All UFO case type categories (“Distant Objects,” “Radar-Visuals,” “Close Encounters of the 1st Kind,” etc.) have representative incidents which the students of the field evaluate as particularly characteristic and difficult to explain. These incidents are the anchor cases. The anchor case for “Close Encounters of the 2nd Kind, type: Vehicle Interference” is Levelland, Texas (Nov 2/3).57 Again, a complex and long case must be briefly  summarized:

Just before 11 p.m. on November 2, the phone rang in the sheriff’s office at Levelland. On the line were two Mexican-American truck drivers, who reported that four miles northwest of town their truck had apparently been stopped by the overflight of a rocket-shaped light emitting a great amount of heat and a blast of wind as it flew directly overhead. The thing was big, about 200 feet long. The truck lights failed along with the engine. The deputy on duty did not take the report seriously.

About one hour later, just before midnight, the phone rang again. This time a driver four miles east of town reported a very similar occurrence. A blazingly bright sort of egg-shaped object was sitting on the road ahead, when the engine and lights of the witness’ car failed. The thing, also estimated at about 200 feet, lifted off and flew away, or just “went out.”

A few minutes after midnight, a caller reported his car being stopped ten miles north-northeast of town. This witness’ lights went out, too. Here the object was also an estimated 200 feet in length and egg-shaped. It was circling a field by the road. The object stopped and just disappeared. Shortly a fourth caller from the same general area reported the brilliant egg sitting at a crossroads. Once again, the witness’ lights and motor died.

This was finally too much for the deputy, and soon the sheriff was roused, and he and several highway patrolmen were on the hunt. Before the hullabaloo settled down, several more encounters ensued. Putting these together, either directly from the phone log that evening, or from people who came in the next day to report, there had been at least eight instances of “vehicle interference” by the marauding egg all across the northern area around Levelland. Added to that, some of the police (including the sheriff) saw a suspicious light at a distance, and the fire marshal saw a streak of light, whereupon his lights dimmed and his motor almost quit. The image below shows the main incidents that evening.

Map on 253

Even taking the whole experience as likely to have been produced by one object, or at least a few similar objects, the case still frustrates the analyst. That is because, although the descriptions by all witnesses are similar (big, bright, elongated), they do not precisely match. The bottom line, however, is that a rather large number of independent witnesses had their vehicles interfered with somehow. It would stretch credulity past the breaking point to imagine that occurring in that concentrated space and time by different causes. So what was the “it” that caused this? That is what the citizens wanted to know (both there and elsewhere, as the story made sensational national headlines); and that is what the Air Force needed to answer.

Levelland occurred early in the UFO wave of 1957, before the Air Force would know what a storm it was facing. The major UFO managers, such as Gregory, Arcier, et al. were busy with Keyhoe and Congress. The case would be handled as just another incident.59 An Air Force sergeant from Ent AFB was sent to investigate. He arrived about noon on November 5, and spent the afternoon in the area (three hours in Levelland; three hours in Lubbock) interviewing six people. Those six people included three from the sheriff’s office, none of whom had seen more than a streak of light, and one person whose experience was not involved at all, but occurred almost two days later. The investigation of the eight Levelland incidents, therefore, was limited to interviews of the initial caller, Pedro Saucedo, and a Texas Tech college student, Newell Wright. Sergeant Norman Barth was impressed with Wright, but not with Saucedo. Saucedo was judged to be an excitable fellow whose imagination ran away from him. Handily, Barth failed to interview the second witness in Saucedo’s truck, and Barth also failed to consider the remarkable “coincidence” that Saucedo could have imagined an experience that was later, with quite a bit of similarity, reported by a witness [Wright] judged to be a a reliable observer. As Allen Hynek always said about such mental gymnastics: “It can’t be, therefore it isn’t.”

Barth took his report, which lacked interviews with at least seven primary witnesses, back to Ent AFB with a poor assessment of the incident. Lt. Colonel William Brunson received the report, thought it through with Barth, and wrote the Intelligence Information Report for Project Blue Book.60 For some unknown reason this took him until November 18. Ignoring everything involving the automobiles, Brunson’s Air Intelligence Information Report would suggest that Saucedo was unreliable, the sheriff had seen lightning and electrical storms, and Newell Wright must have encountered a rare case of ball lightning. In a moment of candor, Brunson said that he did not really know what the weather conditions were, so the case should be viewed as unsolved. In the meantime, the Air Force had followed its now normal public pattern of issuing a “general comment” type of press release on November 5 (the AF has found no evidence of UFOs and only 2% are unsolved, etc.).61

As other events in the flap hit the newsstand, and people became more and more excited and curious, Blue Book realized that it was going to have to comment specifically. Still it delayed. Finally, on November 15, the Pentagon issued a press release. It covered Levelland and four other events. We will confine ourselves to just the Levelland “solution” for the moment.

LEVELLAND, Texas: (Big Light, seen by “dozens,” stalled autos)
255 Investigation on the scene revealed that only three persons, rather than “dozens,” could be located who saw the “big light.” Preliminary reports have not revealed cause of “stalled” automobiles at this time, although rain and electrical storms at the time of the reported sightings, affecting wet electrical circuits, could be cause. Object visible only few seconds, not sustained visibility as had been implied.

