The Great Zeppelin Scare of 1909

THE YEAR 1909 was a tense time for New Zealanders. For centuries, Britain had the world’s unrivalled navy, and an invasion of the motherland was unthinkable. Her colonies and outposts enjoyed similar protection. But all of that changed in 1908, and with an unnerving suddenness, as grave concerns were expressed in Great Britain over Germany’s rising military strength which prompted fears a surprise invasion might be launched at any time.

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Merchandising the Alien

THE GREYS may have crash landed on Earth in 1947, but the real invasion happened about two years ago when Bill Barker’s SCHWA merchandise first hit the streets. Since then it seems that there is Grey merchandise for every possible cultural slipstream; for the young and hip there’s trendy skateboarding gear, Fimo rave-pendants and drug paraphernalia (“Take me to your dealer”); while for the committed believer there are various clay, bronze and pewter renditions of the aliens, with or without crashed saucer-craft, in numerous commemorative editions.

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THE other day I was doing a spot of painting with the help of a friend. She was telling me about a fancy dress party she’d gone to, and how some friends had dressed up all in green, as aliens.

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The Forest of Flying Sheep

It is rare that Nelson interests the world’s news media. The “sheep suspended from pine trees” story was sufficiently bizarre to get their attention.

For those who missed the story: Some people walking in a pine plantation forest near Wakefield discovered the decayed bodies of about eight or nine sheep on the ground with another five or so entangled in the trees up to ten metres from the ground. The legs of the animals were tied up with wire.

This story was widely publicised, and the local council received calls from all over the world. Although within New Zealand this was generally treated as just a funny story, those overseas quickly scented a UFO mystery and an American caller wanted to know if there were scorch marks on the ground. There were not and how any UFO could land in a pine forest defies imagination.

It was obvious that the animals must have been dropped from the air. In fact a spokesperson for the council suggested an explanation on Radio New Zealand when the story first broke. This turned out to be largely correct. A helicopter pilot gave a full explanation to the council within 24 hours.

The animals had died of sleepy sickness (a metabolic disorder associated with lambing). Number eight fencing wire was then threaded through their hocks and they were slung from a helicopter to be flown to where they could be buried. (Hygiene regulations demand they be buried or burned.) The wire broke while the helicopter was flying over the forest. The pilot searched the area from the air and on foot but could not find the corpses. It is assumed that all the animals were originally entangled in the trees but decomposition caused some of them to fall.

The pilot apparently cleared up the mess once he know where it was. No prosecution is likely although the law may not have been strictly obeyed. This case was clearly an accident.

It may surprise many to discover that there are several offences (such as pollution cases like this) where the police display no interest. It is up to other bodies to prosecute if they deem it necessary. They are generally more interested in getting the mess cleared up.

In spite of this I can imagine stories, some time in the future in te UFO literature, suggesting a legal “cover-up”. Perhaps we shall see on television the story of how Nelson was nearly invaded by woolly aliens. We can be pretty certain that the overseas media never carried the prosaic explanation of this story.

Space Fiends Stole My Baby’s Brain

A sceptical mini-history of the crashed flying saucer saga

Carl Wyant

Sceptics will be amused to hear that the Great Roswell UFO Cover-up has just gained a new lease on life.

Yes, as if the almost infinite number of articles, TV documentaries and at least one full-length book weren’t enough, it is now a movie, “Roswell”, and available on video.

In 1947, so the story goes, a flying saucer crashed and exploded in the New Mexico desert, about 75 miles from Roswell. The scattered wreckage was collected several days later by the Air Force and whisked away to a top secret hangar never to be seen again, its very existence denied by the authorities.

In truth, no amount of fact will ever kill a good rumour. The Roswell incident has been debunked, discredited, explained to death and buried a hundred times over, but it just won’t stay in the grave. Rumour alone keeps it alive.

Like most UFO lore, aliens mishaps are nothing new. The crashed saucer myth has a long and convoluted history that goes back to 1884 when four cowboys witnessed the explosion of a strange flying cylindrical object in Nebraska.

Another phantom airship came cruising out of the blue in 1897, in Aurora, Texas, plowing into a windmill and blowing itself to smithereens, leaving behind a wreckage of metallic foil, paper with indecipherable hieroglyphics and one dead “Martian”, which was duly buried in the Aurora cemetery.

Both of these cases were later proved to be hoaxes, but it was too late; the idea was already embedded in the public mind.

Theosophists and collectors of weird stories, notably Charles Fort, sometimes called “the father of ufology”, also took up the cause, giving even more durability to the growing legend.

It’s worth noting here that the initial report of a sensational event, even if it’s false, always has more impact than the refutation or retraction. Sometimes the refutation strengthens the original claim simply by bringing it up again.

A classic example of this syndrome, crucial to the understanding of Roswell, is the infamous Aztec case, the king of all crash/retrieval stories.

In 1949 a journalist and columnist named Frank Scully began writing rumorous stories about crashed saucers and dead aliens and in 1950 released a book on the subject called Behind the Flying Saucers. It’s referred to as the Aztec case because some of the events took place near Aztec, New (where else?) Mexico. One saucer, he claimed, was ninety-nine feet in diameter and contained sixteen dead aliens, little fellows about three feet tall.

Two years later the story was exposed as a fraud, perpetrated on the apparently not-very-investigative Scully by a couple of notorious confidence shysters, probably angling for a movie deal. The book was a best seller, so I guess Scully died of shame, as it were, all the way to the bank.

