Eleven years ago, on a clear August morning, Surrey resident Gord Heath witnessed something he’ll never forget.
At the time, he was living in a townhouse with a balcony at the back where he could watch the planes overhead, on their way to the airport on Sea Island in Richmond.
In an interview in the Georgia Straight boardroom, Heath said that as he was watching a plane cruise past, he noticed a contrail shoot at stunning speed over the aircraft before suddenly halting. Then the plume disappeared.
“It was travelling at least 10 times as fast as the jet,” Heath recalled. “When it stopped, it looked like a light in the sky.”
Heath said he ran inside to grab his binoculars. Upon closer examination, he claimed, the unidentified flying object resembled a sphere with a silvery-gold colour—not metallic, but with more of a pearly texture.
Approximately five minutes later, it floated away. “I was just kind of fascinated,” Heath stated. “It was, you know, ”˜Wow, that’s weird.’ ”
Afterward, Heath hooked up with the citizens’ group UFO B.C., which investigates sightings of unexplained aerial phenomena in this province and the Yukon.
Now a director of the organization, he spoke to the Straight a few days before the August 10 release of the book UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record (Harmony Books, $30.99), which has been widely anticipated by Heath and others interested in the subject.
Written by New York journalist Leslie Kean, UFOs advocates the creation of a small U.S. government office that will work with other countries already formally investigating and reporting on UFO sightings.
“The first step is to bring credibility to the subject—to make it clear within the mainstream that there are high-level military and government officials and aviation officials around the world who have been collecting data on these UFO events,” Kean told the Straight by phone from Wellfleet, Massachusetts. “And it’s worthy of consideration because of the credibility of those people.”
UFOs has attracted high praise from people you wouldn’t expect to be interested in flying saucers.
For example, research astronomer Rudy Schild of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics calls it a “terrific book, researched with great care and precision”.
Former president Bill Clinton’s director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Neal Lane, describes it as a “fascinating, thought-provoking book”. Renowned physicist Michio Kaku says it’s “bound to set the gold standard for UFO research”.
Clinton’s former chief of staff, John Podesta, wrote the foreword. He also cochaired President Barack Obama’s transition team.
“The American people—and people around the world—want to know, and they can handle the truth,” Podesta states in the book.
Kean said she first became interested in UFOs 10 years ago, when she received a copy of a 90-page report by retired generals, scientists, and space experts in France.
The group included a four-star general, a three-star admiral, and the former head of the French equivalent of NASA. The 13-member panel had spent three years reviewing various encounters between UFOs and pilots or military personnel.
According to UFOs, the document suggested that about five percent of UFO sightings cannot be easily attributed to earthly sources.
Instead, these experts wrote, the “extraterrestrial hypothesis” offered the best explanation.
Kean said her first article on the subject was for the Boston Globe, and was distributed nationally through the New York Times.
“I felt at that point I had a leg to stand on because I had published a story that was very legitimate,” she remarked. “But over the years, I haven’t communicated with very many journalists, to tell you the truth. I’m often surprised that more journalists don’t contact me and don’t want to jump in and follow up on some of these things themselves, especially journalists that have the backing of a major newspaper, like the Washington Post or the New York Times.”
What makes Kean’s work different from other UFO books are chapters written by pilots and high-ranking military officials, who claim to have seen UFOs.
As well, there are essays by government officials from several countries, including the United Kingdom and France, who have investigated these phenomena.
The man who ran the French government’s UFO agency for 21 years, Jean-Jacques Velasco, writes that a few cases involve objects that are “distinct from ordinary phenomena”.
Moreover, they demonstrate “a physics seemingly far different from that which we employ in our most technologically advanced countries”.
According to Velasco, that includes “stationary and silent flights, accelerations and speeds defying the laws of inertia, effects on electronic navigation or transmission systems, and the apparent ability to induce electrical blackouts”.
He also states that in these rare cases, the UFOs appear to be under some kind of “intelligent control”.
