By Jim Miles
Whenever UFOs are sighted, someone attempts to debunk them. The massive sightings of 1973 provoked intensive efforts to explain them, including some patently ridiculous offerings.
Official Explanations: The Air Force
The initial official response to the sightings occurred when the Albany State Patrol Post alerted the Albany Naval Air Station of the first UFO sightings at 12:40 a.m. of August 31, according to Captain Dean Webster of the Navy.
“We were unable to sight anything on radar or visually,” Webster stated, beginning a familiar litany. “The Naval Air Station had no aircraft or helicopters in the air at the time of the reported UFO sightings. Our last conventional aircraft was on deck at 10:17 p.m. Our last helicopter landed at 10:45 p.m. We had no aircraft in the air between then and 8:30 a.m. today.”
A spokesman said the Navy “is concerned about this and will look into it.”
A spokesman for Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta reported no aircraft in the area between 12:20 a.m. and 5:30 a.m., and nothing appeared on their radar.
Assistant Albany Police Chief J.J. Lairsey said on September 1: “The Albany Police Department has received no direction from the U.S. Department of Defense or any other government agencies about what to do about these sightings of unidentified flying objects.”
Also alerted were Elgin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, and Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Georgia. All denied radar contacts. No planes had been sent up to investigate, there had been no aircraft in the sky to account for the sightings, and there would be no investigation. At one point a spokesman at Robins responded that they would be sending investigators to southwest Georgia, an apparently erroneous report, for it never happened and they had no teams to dispatch.
On another occasion a Robins spokesman acknowledged receiving UFO reports, but all calls were referred to the military police, “which makes all investigations of UFO reports.”
“Most of the calls we’ve received have been from the press,” stated Lieutenant Colonel Richard Davies, information officer at Robins. “There have been two reports from police and one from a military policeman here but none from any private citizens.
“These are the first reports of any UFOs I’ve seen in a number of years. The Air Force used to have a program to check up on this type of thing but they dropped it. I seriously doubt there will be any investigation.”
A later statement from Robins explained that the Air Force no longer investigated UFO sightings because a twenty-one-year project revealed no sightings that could not be explained and yielded no evidence of “extra-terrestrial vehicles.”
“No UFO report investigated and evaluated by the Air Force has ever given any indication of threat to our national security,” the release stated.
The latter statement was correct, the former untrue. Project Blue Book officially declared several hundred sightings “unknown.”
Colonel Douglas Embry, public information director for Georgia Civil Defense, said the UFO reports had been logged, but admitted “we don’t do anything with them…” He knew of no “logical explanation” for the sightings and said if there was a “danger of life and property” his office would ask the governor to take steps to investigate.
Georgia’s Adjutant General “would oversee any joint military-civilian operations,” Embry continued. “But even after all these reports, I don’t know of any concerted investigation underway.” He suggested that the National Weather Service might explain the events.
“One thing is, this type of situation just hasn’t come up in Georgia before,” Embry concluded. “We have never had any UFO sightings of this frequency before” in the fifty years he had lived in the state.
Who’s On First?
On September 1 Albany Herald reporter James Sheppard bravely stepped through the looking glass and into the United States government’s version of Oz. His trip down the yellow brick road led him to a number of unusual encounters with denizens of the military netherworld.
Starting in the Pentagon, Sheppard contacted Major James A. Durham, speaking for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. Asked about the military’s interest in the recent UFOs and involvement in an investigation, Durham responded: “The Department of Defense does not have a statement to make.” He would acknowledge that the military had been informed of the sightings in southwest Georgia, and stated that they were concerned and desired for citizens to continue reporting their experiences to local police departments.
Asked why the Department of Defense had no statement, Durham replied: “I can’t answer that question.”
Asked if any military organization, the Defense Department, Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, or any other, would be investigating, Durham said: “I’m not going to be able to answer that for you.”
Sheppard was nothing if not persistent. “What is the Department of Defense policy of unidentified flying objects?” he asked.
“I’ll have to skip that question too, but I will say that we are concerned about all this, and civilians should continue to report any UFO sightings to their local civilian law enforcement agencies. Beyond that, I can’t tell you anything.”
Asked how long the Pentagon had been aware of the sightings, Durham said: “We have been aware of this for three days, but I can’t tell you anything else.” Then he added, “Maybe I should point out that the Air Force was involved in studies of these phenomena but these studies were terminated about 1969, I think.”
Asked to explain further about the studies, Durham concluded, “I’ll try to call you back on that,” but did not know when he would.
Sheppard next called the office of Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was attending a wedding. The reporter talked instead to Colonel Jack Powell, described as the Emergency Actions Officer.
Powell had nothing to say on the subject and referred him to “someone else here who may be able to help you,” a Lieutenant Colonel Williams, public affairs officer at the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon, and Williams came on the line.
Asked about recent UFO sightings, Williams said “I can’t talk to you about that. Our public affairs people who handle that will have to talk to you.” He suggested a “Mr. Willibee,” also in the Pentagon. Asked for his first name, Williams refused. Asked how to spell Willibee, the officer said he did not know, “Maybe it’s spelled W-I-L-L-I-B-E-E-,” he suggested. Asked again for his full name, Williams stated, “I don’t see why you need that.” At that point, Colonel Powell jumped in and said, “If Lieutenant Colonel Williams doesn’t want to give out his first name, that’s his business. I don’t know his first name myself. Why don’t you follow Colonel Williams’ suggestion and call Mr. Willibee?”