Behind the Flying Saucers was the first book to bring the question of crashed saucers to the general public. The idea might have been bandied about by a few cultists and science fiction buffs before, but now the cat was really out of the bag. For two years hundreds of thousands read the book and millions more heard the story: The saucers, and even more spine chilling than than, the aliens, were real.

The Aztec scam effectively drove a wedge into the rapidly growing UFO movement, splitting the ranks into two vaguely distinct factions: “the wide-eyed believers”, who will believe anything; and “the serious investigators”, who will believe almost anything.

“Scully’s book”, says Jerome Clark in The Fringes of Reason, “cast a long shadow: for the next two and a half decades no serious UFO student would pay attention to crashed saucer stories.”

But like unkillable zombies, the stories lived on.

The Roswell, New Mexico, crashed saucer story that’s raising such a ruckus today was actually a non-event that probably would have faded away altogether if it hadn’t been for all the gadzookery created later by the Aztec case.

On June 14, 1947, a rancher named Brazel found what was undoubtedly the remains of a radar target, a reflective device borne aloft by weather balloons for tracking purposes.

Brazel himself described the debris as “large numbers of pieces of paper covered with a foil-like substance and pieced together with small sticks much like a kite”.

The Air Force came and collected the junk and that was it…almost.

Two weeks later on June 24, saucer mania broke out when civilian pilot, Kenneth Arnold, made his historic sighting of nine flying disks in Washington State, marking the official beginning of the modern UFO era. A newspaper reporter dubbed them “flying saucers” and for the next few months saucer fever ran rampant, with unidentified flying objects being reported all over the USA.

It was then, in early July, after the Arnold sighting, that Brazel and cohorts came up with the saucer story. From there it snowballed into a veritable circus of misleading statements and factual errors before finally gelling into a classic UFO cover-up.

At the time, Roswell was just one more zany story and didn’t make a major splash, and of course after the Aztec scandal no-one wanted to know about crashed saucers, thus it was forgotten.

Not completely forgotten, however. In all probability it was rumours of Roswell that led to the creation of the Aztec case; which in turn led…and so groweth the myth.

Crash/retrievals became fashionable again in the early 1970s and the serious investigators began to take them very seriously. Even the old Aurora case was dusted off, sending a whole wave of UFO hopefuls to the tiny town, combing the countryside with metal detectors and prowling the graveyard for dead Martians.

By the 1980s the story was unstoppable. The public mind had undergone a dramatic change. The wide-eyed believers, serious investigators and the great unwashed had moved closer together. Objective thinking had given way to subjective, inward-looking modes of thought wherein we create our own reality. Science, in fact Western Civilisation as a whole, had become the enemy. Critical analysis was out and wishful thinking was in and all sceptical comment was part of a vast conspiracy to cover up the truth about crystal magic and pickled aliens.

UFO lovers got an extra shot in the arm in 1980 when saucer expert Jenny Randles began to publish stories about a saucer crash near a military base in England. The Rendlesham Forest Affair, as it’s known, later became a book, Sky Crash, a gripping tale of aliens, intrigue, confiscated saucers and top secret secrets, all based, essentially, on un-named sources and hearsay. And so it goes on.

The believers contend that where there’s smoke there’s fire. The evidence itself might be weak, they argue, but there’s so much of it that it proves itself through sheer volume. In other words, if you accumulate enough bad evidence it somehow turns into good evidence. Or to look at it another way, if enough people believe something is true, then it is true.

You don’t have to be H.G. Wells to realise that this is not a healthy outlook. If enough people believe, for instance, that homosexuals are a menace to society, lo and look ye — homosexuals are a menace to society, fully lynchable in the name of Mass Belief. If enough believe in witches with magical powers, “enough” will also believe in burning them. The notion of running society on the basis of information received from invisible sources is a sure-fire recipe for bloodshed.

If my arbitrary example of homophobia seems far fetched and somewhat distant to the flying saucer question, think again. The alien superbeing, Ramtha, channelled by J.Z. Knight, tells us that we should “get rid” of gays, and that AIDS is divine punishment for homosexuals. Other aliens have given us equally ominous advice.

Who knows for sure? Maybe governments do have crashed saucers and dead aliens hidden away in secret underground military installations. Maybe the little grey fiends with the strange black eyes are real too. But considering the next-to-worthless evidence, fraud, fakery, misperception, distortion and money involved, I wouldn’t advise betting your daughter on it.

But the saucers may be on the back burner for a while. Vibrations in the etheric network tell me that angels and devils are making a comeback. Yes, I feel confident in predicting that over the next five years we will see a growing revival of things angelic, building in intensity as the Apocalypse draws nigh. And then, after the world doesn’t end at year 2000, perhaps we can shake off our dark age mentality and start thinking again. Until the next saucer crash, that is.

Some UFO Experiences

Recently I had a UFO experience in the comfort and privacy of my own home. Or rather, I would have had a UFO experience if it had been a UFO. Unfortunately, however, I found a rational explanation for it, which means this story’s not nearly as interesting as it could have been.

It was very late, past midnight, and my wife and I had just come home from a dinner party to our house in Cashmere, at an altitude of about 100 metres on a ridge at the south end of Christchurch. She went straight to bed, but I felt somehow restless. In hindsight, if I had more imagination I might be able to say I felt as though something was telling me to stay up, to walk outside on to the deck, and look out to the west.

