Lights in the sky are not always aliens on the lookout for earthlings to abduct. Sometimes they are mostly a load of hot air.

On Wednesday afternoon we saw a UFO. My wife, Fleur, did not say,”Look — a UFO!”, but “Surely they’re not parachuting today!” Parachuting is a popular sport at Nelson airport, but not when traffic is busy, and not when a strong Sou’wester is blowing.

The object, directly upwind and over the airport, looked a bit like a parachute. If it was, it could be landing on our roof in a few minutes; the wind was very strong (up to 58kph we found later). At that moment it was a genuine Unidentified Flying Object, but not for long.

I ran for binoculars. The object was a balloon, rounded at the top, highly elongated and hanging in folds near the bottom. But it appeared stationary. It could not be tethered or it would endanger flights still using the runway. So why had it not already passed overhead?.

UFO enthusiasts seem able to know immediately the size, speed and distance of an object they have seen. This is obviously impossible unless at least one of these factors can be determined independently.

Logical thinking was required. The sky was cloudless, the air very clear. We could see a brilliant object against a deep blue sky. In mid-afternoon on August 18th it was reflecting the low sun. A casual glance to the southwest picked it up immediately. It looked close but that had to be an illusion; it still did not appear to move.

Fifty minutes later it was directly overhead. It was moving, but crossing our field of vision very slowly. Thus it had to be high. An object drifting at ground level would have covered around 50km in that time. The mountains shelter us from the strong southwest airstreams over New Zealand, so wind velocity would be greater at high altitudes. We could deduce it was travelling very rapidly. It also had to be large.

We knew what it must be: a constant-altitude research balloon. They are released with a small volume of helium at ground level, but expand to a great size when atmospheric pressure is low, where they travel well above the 12,000m level of commercial jets. They maintain their altitude within a relatively narrow band.

But is it really possible to see such an object over 50km away? From our garden, where we watched the balloon, we can see mountains which are further away than this, but mountains are big. However, a small object, strongly reflecting sunlight, will show as a point of light. The UFO was only turned into a balloon by binoculars. Otherwise no real detail could be distinguished. Once past the vertical and no longer strongly reflecting towards us, it was almost invisible.

The UFO caused some excitement in Nelson. According to the local paper, many people rang the police. The object was quickly identified as a balloon, but many other assumptions were incorrect. Finally the paper published a piece revealing that the balloon had been released from New Caledonia. The altitude was reported as 24km, the inflated size as 100m high and 30m wide. These proportions fit our observation, but the size was greater than we had anticipated.

American experts have suggested that a number of UFO reports have involved sightings of these balloons. This seems likely. However, there were no Nelson reports of UFOs in the traditional sense. Are Nelsonians particularly skeptical? I doubt it, but we were able to watch during perfect conditions. There was time for people to call the police and time to check an object which could hardly be missed. The same object glimpsed through a gap in the clouds might cause more of a puzzle.

This object seemed very close, yet was a long way away. Watched from a stationary position it did not seem to move, but if observed from a moving position, it would have appeared to be moving, keeping pace with the observer due to the effect of parallax, hence reports of people being chased by UFOs.

Our “UFO” was a beautiful object when seen through binoculars, but it did not make the TV news. In 1979, TV1 spent nearly 20 minutes of the evening news showing out-of-focus film of the planet Venus, claimed to be a UFO. There is money to be made if a UFO stays unidentified, hut not otherwise. TV1 sold their film overseas and it was shown on BBC, CBS and several Japanese stations. Presumably it was very profitable.

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