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STRANGE LIGHTS IN THE SKY

by Brian Clarey

THE CONFERENCE Leslie Kean takes the podium on the first day of the Symposium on Official & Scientific Investigations of UFO/UAPs at the Terrance of the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, a schmancy lecture hall wedged between the War Memorial Auditorium and the big swimming pool, dedicated to the late Fred Barakat, one of the city’s largest sports figures and father of mayoral candidate Nancy Vaughan.

“No one here thinks she’s crazy. Kean — pronounced “cane” — clad in the sort of no nonsense, business-casual attire favored by women in newsrooms across the country, put together this collection of scientists, government officials, professors and enthusiasts in just a couple months with a Burlington man named Kent Senter.

Earlier today, Senter spoke of his role in the conference from this very same podium: his first UFO sighting at age 10, another in the 1970s — a triage of bright lights in the sky over Durham, a career at Lowe’s Home Improvement and a cancer diagnosis in 2007. He doesn’t have much time left, and he wants to contribute something significant to these “unidentified aerial phenomena” that have been documented as far back as history goes.

Kean has skin in the game as well, but it’s her professional life that’s at stake here.

Kean made her living as a journalist with an impressive portfolio of investigative work for an NPR station in California and forays into print. Her thirst for documents led her to the Cometa Report in 1999, put out in France, where the government has had an official bureau for UAP investigations for more than 20 years. The Cometa Report explained that 90 percent of the French bureau’s investigations could be explained by known causes; another 5 percent of the reports were somewhat more dubiously identifiable. The last 5 percent is more provocative.

As Kean puts it, the last 5 percent were “thoroughly investigated, and enough data was gathered to eliminate conventional explanation.”

She’s careful with her words, because a serious journalist could find her credibility challenged if she started yammering about UFOs, extraterrestrials, triangles of light in the sky.

UAP has become the preferred term among serious skywatchers and investigators. Talking about UFOs makes you sound like a nut.

She wrote a piece on the report and more that ran in the Boston Globe on May 21, 2000 that used the conventional journalistic tools of documentation, interview and analysis with a professional detachment. And she waited for the backlash.

“I thought I would be ridiculed,” she says now from the podium, “but it was a long piece in a reputable newspaper.

“I was on my way.” From there she bombarded the US government, particularly the military, with document requests about the scores of UAP sightings both by military personnel and by civilians who had been directed to the military to report their sightings — in 2003, underwritten by what was then the Sci-Fi Channel, she sued NASA for documents related to a 1965 plane crash in Pensylvania known as the Kecksburg UFO Incident.

In Kecksburg, about 30 miles outside of Pittsburgh, witnesses describe a “fireball” in the sky, an acorn-shaped object landing in the woods. A 19-year-old firefighter who saw the object before the military cordoned off the area and hauled it away said it had no windows, no doors, no rivets, no welds and strange marking that he said looked like Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Kean says she never got the docs she wanted on that one, but she used the other hard evidence she gathered over the years to fuel a slew of freelance work; a book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On the Record; and produce a documentary.

One of her roles here this weekend — besides speaker and organizer and host — is that of the activist. She thinks that the US should have a department that seriously, transparently and scientifically investigates all UFO claims, whether it’s sanctioned by the government or not.

But she’s still a journalist: One of the reasons she wants this is so that she can have more material — the US government is still fairly stingy when it comes to UAP reports, FOIA be damned. And she posits that there’s only one way to make this happen: Agnosticism.

“Don’t assume ETs,” she advises the crowd of perhaps 100.

“Don’t make claims to anything, other than it’s unexplained. Use hard evidence.”

Earlier in the day, retired Maj. Gen. Wilfried DeBrouwer spoke of the evidence he gathered in the wake of a massive UFO sighting over Belgium — 2,000 of them over the four-year period between 1989 and 1993, of which 600 were investigated. In one 1989 case, three separate pairs of police officers followed on foot two triangular craft that appeared over the Eupen region, along with 140 others who reported sightings across the region that day and time.

