EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the last interview between Dr. Bruce Maccabee, an American optical physicist formerly employed by the U.S. Navy, and Dr. Thomas Horn.
HORN: Dr. Maccabee, thank you for taking time to do this interview. I understand you received your BS in physics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, and then your MS in 1967 and PhD in physics in 1970 at the American University in Washington, DC. Please correct me if I have these facts wrong.
MACCABEE: That is correct.
HORN: You had a long career at the Naval Surface Warfare Center. You’ve worked on optical data processing, underwater sound, lasers, and the Strategic Defense Initiative and Ballistic Missile Defense using high-power lasers and most recently on technologies related to homeland security and defeating IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. With this background, I’m curious how you became interested in the study of UFOs.
MACCABEE: Like most kids of the ’50s I was intrigued by the early space movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, It Came from Outer Space, etc., but I never assumed they had any basis in reality. I probably paid little or no attention to the very few sightings reported in the local (Rutland, Vermont) newspaper until perhaps 1958 or so when I read Capt. Edward Ruppelt’s book, Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (published in 1955). I presume I was intrigued by what he wrote, but there was nothing I could do about it so I promptly “forgot” it.
About nine or ten years later, when I was more interested in the subject, I recalled that I had read it years before. I found the book and reread it and realized that he was close to saying they were real and from outer space. In 1966 or 67, while studying for my physics degree at The American University in Washington, DC, I read UFOs Serious Business by Frank Edwards and later went to a lecture by NICAP [National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena] representatives at the university (Hall and Berliner?). Of course, I was aware of the newspaper stories of sightings (1965, 1966 UFO flap). So, when the NICAP guys said help was needed at headquarters, and I knew that headquarters was only a few miles away in DC, I decided to visit and see what they had.
I well remember the first case. It was a report of green lights passing over Tuckerman Lane, a road just west of what is now the beltway around Washington, DC. I have been told by other people who became interested in the subject that they carried out investigations and found nothing but trivial explanations for the sighting reports they investigated. This turned them off to the subject and they lost interest. It was different for me. This first case was a simple but strange sighting, a basic “night light” type, by a lady who had good credibility (teacher). We rode with her in her car along the road where this happened (Tuckerman Lane) and could see no normal reason for why green lights would have been seen passing over the road as she drove. She didn’t want any publicity. We ended up classifying it as an unknown. (In the years since there have been reports of green lights traveling through the sky in the DC area and other places around the world.) The next case, which occurred in the early 1970s, was even more strange: a multiple witness sighting in the Shenandoah Valley of a rocket shaped object hovering stationary over a mountain. Another early 1970s case consisted of two incidents that involved several teenagers in Passapatanzy, Virginia, oddly enough, not far from where I have worked for the last ten years. That case was published in the NICAP Bulletin as the “Case of the Virginia Giant.” The two events involved a UFO landing, a creature which came out of the craft holding a glowing ball in its hand (this preceded by several years a better-known sighting report from Pennsylvania of a creature holding a glowing ball), an animal reaction (dog ran away and didn’t return for more than a day), a car that stopped when a UFO was hovering over it, that car’s radio that stopped working and needed repair, TV interference and multiple witnesses. There may also have been an abduction, although at the time abduction was the furthest thing from the minds of the several investigators of that case. So, anyway, my initial foray into the subject, which included reading books, reading the Condon Report and investigating cases got me thoroughly interested in the subject.
