The Sleuths

When you see something wrong in the sky, Oregon’s chapter of the Mutual UFO Network uses science to solve the mystery.


  

Slide Show

If you’re craving more UFO goodness, view our slide show of baffling photos taken by fellow Oregonians over the years.

medford oregon ufo 1960s

This image, said to have been taken along Wagner Creek Road near Medford in the 1960s, was submitted to MUFON field investigator William Puckett in 2008. The lack of additional evidence or information precluded any further investigation.

ON AN EARLY FALL morning last October, Mercedes Corbin (note: not her real name) was driving west on Highway 26 when she spotted a tiny white light ahead of her hanging in the sky over North Plains. Still groggy from an early-morning flight, Corbin slowed to less than 40 miles per hour. The object grew larger and brighter until it hovered—soundless and wingless with flashing red and green lights—above a field just a few hundred feet away.

Heart pounding, Corbin took the next exit and circled back to the spot. But the strange object—which she described as a kind of Washington Monument on its side—had disappeared.

“I was not the only one who saw this,” she later wrote, noting that other trucks and cars had slowed down to watch it. “I am not crazy.”

Disturbed by the incident, Corbin began searching the Internet to find evidence of others who had seen the same thing. Instead, she found the Oregon chapter of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON). The national organization was founded in 1969 for the purpose of cataloging and investigating UFO reports. MUFON is—to borrow a phrase from Ghostbusters—who you’re gonna call when you see something unexplainable in the sky.

With the government, NASA, and even the SETI Institute (which takes its name from the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) officially not interested, MUFON fielded some 100 reports of UFOs last year alone. But these guys aren’t some goofy Big Gulp–fueled pack of X-Files-ites, pointing to every passing satellite as proof of extraterrestrials. In fact, MUFON classified fewer than half of those 100 reports as “unidentified” (including Corbin’s flashing object), ruling everything else out as hoaxes, airplanes, weather balloons, or simply lacking enough evidence for thorough investigation. And, according to the Oregon MUFON chapter director, Tom Bowden, even those “unidentified” flying objects don’t necessarily mean we need to put together a welcoming committee.

“It means there’s something flying around that is not one of our aircraft, and somebody saw it,” says Bowden, a computer programmer for a financial firm who has been studying UFOs since his college years in Illinois in the 1960s. “It means that there’s a problem that has not been solved, and in order to solve it we need more data.”

Bowden’s pragmatism might seem somewhat surprising in a group that includes its fair share of eccentrics. (Some members believe UFOs come from another dimension.) But logic and science are at the core of MUFON’s beliefs. Like Bowden, many of MUFON’s top members have scientific or technical backgrounds: Keith Rowell, the group’s assistant director (and resident human encyclopedia), is a retired technical writer. William Puckett, an investigator, is a former EPA and National Weather Service meteorologist. And Bowden was an investigator from 1976 to 1988 for the now-defunct Aerial Phenomena Research Organization, a group of sober-minded scientists hailed by the air force scientific adviser on UFOs, J. Allen Hynek, as one of the country’s best civilian UFO groups.

“What we’re trying to do is study UFOs in a scholarly way—as academics would if they bothered to look into it,” says Rowell, who hopes to donate his personal library of 1,500 UFO-related books to a university after his death.

To that end, MUFON has developed an elaborate protocol for investigating UFO reports, all of it laid out in a 250-page investigator’s manual. When a report is filed, MUFON investigators interview witnesses, collect any photographic evidence (employing a strict, police-department-style chain of custody), and document even the most innocuous information they can about the sighting, from wind speeds to light levels. Then, the investigation begins in earnest. Drawing on astronomy, weather reports, and FAA flight logs, all possible earthly explanations are tested and discarded until they land on one that fits: planets, military aircraft, birds, atmospheric effects, flyovers of the International Space Station. If, in the end, nothing makes sense, the case is declared a UFO.

“Photographs by themselves are useless,” Bowden says. “They don’t have any evidentiary value. It’s just whatever someone says it is. We have to get to the original source of the photograph in order for it to be considered evidence.”

MUFON’s academic approach follows a long lineage of scientific exploration of UFOs dating back to the US Air Force’s Project Blue Book, a group of soldiers and scientists who began tracking and investigating “flying saucers” in 1952. When the military terminated the group in 1969, its work was left to volunteer groups like MUFON, which have become exceptionally image-conscious as a result of media and other groups painting them as kooks.

To wit: Monthly meetings are open to the public, but recording and photographs are typically prohibited. Case files are available online, but the names of witnesses and investigators are changed to pseudonyms. Interviews with members are granted, but only with reassurances that the purpose is not to poke fun—or worse. In an e-mail, prior to our interview, Bowden noted his concern: “They [the CIA] have operatives placed in many news organizations for the dual purpose of intercepting specific news items and for introducing propaganda.”

Some think this insularity has had a negative effect. “There’s not a lot of collaboration between groups,” says Puckett, who runs his own reporting website, ufosnw.com, though he has worked with Oregon MUFON on a number of investigations. “That’s a major problem.”

Indeed, methods of investigation, proof, and tracking vary widely across organizations and individuals. Without a centralized database or rigorous international standards of investigation, winning over a dubious public to the global UFO “phenomenon” remains a gargantuan task.

But it’s one Oregon’s MUFON continues to take on, united behind their common belief in science.

“I say look at the data,” says Puckett, who in 15 years of study has never seen a UFO himself. “You only need one case to be real, and there are thousands out there. Everybody can’t be crazy.”