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.


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 (
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.

Saucers, Lies and Audio Tape

The UFO field has produced more than its fair share of frauds and charlatans. One of the most amusing and yet appalling things about this fact is that, even after exposure, many of these hoaxers are warmly welcomed back into the arms of believers.


George Adamski (L) and Dan Fry

George Adamski, the UFO contactee, for instance, was outed as a complete fraud in a definitive and devastating exposé published by my friend, Jim Moseley (Saucer News, October 1957). And yet Adamski is still has many apologists. Their rationalizations usually take the form of claiming  that Adamski saw something "real" initially but then hoaxed his later photos and sightings, all for the good cause of fostering fellowship between man and the Space Brothers. Recently, the prolific (and none too picky) paranormal author, Nick Redfern's "Contactees: A History of Alien-human Interaction" treated the claims of many known frauds as serious and worthy of discussion, instead of silly and worthy of laughter. One does what one must in order to sell books, I suppose.

An amusing glimpse of how these con men work was seen when Daniel Fry, another contactee, was publicly deconstructed on a radio program (The Betty Grobley Show, November 1966) by Phillip Klass. In that program, Klass systematically shows that Dr. Fry's claimed PhD came from a "university" that doesn't seem to actually exist. He also got Fry to admit that many of his claimed professional credentials were fraudulent. It is fascinating (and very funny) to hear Fry in action on that program. For instance:

Betty:     "Did you say you are you a graduate engineer? You have a BA?"

Fry:         "I am not a graduate engineer in the sense that would be accepted…"

Betty:     "Where did you get your BA from?

Fry:         "Uh, I have not said that I have a BA"

Betty      " Well, how can you get a PhD if you don't have a BA or an MA?"

Fry:        "Uh, this is beyond my understanding…"

Note the grey rectangles below are audio players containing supporting material.

Grobley Show  

Second_lower_shot "Understanding" was ironically the name of Fry's metaphysical organization. Despite revelations such as those above, there are still those who think Fry should be taken seriously. Noted UFO author, Timothy Good, in discussing one of Fry's UFO films (the sad saucer is obviously a prop dangling from a string), says this, "But does this prove that Fry was lying about all his previous experiences?  I think not. Most probably, he thought that a few fabricated movie films of 'saucers' would bolster his unprovable claims."

Apparently there is nothing that a UFO huckster might do that would discourage or cause a second thought for the true believer and those who make a living by peddling paranormal ideas.

Recently, I became interested in the claims of respected UFO and paranormal author, Philip J. Imbrogno. Imbrogno has written many paranormal books. Perhaps his best known was the account of the Hudson Valley UFO sightings he co-authored with J. Allen Hynek, Night Siege.

This spring, Imbrogno and his co-author, Rosemary Ellen Guiley, were making the rounds of all the paranormal talk shows to promote their book, The Vengeful Djinn: Unveiling the Hidden Agenda of Genies. I know that the title sounds like a put-on but no, they really were selling a book about vengence seeking genies! I listened to one of Imbrogno's appearances and was struck at how little he had in the way of evidence. This was never an issue on the shows because the last thing any of the hosts of these shows ever ask for is evidence.

Another thing was quite striking about Imbrogno: he was a real scientist. Imbrogno's bio, as it appeared on his web site (and was faithfully recited by most of the radio hosts) partially went like this:

"Imbrogno holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in physics, astronomy and chemistry from the University of Texas and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2010 he was awarded a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry from MIT. He is a staff member of the McCarthy Observatory in New Milford, Connecticut, and is a founder and former director of the Astronomical Society Of Greenwich, and former director of the Bowman Observatory."

Here is a web archive of the bio as it looked back in May 2011:

Download Bio (requires Safari)

Mitshirt Pretty impressive. From every indication, Imbrogno is an accomplished man of science, certainly a rarity in the more earthy environs of the paranormal.

But one thing was bugging me.

It really started with the shirt.

Many websites carrried a photo of Imbrogno in an MIT T-shirt. A New York Times article about Imbrogno actually mentions him showing up in the shirt.

I started thinking to myself, "Man, he is selling MIT pretty hard!" It seemed a little desperate to me. This was the whole reason I decided to look into the claims of Imbrogno.

I really didn't expect to find anything. I certainly didn't expect to discover anything so easily. Using the service, I ran a search to see if I could verify his degree claims with MIT. The results came back negative. I was shocked. 

