towards or away from the viewer.  However, when Lenticulars are at a distance, they would be much closer to the horizon and viewed on edge. A well-formed saucer-shaped cloud could look quite solid, especially with help from a setting sun. Any change in size could be interpreted as movement closer or further away from the viewer. Since Lenticulars do change size, shape and position depending upon the direction, speed, temperature and humidity of the airflow which they are forming, they may also appear to be moving left or right.

The speed at which they form and dissipate can be quite rapid…  A huge cloud may take only 20 minutes to appear or completely disappear. Smaller ones only a minute or two..  I have watched (and less often filmed) areas of Lenticular activity in which smaller, saucer-shaped formations seem to pop in and out at random as the air currents shift around. I’ve missed many a shot because the cloud vanished before I could get my camera set up.

Having this opinion from someone who is intimately familiar with lenticular clouds certainly strengthens the theory. 

Final Thoughts

I hope the reader doesn't feel that I am suggesting that these witnesses were ignoramuses. I'm not. I think all of the witnesses did an incredible job of reporting the facts as best they could. The theory above postulates that several factors came together that did fool the witnesses:

1. Compact lenticular cloud.

2. Silhouetted against brilliant red sunset.

3. Seen from enough distance that the edges bcame totally smooth.

In short, I am suggesting that nature conspired to create a sort of illusion that fooled these observers.

It should also be noted that this theory is not presented as the final word on this case. I am delighted to hear confirming or disconfirming information. 

Please feel free to share your own comments below.

I want to thank Tim Printy, Mark Meyer, Don Ecsedy, Donald Collins,  Frank Stalter, Michael Allen, Chris@DCM and the gang at the JREF forums, particularly Stray Cat, 23_Tauri, Akhenaten, GeeMack, Puddle Duck, TJW, TomTomkent and ufology and also my wife for their help in preparing this article. This article was slightly revised on 3/23, hopefully slightly improving the tone.

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44 thoughts on “The Lockheed UFO Case Revisited

  1. The fact that Johnson and Wimmer at first thought it was a cloud but both of them, as well as Hare and Colman, on closer observation, determined it was an aircraft of some sort is a problem for a conclusion of lenticular cloud. Also, to the different angles of view between the plane and Johnson: while that may not be triangulation in the strictest sense, Johnson seems to indicate the UFO moves directly away from him, while the crew seems to indicate a westward path at a fast clip, starting at around Point Mugu, per Thoren.
    Thanks,
    Frank

  2. Hi Frank,
    But none of the men determined that it was an aircraft. They ALL concluded just that it was “some sort of object”.
    I thought that I made it clear that this was not just a cloud-there were other factors that affect the identification (listed above).
    I am quite sure that I will see an endless stream of believers, ignoring those factors and just saying: “He said they couldn’t recognize a cloud.”
    So it goes.
    And after being on several MUFON visits to folks who called in sightings, I can humbly suggest that simply allowing an account to stand without further investigation is not a wise course of action.
    Lance

  3. Frankly speaking, I don’t really understand why this case is considered as the 5th best UFO case in the world… Nothing special except perhaps the witness “quality”. But there is definitely something that dismisses the lenticular cloud explanation. C.Johnson says this : “…The clouds were coming onshore, in a direction of travel opposite to that of the object…”

  4. Hi, Irving,
    This is exactly what a lenticular does. The lenticular stays in place as two masses move in opposite directions above and below it. The scenario I am describing does not theorize any motion for the object (lenticulars are usually quite still).
    Best,
    Lance

  5. And the UFO does not stay still . . .
    “direction due west” -Thoren
    “heading straight west” -Wimmer
    “suddenly accelerated due west” -Colman
    They see the UFO follow a path as it’s leaving the area. If it were just Johnson, the cloud explanation fits a lot better, but with the multiple witnesses from the plane veiwing at a much different angle, it’s not a very good fit. You’ve got Johnson and one crew member fixing the start point at Pt Mugu. They know the area, so they have to be close to right and that leaves you with a cloud a mere 200 feet or so in diameter that travels westward at high speed. Find me a video that shows that and I might have to concede you have a point.
    If the UFO was West of them when it disappeared they would have been over land or at least very near the coast between Mugu and Santa Monica. Wimmer has them much further south, near Long Beach at the start and the incident doesn’t last long enough for them to cover that distance. They see the UFO follow a path westward, not move straight away from them. That is significant.
    You are also far off in your declination estimates. West is nowhere close to Northwest, 45 degree difference there. 15 degrees . . . tops at their location in 1953, even if the crew was referring to magnetic west, which I doubt, and I’m certain Johnson was not. I have a feeler out regarding navigation and think either onboard compasses are calibrated to account for declination or crew members are aware of it and factor it into their navigating. I will let you know what I find.

