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On the clear blue afternoon of June 24, 1947, along the high, snow-covered ridges of Mount Rainier, Washington, a bolt of bright light hit a small mountain plane flown by Kenneth Arnold so suddenly that Arnold thought he was about to collide with another plane. Instead, he spied a formation of nine luminescent objects, bright enough to be seen a hundred miles away, skimming the mountaintops at extraordinary speed. Arnold thought he was watching a test flight of new and secret jet planes, but as they came closer, he could see no tails on any of the craft.
The strange objects closed at right angles to Arnold's plane, flying like nothing he had ever seen: The echelon formed a pinnacle with the lead craft at the top, the others trailing behind and below, the reverse of military air formations. And their flight was erratic. As Arnold wrote later in his book, The Coming of the Saucers, "It was like speed boats on rough water or similar to the tail of a Chinese kite that I once saw blowing in the wind." The craft fascinated him with the way they "fluttered and sailed, tipping their wings alternately and emitting those very bright blue-white flashes from their surfaces."*
*Arnold timed the lead craft from the southern edge of Mount Rainier all the way to Mount Adams, a distance of 39.8 miles, which the disk flew in one minute and forty-two seconds. In the summer of 1947, the fastest experimental aircraft on earth was thought to be the U.S. Army's X-1, developed by Bell Aircraft Corporation. A bullet-shaped fuselage with a rocket engine, the X-1 was powered to exceed the speed of sound, 760 miles an hour, but no pilot had yet been able to fly it that fast. Chuck Yeager would not break the sound barrier in the X-1 for another four months. Yet Arnold's figures, trimmed conservatively, had the shiny metallic disks traveling almost Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound.
When Arnold landed in Pendleton, Oregon, he attempted to locate a representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but was unsuccessful. Instead, he talked to other pilots at the airport about what he had seen; then, local reporters heard of the sighting, and within two days, Arnold's story had hit 150 newspapers. He told the press the craft flew "like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water," prompting one reporter to coin the term "flying saucer."
In the midst of a cold war with the Soviet Union, intelligence analysts in the United States suspected the Communists of conceiving ingenious and extravagant plots to spread their propaganda, even among the American populace. When the story of Arnold's sighting appeared in print, his politics, finances, business, and reputation in the community were investigated by Military Intelligence, the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Internal Revenue Service, each hoping to discover that Arnold was unstable, publicity-conscious, given to exaggeration, or linked to the Communist Party. But not only was Arnold considered an excellent mountain pilot with a cool head, calm hand, and 20/15 vision, his general reputation in the community and as a family man was impeccable.
Then, other reputable citizens, many of them pilots, reported strange aircraft penetrating hundreds of miles inland from the West Coast, aircraft that appeared supersonic, sophisticated, and unconventionally designed. Newspapers reported each of the new sightings, and the public wanted to know what they were.
Hallucination, said the Air Force. There was no need for an investigation into the presence of these flying saucers because all of the sightings were due to hallucination. Secretly, they wondered if perhaps Communist sympathizers, attempting to frighten the American public, had reported bogus sightings to increase cold war jitters. Or was the intention to get the Air Force so soft on responding to myriad reports of lights in the night sky that waves of Soviet bombers could penetrate our air defenses unchallenged?
But then, their own pilots, navigators, generals, and advanced radar detectors began reporting strange flying craft that could stop on a dime, hover, ascend and descend in a straight line, turn at right angles, make no noise, and then take off at speeds into the thousands of miles an hour. If it was the Soviets, why had no bombs been dropped, no missiles been deployed or overt strategic action taken by these craft? They would simply appear at all times of the day and night, in all parts of the country, dazzle their onlookers with their incredible speed and maneuverability, and then disappear. No one considered what later came to be known as the extraterrestrial hypothesis, the possibility that such technology might originate on worlds trillions of miles into our galaxy or even beyond.
During World War II, American and British pilots had reported seeing strange objects that flew at fantastic speeds and glowed from orange to red and white, and back to orange again. They named them "foo fighters." One pilot saw fifteen of them during the day, describing them as five-foot golden spheres that shone with a metallic glitter. Near Truk Lagoon in Japan, B-29 bomber crews reported the balls came up from below their cockpits, hovered over their tails, winked their lights from red to orange, then back to red, then to white. One pilot said they glowed with eerie red phosphorescence and had no wings, fins, or fuselage. Allied fighter pilots thought they were secret German experimental devices designed to cause fear and confusion. Intelligence officers figured they were radio-controlled objects launched to baffle radar. The Germans and Japanese thought they were secret weapons launched by the Allies. Scientists in New York surmised everyone had been seeing "Saint Elmo's lights," small balls of luminescence often connected with metal during electrical storms. The Army Air Forces dismissed the whole episode as a result of "war nerves" and "mass hallucination."
The summer before Arnold's sighting, hundreds of people in Scandinavia had watched flights of "ghost rockets" in the night sky, speeding balls of light that resembled meteors but behaved in what was described as "unmeteor-like fashion." American intelligence suspected the source might be Russian experiments at the captured German missile center at Peenemünde, but no evidence existed, and eventually, the ghost rockets ceased flying without offering a clue as to what they were or from where they came.
But in 1947, Arnold's sighting captured the world's imagination. Only three months later, such sightings had become so frequent that General Nathan Twining, head of Air Materiel Command, wrote a letter to the commanding general of the Air Force that concluded: "The phenomenon reported is something real and not visionary or fictitious... The reported operating characteristics such as extreme rates of climb, maneuverability (particularly in roll), and action which must be considered evasive when sighted or contacted by friendly aircraft and radar, lend belief to the possibility that some of the objects are controlled either manually, automatically, or remotely."
