Wednesday, June 29, 2011
BY KEITH ROGERS
AND ANTONIO PLANAS
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
The pilot of a downed F-16C Fighting Falcon remained missing late Tuesday several hours after his jet crashed in a remote area near Caliente during an air-to-air combat exercise, a Nellis Air Force Base official said.
"At this time we are focusing our efforts on the ongoing search-and-rescue mission for the missing pilot," Brig. Gen. T.J. O'Shaughnessy, commander of the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, said at a news conference shortly before 11 p.m. "What we are looking for now is the parachute and the pilot."
The jet, which went down about 5:30 p.m., did not have live weaponry and was not equipped with an active locating device, O'Shaughnessy said. He described the exercise that preceded the crash as a "dogfight" between two aircraft.
Search-and-rescue teams identified the crash site, which was about 20 miles west of the Lincoln County community on relatively flat land owned by the Bureau of Land Management. Caliente is about 155 miles north of Las Vegas.
O'Shaughnessy did not identify the pilot, who was the only person in the aircraft.
The Nevada Test and Training Range, where the exercise was being conducted, has 12,000 square miles of military operating airspace, but jets such as the F-22 Raptor can cross it in seven minutes, flying at roughly 17 miles per minute.
A trained safety investigation board will collect evidence and try to determine the cause of the crash during the next several weeks, O'Shaughnessy said.
The F-16 Fighting Falcon flies at a maximum speed of about 1,500 mph. It is a fighter jet used by multiple Air Force squadrons, including the Thunderbirds air demonstration team, which is based at Nellis.
More than 4,400 F-16s have been manufactured since 1976. The F-16C and F-16D models cost about $19 million each. The C and D models were built in the 1980s, and there are now about 1,280 in the U.S. inventory, according to an Air Force fact sheet.
The last fatal crash during a combat exercise over the Nellis range complex occurred July 30, 2008, when Lt. Col. Thomas A. Bouley, who commanded the 65th Aggressor Squadron, was killed when his F-15D Eagle fighter jet went down with a Royal Air Force exchange pilot observing from the back seat.
The United Kingdom observer pilot managed to escape the crash by ejecting 740 feet above the high desert terrain of the sprawling training range, 50 miles east of Goldfield.
Air Force investigators determined that pilot error coupled with "aircraft anomalies" sent the two-seat F-15D into a violent spin.
They found that a yaw-roll phenomenon created a spark of uncontrolled flight that resulted in the jet spinning about 20 times in less than 90 seconds. This caused Bouley to become disoriented and misjudge how close the plane was to the ground.
Contact Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.
Posted by Steve Douglass at 12:32 PM
UFO Myths: A Special Investigation into Stephenville and Other Major Sightings
By Phil Patton
"It was the most beautiful sunset I'd ever seen," says Steve Allen, who has seen 50 years of sunsets in central Texas. "That's what I first thought."
It was Jan. 8, 2008, and the trucking entrepreneur was sitting around a fire outside the Selden, Texas, home of Mike Odom, his friend since first grade. Then he saw the lights — orbs that glowed at first, then began to flash. "There was no regular pattern to the flashing," he says. "They lined up horizontally, seven of them, then changed into an arch. They lined up vertically, and I saw two rectangles of bright flame. That's when I knew it was a life-changing experience." He watched the lights drift north toward Stephenville, the seat of Erath County. "They came back a few minutes later," Allen says, "this time followed by two jets — F-16s, I think." Allen, who owns and flies a Cessna, has seen plenty of military planes over the years. "The jets looked like they were chasing the lights, and the lights seemed to be toying with them. It was like a 100-hp car trying to keep up with a 1000-hp one."
Odom also saw the lights and called to his wife, Claudette, who came outside in time to see the second display. When Allen returned home, he phoned friends at the local airport who checked with the Fort Worth airport tower. "Both said nothing was flying," Allen says.
That night, James Huse, a former Air Force navigation specialist, was in downtown Stephenville saying good-night to a couple of friends. "Out of the corner of my eye I saw two red orbs moving overhead," he says, "the reddest things I'd ever seen in the sky. They came right in front of me at 2000 ft about half a mile away. They weren't going that fast, maybe 60 mph. They didn't make any noise."
Outside Dublin, about 15 miles southwest of Stephenville, Constable Lee Roy Gaitan finished eating a slice of his wife's birthday cake, then headed out to his patrol car to get his wallet so his family could watch Mr. Bean on pay per view. That's when he saw the lights. "First, I saw a yellow-red orb the color of lava in a volcano," he says. "Then, instead of the red orbs, there were nine or 10 flashing lights maybe 3000 ft in the air, bouncing and very bright. They hovered there, strobing for 2 or 3 minutes, bright like German auto headlights. Then they shot off at blazing speed like a school of fish, you know, when it's frightened." Later, Gaitan says, two jets flew over.
