Air Force pilots flying over the Canadian Rockies spot a brilliant orb flickering just above the clouds.
An Army helicopter's instrument panel goes haywire after it is buzzed by a bizarre, cylinder-shaped craft.
To date none of these incidents has drawn the attention of government-funded scientists.
A conspiracy is afoot in the halls of our most august scientific institutions. It has infected the chambers of our legislative bodies and impoverished the very public discourse that is freedom's flesh and blood.
We are talking, of course, about the U.S. Congress' mysterious refusal to fund the scientific study of UFOs.
"There's a great way of doing it. Congress says that it is done, and it is done. It would be easy. Congress could do it in an afternoon. It isn't a big deal," explains Dr. Peter Sturrock, Stanford professor of astrophysics and enemy No. 1 of the UFO cover-up conspiracy.
Sturrock has, for the past 25 years, campaigned to advance the fringes of science into areas his more sober colleagues consider flimflammery. His homespun "scientific journal," The Journal of Scientific Exploration, addresses questions such as whether groups of baby chicks can, through psychokinesis, influence the movements of a small, randomly operated robot; whether ghosts really exist; and, of course: whither UFOs?
Until recently, Sturrock's efforts had produced the journalistic equivalent of flint corn -- a National Enquirer article here, a few quotes in a newspaper story on UFOs there. But this summer, he reaped a bumper crop.
By rounding up friends and acquaintances in the UFO community, along with a group of nine scientists, some of whom are known for their interest in unexplained phenomena -- then distributing a press release saying that the whole lot of them believe UFOs deserve "further study" -- Sturrock achieved perhaps the greatest media coup UFOlogy has ever known.
Stories in the Washington Post, Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle, on ABC News -- and in pretty much every other news outlet in the country -- declared that an "independent scientific panel" had called for astronomers, physicists, geologists, and other scientists to conduct serious research into UFO sightings.
Seeing as how serious research is what we do here at SF Weekly, we high-tailed it down to Sturrock's Stanford office to see how we might help out. To our astonishment, someone from the Sacramento Statehouse had beat us to the punch.
"Oddly enough I had a call from a representative of the California Legislature, who said a number of members of the California Legislature are very interested in this area and requested a copy of this report," Dr. Sturrock told us. "So obviously there was a sense there that it would be good for some serious investigation to go on. They just had a feeling that, 'Here's an area of pubic interest, and it might be good that a group that was responsible to the public would respond to it.' "
Unfortunately, Sturrock stumbled over the minor detail of the legislator's name: "I forget. I forget. I don't know his name. I forget."
Undaunted by the possibility that this nameless bureaucratic interloper might steal our thunder, we pressed ahead.
We discovered that Sturrock, leader of the Stanford physics department's Solar Theory Group, is a pink-faced Brit given to confusing bouts of animated nervous laughter. He is both well-mannered, as the British tend to be; and contemptuous of the unconverted, as committed UFO buffs tend to be. He says his quarter-century of experience as a UFO advocate has convinced him that most of academia is unfaithful to what he considers the underlying principles of science: curiosity, open-mindedness, and willingness to review hard evidence.
Sturrock acknowledges UFO hunting can be frustrating -- what with all the liars, hoaxers, and delusional wackos out there. But if the things people report seeing aren't guests from another planet, perhaps they represent previously unknown natural phenomenon, he argues. So wouldn't investigating them further the cause of all science? Furthermore, many UFO witnesses claim to have been injured by alien visitors, so UFOs could become the public health issue of the 2000s.
As a guide for further scientific UFO inquiry, Sturrock recommended we read his 50-page panel report -- the one that got the attention of those sharpies at the Post, Chronicle, et al. It consists of a dozen or so of the most compelling UFO sightings of the past three decades, chosen from tens of thousands of reported UFO "events" dating from the 1950s. In fact, the list was so carefully and scientifically parsed that the famous Roswell Incident didn't even make the cut.
"There's a very, very careful discussion of a photograph," Sturrock said, giving us a hint of the treasures to be found within. "And it turns out that the witness had not seen the object when she took the photograph. You know, it happens. There are a number of reports like that."
