June 8, 2019

FTV: The UFO Files


    Are there unexplained things in the Universe?  The short answer to this question would no doubt be, “Ummm, yeah!” and judging by the number of “Unexplained this” and “Paranormal that” programs that dot the airwaves, the unknown is doing a healthy business.  Toss in books, magazines, movies, and a zillion web pages devoted to the genre and one can see that people are zealously curious about the unexplained. Though I am not slavishly attracted to the topic, I will admit to watching (and reading) about mysterious happenings on a fairly regular basis.  When Harold S. Riter began recounting local ghost stories in the Ontonagon Herald early in 2019, it was fun to catch up on the local lore.  Having hung around the Ontonagon County Historical Society as a board member for more than thirty years (not to mention numerous field trips to the OCHS museum), I have previously heard many of these stories, but it is still fun to hear them again.

    One of the newer entries into this entertainment canon is the History Channel’s series Project Bluebook.  The catch here is the tagline that proclaims the stories are, “based on the work of Alan J. Hynek” who did indeed look into and report on many of the unexplained incidents that the US Armed Forces were charged with investigating.  A good deal of these UFO sightings were easily explained by eyewitnesses misinterpreting what they observed, but there were some that defied rational explanation. The problem I have with the Project Bluebook series is the “based on” part.  It seems the facts of these reports weren’t interesting enough on their own, so the series creators took artistic license to jazz them up a bit.  I stopped trying to watch the series when they put Wernher von Braun (the acknowledged father of the United States manned space program) in a scenario where he was apparently (and secretively) working on some interdimensional teleportation device.  I also couldn’t fathom why they kept bumping off witnesses in the first couple of episodes, but nevertheless, this version of Project Bluebook did not amount to ‘must watch TV’ for me.  When the X-Files were first aired, they included many snippets of truth about documented encounters, but never tried to pass of their dramatic Sci Fi series as ‘factual’.

    At times, these kinds of shows present evidence that does make one think, “Okay, I wonder what just happened here?” but there are too many times when they reach a little too far to try and create a mystery.  One of the programs I caught part of (and don’t ask me what it was called because it wasn’t worth remembering this series’s title) investigated strange noises that people have been hearing ‘all over the world’.  Most of the ‘evidence’ presented was in the form of people filming themselves with their cell phones while capturing strange ‘whooshing’ or ‘roaring’ sounds that seemed to emanate from the sky. The one mystified man reporting this phenomenon hit it the nail squarely on the head when he said it sounded like “jets ripping open the sky, but there weren’t any to be seen.”  As a lifelong member of the KISS club (as in ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’, not the band KISS in this case), I do believe that he missed the most obvious (and therefore, the simplest) explanation.

    Growing up in Marquette when the KI Sawyer Air Force Base was operating, we heard this exact sound time and time again.  As kids, we got pretty proficient at finding the aircraft making all the noise, even to the point of being able to identify them by their profile.  What we learned very early on is the sound of a jet lags far behind the actual aircraft. If you heard a loud whooshing sound, you had to look well ahead of it to see the object making the noise.  The sound travels much farther than one would think, but also slow enough that it seems to come from well behind the aircraft. Most people usually look far enough behind the actual source of the sound and they miss seeing the streaking jet.  If they were flying at the right altitude, a jet’s exhaust makes a condensation trail (‘contrail’ for short) that makes it easier to locate the source of the noise. When the man said, “It sounded like jets ripping apart the sky,” he had the ‘jet’ part right, but not the ‘ripping’ part.  

    A few days after I had seen this program, my wife and I were snowshoeing the old railroad grade at the base of the Mass City bluff when we heard what sounded like ‘jets ripping apart the sky’ several times.  We could see old contrails to our south but we never did see the actual jets that were making the noise. At no time did we feel compelled to grab out a phone to record the noise to post as an unexplained mystery.  There was no mystery. The Air National Guard detachment in Duluth routinely fly over our area on training runs and on this beautiful, sunny day, I wager they had a great view of the area even though we never saw them.  It would have been hard for anyone to miss the daily flyovers that were taking place in the Ontonagon area in the later part of April and early May of 2019. There were ‘confirmed sightings’ of the noise makers in this case and some claim they thought the jets were actually coming in for a landing on the Greenland Road.

