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In 1951 a string of unexplainable UFO sightings occurred in Texas on various different nights witnessed by numerous people. The incident and the Project Grudge investigation that followed still remain fascinating today.
The most famous of a legendary and controversial series of sightings of odd aerial phenomena occurred at 9:10 p.m. on August 25, 1951, and was witnessed from a backyard in the small Texas city of Lubbock. The observers were three Texas Technical College professors whose discussion of micrometeorites was interrupted by the sudden appearance of a fast-moving, semicircular formation of 20 to 30 lights, as intense as bright stars but bigger in apparent size. Blue-green in colour and silent, the lights moved from northeast to southwest and were lost to view in seconds.
Whatever they were, the professors quickly realised, they were not meteors, micro or otherwise. And while they were still discussing the first flight, a second showed up and repeated the first's performance. When a story on their sightings appeared in the Lubbock newspaper, three Lubbock housewives reported that they had seen peculiar flashing lights in the sky that same evening. So, too, did Carl Hemminger, associate professor of German at Texas Tech. J. Russell Heitman, head of the journalism department at Texas Tech, said he had seen an identical group of lights several days earlier.
Between August 25 and November 1 the professors, and in some cases other witnesses in their company, saw between 10 and 12 such flights, though after the first sighting the objects tended to appear in an irregularly clumped group. One evening's events are recounted in an official report based on interviews conducted by Howard Bossartt of the Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) at Reese Air Force Base:
"On 1 September 1951, the original group of three [chemical engineer A.G. Oberg, petroleum engineer, and department head W.L. Ducker, and geologist W.I. Robinson] met again in Dr Robinson's garden and were joined by E.R. Heineman, professor of mathematics, and Dr E.F. George, professor of chemical engineering. Once again, at about 9:20 p.m., a flight came over. It was similar to previous flights, but rather more irregularly grouped. On through the evening, at fairly regular intervals, four more flights moved across the sky from North to South. And then at 12:17 a.m., the most unusual sighting was observed. This flight passed directly overhead, flying very low, in the general direction of North to South, and was seen by every member of the group. Dr Robinson observed that in the case of this flight, an irregularly shaped yellow light appeared in the rear. The formation included dark diffuse areas, and the arc itself quivered or pulsated in the direction of its travel. Each object had an angular magnitude that would be the equivalent of 12 inches across at a distance of 30 or 40 feet, and in violent agitation... The flight had the appearance of a group of 12 to 15 pale objects, producing a pale-yellow blinking light and moving noiselessly."
On one evening (perhaps, September 5) Robinson, Oberg, and Ducker were joined by two colleagues, Drs Grayson Mead, and John Brand, who sat in Robinson's front yard, their eyes turned skyward, waiting for the lights to appear. As Mead would recall:
"We sat for quite a long while and kept watching the sky... Suddenly we first sighted the objects just a little bit before they were directly overhead. I suppose maybe they were 10 or 20 degrees to the north. These objects went over so fast that it is hard to say now exactly how many there were. We don't know whether there were a number of objects or whether it was the lights of just one object itself.
"The objects appeared to be about the size of a dinner plate and they were greenish-blue, slightly fluorescent in colour. They were smaller than the full moon at the horizon, but might have been about the size of the moon overhead. I think there must have been about a dozen or fifteen of these lights; they were in a cluster and they all moved exactly together, so we don't know if they were different objects all moving at the same rate of speed or whether there was just one object with these different portholes of light.
"They went over so fast, and we were so taken by surprise, that we wished that we had a little bit longer time so that we could have had a better look, but all five of us saw them; we compared what we had seen and I don't think there was any discrepancy in our descriptions. We all saw the same thing. I think it must have taken something like maybe two to three seconds to pass overhead, certainly not very long, but we can't judge at this time how long. There was no way to tell how high they were or what size they were. There wasn't anything for comparison. There was just the apparent size and they went over very rapidly.
"People have suggested later that this was merely the reflection of the streetlights on the breasts of birds going overhead. These objects were too large for any bird outside of something like a very large duck or goose. I have had enough experience hunting and I don't know of any bird that could fly close enough that could go this fast that we would not be able to hear. There was absolutely no sound to this at all - not a sound!