Quickly and quietly, the Air Force established Project Sign, which began officially two weeks after an F-51 fighter pilot, Thomas Mantell, died chasing a UFO near Louisville, Kentucky. Mantell's last words were: "It's metallic and it's tremendous in size. Now it's starting to climb." A few seconds later: "It's above me and I'm gaining on it. I'm going to 20,000 feet." It was not yet three o'clock in the afternoon. Mantell was not heard from again; an hour later, the tower lost sight of the UFO and learned that Mantell's F-51 had crashed.
Before the wreckage had cooled, the Air Force offered a solution that seemed to satisfy press and public alike - Venus. For thirty minutes, Mantell had chased the planet, even climbing without oxygen beyond the point of blackout, to get a better look at Venus. He had died in pursuit of a planet millions of miles away. Though Venus indeed would become the solution to many of the sightings, on that day, at three o'clock in the afternoon over the state of Kentucky, Venus was a pinpoint of light so faint it could not be seen by the human eye. Even the secret report filed by Project Sign investigators concluded: "The mysterious object which the flyer chased to his death was first identified as the Planet Venus. However, further probing showed the elevation and azimuth readings of Venus and that object at specified time intervals did not coincide. It is still considered 'Unidentified.'"
Project Sign drew only high-level intelligence specialists, and period correspondence reveals that amid a great deal of confusion bordering on panic, they developed two categories of theory: earthly and non-earthly. In the earthly category, the Russians outdistanced our own Navy, XF-5-U-1, a circular craft nicknamed the Flying Flapjack. In the non-earthly, "space animals" placed second behind interplanetary craft.
Since the second theory was impossible to test, intelligence analysts sought initially to determine if captured German rocket and missile testing centers, now in Soviet hands, had produced these sophisticated aircraft. German aeronautical engineers had been developing several radical designs, and an intelligence rumor held that the Russians were continuing the experiments. Intelligence analysts studied every intelligence report dealing with German aeronautical research and computed the maximum performance that could be expected from the German designs. They even contacted the German engineers themselves. "Could the Russians develop a flying saucer from these designs?" they asked. The answer was that no aircraft could perform the reported maneuvers of the flying saucers. Such maneuvers and fantastic speeds would either tear apart or melt all aerodynamic materials known on earth. Even if such an aircraft could be built, the human body would not survive at the controls.
One strange sighting after another continued to baffle the Air Force. From 1948 into 1951 "green fireballs" flew over the supersensitive Atomic Energy Commission installation at Los Alamos, traveling an estimated maximum speed of 27,000 miles an hour. Dozens of scientists, Air Force special agents, airline pilots, military pilots, and Los Alamos security inspectors submitted over two hundred reports of seeing the objects - huge half moons, circles, and disks flying at extreme velocities and emitting a green light so bright it caused the contours of surrounding mountains to glow momentarily at night. Some of the witnesses reported watching flat, disk-shaped objects traveling at equally high speeds and varying in color from brilliant white to amber, red, and green.
A private pilot flying one night north of Santa Fe encountered one of the fireballs and described it this way: "Take a softball and paint it with some kind of fluorescent paint that will glow a bright green in the dark. Then, have someone take the ball out about a hundred feet in front of you and about ten feet above you. Have him throw the ball right at your face, as hard as he can throw it. That's what a green fireball looks like."
The Air Force hired Dr. Lincoln LaPaz, an expert on meteors, to solve the mystery, but LaPaz concluded the phenomena were not of meteoric origin. He thought the fireballs were guided missiles being secretly tested nearby. But the military and the FBI knew that no such secret experiments were under way in this country, and they had now been assured that the Russians were also incapable of conducting such experiments.
In January 1949, a cable sent from the San Antonio field office to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover noted that at weekly conferences involving military intelligence the main topic was "the matter of 'Unidentified Aircraft' or 'Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,' otherwise known as 'Flying Discs,' 'Flying Saucers,' and 'Balls of Fire.' This matter is considered to be secret by Intelligence Officers of both the Army and the Air Forces [emphasis in original]."
Publicly, the Air Force maintained that flying saucers were nothing more than the sun reflecting off low-hanging clouds, or crystals from shattered meteors glinting in the sun's rays, or gigantic hailstones gliding through the atmosphere. But their intelligence analysts began to focus seriously on the possibility of extraterrestrial origin.
In 1951, several reputable scientists speculated that the green fireballs over Los Alamos were unmanned test vehicles projected into our atmosphere from a "spaceship" several hundred miles above earth. About clipboard tracked a flat, oval-shaped object a hundred feet in length and whitish silver in color flying at an altitude of 296,000 feet and a speed of 25,200 miles an hour. One of the scientists, a naval commander, later wrote in an article cleared by the Navy, "I am convinced that it was a flying saucer, and further, that these disks are spaceships from another planet, operated by animate, intelligent beings."
When an airline captain and his co-pilot sighted "a deep blue glow" along the underside of what looked like a wingless B-29 fuselage that came within 700 feet of their DC-3, intelligence analysts at Project Sign decided it was time to write an "Estimate of the Situation." The top-secret "Estimate" concluded that from all evidence collected, the presence of the mysterious flying objects could best be explained by visitations from advanced extraterrestrial societies. And this hypothesis might have formed the basis for all future UFO research if Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt S. Vandenberg hadn't adamantly refused to accept it. Instead, he fired the document back to Air Intelligence, where it was quickly declassified and burned, encouraging Sign personnel still bucking for promotion to drop their original hypothesis for an official new one: UFOs don't exist.
Performing most of their security work late at night when corporate offices lay deserted, the Elders and Welch had become night people who functioned best in the early hours of the morning; Stevens could go either way, as long as he had a breakfast of sausage, eggs, and pancakes after midnight. When the Elders returned from Switzerland, the four of them spent hours in all-night coffee shops, eating breakfast or pie, drinking coffee or iced tea, and collectively scratching their heads over Meier. At 1 or 2 a.m., they might drive to Good's on Camelback Road or Carrow's on Thomas, tell the waitress, "We'll have iced tea, and leave us alone," then retire to a corner booth in the back of the restaurant to argue over Meier for the next two hours. "We became connoisseurs of iced tea," said Welch.