What I saw astonished me greatly. There was a very bright light in the sky away to the southwest. It stayed there for some minutes, almost unchanging, poised in the sky above the suburb of Westmoreland, quite still but with a slightly tremulous quality about it. Knowing the landscape very well, I knew it could not possibly be a street light, car headlight or other normal phenomenon on the ground. It was definitely in the air, about four fingers at arm’s length above the horizon. But it was too still and bright to be an aeroplane. Moreover, there was no engine noise. “My God”, I thought, “am I seeing a UFO?” I’d certainly like to see a UFO. It was very exciting.

I rushed in and got our binoculars, a good pair of 8x50s, went back out and sat down to watch the light carefully. It continued to stay quite still and to flicker ever so slightly. Then I noticed another light beside it, smaller and flicking on and off. Curiouser and curiouser. Again I thought, “It can’t be a plane, because it’s been still for too long, and it’s too bright”.

Yes, I really was seeing something for which there could be no normal explanation. I thought of how some of my skeptic friends would respond to this, and continued for some minutes longer to observe it closely, so I could state with certainly it was not some figment of my imagination. Still it shone brightly, flickered ever so slightly and stayed still. I resolved to watch it for as long as it stayed. Minutes ticked by.

Then, abruptly, the light faded in strength and swung away to the north. It was a plane after all — suddenly looking no different from hundreds of others I had seen coming into Christchurch Airport. But what had been so different about this one? How could it have changed so rapidly, so totally? How could it remain still in the sky, be so bright, and yet silent?

Then I realised that this plane had been approaching from the southwest on a path which was some miles further south than the usual approach route. As a result, by the most extraordinary coincidence, it was heading straight towards my house. And not only was it on a compass course that took it right in this direction, but it was descending at an angle that meant it literally pointed straight at me. This explained the intensity of the light, which was aimed like a searchlight directly at me, albeit from a distance of perhaps 20 miles, gradually closing to about five before the plane turned away. Over such a distance, the intensity of the light was increasing so gradually that it did not appear to be moving towards me. And although descending, it appeared still because it was closing on the horizon at an imperceptible rate. The tremulous quality of the light simply resulted from the plane’s vibrating a bit in slightly turbulent air. The second light was one of the plane’s wingtip lights. As I’m slightly colour-blind (green looks white to me at a distance) I couldn’t tell what colour it was.

The explanation was absurdly simple, yet never in a hundred years would I have guessed it. Having watched approaching planes so often in the past helped reinforce the deception, because it was so different to what I was used to seeing.

But the most important part is this: suppose I had not persisted in watching it, or the plane had disappeared, say into a bank of cloud close to the ground, so I had not discovered the real explanation. I would have absolutely denied any suggestion that it was an aeroplane.

“No”, I would have said, “it was too still, too bright, and there was no noise. There was definitely a bright still light sitting in one place in the sky for some minutes.”

And there is another thing — every time an aeroplane is descending at night, with its lights on, in clear air, following a straight descent path, there will be a particular spot on the Earth’s surface where an observer, if there is one, will see exactly the same thing I saw. If you think about how many aeroplanes there are all over the world in the air at any time, there must be nothing unusual about my experience. Except that more imaginative observers than I are bound to have perceived it differently — they will have “actually have seen” a UFO.

It’s a pity I’m not more imaginative, because if I was I could have seen some much more exciting things like different-coloured lights and an interesting saucer shape. My inability to see such things if an obvious flaw in my personality which I have resolved to correct next time. Then I might have a more interesting story to tell.

Three more non-UFO experiences

  • In about 1960 my father thought he was “having a UFO experience” one night while sitting on the steps outside our house in Samoa. Flashes of light were darting back and forth across the sky. He got up and walked forwards for a better view and discovered the cause was a spider spinning a web about a metre in front of his face.
  • Fishing at Lake Coleridge on a perfectly clear night, I heard an aeroplane overhead but couldn’t see any lights. I looked in the general direction of the sound, and suddenly the plane’s navigation lights came on for about 5 seconds. Then they all went out again. If I had seen this without hearing the engine noise, I would have been unable to produce a rational explanation for it.
  • And another night I was fishing on the lake under low, rather loose cloud. As a plane came over, its lights, flashing brightly, made the whole sky very suddenly seem to pulsate brilliantly. The overall effect was extremely peculiar. Although the plane’s engines could clearly be heard, two fishermen nearby in the dark were totally confused by the experience. “What the f—– is that?” one gasped. “Dunno,” his mate responded in an awestruck voice. I wonder what story they may have had to tell the next day?

They’re Stealing Our Fish!

Seeing shouldn’t always be believing, as a Nelson skeptic discovered thirty years ago.

One night nearly thirty years ago, three men were driving back to Nelson from French Pass after a fishing trip. Road access to the Pass was quite new and there was very little traffic even by day. The road climbs steeply from French Pass, then follows a high ridge with tremendous views of Marlborough sounds on one side and Tasman bay on the other. The headlands and islands showed pitch-black on this moonless night and the sea gleamed in starlight.

As the vehicle reached the ridge, three or four dozen brilliant and mysterious lights could be seen in Tasman bay and further out to sea.

“The Japanese are stealing our fish!”

This was a hot topic in 1965. For years Japanese line fishers had been fishing for high value snapper (quite legally) very close to shore. But a new law excluded foreign vessels from fishing in a region 12 nautical miles (just over 22 km) from the coast.

“That big bright patch must be a mother ship out to sea, these points of lights must be dinghies fishing for snapper, some are right under the cliffs. They are all in the forbidden zone.”

We agreed and each estimated the distance to the nearest light. The maximum guess was three nautical miles.