  6. Long Beach to Mugu is almost 60 miles and Wimmer reports flying towards the UFO 5 minutes, not 10. Colman estimates they saw the object about 10 minutes but did not immediately fly towards it. Hare said he watched the UFO through the co-pilots window so it was to their northwest. Three of them are clear they saw it accelerate along a path before vanishing. If it was a cloud as you suggest, it seems obvious they would have figured that out amongst themselves as the departure paths don’t line up if the cloud is stationary and just shrinks and dissolves. If the same illusions fool both crew and Johnson, Johnson is clear he thinks it leaves headed out south of Santa Cruz Island, the crew has it flying up towards Santa Barbara. I think they could have figured that out amongst themselves . . . that whatever it was really didn’t go anywhere.

  7. Hmm..it’s 48 Nautical Miles and now you have forced me to admit that I don’t know the difference! Even still, this works out perfectly considering the magnetic heading.
    Again, Frank you are doing what cannot be done. You are taking one part of a statement and connecting it to an unconnected part with the ideas not correlated. If that works for you, fine but it doesn’t work for me. Did you take a look at the thread I linked? Those guys worked out lots of ideas about where the plane took off and where it likely was, all using the evidence.
    When you say:
    “Johnson is clear he thinks it leaves headed out south of Santa Cruz Island”
    All of this is clearly shown in the graphic above, so yeah. If you have a problem with the graphic, please state it.
    By the way, his noted headings work out to right ON TOP of Santa Cruz OR south of it.
    The blue, white and green lines (in the graphic above) run magnetic west (for the time period).
    Starting the plane at Long Beach and running it for 5 or 10 minutes STILL puts it perfectly in the position of having the proposed cloud dissappearing due magnetic west or map west of them. Running a shorter distance is actually BETTER for the scenario since it put things more in the middle of the ranges.
    Frank, all this stuff has been gone over before. The scenario matches what Paul Kimball and his researcher presented as well. Look at where his plane is position and the direction he flies. I got all this wrong in the Paracast forums and was corrected about it.
    I am going with the magnetic directions for the plane because I got what I consider compelling evidence that this is the correct way to look at it–I believe two pilots confirmed this in the thread I linked.
    Best,
    Lance

  8. It’s not unconnected. I’m referring to the direction the witnesses said they saw the UFO leave in and with your proposal, they don’t check out. You aren’t asking people to accept the crew and Johnson saw an unusual cloud, you’re asking them to accept they didn’t recognize a 75 or so degree geometrical discrepancy between their accounts.

  9. Lance, thanks for the citation; we did discuss the case several times, but I did not contribute anything as to what the object was. My interests lie in the interpersonal dynamic among the crew.
    My criticism of your report is it contains too much skeptic/advocate polemic, which space could have been used for a more complete account of the behavior of leniculars, and how they can appear to viewers. The image work is very welcome and thanks for it.
    “Despite some reluctance by Johnson, fearing how flying saucer stories might affect his reputation, these accounts were forwarded…”
    According to the file, Johnson did not file the report. The cover letter with the reports is from a Lt General who wrote the file was given him by “Lockheed personnnel”. Johnson, he wrote, “refused to forward it to you”. Also that “Johnson was reluctant to write the report in the first place”. However, Johnson seemed pretty darned enthusiastic (as were some of the crew) about it. Did Johnson show it to superiors at Lockheed first? So, there is already some drama underway before the reports were filed.
    Within the plane, Wimmer, the pilot had turned over control to Thoren and did nothing but watch the object for five minutes. So, we have a pilot, who is now a passenger, who watches an object for five minutes and does not conclude it was a cloud. I expect pilots to recognize a cloud after five minutes of uninterrupted observation. I’m not saying this indicates it wasn’t a cloud, though.
    Regards,
    Don

  10. Going to have to say, an excellent analysis comepletely derailed by editorial tone. I have no real idea who you are Mr Moody, nor should I need to when reading a piece like this, so many of your very personal shots at various groups are a complete distraction.
    Science should be about the facts, not revenge or posturing. And while the “believers” are often more guilty of those things, being on the other side does not mean they don’t look just as bad on you.
    –MS

  11. @Frank
    Frank, Get back to me when you have decided what you think about the Magnetic vs. True issue. It will make it a lot easier to talk about when we both understand what is meant.
    @Don & Marc,
    Thanks for the advice and I will take it to heart. I thought I was being pretty reserved but that just shows ya how jaded I am in these discussions! I’ll work harder on it.
    Best,
    Lance

  12. I understand about declination just fine. It’s a 15 degree difference at that location at that time, not 45 degrees, NW, as you suggested. Johnson’s range on the angle of departure was a 20 degree range, 240 to 260 straight geographical, which we seem to agree on. You’ve got the plane and crew literally hugging the coast near Mugu to make your solution work, about 3-5 miles between the blue and orange line. I don’t believe they were anywhere near that close to the coastline. There’s nothing in any of the four crew accounts to suggest they were. A mile scale would be helpful to your graphic.

