THE SOUTHWESTERN UFO WAVE OF 1957
BY Antonio F.Rullan
(This text version, produced for the NICAP site by Rich Vitello, is presented here for search engine use only. To see the original version along with the appropriate tables and graphs, click on the link above.)
50 years ago in November, the major UFO wave took place in the United States that filled the newspapers with UFO stories. This wave followed the classic waves of 1947 in 1952. The 1957 wave was similar to the 1947 wave in its explosive nature but had a greater number of reported sightings. The UFO wave of 1952 had more reported cases but was not an explosive wave; UFO reports came in gradually throughout the year. The 1957 wave stands out because it was the first US wave involving vehicle interference (VI) cases. It was these UFO stories of close encounters between automobiles and UFOs that drew the most media attention. This wave, however, was not the first documented VI wave because a similar one had occurred in France in October 1954.
While the 1957 wave had a broad distribution that included South America, Europe, and Australia, my focus here is narrowly on the set of cases in the southwestern United States. Thew UFO wave started in the Southwest, where it was particularly intense for nine days, and then fizzled abruptly while continuing throughout the country. I concentrate on the vehicle interference cases because they represent the key change that this wave brought to the media, Project Blue Book, and the American psyche. While these cases were not the first of this type reported to Blue Book, or the first documented in the press, this sudden appearance and concentration in the Southwest dominated the press the first time in America. And while nocturnal light cases were the most numerous type of report, it was the VI cases that drew the media attention. They were richer in content and more difficult to explain away.
For case compilation, I relied on the UFOCAT Database Blue Book case files, plus collections of newspaper clippings provided by Loren Gross and Jan Aldrich. In this article, the Southwest includes Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma,and Kansas. The additional newspaper clippings added 41 new UFO cases, including five additional VI cases (beyond those included in Rodeghier's vehicle interference catalog. 1981).
Since the wave took place mainly in November, I wanted to look at all the sightings in their region from October through December to determine the size of the peak rate of increase and decline of the reports. A total of 209 UFO cases were found for this time period in the Southwest. Twenty-four of these cases were VI cases, 157 were nocturnal/mysterious lights, 19 were daylight disks, five were CE1 cases, and 4 were non-VI CE 2 cases. Figure 1 shows a histogram of all the UFO cases reported to the press and Blue Book during this three-month period. The chart separates the VI cases that reported electromagnetic interference with the witnesses' car (I. E. engine stoppage, headlights failed, radio interference) from all the others.
Figure 1 shows that the Southwest VI wave started on November 2, peaked on November 3, and lasted about nine days. By early December, the number of reported UFO cases matched the same level reported in October before the wave started. Of interest is that the sudden increase in the number of VI cases being reported occurred at the same time as the sudden increase from non-VI cases reported during this nine day period. The correlations suggest that they were not independent events.
The 24 vehicle interference cases was similar in general aspects and different in the details. Most of these cases involved a glowing egg-shaped ball of light that either hovered near the car or flew over the car causing the car engine, headlights, radio, and other electronic devices to fail or stop momentarily. Table 1 summarizes these cases and lists the type of the vehicle effects that were described by the witnesses.
Whatever happened in the Southwest that first week of November, it was sudden, spread like wildfire, and then suddenly stopped. The pattern fits Jerome Clarks (1996 P.575) five-step characterization of the Explosive Wave:
1. A triggering event of inherently spectacular nature and high publicity. (The triggering events were the Levelland sightings that occurred between November 2 and 3 and which made the AP wires by the next day.)
2. An outpouring of reports favored with extensive and generally positive media coverage during the next few days. (This was evidenced by all the newspaper clippings obtained from many towns in New Mexico, Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma that covered the major and local UFO cases.)
3. Followed by the spread of sightings over a widening area. (This was evidenced by the spread of UFO sightings away from Levelland in all directions and generally within 260 mile radius.)
4. In increase in hoaxes and unfavorable media attention. (The only hoax of which I am aware took place in Grapevine, Texas, on November 6, and it was reported only in the Fort Worth papers. Nevertheless, unfavorable media attention did start on November 5 when the Air Force issued a special press release to the effect that no evidence of UFOs have been found and all but 2% of cases had been explained.)
5. A rapid diminution of reports starting a few days after the peak. (Seven days after the peak, the wave was eventually over in the Southwest.)
The 209 UFO cases reported in the Southwest from October through the end of December 1957 are plotted on the map in figure 2. VI cases are shown as light-colored pins and non-VI cases are shown as dark-colored pins. The map is centered in Levelland, Texas, where the most famous case took place and with the highest number of VI cases occurred.
Table 2 shows the distribution of reported UFO cases by state. About 80% of all UFO reports and all but one of the VI cases took place in Texas and New Mexico, so sometimes this wave is called the TX-NM wave of 1957. Of interest, no VI case reports were found in Arizona, Utah, Colorado or Kansas. This implies that whatever phenomenon was causing the car/engine light shutdowns had a limited range within the Southwest. The UFOCAT database, however, shows that many UFO cases were also reported in California, the Midwest, and the East Coast. Moreover, Rodegher's VI database includes 19 VI cases in other states during the same period. Thus, if the same VI phenomenon that was observed in the Southwest moved on to the west or the Midwest, there it does not appear to have gone through Arizona, Utah, Kansas or East Texas because there are no records of VI cases in those regions during the three-month period. This observation suggests that the phenomenon does not spread in a continuous two-dimensional fashion like the weather.