At this point, I still thought that I could have made a mistake in my query (in my first try, I spelled "Philip" with 2 "l's"). I also didn't know how reliable the online search was.

So I contacted the registrar's office at MIT. A very nice lady there helped me and kindly sent me this response:

MIT Imbrogno Redact
A telephone conversation with the office further determined that there has never been a student with the last name "Imbrogno" attending classes at MIT. Wow. Can it really be that easy?

While I was looking into this, I also contacted several paranormal talk show hosts and personalities to see if they might shed some light on the matter. I wanted to see if there was something I missed. Was I barking up the wrong tree?

Many of these folks initially greeted my inquiries with suspicion. Chris O'Brien, co-host of the Paracast radio program, asked me "Who elected you credentials cop anyway?"

Soon I noticed that Imbrogno's Djinn book web site had been quietly changed. All mention of MIT and other achievements had been removed! In the meantime, I looked into those observatories mentioned in his bio. They both seem to be volunteer-run amateur facilities at a high schools. Phil was on the volunteer staff of one. 

One day an announcement appeared at the Djinn site from his co-author, Guiley:

"Philip J. Imbrogno has informed me that he is withdrawing from the paranormal and will no longer be involved in research, including the Djinn. 

Soon after, Guiley added another sentence:

"I have ended my research and writing collaboration with him."

I managed to get in touch with Imbrogno to ask him for his response to this matter. His answers to me seemed evasive. He never claimed to have the degrees. Instead he made three bizzare and incompatible excuses.

EXCUSE 1: Other people had mistakenly made the MIT claims not him.

In an email to me, Imbrogno said:

"I don't know why you are after me. There have been multiple mistakes in my background listed, I don't know how but things happen."

EXCUSE 2: He used a second legal name when registered at school.

From his email:

In any event I register at school with a different name than I write with.

The problem with this is that he uses the name he writes with for everything else. It's the name his phone is listed under and the name he uses at his teaching job. It doesn't make sense that he would have chosen another name JUST for the purpose of going to school. Is it even legal to have two legal names? I don't know. And the reason he gave me for this was strange:

"I respect your work, however the name I  write with is different than the name I use to register for reasons of people in the UFO field trying to track me down."

Huh? I had no problem tracking him down. I just uh, used his name!

EXCUSE 3: He made stuff up about his background in order to confuse UFO stalkers.

This excuse came in a later email after I had told him that I actually had found interviews in which he himself claimed the MIT degrees (which destroys excuse number 1).

"I really have no recollection of saying that if I did It was most likely to secure my privacyI will often give misleading information about myself to secure my privacy. Once again you will just be going around in circles. I have NEVER given  information out when dealing with UFOs and the paranormal that I can be traced back too because of stalkers. As far as you know I could have a degree in Engineering!. Its because of nut cases that I protect myself and personal information." 

Imbrogno and MIT 

I was still undecided about what to do with my information. Imbrogno had threatened me in his emails with legal action (apparently unfamiliar with the 1st amendment) and I was rather satisfied that he had decided to leave the field. I didn't know just what I wanted to do.

In the end, someone else broke the story for me. The Paracast show (and a suddenly more skeptical O'Brien) revealed my findings (without my input and without mentioning my name, naturally) and soon the internet was buzzing about the revelations.

After the story came to light there was much use of hind sight. Lots of folks claimed that they knew all along that Imbrogno's stories were too good to be true. Indeed, I found some threads that did seriously question the tales and Imbrogno's credibility but so many more people wrote about what a fantastic researcher he was and how he was their favorite author, things like that.

I had to listen to lots of terrible podcasts to find Imbrogno making the MIT claim himself. He usually just let the host read the bio and never commented on it. While listening, I certainly wondered why folks believed this man was a great scientist when all I could hear was his sometimes poor grammar and odd pronunciations of words ("A-NOM-A-NA-LY for "anomaly, "CAV-REN" for "cavern", for instance).

Worst of all were the stories.

His stories sounded like poorly written fiction to me. There was a certain aspect to the tales that made them sound as though they were being thought of right off the top of his head. For example, Imbrogno makes much of his association with the esteemed J. Allen Hynek. He mentions Hynek often in interviews and stresses their close relationship. In one story, Imbrogno related Hynek's opinion of the famous Roswell UFO story.