  13. Hey Frank,
    A graphic from you would be helpful as well. A main point of my piece is that we DON’T know precisely where the plane was and can’t tell from the evidence. Lay out your whole theory for me and then I will respond…I currently don’t know if you are talking magnetic or true, for instance.
    Pretending that any of the estimates the men gave are precise figures is foolhardy.
    If any estimate is a minute or two off, it makes a big difference.
    I did link to a thread that went over all this stuff at length with lots of people checking in and discussing it. Did you check that link? You never gave any indication. You did state your OPINION about the magnetic directions and have yet to admit you were wrong on that (or explain why you were right).
    Stating where you THINK the plane may have or may have not been is of no interest to me unless it is tied to the evidence (and more that one data point of the evidence if possible)
    Best,
    Lance

  14. We do have a good enough idea of their flight path . . . they were climbing in a SE direction from Long Beach and then head west over the Catalina channel, first saw the UFO when they were between Avalon and Palo Verdes, continued flying west 5 minutes and then turned and headed towards the UFO another 5 minutes. That places them at a good 60-70 degree difference in the angle of the crew vantage point and Johnson’s. You’ve got them practically flying over Malibu to try and make your argument work. I did post a graphic at my blog two years ago but am happily at work enhancing it!

  15. Frank,
    The hilarious thing is what you are calling my argument is virtually the same scenario laid out in Paul’s film and it’s what everyone else researching the case came up with. I didn’t object to the basic placement of Paul’s scenario, just the faux-preciseness of the triangulation argument.
    Best,
    Lance

  16. As the researcher who first identified Johnson as a primary witness in this case, I was of course interested in this article and comments. My attitude is interested amusement. I am generally a UFO skeptic, but in this case, I have to say that the identity of the witnesses makes me put my skepticism on the back burner, and I advocated it to Kimball as an example of a case that should be taken seriously.
    The fact that both Johnson and Thoren and his crew independently noted something unique about this object, in terms of form and motion, took steps to observe it, and only later compared notes, should make it obvious that it was especially unusual. I’m absolutely certain that Johnson and the test pilots were aware of lenticular clouds.
    I have a humorous mental image of Johnson reading this post’s explanation of his erroneous conclusions. I picture his reaction being something like R Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket,” except he would make Ermey look like he had taken an anger management class. He would be assuring you at great length and in very colorful terms that he knew what a gol dang cloud looked like, and that he didn’t hire pilots who didn’t know what gol dang clouds look like either.
    Honestly, I don’t like to take things on authority, but in this case I think it’s reasonable to do so. The main reason the case is even in the files is because figures at the highest levels of the US government had faith in their competence.
    cheers

  17. Joel,
    Thanks for your comments above.
    You’re right about the quality of the witnesses, of course but what I am surmising overrides their normal experiences (lenticulars are pretty rare and this particular one is even more so due to the factors I noted above…sunset and compactness).
    As an amateur magician, I am all too familiar with how simple things can conspire to mislead someone.
    I find it telling that Johnson’s explanation for why he knew it was not a lenticular cloud (that it didn’t move!–one of the most obvious characteristics of a lenticular) suggests that he didn’t know these types of clouds as well as some folks would like to believe.
    Best,
    Lance

  18. I guess I’m the only one, then, who does not think highly of the quality of the witnesses as witnesses.
    Another point about Johnson’s “reluctance”. He had been submitting ufo reports to both Lockheed and the USAF since, at least, 1949. What caused him to back off in this instance? And who at Lockheed, against Johnson’s wishes, handed the reports to the General?
    Regards,
    Don