Between bites of breakfast and sips of coffee, Stevens would shake his head. Sometimes he would even jump up and pace excitedly back and forth next to the booth, admitting openly he had lost all objectivity in the case. "I don't understand a lot of things about this," he would tell the others. "But I am convinced that something strange happened, and I am convinced that Meier could not fake the pictures, and I don't think there's anybody around him that could."
After one of the late-night sessions, Brit wrote in her diary, "Steve excited about stuff from Billy. Thinks we've got a 'real one.' Lee still skeptical, calling in favors, hopes to find good qualified people for analysis. Initial budget $10,000 set aside. Plan trip to L.A., try to dig into universities there, maybe turn in interesting stone."
Later, Brit admitted she pushed Lee hard to get involved in the Meier investigation. "He was reluctant. Deep down inside he liked Meier, they hit it off. But with Intercep and everything that was happening, it was hard to let go and start off in a new direction. But Lee's a very curious person, and this had too much to offer. He sat down and said, 'How did he create this hoax?' Steve was already committed, Lee was the balance."
Stevens's only concern was that Meier might have almost too much evidence. And the number of contacts Meier claimed, like the clarity of his photographs, made his story seem even more suspect.
"The conventional idea of a contact is a quick happenstance, a one-time experience that passes, doesn't come back," Stevens explained to the others. "When the second contact occurs, it reduces in the minds of UFO buffs the credibility factor. It's kind of a 'lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place' syndrome. When it happens a third time, credibility is reduced even further. This happened over a hundred times."
Lee Elders retained his skepticism, challenging Stevens again and again, for no matter what the witnesses had said, he had difficulty understanding certain things, like Meier's sudden disappearances and just as sudden reappearances. He thought the man had somehow merely persuaded the others to imagine he had vanished: "I can't buy that somebody can be standing in his office and have all his molecules broken down into a beam of light or whatever and transferred two miles away to another locale. I just cannot conceive of this."
Then he would argue with himself in front of the others as if he were alone. "But we have so much supportive evidence documenting other things that we can't say, 'Well, if they say this crazy thing is happening, then the whole thing has to be a hoax.'
"But, my God," he would argue again, "if this thing is legitimate, how do we logically explain Meier being dematerialized?"
Then they would spend two and a half hours trying to comprehend how he disappeared.
"Did he really disappear?" they wondered.
"Our comfort level," said Elders, "was dealing with solid, tangible evidence. But there's another level here that just taxes the imagination. You can't say that the case is a hoax because it contains this level, any more than you can leave it out and say the case is real. But it's unexplainable."
The arguments over Meier got longer and became more frequent, involved more restaurants, more sausage, eggs, and hot pie, more coffee and iced tea. As Stevens had predicted, Meier and his story had gone right to the core of the Elders' curiosity, challenging their considerable investigative skills. Once recalling the many late-night conversations, Lee Elders said, "It wasn't so much, 'Do you think Meier is telling the truth?' We were way beyond that. It was the mystery that was driving us crazy, these little things that didn't make sense."
The brief side trip they had taken to Switzerland reluctantly and only as a favor to a friend, had piqued their interest, and at the same time, failed to yield an explanation for the bizarre story. But in addition to their own impressions, they now held several items of hard evidence. They could argue forever over imponderables, but proper analysis of the evidence would give them answers.
"So we went directly for the hard stuff," remembered Brit. "We worked with the photographs, the metals, the sounds, everything like that. We went in looking for how he did it because we didn't believe it was real.
At the Elders' apartment in Phoenix and on Stevens's dining room table in Tucson, sat several stacks of paper, film, and other evidence waiting to be examined - rough notes taken at a few of the sites, the interviews and signed statements of many witnesses, hundreds of translated pages of the contact notes, taped interviews with Meier, over two hundred photographs, pictures of landing tracks, metal and crystal samples, and seven 8mm films. The Elders and Stevens labeled every piece, catalogued it, then combed through it all, searching for clues and inconsistencies. In thirty-two years of studying UFOs, there was little about them Stevens did not know, and he had never heard of a case with so much evidence.
"It's a lot of work," said Welch. "You have to sit down and analyze it. Not study, not read - analyze. Do we have any correlations here? Find them all and list them, potential or otherwise. Do we have any contradictions? Find them all and list them. Everything. We had to develop an attack plan. So on a daily basis, we were jamming on our notes, getting together on the things that Lee and Brit had learned from their first trip, and that Steven had brought back, correlating data, and planning our next trip in July, which was to be my first trip there."
With computer theft occurring more and more frequently and the reputation of Intercep growing apace, the Phoenix-based security firm continued to expand. But the Elders and Welch also spent more and more time on the Meier case. Between conducting communications sweeps for various corporate clients, they met frequently with Stevens to analyze the data they had collected and to plot a course on how to proceed. At the beginning, they had initiated a rapidly expanding list of questions to be answered; the next step was to pin down a precise, acceptable method for determining the authenticity of photographs.
"The photographs, in a sense, were too real," remembered Welch. "They were so clear and so stark, it was as if a craft was in the air over your driveway and you walked outside and took a picture of it. They were that vivid."
Stevens already had examined the photographs closely, looking for missing or misplaced shadows. The only additional test they could think to perform was to blow up a photo into the largest format possible, then search it carefully with a microscope for inconsistencies in the grain. Such inconsistencies would indicate that Meier had placed the craft in a scene either by exposing the same piece of film twice or by superimposing two separate pieces of film to create a single picture. Either way, the grain would appear thickened around the craft. But when they blew up the film and examined the grain, they found nothing.