All of us were experienced at night navigation. One had had a lifetime in small boats, another was a retired senior air-force flying instructor. These two had sufficient confidence in me (very much the junior) to sleep in the cabin while I had brought the boat the full length of D’Urville island (over 30 km) after nightfall.

A brilliant idea was developed, we could measure the distance to the poachers.

We could make out the headlands below us in the starlight and we had a map. With the car we could measure a baseline distance along the road. By sighting the lights over headlands at either end we could determine the angles. A ruler on the map would give the distance and even a calculation would be unnecessary. A crude measure perhaps, but we did not need a high degree of accuracy. All were convinced the boats were fishing well inside the limit.

Thirty minutes later we stared at each other in disbelief. The plan had worked well but it showed the nearest light was at least 15 nautical miles from the coast and the furthest was out more than 40 (28 km and 74 km). How could we be so wrong? Relief mingled with the other emotion, at least we had not driven to the nearest phone (a long distance) and made fools of ourselves. The Navy would not have been pleased to be turned out to apprehend poachers and then find only legal fishermen. These boats were not even in Tasman bay, they were well out to sea.

Only then did we think to use binoculars. Each of the nearer lights was not a point, but a vessel illuminated by many lights. This was our first sight of a squid fishing fleet, then relatively new in New Zealand waters. Each squid-fishing vessel has rows of powerful lights in the rigging. Squid are attracted by these lights and caught by jigging. Thirteen years late a squid fleet off Canterbury was to be one of the UFO sightings in the great Kaikoura UFO mystery. According to Philip J. Klass “the best documented of all UFO cases”.

In our case nobody cried “UFO” (one was a believer but had never seen one). We knew these were lights on boats but otherwise we were horribly wrong. We completely misinterpreted what was visible. We assumed (without considering the possibilities) that the lights were only moderately bright, therefore they had to be close. Because they were close we assumed we were looking down at them (just under the cliffs!). In fact we seemed to be looking down at them — until we knew they were well out to sea. Then we realised we were looking out towards the horizon! They dazzled us, therefore we could not see the horizon (it is usually visible on a clear, starry night).

The big glow well out, originally assumed to be a mother ship, was probably a cluster of lights over the horizon.

It is difficult to get across just how much illumination is used by a squid boat. The night after the Kaikoura UFO sightings, the RNZAF sent a plane out to investigate. It reported the squid fleet was putting out more light than the city of Christchurch!

The incident taught me some skeptical lessons.

Some were negative. Judging the distance of objects is very difficult at night. Judging their position in relation to the horizon is even more difficult. It is all too easy to jump to conclusions. Even when all of a party agree exactly on what they have seen, they can still be completely wrong. Highly experienced people can make quite ridiculous errors. What people report as “sightings” are really conclusions.

Some were positive. It pays to use one’s brains. It is possible to make rough but objective estimates of distance. Binoculars enable details to be resolved even at night.

And when the Kaikoura UFO was in the news I had a really good laugh — until I realised how much money was being made out of the incident. It really pays well to see UFOs instead of squid vessels.

Alien Ships in Our Skies

One of the perpetrators told the story behind the Grand Interplanetary Hoax of 1952 to the 1994 Skeptics’ Conference.

Hoaxes have probably been a part of life for thousands of years, ranging in scope, intent and outcome. Some such as the Piltdown saga veer out of control and have unforeseen and potentially serious consequences.

When Denis Dutton first asked me to give a paper on the great UFO hoax of 1952, I was somewhat coy about the matter. Subsequently I was tempted to accept, and here we are.

During the early 1900s, mysterious airships were sighted in various parts of the world, and New Zealand was no exception. While various psychological explanations have been forthcoming for the airship episodes, no evidence has surfaced to my knowledge concerning any structured direction to that piece of mystery history, although I have always believed a hoax might have been the initiating event. H.G. Wells’s haunting and sadly prophetic novel The War of the Worlds was available as a textbook to feed the imagination of the susceptible and the gullible.

We need to remember also that the Christian religion has always emphasised the Second Coming. Such teachings reinforce in successive generations the concept that there will be cataclysmic events and visitations, hopefully in one’s own lifetime. The factors which determine the life-cycle of these events are worthy of study. I have no doubt that many of them are the work of pranksters or elaborate hoaxsters, as is the case in the present episode.

Of more interest to people like me in describing something that happened before many readers were born or living in New Zealand is a retrospective analysis of the various participants, the perpetrators, the reactors and the bystanders. In my acceptance letter for this exposure, I said that I would couch my text, “in terms of what this particular episode teaches about young people’s attitude to pomposity in their elders and towards various aspects of the Establishment (in this instance represented by the Otago Daily Times)”.

A serious skeptic must be a serious historian with healthy respect for the broad picture, the fine detail, and also for what Denis has referred to as the partnership between History herself and Lady Luck.

I do not need to stress to this audience the fact that mythology soon surrounds events such as the “Grand Inter-planetary Hoax”, as the Knox College prank is now known in some circles. That mythology is largely concerned both with how the episode arose and with who was involved. I have chosen to tackle this topic in a chronological sequence, introducing analysis of events as I proceed. Such a plan makes it easier to strip away some of the mythology concerning the events of 42 years ago.

Knox College

During the 1950s, Knox College was a male domain occupied by young men from all over New Zealand, of varying ages, studying for a variety of professions. Within the college community were a number of ex-servicemen, most of them studying for the Presbyterian ministry. Knox had not been shaken at that stage by the liberalism of Lloyd Geering, but there were clearly defined groups within the “Div” students, as they were called, ranging from the more fundamentalist to those with what some perceived to be dangerously liberal theological points of view.