  19. Since when do clouds, lenticular or otherwise, vanish in about 90 seconds? Even in your time lapse video of clouds they stay stable for a long time. Clouds vanish by evaporating, which is not an instant process, or condensing and raining out, which drops visibly, leaving vertical streaks: none were reported, and that’s not an instant process either. If sizable dense clouds could suddenly shrink to a dot and vanish, don’t you think someone would have noticed in the millennia we’ve studied the weather?
    And no cloud appears dead black against the vivid southern California sunset: even a dense cloud is just vapor, always with some translucency: I think this is why the witnesses emphasized how featureless black the object was, emphasizing, I think, its opacity and therefore massiveness or solidity. And your Photoshopped image of the lone dark cloud is unrealistic: how often is there a single dense cloud all alone in the whole sky? Lenticulars are just one expression of cloud-forming conditions and there are generally clouds about in wisps and layers, look at the photos.
    (The exception I’ve seen is lenticulars hovering over scattered mountaintops near the Black Rock Desert, which I expect are formed by the air flowing across the desert flats shoved up the mountainside to cool and condense over the summit. They can hover all day, and don’t vanish in the time it takes to say ‘Mississippi’ slowly, twice.
    Lenticulars are so rare in my southern California that one that did form over L.A. was photographed by dozens of people, enough to fill an article (in Westways, I think) called Cloud Encounters. In all the years I’ve savored and studied the local weather on my constant long hikes I’ve never seen one. Rare sundogs, yes, but never a lenticular. I expect the coastal winds blasting hard inland almost constantly don’t let them form.
    The witnesses say the object seemed to pull strait away, meaning that its shape stayed intact and constant all the time it was shrinking in size; show me a cloud that does that.
    Your armchair speculation about clouds, airplanes and such carries very little weight compared to formal testimony by a working master of aerodynamics and other air-savvy professions. Johnson and the others knew air, clouds, weather and aircraft better then you ever will: Johnson had the scientific and engineering knowledge, indeed genius, to build the SR-71, a radical reinvention of the airplane, one should call it a spacecraft, considering its working altitude.
    These men, defense aircraft specialists all, had been formally trained to identify aircraft: in war (which they’d all seen, from the air and ground) your life depends on knowing friend from foe. And to track their movements to warn prospective targets. Johnson was willing to risk his reputation -and the displeasure of his bosses- by making this report. Pilots do not do this kind of thing casually or sloppily, especially with a legendary aircraft man on board. He and the others knew damn what a lenticular cloud looks like, they said so: they thought at first it was a lenticular, and so studied the object for a lenticular’s tell-tale signs, (such as translucency, laminar structure, trailing wisps, etc.) and didn’t find them. They SAID it wasn’t a lenticular: you just brush this off.
    I am a skeptic, I believe in science and reason to solve even the most perplexing problems, and I’m grateful to guys like you who comb through this stuff, like Kentaro Mori, who recently debunked the long-standing Trinidade photos. But I’m also a UFO witness, and though I won’t claim to know what I saw, I know damn well I saw it, in broad daylight. I’d very much like to clean the crap off the UFO picture and get to the truth behind it, dump the whole silly mythology that’s grown around it. But feeble arguments, half a century after the fact, and dismissing credible, informed -indeed expert- testimony won’t do it. So keep it up, please, just work harder.

  20. Hi Monte,
    I did include the opinion of Chris, who shoots lenticulars as part of his business in Santa Clarita, quite near the site of this incident.
    I did link to his site with many more lenticulars that he has taken, right there in the area.
    I did include him recounting the fact that lenticulars DO appear and disappear in as little as a minute.
    I did include a real shot of a real cloud that is all alone by itself.
    It is my failing if after reading the above article, you still don’t realize these facts (which address all of your above objections).
    My apologies.
    Lance

  21. Lance, first congrats on a fine thorough review of the case. The time and effort that you put forth is evident. Second, you and others have hit on key points of witness reliability, both pro and con. It always falls on attempting to put witness corroboration into the proper context…not always an easy task especially when looking at the older cases.