"As far as I can remember and as far as I can tell, they were absolutely circular. We don't know if they were disc-shaped or spherical, but the portion that we could see, I am sure, was just absolutely round. It couldn't possibly have been that round if it had been a reflection from a bird. To have gone as fast as this, to be birds, they would have had to be exceedingly low to disappear quite so quickly. And, had it been birds, I think we would have heard the noise. The feeling... it gave all of us would be very hard to describe... an extremely eerie feeling."
Mead alludes to an explanation first proposed within a few hours of the professors' original sighting. The hypothesis may have been inspired by Oberg's remark that the "individual objects which made up the formation were indistinct, but gave off a glow, apparently reflected light, possibly from the city below." Yet Ducker, another of the professors, was adamant in his insistence that the objects were "definitely not birds," and his colleagues and fellow witnesses concurred. On September 5 one of the group stated: "There have been three flights tonight, and at last, we observed one group passing above a cloud which gave us a more concrete idea of the altitude. Assuming that such a cloud crossed Lubbock at 2000 feet, the objects would have been maintaining a speed in excess of 600 miles an hour if they were barely above the cloud they passed over. The objects moved across a 120-degree arc in two seconds, and if you reduced the altitude to a point where ducks would cross such an arc at their top or average speed of 60 miles an hour, one duck would appear as large as the entire formations we have been observing. "
Among those holding out for birds was a Lubbock area farmer, T.E. Snider, Jr., who said he had seen some ducks flying over a drive-in theatre at 9 p.m. on August 31 and briefly reflecting light as they did so. The Lubbock Morning Avalance noted, however, that Snider's theory did not account for the "unbelievable speed reported by others." The next night, after callers flooded the Lubbock newspaper with sightings, reporter Kenneth May suggested, "Quite possibly, some of the persons who think they have seen the strange objects have seen something different from what the others have seen. Some persons may have seen birds; others may have seen a light reflection - and others may have seen an altogether strange phenomenon that may never be explained."
The Hart Photographs
The Lubbock affair took a spectacular turn late on the evening of August 30. At 11:30 p.m., as he lay in bed in an upstairs room of his parent's home, Carl Hart, Jr., a Texas Tech freshman, looked out at the stars through an open window. Suddenly a formation of 18 to 20 white lights in two rows and a perfect V formation came out of the north and crossed the sky, disappearing over the house. Hoping they would return, Hart grabbed his 35-mm Kodak camera and rushed out to the backyard. Within a minute or two the lights passed overhead, and he snapped two pictures. Two minutes later they made a third pass, and he took three more pictures. Hart thought the lights were at a high altitude. In each appearance, they were visible for no more than three or four seconds. Two nights later, at the same time, Hart saw two more flights but did not photograph them.
On the morning of the thirty-first, Hart went to a photo-finishing shop run by a friend, and the two developed the roll. When the pictures turned out remarkably well - Hart had been concerned that they would not because of the objects' relative dimness - the friend called the paper. Soon afterwards Hart dropped off the photos and the negatives at the Morning Avalanche office, and managing editor Jay Harris and his chief photographer Williams Hams examined them carefully, finally deciding to use them - though Harris warned Hart that he would "run him out of town" if they turned out to be hoaxed. Hart was unconcerned. The paper paid him $10 for use of all four pictures. Harris then decided to put them on the Associated Press wire. Further examination at the AP office in Fort Worth found no evidence of anything questionable.
The photographs were later studied at the physics laboratory of the Air Technical Intelligence Centre (ATIC) at Wright-Patterson AFB. According to the laboratory, when three of the photographs were superimposed (the fourth was discarded because it was too blurry): It was readily apparent that the two rows of spots behaved differently. One row shows only slight variation from a precise "V" formation throughout, whereas the other row appears to pass from above the first row, through it to a position below. The spacings of this second row vary irregularly in the three frames plotted, while the first row holds a fairly precise formation... There is the appearance of two extra spots, outside the regular rows... There is a relative movement within the formation of spots, so that they are not lights on a fixed object... Furthermore, it is unlikely that the moving spots are in any kind of straight line.
There was no reason to believe then or now that Hart faked the photographs, which are among the most remarkable in UFO history. In later life, he repeatedly stood by them.
