Return to Roswell
Conspiracy theorists notwithstanding, the crash of a supposed flying saucer near Roswell, New Mexico, in mid-1947 has been effectively explained as something much more mundane: a balloon-borne device. Yet Roswell zealots continue to try to debunk the debunking. New claims—that the Roswell “debris field” described by eyewitnesses was too extensive to have resulted from a crashed balloon array—are being touted. The research was tested experimentally in the Discovery Channel documentary, Best Evidence: The Roswell Incident (2007). I was asked to observe and comment on the experiment, and here is my own report on the matter for Skeptical Inquirer readers.
On July 8, 1947, an unauthorized press release from an eager but relatively inexperienced public information officer at New Mexico’s Roswell Army Air Field propelled the “Roswell Incident” into history. He reported that a “flying disc” had been recovered from an area ranch where it had crashed (Berlitz and Moore 1980; Korff 1997). The crash came in the wake of the first modern UFO sighting, witnessed by private pilot Kenneth Arnold on June 24. Arnold’s string of “flying saucers” may well have been nothing more than mirage effects caused by a temperature inversion (McGaha 2006), but it initiated the modern wave of UFO sightings (Nickell 2007).
Soon after the Roswell press release made worldwide newspaper headlines, the young officer was reprimanded and new information was announced: the unidentified flying object had really been a weather balloon, said officials. Photographs of the wreckage matched descriptions of the debris given by the rancher W.W. “Mac” Brazel, who discovered it on his rented property, the Foster ranch. In the Roswell Daily Record (July 9, 1947), Brazel described (in a reporter’s words) “a large area of bright wreckage” consisting of tinfoil, rubber strips, tough paper, sticks, and tape with flower designs. “There was no sign of any metal in the area,” noted the newspaper story, “which might have been used for an engine and no sign of any propellers of any kind.”
Although officials announced that the UFO had simply been a weather balloon, the best evidence now indicates that the crashed device was really a United States government spy balloon—actually a balloon-array with dangling radar reflectors. Part of Project Mogul, it was used in an attempt to monitor sonic emissions from anticipated nuclear tests by the Soviet Union. I spoke about this with former Project Mogul scientist Charles B. Moore who identified the Roswell wreckage in photographs as likely coming from a lost Flight 4 Mogul array. (See, importantly, Dave Thomas’s special report in the July/August 1995 Skeptical Inquirer. See also The Roswell Report: Case Closed published by the United States Air Force [U.S. 1997].)
The news story died almost immediately, but the event continued as the subject of folklore and fakelore. In addition to the dubious “memories” of aging Roswellians, there emerged amateurishly forged government conspiracy documents and a hoaxed “alien autopsy” film showing the purported dissection of one of the extraterrestrials allegedly recovered from the crash site (Nickell 2001, 118—121). Many have given free rein to their imaginations (see figure 1).
Enter Robert Galganski. A crash-safety research engineer and a Roswell buff, he offered a paper, “The Roswell Debris Field: An Engineer’s Perspective” (published by Fund for UFO Research). In it, Galganski (2005, vii) used “existing documentation” in order “to calculate a very liberal quantity—that is, significantly more than one would expect—of debris that [Mogul] Flight 4 could have deposited on the ranch pasture.”
Essentially, Galganski examined the Roswell controversy quantitatively, focusing on the amount of the debris. As he summed up, “These quantitative and visual findings provide compelling support for the conclusion, based on logic and common sense, which many other researchers have reached: Project Mogul Flight 4 did not cause the Roswell debris field” (Galganski 2005, vii).
Figure 2. A replica of one-half of a Project Mogul spy balloon array was created for the Discovery Channel. (Photo by Joe Nickell)
Galganski based his findings on two main sources. One was Major Jesse Marcel, who in 1947 was the Roswell Army Air Field staff intelligence officer. The other was Mac Brazel, the rancher who discovered the crash site. As Galganski concedes, however, the two descriptions were “markedly different” (2005, vii).
Indeed, Marcel—recalling more than thirty-two years later—stated that the field was “. . . three-quarters of a mile long and two hundred to three hundred feet wide,” whereas Mac Brazel described the debris as only (in the reporter’s words) “scattered over an area about 200 yards in diameter” (“Harassed rancher” 1947). After making numerous assumptions and performing myriad calculations, Galganski determined that the field would have been covered by the wreckage so sparsely that it could not “honestly be called a ‘debris field’” (2005, 28).
To test his conclusions, the production company for the Discovery Channel documentary recreated a Mogul-type array, crashed it, and assessed the resulting amount of debris. They chose a site in California at the edge of the Mojave Airport, and I was asked to monitor the experiment. (The experiment took place the next day, December 20, 2006, and the documentary aired February 22, 2007.)
The crew, including a Hollywood special effects technician, recreated one-half of a Mogul array. For this, they inflated a dozen four-foot balloons, attaching one after the other to a tethered line, then strung on three box-kite-like replica radar reflectors (consisting of sticks and foil-covered paper—figure 2), and finally attached a parachute carrying a simulated radiosonde (instrument package). Then a rifleman used an airgun to burst each balloon in turn until the wreckage lay scattered on the ground. Galganski thought the debris was insufficient to match that at Roswell in 1947, but since the array had been kept on a tether, the debris naturally came down and littered a very limited area, only about 793,138 feet (figure 3). Had it been more broken up and scattered by the wind, I concluded, the results would have been dramatically different.