The next day Allen called Angelia Joiner, a reporter at the Stephenville Empire-Tribune, and told his story. The paper published Joiner's piece — "Possible UFO Sighting" — on Jan. 10. It was the first of her numerous articles about the lights. On Jan. 11, Joiner called Maj. Karl Lewis, public affairs officer of the 301st Fighter Wing at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth (formerly Carswell Air Force Base and now used by all the services). Lewis said the base had nothing flying the night of the sightings. Other nearby bases issued similar denials.
It all added up to the most dramatic UFO incident in more than a decade. "Texas Town Abuzz Over Dozens of UFO Sightings," wrote Foxnews.com. "Are UFOs Invading Texas?" asked Texas Monthly. "UFOs Put Stephenville in World Spotlight," said the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. CNN showed up, along with ABC, the BBC, and other TV crews from as far away as Japan. So did Bill O'Reilly and Larry King. A longtime UFO fan, King devoted a segment to Stephenville and interviewed Gaitan and Joiner. Jake and Dorothy's Café, near the courthouse square, became a favored journalist hangout. "One day I went into Jake and Dorothy's for coffee, the way I always do," Huse says, "and there was a TV crew on one side of me and reporters on the other."
The Stephenville sightings had all the elements of a classic UFO incident — first reports, official denials, independent witnesses stepping forward. The Texas dairy town of 17,000 with the statue of a cow in the main square had joined Roswell, Area 51, and other small places as an iconic name in the annals of UFOs.
On the December night I drive from Dallas to Stephenville, the moon is in congruence with Venus and Jupiter: The two planets and crescent suggest a flag's heraldic pattern. By the end of the evening, the sinking moon is huge and orange, like a Ferris-wheel-size slice of cantaloupe hung in the trees.
The illusion that the moon is bigger near the horizon is just one of the tricks our eyes play on us when we observe objects in the heavens. Humanity has long infused these mysterious shapes and lights with portents and meanings interpreted according to the cultural notions of the day. The star-related deities of the Egyptians, the godlike comets of the Greeks, the mysterious shapes in the skies of Renaissance frescoes — all were forerunners of flying saucers. "The tendency to believe in the paranormal appears to be there from the beginning," Christopher Bader, a Baylor University sociologist, told LiveScience. "What changes is the content. Few people believe in fairies and elves these days. But as belief in fairies faded, other beliefs, such as belief in UFOs, emerged to take its place."
There is no dispute that UFOs exist — that is, objects flying through the sky that are unidentified. (In fact, one in seven Americans say they have seen UFOs.) But that, of course, does not mean they are ships from a distant galaxy. We humans tend to leap to conclusions, imagining alien spacecraft while discounting more likely explanations.
Over the centuries, the technology to record UFOs has evolved from marks on clay to video clips, and the causes of sightings may have changed from comets to secret aircraft, but the psychological pattern endures: It is the story of people projecting hopes and fears onto objects in the sky.
The Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), which is probably the most influential organization within the highly combative and suspicious UFO community, received so many reports about the Stephenville lights that the Colorado-based group set up an open hearing in nearby Dublin, Texas, birthplace of Dr Pepper and golfer Ben Hogan. On Sat., Jan. 19, some 500 people streamed into the 1909 brick building that is home to the local Rotary Club. "Everywhere I turned there were TV tripods," says Steve Hudgeons, a Fort Worth construction project manager and chief of MUFON's investigations in Texas.
Many people in attendance were simply curious. A few wore tinfoil caps. But more than 200 people came forward to tell their stories, with some sightings going back 30 years. Hutcheons and other MUFON investigators considered about 20 reports to be substantive and relevant to the Jan. 8 incident and promised to publish a report.
On Jan. 23, 12 days after denying it had planes in the air, the military reversed itself. According to a carefully worded press release issued by Air Force Reserve Command Public Affairs, "Ten F-16s from the 457th Fighter Squadron were performing training operations from 6 to 8 pm on Jan. 8 in the Brownwood Military Operations Area [MOA], which includes the airspace above Erath County."
Why the flip-flop? "It was an internal communications problem that has now been fixed," says 301st Fighter Wing spokesman Lewis. Inconsistent disclosures by the military have often fueled UFO speculation. The military changed its story about Roswell numerous times after 1947, when Air Force officials first claimed to have "captured" a flying saucer, then denied it.
Adding to the atmosphere of mistrust is the military's refusal to release details of operations, including training flights. Lewis declines to give specifics on hardware or tactics used over Erath County. During training, he says, "we fly like we fight."
By mid-February the Empire-Tribune had lost interest in the Stephenville lights; their reporter Joiner had not. She left the paper to run a Website about the sightings, funded by Allen. The Dublin Citizen, however, continued to pursue the story. Publisher and editor Mac McKinnon, a former Air Force historian whose office is hung with model warplanes from his days in the service, saw some curious lights in January. "I believe the military has all sorts of exotic propulsion systems and other technologies we don't even know about," he says. He assigned the story to reporter Jon Awbrey, who also saw lights — "a triangle with squares at the corners."