Amongst the medical students there was a similar range of believers, with the more traditional rigid group belonging to the Evangelical Union and the more daring, and I would say open-minded, belonging to the Student Christian Movement of which I happened to be President for part of the period we are discussing. At that time the Student Christian Movement quite openly accepted agnostics and others who were exploring and developing their concepts of themselves and the world in general.

Social life in the College centred on the supper parties which moved from room to room. Students became bored with swotting by about 9:00 or 9:30 and gathered together in various rooms and talked until midnight and beyond. The great strength of Knox College lay in those interchanges. These were much richer social gatherings than the somewhat rushed meals in the dining room. I remain very grateful to this phase of my student life, particularly for what I learned from people studying in the other faculties and from the ex-servicemen amongst us.

It needs to be remembered that the early 1950s saw the beginnings of what ultimately resulted in student unrest in a number of other countries and in the revolt of tertiary students against a number of manifestations of the old order. In my opinion, the stirrings began as students realised that a great new order had failed to emerge from the ashes of the Second World War. Rather, a potentially destructive conflict was emerging between what could crudely be called capitalism and Marxism.

Student Idealism

Throughout history, students have been aware of injustice and abuse of power by successive forms of the Establishment. Students have, to some extent, tended to divide themselves into those who put down their heads and acquire a qualification, looking neither to right nor left, versus those who gain pleasure and seek self-fulfilment in genuine attempts to improve, not only their own life, but that of others. While that may be jingoistic and simplistic it is highly relevant to the context.

During 1951 we had endured privation in the Otago winter during the waterfront and the coal miners’ strike. We had shivered in unheated rooms and endured a pretty awful diet amidst a so-called land of plenty. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the Holland Government’s struggle with the wharfies and the miners, many of us in Otago became increasingly irritated by the sanctimonious attitude of the Otago Daily Times.

This is not mythology; the pompous simperings of the ODT were tackled regularly during capping week. At times the students set out deliberately to antagonise Mr Moffat and his “smug band of journalists and leader writers”. The Star was a ho-hum paper which did not excite nearly as much reaction on the part of the students. Undoubtedly there was much young arrogance behind our own attitudes, but also youthful energy, mixed with mischief and an altruistic outlook.

The idea of launching a major attack on the ODT surfaced in the winter term of 1952. The pre-occupation of the ODT with flying saucers, and the trivialisation of major events which were happening worldwide, was adding fuel to the antagonism felt among a range of students. What I shall term the “idealistic alliance” between many medical, dental, arts and divinity students provided a fertile area for the gestation of the hoax. From the beginning it was critical that a sufficient group of men with the necessary confidence in one another should come together if the venture was to succeed.

According to my records, the hoax idea was mooted vaguely for the first time in late September. Finally a group of five, at one particular supper party, concocted the crucial elements of the enterprise. One of the group had access to a secretary in the Medical School. She was the one significant person from outside the Knox confederacy who participated and maintained her silence over the years.

Final planning, however, was undertaken by a very small group which was a key to the outstanding success of the episode. For many years I kept a copy of the map I used to draw up the original plan. It was very similar to that shown on the construction produced by Brian MacKrell of Palmerston North in 1978.

One document was central to the planning. The illustration confirms that at least some of the things I have said are not mythological. You will note that the single-page document starts off by defining the objective very clearly.

Designed to cure the ODT of Flying Saucerites and inoculate that worthy journal with a healthy degree of septicism [sic].

Spelling mistakes and the unconscious pun based on a spelling mistake, while not Freudian, are nevertheless interesting. We really only had one possibility of getting the typing done, and there was no proof-reading as far as I can recall. For “saucerites” read “sauceritis”, and for “septicism” read “scepticism”.

However, the point of the sentence is quite clear and an educationalist today would applaud the brevity and the irony inherent in that sentence. As you will note, it is a double irony.

The reasoning behind the genesis of two saucers, with different colour codes for the two extra-terrestrial objects, was itself based upon considerable discussion and simplification. There was much complexity during early stages of the planning with a tendency to various forms of hyperbole. All this was strenuously censored for sound reasons.

The blue saucer was to “disappear over the horizon in ever decreasing circles”. We did drag a few coat-tails!

The final paragraphs in the printed document are again an exemplary piece of the hoaxster’s art. Buried within these instructions are the fruits of our own research analysis of reports plus our own rudimentary understanding of the accoutrements of supersonic flight.

Once the document was available, it was distributed throughout the College, through the supper-party networking system. At this point, differing philosophies and personalities within the College became evident in the decisions taken as to who would and who would not take part. Two divinity students, in particular, protested that this was a dishonest exercise with which they could not associate themselves. They believed that the College would be brought into disrepute. Moreover, they were extremely disapproving of other divinity students who were prepared to indulge in such dishonest joviality. They raised a point which was again evident at the 25 year initial revelation. If we were prepared to dissemble to this extent as students, what were we going to be like in later life; what grip would we have on honesty and integrity? Most of us ignored such qualms, and it was notable that a number of ex-servicemen among the divinity students particularly relished their participation.

This was not the only major attack on the ODT by members of Knox College. A famous Resident Fellow, the late Don Anderson, who at one stage was on the staff at Massey University, found the ODT editorial policies particularly irritating and conducted an entirely fictitious correspondence during which he wrote letters for and against bagpipes over a prolonged period. That particular private pillorying of the august journal has never been revealed in public to my knowledge, but I stand to be corrected on that point. As far as I can recall, Don did not take part in this particular exercise but we would not have expected him to do so because he was grossly handicapped and easily identified. As a victim of cerebral palsy, his speech mannerisms were well known in Otago at that time.

