A skyhook balloon (Wikipedia)

Up, Up and away in my beautiful UFO: Balloons and UFOs

Tim Printy October 2001 updated October 2008

Probably one of the most laughed at explanations for UFO reports is a weather balloon. It was presented that it was ridiculous for observers to misidentify such a common everyday object. It can be very easy as Alan Hendry found out. In his database of IFOs, the number one source of daylight disc UFO reports was a balloon. This agrees with USAF figures that show that balloons often result in UFO reports.

Why do people misidentify balloons? Perhaps the best way to explain this is to describe each type of balloon and how case histories demonstrate the misperceptions involved.

PILOTS AND WEATHER BALLOONS

Lighted weather balloon launch (courtesy of NOAA)

One of the original UFO classics described by Edward Ruppelt was the case of Lt. George Gorman on October 3, 1948. Gorman's aircraft, an F-51 Mustang, encountered a small light hovering over the town of Fargo, North Dakota. Gorman made the following remarks concerning the event:

After the initial peel off, I realized the speed of the object was too great to catch in a straight chase, so I proceeded to cut it off in turns. At this time my fighter was under full power. My speed varying between 300 and 400. The object circled to the left, I cut back to the right for a head-on pass. The pass was made at apparently 5000 feet, the object approaching head-on until a collision seemed inevitable. The object veered and passed apparently 500 feet or less over the top of me. I chandelled around still with the object in sight. The object made a 180 degree turn and initiated a pass at me. This time I watched it approach all the way and as it started to pull up, I pulled up abruptly trying to ram the object until straight up with me following to apparently 14,000 feet. I stalled out at 14,000 feet with the object apparently 2000 feet above me circling to the left. We made two circles to the left. The object then pulled out away from me and made another head on pass. At this time the pass started and the object broke off a large distance from me heading over Hector Airport to the Northwest at apparently 11,000 feet. I gave chase circling to the left trying to cut it off until I was 25 miles southeast of Fargo. I was at 14,000, the object at 11,000 when I again gave the aircraft full power [trying] top catch it in a diving turn. The object turned around and made another head-on pass. The time when pulling up, I pulled up also and observed it traveling straight up until I lost it. (Steiger 68-9)

When asked how large it was, Gorman remarked "It appeared to me from 6 to 8 inches in diameter" (Steiger 68). This was quite the incredible dogfight and astonished the Project Sign staff. On September 24, 1952, a navy TBM avenger had a similar encounter with a light near Cuba. The pilot's report read:

As it [the light] approached the city from the east it started a left turn. I started to intercept. During the first part of the chase the closest I got to the light was 8 to 10 miles. At this time it appeared to be as large as an SNJ and had a greenish tail that looked to be five to six times as long as the light's diameter. This tail was seen several times in the next 10 minutes in periods of from 5 to 30 seconds each. As I reached 10,000 feet it appeared to be at 15,000 feet and in a left turn. It took 40 degrees of bank to keep the nose of my plane on the light. At this time I estimated the light to be in a 10-to-l 5 mile orbit.

At 12,000 feet I stopped climbing, but the light was still climbing faster than I was. I then reversed

my turn from left to right and the light also reversed. As I was not gaining distance, I held a steady course south trying to estimate a perpendicular between the light and myself The light was moving north, so I turned north. As I turned, the light appeared to move west, then south over the base. I again tried to intercept but the light appeared to climb rapidly at a 60 degree angle. It climbed to 35,000 feet, then started a rapid descent.

Prior to this, while the light was still at approximately 15,000 feet, I deliberately placed it between the moon and myself three times to try to identify a solid body. I and my two crewmen all had a good view of the light as it passed the moon. We could see no solid body. We considered the fact that it might be an aerologist's balloon, but we did not see a silhouette. Also, we would have rapidly caught up with and passed a balloon.

During its descent, the light appeared to slow down at about 10,000 feet, at which time I made three runs on it. Two were on a 90 degree collision course, and the light traveled at tremendous speed across my bow. On the third run I was so close that the light blanked out the airfield below me. Suddenly it started a dive and I followed, losing it at 1,500 feet. (Ruppelt 44)

The following night the navy sent the same pilot up and this time with a lighted balloon. The pilot was surprised to find that his "dogfight" was duplicated and the Navy wrote a rather long report for project Bluebook on the event. Looking at this description and comparing it to the Gorman case we find similarities but it was already suspected that a lighted balloon was the cause. Ruppelt writes, "Gorman fought a lighted balloon too. An analysis of the sighting by the Air Weather Service sent to ATIC in a letter dated January 24, 1949, proved it" (Ruppelt 44). This shows that pilots can easily be fooled by a balloon at night.