One thing they seem not to have been was duck breasts reflecting city lights. One of the first persons to see the photographs, Texas Tech biology department head J.C. Cross, dismissed the possibility as "definitely" out of the question. In an effort to duplicate the images in the Hart pictures, the Avalanche's team snapped shots of birds flying above the city's vapor lights at night. The results were images too dim to be reproduced.
Interestingly, the professors said the images Hart caught did not look like what they were seeing: U shapes rather than V shapes. The Avalance noted, not quite accurately since a few sightings were simply of clumps of lights, "All who have seen the lights have said they were in one or another of those shapes." Still, this assertion seems to have been generally true.
Official word of the Lubbock situation came to ATIC, which oversaw the Air Force's UFO investigative operation Project Grudge (a few months later, in March 1952, to be renamed Project Blue Book), in late September. Grudge's director, Lieutenant Edward J Ruppelt, read a report of the initial investigation conducted out of Reese AFB near Lubbock and was struck by the apparent similarity of the Lubbock lights to something else described in a New Mexico report that arrived in the same mail.
At 9:58 p.m. on August 25 - the date of the professors' first sighting - Hugh Young, a Sandia Base guard with a high-security clearance, observed a strange aircraft from the yard of his trailer home on the east side of Albuquerque, 250 miles from Lubbock. His wife Emily also witnessed the phenomenon: a flying wing one and a half times the wingspan of a B-36. As it passed overhead, coming from the north at 300 to 400 mph and at an altitude estimated to be less than 1000 feet, it made no sound. Dark bands ran from the front to the back of the wing, and at its trailing edges, six to eight pairs of flowing lights could be seen. Though clearly, this was no conventional aircraft, a subsequent investigation established that no planes were in the area at the time of the sighting.
later Ruppelt was to learn that around dusk one evening in August, Professor Ducker's wife had seen a huge, soundless flying wing pass over their house. At the time - presumably before the epidemic of lights (neither of the two could recall the exact date of the sighting) - Ducker had not been able to believe her, even though he knew his wife was a calm, sensible woman.
On November 6, Ruppelt flew to Reese AFB and began his investigation of the Lubbock lights in the company of OSI agent Bossartt, interviewing Hart and the professors as well as others who the two thought could be helpful. The professors recounted their effort, largely unsuccessful, to get good scientific data on the lights. On the eighth Ruppelt and an officer from Reese went down to Brownfield, Texas, to read recent UFO reports chronicled in the Brownfield News. According to Ruppelt, "These were similar to the Lubbock descriptions of the incident except for one reported by a Mr Joe Bryant." This remark is curious in light of what Ruppelt made of Bryant's testimony five years later in the memoir of his Blue Book experiences.
In his official report he relates the following: On the evening of August 25, Bryant, 65, and his wife saw a loose group of lights heading from north to south. They had a "kind of glow" and were a "little bigger than a star." A few minutes later another group flew over, and a few minutes after that, another. The third group, however, circled around the house, and this time Bryant could not only see what they were but also hear them. What they were and what they sounded like were the same: the onomatopoeically named plover. Plovers are white-breasted birds similar to sandpipers except with shorter bills and stouter builds. Bryant remarked to the officers that the next day, when he read the Morning Avalanche story on the professors' sighting, he was sure they had seen what he had seen. Ruppelt reports that he and his companion then went to the local library to read about plovers, and when they were done "it was too late to go to Big Spring or Lamesa, Texas, so the officers returned to Lubbock."
In the later book Bryant has become an "old gentleman, about eighty years old," and a resident of Lamesa, and now his sighting, far from being different from the "Lubbock descriptions," is "identical to what the professors described," an important potential clue to the true identity of the lights. Both Ruppelt's initial report and subsequent account agree that in the afternoon the two Air Force men spoke with a federal game warden about plovers. The warden said he doubted the birds were responsible for the Lubbock sightings. Though plovers observed from late August through mid-November can be seen migrating south and in groups, those groups seldom comprise more than five or six birds at the most, usually fewer, and their maximum speed is something like 50 mph. Ruppelt's 1951 report has the warden remarking (in Ruppelt's paraphrase that plovers "have been seen in the Lubbock locality recently although not in great numbers." But in his 1956 book, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Ruppelt avers, the warden "did say that for some unknown reason there were more than the usual number of plovers in the area that fall."