Before the Levelland UFO reports started coming in (on November 2 at 10:50 PM Central) three other VI cases took place in Texas. The first was in Canadian (northeast of Levelland) on November 2 at 2:30 AM this was followed by one event in Amarillo at 8 PM and one south of Levelland (between Seagraves and Seminole) at 8:30 PM After November 3, the wave moved southwest towards El Paso, northwest towards Santa Fe, east to Wichita Falls, Southeast toward San Antonio and Houston, and the northeast toward Woodward, Oklahoma.
On the map in figure 3, lines are drawn from Levelland (the theoretical hub of the VI cases) to the other towns where the VI cases were reported that were furthest in that direction from Levelland. During the peak nine-day period, all VI cases occurred within this hexagon.
During the three-month period (October 1 through December 31), 67% of the non-VI cases occurred within this hexagon. The hexagon is not symmetric, and the distance between Levelland and the six key towns are shown on table 3. Figure 3 shows that the explosive Southwest wave of 1957 had a limited range. I did not find any VI reports in or near other big Southwest cities such as Dallas, Oklahoma City, Colorado Springs, Tucson, or Phoenix.
Another way of looking at the data is to review how the VI cases moved in time through space. Figure 4 plots all VI cases as a function of longitude, latitude, and time (date hour). The x-y axis of figure 4 represents the latitude and longitude; the z-axis or vertical axis represents time. Cases are included from November 2 to 11, the height of the wave. The center of the x-y plane corresponds to the coordinates for Levelland. All the points are connected with a line to represent movement in time. This line does not assume that all data points were caused by the same object or stimulus.
Figure 4 shows that from November 2 through November 5, there was a general movement of the reported VI phenomenon to the Southwest from the Panhandle of Texas. This trend ended in November 5 with 3 exceptions two movements to the southeast in one movement to the northwest. There was a case reported in San Antonio on November 5 (9:30 PM), one in Houston on November 6 (4:30 AM), and one in Santa Fe on November 6 (1:15 AM). The southwesterly movement of the VI reports for the first four days of the wave is intriguing. This could be explained by a weather front (that presumably causes anomalous atmospheric phenomenon) which moves Southwest from the Texas Panhandle (I did not check the weather patterns for this region). The southwesterly moving weather front idea, however, suddenly loses credibility when similar reports appear in San Antonio and Houston (unless we explain these away as social contagion).
In Figure 5, all the other non-VI UFO cases are added to this 3D map (whose X-Y coordinates of bounded roughly by the hexagon shown in figure 3). These non--VI cases represent about 85% of the non-VI cases reported during this time period in the Southwest. Figure 5 shows that most of the non-VI sightings were within the 260-mile radius from Levelland and appear to be distributed equally over a nine-day period.
Figure 6 plots all the UFO cases reported in the Southwest from October 1 through December 31. This plot shows that in October there were few UFO cases reported and these were limited in geographical area. Then on November 2, the explosion of UFO cases took place within nine days and within the limited area (dense cloud in the middle of 3D graph). This explosive wave was followed by a decrease in the number of cases and a wider geographical distribution.
HYPOTHESIS FOR THE SOUTHWESTERN UFO WAVE
Whatever hypotheses are put forward need to explain the following observations and events.
A sudden jump in UFO reports that involved brilliant oval-shaped balls of light that flew over cars or landed nearby, causing the car's engine and headlights to shut temporarily. Twenty-three of these vehicle interference cases were reported in the Southwest over a period of nine days and within a 500-mile radius of Levelland, Texas. These reports were made during the same period as an explosive wave of non-vehicle interference UFO reports. Both waves peaked about the same time. During the first four days of the VI wave, the reports were moving in a southwesterly direction; then reports jumped southeast, northwest, and finally, northeast. These types of incidents in their magnitude have never been reported before in this region and have not occurred again in 50 years.
Of the 24 VI cases reported, Blue Book evaluating only seven. Blue Book conclusions were that three cases had unreliable witnesses, one case was imagined, one case was ball lightning, one case was lightning in one case was a combination of a meteor plus an unreliable witness. Thus, according to Blue Book, the main explanatory hypotheses were ball lightning or a reliable reporting. Presumably, unreliable reporting means that the witnesses either embellished, imagined, or made up their stories as part of a social contagion or craze that started with the Levelland sightings.