Figure 4. The Author at the now-deserted old farmhouse on the Foster ranch where Mac Brazel lived when he discovered the infamous Roswell wreckage. (Author’s photo by Vaughn Rees)
We must recognize that Galganski is at pains to assume that a large wreckage area and a consequent amount of debris was needed to at least “lightly litter” the area. From this perspective, he believes that what crashed at Roswell was much, much larger than a Flight 4 Mogul balloon train. This seems a very poor way to make a determination. One wonders what Galganski would conclude from the size of the area strewn by debris from the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia disaster (on February 1, 2003). Officials said, according to The New York Times, that “The grim fallout scattered along a path at least 100 miles long and 10 miles wide,” (Halbfinger and Oppel 2003). Was a gigantic space shuttle involved?
In fact, it is Galganski (2005, 45) who assumes “a litter-filled region,” not Mac Brazel. Brazel provided not only an estimate of the size of the area involved but also indicated the amount of debris. Brazel, Major Marcel, and a couple of others took the pieces to Brazel’s home (a now-deserted house I visited with investigator Vaughn Rees in 2003—see figure 4). The Roswell Daily Record reported:
According to Brazel they simply could not reconstruct it at all. They tried to make a kite out of it, but could not do that and could not find any way to put it back together so that it would fit.
Then Major Marcel brought it to Roswell, and that was the last he heard of it until the story broke that he had found a flying disc.
The newspaper article continued:
Brazel said that he did not see it fall from the sky and did not see it before it was torn, so he did not know the size or shape it might have been, but he thought it might have been about as large as a table top. The balloon which held it up, if that was how it worked, must have been about 12 feet long, he felt, measuring the distance by the size of the room in which he sat. The rubber was smoky gray in color and scattered over an area about 200 yards in diameter.
The article went on to add:
When the debris was gathered up the tinfoil, paper, tape, and sticks made a bundle about three feet long and 7 or 8 inches thick, while the rubber made a bundle about 18 or 20 inches long and about 8 inches thick. In all, he estimated, the entire lot would have weighed maybe five pounds.
A small and lightweight “disc” indeed! Clearly, what Brazel described was not even an entire Mogul array. The article added that “No strings or wire were to be found but there were some eyelets in the paper to indicate that some sort of attachment may have been used” (“Harassed rancher” 1947).
Photographs made of the wreckage when it was displayed to the news media (U.S. 1997, 7) show that the wreckage was consistent with Brazel’s description and that it in turn matches Project Mogul’s Flight 4 balloon/radar-reflector array.
From the evidence, we see that not only did balloons burst near Roswell in 1947 but that conspiracy theorists have had their fanciful flying-saucer bubbles burst as well.
Thanks to Vaughn Rees and Tim Binga for their assistance with this and earlier Roswell research, as well as the entire crew I worked with in the Mojave Desert, assembled by Creative Differences Productions, Toronto.
- These “MJ-12 documents” fooled arch Roswell-conspiracy writer Stanton T. Friedman, who has continued to tout the bogus documents (Friedman 1996). See Nickell and Fischer 1990.
- Among other sources were two that gave estimates ranging from only “about 20 feet square” (a Capt. Sheridan Cavitt, whose testimony Galganski finds dubious) to debris being “scattered over a square mile” (given in an Associated Press article). See Galganski 2005, 24—25.
- Best Evidence: The Roswell Incident. 2007. Television documentary on Discovery Channel, February 22.
- Friedman, Stanton T. 1996. Top Secret/Magic. New York: Marlowe & Company.
- Galganski, Robert. 2005. The Roswell Debris Field: An Engineer’s Perspective; third ed. Washington, D.C.: Fund for UFO Research.
- Halbfinger, David M., and Richard A. Oppel Jr. 2003. Loss of the shuttle: On the ground. The New York Times, February 2.
- Harassed rancher who located “saucer” sorry he told about it. 1947. The Roswell Daily Record, July 9; copy given in Galganski 2005, C-1.
- Korff, Kal K. 1997. What really happened at Roswell? Skeptical Inquirer 21(4) (July/August): 24—30.
- McGaha, James. 2006. Interview by Joe Nickell, September 28—29; in Nickell 2007, 14—16.
- Nickell, Joe, and John F. Fischer. 1990. The crashed-saucer forgeries. International UFO Reporter, (March/April).
- —. 2001. Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky.
- —. 2007. Mysterious entities of the Pacific Northwest, part II. Skeptical Inquirer 31(2) (March/April): 14—17.
- Thomas, Dave. 1995. The Roswell incident and Project Mogul: Scientist participant supports direct links. Skeptical Inquirer 19(4) (July/ Aug.): 15—18.
- U.S. Air Force. The Roswell Report: Case Closed. 1997. Authored by Captain James McAndrew for Headquarters USAF; Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.