Stevens continued his work, begun a year earlier, of cataloguing the photographs according to site. In the process, he discovered that, as with the Hasenbol series, nearly every picture Meier had taken was part of a sequence, with the flight path uniform from picture to picture as the object moved low over the hills or flew directly at the camera. On his first trip to Switzerland, Stevens had noted that the numbers at the edge of each slide in Meier's collection were in proper order with no interruptions. Stevens also discovered that Meier's camera had a "signature," a tiny speck of dirt or lint just to the right of center near the top of each slide. The signature itself remained constant in every picture.
In Switzerland, Stevens had taken about twelve of what he thought were original Meier slides to a photo shop in the city of Winterthur. At his instruction, the shop had made clean internegatives of each slide, first-generation copies that Stevens brought back to the States to have tested. But so much of the evidence in Switzerland had been through so many hands that he could not be certain of the generation of the slides he had taken to Winterthur. As he would discover later, many of the people who had come to Meier in the early days of the contacts had been permitted to borrow Meier's negatives to make copies of the photographs. They had returned the copies to Meier and kept the originals.
For several weeks, the Elders, Welch, and Stevens had been sifting through the data and designing procedures for testing the evidence when an acquaintance heard about their efforts and contacted a friend of his, documentary filmmaker John Stefanelli. As an independent producer, the thirty-six-year-old Stefanelli had made two theatrical features, five documentaries, and many educational films. Before that, he had worked at Disney for seven years, including two years in production budgeting on such films as The Love Bug and The Jungle Book. He knew how special effects experts transferred images on to film and how much it cost to stage such special effects.
"If this Meier thing was a fraud," he said, "it was done with some sort of special effects technique. And a lot of those techniques were used by Disney Studios and I was very familiar with them because of my experience there. I knew what it cost."
Stefanelli's friends had told him the Elders were investigating a rare UFO case, one that for the first time presented a significant amount of evidence for scientists to study; the thought of documenting on film the testing of that evidence intrigued him. But Lee Elders hesitated to show the evidence to anyone. Not until the acquaintance assured him that Stefanelli was a knowledgeable producer with a good track record did Elders confirm the investigation and offer to show some of the evidence to Stefanelli. They agreed to meet at B. B. Singer's, a mid-Phoenix cocktail lounge.
When Stefanelli arrived there, he found Lee Elders and Tom Welch sitting in a corner half-circle booth. Elders had nothing with him but a thin manila folder lying in front of him on the table. After introducing themselves, the three men talked for a while, about Stefanelli's background and experience in film, including his years with Disney, and about the Elders' trip to see Meier and what they had brought back with them. Once he felt satisfied that not only was Stefanelli legitimate, but he also wanted to produce a credible film, Elders opened the folder and spread before the filmmaker a dozen high-gloss 8X10 photographs. Stefanelli nearly came out of his seat.
"The pictures just knocked my socks off," he said. I was very impressed. My first reaction was, 'Wow!' My second reaction was, 'Oh, come on, this is really hard to believe.'"
"You could tell he was having problems with a lot of it," Elders said later. "We must have had the same look on our faces when Meier was telling us about the Pleiadians coming to Earth in seven hours, and how they have gardens back on Erra."
Stefanelli sat there in a quandary. In his mind, the crazy things Elders told him about Meier could not possibly coexist with the reality of the pictures. So either the crazy story was, in fact, true, or the beautiful photographs had somehow been faked. And he couldn't believe they had been faked.
"If someone was doing this fraudulently," he said, "they were doing a hell of a job. I was fascinated by it. And the more I got into it, the more I found it really intriguing."
Stefanelli met often with the Intercep group and Stevens in his own office and Lee Elders' apartment, monitoring the progress of their investigation, and on his own, arranging for some preliminary testing of the evidence. He put together a prospectus, persuaded two screenwriters to pen a treatment, and began talking to investors. His idea was to follow the Elders' investigation, document all of the testing, even arrange a science outlay in the film budget for assuring quality scientific analysis, and then produce a two-hour docudrama.
"It's an absolutely fascinating story," he said later. "Whether it's a fraud or whether it's true, it's incredible. And my approach was not to try to prove or disprove it; it was just to go after all the evidence and analyze it to its fullest extent."
But finding scientists willing even to look at the photographs, examine the metal, or listen to the sounds proved to be far more difficult than Stefanelli had anticipated. He knew the public still laughed at people who saw flying saucers, but with hard evidence in his hands, he expected scientists to be at least intrigued. When he took a sample of the metal to UCLA for preliminary analysis, he returned with the sample and the discovery that the stigma of UFOs still existed.
"When I went in," he recalled, "I expected to be greeted with open arms, and I wasn't at all. I was just another kook coming in off the street. I explained the project, I told them what evidence there was and what the story was, and they just didn't want to be bothered. They finally turned me over to a graduate student who had some interest in it. He did some testing, kept the sample for a couple of days, and came back and said the testing had been inconclusive. He did say it was unusual, it could be from another planet, but it was certainly possible that you could find it on this planet."
With General Vandenberg's refusal to accept the extraterrestrial hypothesis, Project Sign became Project Grudge in early 1949. Grudge personnel evaluated reports on the premise that UFOs couldn't exist. They explained every sighting as a weather balloon, a meteor, or the planet Venus. What came to be known as the Grudge Report concluded that unidentified flying objects were no direct threat to national security, and that reports of such objects resulted from a mild form of mass hysteria or the misidentification of conventional objects, or were hoaxes fabricated by psychopaths and publicity seekers. But Dr. Allen Hynek, Ohio State University astronomer and consultant to Projects Sign and Grudge, had studied 237 of the best sightings and attributed only 32 percent of them to various astronomical bodies. Another 12 percent had been discarded as being weather balloons; and hoaxes, incomplete reports, and airplanes made up exactly one-third. No one could explain the remaining 23 percent, not Hynek, not the Air Force Weather Service, and not even the subcontracted Rand Corporation. The Grudge Report dismissed them with this sentence: "There are sufficient psychological explanations for the reports of unidentified flying objects to provide plausible explanations for reports not otherwise explainable." From the beginning of 1950 to the middle of 1951, Grudge remained a project in name only.