“I am fascinated with the possible correlation between nuclear activity, the location of nuclear weapon storage facilities, and the presence of UFOs,” Velasco observes in the book. “We can see on a graph the relationship between atomic explosions and visual/radar sightings, by looking at the similarity in the two curves. We can’t be certain why, but perhaps UFOs are ”˜monitoring,’ and this activity was heightened during times of dangerous nuclear activity on the planet.”
During her interview with the Straight, Kean pointed out that many things can be mistaken for a UFO. They include weather balloons, flares, planes flying in formation, secret military aircraft, birds reflecting sunlight, blimps, helicopters, and planets such as Venus and Mars, as well as meteors, meteorites, and numerous other naturally occurring events.
“Most UFO sightings are meaningless,” she said. “They really can be explained. We’re talking about a very specific group of sightings. Those are the cases in my book.”
She also emphasized that a UFO is merely an object that cannot be identified, and not necessarily an alien spacecraft.
“I can’t tell you how much of a barrier that creates,” Kean said. “When you really, properly define what a UFO means, it really has nothing to do with anyone’s belief system.”
The first case cited in her book occurred over Belgium during a two-year period beginning in late 1989.
According to Maj. Wilfried De Brouwer, retired head of operations for the Belgian air staff, there were 143 sightings—observed by 250 people—on a single evening in November 1989. Among those filing reports were 13 police officers; 70 of the sightings were investigated.
De Brouwer writes that none could be explained by conventional technology.
Witnesses claimed that these large UFOs were able to hover motionless in the sky. U.S. officials told De Brouwer that no stealth aircraft were operating in the area.
One Belgian man took two colour-slide photos of the UFOs, which were later examined by a trio of researchers: former NASA senior scientist Richard Haines, French satellite-imagery specialist Franí§ois Louange, and University of Paris-Sud professor André Marion.
They concluded that there was no tampering with the slide.
Several years later, in a subsequent analysis using more sophisticated technology, Marion noticed a halo surrounding the UFO. It was in the form of a snowflake pattern, similar to the appearance of iron filings in a magnetic field.
Kean said these incidents generated media coverage in Belgium, but not much in North America.
UFOs also covers a wave of similar sightings in New York’s Hudson Valley region that lasted several years in the early 1980s.
Witnesses claimed at the time that these objects were as large as football fields and could travel at incredible speeds, either remaining silent or emitting a humming noise.
Kean said the Hudson Valley sightings generated no government investigations and little media coverage in the U.S.
“How could it not be all over the front pages?” she asked.
Some of the more remarkable stories in the book take place in South America, where there’s a keen interest in UFOs among military and government officials.
Two retired high-ranking officers in the Chilean military, as well as a retired Brazilian brigadier-general, have contributed chapters to UFOs.
May 19, 1986, is known as “UFO night” in Brazil, writes Brig.-Gen. José Carlos Pereira; on this date, radar showed 21 unidentified objects in the sky between São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. Pereira notes that jets carrying missiles were dispatched, but he didn’t feel that the UFOs posed a threat to national security.
“What were those objects?” he asks in his essay. “No one knows. They were not foreign jets attacking. They were unidentified flying objects.”
Pereira ends his chapter with a plea to all technologically advanced countries to set up government agencies focused on UFOs: “The United States should certainly lead the way, since that country is and will remain the planet’s greatest technological power, with a great ability to aggregate knowledge from other countries.”
Two air-force pilots have contributed chapters to Kean’s book recounting their attempts to shoot down UFOs.
Retired Iranian general Parviz Jafari tells the story of pursuing a UFO over Tehran in 1976, as it flashed intense red, green, orange, and blue lights. When he got ready to fire, he writes, his weapons jammed and his radio failed.
Retired Peruvian Commandante Oscar Santa María Huertas writes about firing at a balloon-like object. On three occasions, it suddenly shot upward. The UFO was seen by more than 1,000 soldiers.
Kean obtained a U.S. government memorandum on the Iranian incident, which stated that the case “meets all the criteria necessary for a valid study of UFO phenomena”. It was seen by multiple witnesses was confirmed by radar.
In November 1982, Portuguese air-force pilot Júlio Guerra claimed that an oval-shaped object without a tail or wings appeared to the left of his plane at an altitude of between 5,000 and 5,500 feet.
