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.
You can see the Project Blue Book microfilm record here.
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.
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).
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:
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!
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:
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):
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.
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.
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.