Not until 3:04 on the afternoon of September 12, 1951, did Air Force Intelligence have reason to resuscitate Project Grudge. On that day the teletype at Air Technical Intelligence Command spit out three feet of tiny print on a sighting at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, that had occurred two days earlier. At eleven o'clock in the morning, a technician at the Monmouth radar school had been demonstrating the latest tracking equipment to a group of military VIPs. Capable of automatically "painting" a target, the new device could track the fastest jets. But when it locked on a low-flying object two and a half miles east of the radar station, the set immediately kicked back into manual operation. The operator again switched the set to automatic, and again, the set kicked back to manual. For three minutes the target remained in range as the radar operator frantically tried to force the set to track it automatically, and the set refused to respond. Finally, the embarrassed technician turned to the VIPs gathered around the scope and said, "It's going too fast for the set."
In the vicinity less than a half hour later, the pilot of a T-33 jet trainer, with an Air force major on board, saw flying below him a disk thirty to fifty feet in diameter and silver in color. As he rolled the T-33 and dived toward the disk, the silvery object stopped, hovered for a few moments, then accelerated heading south, and without slowing, made a d 120-degree turn and disappeared out over the ocean.
Immediately, the Director of Air Force Intelligence ordered a new UFO project and assigned Captain Edward Ruppelt as its head. Later in his book, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Ruppelt wrote that when he arrived at Air Technical Intelligence Command he was told, "The powers that be are anti-flying saucer, and to stay in favor, it behooves one to follow suit," a carryover from the mind-set of Grudge personnel. Ruppelt described them as "schizophrenic," officially laughing at the UFO reports coming in, and individually, in private, defending the phenomenon. Grudge became Project Blue Book in early 1952, and the reports trickling in each month increased to about twenty. In April, they jumped to ninety-nine. The following month, the Secretary of the Air Force said in a press statement, "No concrete evidence has yet reached us either to prove or disprove the existence of the so-called flying saucers. There remain, however, a number of sightings that the Air Force investigators have been unable to explain." Then at 11:40 on the night of July 19, 1952, seven objects suddenly appeared on the radar screen at Washington National Airport, three miles south of the nation's capital.
The seven green blips cruised through forbidden air corridors, moving slowly across the radar screen at 100 to 130 miles an hour. Suddenly, two of the objects accelerated to tremendous speed and almost instantaneously flew beyond the range of the radar, a distance of 100 miles. Four radar controllers agreed that nothing like an airplane could cause the blips on the scope. Then, two other radar centers, one at nearby Andrews Air Force Base, called in. Painted on their scopes, they had the same targets performing the same speed bursts; and now the targets had moved into every quadrant on the scope and were flying in prohibited airways over the White House and the Capitol. One of the targets had been clocked at 7,000 miles an hour.
As airline pilots in the vicinity radioed that they were being followed by unknown aircraft or that the aircraft suddenly seemed to be leaving, the luminescent blips on ground radar would appear or trail away. In the early hours after midnight, the most powerful of the radar installations, located at Washington National Airport, radioed the operators at Andrews that one target appeared to be hovering directly above them. When the operators rushed out and looked up, they saw "a huge fiery-orange sphere." And then, all of the objects disappeared.
One week later, the same radar controllers locked again on the mysterious objects. This time, the objects formed a wide arc around Washington, and the controllers called in two F-94 interceptors, which arrived just after midnight. But when the jets appeared on the radar screens, the targets suddenly disappeared. The jets returned to base. As soon as the jets departed, the targets appeared once again. In the interim, Langley Air Force Base in Virginia had received calls of bright lights in the sky, "rotating and giving off alternation colors." The Air Force scrambled another F-94 from Langley and the pilot made visual contact with one of the lights, but as he closed on it, it suddenly disappeared, "like somebody turning off a light bulb." The radar operator in the F-94 made contact three more times, but each time, contact was broken as the strange object apparently accelerated out of range within seconds.
A few minutes after the object broke radar contact for the last time, the green blips appeared again en masse on the radar screens at Washington National Airport. The Air Force scrambled two more jets, and this time, the targets remained stationary so the radar controllers could monitor both their movements and those of the jets as they came on to the screen. But when the pilots themselves closed in for visual contact, the objects sped away. Finally, one of the pilots saw a light hovering in exactly the position radioed in by one of the radar controllers. He flew closer, and the light remained motionless. Then, he cut in the afterburner and rapidly closed, but moments before he would have overtaken the light, the light suddenly blinked off, and the pilot found himself traveling at Mach 1 speed into a black sky.
Three days later, the Air Force held a press conference at the Pentagon, the largest and the longest since World War II. Before taking questions from the press, Major General John A. Samford, director of intelligence, pointed out that of the one to two thousand reports investigated by the Air Force to date, the bulk could be attributed to "either friendly aircraft erroneously recognized or reported, hoaxes, quite a few of those, electronic and meteorological phenomena of one sort or another, light aberrations, and many other things."
"However," he continued, "there have remained a percentage of this total, in the order of twenty percent of the reports, that have come from credible observers of relatively incredible things. We keep on being concerned about them."
One of the press corps asked how the radar controllers on the previous two Saturday nights had interpreted the blips on the radar screen.
Samford replied, "They said they saw 'good returns.'"
But, he pointed out, this did not necessarily mean the objects had to be solid body aircraft. Birds could give off good returns. Radar could even bounce off invisible temperature inversions, hit a ground target, and show up as a blip on the screen. But Samford's aide, an expert on radar, was not sure how that theory accounted for the sudden disappearances and reappearances of the targets, or the incredible speeds at which they seemed to travel. Nor did it explain the visual corroboration of several airline pilots in the air at the time.