Sheppard finally reached O.G. Wiloughby, “chief of the defense news branch in the Pentagon,” that gentleman said. He added that he had just spoken with Powell and Williams about the reporters’ call, then concluded: “It’s time for me to go off duty, and I cannot talk to you.”
Pressed for an official Pentagon statement about the UFOs, he said, “Major Durham is in charge of that.”
Sheppard found a Major James A. Durham “in the office of the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs,” the major said. Asked about a Pentagon investigation of UFOs, Durham replied, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
Amazingly, he did, seventy-one minutes later. “We don’t have a statement to make,” was the reply.
The Federal Aviation Administration in Atlanta did not receive any UFO reports from pilots, and the National Weather Service announced that weather balloons were normally launched between 8:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., but the lights they carried would have been too small to account for the sightings.
In contrast to the chaos of Federal agencies, the Georgia State Patrol was instructed on the morning of August 31 to investigate UFO sightings.
Official Explanations: Space Junk
On September 4 the astronomy department at Fernbank Science Center in DeKalb County put together a tag team to knock the wind out of the UFO sightings.
Dr. Ralph Buice led the attack. An astronomer specializing in satellite tracking, he believed many of the recent reports were simply satellites breaking up during reentry into earth’s atmosphere. He noted that the orbit of two satellites had decayed and plunged them back to earth in spectacular deaths. One was estimated to fall on August 28, the other on August 30.
Not only does the satellite itself reenter, but also, we were informed, debris accompanies it. NORAD, the North American Air Defense Command, tracks every manmade object ever shot into space, starting with NORAD 1 in 1957. They had tracked 7,000 individual objects, each with its own designation, and 3,000 were still circling the globe in 1973.
“Only 1,000 of those are satellites,” Buice stated. “The other 2,000 are discarded rocket stages, shroud panels and other assorted bits of debris associated with the launch. There can be several pieces of junk for each satellite. Skylab, for example, had about 30 bits of debris associated with it.” Skylab would have an uncontrolled reentry of its own several years later.
All of that “space junk” reenters over a period of several days, producing bright flashes of light, puffs of smoke, and other spectacular atmospheric events.
“Conceivably, a satellite that breaks up could deposit a cloud of ionized gas in the upper atmosphere, perhaps 70 miles above the surface of the Earth, that would glow and take several hours to dissipate.”
Such phenomena could produce the bright lights reported in southwest Georgia, as happened several years earlier during a test launch of a booster rocket.
“The top stage was loaded with sand to simulate the weight of a fully fueled vehicle, and when it reentered all the sand burned up in the atmosphere and created quite a spectacular sight.”
Buice did add that if “you get reports of UFOs chasing cars, landing and doing other things like that, it’s obviously something else.” However, “In all the years I have been looking, I have never seen anything suspicious. I would like to see something like that so I could try to determine what it is.”
Official Explanations: Celestial Phenomenon
Enter astronomer Robert Hayward, who attempted to explain sightings of flashing red, green, and blue lights. They were planets, he proposed, specifically Venus, Mars, and Jupiter, which were brightly visible at different times during the night.
“When Venus sets in the evening, you have to look at it through several miles of the atmosphere,” Hayward stated. “The atmosphere diffracts, or scatters, the light, causing you to see different colors. I talked to one woman who said she had seen an object with flashing lights on it and didn’t believe it could be Venus because it wasn’t round. People don’t realize that Venus goes through phases just like the moon and does not always appear round viewed from earth.”
Hayward also noted that UFO sightings come in spurts, because “when one person reports seeing something, a lot of other people go out and look and see things too which they then report. The second person to report something might not have even seen the same thing that the first person saw.”
The third team member was James Buckley, a meteorologist who blamed some sightings on cirrus clouds which are so high and thin that at night they are invisible to ground observers, but they still scatter light. A bright satellite seen through cirrus clouds would appear to be flashing multicolored lights.
Buice noted that PAGEOS, one such satellite, had passed over Georgia recently, including once on the night of August 30, when the UFO reports started.
Buckley added that electrical phenomena, including ball lightning, could explain some sightings.
“These phenomena are usually associated with thunderstorms, and there was a line to thunderstorms across southern Georgia Thursday night,” Buckley said. “This line was moving slowly northward and the UFO sighting reports followed the same pattern.”
Hayward did not categorically deny the existence of UFOs as alien spaceships, quipping that he needed “a Martian for a class on Mars I have to teach this fall.”
These speculations, which received widespread publicity, were accepted by many authorities and newspapers as the gospel. The Atlanta Constitution used the story to make an environmental and anti-UFOs editorial.
“It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a UFO-no, it’s trash in the sky,” the paper proclaimed, adding that sky watchers are “probably going to see some spectacular space shows.”
It concluded with, “Never underestimate the power of man to pollute the environment.”
On September 7 a spokesman for NORAD, which tracks all orbital material, announced from headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that no man made space debris had reentered the atmosphere over Georgia during the UFO sightings. This authoritative refutation received far less attention than the original, erroneous statements did, which reflects a typical pattern.
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