Can the same thing happen during the day? Considering the speeds involved, it would not be unheard of for a misidentification based on what I have previously stated. Let's examine a recent case and see how well it matches:

We are facing an unusual situation. We see an object shaped like a cross between a cone and a disc, with support legs, extremely luminous and high speed...The object is now coming closer to my wings, now its behind us, Ill get it in front of myself, now its in front of us, hey this is certainly going for a dog fight with us. (Konac)

The pilot involved was flying a T-37 trainer jet flying roughly 300-400 mph on 6 August 2001 over Turkey. Several UFOlogists wanted to give the impression that the object maneuvered around the plane but the plane seems to have maneuvered towards the object. Note that the pilot stated he was trying to get the object in front of his plane. The statements above (which is all there really was to the report) show the pilot flying by the object and then turning around to get it if front of his plane. He then remarked that he had a dogfight on his hands. According to the report this kind of back and forth flying lasted roughly 30 minutes and the object then left at a high rate of speed. Considering the report by Gorman and the Navy pilot, it is not hard to see how this could have been a balloon of some kind. The Turkish Air Force even proposed such an explanation but the weather service denied they had any balloon in the area. This does not mean that the balloon could not have come from another source, such as some helium filled child's balloon with an odd shape. This is just one possible source. A plane flying at several hundred miles per hour around a relatively stationary object that is disturbed by every pass could give an odd impression to a pilot especially if this object is small. The previous case histories indicate that the balloon hypothesis has merit despite the impression that UFOlogists want to give about the case.

THE RESEARCH BALLOON

Research balloons fly extremely high and often display some unique characteristics when viewed from the ground. According to Hendry:

...due to reflected sunlight, resulting in descriptions like "line segment" and "angel with gown and wings" (seen through binoculars) and an "oval with lights on its corners...Nothing particularly fancy was observed about the motion of these large research balloons. They either remained stationary or proceeded very slowly, since they were propelled entirely by the wind. They can be seen to move, stop, and move again (or descend, stop, descend); they are reported to "wobble" very slowly, depending on "tricks of reflected sunlight. The balloon can even appear to rotate. In one case a balloon was perceived to rock back and forth and another time to move randomly in and out of clouds. (Hendry 57-59)

Probably one of the most famous of the research balloon cases was that of pilot Thomas Mantell on January 7, 1948. That afternoon, reports of a UFO began to come in for the state of Ohio. The UFO took on the following descriptions:

"Object appeared like 'ice-cream cone toped with red'--apparently white with red above."

"Like tear-drop--round; later, object seemed fluid."

"Round--at times cone shaped"

"It was every white and looked like an umbrella"(Klass 37)

Four P-51 fighters happened to be on a ferry mission from Georgia about this time and it's flight commander, Captain Thomas Mantell, was asked to investigate. Mantell saw the UFO and reported,

I have an object in sight above and ahead of me and it appears to be moving at about half my speed...It appears to be a metallic object or possibly reflection of sun from a metallic object and it is of tremendous size...directly ahead of me and slightly above...I am trying to close for a better look. (Klass 37)

Mantell pursued the UFO to a high altitude. Unfortunately, Mantell did not have any oxygen for the altitudes he was attempting to reach. He passed out and then plummeted to his death. For many years the Mantell case was considered the planet Venus but Ed Ruppelt, the original head of Project Bluebook, was able to determine the actual cause, a Project Skyhook balloon. Despite this being published in the 1950's, Richard Hall's UFOs: The Best Evidence, published in the 1960s, still included this case as unsolved. Even more amazing is that some UFO databases continue to post this case as unidentified and other UFOlogists claim that the UFO attacked Mantell. The reason they do not buy the Skyhook explanation is they felt that Mantell would never have gone so high without oxygen. Numerous pilots have met their fate in the sky because of errors of this type. Mantell died due to his lack of using oxygen in an effort to pursue a high altitude spy/research balloon.