After the publication of the Condon study in early 1969 there was a general feeling in the press that everything had been explained and UFOs had “gone away.” At NICAP headquarters we knew that wasn’t true, but there wasn’t much we could do about it. Then in August 1973 it was “We’re BaaaaaacK!” as police officers and others began reporting sightings in the southeast and moving over the succeeding weeks into the Midwest. (This flap included humanoid sightings and includes two well publicized incidents, the Hickson/Parker abduction in Pascagoula, Mississippi and the Coyne/helicopter case in Mansfield, Ohio.) Because the fall, 1973 flap regenerated interest in the UFO subject I wrote up a report on the Shenandoah Valley sighting that I had thoroughly investigated and sent it to Science Magazine. It was returned in about 2 weeks with the comment by Editor Philip Abelson that I should consider publication elsewhere because they already had lots of articles to publish. Of course, I would have been willing to wait, but I got the point: get lost! (A shortened version was eventually published by NICAP.) More importantly, at about this time Stanton Friedman alerted me to the importance of the statistical study known as Project Blue Book Special Report #14 (SR14). I managed to obtain NICAP’s original copy of that document and I began a re-evaluation of the statistics (see below). I then decided to study the one case that William Hartmann, the Condon Study photoanalyst, claimed was probably real (McMinnville; see discussion below). I initially assumed that he had made a mistake somewhere, but at least there was real physics (optics) involved in analyzing the photos. So, I learned how to do the type of analysis that Hartmann had done, studied the arguments of the skeptics (Klass, Sheaffer) managed to get the original negatives (because of a suggestion by Philip Klass!) and it was uphill from then on!
I should point out that while investigating I was also reading and doing historical research during the years following 1973. I was one of the first to study the Blue Book files released to the Archives in 1975 and was the first to obtain the FBI file on flying discs. I guess you could say that by the middle of 1970’s I was off and running and never looked back.
HORN: Among your published papers was a reanalysis of the statistics and results of the famed Battelle Memorial Institute Project Blue Book Special Report No. 14, which included thirty-two hundred Air Force cases through the mid 1950s. What was your conclusion?
MACCABEE: This document proved to me that there was strong statistical evidence that at least some UFOs were not explainable as mundane phenomena or, in the vernacular, it showed that “UFOs are real,” even though the official Air Force press release (in 1955) had tried to convince everyone that the study showed nothing of significance.
The scientists and Air Force personnel who compiled this report studied each sighting carefully and assigned it to one of three groups: Known (K) if it could be identified with at least reasonable certainty, Unknown (U) if it definitely could not be identified, and Insufficient Information (II) if there was not enough information for a decision of K or U. The study used chi-squared tests to compare the statistical distributions of several sighting characteristics of the K and U sightings under the assumption that if the U sightings were merely unrecognized K sightings, the distributions should match. The characteristics tested included various “values” of color, number, duration, shape, speed and light brightness. The chi-squared tests showed less than 1% probability of a match for all characteristics except brightness, for which the probability was less than 5%. Combining the characteristics the probability of a match is much less than 1%. I revised the statistical calculations and came up with a similar result. The most unique and interesting statistical result involved the comparison between the percentages of K, U and II sightings and the credibility of the observer and the quality (self-consistency, completeness) of his report. When the sightings were placed into quality groups Poor, Doubtful, Good and Excellent (a large fraction of Excellent were military reports), the report showed higher percentages of Unknowns in the Excellent and Good groups than in the Doubtful and Poor groups. This is not what one would expect if UFO sightings were all mundane phenomena because, if that were true, the analysts would be more likely to make correct identifications from the better quality sighting reports than from the low quality reports and so the percentages of U and II cases would be lower in the group of high quality reports.
Of course, the Air Force did not even mention this important statistical result that the better the quality of the sighting the more likely it was to be unexplainable. Another important contribution to the study of UFOs is the brief discussion of the Rogue River Sighting (Case 10 of SR14). I had never heard of that before, but its presence in SR14 alerted me to its existence and so I searched for it in the Blue Book microfilm file. Eventually I found it and after analyzing it I concluded that it is one of the most convincing reports of the early years.
HORN: The McMinnville Annual UFO Festival finished up a couple weeks ago, which has grown to be second only to the Roswell festival in the United States as I understand it. The festival started in 2000, the 50th anniversary of the Trent UFO sighting near McMinnville, Oregon, when McMenamins began hosting a UFO fest in memory of the Trents and their experience. The story goes that Evelyn Trent was feeding rabbits on the farm when suddenly an object appeared overhead. She yelled for her husband Paul, who “came-a-runnin’” with his Kodak Roamer camera in hand. Paul was able to get two photographs of the large, metallic-disc hovering silently northeast of the farm just before sunset. Photoanalyst William Hartmann (for the Condon Report) felt the pictures were consistent with the assertion that an “extraordinary flying object” flew within sight of two witnesses. The National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena went on to study the photos, eventually listing them as “…one of the top cases demonstrating very strong evidence for the existence for unknown structured objects in our atmosphere.” The Air Force couldn’t find a better explanation. Neither could the University of Colorado, and researchers afterward concluded that the Trent sighting and its physical evidence was one of the best records ever made for a true UFO event. The story was placed on the Top Ten Best Evidence List and I believe it has remained there for the last forty years. Tell me about your research analysis and what you believe about the Trent UFO pictures.