EVALUATION: Weather phenomenon of electrical nature, generally classified as “Ball Lightning” or “St. Elmo’s Fire,” caused by stormy conditions in the area, including mist, rain, thunderstorms and lightning. 62

As one can read, the Pentagon wrote this piece based solely upon the incompetent and rushed few hours’ “investigation” by Ent AFB. Those aware of what really happened, both during the event and the field study, knew that the language of the press release was so far off target as to be laughable. Beyond that, a simple check of the newspaper or any weather service would have shown that there were no electrical storms, not even rain, in Levelland that evening. Far from being an observer for only a few seconds, Newell Wright, the witness that Brunson said he believed, stated that he watched the “egg” on the road for three to four minutes. All the weather elements listed in the “Evaluation” portion of the release as “causes” were non-existent, and the pairing of ball lightning and St. Elmo’s Fire indicated an embarrassing lack of scientific knowledge, as the two phenomena are utterly different.

It would have been possible to investigate the Levelland incidents honestly and still try to explain them in conventional terms. In fact, that exact thing has been attempted both within and without the UFO-sympathetic community. The basis of such an investigation would have been interviews of all eight “vehicle-interference” witnesses, with some character checks, and a factual determination of weather conditions that night. That would have been the minimum. Additionally, the various vehicles and their recent functional histories could have been studied. Lastly, some scientific attempt to determine what could possibly stop the engines and shut the lights off would be pursued. Almost none of these things were done by the Air Force, yet they felt no qualms in offering a solution to the nation. As an aside, when Levelland has been analyzed by later skeptics, whether open-mindedly or with debunking in mind, the debate always comes down to ball lightning.63 Could it have been present under those weather conditions? (Honest answer: extremely unlikely.) Could it last for several minutes before dissociating? (Honest answer: not usually, but possibly.) Could it be 100 to 200 feet large? (Honest answer: there is no record of ball lightning remotely near that size.) Could it stop a car engine from a distance of many feet away? (Honest answer: there is no evidence for this assumption.) To an open mind, Levelland is a very big mystery. Did it involve an ET-spacecraft? One cannot prove anything about that hypothesis either, especially taking the case as a stand-alone incident.

But simply saying things from an authoritarian position usually works, almost regardless of what is said. And so it was here. This is and was true because UFO cases ultimately recede from memory and are no longer around to refute the authority. The 1957 wave was powerful enough, however, that the public and the media did not want to forget quite so quickly, and so the Air Force was still under pressure to defend itself throughout the latter half of November. For one thing, near the end of the month, events were proceeding for a major, three-hour TV show covering the flap. Somehow, the Pentagon had been pressured into cooperating with the writers and producers, and the Assistant Secretary of Defense (from whose office this pressure may have been originating) was making (in George Gregory’s mind) unreasonable requests that ATIC come up with answers.64 Even Harold Watson could not stop this media irritation at Blue Book, and Gregory and his crew scrambled to get something so that they could look good. The big card to play, of course, was Science. So some attempt was made to marshal scientific evidence and opinion that the events could be ball lightning, or, more outlandishly, St. Elmo’s Fire. UFOs and Government 256

Gregory desperately attempted to put something together under the time pressure. Whatever Gregory told the television crew must have been bunk, because he was still scrambling in early January of 1958 and writing preposterous things65 (for example, that the weather conditions were fog, rain, mist, and low ceiling although the sergeant’s original intelligence reports had listed the ceiling as unlimited). All of Gregory’s descriptors for ball lightning were vague, especially omitting size and duration. Despite knowing this, he boldly claimed that the Levelland phenomena had almost exactly these ball lightning characteristics. He even tossed out the speculation that the lightning could so ionize the air as to shut down key parts of the ignition systems­an assertion for which there was no support anywhere. At least he had become aware that he had to drop all allusions to the irrelevant St. Elmo’s Fire.

In this Captain Gregory had the backing, astoundingly, of Allen Hynek. Hynek was at his new job tracking Soviet satellites and got a request by phone from Gregory to give an opinion on the case. Hynek apparently listened to Gregory’s analysis (we do not know if he even had much in the way of the paper reports to read, and may have read nothing), and then composed his scientific opinion, typed it up and sent it to Blue Book where it was attached to the record.66 Hynek’s half-page opinion reads Gregory’s “facts” back to him, but does, as is Hynek’s style, include much waffling to protect himself. Still, the feeling is left that Hynek concurred in the explanation, even the speculation that lightning halted the ignition systems.

Much later, when he was well away from his Air Force consultancy, Hynek had several painful “examinations of conscience” on these matters.

What was needed at the time was swift reaction by Blue Book and a serious, thorough investigation. Captain Gregory, then head of Blue Book, did call me by phone, but at that time, as the person directly responsible for the tracking of the new Russian satellite, I was on a virtual around-the-clock duty and was unable to give it any attention whatever. I am not proud today that I hastily concurred in Captain Gregory’s evaluation as “ball lightning” on the basis of information that an electrical storm had been in progress in the Levelland area at the time. That was shown not to be the case. Observers reported overcast and mist but no lightning. Besides, had I given it any thought whatever, I would soon have recognized the absence of any evidence that ball lightning can stop cars and put out headlights.67

Hynek’s casual actions in this matter supported an effective misrepresentation of this important case. Levelland was the most spectacular case, but it was far from the only one. Right alongside it were several other West Texas and New Mexico incidents, plus a major claim from a Coast Guard cutter in the Gulf of Mexico. All of these hit the newspapers at about the same time.