  22. Lance:
    I attempted to post this comment twice in the last 24 hours, with results that are unclear; maybe I was not properly logged in to your site. If this is a repost, please disregard previous versions and accept apologies.
    The hypothesis that what the Lockheed aviators (including Kelly Johnson) saw was a lenticular cloud is a reasonable speculation, but one that is subject to falsification if the meteorological conditions would not support the formation of lenticular clouds.
    Lenticular clouds are also known as wave clouds because their production requires the presence of a standing wave of airflow in the atmosphere. The idea is that you start with an essentially horizontal, laminar flow of relatively smooth air that encounters an obstacle which forces the air up, over, and down the other side of the obstacle. When the air is lifted, it is cooled. If it is cooled sufficiently, water vapor in the air which is normally invisible condenses into cloud droplets and forms a visible cloud mass. As the air flows over the top of the obstacle and down the other side, it warms again to its original state and reabsorbs the cloud droplets. So, a lenticular cloud will have a relatively well defined base altitude which is generally the same base altitude as other clouds in the area, if there are any and is the altitude at which the air temperature equals the condensation temperature. Air is flowing up through the front base of the lenticular cloud, rotating through a smooth arc, and then flowing out the back base of the cloud, creating a flat bottom and a convex top. Some sort of rotary air flow pattern like this is necessary for lenticular clouds to form.
    Lenticular clouds are therefore a process in dynamic equilibrium. What makes them appear is the wind. When the wind blows harder, the wave gets higher and the cloud gets bigger. When the wind dies down, they get smaller and eventually go away. So yes, lenticular clouds can appear and disappear on a time scale of minutes, if and only if atmospheric conditions are correct for them to exist in the first place.
    A couple of conditions have to be present for this to work. First, there has to be some obstacle forcing the up-and-over rotary motion. A common one is a mountain peak. As a private pilot with more than 3 decades of flying in California, I can tell you that it is not uncommon to see lenticular clouds perched over such landmark peaks as Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen. When lenticular clouds do form around mountain peaks, the cloud top is usually not very much higher than the peak itself, because the flow over the peak tends to be laminar and hug the terrain.
    Another possible obstacle is an air mass at a different altitude moving in a different direction. As I will discuss below, that is the case that was operative on December 16, 1953. The interface between the two air masses creates vorticity (rotary air flow) and the possibility of standing waves.
    A second factor that needs to be present is that the air mass being raised from the lower altitude needs to be near its dew point (the temperature at which water vapor will condense out as liquid). The most favorable conditions are when the lower air mass is close to saturated (holding as much water vapor as it can) and is cool. On 9 days out of 10 this will be the case on the coast of California, because the surface winds are typically blowing onshore from off the Pacific Ocean. They usually come FROM a direction of about 300 degrees, which is why most California airports on the coast have their runways aligned close to that direction (and its reciprocal—120 degrees). These winds have several thousand miles of travel in which to come into equilibrium with the water in both temperature and humidity. Because these winds are pretty consistent all along the coast, when they occur, we usually conceptualize this as a homogeneous layer of air moving FROM the direction of 300 degrees, TO a direction of 120 degrees—the marine layer. Because the marine layer is always close to being saturated (holding all the moisture it can) there is a relatively small spread between the actual temperature of the marine air and the temperature at which water vapor in it will condense into cloud droplets (the dew point). Referencing the Weather Underground Historical Records, we can see that on June 16, 1953, for instance, the spread between temperature and dew point at Pt. Mugu Naval Air Station is only about 3.5 deg. F, at sunrise. The normal temperature lapse rate is considered to be 3.5 deg. F, for every thousand feet of altitude, so go up from the ocean surface about 1000 ft and you can expect to be in the clouds. This produces the phenomenon familiar to every California pilot that there will usually be a solid cloud deck in the morning with tops around 1000 ft altitude, that extends inland until it bumps up against the coastal hills. By the afternoon the air mass will have warmed up considerably from insolation, the cloud base will lift, and the clouds will dissipate. As I said, this is the weather pattern on the California coast for probably 90% of the time; I live at the 1500 ft elevation level in the coastal hills and I can observe this pattern just about every day.
    On the day in question (Dec 16, 1953), the southern California coast was not in this normal mode, but was experiencing weak Santa Ana winds. Reading through the referenced discussion at the UKWeatherworld site, it looks to me that they have the basic information they need to analyze this case, but are somewhat confused about how to interpret it—perhaps because they don’t live in California. Santa Ana winds persist usually over a period of several days at a time when a stationary high pressure system parks itself over the Great Basin area of Nevada and the Mojave Desert and a corresponding low pressure area establishes itself off the southern California coast. This combination produces surface offshore flow from the dry, hot interior out to sea. This classic California weather pattern most commonly occurs in late November through mid December and can be quite dangerous for spreading wild fires because the Santa Ana winds are always low in relative humidity (meaning large spread between air temperature and the dew point). If you look at the NOAA pressure chart for the day in question provided on the UKWeatherworld site, you will see that there is indeed a stationary high pressure system located out in the Great Basin area. Again referring to the Weather Underground Historical records for Dec. 16, 1953, Pt. Mugu NAS was reporting skies clear (i.e., no visible clouds), wind from just about due East, and about a 15 deg. F spread between surface temperature and the dew point. A cursory examination of the newspaper headlines from the LA area around that day shows that there were wild fires going on at the time. Another classic characteristic of Santa Ana winds is that they blow all the clouds away, leaving the night sky crystal clear.
    So the synopsis is that there was a thin layer of warm dry desert air flowing FROM 90 degrees TO 270 degrees (the Santa Ana wind) overlain by a layer of marine air flowing FROM the usual direction of 300 degrees TO 120 degrees. Based on the data on the UKWeatherworld site, for the sounding balloon released from Long Beach at 7:00 pm (local time) the Santa Ana layer looks to be less than 1000 ft thick. The 15 deg F spread between temperature and dew point means that you would have to get about 4250 ft of uplift to produce a lenticular cloud. The highest point on Santa Cruz island is only about 1400 ft, so a lenticular cloud over the channel islands due to orographic uplifting seems impossible especially since the surface wind speed was pretty moderate (10 mph).
    How about a lenticular cloud due to a standing atmospheric wave not attached to a mountain peak? Because the marine layer flow direction was about 120 degrees off from the Santa Ana wind direction, I think it would be almost inevitable that there would be a shear layer between the two air masses that would create vorticity and therefore the possibility of a rotary standing wave. However, since the interface between the two air masses started at about 1000 ft altitude, and 4250 feet of uplift was needed to produce cloud droplet condensation, any wave cloud that could possibly have formed should have formed below about 5250 ft altitude. That is quite a bit off from the pilot’s reported altitude of the object as being about the same 14,000 ft that his aircraft was at (an observation that is difficult to get wrong).
    I don’t think the meteorological conditions of the day supported cloud formation of any sort at 5:00 pm in the Pt Mugu area and especially not lenticular clouds at 14,000 ft above Santa Cruz island.