The Trent UFO
MACCABEE: Although the history of the sighting itself is simple to describe the history of the investigation and analysis requires pages and pages. My extensive report on the McMinnville investigation, which includes analysis and discussions that took place over a period of about 25 years, resulted in the “bottom line” — that there is no information that clearly points to a hoax. This is important because it was either a hoax or the real thing, there is no half-way point or “insufficient information” to arrive at a conclusion.
Years ago I realized that “a photo a UFO does not make.” The best that a photo can do is act as an aide to the witness’ recollection. It cannot by itself prove the sighting was real because virtually any photo could be faked, given the necessary desire, photographic skill, knowledge, economic resources and ability to create a reasonable sighting story and stick to it. The worst it can do is contain clear evidence of a hoax (e.g., strings, supports, etc.) In the Trent case the photos clearly show an unidentifiable object which has been variously “identified” as a garbage can lid, a Frisbee, a pie pan, a hand-made model or a truck mirror (at least pelicans play no role in this sighting [inside joke—see below]). However, there has been no particular mundane object that has been positively identified as explaining the image. The photos themselves provide no clear evidence of a hoax. (shadow arguments notwithstanding; see my web site). That means the investigation must center on the witnesses. The witnesses have been “tracked” from the time [of] the sighting in 1950 until they died in the middle 1990s. Over this whole period of time, despite the repeated “harassment” by investigator types (such as me) they maintained their simple story that they saw the object passing by and photographed it. So far as I and other investigators could tell, they were basic farmers who had no time or any good reason for creating any flying saucer hoax. Perhaps the newspaper photographer, Bill Powell, who first published the photos put it best when he said that he examined the photos every which way (after retrieving them from behind the sofa at the Trent’s house) and couldn’t figure out how they had faked them. So he published them because, in his opinion, the Trents were (paraphrase) incapable of thinking of such a thing as a flying saucer hoax. And that has been the opinion of numerous investigators, including myself, in the years since.
HORN: Another paper you authored was a reanalysis of the results of the Condon Committee UFO study from 1969, which I referred to in my last question. Do you think Edward Condon lied about the results?
MACCABEE: I don’t recall writing an analysis of the Condon Report (Dr. Peter Sturrock of Stanford University did publish an analysis). However, I think Condon made an effort to cover up any significance of the work done by “his” investigators. In particular, Condon tried to confuse the reader in his discussion of the McMinnville case. According to Condon, an experienced photoanalyst (Everett Merritt) claimed that the Trent photos were worthless for photogrammetric analysis. This type of analysis involves angles between images, sighting lines and directions. (Actually, he was wrong, but that’s beside this point.) Condon knew that Hartmann’s conclusion that the Trent photos could be real was based on photometric analysis, which involves the relative brightnesses of images, not the directions or angles. Thus anyone reading only Condon’s summary and conclusions at the beginning of the report would not know the photogrammetric criticism by Merritt had nothing to do with Hartmann’s conclusion.
HORN: Of course before the Trent sighting, American businessman Kenneth Arnold claimed to have witnessed nine elliptical-shaped objects moving over Mt. Rainier in Washington, June 24, 1947. Have you studied his case, and if so, what were your findings?
MACCABEE: I have what may be the largest and most complete analysis to be found anywhere on the web. It is the first publicized sighting and deserves extensive critical analysis because Arnold had no reason to hoax such a sighting and he made “measurements” during the sighting which indicate that the objects were not mirages, or fast moving clouds or motes in his eye or nearby jet aircraft or reflections from his airplane window or low-flying meteors or high-flying geese or pelicans (yes, pelicans). The bottom line is that the Arnold case remains unexplained.
