Mariana UFO Incident: Flying Discs, Project Blue Book, Condon Committee & Missing Footage

In 1950, Nicholas Mariana recorded what was believed to be one of the first UFO sightings captured on video. A large investigation followed, however, according to witnesses, the most detailed part of the video footage was stolen by the US Air Force. Here is an interview with Nicholas Mariana and footage of the remaining video.

Mariana UFO video
Nicholas Mariana claimed that the US Air Force stole part of his video footage before returning it to him

At 11:30 on the morning of August 15, 1950, Nicholas Mariana and his secretary Virginia Raunig were inspecting the Great Falls, Montana, baseball stadium - Mariana was general manager of the city's Class D team - in preparation for the game to be played that afternoon. Mariana walked up to the grandstand to check the wind direction. As he looked toward the north-northwestern sky and the Anaconda Copper Company smokestack, he spotted two fast-moving bright lights "like two new dimes in the sky." A few seconds of observation convinced him they were not airplanes. Shouting to his secretary, he rushed to his car, parked 60 feet away, and retrieved his 16-mm movie camera from the glove compartment. Using a telephoto lens, he started filming.

As Mariana would recall:

"I set the camera at f-22, picked up the objects in the viewfinders, and pressed the trigger. As the film clicked through I could see the objects moving southeast behind the General Mills grain buildings and the black water tank south of the ballpark. I filmed the objects until they disappeared into the blue sky behind the water tank. Suddenly, directly behind us - northeast - two jets shot by with a roar and we almost jumped out of our shoes.
The objects I saw were very bright and about 10,000 feet in the air. They appeared to be a shiny bright metal - like polished silver. There were two of them and they appeared to be about 50 yards apart. Both were the same size and were moving at the same rate of speed, which was much slower than the jets which shot by shortly after. I filmed the discs. The discs appeared to be spinning, like a top, and then they picked up speed and disappeared. They appeared to be about 50 feet across and bout three or four feet thick. I could not see - nor do the picture show - any exhaust, wings, or any kind of fuselage. I could see no cabin. There was no sound and no odor. The whole scene took from 15 to 25 seconds."

The Great Falls leader reported the story that afternoon, followed by the Great Falls Tribune the next day. In the next few weeks, Mariana showed his colour film to local groups such as the Central Roundtable Athletic Club. On September 13, with Mariana's permission, Leader reporter Clifton Sullivan informed the Air Materiel Command (AMC), Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, of Mariana's film. On October 4, Captain John P Brynildsen, district commander for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) at Great Falls (now Malmstrom) AFB, interviewed Mariana and was given the film.

According to Brynildsen's memo, Mariana specifically mentioned seeing jets moments after the sighting. The next evening the officer told a Tribune writer, "I picked up about eight feet of film from Mariana." But the following day, when he submitted the footage to AMC headquarters, he wrote in his transmission letter that he was sending "approximately fifteen feet of moving picture film taken by Mr Nicholas Mariana." This confusion about precisely how much film the Air Force took has never been cleared up.

On October 10, the Dayton Daily News quoted AMC personnel as saying, "The film is too dark to distinguish any recognizable objects. For this reason, it will be sent on to Washington headquarters. The Air Force has no interest in the film. The film will be returned to the owner."

Eight days later, in a cover letter sent with the film, Lieutenant Colonel Ray Ward Taylor, the AMC's chief public information officer, told Mariana that "our photoanalysts were unable to find on it anything identifiable of an unusual nature." According to Edward J. Ruppelt, who the following year would recognize and revitalize the Air Force's largely moribund Project Grudge, "in 1950 there was no interest in the UFO so, after a quick viewing, Project Grudge had written them off as 'the reflections from two F-94 jet fighters that were in the area."

Interview With Nicholas Mariana:

As soon as he received the film, Mariana discovered that the first part of it - the part that showed the spinning discs most clearly - was missing. He thought that the film in its current form was short about 35 frames (0.9 feet) from the original. Persons who had seen the original backed up Mariana's charge. The footage was said to show large UFO images, each with a notch or band along its outer edge. The objects were rotating in unison. The rest of the film - the version that would be the focus of a controversy that would go on for decades afterward - displayed images consisting only of bright white dots. The Air Force denied it had tampered with the film.

In the January 1951 issue of Cosmopolitan, Bob Considine reported that the Air Force had determined the objects to be two F-94s that "had landed at the nearby field at 11:33 a.m." The following May, Mariana filed suit against Considine; because the piece was titled "The Disgraceful Flying Saucer Hoax," he charged, he was being called, at least implicitly, a "liar, prankster, half-whit, crank, publicity hound and fanatic." He pursued the suit without success until September 1955.

A Second Look

In the wake of the Washington National radar/visual case of late July 1952, General John A. Samford ordered Project Blue Book - as the Air Force UFO project was now code-named - to take a new look at the evidence. Captain Ruppelt reopened the case of the Montana film. Still unhappy about the missing footage, Mariana greeted the new interest without enthusiasm but eventually agreed to let the Air Force see the film again, provided that the Air Force sign an agreement to return it intact this time.