There was one major risk involved in the planning which we had to accept. Everything had to be in place so that, as was the custom of those days, we could complete the bulk of our year’s study in the four to six weeks before the final examinations. This was the reason why the briefings and preparations of the instruction sheet occurred early in the third term. Also, various members of the College left at varying times over a total range of about six weeks. In turn the due date of December 6 was determined by the timing of the departure of the last students at the end of their examinations.

This lengthy delay between concluding the planning and the date of execution led to some awkward gaps in coverage of the country and to forgetfulness which I think was genuine on the part of some who had agreed to participate. Russell Cowie made strenuous and ingenious efforts to provide coverage from places in the South Island by preparing additional letters for the relevant areas. Some of the gaps were covered by correspondents stating that they had been travelling by car. This would account for a letter being posted at a distance from the alleged sighting.

To a perceptive reporter who took the trouble to collate the information, the fact that this was a spoof should have been obvious.

Pure Moonshine

One of my favourite pieces was the reporting of the sighting from Hokonui, the home of the famous southern moonshine whisky. The author of that letter had the sense not to sign himself McRae. I still find it incredible that the ODT did not pick up these trailings of the coat.

If I may be excused a modicum of parochialism I shall describe what happened in Auckland. I chose the Herald and rang from a phone box as I came off overtime, on a clear lovely evening. Fortunately the sky was clear over pretty much the whole of New Zealand on the night; this was the first piece of Lady Luck’s benevolence. Had Aotearoa lived up to its name, the whole scheme would have been strangled at birth.

The Herald reporter who received my telephone call was quite bland about it, asked for a name and address which I gave, having carefully selected a street in which the particular number did not exist (in accordance with the plan). I sent in a letter having said I would do so. Obviously no one ever checked up on that, or if they did they kept the observation to themselves.

A colleague from an adjacent wool-store was assigned the Auckland Star. This was a much tougher proposition. He gave a description which tallied with mine, as he walked home from a different wool-store and used a different telephone box. However, the Star reporter wanted a bit more than a name and address and John realised that this was a hazardous moment. However, he had a brilliant idea of saying, “If my wife knew I was out in this street at this time of night there would be all hell”. “No problem sir,” said the Star reporter and swallowed the whole thing hook, line and sinker. Another student used a similar device. Throughout the country people generally had no problems in having their stories accepted.

The Target Bites

The flood of reports obviously raised excitement. As predicted, the ODT gave quite unreasonable prominence to the reports while missing the whole point and not even correlating the North Island and South Island sightings. In its initial reporting it referred to South Island observations only, even though those in the North had been reported in the Northern press, with suitably modest prominence, and on radio.

At no stage did the biggest circulation newspaper of the country, the New Zealand Herald, or the Auckland Star give the story any undue prominence. The attitude of both the Herald and the Star implied that they thought there might be some trickery afoot. The Auckland Star ran a cartoon and a whimsical leader appeared in the New Zealand Herald. I should comment that the New Zealand Herald has always had a whimsical streak to it.

As many of you may know, there is a tradition on April 1 to publish very soberly written articles which are a send-up of this or that, perhaps the most famous one being of the description of the long-lost tunnel under Auckland Harbour excavated for military purposes in the 19th century. Huge numbers of citizens were taken in by that piece of writing. I am not sure whether Ted Reynolds was on the Herald staff in 1952 but the flying saucer leader incorporated the style of writing for which he was later to become notable, if anonymously.

We did have a problem in Auckland. A Canadian Pacific Airliner came over at the critical time and a group of cargo workers sighted something which was not part of our scheme. This was a further piece of intervention by Lady Luck however, because it tended to confuse things in the northern part of the country and it ultimately was quite useful.

Further south much ingenuity was exercised, including a report from one student and his son, (who certainly did not exist at that stage) reporting that they had seen the two discs together. About three days after the event, some newspapers had correlated all the sightings. The Carter Observatory, which had been contacted by more than one newspaper, had officially stated the reports had contained “quite worthwhile information”. The speed of the two objects had been calculated and tallied with our original computations.

“If only I had seen it” sighed Mr W.D. Anderson, a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society who was consulted by the ODT. “You cannot possibly ignore straightforward, intelligently written reports like these.” He added, “I cannot give explanations off-hand.” Meanwhile, dedicated saucer watchers had concluded that these “fully authenticated reports from New Zealand”, as they were described, indicated that “saucers were flying closer to the Earth’s surface”. This clearly heightened the interest and further raised excitement.

Front Page News

The ODT was in full cry, and 13 days after the event the front or main news page had a double-full-scale column headline entitled “Enigma of the Sky”. It was not the only major reference on the front page during that week. The ODT had commissioned a Mr Anderson and a Mr McGeorge to undertake a survey of the reports. These two worthy gentlemen concluded that:

Assuming that these reports of a swift-moving object in the sky on Saturday night are not the result of collaboration (and they appear to be genuine, independent observations) they constitute a surprising weight of evidence in favour of the proposition that some object of a bluish colour did pass down the South Island.

They went on to calculate size and height of the objects. They ended their report:

We are still looking forward to focusing a telescope on one of these mysterious objects. A telephone call ahead of the object would be helpful, and we suggest that any observer immediately telephone in reports to the nearest office to enable advice to send ahead in time.

A few late reports trickled in and this again was part of the original plan. These were heavily reinforced by Russell Cowie, which ensured that the ODT target was well and truly plastered. He wrote further letters to Southland and Wellington papers to ensure that the coordinated activities of the blue and green discs were recognised.