HORN: What about some of the other old case files, such as the Gemini 11 [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki /Gemini_11] astronaut photos? What do you make of these, and are there other astronaut and military photos you have found to be substantial?
MACCABEE: Again, there is a discussion of this case at my web site. There is no doubt that they saw and photographed something that has not been identified. There is a suggestion that it might have been an object ejected earlier by the spacecraft, but this is only a guess. Owen K Garriot photographed a red object seen by the Skylab 3 astronauts in 1973. Of course, there have been many allegations by people who study videos and photos taken during other spaceflights. Very often the claims made are based on faulty analysis. There may have been some UFOs seen and photographed or videotaped by astronauts, but it would be hard to prove.
HORN: You were the first to obtain the secret “flying disc file” of the FBI, what I believe you have called “the REAL X-Files.” For those not familiar, tell us how you did that and why it is significant.
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OVER 10 YEARS IN THE MAKING! DOCUMENTARY FEATURES PENTAGON INSIDERS, SCIENTISTS, THEOLOGY EXPERTS ON UFOS AND THE COMING GREAT DELUSION (COMING IN AUGUST)
MACCABEE: I was told by Mrs. Trent in 1975 that “FBI men” came to her house and investigated her sighting soon after the photos were published. In 1976 I wrote to the FBI to ask if they had a file on Paul Trent. As an aside I asked them to also send any UFO documents they might have. I didn’t expect to get anything because Capt. Edward Ruppelt wrote in The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects that (so far as he knew!) the FBI never took an interest in flying saucer sightings. I was, therefore, surprised to receive a phone call from an FBI agent about 6 months later who told me that there were 1,600 pages (approximately) of material in a file on flying saucers. He subsequently sent me a selection of the best of the documents and I wrote articles about them that appeared in the journals of all three major UFO groups (NICAP, CUFOS—Center for UFO Studies, and APRO—Aerial Phenomena Research Organization). The documents showed that, starting in early July, 1947, the FBI acted as a “black hole” with information from the Air Force going in and nothing coming out (until my FOIPA [Freedom of Information and Privacy Act] request was answered). J. Edgar Hoover’s director of the FBI, stated in letters to people requesting information in the 1960s that the FBI had never investigated UFOs. He lied. The FBI interviewed witnesses in 1947 at the request of the Air Force. In later years the FBI (and the CIA) collected documents from the AF but did no further investigations. By order of Congress, the Headquarters of the FBI could destroy no records, so all these documents were available when I made my FOIPA request. The FBI had the only documents that provide us with the high level secret opinion of Air Force intelligence officials in late 1952. The opinion was that several percent of the sightings could not be explained and that at least some sightings might be of “interplanetary vehicles.” This opinion was never stated publicly. The whole story is in my book THE UFO FBI CONNECTION. Used copies are available at Amazon and other places. Some of the most important documents are from 1952. As for my original request for information on the Trents it was officially denied, but unofficially the agent who handled my request said that he had made a search and found no FBI record on the Trents. He then pointed out that any Trent investigation would have been carried out by a local office. The local office may have found nothing of official interest to the FBI since the FBI had stopped investigating sightings several years before 1950. If that was the case the local office would not have sent a report to headquarters. Then the agent pointed out that the local offices generally destroyed unneeded records every five years. So I never did find out whether or not the FBI visited the Trents.
HORN: You’ve collected other documents from government agencies including the CIA, the US Air Force, the US Army, and so on. What are the most important of these documents, in your opinion?
MACCABEE: To some extent I guess they are all important because they show a tendency of the government to assign at least some importance to sightings of strange things in the sky. The UFO FBI CONNECTION combines files from the FBI, Air Force Intelligence and the CIA to show that the government has had, for 50 years or more, essentially conclusive evidence (even without Roswell or other supposed crashes) that “UFOs are real” and some may well be “interplanetary craft.”