Skyhook was just the start of high altitude research/spy balloons parading as UFOs. There are other cases. Most recently, in March of 2001, a series of UFO reports came out of Bolivia. One of the witnesses on the ground stated "It was like a diamond" (El Diario). A T-33 jet was scrambled to chase the UFO and identify it. It reached an altitude of 42,000 feet and still could not catch the UFO. The pilot stated, "It was a brilliant, metallic-colored sphere, but we could not determine what type of object it was..." (Diario La Prensa). The source was eventually identified to be a research balloon called MIR-3 (MIR stands for Montgolfiere Infra Rouge). It had been launched in February and had been circumnavigating the earth every 17 days. It was interesting how the initial news reports discounted the idea of a balloon for reasons like, "...its speed and altitude do not lend credence to this hypothesis" (Diario La Prensa). Obviously, this statement was made without adequate research.

THE FIRE/PRANK BALLOON

A "wedding lantern" fire balloon produced a lot of UFO reports in the UK in the last decade (Courtesy of the Wedding lanterns company)

Hendry's describes these types of IFOs:

Descriptions of shape were usually confined to "orange point," "dome," "orange sparks," "red, round," "football shaped," etc....The most common symptom of the prank balloon is the dropping of candle wax from its base coupled with the eventual burn-out of the balloon itself...As you can imagine, this is an extremely difficult IFO to pin down. Only once did I ever have the luck of finding out exactly who launched one and then only because the police caught him. (Hendry 47)

In the spring of 1966, three science students from Pasadena's California Institute of Technology, launched balloons with flares in order to perform a "gullibility experiment". The flares had small fins, which would rotate the flares as the wind blew.

Eyewitnesses reported red, white, and blue (or orange, red and green) lights moving at "fantastic speed." Others detected a strong odor of perfume as the UFOs moved overhead. One woman saw "four glowing fireballs arranged in a cube," While another insisted that she had seen a light plane shoot down one of the strange things. (Gullibility 70)

The students were finally caught and proclaimed:

We succeeded beyond our wildest hopes...We suckered everybody. We could have made the balloons do fantastic things-like zip across the sky-but we preferred to keep the experiment simple. (Gullibility 70)

Case number 18 of the Condon report involved another such experiment in the spring of 1967. In this case the students came forward to tell the study about their hijinks. The event lasted 20-25 minutes. All witnesses were in an area within a mile of the launch site. Several gave the impressions Hendry noted in his book. Some of the descriptions were:

...object first seen at an elevation of 45o in the east; began moving north, receded toward the east and faded out.

...object stopped, light varied and seemed to fizzle out, sparks dropped and light disappeared. 

...object was first seen slightly south of west and moving slowly eastward toward observers.

Object came nearly overhead, dimmed, brightened, emitted sparks and went out."

They then seemed to move north, shifting from the triangle to a vertical line formation and rising.

Objects first observed in northwest, then began to move southeast and shift from triangle to straight line formation. Movement continued till objects were approximately overhead and seemed to stop. Then one went south and went out, one north and went out, and one west and went out.

One moved to the southeast and disappeared in haze. One stayed overhead, then flickered, moved west, and blinked out. One arched away to the east and disappeared.

...three yellow-orange lights in a rough line formation. Appeared as dull glowing objects with haze around them. Observer thought they were small and low.

..two bright lights seen through the curtains of observers apartment. From outside, they looked like blimps with fire at one end, and were one-quarter to one-half the apparent size of full moon. A third similar object appeared shortly after the first two. (Condon 301-303)

With the two case histories above, let's examine another case. Here is one witness description:

The Lights were arrayed in a series of triangular forms, but I only counted 13 or 14 lights. I say 13 or 14 because I was so taken by them that I didn't want to take my eyes off of them to count them twice. The entire group of lights was moving from right to left (east) and totally in unison. As they were moving, a light would "drop" a "new" light from it (less intense than itself) and the "new" light would fade away. Immediately after that, the light that just "dropped" the new light would also fade out. This happened about five times as the collection of lights continued to move. (Filer)

Another witness stated, "As I watched them coming overhead, some were burning out and breaking into pieces. Three were left burning..." (Grey). Does this sound familiar? This happened on July 14/15, 2001 at Carteret, New Jersey and was widely seen by witnesses within about a ten-mile radius of Carteret. Most of the witnesses were lined up in a Northwest to Southeast direction. Several reported the "spark" effect of lights falling off and then the parent light disappearing. Others declared formation flying of the lights (some consider them connected and others described them as individual lights). A video of the lights shows a gradual drift from right to left, which, if it was shot in a southerly direction, agrees with most of the witnesses descriptions of a East to Southeast drift. What were the winds that night? Winds at Sandy Hook and Bergen Point indicate the direction the wind was blowing from was between 300 and 325 degrees. This is roughly from the Northwest to southeast indicating that the lights meet the condition for being wind propelled. What was a clincher was the following article that appeared in the Courier News of July 18, 2001:

The mystery of the flickering lights seen by scores of people over the borough early Sunday has yet to be cracked. But what some observers described as an unidentified flying object wasn't that mysterious to J.C. Guskind.