When another reporter asked Samford his opinion of the "temperature inversion" theory, he responded, "My own mind is satisfied with that explanation." But he also felt they should continue their research, that the objects were probably some sort of phenomenon that science would someday be able to explain. Personally, because of their apparent ability to change direction and speed instantaneously, Samford felt the objects were not "material."
Late in the press conference, a reporter asked Samford if he could state unequivocally that none of the strange flying craft observed during the previous five years had actually been ultra-secret military weapons. Samford replied it was always possible that an observer had mistaken a jet fighter for a flying saucer.
"What I was aiming at," said the reporter, "was this popular feeling...."
"Of mystery?" interjected Samford.
"Of mystery," said the reporter. "Of something. That it's some very highly secret new weapon that we're working on that's causing all this."
Samford chortled. "We have nothing that has no mass and unlimited power!"
And everyone laughed.
By the end of 1952, 1,501, or nearly twice as many sightings as each of the previous five years combined, had been reported, and over three hundred of these remained unexplained.
While exploring every angle of the Meier case they could think to explore, the Elders and Welch began a search through campus libraries at the University of Arizona and Arizona State for information on the star cluster Meier claimed to be the home of his extraterrestrial visitors - the Pleiades.
"In an investigation like this," said Welch, "nine out of ten times you're presupposing it's a hoax because that's the way you're testing, that's the way you're interrogating. But let's suppose for a moment that it's real. Then we ask, 'If this is true, were there other Billy Meiers in the past?' We began at that point, and what popped up in a couple of weeks is what I call the Pleiadian Connection."
With the help of Lee Elders' sister and several friends in California and the East, they searched through libraries and secondhand bookstores for hundreds of books, magazine articles, trade journals, and doctoral theses at various universities.
"What was startling was a consistency," said Welch. "From an astronomical point of view, you're talking about an extremely young, extremely insignificant system of stars. Yet at different parts of the globe, many times simultaneously, many times a thousand years apart, history and mythology mention the Pleiades and their importance. They're noted as being the source of knowledge in the rice culture in Asia and in the potato culture in Europe and South America. These societies attributed their knowledge to a series of events in mythological form involving messengers from the Pleiades. Why in so many times, in so many parts of the world, are the references similar? Why all this energy toward the Pleiades? They're revered, they're looked at as the center of heaven, and they're looked at as a source of ancestry and wisdom and guidance."
Though other stars and star groups are mentioned in history, to the surprise of Welch and the Elders, the frequency of reference to the Pleiades seemed to exceed that of its closes rival, Orion, by nearly ten times. When they had collected every mention of the seven stars they could find, Welch and the Elders had scores of references to the Pleiades and their importance in cultures all over the world and from all periods of history, including three from the Bible. The Book of Job spoke of their "sweet influences."
But Welch wondered if perhaps Meier himself had conducted the same research in Swiss and German libraries.
"My first thought was, what are the odds of him doing that very thing? But a lot of these connections were not readily available; you had to be looking for them. So if you picked a star system and said, 'Let me see if I can find something on that,' you're talking about quite a bit of research before you come across the Pleiades.
"At one point, I remember us all sitting down kind of tired, Wendelle was up from Tucson at the time, it was late at night, and we were talking about some of the connections that each of us had separately discovered. And we're sitting there with, oh, it must have been about seven or eight legal-sized pages front and back of noted connections we'd come across. And somebody said, 'God, we've spent over a thousand hours on this already and it seems like we've just begun.'"
A tight cluster of several thousand stars, the Pleiades lie in the constellation Taurus, nearly five hundred light years from earth. The principal stars shine bluish-white and radiate intensely, illuminating surrounding clouds of gas. The Pleiades are young, too young for intelligent life to have evolved. But Meier had repeated specifically that the Pleiadians had not originated there, only that they had migrated to the Pleiades after engineering a planet to their liking.
Early civilizations recorded that the seven brightest stars were once visible to the naked eye, though today only six can be seen. Aligned with nearby Orion's Belt, the Pleiades are often mistaken for the Little Dipper, but their configuration is far more compact and appears to be enshrouded in a gossamer haze, one that inspired Tennyson to describe them as looking "like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid." Of all the stars in this beautiful swarm, Alcyone is the brightest, shining with a brilliance one thousand times greater than our sun.
In Star Lore of All Ages, published in 1911, William Olcott wrote:
No group of stars known to astronomy has excited such universal attention as the little cluster of fain stars we know as 'the Pleiades.' In all ages of the world's history, they have been admired and critically observed. Great temples have been reared in their honor. Mighty nations have worshipped them, and people far removed from each other have been guided in their agricultural and commercial affairs by the rising and setting of these six close-set stars.... This little group, twinkling so timidly in the nights of autumn in the eastern heavens, links the races of mankind in closer relationship than any bond save nature's. No wonder that they have inspired universal awe and admiration, that within this group of suns, man has sought to find the very centre of the universe.
Legends from pre-Inca peoples living in Peru speak of inhabited stars and "gods" who visited them from the Pleiades. The astronomical writings of China mention the Pleiades as early as 2357 B.C., worshipped by young women as the Seven Sisters of Industry. The Greeks aligned temples with their rising and setting. In Egypt, on the first day of spring, the south passageway of the Great Pyramid perfectly framed the Pleiades; some scholars even maintained that the seven chambers of this enormous monument were inspired by the cluster's seven visible stars. May Day and the Japanese Fest of Lanterns are remnants of ancient rites in honor of the Pleiades. The Hopi call the star cluster Choo-ho-kan, Home of Our Ancestors. And Navajo legend holds that men arrived on earth from the stars, particularly the Pleiades, and that we continue to be visited by our celestial relatives.