  23. Hi Larry,
    I assume this is the same Larry Lemke who is an executive director of the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena?
    Thanks for the note.
    I am certainly not qualified to argue about weather science. As you noted, several folks on the UK WeatherWorld site looked at the data there was some opinion pro and some con about the conditions.
    I personally spoke with a forecaster at NOAA much earlier in my research and he confirmed, in general, that the lenticular idea was viable for that date.
    I was delighted to get my weather information from folks uninvolved with UFOs and I’ll see what I can do about checking that part of the theory.
    Lance

  24. Lance said:
    “I assume this is the same Larry Lemke who is an executive director of the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena?”
    Yes, that’s me.
    “I am certainly not qualified to argue about weather science….”
    It’s refreshing to hear someone on a UFO blogsite confess to something less than 100% certainty and omniscience. Too many times, individuals on both the pro and the con side of the argument seem to be perfectly happy to express strongly held positions on technical subjects about which they are largely incompetent.
    For my part, I will admit that my field of deepest knowledge is Aerospace Engineering, not meteorology, so I am basing my argument on a broad knowledge of fluid mechanics and aerodynamics, coupled with experience as a pilot. I will be interested to hear what a weather professional has to say about my analysis.
    “…As you noted, several folks on the UK WeatherWorld site looked at the data there was some opinion pro and some con about the conditions.
    I personally spoke with a forecaster at NOAA much earlier in my research and he confirmed, in general, that the lenticular idea was viable for that date.”
    My point is that you have made a perfectly respectable hypothesis about a physical event that may or may not have taken place at a specific place and time. The nice thing about physics problems are that they have yes/no answers. To get beyond pro and con opinion and general ideas to a yes/no answer, you must look at the facts on the specific day, at the specific time, and at the specific location in question, quantitatively. As you go about checking this theory, make sure that the folks you turn to for advice take into account that there was a statistically unlikely weather phenomenon going on at the time—Santa Ana winds.
    Cheers.

  25. A datapoint: in mid-December 1953 there was an out of control forest fire, about 70 miles east of Agoura, in the Cucamonga Canyon with “strong northwest winds” creating problems. I don’t know if it is relevant. Maybe Mr Lemke would know.
    Regards,
    Don

  26. Don said:
    “…in mid-December 1953 there was an out of control forest fire, about 70 miles east of Agoura, in the Cucamonga Canyon with “strong northwest winds” creating problems. I don’t know if it is relevant….”
    I think it is relevant only to demonstrate the general principle that warm dry winds off the desert can occur in Southern California in November-December and contribute to dangerous fire conditions. This is counterintuitive to a lot of people who don’t live in California, because December is usually a cold wet month in most of the Northern Hemisphere. For a general discussion of the phenomenon, check out the url:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Ana_winds
    where you can see a satellite photo showing Santa Ana winds sweeping the coastline free of clouds. They also blow huge quantities of dust and fire smoke (when fires are present) out to sea, which is also present in the photo. I suspect that this dust and smoke might be what Kelly Johnson was referring to when he said he watched the unknown object move away on a slight upward trajectory, relative to a “haze layer”.
    Kelly is very clear that his observation was made within plus or minus about 5 minutes around 5:00 pm, on Dec. 16 and to the West of Agoura on a bearing that was pretty much directly toward Point Mugu, so what was happening 70 miles to the East in “mid-December” (not necessarily on the same day) doesn’t necessarily have much bearing on Kelly may or may not have seen.
    Because Kelly specifically mentioned Point Mugu as a reference point, I dug out the weather records for Point Mugu NAS, which can be viewed at the url:
    http://www.wunderground.com/history/airport/KNTD/1953/12/16/DailyHistory.html?req_city=Point+Mugu+Naval+Air+Station&req_state=CA&req_statename=California
    You can see that what was happening earlier in the day at Point Mugu doesn’t necessarily even have much bearing on what was happening at 5:00 pm. Around noon, the tower was reporting drizzle, but by 5:00 pm, skies were clear, the wind was directly from the East, and there was a 15 deg spread between the temperature and the dew point.

