The History Channel Mangles Project Blue Book, Mixing Fact with Fiction

Robert Sheaffer

On January 8, 2019, the much-awaited Project Blue Book premiered on the History television channel, which once actually showed history. It was expected to be both sensationalized and poorly acted. Those things it was. Where it exceeded expectations, however, was in the degree to which it distorted the facts of what was, in fact, a historical incident, freely mixing sensational but fictional elements with a classic UFO incident. Public discussions of this case will now be hopelessly polluted by the made-up elements that many people will now firmly believe are part of the actual story.

The first episode is titled “The Fuller Dogfight,” an obvious reference to the “classic” UFO case of the Gorman dogfight of 1948. (In fact, statements made at the end of the program confirm this.) This refers to a famous case in the Blue Book files occurring near Fargo, North Dakota, in which an experienced World War II pilot reported what seemed like a dogfight with a lighted object. Serious UFOlogists generally accept that the pilot, George Gorman, though an experienced combat pilot, became disoriented while attempting to approach a lighted object at night and reported it as performing impossible feats. The object was apparently a lighted weather balloon that had been recently launched in that area. Some will argue that it is not plausible for an experienced pilot to become so disoriented and imagine or misinterpret a slowly moving object as making incredible maneuvers. They forget that J. Allen Hynek, Project Blue Book’s astronomical consultant, wrote, “Surprisingly, commercial and military pilots appear to make relatively poor witnesses” (The Hynek UFO Report, 1977, p. 271).

J. Allen Hynek (left) and Philip J. Klass

 

This ought to bring into mind another classic UFO case, this one tragic: the death of the young pilot Frederick Valentich in Australia in 1978. His attention fixed on some unidentified object—very likely Venus—that he believed was orbiting his position, Valentich apparently became disoriented, fell into a “graveyard spiral,” and crashed into the ocean (see “The Valentich Disappearance: Another UFO Cold Case Solved,” by James McGaha and Joe Nickell, Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 2013). A chilling video from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, 178 Seconds to Live, warns about the dangers of pilots becoming disoriented when flying at night or in times of poor visibility (https://bit.ly/2WctyN2). It is relevant to investigations of both the Gorman and Valentich cases (and probably to the crash killing JFK Jr. as well).

Here is a short list of falsehoods shown or implied in “The Fuller Dogfight” episode:

  • Gorman shot at the object.
  • Gorman was sent to the infirmary for an extended period of time with psychological problems.
  • Gorman collided with the object, which damaged his plane.
  • The UFO took control of Gorman’s plane.
  • Gorman somehow anomalously heard a radio station during the incident and became obsessed with the song it was playing.
  • Hynek traveled to Fargo to investigate this case on site. False. Indeed, Mark O’Connell, author of the first biography of J. Allen Hynek, The Close Encounters Man, noted on Facebook that in the episode “Hynek drove from Fargo, North Dakota to Columbus, Ohio seemingly in a matter of minutes. It’s a 15 hour drive today, but back then there were no interstates.”
  • Hynek and his Air Force handler, a pilot, went up in a plane to try to duplicate the encounter. The plane crashed, but both survived. This is beyond ridiculous.
  • A Man in Black was watching the investigation, uselessly, from a distance. In fact, the stories about the Men in Black originated with Albert K. Bender in 1953.

The second episode involves a UFO sighting and the so-called Flatwoods Monster in West Virginia. Here is a bloopers list for that episode:

  • Dr. Hynek did not travel to West Virginia to investigate this incident. In fact, Project Blue Book did not perform its own investigation of the Flatwoods case; they only collected a few press clippings.
  • Witnesses’ eyes were not burned, and there were no physical symptoms in anyone.
  • Debris from an alleged spacecraft were not found in the woods. Nothing was found, and no object was removed.
  • The ground was not radioactive.
  • The whole town did not show up and threaten to lynch—or at least to tar-and-feather—the principal UFO witness.
  • There was no witness in a psychiatric hospital, and no people killed themselves over this.
  • The woman who has befriended Mimi Hynek turns out to be a Russian spy. Apparently, the Soviets sent Boris and Natasha to spy on Hynek and Project Blue Book.
  • When the boy is supposedly looking at Mars in a small telescope, they set up the telescope backward. It is pointing at the ground, not the sky, but nobody seems to notice this.