The cops, separately, said the first object was a triangular platform “with vertical development,” three lights on the bottom so bright, one officer said, “you could read the newspaper.”

“It was magnificent,” another testified. “The experience of my life.”

Afterwards, Richard Haines, a former NASA scientist who worked on projects ranging from Gemini, Apollo and Skylab, approaches the issue from a safety standpoint.

His current organization, NARCAP,” he says, is “not a UFO organization.”

“Today I will not use those initials,” he says. “UFO is pejorative.

We have no evidence of flying saucers. Some of you think we do. I don’t.”

NARCAP, he says, “collects and analyzes UAP data to quell what he calls “an existing negative bias” in current government research.

He then presents nine cases on which he’s worked for which he’s been able to provide no explanation.

• May 3, 1975: The pilot of a Piper PA headed for Mexico City reports two saucers hovering inches above each wing while he is in flight, and a third that approaches the nose propeller from ahead, ducks beneath the plane and bumps it from beneath. Haines him- self inspects the damage to the underside of the plane.

• Aug. 13, 1976: A Piper Arrow flying through north Germany reports a craft with a yellow light that executes a double barrel roll. The tower spots the craft on radar and within minutes two hastily scrambled USAF F-4 jets give chase. The light speeds away, but the landing gear and crankshaft of the Piper are inexplicably magnetized.

•July 4, 1981: The pilot of TWA commercial Flight 842 refuses to make an official report of a “saucer” he and his crew spotted over Lake Michigan.

• Aug. 11, 2006: Flight and ground crews at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport report a metallic disc over a gate that, upon ascension through, leaves a round hole in the cloud cover that lasts 20 minutes. Tower radar picks up what looks like a flock of birds.

All of these sightings are backed up by documentation on the group’s website and some are recounted in Leslie Kean’s book. Many in the crowd know these stories, chapter and verse.

During her talk, Kean presents for the first time anywhere a report from the most recently investigated sighting, two separate cell-phone videos made in Sept. 3, 2012 by Chilean EMTs stationed at that country’s top flight school. The videos, made concurrently, do not show much in the night sky, but the men on the ground were clearly affected by the silent lights in the sky they described, five of them forming a perfect triangle between two trees on the horizon. The incident has been investigated by the Chilean government’s official UAP office; José Lay, who works for the department, is in attendance and will speak later in the day.

After Kean’s turn at the mic, during the subsequent Q&A session, someone wants to talk about the billions of dollars made by US industries after reverse-engineered technology that came from the spacemen.

She stops him right there. “If this is something going on that nobody knows about,” she says, “[then] nobody knows about it…. You’ve got to ignore whatever may be secret — we just won’t ever know…. I can’t work within realms I do not have the proper documentation for.

“It’s not effective,” she says. “It’s not a good strategy. When you want to engage the high-level world, you do not bring that stuff forward. That’s not gonna work.”

Later in the day, José Lay, who works at the Chilean government’s official UAP office, outlines his nation’s protocol for UAP and unloads documentation of four sightings dating back to 1979.

Still, he says 72 percent of Chileans believe Lay’s organization is hiding things from the public.

In this country — in most countries, actually — anyone who persists with a UAP story puts her reputation on the line.

On Nov. 5, 1975, a 22-year-old logger named Travis Walton, after spending the daylight hours clearing brush in Arizona with his crew, saw a bright light behind a hill. He drove the work truck towards it, and despite pleas from the guys, left the vehicle and approached what they all later described as a large, silvery disc.

The crew later said that a beam of blue-green light emanated from the disc, lighted on Walton, lifted him into the air and flung him back 10 feet.

The crew thought he was dead, so they took off in the truck, only to return later and find Walton — and the silvery disc — gone without a trace.

Walton surfaced five days later after an intense manhunt and police investigation; friends found him collapsed in a phone booth.

Eventually Walton told his story: He awoke upon a table, with three beings in orange jumpsuits. He described them as about 5 feet tall, no hair. “They looked like fetuses,” he said. “The creepiest thing about them were those eyes… they just stared through me.”

