Case 16

South Mountain

Winter 1967

Investigators: Van Arsdale, Hynek

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Daylight visual sightings of "silvery specks" overhead were reported, but pilots of aircraft sent to investigate saw nothing. Two radars concurrently detected several intermittent stationary targets in the reported area, and then a single target that moved slowly several minutes. Then it disappeared on one radar, and on the other described an approximately circular course at high speed. The visual sighting, and a later one, are impossible to evaluate. The radar targets are attributed to propagation anomalies, a balloon, and malfunction of one radar.


Reports of reliably witnessed visual and radar sightings in the vicinity of an Air Force base reached the project, leading to the decision to send an investigator there. It was arranged that Dr. Hynek, who was to be at the base on other business, should participate in the investigation.


The investigators examined the radar plots and talked with the base UFO officer, the Public Information Officer, and the radar operators who had reported the unidentified targets. From these inquiries, the following account developed.

At 10:25 a.m. a young man telephoned the base UFO officer to report that he was seeing "silvery specks" passing overhead. During about 30 min., he had seen two or three groups of 30 to 40 such objects moving southwest. He was at a point (Point "1," Fig.l) in the mountains NE of the base.



Figure 1

(Times/Locations of Sightings)

Click on "thumbnail" image to see its full-size version.


The UFO officer finished his conversation with the witness at 10:50. He then had two aircraft sent to the reported location; but they reported nothing unusual

He also asked range surveillance radar to seek the objects. (Being inexperienced in such investigations, he told the operators where to look, instead of simply asking them whether they had any unidentified targets). Only two surveillance radars were operating, one at Mission Control on the base and the other 35 mi. south.

About 10:55 both radars plotted four objects about five miles south of the visual sighting, and a little later three other objects ("2" and "3" Fig. 1 ). All of these objects were intermittent, appearing sometimes on one sweep of the radar screen and not on the next, so that the radar tracking equipment could not "lock on" them; but they appeared to be stationary.

Then at 11:08 both radars plotted a slow-moving object at 25,000 ft. altitude, and tracked it ten minutes while it moved three or four miles eastward ("4" and "5" Fig. 1). At this point, at 11:18 a.m., it disappeared from the south radar screen, while the radar at Mission Control showed it moving southward at Mach 1.2. It continued approximately on a circular course centered on Mission Control radar, while both radars scanned clockwise. At 11:21.5 both radars showed two stationary objects ("6" Fig. 1) that also flickered intermittently.

Mission Control radar continued to follow the fast-moving target on its circular course until it abruptly climbed to 80,000 ft. ("7" Fig. 1), and followed it on around to the north until it appeared to go out of range at 100,000 ft. altitude, at 11:31.

During the tracking of the circular course, the operator stated that he thought the radar was not functioning properly. The UFO officer accordingly was advised that he should not consider the plotted tracks "firm and accurate." FAA radar did not confirm the circular track, and range-data radars were not operating. the following day, the radar supervisor reported that evaluation of the Mission Control radar record indicated that the instrument had plotted a noise track. Also, there exist unexplained discrepancies


of 5 to 15 mi. between the ranges of the various unidentified targets displayed on photographs of the radar plotting boards, compared with the written report issued by Mission Control the next day. Positions indicated on Fig. 1 are taken from the plots.

An electronics technician reported that at 11:20, while he was at location "8" (Fig. 1), he saw a saucer-shaped object moving rapidly away from him; it disappeared behind a nearby peak. His line of sight to the peak was approximately toward the point on the circular track traced at 11:20 by Mission Control radar.


With the limited information available, the two visual sighting reports are impossible to evaluate. The "silvery specks" could have been plant seeds of the type that float like parachutes, but such a suggestion is speculative.

The radar observations offer a more substantial basis for analysis, since they involved two trained operators and instrument records (See also Section III Chapter 5). However, the UFO officer remarked that the men on duty during the sightings were second-line operators having little experience with "track" (surveillance) radar. As noted earlier, they were told to look for unidentified objects at a specified location and had perhaps in consequence found them there ("2" on Fig. 1). It appears probable that these intermittent, stationary targets were mirage-like glimpses of peaks or other high points that were just below the radar line of sight, and were brought into view sporadically by fluctuations in the atmospheric path. There is the strong implication that the operators noticed these "objects" at location 2 because they were directed to look for something there, and that they could have found similar targets at other points on the mountain landscape. In fact, they did just that, at locations "3" and "6" (Fig. 1). These observations appear to be similar


to some reported in other cases (e.g., Case 35) in which operators of highly specialized radar equipment have failed to notice extraneous objects on their screens because they were intent on the targets that they had been assigned to track. They become aware of such commonplace objects only when a "UFO flap" has diverted them from routine procedure and encouraged them to look for anomalies. It should be noted that such a habit of ignoring irrelevant information in the perceptual field unless attention is directed to it is common in other instrument observations, and indeed in ordinary experience. It has accounted for many visual UFO reports.

The slow-moving radar object ("4" and "5" on Fig. 1) was entirely compatible with a weather or research balloon drifting with the prevailing westerly winds.

The evidence indicates that the circular track plotted on Mission Control radar, but not on the south screen, was an instrumental anomaly. The operator at Mission Control judged that the instrument was malfunctioning, and the subsequent evaluation by the civilian radar supervisory staff attributed the circular trace to a "noise track." Why the slowly-drifting object should have disappeared from both radars at nearly the same time is not clear. However, if it is assumed that the circular track represented a real object, then it is much more difficult to explain why the south screen never picked it up, even though it passed within seven miles of that station when the radar was working as attested by its plotting the targets at location "6."

It is important to note that none of the radar targets exhibited motions agreeing even approximately with those reported in the two visual sightings. The "silvery specks" were moving southwest. The saucer-like object of the second sighting was moving "away from" the observer and disappeared behind the peak, which was ENE of him, while the radar "object" was moving south. Also, inspection of the contours of the region indicates that the radar "object" plotted at 25,000 ft. altitude would have been obscured by mountain ridges from the observer at location "6"


throughout at least 25° of azimuth to the north of the peak.

This case is not fully clarified in all details; but the evidence indicates decisively that it is typical of many instances in which an initial sighting of dubious quality stimulates unusual attention and induces an expectant emotional state in which commonplace phenomena assume apparent significance.