Once it had the film in hand, Blue Book dispatched an officer Mariana knew and trusted, Lieutenant Peter Marquez, to interview him at length. This interview took place on January 7, 1953. Meanwhile, the AMC photo laboratory had concluded the objects could not be balloons, birds, or meteors. The possibility that they were F-94s, Great Falls AFB attested that two such aircraft were in the vicinity and about to land, just as Mariana had reported - was considered and rejected. "The two jets weren't anywhere close to where the two UFOs had been," Ruppelt would write. "Next we studied each individual light and both appeared too steady to be reflections. We drew a blank on the Montana movie - it was an unknown."

On January 14, in Washington DC, a group of prominent scientists met under CIA sponsorship to consider the Air Force's UFO data and to make recommendations on future policy. That first morning, the Robertson panel (so-called because it was chaired by California Institute of Technology physicist H P Robertson) viewed the Montana film along with another taken in 1952 by US Navy photographer Delbert C. Newhouse. Nothing in this viewing dissuaded the already skeptical group from "strongly suspecting" that the objects at Great Falls were simply "reflections of aircraft known to have been in this area."

The Baker Analysis

In December 1953, Albert M Chop, at one time the Pentagon's civilian UFO spokesman, wrote Mariana to ask if his film could be used in Unidentified Flying Objects, a documentary movie to be produced by Greene-Rouse Motion Picture Studios. Within four months Greene-Rouse had secured the rights and was producing a script with former Blue Book operatives Ruppelt and Dewey Fournet serving as consultants. Mariana played himself, and on October 1, 1954, the incident was recreated in front of cameras in Missoula, Montana, where Mariana now resided.

Besides being an adviser on the UFO documentary, Chop was an employee of Douglas Aircraft. So was Robert M L Baker Jr., a scientist with a computer and engineering background. Through Chop, Baker learned of the Montana film, and in 1954 he proceeded to analyze it, using a 16mm copy provided by the Air Technical Intelligence Centre, which oversaw Blue Book's operations, and a 35mm copy provided by Greene-Rouse. Baker secured additional observational information from Mariana and conducted other interviews.

The Remaining Footage Of The Mariana UFO:

By early spring 1956, he finished a detailed technical analysis that concluded that the F-94 hypothesis was "quite strained"; still, he wrote, "despite the considerable amount of effort spent on the analysis of the evidence and circumstances no clearcut conclusion can be brought out." In 1958, he would tell the US House's Committee on Science and Astronautics that the F-94 explanation was devoid of "merit." That same year, in a scientific journal, he would make a bolder declaration: that "on the basis of the photographic evidence, the images cannot be explained by any presently known natural phenomenon."

Nonetheless, debunkers would continue to insist on the aircraft hypothesis' correctness.

The Condon Committee investigation

In 1966, the Air Force entered into a contract with the University of Colorado to conduct what was billed as an independent, objective UFO study under the direction of physicist Edward U Condon. The project, known informally as the Condon Committee, reinvestigated some older cases, among them that of the Montana film. One of the committee's investigators, eventually to be fired for the pro-UFO attitudes developed in the course of his fieldwork, was psychologist David R Saunders. Saunders would observe that Mariana's was the "one sighting of all time that did more than any other single case to convince me that there is something to the UFO problem."

Saunders worked with another full-time committee investigator, physical chemist Roy Craig. Saunders collected and analyzed relevant documents, everything from newspaper clippings to Air Force memos to weather records, and visited the site. Craig corresponded with Mariana and later interviewed him, Raunig, and others in person.

In the "Photographic Case Studies" part (section IV, chapter 3) of the Condon Committee's final report, University of Arizona astronomer and photo analyst William K Hartmann, who draws heavily on Barker's work, states:

"There are several independent arguments against airplane reflections. (1) Short-term variations in image size (correlated with brightness), time scale ca. 1 sec., are typically not more than ± 5%. A priori considerations of aircraft stability and emotional observations by Baker indicate that it is very unlikely that two aircraft could maintain such constant reflections over not only the 16 sec. and the 20-degree azimuth arc photographed but also the minimum of 50 sec. visually observed. I have confirmed this by studying aircraft visually in the vicinity of Tucson airports; in at least a dozen cases none has been seen to maintain a constant or unidentifiable reflection as long as 16 sec."

Hartmann concludes: "The case remains unexplained. The images on the film are difficult to reconcile with aircraft or other known phenomena, although aircraft cannot be entirely ruled out." He does not explain his reasons for this last bit of hedging.

The 35 or so frames Mariana reported to be missing have never surfaced, If he and others who say they saw clear, unambiguous spinning discs in the film are telling the truth, the footage - assuming it has not been lost or destroyed - presumably remains in Air Force hands.

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