In the new year, the History Channel has gone retro. Tuesday saw the much-anticipated debut of the cable station’s Project Blue Book drama series, loosely based on the U.S. Air Force program of the same name, which investigated reports of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) from 1952 until 1970.
I say “loosely” based because, despite looking at a different, “real” aspect of ufology in each episode (as revealed at New York Comic this past year), Project Blue Book employs heavy use of artistic license, introducing “Men in Black” where they were never reported, and otherwise wildly embellishing cases. The show also shifts the relationship between scientific consultant, astronomer J. Allen Hynek, and program director, Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, to a more polar, adversarial one, even changing Ruppelt’s name to Michael Quinn.
History Channel plays the name game again in the debut episode, The Fuller Dogfight, which is a reference to one of the first major “credible” cases investigated by the Air Force. Called the “Gorman dogfight” in UFO circles, the incident took place a little over a year after “flying saucer” mania began to grip the nation.
George Gorman was already a veteran at 25 years old, having flown fighters in World War II. He was managing a construction company in 1948, but was also a member of the North Dakota National Guard. On the night of October 1, as a cross-country flight with other National Guard pilots concluded, Gorman decided to log some more night-flying time in his P-51 Mustang. Besides observing a small Piper Cub below him, the sky appeared to be clear.
That is, until he noticed a blinking light with no obvious form, unlike the Piper Cub. Air traffic control notified Gorman that there should be no other craft nearby, so he decided to engage the “ball of light,” as he described it. Even at 400 mph, Gorman couldn’t catch the UFO, and aerial combat maneuvers also proved ineffective, as it seemed like the light turned the tables and tried to ram him on more than one occasion.
After 20 minutes of following the object’s impossible moves, including a 180° turn and a steep vertical climb that led to the fighter plane stalling, the light again rose up and out of sight, at which point Gorman quit the pursuit. The pilot of the Piper Cub had also seen the light, as did air traffic control. Investigators from Project Sign, the precursor to Blue Book, ruled out other aircraft and weather balloons as possible culprits, and stated unusually high Geiger-counter readings of Gorman’s plane showed he had encountered an “atomic-powered” object.
Was that a hasty conclusion, though? Planes traveling at high altitudes, as Gorman’s did that night, are naturally exposed to higher amounts of cosmic radiation, due to the thinner atmosphere. The difference is so great that pilots who frequently fly at those heights can be at higher risk for certain types of cancer. More damning is the fact that the federal Air Weather Service had released a lighted weather balloon that night, and the wind at the time should have brought it right around where Gorman had his encounter.
But balloons can’t pull those maneuvers! Well, realistically, nothing can. Where were the sonic booms to accompany these great accelerations? How could the small object make such rapid direction changes without being broken apart? What about the other witnesses? Well, as it turns out, neither the Piper Cub pilot nor air traffic control saw all the same crazy movements Gorman had.
And it’s surprisingly easy for even battle-hardened pilots to get confused about point light sources — especially at night, in an otherwise empty sky, with no frame of reference. Later, more thorough Project Sign investigations concluded the apparent rapid accelerations of the object were caused by Gorman’s own maneuvers — illusions of perception — which Ruppelt himself would come to agree with.
A similar thing (more tragically) had actually occurred earlier that same year. Kentucky Air National Guard Captain Thomas Mantell was ordered to pursue a UFO at high altitude, but disregarded later warnings to level off, passing out due to lack of oxygen and dying in the subsequent crash. An astronomer observed a balloon matching the UFO’s description, one that also lined up with the appearance of a then-top-secret Skyhook atomspheric research balloon, though the launch of a Skyhook that night was never officially confirmed.
Still, is it more likely these competent men fell victim to tricks of perception that affect all of us, or that they witnessed alien spaceships defying all laws of physics, while balloons also just happened to be in the same areas? A lack of smoking guns doesn’t change the overwhelming probabilities.
Special thanks to Curt Collins for his assistance with this article.