CCNet ESSAY, 7 April 1999
WAS THE MODERN UFO ERA IGNITED BY GLOWING METEOR-FIREBALL FRAGMENTS?
From Bob Kobres <email@example.com>
I happened across this while searching for info on the February,
9, 1913 fireball event.
Were Kenneth Arnold's UFOs Actually Meteor-Fireballs?
From Skeptics' UFO Newsletter #46: July 1997
by Philip J. Klass,
Recent research by San Francisco Examiner science writer Keay
Davidson -- sparked by a conversation with SUN's editor --
suggests that the stream of 'Unidentified Flying Objects' reported
50 years ago by private pilot Kenneth Arnold -- which triggered
the UFO era -- may have been glowing meteor-fireball fragments.
Davidson learned from a recent book on meteors (Rocks from Space)
authored by O. Richard Norton, that the number of meteorite falls
reaches a Peak around 3 p.m. Arnold's sighting occurred around 3
p.m. In the northern hemisphere, the greatest number of meteorite
entries reported over 160 years (1900 to 1960) occur during the
mouth of June. Arnold's historic sighting occurred on the 24th of
Arnold said his attention was first attracted to the UFOs "when a
bright flash reflected on my airplane." In Arnold's report to the
Air Force, he said that "two or three of them every few seconds
would dip or change their course slightly, just enough for the sun
to strike them at an angle that reflected brightly on my plane."
Understandably, Arnold assumed that the objects were metal craft
reflecting the sunlight.
The flight crew of American Airlines' eastbound night #112, flying
at 39,000 ft. on June 5, 1969, around 6 p.m., had a similar
encounter with a squadron of four UFOs coming out of the east
which appeared to be on a near-collision course. The brightness of
the four objects was also assumed to be a reflection of the sun
off metal objects. This "squadron of UFOs" also was reported by
the flight crew of an eastbound United Airlines jetliner, flying
at 37,000 ft., eight miles behind American, and also by an
eastbound Air National Guard fighter pilot, flying at 41,000 ft.,
four miles behind United. The military pilot reported that the
squadron of UFOs appeared to execute a climbing maneuver --
seemingly to prevent a mid-air collision.
This 1969 incident would have become a classic "unexplained
multiple-pilot UFO case" but for an alert newspaper photographer
in Peoria, Ill., named Alan Harkrader, who managed to take a
picture of the UFOs. Harkrader's photo showed that the squadron of
UFOs was really a fragmenting meteor-fireball. When a meteor
enters the atmosphere at a speed of roughly 10,000 miles per hour,
it electrifies (ionizes) the air and creates a long, luminous
teardrop-shaped object. Meteor fragments generate similar luminous
tails. (Harkrader's photo shows only two objects, but he told me
that while winding the film in the hope of getting a second shot,
another fragment broke off and fell into trail. The incident
occurred in broad daylight but Harkrader stopped-down the lens
aperture to enhance contrast.) Analysis of Harkruder's photo,
which showed a nearby electric power line, plus numerous reports
from ground observers, enabled the Smithsonian Center for
Short-Lived Phenomena to determine the approximate trajectory of
the fireball. Despite the fact that two senior airline flight
crews and a military pilot believed that they had nearly collided
with the squadron of UFOs near St. Louis, the Smithsonian
scientists determined that the fireball trajectory was
approximately 125 miles north of St. Louis.
This St. Louis UFO case shows that even experienced pilots who
briefly see something which is unfamiliar can have flawed
recollections of what they observed.
Numerous sightings of fireballs in late June resulting from debris
from Comet Pons -- Winnecke -- called the "June Draconids" or
"June Bootids" -- were reported by David Swann of Dallas, Texas,
in the April 1981 issue of Meteor News. Swann noted that the
timing of "this meteor stream is June 27-30 with the visual
maximum usually occurring on the morning of either June 28 or June
29. The velocity of these meteors is very slow .... Several
intense displays have been seen, most notable those of 1916, 1921,
and 1927. The display of June 28, 1916, produced visual rates of
50-100 meteors per hour." Swann reported six of his own fireball
sightings between 1964 and 1971 which had been observed in the
June 26-30 period, around or shortly after midnight.
Arnold's Original Report
Because Arnold subsequently embellished his story slightly in his
1952 book The Coming of the Saucers, it is important to rely on
his original account, as reported to the Air Force. Arnold
originally emphasized that the length of the objects was about 20
times their width, which would match the long luminous tail of a
meteor-fireball. Arnold commented: "What kept bothering me as I
watched them flip and flash in the sun right along their path was
the fact that I couldn't make out any tail on them..."
Arnold estimated that the total duration of the sighting "was
around 2 1/2 to 3 minutes" but this must be considered only a
"ball-park guestimate." Witnesses are notoriously unreliable in
estimating the time-duration of unexpected events. For example, on
the night of March 3, 1968, the flaming debris from a Soviet space
rocket reentry over the eastern part of the U.S. generated many
UFO reports. Witness estimates of the duration of their
observation ranged from less than 15 seconds to more than five
minutes. Arnold claimed that "I remember distinctly that my sweep
second hand on my instrument panel read one minute to 3 p.m. as
the first object of the formation passed the southern edge of
Mount Rainier" and that he remembered to look at his cockpit clock
when the last object passed Mount Adams. SUN questions whether
Arnold -- who was focusing his attention on the unusual objects
while also occupied flying his aircraft -- would have taken his
eyes off the objects to carefully observe his cockpit clock.
The visibility of a single meteor-fireball may be as brief as a
few seconds, but a single large daylight fireball which passed
over Rocky Mountain tourist areas on August 10, 1972, was visible
for about a minute. (One tourist managed to take 26 seconds of
"home movie" before the fireball disappeared behind a nearby
mountain.) However, a stream of several fireballs would be visible
for a longer time. For example, a stream of three fireballs was
seen by three observers on board the U.S.S. Supply near San
Francisco on Feb. 28, 1904, at approximately 6:10 a.m. As reported
in the March 1904 Monthly Weather Review, "The meteors were in
sight over two minutes and were carefully observed by three
people, whose accounts agree as to details."
A very unusual meteor shower with many fireballs occurred on the
night of Feb. 9, 1913, as reported in the May/June 1913 issue of
the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. The
article by C.A. Chant included a number of sketches of the stream
of fireballs drawn by observers.
Observer estimates of the number of objects "ranged from 15 to
thousands, " according to Chant. Based on estimates from many
observers, Chant concluded that the parade of tadpole-shaped
fireballs lasted for "perhaps 3.3 minutes."
If a similar event were to occur today it might cause some
observers who had seen the Independence Day movie to panic,
fearing it was a UFO/ET invasion.
Copyright 1997, Skeptics' UFO Newsletter
CCCMENU CCC for 1999
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