In the French village of Trans-en-Provence in 1981, Renato Niccolai, an elderly, almost illiterate man claimed that a UFO landed in his garden. An intensive investigation was launched, however, the claim still remains a topic of debate to this day.
In France on January 8, 1981, at 5 p.m. an old man named Renato Niccolai was working in his garden in the village of Trans-en-Provence when he heard an odd whistling sound. He looked up to see a "ship" above two pine trees at the far edge of his property. The object was moving toward the garden as if intending to land. When it came down in a field of wild alfalfa, Niccolai fled to a small cabin on a hill above his house. From this perspective, he looked down and saw the object resting on the ground. He was about 250 feet from it. As he would later describe to investigators:
"The ship was in the form of two saucers upside down, one against the other. It must have been about 1.5 meters high. It was the colour of lead. The ship had a border or a type of brace around its circumference."
Suddenly the whistling resumed, only this time more loudly and constantly. Then the object rose from the ground to about treetop height before shooting off toward the northeast. Niccolai said:
"Underneath the brace, I saw, as it took off, two kinds of round pieces which could have been landing gear or feet. There were also two circles which looked kind of like trap doors. The two feet or landing gear extended about 20 centimetres beneath the body of the whole ship."
As the object lifted from the ground, it kicked up a small amount of dust. Gathering speed, it passed between the two trees through which it had arrived.
Niccolai went inside to tell his wife what he had seen. At first, she thought he was joking, but the next day, when the two of them inspected the landing site, they found traces on the soil - traces that suggested some kind of large vehicle had settled on the soil and left impressions of its presence. Niccolai, a near-illiterate who knew nothing of UFOs (investigators would later have to explain to him what the concept means), thought he had seen a secret device developed by the French military.
The Gendarmerie were notified and were at the site the day after the sighting, noting in their official report:
"We observed the presence of two concentric circles, one 2.2 meters in diameter and the other 2.4 meters in diameter. The two circles form a sort of corona 10 centimetres thick, one within the other. There are two parts clearly visible, and they also show black striations."
The officers took soil samples, both from within the circles and from outside them, the latter intended to serve as a control.
On the twelfth Group d'Etude des Phénomènes Aérospatiaux Non-Identifiés (GEPAN), France's official UFO-investigation agency (since 1988 reorganized into the Service d'Expertise des Phènoménes de Rentrées Atmosphériques (SEPRA), learned of the incident and the following month conducted its own on-site inquiries. The traces were still intact. After extensive interviews, the GEPAN investigators concluded Niccolai was telling the truth. An initial study of the traces suggested interesting effects on the plant life.
Soil and alfalfa samples were taken to a leading specialist in plant traumatology, botanist Michel Bounias of the National Institute of Agronomy Research. (Toulouse University and the University of Metz also participated in aspects of the research.) Bounias conducted an extensive investigation over the next two years. The results, published initially in 66 pages of small print in GEPAN's Technical Note 16 (1983), can be summarised as follows:
(1) The chlorophyll pigment in the leaf samples was weakened from 30 to 50 percent.
(2) The young leaves "withstood the most serious losses, evolving toward the content and composition more characteristic of old leaves."
(3) There was evidence, GEPAN reported, of the "occurrence of an important event that brought with it deformations of the terrain caused by mass, mechanics, a heating effect and perhaps certain transformations and deposits of trace minerals (phosphate and zinc). We cannot give a precise and unique interpretation to this remarkable combination of results. We can state that there is, nonetheless, confirmation of a very significant event which happened on this spot."
In 1987 GEPAN head Jean-Jacques Velasco, who had led the field investigation, would say of the case:
"The effects on plants in the area can be compared with that produced on the leaves of other plant species after exposing the seeds to gamma radiation. Data show that a considerable amount of gamma radiation (10 to the sixth power rads) must be applied to produce a disturbance equivalent to that observed at the site. Should we consider the presence of ironizing (nuclear) radiation? Almost certainly not, since no measurable residual radioactivity is present in plants. However, could the trauma be caused by an electromagnetic field? probably"
In a 1983 interview with the magazine France-Soir, Valesco remarked that research on the mechanical forces responsible for such effects led "with relative certainty" to the conclusion that "the object described by Renato Niccolai could weigh between four and five tons."
GEPAN considered the Trans-en-Provence the "most significant" and evidential case it had investigated.
Skeptically inclined French investigators have accused GEPAN and Bounias of being "true believers" determined to prove the reality of extraterrestrial visitation and to ensure GEPAN's continued funding. Eric Maillot and Jacques Scornaux cite the work of an unnamed Belgian plant pathologist who allegedly "was able to point out numerous gaps and errors in Bounias' work. The scientist concluded that a lot of work has been done to little purpose and that the results are inconclusive."