By Jim Miles
By September 8 APRO, the Aerial Phenomenon Research Organization, one of the country’s most respectable UFO groups, operating out of Tucson, Arizona, had four field agents investigating the Georgia flap-an old term for a related group of sightings. Their team had interviewed witnesses from Moultrie to Augusta and many places in between.
Commenting on the space debris theory, one unidentified agent remarked: “Man (astronomer) has plenty of credentials, but in this case he seems to know less than a high school science student.”
Stanton T. Friedman, a nuclear physicist from Redondo Beach, California, who left his profession in 1959 to study UFOs from a scientific standpoint, defended the good people of Georgia on September 12.
Official Explanations: The UFO Community Responds
“I’ve talked to enough policemen in Georgia in the last two weeks to convince myself that the UFOs seen are not due to astronomical observations,” Friedman said. “I also find that most astronomers know little about UFOs.”
A Sylvester resident wrote the Albany Herald to state, “it’s a real insult for those scientists to honestly think we Georgians are stupid enough to believe that the UFOs that have been sighted around Georgia are ‘space junk.’” Such debris “certainly couldn’t slow itself down and ‘hover,’” the letter read. The writer concluded that the astronomers should find another line of work, because with “their kind of imagination we will never get to Mars.”
Bruce Henne, a psychology teacher at Gordon College in Barnesville and a twenty-year member of NICAP (the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomenon), another highly regarded UFO investigation organization, was critical of the report labeling the Orchard Hill event the result of fallen space debris.
“A meteorite would leave a crater,” he said. “So would a piece of space junk.” Also, “the conclusion that the object was a meteorite might be just barely supportable if you ignore the eyewitness account. But if you take the eyewitness account into consideration as well, there is no way that object could have been a meteorite.”
“It’s only fair to assume that they’re telling the truth,” he said of witnesses to UFO activity.
Sam V. Jones thought sightings around Griffin were the result of airliners approaching Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, circling in holding patterns and descending for landings. Their multi-colored flashing lights seemed to form an image that was fixed on layers of atmospheric pollution. However, the planes had circled for years earlier, and three decades since, without provoking UFO sightings.
After the UFO crashed into the ocean off Savannah, skeptical scientists and military personnel and no funds for research were attributed to the lack of an investigation.
The Coast Guard post on Tybee Island sent no search craft to look for the object. Their effort was confined to calling the local Coast Guard Air Station, which asked the Air Force base in Charleston, which blabbed about the abandoned study years earlier. In Charleston, Captain David Duggan said the reports were logged, but he knew the Air Force no longer investigated these things. He suggested space debris as a cause.
At the Savannah Science Museum, Director Charles Milmine had received reports, but noted there was no budget to examine the sightings closely. He said recent UFOs over Brunswick had been determined to be marsh gas, but added that the phenomena was not likely to occur off Savannah.
Dr. E.J. McCranie, a psychiatrist on the faculty of the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, suggested on September 10 that “misperception of reality” (a term be preferred over “mass hysteria”) could account for many sightings.
“This is not an uncommon type of occurrence,” Dr. McCranie said. “People get activated, alerted and see something-a stimulus-and misinterpret it. They are looking for something and are apt to be overly apt to see it.
“The human being is a curious animal. It is very interested in his environment and in things with unusual characteristics.
“There are two possibilities. One, there may be something out there and they are misperceiving a stimulus, or, two, they might actually see something when there is nothing at all. Man’s brain is an interesting phenomena and it plays all kinds of tricks on us.”
McCranie did not believe in UFOs.
Debunking this debunker was Dr. Berthold E. Schwarz, a psychiatrist who had examined hundreds of people who had observed UFOs. He concluded that they were not suffering from hallucinations, seeking publicity, nor psychotic. These reports are neither “conscious or unconscious fabrication,” he said. He submitted that a substantial body of UFO reports had been reported by competent witnesses and investigated by competent researchers.
Several aviators suggested that weather conditions that time of year could explain some sightings, as well as swamp gas and the Northern Lights.
Other authorities suggested Skylab, orbiting 293 miles overhead, as the source of UFO sightings, but NASA officials at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, regularly notified the public weeks in advance when the orbiting space laboratory would pass overhead. During this period Savannah newspapers published full information of an appearance by Skylab, which included exactly when and where it would be visible and the length of time it would be in sight.
Official Explanations: Gaseous Clouds
UFO reports from Gwinnett County on September 6 had an acceptable explanation. At three p.m. a purple and white hot-air balloon ascended from the Gwinnett County Airport near Lawrenceville with two human passengers. Citizens across the county soon reported UFOs. People crowded around the courthouse in downtown Lawrenceville looking and pointing into the sky. Gwinnett Daily News reporter Ralph Heussner took off in pursuit and stopped two miles north of town on Collins Hill Road where the balloon was only a few hundred feet in the air. There was also a line of twelve cars that had pulled over to observe the phenomena. Few viewers were fooled, but the tendency was to discount all sightings. As a man said: “I bet that’s what all the fuss is about with these UFOs. They’re probably just these balloons running at night with lights on.”
Official Explanations: Weather Balloons
In mid-October the National Weather Service launched several enormous meteorological balloons and a series of rockets which released brilliantly colored chemicals into the sky. These events were heavily publicized in advance, and only completely ignorant dolts reported them as UFOs. Of course Homer Simpsons are with us always, and these scientific tests generated plenty of sighting reports. Unfortunately, authorities and media alike used this situation to discount all UFO sightings made during the period, but by this time many reliable witnesses were reporting close encounters of the third kind, which could not be explained by weather experiments.