"He [Hynek] believed that the Roswell crash never happened. He told me that he believed that it was this Project Mogul." 

Imbrogno on Hynek and Roswell

I see a big problem with this story and Kevin Randle, probably the foremost expert on Roswell, agrees: the Project Mogul balloon scenario for the Roswell Incident had not been discussed until the mid-1990's. Hynek died in 1986.

Other researchers have since posted their findings about other aspects of the Imbrogno story. They are reporting that they cannot find records of any of his claimed undergraduate degrees. Long-time UFO authority, Don Ecker, says that Imbrogno's claims of service in the US Special Forces also appear to be bogus. There are apparently other revelations in the works.

Sadly and predictably, there are already a few apologists for Imbrogno. A writer at one forum said:

"I think whether he faked his credentials or not is a moot point. There, I've said it. We do indeed have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because one element is false does not automatically mean that any other elements are also logically false."

But the vast majority of folks seemed to think that this incident should signal a new way of looking into the claims made by paranormal purveyors, some of them calling for a vetting process before allowing people on the air.

I hope that does happen but, knowing the history of the subject, I certainly have my doubts.

I would like to offer thanks to Angelo Fiorentino, Don Ecker, Ron Collins, Ricky Poole, Kevin Randle, Gene Steinberg and Jeff Ritzmann for their invaluable help in preparing this story.

The Protocols of Frank Warren


Frank Warren runs the UFO Chronicles web site. This site collects and reposts UFO information from various sources, sort of a clearing house of reports and opinions in this field.

I have corresponded with Frank on many occasions and he is uniformly polite and civil (something I really have to work at!) and seems to be willing to answer questions and defend his opinion in a good-natured and truthful way.

Frank is also the source of the nice quality scan of the famous Battle of Los Angeles photo that appears all over the internet. Prior to his 2002 release of the image, the only versions that seem to be available are newsprint quality scans or microfilms from the WWII-era Los Angeles Times.

The Battle of Los Angeles is a truly engrossing episode in U.S. history during WWII. On the night of February 24th, 1942, the city of Los Angeles was thrown into panic as people believed a Japanese attack of the city was underway. Over 1400 anti-aircraft shells were fired, searchlights raked the skies, and a total blackout of the city was ordered. Three civilians were killed by the barrage. Nineteen_forty_one_ver3

By the next day it was realized that there was no attack and the whole episode was likely a false alarm, possibly caused by a drifting weather balloon or perhaps even just frayed nerves.

Steven Spielberg made a big-budget movie about the incident, 1941, that tanked at the box office but is still legendary for some of its spectacular pre-CGI special effects.

This brings us back to the photo. Many UFO proponents believe that they can see a suspicious shape in the convergence of the search beams. The amazing photo really captures the drama of the night but arguments that the photo shows a saucer seem particularly ill-conceived.

Bruce Maccabee, the UFO photo analyst who apparently thinks most any photo submitted to him is anomalous, published a paper that supported the idea that photo showed a solid craft of some kind. The paper tried desperately to appear scientific but the conclusions made were unsupported by the evidence at hand. And the Photoshop manipulations he presented, contained no revelations except the bias of the writer. Incidentally, Maccabee also recently used his skills to unconvincingly try to show that a trail-cam photo of an owl was more likely something else, like maybe a Bigfoot.

Tim Printy, in his excellent journal of UFO skepticism, SUNlite, ran a recent piece (Pages 17-22) that clearly shows, using archival photos unrelated to the BOLA, that the shapes UFO believers see are just an artifact of converging beams of searchlights in the cloudy or smoky sky. On page 22, of that issue, you can see a searchlight photo that clearly shows the same elliptical white shape that the UFO buffs are so excited about. But that photo is not a UFO photo.

I have always been interested in the BOLA photo but in August of last year, I decided to write to Frank Warren and inquire about the photo and how he secured the negative:

Hi Frank

I recently saw a piece attributed to you about the famous Battle of Los Angeles photo. In the piece you say that the somewhat low resolution scan was taken from a print made from the original negative.

I am inquiring about the negative itself.

Did you obtain the print from the LA Times?

And did you witness the negative itself? What else can you say about the negative?

Were there other shots on the same roll.