For a credible account of the Flatwoods Monster incident, see the results of CSI’s own investigator Joe Nickell in the December 2000 Skeptical Inquirer (https://bit.ly/2R4gKo8). The reported UFO was obviously a fireball meteor. Nickell notes that “the fireball had been seen on a relatively horizontal trajectory in various states.” So, like the supposed Kecksburg UFO crash in 1965, the Flatwoods “UFO” was not just a local sighting but actually a distant object high above the earth, seen across a very wide area. As for the “monster,” Nickell agrees that it was probably a large owl sitting on a tree branch, and he sketched an illustration suggesting what the witnesses actually saw.

The third episode was based on the Lubbock Lights in Lubbock, Texas, in August 1951. UFO researcher Curt Collins suggests that the famous UFO case “may have been misidentified and hoaxed”:

There weren’t any radar reports, car stoppages or power outages, as depicted in this week’s episode, but there were photographs—photographs that may not be as good as first thought, if recent investigation is any indication. … The “real” Lubbock Lights reported by the eyewitnesses were loose formations of dim lights. It was an illusion of sorts, not distant large objects flying at great speed, just flocks of migrating birds that reflected city lights as they passed over Lubbock at a much lower altitude. (https://bit.ly/2WvxwRp)

As for the purported photos of the Lubbock Lights, photo analyst Nab Lator, the first to decipher the plaque in the so-called Roswell Slides (see “The ‘Roswell Slides’ Fiasco: UFOlogy’s Biggest Black Eye,” SI, September/October 2015), notes:

The lights on photographs A and B superimpose perfectly! Isn’t that amazing? … [Photographer] Hart said he only had time to take “two photographs of the second flight, and when the lights came back a third time, he took three more.” … The perfectly matching pattern between photos A and B is incredible because there should be at least some deformation due to the change in perspective if the formation was moving at all as described between the two successive photos. … He could have done it very simply, punched holes in a cardboard with a pencil and taken pictures of it against the light, looking just as dark as the night sky. Only he should have changed the cardboard between photo A and B to make the series more believable.

Particularly absurd in this episode was the depiction of federal secret agents kidnapping Major Donald E. Keyhoe, the head of the major UFO group NICAP, and holding him at gunpoint. This is patently absurd, and yet there are people on social media asking if it actually happened.

As of this writing, four episodes of Project Blue Book have been broadcast. The fourth episode involves Project Paperclip, a program under which German rocket scientists were brought into the United States following World War II to continue to work on missiles. Hynek and his Blue Book boss Captain Quinn are supposedly sent to Alabama to investigate UFO sightings (they were not). They break into a nearby military base and get arrested but then discover a connection between the UFO sightings and a secret space program being run by Wernher von Braun, who keeps what looks like an alien alive in a vat of liquid. The Blue Book captain starts a bar fight and gets into trouble once again. They discover that Von Braun has built a reconstruction of a flying saucer that the Nazis had supposedly invented and that he has been forcing unwilling servicemen to serve as guinea pigs riding in it. One is trundled inside a saucer, which then rises into the air and disappears into another dimension or someplace. Again, this is beyond crazy and simply adds to the torrent of public misinformation on UFO matters.

As a point of historical interest, Dr. J. Allen Hynek was an invited speaker at CSICOP’s 1984 conference at Stanford, California. He was a member of the UFO Panel, which I moderated and whose other members included Philip J. Klass, Andrew Fraknoi, and Roger Culver. Hynek, who was invited to provide a different perspective from the others, spoke way too long, going over his allotted time, and I struggled to keep the panel close to its published schedule!

If television producers want to create a fictional UFO series, that is fine. But this program references real people by their real names, a real government program, and real incidents. It then mixes in absurd and invented details, while claiming that the show is based on real events. They have done a great disservice to their viewers and to anyone else who cares about understanding the facts behind reported UFO incidents.

Robert Sheaffer

Robert Sheaffer’s “Psychic Vibrations” column has appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer for the past thirty years. He is also author of UFO Sightings: The Evidence (Prometheus 1998). He blogs at www.badUFOs.com.


On January 8, 2019, the much-awaited Project Blue Book premiered on the History television channel, which once actually showed history. It was expected to be both sensationalized and poorly acted. Those things it was. Where it exceeded expectations, however, was in the degree to which it distorted the facts of what was, in fact, a …

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