The excitement eventually died down. The Weekly News of July 12 1953 did feature an article entitled “Mysteries that Fly Past in the Night”, which was based on an interview with Mr H.A. Fulton, president of the Civilian Saucer Interrogation Society of New Zealand (CSINZ). He had been involved early by the ODT and other newspapers at the time of the hoax itself.

The Committee of the CSI had concluded that the most conclusive evidence of the existence of flying saucers was the series of reports received on December 6, 1952. He went on to state that the CSI was satisfied that all the natural and atmospheric explanation by scientists for the appearance of flying saucers did not promise a solution of the riddle.

“Time”, Mr Fulton said, “would tell and the time was not very far away.”

Unexpected Support

Lady Luck favoured us thrice. What we did not know at the time was that we had calculated the speed of our objects such that they would have appeared at the right time over the Gulf of Mexico where a B29 crew saw a small, unidentified flying object. In 1978 the report of that crew still remained on the US Air Force list of unexplained flying objects. The green disc which disappeared off Invercargill could have turned up along a great circle route to the Gulf of Mexico just in time to be observed by the American airmen in their B29. Others have carried out the same correlation which appears in one of the standard books on flying saucers. The New Zealand sighting of 1952 and the B29 report are frequently quoted as being the most convincing evidence to support the reality of UFOs.

In an account prepared in 1984 by Mason Stretch, then Secretary of the Knox College Students’ Club, and presented at an annual meeting of the Knox College Old Boys’ Association, the final two paragraphs ran:

Surely the ODT reporters, the main sub-editors even, must have purred when Mr Thompson of the Carter Observatory said to the ODT, “You have got times and you have got something which might give speeds…that appears to be worthwhile information.”

The ODT had nobly striven to assemble data and report to the public information of world shaking importance — so important indeed that what at other times would be major international news was squeezed out of the headlines by two saucy wee disks [sic] that hissed while hoaxers howled in the background.

I think we were all staggered by the success of the venture and were not quite sure what to do. There was a tacit agreement that nothing should be said. We had achieved our objective, felt satisfied and, quite frankly, the ODT continued on in its ponderous manner. Capping came along next term and, predictably, the memory of the events receded into the background. As I have indicated there were some periodic reports of the 1952 excerpts in the press including the Weekly News article. Some who participated in the hoax did begin to feel a little uneasy that some people 10, 15 and 25 years later were still taking the thing far too seriously, just as the 1909 airship episode with slow moving dirigibles steam-powered from Dargaville to Invercargill towards subsequent sightings in Australia had never been explained. It seemed reasonable to leave things for a while, but not forever.

In the Christchurch Press of 4 March 1978, Brian MacKrell of Palmerston North published an article headlined “The Night of the Hissing Discs”. He had earlier analysed the 1952 newspaper reports and his work produced the map referred to earlier. He said he was not a member of any organisation which believed in UFOs but he had collected newspaper reports of the sightings as a child. He had linked up the B29 bomber report from the Gulf of Mexico. He was aware of the 1909 airship reports.

With what appears to have been unconscious irony, the ODT republished the MacKrell article one week later. There is no indication that the ODT had any inkling of its role as the prime target in 1952.

Some of the group of now moderately old Knox men decided enough was enough, and Ken Nichol of Christchurch Teachers’ College revealed to the Press a general outline of the hoax. As far as I can tell the ODT never published Ken’s article.

As we expected, the reaction to the Ken Nichol revelation was mixed. Some letters refused to accept that the hoax was a hoax.

I believe it is clear from the editorial in the New Zealand Herald and the cartoon in the Auckland Star that the northern papers regarded the whole affair as entertaining and amusing. I suspect in retrospect that they might even have guessed that the ODT was the target. Certainly, when one looks at the New Zealand Herald over the relevant time, international news was not displaced off the front page in the Auckland papers as it was in the Otago Daily Times.

In terms of its basic purpose, the hoax was designed to make the ODT look foolish, mainly in the eyes of those who perpetrated the hoax itself, and hopefully to others. The low standard of professionalism shown by the newspaper reporters and sub-editors in terms of their analysis of Press Association reports, their failure to undertake some simple correlations, and their failure to pick-up the clues deliberately pointing to this being a hoax, almost certainly had no impact within the paper itself and probably not amongst a majority of worthy readers in Otago.

Hoaxers Satisfied

To those of us who took part in the hoax, there was a buzz of excitement and gratification. Our suspicion that the Fourth Estate could be manipulated, even by amateurs, was confirmed as were our thoughts concerning what determined some major aspect of newspaper policy. In a city that had prided itself as the intellectual centre of the country, the toes and part of the fore-foot of the main newspaper were revealed to us as objects of clay.

While we were poking fun at one major pillar of the Otago establishment, we were also indulging in the freedom offered by that academic environment and by New Zealand generally. Like the Oxford students who dug up part of Oxford or Regent Street and got away with it for something like a week, we had risked creating a nuisance of ourselves at the same time as we had challenged pomposity and credulity. We were mounting what we believed to be a humorous but constructive protest against what we correctly perceived to be the destructive nature of modern day superstition and witchcraft, and their handmaidens in some sections of the media.