Attempting to explain the seeming coincidences between customs of ancient cultures and those of more modern societies, R.G. Haliburton wrote in Nature Magazine in 1881 of the universal reverence for the Pleiades. He noted that the Samoans of the South Pacific called their sacred bird the Bird of the Pleiades, and that the Berbers of Morocco claimed that paradise lay in the heavens circumscribed by the cluster. Haliburton concluded his article, "Even if the theory of prehistoric astronomers and of some modern men of science, that the Pleiades are the center of the universe, should prove to be unfounded, I am persuaded that the day is coming when the learned will admit that those stars are the 'central sun' of the religions, calendars, myths, traditions, and symbolism of early ages."
Agnes Clerke, in The System of the Stars, written in 1907, called the Pleiades "the meeting place in the skies of mythology and science. The vivid and picturesque aspect of these stars riveted, from the earliest ages, the attention of mankind; a peculiar sacredness attached to them, and their concern with human destinies was believed to be intimate and direct."
Though the Pleiades form little more than a speck in the visible night sky, no other star group has been mentioned as frequently in the literature and mythology of world cultures for the past two and a half millennia. And in every instance, the tiny cluster of seven was portrayed as female: the sisters, the virgins, the maidens, the goddesses.
Puzzled over how to analyze the Meier evidence and how to capture the scientists and their work on film, John Stefanelli had looked for a consultant. In Phoenix, he located a sound and light technician, Jim Dilettoso. Short, gaunt, and mercurial, the twenty-eight-year-old Dilettoso was involved in myriad projects in the entertainment industry staging sound and light shows with lasers, computers, and sound digitizers. A friend had recommended him because the young technician had been a part-time consultant for a documentary film on the testing of the Shroud of Turin, the 2,000-year-old funeral sheet that purportedly had covered the body of the crucified Christ; Stefanelli wanted to subject the Meier photos to the same computerized image analysis as that performed on the shroud.
At their first meeting, Stefanelli showed Dilettoso six of the photographs of extraterrestrial spacecraft allegedly taken by Meier.
"Good special effects," thought Dilettoso. "I was trying to figure out how I would make them. Couldn't be models because of the properties of the edges and the reflective surface. No, I'd build a rigid structure out of aluminum or titanium, shaped like a flying saucer, actual size twenty feet, and fill it with helium like a Goodyear Blimp. That was just my initial reaction. Later, I came to find out that the cost is tremendous, or it doesn't look real.
"But the first thing Stefanelli wanted to know was, 'Well, can we test these pictures?' and, 'What labs can we get into?' I'm looking at the guy, thinking, Does he have any idea what he's asking? That's not equipment you go out and rent by the hour."
Using contacts from his film days in Hollywood, Stefanelli already had begun his search for scientists; at the same time he had launched his campaign to attract investors. He later estimated he traveled to Los Angeles between thirty and forty times, trying to interest someone in backing the film, someone who at least could finance the cost of properly analyzing the evidence.
"There were a lot of things we wanted to do," he said. "And I had a fair amount of success at finding people to tell me what sort of tests should be performed. The problem was getting the people who would do them without having to spend a small fortune. Everyone I did uncover wanted a lot of dollars - we're talking maybe tens of thousands - to do testing. But I didn't have the money to do that."
Stefanelli found himself in a catch-22: without sufficient testing having already been completed yielding positive results, it was nearly impossible to interest anyone in funding the project; and without funding, he could not hope to have the evidence tested by qualified scientists.
"Once I found out that there were substantial costs involved," Stefanelli admitted, "I really didn't push it so hard."
The Elders, Welch, and Stevens saw less and less of Stefanelli, but at the same time they began seeing more and more of Jim Dilettoso. With Stefanelli's project on the wane, Dilettoso, now thoroughly intrigued with the Meier story, offered to help direct Intercep's efforts in the scientific areas to interest scientists in government and university laboratories without having to pay enormous fees. To the group, Dilettoso looked and spoke like a former child prodigy who simply had become bored with school. He had attended several universities but never earned a degree, though he seemed to understand computers and had a knack for ferreting out information. Despite his Einstein hairdo and dizzy ways, they liked him; he could talk faster and better, and seemed to know more about a variety of subjects than anyone they had ever known.
"My first impression of Jim," said Welch, "was that he seemed to have an extremely detailed mind. He was involved in creating the support behind entertainment-oriented events, the science behind it, computers, electronics, sound systems. I could tell by the way he spoke that he was very familiar with certain kinds of technical equipment, particularly in the computer field. And he was unique in one sense: He could sit down and carry on an intelligent conversation with people having different areas of expertise and hold his own in each one technically. So I thought he might be what we needed to further the investigation."
After the wave of sightings around Washington, D.C., in 1952, the National Security Council ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to determine if the existence of UFOs created a danger to national security. One CIA memorandum, written August 1, stated that "so long as a series of reports remains 'unexplainable' (interplanetary aspects and alien origin not being thoroughly excluded from consideration), caution requires that intelligence continue coverage of the subject.... It is strongly urged, however, that no indications of CIA interest or concern reach the press or public, in view of their probable alarmist tendencies."
With influential people in Washington wanting answers, the CIA appointed a team of five eminent scientists to study the UFO problem: Dr. H. P. Robertson, from the Office of the Secretary of Defense; Dr. Luis Alvarez, a physicist who fifteen years later would receive the Nobel Prize for physics; Dr. Samuel Goudsmit, an associate of Einstein from the Brookhaven National Laboratories; Dr. Thornton Page, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Operations Research Office; and Dr. Lloyd Berkner, also of Brookhaven. Dr. Allen Hynek, the Ohio State astronomer and special consultant to Blue Book, attended selected meetings as an associate member, but was not asked to sign the final report.
The group, known as the Robertson Panel, secretly convened on January 14, 1953. The first morning, they watched two color films, one taken at Tremonton, Utah, the other at Great Falls, Montana. The films represented what Air Force Blue Book personnel considered the best evidence of extraterrestrial visitation.
