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Investigating the Rhode Island UFO

Chip Taylor

Skeptical Briefs Volume 23.3, Fall 2013

With a half a century plus of interest in UFOs, astronomy, and science, I’ve despaired that in all that time I’ve never seen a real UFO. (With emphasis on what the “U” stands for of course.) I’ve seen bolides (really bright meteors), nighttime aerial refueling operations by USAF jets, odd contrails, space satellites, balloons, kites, birds, and insects. Some of these were initially unidentified, but only for a brief moment. Thus it was fascinating, weird, puzzling, and astonishing that in September of 2012 I actually got to see a real UFO that didn’t seem to fit any sort of known aerial object.

landscape with a small speck in the skyThe mysterious Rhode Island “UFO.”

On a pleasant Sunday afternoon I was participating in a ham radio contest on Block Island, which is about a dozen miles off the Rhode Island mainland. It was one of those casual contests where there is plenty of free time to enjoy the day and watch the views. And there were a lot of things to watch. My friend and I were on an open roof deck of a house on the highest point of the Island on a crystal clear day with visibility to the horizon. Binoculars at hand, I was watching planes come and go at the nearby airport, sailboats off shore, an advertising blimp hovering between Narragansett and Newport, and birds flying about. Not a thing out of the ordinary.

And then, through the binoculars, I suddenly saw it: some kind of craft or “thing“ flying parallel to the distant shore at an estimated speed of perhaps thirty miles per hour. Too far away to see without binoculars, and even with them all I could make out was a parallelogram-shaped craft moving very slowly and into the wind. There was no sign of anything towing it and no sign of wings or motors. That was strange enough, but as it moved along it seemed to change shape: sometimes it was almost square, sometimes almost cigar shaped, but often getting shorter or longer as I watched. The shoreline was about eight or nine miles away I guessed, and if this object was directly above the beach then it would have to be quite large—dozens of feet long and high.

I watched for several minutes and finally thought to take a photo or two. About a minute afterward it dove steeply down and disappeared behind some low hills that were a short distance behind the beach. That steep dive seemed unusual. What was back there? Where did it go? What was it? Well, I was in the middle of a radio contest (My partner was so engrossed with the radio he didn’t even bother to check out this weird craft), I was quite comfortable that I wasn’t seeing alien visitation or biblical angels, so an investigation would have to wait.

Once back home it was time to see if I could determine just what it was that I saw. The first step was to download and enlarge the one good photo I took. Even with a maximum pixel setting on a professional camera using a top-quality zoom lens on maximum telephoto there wasn’t that much detail. It was clearly parallelogram shaped, but even with some post-photo enhancement there wasn’t much to see—no evidence of wings or motors, or any kind of craft in the air or water or on the land pulling it along.

Next step: Just how far away was it and how fast was it moving? Google Maps and the fact that I had an excellent idea of the exact direction helped. (For our ham radio contest we were using highly directional antennas mounted on tripods with a compass rose calibrated to one degree of azimuth.) It turned out it was a good fourteen miles away when I first saw it and when it disappeared between near and far hills it was at least eighteen miles away—twice as far as my initial guess. And that also meant it was moving twice as fast as I initially thought: Perhaps fifty or sixty miles per hour, not thirty. Using the houses along the beach I also was able to roughly estimate its size: Somewhere around 100 feet long and maybe forty to fifty feet high. So it was too big to be a boat-towed parasail or ultralight aircraft.

Then, using Google Maps again, I looked around the area where it dived steeply between those hills. The Westerly Airport was in that area. So I called the airport and described what I thought I saw: A slowly moving, self powered large craft shaped like a big parallelogram. And here’s where it would have been very easy to have been led astray. They had no knowledge of any such craft and suggested it may have been some kind of military plane. Under­standable, given what I described, but it led me on a brief wild goose chase with calls to military installations in the general area. They were polite but said they had nothing that would fit that description. Now perhaps a paranoid investigator would have stopped at that point and claimed, “government cover-up. Case closed.” To me, that would have been the least likely explanation (After “alien spacecraft” of course.)

Wondering where I could go next, I suddenly realized what I should have done initially: The Block Island Airport was only a mile from my observation point and it’s extremely busy on September weekends with small aircraft taking off and landing every few minutes. If my mystery craft was something ordinary they likely would know. And if it were something truly unusual certainly some of the dozens of pilots going in and out that afternoon would have reported it. I had my answer within a minute of calling the airport and explaining my sighting to the airport manager.

airplane with advertising bannerMystery Rhode Island “UFO” revealed. An advertisement banner in tow behind an airplane.

“What you saw was most likely a large advertising banner being towed by a small plane along the shoreline.” Bingo! Follow-up investigations revealed that there is indeed a banner towing service that operates out of the Westerly Airport. (Why didn’t the airport mention this when I called? Perhaps because what I described did not sound like a banner being towed by a small plane.) And in reading about the banner towing business I learned that the planes fly very slowly, can tow really large banners (up to 150 feet by 50 feet), can be quite a long distance from the banner itself, and often fly a zigzag course. (Which would explain why the “UFO” seemed to change shape from time to time.)

After the mystery craft was identified, I went back and looked closely at my photo. You won’t see it here in this reduced size, but on the original, and under very close inspection, you can see a tiny dot, just a few pixels in size, a couple hundred feet ahead of the now identified banner. That would be the tow plane—far too small to be identified in a photo or possibly even with binoculars at the distance from which I was observing. All the more so if one was concentrating on a bizarre flying object and not specifically looking for a small plane nearby.

Those who wish to investigate the weird or the paranormal may take away some lessons from this incident. I learned that it certainly pays to be persistent in investigating and not stop at “I have no idea” or “Well, it may be a. . . .” And once you have a good idea of the phenomenon, be sure to follow up to obtain confirmation.

Chip Taylor

Chip Taylor became interested in critical thinking when as a youth he listened to James Randi and other skeptics on the old Long John Nebel radio show. He has an undergraduate degree in photojournalism from Goddard College and a master’s degree in political science from the University of Illinois. A former Air Force Missile Maintenance Officer, he will be back in Block Island later in the fall, knowing what to look for this time.