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Exciting UFOs Become Bland IFOs

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.1, January / February 2008

Reports of UFOs-unidentified flying objects-continue to pour in from various locales around the world. While they are popularly believed to be extraterrestrial craft, or “flying saucers,” most eventually become IFOs-identified as planes, balloons, meteors, or other objects, or even as illusions or hoaxes.

While it may take only a few moments for someone to report a UFO, it may take weeks or years for the data to surface that could explain it. Those in the business of promoting UFOs are unfazed by the constant UFO-to-IFO transformation, since there is always a residue of old cases to tout, as well as a constant supply of new ones with which to mystify a credulous public.

Unidentifieds . . .

Here are a few of the UFO mysteries that came across my desk in 2007-cases that readers may wish to try their hand at solving before learning how the sightings were ultimately converted to IFOs. One is a case I personally reviewed for a major television show.

•An unidentified airborne craft was shown in a photo posted on the Ufodigest Web site by someone calling himself “Gaston.” The picture was supposedly snapped over Buenos Aries, Argentina, on May 2, 2007, at about 5 in the afternoon. Ufodigest’s Dirk Vander Ploeg said Gaston “is confident the image is not of an aircraft but in all truthfulness he is not sure what it is” (Vander Ploeg 2007a). Some saw pixilation around the object that they thought indicated Photoshop computer fakery, but another blogger, noting that a roof shown in the image was similarly pixilated, explained: “That’s an effect most digital cameras have when photographing objects against a very bright background during daylight” (Cohen 2007). Was the UFO real or fake?

•Sightings of a mysterious silver-colored, rocket-like UFO silently hovering above Salt Lake City were reported in June. The object was estimated at approximately one hundred feet long. And, although seen by dozens of eyewitnesses, it was not picked up on radar, according to air traffic controllers at Salt Lake City International Airport (Moseley 2007; 'UFO' 2007). What were people seeing?

•On Wednesday, July 25, a group of Millington, Tennessee, residents were perplexed to see a large, dark, ring-like object floating in the sky. “It stayed stationary, no lights or anything like that. Stayed there for 20, 30 minutes and then it just started disappearing,” said one woman who snapped several photos in the meantime. Notions of what the photographed object might have been ranged from water on the camera lens to “a spaceship with a cloaking device” (Kenney 2007). Whatever it was, it was not something dozens of e-mailers had ever seen before. What could it have been?

. . . Become Identifieds

Soon, each of these UFOs yielded up its secrets. The Argentinean photo turned out to be genuine after all, but the UFO was not: it was what I long ago termed an “unidentified Frisbee object"-that is, a model flung into the air so that its picture could be quickly snapped (Nickell 1994, 163-164). In this instance, the model was identified by James Carrion, international director of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), as one of a series of the “fictional mecha” in the Metal Gear series of video games (Vander Ploeg 2007b).

The Salt Lake City hovering UFO turned out to have been a small remote-controlled blimp only thirty feet long, less than a third of the UFO’s estimated size. The craft was being developed by a local resident named Daniel Geery, who said he had made more than six hundred of the blimps over more than a decade. Geery’s blimp lost power, eventually went down, and was retrieved by a worker in the area (Moseley 2007).

The third UFO, the dark, doughnut-shaped object in Tennessee, turned out to have been a carbon smoke ring. It was a byproduct of a gas bomb set off by a crew from High Tech Special Effects who had been shooting pyrotechnics for a television special. Because of a lack of wind that day, the smoke ring hung in the air for a relatively long time, according to the special effects operator (Kenney 2007).

As these cases illustrate, UFOs may well become IFOs with the expenditure of sufficient effort-or the advent of good luck. Sometimes, as in the following case I studied, one can reach through the “noise” to obtain the clues needed for a probable identification.

Fiery UFO

The case began around 8 p.m. on Wednesday, January 24, when a UFO was seen by numerous people in the American southeast. It was watched by eyewitnesses from Greer, South Carolina, to Asheville, North Carolina, some of whom dialed 911 to report the sighting.
I was subsequently asked by a major CNN television show, Anderson Cooper 360, to give my opinion of the UFO. The segment aired late in the evening of February 6, after I had spent several hours studying the available evidence in the case.

On the same program, George Lund of the Mutual UFO Network noted that-because the North Carolina sighting occurred near a nuclear power plant-some people felt that extraterrestrials might be “coming in that area maybe to feed off some of the energy that plant is producing” (Lund 2007). However, I had a simpler explanation.

Several eyewitnesses’ descriptions had been given in online news stories, providing characteristics of the UFO that aided in its probable identification.

Now, UFOlogists typically classify UFOs by a six-category system posited by J. Allen Hynek: nocturnal lights, daylight discs, radar-visuals, and three categories of “close encounters” (those of very close proximity [less than 500 feet], those having physical effects on the environment, and those having “occupants” associated with them). (See Hendry 1979, 7-12.) Obviously, the Carolinas’ UFO falls into the first category.

Among the nocturnal-light IFOs are celestial bodies, satellites, aircraft, and balloons, as well as flares and other “UFO impostors” including meteors and re-entry of man-made material, e.g., satellites and rocket bodies. Of the latter-objects burning up on entering (or re-entering) earth’s atmosphere-meteors are most common and may be seen at any time of the year and at any hour of the night (Hendry 1979, 24-56).

Consistent with the Carolinas’ UFO, a meteor will often have a bright appearance, with or without a trail, and may be of any color, even green. Witnesses often describe one as like a “comet” or “downed plane.” A meteor can be of “any continuous trajectory,” and its duration usually ranges from one to twenty seconds (Hendry 1979, 41-44).

Considering all the reported features of the Carolinas’ UFO, I identified it as a probable meteor. The same conclusion was reached by a meteorologist (Kramer 2007) and an astronomer (Anderson Cooper 360 2007). I did tell Anderson Cooper whimsically that if it really was an extraterrestrial craft it appeared to have burned up on entry, and that in the future the aliens should take corrective measures before again approaching Earth (Nickell 2007).

Meanwhile, UFOs will continue to be reported as long as people look at the skies. Not all will be identified, but proponents must realize that merely touting unidentifieds does not in any way imply that they are extraterrestrial craft. To suggest that is to engage in a logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance; that is, one cannot draw a conclusion from a lack of knowledge. What is needed is clear, positive evidence of alien visitation, and so far that is lacking.


I am grateful to CFI’s Assistant Director of Communications, Henry Huber, for keeping me posted on matters of paranormal newsworthiness, including UFO sightings.


Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at