On October 16 the National Weather Service released two balloons, one from Montgomery, Alabama, the other from Palestine, Texas. Both were 150 feet in diameter and floated from west to east with sub-stratospheric currents at altitudes of 50,000 to 60,000 feet above the earth to collect data for weather predicting. At that height, because of the earth’s curvature, the devices reflected light long after the sun has fallen below the horizon as seen from the ground. The balloons were observed across much of central, north and east Georgia.
The Macon Telegraph took an excellent photo of the balloon that showed instruments hanging beneath it. Thousands of middle Georgia residents spotted it about dusk. One typical report to the newspaper was of “a great big light bulb, burning brightly.” Some said it changed colors from white to red and blue. Many witnesses refused to believe the “pat” balloon answer and stubbornly insisted it was a UFO. Crowds gathered in parking lots and pointed toward the sky as they speculated and argued, then swamped switchboards at police stations and newspaper, radio, and TV stations. The Macon Weather Service seemed remarkably incompetent, professing ignorance of its origin but suggesting it was from a forecasting station in Texas. A spokesman did know that it was a “very large” balloon involved in a research project to take atmospheric samples.
A Warner Robins resident said the light hovered over Robins Air Force Base for a “good while” then quickly flew away. He thought it was too big for a star.
On the night of October 17 a Dublin newspaper photographer caught an object on film which was probably one of the weather balloons. The image was of a bright device floating high in the late afternoon sky that was reported by many residents. Some used telescopes to view the phenomenon closely.
The shiny object appeared just before sunset in Griffin, where it was photographed, and was clearly visible in Thomaston and Atlanta, resulting in a flood of UFO reports to police departments and the media. By this point in the massive wave of UFO sightings, citizens were easily set off by any stimuli.
As in Dublin, local bureaus of the Federal Aviation Administration and National Weather Service often did not know who had launched the balloons, and the government agency responsible had failed to file a flight advisory, even though the balloon traversed a heavy air traffic area. It also seemed to be traveling at a much lower altitude than the FAA and NWS estimated.
“It was extremely bright,” astronomer Hayward said. “It was reflecting quite a bit of sunlight. I could see what appeared to be an instrument package hanging under it. I also noticed that it wasn’t completely filled out yet, which means it had probably not reached its maximum altitude.”
At Emory University, religion professor John Fenton watched the big gas bag through a thirty power telescope from 6:50 to 7:15 p.m. and could also see an instrument package or a gondola hanging beneath it.
Most of the residents of Warner Robins are either military personnel or civilian workers at Robins Air Force Base, which is central Georgia’s largest employer, and they habitually watch the skies. Thousands of people crowded the streets on October 17, staring skyward at the spectacle, and the Warner Robins Police Department logged over 400 calls reporting UFOs. All but perhaps two sightings were explained by the weather balloons, but those were substantial reports from four persons, including a law enforcement officer, who chased and were chased by mammoth aircraft. Also, for the record, those sightings occurred an hour after the weather balloons had cleared the area.
At 7:40 and 7:50 p.m. on October 19, Eglin Air Force Base in Florida sent two sounding rockets sixty miles into the atmosphere to release glowing clouds of red, green, and yellow gases. They were used to test wind currents at an altitude too low for orbital satellites to register and too high for weather balloons. The gases, sodium and barium, were high enough to reflect sunlight after complete darkness had covered the ground. The poisonous gases were too diffused to harm anyone and moved at forty to fifty mph. The glowing, multi-colored clouds were visible as far north as Memphis, south to Miami, west to Corpus Christi, and east to Charleston. Authorities in hundreds of communities prepared for the inevitable UFO reports.
Because of the scheduled rocket tests, Hayward expected a significant rise in UFO sightings. In Macon, the Telegraph, Weather Service, and Civil Defense Department received reports of blue streams high in the sky that turned green. Tens of thousands saw glowing, bright silver shapes in the sky that changed to a bluish color, then a dazzling green. I was twenty years old and stood in my front yard in Warner Robins to watch the evolution until it disappeared. The sight was spectacular.
In Athens on October 19, a homemade balloon, composed of a large laundry bag powered by candles stuck to a balsa wood frame, created UFO sightings. It was captured after landing at Westchester Manor Apartments. Similar contraptions had previously been discovered in the latter stages of UFO sightings in Savannah and Griffin, where Dr. Anderson, the soil scientist, observed boys launching such devices.
Columbus Ledger employees photographed a third high altitude balloon, launched from Montgomery, at dawn of October 20, one day after residents were deluded by the atmospheric rocket tests. Most of the 150 reported UFO sightings that flooded local police and sheriff’s departments could be readily explained by the weather balloon.
The same night that Brown had his alien encounter, October 18, UFO activity resumed in the Savannah area for the first time since September. Between eight and ten p.m. at least twenty-five people reported UFOs around Savannah. A group of eighteen relatives and friends in western Chatham County saw a “bright light’ which emitted “green steaks or puffs.” It was first seen to the southwest along the tree line, and when it gained altitude a green light appeared behind it. In southern Chatham a citizen saw a “fuzzy, greenish light with a tail” over the trees to the south at eight p.m. County police also noted reports of greenish lights in the southern sky from fifteen people in Pooler and Bloomingdale. Almost certainly, all of these were a result of the atmospheric tests.
There are two points to this exercise: 1. Not all objects reported as UFOs are “unidentified.” 2. Easily explained aerial phenomenon cannot be used to explain all sightings.
The 1973 alien invasion was one for the books.
From Weird Georgia, with subsequent additional research.
Jim Miles is the author of two Weird Georgia books, seven books about Georgia ghosts and eight books about the Civil War. To see all of his books go to the Jim Miles Author Page on Amazon. Order autographed books or contact Jim directly at firstname.lastname@example.org