These are the beings known to UAP enthusiasts as “greys.” While in captivity, he reported that he sat in a chair at the center of what looked like a planetarium, with what he though were’  billions of stars projected on the ceiling’s screen. And he was kindly led to what seemed like an examination table, where he was anesthetized and then, he says, he woke up at the phone booth.

Walton’s book, The Walton Experience, which was later adapted into the feature film Fire in the Sky, was dismissed by one critic for a “lack of concern for literal accuracy that the reader cannot help but suspect is characteristic of the entire work.”

The effect on Col. Charles Halt (retired) of the US Air Force, after he made his report concerning what is now known as the Incident at RAF Bentwaters, was more palpable.

After seeing what he described as a red ball of light in a field near the US installation at the British base, Halt’s story was picked up by the sensational tabloid News of the World, cast into the mediasphere and roundly ridiculed. Halt says he later learned that his commanding officer used to play Halt’s taped testimony for laughs at cocktail parties.

FACES IN THE CROWD

After Kean’s bit, I encounter a friend in the crowd, a local entertainer who I’ve interviewed before.

The dude is pretty out there — I know he believes in a lot of fringe theories, for example he espouses the idea that the British royal family, along with a list of celebrities, CEOs and politicians, are part of a “reptilian elite” who secretly plot to enslave the human race.

He tells me he’s supportive of the approach described by Kean and Haines, that it’s the only way to get closer to the truth. But it’s not exactly what he came to hear.

“I wanna hear some more speculation from some of these guys,” he says.

Outside the Terrace, a group of three gathers during Lay’s presentation to discuss the thesis of the day.

“There’s a fine line between pragmatism and disinformation,” says one man in a black ballcap, dark jeans and plugs in the lobes of his ears.

“I don’t think [Kean]’s disinfo,” he continues, “because I don’t think she’s bright enough. [But] this is the wrong audience for her message. This is for people who don’t know anything about UFOs. She’s 65 years behind — it’s like Project Blue Book never happened.”

He declines to give me his name, but says I’m free to make up whatever one I want for him.

In the crowd there is talk of free energy, religious texts and perpetual-motion machines inspired by colored lights in the sky. One attendee, who drove here from Nevada based on a strong impulse, says an abduction cured her of cancer. A man from Maryland tells me about YouTube videos chronicling the career of Brian O’Leary, a former US astronaut who believed UFOs contained the key to free energy and others that explain how to make an engine that runs on water.

“My wife,” he says, looking off, “I don’t know if she’s into this stuff.”

Most of the people I speak to are hesitant to give me their names.

Despite the wishes of the masses, to round out the day Alexander Wendt, a political scientist who has taught at Yale, Dartmouth and the University of Chicago, makes the final case for what he calls “militant agnosticism” in the face of “UFO taboo.”

Why, he asks, “given that discovery would be one of the most important events in human history,” do governmental authorities, the scientific community and the media take a position of “official neglect” when it comes to UAP phenomenon?

“Why don’t they care to find out?” he asks. Like all professors, he comes with the answer, a brilliant case deconstructing all the arguments against UAP research and reporting, invoking advances in theoretical physics, the undeniable existence of unexplainable phenomenon witnessed by credible sources and the “metphysical threat,” which he says is the deepest one of all.

Our “anthropomorphic society,” he says, where “humans are completely and solely in charge of what happens,” crumbles upon the discovery of intelligent life from elsewhere. It “threatens the whole basis of modern state power…. The state is afraid of UFOs, not consciously but subconsciously because it calls everything in our world into question.”

“I think if the government is hiding anything about UFOs, it’s hiding its own ignorance,” he continues.

We are all ignorant, he says. Given this, the only reasonable position is agnosticism.

“We are curious,” he says. “Why not examine?” Part of the theme of the weekend is the media’s role in suppressing serious research into UAP phenomenon by using ridicule, caricature and those infernal pictures of little green men. Day 2 begins with an address by Senter, who holds up the morning’s front-page story in the Greensboro News & Record. Sure enough, the photo on the jump page is of a little green man in a jar, a slide Ley had displayed the day before that he explained was an inside joke on display in his offices.