At the start, when he read the reports at his office at Wright-Patterson, Ruppelt's working hypothesis had been that the professors may have seen the Albuquerque flying wing. Possible, moreover, the Albuquerque and Lubbock events were linked with another event, the tracking by two Air Defense Command radar installations of an unidentified target. An F-86 had been sent after the target, which was at 13,000 feet and heading northwest at 900 mph, but the object - apparently never seen visually - suddenly disappeared from the scope. This incident occurred early in the morning of August 26 over Washington state. Ruppelt recalled, "I quickly took out a map of the United States and drew in a course line between Lubbock and the radar station. A UFO flying between these two points would be on a northwesterly heading and the times it was seen at the two places gave it a speed of roughly 900 miles per hour."
Yet what the professors were reporting were not flying wings but collections of apparently discrete lights - with the one exception of Mrs Ducker's sighting, about which, by the time she was interviewed over two and a half months later, she could provide few details, including the crucial one of date. It is tempting to speculate that the date was the twenty-fifth and to hypothesize that her sighting was linked to the Youngs's. Because of her inability to recall the date, however, this notion is destined forever to remain purely speculative. nonetheless, in light of another curious fact, Ruppelt learned by accident, it is not entirely unreasonable.
As he flew from Lubbock on the ninth, Ruppelt heard an interesting story. He happened to sit next to a retired rancher who lived in Lubbock, and though the Grudge officer did not reveal his identity, nonetheless a conversation between the two, perhaps inevitably, turned to Topic A in Lubbock, the mysterious lights. The ex-rancher told Ruppelt that about 10 minutes before the professors' first sighting, his wife had gone outdoors to take some sheets off the clothesline. Suddenly she rushed inside, "as white as the sheets she was carrying," to announce that she had seen an enormous "airplane without a body" glide swiftly and silently overhead. Pairs of glowing blue lights were visible on the back edge of the wing. To the astonished Ruppelt, it sounded as if the woman had seen either the Albuquerque flying wing or something exactly like it.
Pieces of a Puzzle
In his book, Ruppelt declares that the Lubbock lights "weren't birds, they weren't refracted light (as suggested by astronomer and UFO debunker Donald H. Menzel), but they weren't spaceships... The lights that the professors saw - the backbone of the Lubbock Lights series - have been positively identified as a very commonplace and easily explainable natural phenomenon."
Unfortunately, the scientist who did the explaining, after setting up instruments and tracking the lights over a period of months, must remain anonymous, he says, and therefore not even his explanation can be reported. (In a subsequent edition of his book Ruppelt would claim that the "Lubbock Lights were night-flying moths.") A clue to the scientist's identity appears in an undated Blue Book document (circa 1960s), but it also contradicts Ruppelt's assertion about what the objects were not: "In 1959 Dr J Allen Hynek contacted one of the professors at Texas Tech regarding the case. This professor informed Dr Hynek that he had conducted an extensive study of the Lubbock sightings and determined that they were definitely of birds."
All things considered, this seems a reasonable explanation - not a perfect one, perhaps, but better than any other yet proposed. It may not apply, however, to Hart's photographs, which the professors insisted did not depict what they saw. As Ruppelt notes, "The professors had reported soft, glowing lights yet the photos showed what should have been extremely bright lights. Hart reported a perfect formation while the professors, except for the first flight, reported an unorderly group. There was no way to explain this disagreement in the arrangement of the lights."
Possibly Hart did photograph the flying wing. Perhaps the ATIC scientists who thought the lights were different objects, rather than changing light patterns on the bottom of a boomerang-shaped aircraft, were simply wrong. That would mean that genuine UFO sightings were occurring in west Texas and New Mexico in the midst of a spectacular but unrelated IFO episode. The flying-wing reports were of the sorts that underlie the case for UFOs; they were not of amorphous lights, in other words, but of structured craft like nothing nature could produce. As Ruppelt said, even if one eliminated the professors' Lubbock lights from the equation, what remains are "good UFO reports."
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