Guskind is a driver for B&L Towing in Carteret and a volunteer firefighter in Clark. About 12:20 a.m. Sunday, he saw some strange lights, too, floating up from the back yard of a home opposite the Rising Star Diner on Roosevelt Avenue. (Serrano)

Important to note is the location he describes. This is northwest of the Exit 12 interchange where the western most witnesses were located. If Guskind is correct, he has seen the launching of the prank balloons and they drifted east-southeast. Witnesses on Staten Island (to the ESE) were the last to see the lights as they faded out. Most of them describe the lights being over Carteret or to the west of their location when they disappeared. All of these point exactly to the "prank balloon" hypothesis. For some reason, Investigators when faced with a lot of publicity decided to declare this event as "unexplained". The National UFO reporting center two months later was posting the following about the case, "In our opinions, the incident still defies explanation by any conventional cause" (NUFORC). At the time of this writing in late October 2001, I still have yet to see any of these investigative groups produce a flight path or estimated altitudes for the lights. It seems that these investigations are more geared to confusing the situation than trying to solve a case.

However, it was not that "unexplainable" to the local police chief, who commented, "I think we're going to see that it was all a hoax. . . .Someone set something up..." (Grey). At least the police can recognize what they saw that night. Unfortunately, the prankster(s) have not been caught but this reflects Hendry's experience in tracking down these kinds of IFOs. The most likely cause for the Carteret lights, based on previous case histories and the reports by a majority of the witnesses, were these prank balloons.

CONCLUSION

With all these different misidentifications, it is not hard to understand how balloons can be mistaken for UFOs. While I discussed the three different major sources, there are others. Hot air balloons and Blimps could generate such reports. During my naval career, I remember one incident where I was jogging some sailors prior to dawn. Suddenly, a bright object began to rise above the trees. Immediately one of my men exclaimed that it was a UFO. I was as surprised as he was when it appeared but then I looked a bit closer. The UFO had the words "FUJI" emblazoned on the side. This was the FUJI blimp rising from the nearby local airport. It was close enough for identification but I am not so sure that it would have been as easy if the distance was much farther away.

Balloons, like stars, planes, meteors, etc. can and do generate UFO reports. Unfortunately, it seems that UFO investigators rarely appreciate balloons as a source. For a UFOlogist to state a UFO report was caused by a balloon is almost the same as saying Venus was the cause. This explanation often generates ridicule from UFOlogists and they will point out that witnesses could never have misperceived such a mundane event.

Works Cited

Condon, Edward U., et al., eds. Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects. New York: Bantam, 1968.

Filer, George A. "New Jersey Multiple Lights." Filer's Files #29 15 July 2001 Online. Available WWW: http://www.filersfiles.com/

Grey, Alicia. "An Enigma Shines Light On Carteret." New Jersey Star-Ledger 18 July 2001.

Hendry, Allan. The UFO Investigators Handbook. London: Sphere Books Ltd. 1980.

Klass, Philip. UFOS Explained. New York: Random House, 1974.

Konac, Hakan, "Turkish Pilots and UFOs." 15 August 2001. Online Posting UFO Updates. Available WWW: http://www.ufomind.com/ufo/updates/2001/aug/m15-013.shtml

National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC) "Recent Activity and Highlights" Online. Available WWW: http://www.msatech.com/nuforc/index.html

Ruppelt, Edward. The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects. New York: Doubleday 1956.

Serrano, Ken. "Mysterious lights bring cries of UFO." Courier News 18 July 2001.

Steiger, Brad. Project Bluebook. New York: Ballantine 1976.

"Object seen between Cochabamba and La Paz: air force jet chases UFO for 30 minutes. " Diario La Prensa. 27 March 2001

"Aircraft tried to reach UFO." El Diario. 27 March 2001

"The Gullibility Experiment." Time 8 April 1966: 70

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