Thus enticed, we turned straight to aforementioned juicy bit, a color photograph of a mountain with a speck hovering to its side, accompanied by 17 pages of analysis by a certain Richard Haines -- who, it turns out, is a legend in the UFOlogy field. His monthslong study of the photograph is an example of the sort of UFO science Sturrock would like to see academia spend more time on.
"I scheduled my investigation exactly two years after the photograph was taken, so the weather would be the same, and the light would be the same," explains Haines, who is a research psychologist at NASA Ames Research Center. "I had the woman who took the photograph bring the same camera, and I asked her to re-construct the original event very accurately. I timed it, and we took measurements. My father, who accompanied me, is a civil engineer, so we surveyed the area, and based on a land survey, we learned the distance to the top of the mountain. We spent time driving the back roads in that area, looking for bases, underground facilities, and talking to natives, to see if they'd seen anything -- which is all standard procedure that you do. Then I started to get serious about the photograph itself."
Haines created graphs titled "Modulation Transfer Curve: Kodacolor II Film" and "Spectral Sensitivity Curves: Yellow forming layer." He considered various hypotheses, including the possibility that the Frisbee-like object in the photo could have been -- a Frisbee.
"I asked the woman's husband, I said, 'Dave' -- that's his name, Dave -- I said, 'Dave, do you own a Frisbee?' He said, 'Yes, I do.' He didn't hesitate, he just said, 'Yes, I do,' " Haines recalls.
Dave's credibility thus established, Haines conducted a series of Frisbee experiments to prove Dave and his wife weren't hoaxers.
"One of the experiments was very revealing. I found a Frisbee with the right diameter, and I glued a smooth plastic dome on top of it and spray painted it orange. As it turns out, panty hose come in a plastic egg, and the size ratio on these panty hose egg halves and the Frisbee was the same as the size ratio in the photo. So I created my own UFO so to speak. But when I glued that dome on the Frisbee, it couldn't fly anymore!"
Impressed, we moved on to another of Sturrock's case studies, in which a helicopter pilot watched his compass go haywire, his craft suddenly change altitude, and his radio go dead just as he thought he saw a UFO.
We called Phillip Klass, who comes at UFOlogy from the other side of the fence with his Skeptics UFO Newsletter, published out of Washington, D.C. Klass had spent several months looking at the helicopter case, and according to him, the compass had been malfunctioning for weeks, the "dead radio" was likely an unresponsive air traffic controller, and the helicopter's manufacturer said the craft could have changed altitude if the pilot leaned back on the controls straining for a better look at the "UFO."
"At Sturrock's recent panel meeting, the people who presented his cases were pro-UFO. He didn't invite any experienced skeptical investigators like myself to offer his panel these prosaic alternative explanations," Klass, an aerospace technology writer, complains.
Sturrock himself has done very few UFO investigations, and hasn't enjoyed those he's done: "The thing I remember most is driving out on Route 80 to meet an investigator for a case, and there was a car driving 70 miles per hour the wrong way on that freeway. After that, ha, ha, ha, ha, -- everything else was, uh, ho-hum. That car crashed and killed someone a few miles down the road."
SF Weekly: "What about the UFO?"
Sturrock: "Well, they said the TV was misbehaving, and they thought there was something on the antenna, and then they saw a big thing in the sky. There was no physical evidence, except that it was the fall, and a fruit tree came into bloom, and that's a very odd thing. You find these funny little facts are being produced, and there's no way to make any sense of them."
We did a little UFO investigating of our own -- strangely, something other newspapers had neglected -- and learned that Sturrock's scientific panel was moderated by Harold E. Puthoff, a noted parapsychology buff. The panel itself was financed by Laurance Rockefeller, who has also spent part of his fortune funding research into alien abduction.
So why did America's media swallow Sturrock's exaggerated claim that independent scientists wish more of their peers were out studying UFOs?
We here at SF Weekly Labs can't be sure, but we think we saw a flickering flavo-orb hovering over the San Francisco Chronicle building the day before that paper ran an editorial taking up Sturrock's plea for more UFO science. Our sources also say the grass was mysteriously flattened around the Washington Post building that night, and that a silvery, cylindrical craft was seen hovering near the ABC building in New York.
Did you hear that, astronomers? Geologists? Physicists? Tallyho!