Stories from the Vaults

Michael David Hall. UFOs: a Century of Sightings, Galde Press, 1999.

This is the first history of ufology and UFO cases by a professional historian since David Jacobs's The UFO Controversy in America a quarter of a century back. As a historian, Hall declines to supply 'explanations' for the cases, and notes the problems with the ETH, though readers will detect in his selection of cases, and commentary, a general pro-UFO bias. However, he has little time for Roswell, pointing out that if something as exotic as a spacecraft had been discovered in 1947, it would have been months before anyone realised what they were dealing with. In Roswell they knew what was up at first sight. Hall hints that perhaps some sort of really big military, possibly nuclear, secret was involved. He also has a few kind words to say about Phil Klass.

The strength of this book is the detailed study of the US government policy, and his use of the private papers of Ed Ruppelt, which gives some idea of the complexities involved. Of particular interest is his naming of a new candidate for the 'father of the ETH', the aeronautical engineer Alfred Loedding, who seems to have been the driving force behind the infamous Estimate of the Situation. The trouble is that no one since Ruppelt has seen the Estimate, and we cannot say what the arguments used were, though other Air Force documents from this period suggest that the idea being floated around was that the Martians had seen the nuclear bomb explosions and were coming to see what was going on. Hall has met with members of Loedding's family, and his son claims to have remembered investigating landing reports back in the 1940s. Is this a false memory? If not this is very interesting indeed.

The case reports should be very useful, and there is much early material for the ufologists to get their teeth into. One low-level report from Circleville, Ohio now appears on the basis of the report here to be a CEIII, and there are a lot of cases, which if they occurred exactly as reported would be very puzzling indeed. Looking at these stories reminds us of how easy it was in the early 1950s to argue for the ETH. Hall points out that Loedding and others who supported the ETH never had any positive evidence in its favour; they argued from elimination. There is evidence of an exotic technology, it isn't ours, it isn't the Russians, it must be the ETs (which usually meant the Martians).

Looking at these stories today, what strikes us is that they don't so much represent what we in 2001 would think of as an advanced technology or of the work of ETs, but a kind of advanced 1940s and 1950s technology, a mixture of speculative ideas about revolutionary aerospace designs and 1930s comic-book ideas of 'spaceships'. This is the 'advanced technology' of the world before satellites and computers, and remote imaging.

Though Hall notes the role of the Cold War from time to time, I was surprised that as a historian he really paid very little attention to the cultural climate. For example, it seems obvious now how much war-time experience and imagery pervades these stories. The flying saucers behave in many ways like ultra-high-performance German or Japanese fighters, flying in formation, engaging in dog fights, etc. Just how many of the pilot UFO witnesses had been on active service in the war, and how many had been trained either explicitly or implicitly to see an enemy aircraft behind any ambiguous light in the sky and react accordingly? We don't know the answer to that question.

Is it a coincidence that as the War receded into memory, UFO reports become more tenuous, more exotic and "paranormal". Hall notes how ufologists now have become diverted into the pursuit of crashed-saucer rumours and wild abduction stories, because there are no good classical UFO cases around. (It also might be that whilst access to the Project Blue Book files is relatively simple for anyone willing to fork out for the microfilms, access to the records of civilian UFO groups is next to impossible.)

One should be able to recommend this book as an excellent source of good-quality UFO reports, and when I first obtained it, that's what I intended to do, but reading through it gave me some serious doubts. For I have come to doubt the accuracy of the accounts given, because in a number of cases that I know well, the accounts here are inaccurate; indeed the report of the Hill case is one of the most inaccurate I have come across. Were the reports compiled from memory, reconstructed from hastily written notes or what? Also, though Hall does introduce more foreign reports than most American UFO writers, I came to the conclusion that his knowledge of the subject was not all that deep. Perhaps one can only evaluate it after being deeply involved for decades.

That caveat means that two of the most important cases in the book, apparent EM-type cases from before the modern UFO wave, need to be re-examined in the original sources. US readers should try to get hold of a magazine called Sky Trails for June 1933 and check the story of Colin Murphy who is reported as claiming that, in late September 1926, seventy miles from Salt Lake City his DC4 biplane was 'buzzed' by a sort of wingless cylinder, ninety feet long and eight to ten feet thick. Every time the object came within 150 ft his engine misfired, forcing him to make an emergency landing only to see the object shoot away.

British researchers need to get access to History of the III Fighter Squadron RAF, London Press, 1947, for the following story from 5 July 1933, when at night a flight of four Hawker Fury fighters encountered a "huge circular light" which dropped down from above into the centre of their formation. Captain Nigel Tomkins's engine cut out forcing him to crash land. Another pilot, Bruce Thomas, came even closer, suffering not just an engine failure but burns to his hands and face. Clearly if the book can be traced and confirms that this account is reliable, then all efforts should be made to track down flight logs and other original documentation, check the local press for the period, and even try to track down descendants of those involved. [A preliminary and subsequent checks with the library at the RAF Museum, and the British Library, has failed to trace this book. J.R., December 2011]

British researchers might also like to try to find something more about a vague reference by Ruppelt to an incident on 16-17 January 1947, in which two fighters intercepted a violently moving object over England.

Despite the errors this is an important book, and one that ufologists should add to their collection. Peter Rogerson, from Magonia Supplement 37, October 2001.

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