It had climbed from the ground in less than 10 seconds, and finally stopped in front of him. In his chapter in UFOs, Guerra describes it as a “metallic disc composed of two halves, one on the top and another on the bottom, with some kind of band around the center, brilliant with the top reflecting the sun”.
Guerra states that he planned an “intercept”, but that the object was faster than his own aircraft, and flew over his path, “breaking all the rules of aerodynamics”. Two other pilots witnessed the event.
A 30-member, multidisciplinary team of experts investigated and determined that the object was flying vertically at more than 300 miles per hour, which is impossible for a helicopter.
At other times, it travelled at about 1,550 miles per hour, Guerra writes. The object remained unidentified after the study was completed.
Richard Haines, the former NASA scientist, has focused his research on the potential impact of unexplained aerial phenomena on aviation safety. He points out in his own chapter in Kean’s book that Guerra’s experience demonstrates the dangers of a near miss with an unidentified object in the skies.
He also states that unidentified aerial phenomena can impair safety by interfering with proper navigational equipment. A third concern is the distraction these apparent objects create for flight crews.
“History is filled with accounts of previously ridiculed subjects that have turned out to be important to mankind, as a study of the history of science confirms,” Haines writes.
The U.S. experience with UFOs differs significantly from several other countries.
In 1951, the U.S. air force launched Project Blue Book, which was ostensibly created to receive UFO reports from citizens, conduct investigations, and provide explanations to the public.
According to Kean’s investigation, it soon turned into a public-relations operation intended to debunk UFO sightings and discourage public interest in the topic.
She explained to the Straight that a key part of this shift was the Central Intelligence Agency’s creation of a scientific advisory panel in 1953, chaired by H. P. Robertson, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology.
After four days, the panel suggested creating a new public-education campaign focused on explaining away sightings.
A scientist who worked on Project Blue Book, J. Allen Hynek, was given this task. The U.S. UFO reporting system was shut down in 1970, and two years later Hynek wrote a book stating that the entire operation was set up to discredit the existence of UFOs.
When the Straight asked Kean why the U.S. government was so opposed to an open discussion of the topic, she said that the denials began during the Cold War, and there may have been fear that the Soviet Union would take advantage of a UFO panic.
“Maybe there is some kind of a secret program that they don’t want anyone to know about,” she added. “There is a whole lot of possible reasons. I think the main point is they are not conducting policy responsibly, and it needs to change—regardless of the reasons for it.”
UBC astronomer Erik Rosolowsky says some UFOs can’t be explained.
University of British Columbia astronomer Erik Rosolowsky told the Straight by phone that people occasionally contact him with stories about UFOs. Many involve the Venus or other planets or satellites.
He noted people in Norway once mistook a Russian manned space launch for a UFO. Over the past three years, he said, there have been only two instances brought to his attention that he could not account for using standard astronomy.
“It does seem like there is a small set of UFO phenomena that are not explained yet,” Rosolowsky commented. “The nature of science is that because they’re not explained yet doesn’t mean that they can’t be explained. But at the same time, you don’t know.”
The head of a Vancouver group of skeptics questions whether extraterrestrial beings could even send a spacecraft from another galaxy to Earth.
Lee Moller, chairman of B.C. Skeptics, told the Straight by phone that one would think that society would be “hip-deep in high-resolution photos of yetis and aliens right now”, given the abundance of cameras. “But we’re not.”
Then, in a reference to crop circles, he quipped: “If I were going to spend the trillions and trillions of dollars and the unimaginable amount of energy that it would take for me to get from one planet to another, I think the place that I would want to post a message would be in the local wheat field.”
But these types of comments don’t dissuade Gord Heath of UFO B.C.
Before leaving the Straight office, he turned over extensive reports that his group had prepared of two UFO sightings. One involved a giant object in the skies over the Yukon on December 11, 1996, reportedly observed by 31 people. The other concerned a 57-year-old mystery about a pilot who disappeared over Lake Superior.
Neither the media nor the Canadian government paid much attention to either case.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.