For our purposes, however, the explanatory hypotheses can be broadened to include:
Unknown atmospheric phenomenon
Intelligently controlled unknown object
Some people attribute the 1957 wave to a social contagion caused by the sudden hysteria in America after the launch of Sputnik's I and II. After Sputnik I (the first artificial satellite) was launched on October 4, 1957, suddenly American started looking up at the sky and noticing things they never paid attention to before (Venus, meteors, satellites, stars, etc.). The UFO report histogram in Figure 1, however, shows that after October 4 there was no significant increase in UFO sighting reports in the Southwest (or elsewhere in the United States). Sputnik II (the second artificial satellite that included the dog) was launched on November 3 at 230 GMT (November 2 at 8:30 PM Central). The news of the Sputnik II launch was not available and the press until after the famous Levelland cases took place (between November 2 at 10:30 PM in November 3 at 1:15 AM Central). For example, the Lubbock Avalanche Journal shared headlines on November 3 between the Levelland UFO sightings and the Sputnik II. By November 4, most newspapers in the region were carrying both stories. It is pure coincidence that the Sputnik II launch in the famous Levelland sightings occurred on the same day and close in time. The wide press coverage of the Levelland sightings is sufficient to explain the trigger mechanism for the 1957 wave. The Sputnik II launch could have contributed to renewed interest in watching the night skies and reporting UFOs but it does not add explanatory power to the VI wave.
Social contagion, however, could still explain some of the UFO cases reported to the press. With regard to the flood of nocturnal light reports, it is not unreasonable to expect people to report sightings of Venus, stars, meteors, and other astronomical events as UFOs if they never before paid attention to the night sky. With regard to VI UFO cases, the social contagion can only be invoked if these cases were embellished or made up as part of the hysteria. While this is more difficult to prove, Blue Book concluded it was so in five of its VI cases (all were single-witness cases and 3 happened after the Levelland cases).
One VI case that could be due to social contagion was the Canadian, Texas case. The report supposedly occurred on November 2, 1957, at 3:30 AM (before the Levelland sightings). However, it was not reported until November 4. It was a single-witness case that claimed that a saucer shaped craft, with a white flag, landed next to the road, and a humanoid was standing next to the UFO. Blue Book concluded that the witness was unreliable.
Nevertheless, it is very doubtful that social contagion could explain all the 24 VI cases because:
* Eleven of the VI cases involved multiple witnesses, and
* Some of the VI cases were reported before, during, or right after the key events at Levelland (before the press release).
* The ball lightning hypothesis has its own difficulties explaining these VI cases because:
* There is no evidence that ball lightning can stop cars and put out headlights
* Most observers at the time of the incidents did not report lightning or stormy weather.
Moreover, in the latest ball lightning book by one of the fields experts, Ball Lightning: An Unsolved Problem in Physics (Stenhoff, P.70). The only case presented that is associated with a car was a 1985 incident in Wales. In this instance a red ball of fire, the size of the front wheel of a tractor, hit the car windshield and shattered it. This incident happened in daylight with no storm present, no thunder, and no lightning. The witness was driving his car when the BL hit it, but at no time did the car engine stop. Also of interest is that despite Blue Book's determination that the incidents at Levelland were ball lightning, those researchers don't list these cases in the ball lightning databases or books.
If, nevertheless, we give ball lightning the benefit of the doubt, it probably could not be the cause for all cases in this wave because the area covered (from Houston to Santa Fe, and from El Paso to Woodward, Oklahoma) was wide and the period covered was long enough (nine days) to include diverse weather conditions.
Another reason why ball lightning researchers did not embrace the CE2 cases from the Levelland and its associated wave is that these UFO cases are not homogeneous. Based on my previous research on seven Levelland VI cases (Rullan, 1999), I found that parameters like shape, size, color, type of motion, duration and sound were different for all cases. The same observation applies to the additional 17 VI cases from the Southwestern wave. Thus, it is difficult to conclude that the same phenomenon was involved in all the cases. Possible explanation for the heterogeneity of the descriptions could be:
* There were multiple stimuli causing the sightings
* The sightings were caused by a phenomenon whose properties vary (maybe some unknown atmospheric phenomenon)
* The phenomenon that caused the observation was changing position in time and space thus leading to totally different descriptions by the witnesses.
The intelligently controlled unknown object hypothesis is reasonable because of the anomalous observations reported in some of the 24 VI cases. Table 4 lists some of these difficult-to-explain observations. Nevertheless, all cases were different and not all cases reported anomalous features. Again, while the overall pattern is similar, when it comes to the detailed description of the VI cases there is a lack of homogeneity.
Given the diverse descriptions of what was observed during the wave, the causes of the VI wave very likely include the presence of a real, unknown phenomenon (which triggered the start of the wave and continued its presence throughout) plus social contagion (which explains not only the large number of non--VI cases but could explain some of the VI cases as well). The unknown phenomenon could be either an unknown atmospheric phenomenon or intelligently controlled unknown objects. Using Occam's razor, we reject the idea that the explanation could include both. All the anomalous observations listed in table 4 do not support the unknown atmospheric phenomenon hypothesis and tend to support the intelligently controlled unknown object hypothesis. However, we cannot reject either hypothesis because of the poor data quality and weak evidence in most of the cases.
In the end, each case must stand on its own. Unfortunately, all the evidence from these cases is anecdotal, most of the reports came from newspaper clippings, and few of these cases were investigated properly. While we can conclude that an explosive and mysterious UFO wave did hit the Southwest in November 1957, we are not closer to knowing what caused it and why. Nevertheless, it is very unlikely that the wave was entirely caused by ball lightning, imagination, or pure social contagion.