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Dec. 26, 1999

Local eyewitness joins scientific call
to reopen national UFO review

30 years after Project Blue Book, is it time to look again?

By Billy Cox
FLORIDA TODAY

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 commodities.

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 collection."

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 strangeness."

Experience high strangeness

Coleman 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 had vanished.

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 database

Coleman 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 challenges

This 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 NASA.

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 international study.

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 personally?"

Public record examined

Significantly, 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 go."

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 Roswell?"

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' issue

Thus, 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."

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