    I can confess to only seeing one true UFO in my days and that was during one of my summers working at the Huron Mountain Club north of Big Bay.  There were plenty of reports of strange lights in the sky from some of my fellow workers who hailed from more urban areas. If one comes from an area with a lot of light pollution, the Club’s dark sky environment enables one to see things  out there that are just not as visible where there is a lot of background light. I was able to identify most of these mysterious things as satellites, Jupiter rising, northern lights, and even a full Moon poking through the trees. My only mystery encounter was much less dramatic.  One clear evening, I was standing on the front porch of the main clubhouse after work taking in the stars over Lake Superior. To the northwest I could see lights twinkling on the Keweenaw Peninsula when I noticed something unusual to the north. There was a bright light that was moving toward the Keweenaw but it would stop, go backward for a while, then change direction again, resuming its motion toward the west.  It is impossible to tell how far over the lake this object was and there was no sound to be heard. It truly was a UFO because I had no idea what it was, and in this case, I didn’t have enough information to identify what I was observing. Rationally, it could have been a helicopter or airplane flying in circles, but again, that is just speculation on my part. If cell phone had been invented, perhaps a posting of this could have been corroborated with other sightings, but it remains a mystery to this day.  Isn’t that the true definition of a UFO?

    My favorite UFO story happened the second summer I spent at Northern Michigan University’s Field Study station at Cusino Lake.  My project took me to a four by seven mile plain that used to be covered by a virgin stand of White Pine back in the 1880s. Repeated forest fires had depleted the soil in this area during and after these stands were logged, leaving a dry, sandy glacial outwash plain covered in scrub brush and some more recent pine plantations.  I was there to measure the old White Pine stumps to try and determine how much wood had been harvested from this site. There was a Biology grad student named John Snow doing a project in the same area concerning turtle reproduction. The easiest way for him to find the turtle nest sites was to go out at night and find the turtles laying eggs, mark the spot and then return in the daylight to dig up, measure, and replace the eggs.

    John asked if I wanted to go with him one night and having not seen the Kingston Plains at night, I agreed.  It was a dark, moonless night and the stars were brighter than I had ever seen given the inky black sky and no other lights in sight.  As we followed a turtle trail, John tapped me on the back and said something that sounded a little like, “Gaa gaa wha da?” Not understanding a word of what he said, I turned around to see what he was trying to tell me only to see three extremely bright lights heading toward us at what seemed to be treetop level.  The middle light was the brightest and on either side, there were two smaller lights that were bobbing up and down in unison. Yes, for a brief minute, John and I thought we were about to be abducted, that is until the lights passed over us and we heard the roaring of the jet engines. When I began to laugh, John actually got a little miffed, thinking that I was making fun of him.  “No, no, I am not laughing at you,” I said, “I am laughing because I have seen the B-52 bombers from KI Sawyer practicing low level runs over the plains for the last two weeks. We couldn’t hear the engines with the sound trailing behind the big jet. The speed of the lights and the utter silence was unnerving in the dark so it didn’t dawn on me that is what we were seeing.” During their night practice missions, they would turn the landing gear lights on so they had a way to see the tree tops.  They were flying higher than it seemed in the dark, but in the daylight, they were low enough that I could see the rivets on the underside of the planes as they roared past.

    During one of the summers that I had worked at the Huron Mountain Club, we decided to climb one of the peaks inside the club boundary near Ives Lake.  This rather broad rock outcrop had a bare summit so we thought it would be neat to see the lay of the land on a night when the Moon was full. The first thing we noticed on the moonlit mountain top were the wolves howling and answering each other from every direction of the compass.  The second thing we observed was a set of aircraft lights streaking from east to west over the valley that lay between our mountain top and the next. We knew instantly that these were also planes from KI Sawyer practicing night runs to try and stay below the radar station at Mount Horace Greely on the Keweenaw Peninsula.  We had observed them many times flying lower than our location on one peak or another in the Huron Mountains during the daylight, so we were not at all spooked by this sighting. It would have been nice to have remembered this a couple of years later when John Snow and I were spooked out on the Kingston Plains.

    In each case, my encounters with low flying jet aircraft were accompanied by ‘a roaring sound like jets ripping the sky apart’.  When I used to go to KI Sawyer for band jobs, the road from the old main gate passed through the rows of guidelights located at the end of the main runway.  Many times a bomber or tanker on landing approach would pass no more than a hundred feet over the road making my truck shake, rattle, and roll. Loud, roaring jet engines become much less mysterious if one hears them enough, especially when they pass over at low altitude.

    Are there other UFO mysteries out there?  How about the jet that was scrambled from Kincheloe Air Force base near Rudyard, Michigan in 1953 to follow a bogie spotted on radar streaking across Lake Superior in a westerly direction?  The plane and pilot disappeared without a trace. There have been some pieces of wreckage that washed up on the north shore of the Keweenaw Peninsula near Redridge in recent years that may be from that jet.  If I recall this event correctly, it was recounted in the real Air Force Project Blue Book and the investigation was eventually filed under ‘inconclusive’.  No doubt the newer Project Bluebook series would find something more sinister afoot here, but I would rather leave it a true mystery until more facts are found.  There are enough real mysteries in life that are worth investigating without fabricating some strange plot twist to make them ‘better’ stories.

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