Dec. 26, 1999
Local eyewitness joins scientific call30 years after Project Blue Book, is it time to look
to reopen national UFO
By Billy Cox
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - It was supposed to have been over and done
with 30 years ago. Lost between the triumph of Apollo 11 and the tragedy
of Vietnam, the U.S. Air Force quietly terminated Project Blue Book, its
controversial study of unidentified flying objects, on Dec. 17, 1969.
For the rest of the world, closure is more elusive. Three decades
later, global sightings persist, public belief in UFO visitations hovers
at 50 percent in America, and space aliens are ubiquitous commercial
And this year, two panels of scientists on opposite sides of the
Atlantic Ocean called for a re-evaluation of the phenomenon.
"If that's what they want to do, I think that's wonderful," says
Indian Harbour Beach resident William Coleman. "And I'd hope they'd look
to the future instead of rehashing the past and kicking the Air Force.
It's time we moved on."
Nothing rankles the 75-year-old Coleman like critics, or so-called
ufologists, who denigrate the integrity of one of his most unique
assignments. Retired colonel, veteran of 155 combat missions, seven
shrapnel fragments still lodged in his left hand, Coleman was the USAF's
chief information officer in the early 1970s. But it was his work from
1961 to 1964, when he was public liaison for Project Blue Book, that
continues to energize its detractors.
"The intent of Blue Book was information and issue management,
nothing more," declares Maryland-based political lobbyist Stephen
Bassett. "It was window dressing to take the pressure off the real data
When Blue Book killed the lights and locked the doors 30 Decembers
ago, it marked the unsatisfying end of perhaps the most curious public
investigation ever conducted by a government entity. Known variously as
Project Sign and Project Grudge, Blue Book sprang up in 1948 to address
mass sightings of "flying saucers," a term that entered the vocabulary
the year before.
For the next 21 years, Blue Book harvested and analyzed thousands of
eyewitness accounts, photos, radar-visual reports, soil and chemical
data. After reviewing 12,783 cases, analysts regarded 701 as unknowns.
Of those, says Coleman, "Just over a hundred were what we'd consider
worrisome, or suggestive of a technology we don't know about. High
Experience high strangenessColeman knew a thing or two about
high strangeness. In 1955, long before he joined the Blue Book team, he
and a crew of four got an eyeful of it.
En route from Miami International Airport to Greenville (Miss.) Air
Force Base in a clunky old B-25, Coleman engaged in an 11-minute game of
cat-and-mouse with a UFO over North Florida/South Alabama. The crew
spotted the bright silver disk glinting in the sun, then gave chase
after failing to establish radio contact. Coleman closed in from the
rear, swerved to avoid a collision, then leveled out to discover the UFO
Coleman climbed back to 2,000 feet, then saw the UFO scudding along
the rural deck, casting a round shadow from maybe 100 feet above plowed
fields. He fell in behind it, banked away to begin a flanking maneuver,
and when he veered back to cut it off, the disk was gone. "All you could
see were these two funnels of dust that showed where he'd gone right
down the middle of the field," he recalls. "It was nowhere in sight."
Some 45 to 50 minutes later, as the bomber began its descent into
Greenville, the UFO re-appeared. "It looked the same as we first saw it,
about 2 o'clock high, going across our flight path." This time, Coleman
decided not to play.
The next day, Coleman gathered the five eyewitness reports, including
his own, and forwarded them to Project Blue Book. Several years later,
when he attempted to review his report, he couldn't find it in the Blue
Book files. "I thought this was a pretty good case, because we had five
credible eyewitness accounts cross-referencing the same event," he says.
A hidden databaseColeman attributes the missing file to
bureaucratic mismanagement, but critics contend the account probably
went into a parallel database hidden from the public. Most often cited
is the so-called "Bolender memo," issued in 1969 by U.S. Air Force
Deputy Chief of Staff for Research and Development Brig. Gen. Carroll
Bolender, who recommended terminating the public study because
regulations dealing with UFOS had long been in place:
"Reports of unidentified flying objects which could affect national
security are made in accordance with JANAP 146 or Air Force Manual
55-11, and are not part of the Blue Book system."
"There's nothing mysterious about it, the manual is a common
publication," Coleman says. "NORAD (North American Air Defense Command)
tracked UFOs all the time. Everything that comes over the horizon that
we haven't identified is a UFO -- satellites, missiles, you name it. Of
course we're interested. Our job is air defense. Of course we'd keep
collecting as much data on foreign technology as we could. We just
didn't do it through Project Blue Book any longer."
Coleman concedes foreign technology is a broad term.
"Well, conceivably, that could include technology developed
terrestrially or extraterrestrially," Coleman says. But he's quick to
add he has no personal knowledge of ET technology.