  27. This is to correct an error in my previous post. I said “…. I suspect that this dust and smoke might be what Kelly Johnson was referring to when he said he watched the unknown object move away on a slight upward trajectory, relative to a “haze layer”.
    After re-reading Kelly’s written statement to the Air Force, he explicitly describes there being “…thin layers of clouds or haze at fairly high altitude…”
    Later he says: “The clouds were coming onshore, in a direction of travel opposite to that of the
    object.”
    He doesn’t define what “fairly high altitude” is in quantitative terms, but I would think it would mean 20,000 ft or higher. With a little more investigation, we may be able to find enroute weather reports for the area and nail this down with some precision. Since he is describing “layers” of cloud or haze coming onshore that means more than just one or two isolated clouds. He is clearly referring to the level (or levels) at which stable, stratified clouds are starting to form. Windborne smoke and dust is a totally distinct physical phenomenon from cloud formation and does not necessarily form itself into strata. He clearly was not referring to windborne smoke and dust in this passage, and I retract my suggestion that that is what he was describing.
    He goes on to say: “… I ran outside and started to focus the glasses on the object, which was now moving fast on a heading between 240˚ and 260˚. When I got the glasses focused on the object, it was already moving behind the first layer of haze.”
    When I first read this, I was puzzled by his use of the term “behind” to describe the position of the object relative to the haze (or cloud) layer, since normally I would interpret “behind” to mean “at a greater horizontal distance” than whatever was “in front”. However, he was also explicit in his statement that he did not know the distance to the object, so how could he know what its horizontal position was relative to that of the clouds?
    His statement makes sense if you realize that the haze/cloud layer was at some considerable altitude above him, as he said. When looking up from a lower altitude, he would have been seeing the underside of the haze/cloud layer from a very oblique angle. To say that the object was “moving behind” the haze/cloud layer is another way to say it was moving up through the layer and that he was looking through haze to see it. He also says the object was in a shallow climb, meaning that the center of mass of the object appeared to him to be increasing in altitude. So, he presents multiple and corroborating lines of testimony to substantiate the claim that at the same time the object was increasing in altitude, its apparent size was getting smaller.
    This is exactly opposite to what you would expect a lenticular cloud to do. As a lenticular cloud gets bigger, its center of mass appears to get higher; as it gets smaller, the center of mass gets lower, until it finally disappears. This is because lenticular clouds always form from a base altitude upwards, never the other way.

  28. Hi Larry
    This video:


    Seems to directly contradict what you suggest above, As the cloud (near the center of the screen) gets bigger, the center of mass appears LOWER.
    Here’s another video that demonstrates an illusion of the clouds slightly rising (near the mid-point of the clip) as they dissipate which I think ably corresponds to the illusion of a shallow climb.

    Just, in general, whenever I hear someone say “always”
    or “never” in regards to cloud formation (!) (or virtually any aspect of nature), I begin to feel we may have moved into the realm of rhetoric.
    As far as the weather data above, did you just use the Long Beach data for your initial analysis? None of our weather sources could get the Point Mugu data prior to the 1970’s.
    Thanks,
    Lance

  29. “Mid-December”…a story in the newspaper dated 12/14. Because of the “predicted strong northwest winds”, the forest service didn’t think they’d have it under control until late on the 16th. For the timeframe, the weather record, above, shows temperature and wind speed dropping and the dew point rising.
    The best Lance can hope for is that the conditions did not preclude the possibility of a lenticular cloud existing at that time and place. Not very interesting on its own (although, some ufo skeptics will, at least on forums, take “plausible” to mean “true”).
    What is interesting is a cloud was their first impression; Johnson, and the two pilots, Wimmer and Thoren originally thought it was a cloud (Johnson, a “lenticular cloud”). So, we have an object which, the longer they observed it, the more certain they were it was not a cloud. Anyone who argues it *was* a cloud, will have to deal with that.
    I’d like to know whether the conditions were good for lenticulars because it would change slightly how I interpret their behaviors.
    Regards,
    Don

  30. Hi Don,
    As I allude to in the article, the men DO state their reasons for rejecting the object as a cloud:
    It was too distinct.
    If nothing else, my scenario above tries to account for the distinctness.
    I also make note of Johnson’s comment about how he knew it wasn’t a lenticular: it didn’t move!
    So Johnson uses one of the most obvious characteristics of lenticulars to decide that it wasn’t a lenticular! Perhaps you can see why investigators don’t let the witnesses analyze their own cases–which is, of course, exactly what some proponents of this case insist on doing.
    One of our problems with the weather data is that it seems that the Point Mugu data is not available (Long Beach was available but is some distance away) so we don’t have the best conditions for making any definitive determination.
    Best,
    Lance