HORN: On the heels of the 1947 Roswell UFO incident, green balls of light and saucer-shaped objects began appearing in the sky near areas where top-secret nuclear weapon research was being carried out. This was happening repeatedly, and the US military was increasingly concerned. Eventually, something called “Project Twinkle” was set up in hopes of figuring out what was going on. Did you look into this case?
MACCABEE: I did indeed study the “green fireball” sightings and the Project Twinkle report. Again, there is a discussion of this at my web site. The first green fireball sightings were in December, 1948, in the southwestern areas near government laboratories where nuclear research was being carried out (Los Alamos, Sandia, Albuquerque area, etc.). A famous meteoricist (person who studies meteors), Dr. Lincoln La Paz analyzed many sightings and even had his own sighting. These fireballs were characterized by their green color and by the fact that they appeared to travel in flat trajectories, mostly in a southerly direction. So many of these events occurred in 1949 and 1950 that eventually, in the spring of 1950, the Air Force set up Project Twinkle to get photographic evidence of these objects.
HORN: I’ve talked with Jesse Marcel Jr. and Stanton Friedman on numerous occasions. They both believe something extraordinary actually happened outside Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. What do you believe?
MACCABEE: I have never thought that Maj. Jesse Marcel, the intelligence officer at the base who retrieved the material found on the Foster Ranch by rancher Brazel, could not identify plastic or rubber or balsa wood sticks which were used in the construction of balloons, Mogul [top-secret project; see online report at link below] or otherwise. When Sheridan Cavitt, the counter-intelligence officer who accompanied Marcel, finally “talked” he claimed that he immediately recognized the debris as balloon material. If so, why didn’t he tell Marcel and Brazel? For this and other reasons Cavitt’s testimony is valid evidence against the balloon/Mogul explanations.
HORN: You’ve been on the who’s who of television shows on this subject—Unsolved Mysteries, A Current Affair, Encounters, Sightings, CNN News, Fox News, Nightline, and the rest. Have you found serious investigative journalism into the subject of UFOs?
MACCABEE: These and other shows I have been on generally treat the subject as entertainment. Very often the shows try to present a “balanced” viewpoint which means that for every UFO-positive statement there has to be a UFO-negative statement. This is consistent with Maccabee’s First Rule for Debunkers: any explanation is better than none. The result is that explanations which are illogical, make no sense, or are simply stupid get “equal play.” The 2006 O’Hare Airport sighting is an example of this. It was suggested that the people saw airport lights reflected from clouds. The object was described as a greyish circular thing, darker than the clouds above it, completely inconsistent with being lights on clouds which would appear brighter than clouds (and there still was skylight at 4:30 PM in November, 2006, so how could one see ground lights reflected from the clouds anyway?).
HORN: What did you personally make of the O’Hare Airport sightings?
MACCABEE: Certainly seems like a good solid report. Fortunately the press did not pick up on it immediately. This gave the UFO investigators time to obtain testimony without the pressure from publicity. Then reporter [Jon] Hilkevitch did a very credible job of reporting. The story in the Chicago paper garnered more world-wide response, we are told, than any other newspaper story at the time. The sighting occurred in November, 2006, almost exactly 20 years after the famous Japan Airlines sighting over Alaska.
HORN: If you had to list the top five best UFO cases in terms of analytical evidence, which ones would they be?
MACCABEE: It is always difficult to pick the best of something like UFO sightings because there are so many. Therefore I concentrate on cases I have studied. Certainly at or near the top would be the New Zealand (December 31, 1978) sightings from a freighter aircraft is way up there. It is the only civilian UFO sighting, as far as I know, that includes multiple witnesses, radar, both ground and air, tape recordings made on the airplane and at the ground radar, and a professional 16 mm color movie that shows most of the strange lights/objects they saw. The White Sands movie case would be another if we had the film. Of course there is McMinnville. One can also consider the August 1980 police car damage case in Warren, Minnesota, reported by Officer Val Johnson (a case that Philip J. Klass couldn’t explain).
UP NEXT: My (Thomas Horn’s) Last Interviews with Stanton T. Friedman and Jesse Marcel Jr.