Ours was a one-off exercise unlike the much more elaborate campaign undertaken in the seventies and eighties by the crop circle hoaxers. Bower and Chorley were in their fifties when they concocted their crop circle hoax as a joke, once again based upon a flying saucer motive. They also were staggered at their success and instead of confessing to newspapers, they made use of the original scheme to spell out the words “we are not alone” in 1986, and “copycats” in 1990. Once again, however, the believers took over and the huge geometrical precision of the July 1990 hoax convinced UFO Research Groups and the United Believers in Intelligence, that intelligence beyond any earthbound being had created the nine circle Worcestershire patterns.

Those particular episodes are much more complex than our own efforts, and just who is hoaxing whom remains unclear. At times it seems clear that the crop circle series may even have been maintained in the interest of some journalists, cynical or otherwise.

History does repeat itself in the arena of hoaxism and Lady Luck rides side-saddle e’en to the noo.

At least some who reacted to Ken Nichol’s preliminary confession believed that the Knox College students had betrayed their academic standards and had displayed a shocking lack of integrity. How could we be trusted on any stage thereafter? The argument that young radicals later became conservatives did not hold much weight with these stern critics. I believe that such guardians of absolute truth failed to perceive that we were acting out of a very healthy intellectual approach to life in general.

Moreover, from what I know of the subsequent lives of a moderately large number of the group concerned, they have maintained a sense of proportion during their careers and they have neither become cynics nor carping critics. Maybe it is their sense of humour combined with their serious intent and a critical capacity to analyse complex issues which has maintained in them this balanced perspective which is a key element in professional success.

I feel there is ironic justice perceptible in the fact that Russell Cowie is an acknowledged expert in the area of the nature and use of historical evidence. I hope that young people continue to behave in the way we did, particularly if they maintain into later adult life a sense of fun, a sense of proportion and an approach to the Establishment which is responsible on the one hand, but skeptical and critical on the other.

And so I conclude and leave you to your own interpretations of one of the cataclysmic events which brought to an end anno domini 1952.

The Great Nelson UFO

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.

More from A Skeptic’s Bibliography

Continued from last issue. Prices are US dollars.


Billig, Otto, Flying Saucers: Magic in the Skies, Schenkman Books, 1982, H-$19.95, ISBN 0-87073-833-X; P-$11.95, ISBN 0-87073940-9.

Klass, Phillip, UFOs: The Public Deceived, Prometheus Books, 1986, H-$19.95, ISBN 0-87975-203-3; 1986, P-$14.95, ISBN 0-87975322-6.

Klass, Phillip, UFO-Abductions: A Dangerous Game, Prometheus Books, 1988: 1989 (updated), P-$16.95, ISBN 0-87975-509-1.

Oberg, James, UFO’S and Outer Space Mysteries, Donning, 1982, P$6.95, ISBN 0-89865-102-6.

Sagan, Carl and Thornton Page, eds., UFOs: A Scientific Debate, Norton, 1974, P-$8.95, ISBN 0-393-00739-1.

Sheaffer, Robert, The UFO Verdict: Examining the Evidence, Prometheus Books, 1986, P-$14.95, ISBN 0-87975-338-2.

Ancient Astronauts and Cult Archaeology

de Camp, L. Sprague, The Ancient Engineers, Ballantine Books, 1988, P-$4.95, ISBN 0-345-00876-6.

de Camp, L. Sprague, Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme, Dover, 1970, P-$6.50, ISBN 0-486-22668-9.

De Mille, Richard, ed., The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies, Ross-Erikson, 1979, H-$19.95, ISBN 0-915520-257; P-$?, ISBN 0-534-12150-0, Wadsworth Press, 1990.

Hadingham, Evan, Lines to the Mountain Gods: Nazca and the Mysteries of Peru, Random House, 1986, H-$22.50, ISBN 0-394-54235-5, University of Oklahoma Press, 1988, P-$16.95, ISBN 0-806-12130-0.

Harrold, Francis and Raymond Eve, eds., Cult Archaeology and Creationism: Understanding Pseudoscientific Beliefs about the Past, University of Iowa Press, 1987, H-$20.00, ISBN 0-87745-176-1.

Stiebing, William H., Ancient Astronauts, Cosmic Collisions, and other Popular Theories about Man’s Past, Prometheus Books, 1984, P$13.95, ISBN 0-87975-285-8.

UFO Update

Dr J.F. De Bock gave the 1992 Conference an update on the study of UFOs.<>

The study of UFOs (UFOlogy) started out as research on unidentified atmospheric (or aerial) phenomena, but rapidly became invested with questionable researchers holding preoccupied, but popular, convictions that the earth is being invaded by extraterrestrials in their flying-saucer shaped spaceships.

The alleged recovery of aliens and their saucer in the 1947 Roswell Incident, and the photos of a hovering spaceship in the 1981 Gulf Breeze case, fuel the belief in extraterrestrial visitation. However, both cases are so invested with fraud, swindle, deception and contradiction that arriving at the truth is seemingly an impossible task.

To further cloud the credibility of serious UFO researchers, UFOlogy is forced to absorb subjects such as contactees, crop circles, Men in Black and cattle mutilations.

“True” UFOlogy is a continued unbiased research into verified sightings and encounters of mostly unidentified lights, occasionally exhibiting a physical reality by leaving a variety of tangible proof of exchange with the environment.

In 1989, during a UFO chase by two Belgian Fl6 fighters, the elusive unidentified object demonstrated seemingly controlled and deliberately evasive action, momentarily appearing to swing the balance in favour of the belief in alien visitation. Unfortunately, one finds that the case was reported by dubious researchers being too over-zealous to promote the extraterrestrial hypothesis. When the dust dies down, one is left with a confirmed sighting of a repetitive and common but puzzling occurrence of an unknown atmospheric phenomenon.