  31. Lance wrote: “Perhaps you can see why investigators don’t let the witnesses analyze their own cases–which is, of course, exactly what some proponents of this case insist on doing.”
    I usually follow ‘Hynek’s Rules’. If it were an object like a bolide, I would agree, but for a cloud, there are very good odds the pilots will recognize one. In fact, they do. It is their immediate interpretation.
    Although these men are, on paper, expert witnesses, as witnesses they did not perform well. Wimmer, the pilot, is the key witness on the plane. He turned over control to the co-pilot, Thoren, and had five minutes to view the object without interruption. He wrote “I do not recall our exact speed, whether we were still climbing or whether we had leveled off during the time.” ‘Compare and contrast’ to Kenneth Arnold in his puddle jumper. 😎 And I agree the reasons given in their reports concluding it was not a cloud are not sufficient for us…but we weren’t there, and all we have is a few hundred words of their impressions. AFAIK, there were no followup interviews.
    The minority opinion: Ware and Colman. At first sight they did not think “cloud”, but “airplane”. Colman writes “The object appeared as a thin black line, giving a first reaction of a B-36 type airplane…”. Thoren makes a not too clear mention of a flying wing and Wimmer mentions that someone had referred to one. Wimmer describes the shape as “a crescent”.
    There is the issue of ‘collusion’ (or ‘contamination’) in the reports. Note, as well, the initiative on reporting the sighting is taken by Thoren who involves other Lockheed personnel, Haddon and Wassell. Then there is the intervention of General Putt, a person of interest to those of us who study the original wave because of his involvement with ufos since at least 1948.
    Also, four of the seven witnesses had previous sightings: Wimmer, Ware, and the Johnsons.
    From my perspective, this is a very rich case, no matter what the object was.
    Regards,
    Don

  32. Hi Lance,
    Well, its not a new hypothesis. Undoubtedly this is the best presentation of it I have read. I will now and have always admitted that it has a high degree of plausibility. So I have no problem placing it on the same shelf as the “it was an actual object” hypothesis. As always it was very well thought out and delivered. Thanks for the hard work.

  33. Hi
    Thanks alot for your great article.
    Keep on informing us please!
    Long time ago i saw u huge ufo myself.
    But i cant talk to nobody because noone believes me.
    So i am sure what i saw was not man made. There is no such an engine, man made, thatca hangup in the air total silence!
    And there is no such an engine which can tranform into another structure.
    Greetings
    GeePee

  34. Hi Lance,
    Your breakdown of this case was a refreshing relief since we are most of the time lost, adrift in a sea of woo and prophecies and fairies and lake-monsters and psuedo-medicines (a pet hate of mine).
    At least with good critical research we are still left with the questions, and encouraged to consider a number of different possibilities/probabilities without insisting on just one.
    The true-believers have only one.
    And people are so quick to leap without understanding just how far the leap is.
    I know how much bias and desire to believe turn my perceptions into something else, something strange and mysterious, probably something I read about with great excitement as a child.
    The relevent details of lenticular clouds are beyond me, apart from what i’ve learned from you and your readers/commenters.
    Thanks for this post.
    Andrew

  35. Well said, Andrew. One particular observation jumped out at me:
    “I know how much bias and desire to believe turn my perceptions into something else, something strange and mysterious, probably something I read about with great excitement as a child.”
    It is a carbon copy of what I’ve sometimes felt myself.

  36. Why can’t an unknown simply be left as an unknown? Why isn’t it a wise course of action to let an account stand? I don’t understand.
    I’m not faulting your hypothesis. You did great work presenting it. However, there’s no proof it was a cloud any more than there’s proof it was an ET mother ship. It might have been something else outside our frame of reference that didn’t come from another galaxy, a parallel universe, the distant future, or water vapor in the atmosphere.
    I tilt pretty far toward the skeptical side when it comes to UFOs (darn close to falling over, actually), but sometimes a skeptical explanation isn’t compelling (no “aha!” feelings are provoked) and the case remains a report of an anomalous event. One can only shrug and note that given the information that was provided after the fact, it’s a mystery. And, not all mysteries are ever solved or solvable. This case remains that way for me.
    I also don’t understand the “infallibility” automatically assigned to Johnson as a witness. Probably someone will reply to this comment citing all his credentials, but really, they don’t prove he was exempt from human error or that his report is a 100% accurate account of his experience.

  37. Purrlgirl! I always enjoy your comments. Thanks for this one.
    For me, the lenticular scenario works better on the balance than simply concluding unknown.
    I think that there are certainly cases that do qualify as unknown and I have no aversion to saying so. Usually this is because the data is too sparse, etc.
    I did a lot of the explanation to counter the stuff that is published elsewhere (and everywhere), which is certainly wrong–particularly the work of Brad Sparks, which does no one who is seeking the truth any favors. I particularly abhor the faux scientific veneer that some researchers sprinkle upon their work.
    Also the case is quite interesting owing to the dual set of witnesses and the personalities involved.
    I hope this clarifies my position, even if you don’t agree with it.
    Best,
    Lance

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