The Navy Photograph Interpretation Laboratory had analyzed the Tremonton film for a thousand hours and concluded that the twelve objects flying in loose formation could not be birds, balloons, aircraft, or reflections; and whatever they were, they were "self-luminous." But despite the Navy's findings, the panel assumed that the cinematographer, a naval commander, was probably mistaken in his estimate of how far away the objects were, that they probably were considerably closer, and that therefore, the formation of flying objects was probably nothing more than sea gulls or some other kind of bird "reflecting the strong desert sunlight but being just too far and too luminous to see their shape." Similarly, they dismissed the two objects in the Great Falls film as probably jet airplanes that had been seen in the area a short while before, though the man who took the footage testified he knew the difference between jets and the two objects he filmed.
After viewing only six cases in detail and fifteen cases generally, the panel concluded that nothing they had seen or heard offered scientific data of any value. The reports, while great in number, were poor in quality, and any attempt to "solve" them would be a tremendous waste of resources. They stated that most sightings could be reasonably explained, and that "by deduction and scientific method" they probably could explain all other cases as well.
An aeronautical engineer, who for fifteen months had served as the Air Force project officer for UFOs in Washington, reviewed several of the better sightings from Blue Book files for the panel and concluded that he saw only one explanation for the presence of the unusual flying objects - extraterrestrial visitation. But the panel would accept none of the cases cited by the engineer because they were "raw, unevaluated reports."
After a total review of approximately twelve hours, the panel concluded: "We firmly believe that there is no residuum of cases which indicates phenomena which are attributable to foreign artifacts capable of hostile acts." However, "the continued emphasis on the reporting of these phenomena does, in these parlous times, result in a threat to the orderly functioning of the protective organs of the body politic." The panel was concerned that if the reports continued, the American population might be vulnerable to "possible enemy psychological warfare" through "the cultivation of a morbid national psychology in which skillful hostile propaganda could induce hysterical behavior and harmful distrust of duly constituted authority."
Among other things, the panel recommended that the two major UFO research groups - Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO) in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, and Civilian Saucer Intelligence (CSI) in New York - "be watched because of their potentially great influence on mass thinking if widespread sightings should occur. The apparent irresponsibility and the possible use of such groups for subversive purposes should be kept in mind." The panel also recommended that national security agencies "take immediate steps to strip the Unidentified Flying Objects of the special status they have been given and the aura of mystery they have unfortunately acquired."
Last, the panel outlined a program to educate the public to identify known objects in the sky, and to "debunk" the phenomenon and therefore reduce interest. The program would consult psychologists versed in mass psychology, utilize an army training film company and Walt Disney Productions, and employ famous personalities selected for their believability. The panel specifically suggested Arthur Godfrey.
Twelve years after he sat on the panel, Goudsmit wrote in a letter (to David Michael Jacobs, author of the definitive treatise, The Controversy Over Unidentified Flying Objects in America: 1896-1973) that the subject was "a complete waste of time and should be investigated by psychiatrists rather than physicists." To Goudsmit, the extraterrestrial theory was "almost as dangerous to the general welfare of our unstable society as drug addiction and some other mental disorders."
Dr. Hynek, the Air Force special advisor to Blue Book who in time would evolve from a skeptic to the recognized dean of UFO study, disagreed with the panel's conclusions. They had rendered judgment in just four days on a phenomenon he had been studying for four years and still could not explain. And the more he studied, the more perplexed he became.
Before Dilettoso had joined their group, Stevens located a physicist in San Diego, Neil Davis, who was part owner of Design Technology, a photo optics laboratory under contract with General Dynamics and the U.S. Navy. Though Davis could not perform the ultra-sophisticated computer image processing possible at some of the government-sponsored labs, he could quickly eliminate several possibilities of hoaxing technique or tell Stevens he was wasting his time with the photographs.
Davis consented to test one color print, three by four and a half inches. His conclusions, he told Stevens, would have to be preliminary because a complete and proper scientific analysis could only be conducted on an original negative; Stevens could not be sure the internegative he gave to Davis was even first generation.
The photograph Stevens selected to be analyzed by Davis was of a silvery beamship hovering approximately 150 feet off the ground near two long piles of cut and debarked pine. Emerald grass and a dark green tree line, a bluish sky, and smoky hills in the distance filled the rest of the picture.
Davis first examined the print under a microscope to compare the sharpness of the object with the sharpness of the scene. "There is no discernible difference in image sharpness," he wrote in his report. Next, he magnified the photograph ten times, made color separation black-and-white negatives, and scanned them with a microdensitometer for uniform density. "Examination did not reveal any details which would cast doubt upon the authenticity of the photograph."
Then, Davis carefully examined the print and his freshly made negatives for evidence of double exposure, superimposure, photo paste-up, or a model at a short range suspended on a string. He wrote, "Nothing was found to indicate a hoax." Furthermore, "examination of the location of the shadows and highlights in the photograph verifies that the object and the scene were apparently taken under the same conditions of illumination."
After conducting all tests on the photo, Davis concluded, "Nothing was found in the examination of the print which could cause me to believe that the object in the photo is anything other than a large object photographed a distance from the camera."
Davis' findings encouraged Stevens, but Elders, still cynical, punched holes in his enthusiasm. The results gave them a green light on the photographs for now, he admitted, but much more sophisticated analysis would have to be performed. And Elders reminded Stevens that a metallurgist at the University of Arizona had already examined one of Meier's metal specimens and labeled it "potmetal," a low-grade casting alloy used to make such things as tin soldiers.
"These were the initial steps in the analysis," recalled Welch. "Compared to what ultimately occurred, they were very, very, very basic."
Welch suggested that before they ran more tests on any of the evidence, they needed additional information from Switzerland. No one yet had stood on the sites with the Meier photos in hand, determined where Meier had stood, and then measured distances to objects in the pictures. Such comparisons might give them clues as to how Meier could have staged the scenes. Welch, too, wanted to roam about the farm with both eyes open. As the son of an ex-FBI agent, he knew he might see things the others had missed.