The U.S. Air Force beat a hasty retreat out of the official UFO
business following an independent evaluation of its work by the
University of Colorado. Headed by physicist Edward Condon, the two-year
Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects drew three conclusions:
1) UFOs didn't represent a technology beyond the 1969 level of
understanding; 2) they didn't threaten national security; and 3)
continued study of the phenomenon probably wouldn't contribute anything
to modern science.
New challengesThis year, however, two scientific organizations
have published reports that rigorously challenge those assertions.
One, UFOs and Defense: What Must We Be Prepared For? is a
90-page look at international incidents compiled by the French Institute
of Higher Studies for National Defense. Among its signatories are former
institute director Gen. Bernard Norlain, as well as Andre Lebeau, former
head of the National Center for Space Studies, the French equivalent of
After evaluating more than 3,000 UFO cases, many of them with
propulsion, energy and defense implications, French experts advocate,
among other things, American participation in a coordinated
The other study took a swipe at the Condon project. Led by Society
for Scientific Exploration founder Peter Sturrock and underwritten by
billionaire Laurance Rockefeller, the UFO Enigma report by a
multidisciplinary committee of scientists contends Condon's dismissive
conclusions "bear little relation to the work, analyses and summaries of
his own staff."
Sturrock, emeritus director of the Center for Space Science and
Astrophysics at Stanford University, is reluctant to portray Condon as
the pawn of a conspiracy.
"He was a very independent character," Sturrock says. "My guess is,
he thought this was a nonsensical task, and he was going to make the
best of it. As to whether he was under any pressure, who knows? It's
clear that the Air Force was happy with his report."
"That's because this UFO business was like fleas on an elephant,"
responds Coleman. "This was the Cold War. We had a lot more things to
think about than UFOs. Do you realize my office was getting 9,000
letters a month? Do you know that I answered each one of them
Public record examinedSignificantly, Sturrock says his
committee members stuck exclusively to reviewing UFO cases in the public
domain. For one thing, he says those cases alone should be astonishing
enough to warrant coordinated studies of more contemporary incidents.
For another, Sturrock says the UFO field is controversial enough without
venturing into the classified margins.
"This is obviously a very complex area," he says. "There are people
who are looking into government files, but I'm not interested in
conducting Freedom of Information searches. That's not where I want to
For that reason, UFO investigators such as Stan Friedman argue that
Sturrock's report -- not to mention Blue Book -- is irrelevant. "C'mon,"
says Friedman, an American nuclear physicist living in Canada. "How
seriously can you take these "studies' if they don't even mention
Friedman was the first to revisit the now-legendary crash of an
alleged flying saucer outside Roswell, N.M., in 1947. Buried for more
than 30 years before Friedman began interviewing witnesses in 1978, the
Roswell Incident -- reputed to involve recovered debris and alien bodies
-- blazed through American pop culture in the '90s on a whirlwind of
books, movies and TV shows.
Roswell, in fact, ensured Project Blue Book wouldn't be the U.S. Air
Force's last word on UFOs. After telling the press in 1947 that military
field investigators had mistaken a common weather balloon for a flying
saucer, Air Force officials changed their story half a century later.
Responding to congressional pressure, the Air Force informed the
General Accounting Office the common weather balloon actually was a
classified weather balloon sniffing the atmosphere for nuclear fallout.
Unable to produce balloon-recovery records for the General Accounting
Office, the Air Force went on to attribute alien body stories to
mistaken identities of crash-test dummies.
UFO's 'political' issueThus, the UFO phenomenon rolls on, from
continued sightings and videotapes (Mexico City, Gulf Breeze, Phoenix,
Belgium, etc.) to litigation (National Security Agency survives a UFO
disclosure battle in the 1982 Supreme Court) to the Roswell anniversary
party/Heaven's Gate suicides of 1997.
"This is a political issue now," insists Stephen Bassett, who founded
the Extraterrestrial Phenomena Political Action Committee in 1996 to
re-open congressional hearings. "Until people understand that, all our
scientific efforts will go for naught."
Meanwhile, back in Indian Harbour Beach, the man on the front lines
of Project Blue Book remains stubbornly neutral on the controversy. Even
when it comes to venturing an opinion about whether his own missing file
reflected an encounter with advanced technology.
"I made a stupid remark on "Merv Griffin' one time," says Coleman.
"He said, "You do believe in them, don't you?' And I said, "Well, I'm
one of these guys who's got to kick the tires first.' Next thing I know,
I'm getting all these upset letters from people saying things like,
"Don't you know UFOs don't have tires?' "
Coleman rolls his eyes.
"So I've got to watch what I say."