Not all that glitters is UFO


*No todo lo que brilla es ovni

Millions of people around the world claim having seen flying saucers at least once in their lifetime and thousands more report having contacted extraterrestrials. Although stories about U.F.O.s are always good stories, they are not perfect. Hundreds of specialists in different fields have studied these phenomena in different countries over the past six decades, and concluded that 95 % of the cases are not what the witnesses consider having seen.

It all began on 24 June 1947 when American pilot Kenneth Arnold told reporters that while searching for a missing airplane in the mountains near Seattle, he saw nine strange objects moving at speeds far greater than any aircraft of the time. He described the strange movements they made, as if they were saucers thrown with force skipping across the surface of a body of water, that is, a kind of undulating flight path. Immediately a media frenzy started about the likelihood of an invasion of the United States by an advanced civilization that would not be the Soviets, but from another planet.

Weeks after that incident, a spokesman for the elite Air Force base in Roswell, in the New Mexico desert, announced that they have captured one of those flying saucers that were terrorizing the public. The area is cordoned off, but inexplicably another officer denies the news the next day, on orders from above, claiming that what was found by a local rancher was actually a weather balloon.

Over the years, strange stories began to emerge in relation to what was found, including an account by a nurse at the base hospital frighteningly seeing the bodies of the crew members, and then even a piece of film of the autopsy footage, recorded by a military cameraman.


Since then, these stories became very common. In 1961 Betty and Barney Hill, traveling at night along a lonely road, saw a mysterious light in the sky, but later they could not remember what happened in the next two hours.

Under hypnosis they were able to report that they were abducted by aliens of short stature and big head and huge eyes, and were subjected by them to disturbing medical experiments.

A spectacular case in 1975 shook the western United States as a logger, who was returning from work, disappeared after being knocked down by a light supposedly from something his relatives called a flying saucer, as his six companions fled in terror. The other men gave notice to the police and subjected promptly to lie-detector tests. Despite intensive searches the abductee, Travis Dalton, appeared only after five days. With the help of hypnosis, he remembered being inside the ship where he saw extraterrestrials.

One night in 1980, Betty Cash, Vickie Landrum and the child Colby Landrum were intercepted as they returned home in Texas by a diamond-shaped craft with a column of fire at the bottom. They left the car to see better, but then suffered burns and later vomits and hair loss. Everyone ended up in hospital.

Also astronauts, including Gordon Cooper, James McDivitt and Ed Mitchell reported seeing strange things, even in space and near the Moon. A photo sent by one of the Viking robotic spacecraft from Mars in 1976 shows a giant sculpture shaped as a face, like an Egyptian sphinx. There are also other neighboring structures resembling pyramids.

In 1987, a man appeared claiming to be an engineer specializing in advanced propulsion systems that was being threatened by agents because he had worked on a secret project somewhere in the Nevada desert known as Area 51. There would be stored different flying saucers captured by the United States government in recent decades. It is speculated that the latest U.S. weapons like the invisible-to-radar B-2 bomber are based on this alien technology. The military denied everything.

Some confess they have contacts, usually telepathic, with these space beings. They would be here to warn us of the dangers of advanced technologies and thus save us from our self-destruction. Many believe that these extraterrestrials are the angels mentioned in the Bible.


There are millions of people all over the world who claim having seen flying saucers, or silent flying triangles with green lights, or strange marks on the ground, specially in cultivated fields, or fireballs and bright balloons floating in the air, or “cigars-shaped" lights moving slowly, or strange lights appearing and disappearing, sometimes flying in formation, or other lesser lights dropping from larger ones, etc.

Indeed, these phenomena were detected by radar on many occasions and fighter jets were scrambled to intercept and try to shoot them down.


All these occurrences are called UFO, although the term is often used incorrectly. UFO is not synonymous with flying saucers of extraterrestrial origin, nor shall be any flying object unidentified by the observer.

We reserve the definition of U.F.O. for a flying object, formally reported, which remains unidentified after a thorough and rigorous examination of all available evidence by persons who are technically capable of making a commonsense identification, if one is possible.

Well, following this line of reasoning hundreds of specialist in different fields have studied these reports in different countries over the past six decades, and have concluded that indeed the sky is full of bizarre visions, but most are ordinary objects seen under unusual conditions or circumstances.


UFO stories are always good stories, but not perfect.

In the Kenneth Arnold case errors have been identified in the calculation of the velocity and in the term “flying saucer”: his statement was that the objects seemed birds.

The Roswell case is confusing because the data were compiled only 30 years later. The military used the term “flying saucer” because the correct definition, U.F.O., would be invented only two years later. Moreover, they were under pressure to shoot down any of those objects allegedly seen by Arnold. The nurse was never identified and never showed up, and the film of the autopsy would be fraudulent. Finally, the government admitted disseminating false information to hide a spy balloons project.

In the case of Betty and Barney Hill the validity of hypnosis is still a big question, in that different sleep disorders such as sleepwalking, daydreaming, automatic behavior and hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations (or Old Hag syndrome) can explain the experience.

In the Travis Walton case, nobody really saw him boarding the U.F.O. The light or beam can also be described as an electric shock. Walton and his family were fond of tales of flying saucers from much earlier, and some resulting economic benefits would have been in the case.

The Cash-Landrum victims never talked about E.T.s. They sued (unsuccessfully) the United States government, claiming they were victims of an experimental aircraft. In fact, the lesions correspond to some chemical poisoning.

The accusation of government conspiracy in the case of Area 51 begins to crumble from the moment that the man is not really an engineer in any field, but a person well-known for having had troubles with the Law (in fact he has even been convicted of pandering). The air base belonged to the CIA and was the place where secret planes for controversial missions were kept. And like it or not, secrecy is part of military activities in any country in the world. The alleged alien technology is actually the result of decades of efforts by aeronautical engineers: the first airplane to evade radar was built in wood in World War II.

What all these cases have in common is that there are no independent witnesses (they are usually groups of friends or relatives) and most importantly, nobody ever got out of an alleged extraterrestrial spaceship carrying a single bolt of physical evidence. Neither you nor I can be sure of what these witnesses actually saw, let’s face it.


In fact, the largest U.F.O. investigation in history, Project Blue Book of the U. S. Air Force, published by the University of Colorado in 1968, studied 12 618 cases spanning 21 years, was able to explain away 11 917 cases (94,44 %), unable to explain 701 cases (5,56 %) and discovered exactly zero visitors from outer space.

In conclusion, if traveling a lonely road one night we got to see a mysterious light in the sky, we have a 95 % chance that it is not what we are thinking it is. What about the remaining 5 %? Well, in relation to these, the truth is out there.

Aldo Loup.

If you wish to share this article with other people, you might establish an Internet link, but you must not copy any part of this page. Copyright © 2002-2011. Reproduction prohibited. All rights reserved.

Based on a lecture given at USP, on 23 November 2002. First published in ABC Color, on 26 March 2006. Photograph: Venus reflected in the Pacific Ocean. Photograph credit: Mila Zinkova (original license, of the photograph only, obtained at: With permission from Mila Zinkova.