Near the entrance to the Terrace, a security guard on duty lays her copy of the morning paper out on the table before her and espies the front page.

“I don’t want UFO stories in my newspaper,” she says.

On Saturday night in the War Memorial Auditorium, astrophysicist Jeffrey Bennett explained how, in theory, it is possible to travel between the stars. The big takeaway, according to the sound guy who worked the event, is that these “others” who may be observing us are so advanced technologically that they really have no need for us. It’s as if we were to stumble upon a Neanderthal society living in the Arctic Circle — what could we want from them other than to observe their culture firsthand without being detected?

Sunday begins with Col. Halt’s experience at AF Bentwaters, followed by a lecture from Xavier Passot, from the official French bureau for UAP investigation that has all the action and verve of a college-level statistics class. Sociologist Ron Westrum follows with an explanation of hidden events, how things like child abuse and the hole in the ozone layer existed long before they became common knowledge.

The penultimate speaker slot goes to Timothy Good, a British “UFO authority” who authors books, investigates sightings and appears on television to discuss the phenomena.

Good, a violinist who attended the Royal Academy of Music and played with the Royal Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and others, brought some of the red meat that attendees seemed to crave.

Good speaks of UFO sightings over Germany during World War II, and of a craft that landed outside of Milan examined by Benito Mussolini, the spacecraft involved in the Battle of Los Angeles in 1942 and the ones that were shot down over Alamogordo at the White Sands Missile Range in 1941.

After the craft was shot down in Roswell, NM in 1947, he says, we learned that the ETs have no opposable thumbs, that they breathe a mixture of helium and oxygen, that they came to prevent us from destroying our planet with atomic weaponry.

It was Col. Philip J. Corso, he says, who was in charge of the reverse-engineering that went on after Roswell, and he who transferred the technology of fiber-optics, lasers and circuit chips to US industry and that Nail Armstrong saw an alien spacecraft when he landed on the moon.

He says President Kennedy saw the bodies of the ETs during his presidency, and that Dwight D. Eisenhower met with living ones in 1954.

He says that some speculate that there is a species of ETs who wish to take over our planet and hybridize our species, and another humanoid race, “thousands of years ahead of us,” who are clandestinely helping us prevent that from happening.

Oddly enough, this storyline coincides roughly with the plot of The Worlds We Know, a science-fiction novel written by NC Sen. Trudy Wade while she was still on Greensboro City Council.

He says that they have bases in the seas, and that there is at least one US pilot who has flown an alien craft.

Later, after a scientific discussion of crop circles that somehow managed to drain the well documented phenomena of any romanticism (nut graf: The affected plants and soil underneath them have characteristics consistent with exposure to microwaves and other energies) the speakers gather on a dais formed by a row of armchairs behind the podium for a Q&A.

My friend the performer takes the microphone that’s been set up in the crowd and asks them straight-up if any have ever personally encountered an ET life form.

Good takes it up. He says that in 1963, while on tour with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, he saw a woman on the street who looked like she might have been one, and that when he tried to communicate to her with his thoughts she came over and gave him a deliberate curtsy.

After he runs through his description, the journalist Leslie Kean takes the last word.

If you want to get anywhere with serious UAP research, she says, “don’t start with things that are hard for people to accept.”

It’s one of the biggest barriers, she says to serious UAP research, and guys like Good aren’t helping.

“Unfortunately, [Good] did not honor his agreement with us not to present topics like extraterrestrials, alien hybrids and government conspiracies, which had no place at this scientific symposium,” she says later via e-mail. “This is exactly the kind of material we were trying to counter, and the other speakers all did that very well.”

Leslie Kean’s book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On the Record, is available at her website,ufosontherecord.com.

DVDs of all the lectures at the 2013 symposium will be available in a few weeks at cufornc.com.

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