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The Truth Is, They Never Were ‘Saucers’

Psychic Vibrations

Robert Sheaffer

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 21.5, September / October 1997

June 24 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the day UFOs were discovered, or else invented, whichever you prefer. On that date in 1947, pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine airborne objects, and the era of “flying saucers” was begun. Lost in all the excitement was a very simple, yet fundamental error. As skeptic Marty Kottmeyer points out, Arnold didn't say that the objects looked like saucers. Instead, Arnold told a reporter that “they flew erratic, like a saucer if you skip it across the water.” Actually, what he said was that they looked like boomerangs, but the reporter’s account called them “flying saucers.” And since newspapers were soon filled with reports of “flying saucers” in the skies, “flying saucers” are what people reported seeing, not “flying boomerangs.” Seldom has the power of suggestion been so convincingly demonstrated. Kottmeyer asks, “Why would extraterrestrials redesign their craft to conform to [the reporter’s] mistake?”

By now, however, the Arnold sighting has been forgotten by all but the long-time saucer fans. Sightings alone fail to excite the masses, at least in North America: to be newsworthy these days, a saucer must either abduct and molest somebody, or better yet, crash. (In other countries, UFOs can still make big headlines by merely flying around.)

Today, the early days of the saucer era are primarily remembered not for Arnold’s sighting, but for Roswell, where a UFO is supposed to have crashed just eight days after Arnold discovered (or invented) them. As expected, UFO promoters held a big bash in early July to celebrate the happy occasion. Hotel rooms in Roswell and the vicinity were booked solid for the Roswell UFO Encounter 97 festival, which, for a modest fifty dollars per person, promised an all-night rock concert. There was an alien film festival, an extraterrestrial costume party, and tours of several of the sites claimed to be the “true crash site.” Television reports of alien events seemed nonstop, with coverage across the board from the trash-titillators to the “serious” news organizations.

According to the Albuquerque Journal (April 17), a number of prominent sponsors backed out of the festival after the mass suicide of the UFO cult Heaven’s Gate in March because they were reluctant to be identified in any way with something that reeks, however faintly, with the stench of death. Roswell promoters had to scramble to put on a scaled-down concert.

But even that proved elusive. One would-be promoter of the cosmic event before the major sponsors pulled out said his lawyer had informed him that he didn't need a permit to put on his ET entertainment extravaganza. The County Attorney, however, insisted that he did and threatened him with jail and fines. The Roswell promoters, tireless in getting to the bottom of unfathomable mysteries, were thwarted by their own failure to apply to the county for a permit. The few bands who came to Roswell ended up holding a Sunday afternoon jam session in the parking lot of the Roswell Inn Hotel, hoping to raise just enough money to get home. In January 1997, the attendance at the festival was projected to be 150,000. By March, that estimate had fallen to 60,000. The actual figure seems to have been closer to 30,000 (see the UFO Encounter 97 Web site at (Webmaster’s note: this web site appears to be down for good)

Despite all the excitement over Roswell festivities and the financial returns therefrom, all does not sit well with the crash story today. Philip J. Klass reports in his Skeptics UFO Newsletter (May 1997) that Jim Ragsdale, one of the supposed “crash recovery” witnesses whose account is currently touted as among the most credible, has contradicted himself yet again by moving the crash site dozens of miles from where he first had it. Some charge that this was done to make it easier for Pilgrims wishing to visit the historic site. Stanton Friedman, the “flying saucer physicist,” says that he trusts Ragsdale’s account, but he did not specify which version of Ragsdale’s shifting story he believes. Presumably, he believes all of them simultaneously.

Meanwhile, the account of former mortician Glen Dennis, once touted by Friedman and others as among the “best evidence” for Roswell, is rapidly losing credibility among Roswell researchers who have been trying to substantiate it. Even arch-Roswell-promoter Kevin Randle is backing away from Dennis. Klass further reports that Kent Jeffrey, who only recently was organizing the International Roswell Initiative to uncover the supposed coverup, has publicly disavowed the whole crashed-saucer story (see the Roswell Initiative Web page at for a full explanation of why Jeffrey changed his mind), as has onetime supporter Karl Pflock.

But if the truth isn't to be found at Roswell, it’s still “out there” somewhere, and the Center for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, CSETI (not to be confused with scientific SETI organizations), is determined to find it. Steven Greer, M.D., the head of that organization, was in Washington, D.C., in April to call for congressional hearings into the alleged government coverup. This is a group that claims on its Web page ( to have “successfully established contact with extraterrestrial spacecraft in the United States, England, Mexico, and Belgium.” They shine a beacon or strobe at lights in the sky believed to be UFOs; if the object flashes or twinkles in apparent response, that’s “contact.” Sometimes, they report, UFOs that wish to hide zoom up high into the sky and blend in with the stars. Somehow, this technique has succeeded in fooling all of the world’s astronomers, who have not yet spotted the interlopers amid their charts. The CSETI Web page also plays weird sounds of unspecified origin suggestive of the giant insects of classic bad sci-fi films. I have been told that these are sounds purportedly recorded during UFO sightings, sometimes from inside crop circles.

While in Washington, CSETI held several briefings for the press and congressional aides, parading a group of witnesses who claimed to be able to offer dramatic testimony of UFO encounters — if the government would release them from supposed vows of silence. That prosecution of anyone on charges of “revealing UFO secrets” would be virtually impossible, since the very attempt to prosecute them would be the story of the millennium, seems not to have occurred to anyone. A Boston Globe story reported that “Greer, [former astronaut Edgar] Mitchell, and a panel of ‘witnesses’ asserted that several extraterrestrial civilizations — working together from bases within the solar system and possibly from temporary outposts under water on Earth — regularly visit the planet and are prepared for wide-scale contact with humans.”

After finishing up its business in Washington, CSETI announced that its next project was its June “Advanced Researchers’ Training and Retreat in Crestone, Colorado, where UFOs are regularly seen” (see News and Comment story, “San Luis Valley Crystal Skull,” this issue). But rather than coming to Washington to tell the press stories of past UFO encounters, why didn't they just invite them out to Crestone, to see for themselves? Unless, that is, what CSETI is calling “UFOs” others might call “satellites” and “airplanes.”

Robert Sheaffer

Robert Sheaffer's "Psychic Vibrations" column has appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer for the past thirty years. He is also author of UFO Sightings: The Evidence (Prometheus 1998). He blogs at