Do you know what type of film was used, etc.In short, I would appreciate any details about the negative you used to make the print.

I assumed that, even though Frank is well aware that I am a skeptic, such information would still be forthcoming. Most legitimate researchers are only too glad to provide references for their work. So I was taken aback by Frank's reply:

"I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to divulge that information... The methodology used to find it, as well as its local [sic] confirms its provenance."

I was surprised but, after dealing with other UFO researchers, I wasn't shocked. I have often seen a rather silly need among UFO researchers to jealously guard their work. Indeed, Frank, in a later letter, told me:

"My work on BOLA is ongoing; my experience in sharing pertinent case information has always been detrimental to said research--in short it has always come back to 'bite me in the ass.' (No offense intended to you)." 


Frank did confirm for me that he had not seen the negative. In which case I replied, he could not confirm that actual negative had been used. Frank assured me that I was wrong:

“The authenticity of the negative, and the print I have from it along with its provenance and or  bona fides has been established (and isn't in question) to  my satisfaction (and then some), and would be to anyone, including you "if you were cognizant of the methodology used to locate it, along with its location.”

Sounds official, no? At any rate, I had a reason for asking about the provenance of the negative, which I told Frank about:

"The reason that I was even asking was that I had some reprints of photos made from several newspapers when I was researching Otis T. Carr. It was obvious when I got the prints that they were not printed from the negatives and they were often crudely retouched (this was apparently common for newspapers last century). The low quality newsprint hid the alterations, I think."

800px-Graflex_speedgraphic_medium_format,_1 This reached deaf ears, apparently. Frank was sure that he had an authentic print from the original negative. Frank (along with many other UFO buffs) had already decided that the photo showed an “elliptical shaped craft.” But his “work” on the photo (eight years after the release of the print!) was still ongoing.

So stymied by Frank’s secrecy, I tried to locate the photos myself. I quickly determined that most of the LA Times photos had been turned over to the UCLA photo archives. I was able to get a coordinator there to do a cursory search for the photo but she was unable to find it. I could have paid to have a more thorough search done but I was only casually interested and didn’t want to spend the money. And anyway, I thought, ‘surely Frank isn’t trying to hide the fact that the negative is just in the collection where anyone would expect it to be. How dumb would that be?’

All of this conversation happened last year.  Battle Los Angeles Poster

Flash-forward to 2011 and the release of the (apparently rather bad) science fiction film, Battle: Los Angeles. Over at the LA Times, Scott Harrison, a photographer, perhaps seeing an angle on the new film, decided to look into the original BOLA incident and the famous photo.

A researcher immediately located the negative in the the UCLA archive (damn it!) but even more interestingly, he located another negative! It seems the famous photo that appeared in the paper and was "analyzed" by UFO proponents wasn't real. It was a heavily retouched concoction: exactly what I warned Frank about a year earlier! The original unretouched (and unseen) negative was also found and looks much different than the published version.

Harrison says:

"In the retouched version, many light beams were lightened and widened with white paint, while other beams were eliminated.

In earlier years, it was common for newspapers to use artists to retouch images due to poor reproduction — basically 10 shades of gray if you were lucky.

Thus my conclusion:  the retouching was needed to reproduce the image. But man, I wish the retouching had been more faithful to the original. With our current standards, this image would not be published."

Upon learning of this development, I admit that I was mad. If Frank had been more forthcoming, I might have pushed further in my search and uncovered all this myself. But since I would have been doing everything long distance, who knows?

I also admit that I was quite amused at how starkly Frank's protocol of not sharing information had made his solemn pronouncements of authenticity look supremely foolish.

With sad predictability, UFO buffs now say that they can see a different anomalous shape in the convergence of the lights of the real image. Bruce Maccabee, bravely hid his old (and now completely discredited) "analysis" of the retouched photo and substituted a new "analysis" of the real negative. Of course he still sees something in there. 

And so it goes.

To his great credit, Frank immediately admitted his mistake but stands unrepentant for sticking to his protocol of not sharing information with other researchers. He says that he lives by this protocol.

The sheer hubris of having (and living by!) a protocol for not sharing information without apparently having any protocols for even insuring the authenticity of that infomation is amusing. But this is UFO "research" and so, par for the course.

For me this episode is sort of a snapshot example as to why so many consider UFOlogy a pseudoscience. And why it will always be that way.