Awbrey put me in touch with Dublin police chief Lannie Lee. In January two of his men had taped one of the lights using the dashboard video in their patrol car. He had not made the tape public. "I didn't want any notoriety to be attached to the department," the mild-mannered chief says. He pulls out a VHS tape and leads me to the back of the station and puts it in the machine. On the screen, a dot appears against a black sky and begins to dance. The camera zooms in on a shimmering, bouncing but otherwise featureless circle of light. "It goes on like that for about an hour," Lee says.
The reports from January reminded another Dublin resident, machinist Ricky Sorrells, of a huge object he says he saw in December when he was deer hunting. "I looked at it through the scope on my deer rifle," Sorrells tells me over burgers at the Dublin Dairy Queen. He is a big man who has just come in from hunting, dressed in full camouflage. He describes what he saw as a "huge gray object," the color of galvanized metal, with no rivets, bolts, or seams. "It was about 100 ft tall and about 300 ft up in the air," he says, comparing the height of the object to the grain elevator where he once worked.
It was the first of several sightings for Sorrells. He captured one of them on video. In the Dairy Queen, he unfolded his cellphone and handed it to me. I saw a tiny video of a barely discernable white shape moving through the sky.
After its Dublin open hearing, MUFON filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the military branches and other governmental agencies. Only the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Weather Service acknowledged they had relevant information and forwarded radar data.
In July, the group released its report, which suggests that several fighters as well as an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane were in the area. But so, they claim, was a mysterious large object, without the required transponder that identifies and locates aircraft. The report concludes that a very large unidentified craft or object "was tracked on radar for over an hour. Most of the time, the object was either stationary or moving at speeds of less than 60 mph. At 7:32 pm, the object was tracked accelerating to 532 mph in 30 seconds and then slowing to 49 mph only 10 seconds later."
Radar blips would seem to present a positive, nonsubjective way to observe UFOs. Studies from the Condon Report, published in 1968 by the University of Colorado, to the Air Force's Blue Book project to a 1997 evaluation by the Society for Scientific Exploration, however, have found that radar can be "fooled" in simple ways. Anomalous propagation, or false echoes, is most often caused by ground clutter, often a result of low-level temperature inversions that muffle ground radar's electronic pulse and lead to a circular scatter of returns based on hits from buildings and trees.
In extreme examples, called ducting, the temperature inversion can bend the beam all the way back to the Earth's surface, so a surprising radar blip turns out to be a hill or a building. With the introduction of more advanced filtering software over the past decade, the number of UFOs attributed to false returns has decreased significantly.
Former Air Force pilot, astronomer, and longtime UFO skeptic James McGaha believes that some such form of radar scatter was responsible for the returns that MUFON interpreted as a solid object. The FAA did not describe any such object, nor was it clear whether it was in the Brownwood MOA. "They had a huge amount of data," McGaha says, "and they just pulled a few bits of information out of it and drew a line."
In the fall, just when it seemed as though Stephenville might be forgotten, the sightings began again. People were no longer hesitant to come forward. Their descriptions often compared the lights to arc welding or burning magnesium — lights bright enough to interrupt a little league football game in Stephenville. The descriptions followed a pattern similar to the one experienced by Peggy Delavergne. On the night of Nov. 18 she saw lights while driving her children home to Stephenville after a basketball game in Dublin. "At first there were two very bright gold lights," she says. "Then there were more lights, like a string of pearls — not quite a circle and not quite egg-shaped. My husband was in another vehicle, and he saw them too. He called me on his cellphone and asked me, 'Do you see that?' I don't know whether it was from somewhere else or from the military, but something is going on out there."
A high school student named Carli Crutcher shot a photo of the lights that Mac McKinnon ran in the Dublin Citizen. It shows streaky, stringy forms.
What's in the sky? Some skeptics, like McGaha, believe that the Stephenville, Phoenix, and many other sightings can be attributed to military aircraft and evasion or illumination flares.
Flares have a long association with UFO sightings. One night in late February 1942, the sky over Southern California lit up with strange blinking lights near various defense plants. In what has become known as the Battle of Los Angeles, the Navy unloaded four batteries of antiaircraft artillery at what turned out to be a balloon carrying a red flare. A decade ago, mysterious lights seen by thousands of Phoenix residents were actually leftover flares dumped by A-10 pilots with the Maryland Air National Guard.
Some Erath County residents dismiss the flare theory. "I've seen military flares," Allen says. "They are not even the same color as the ones I saw." But evasion-flare technology evolves rapidly, as the military tries to keep one step ahead of the increasingly sophisticated tracking capabilities of antiaircraft missiles. At one time evasive maneuvers consisted of sharp turns against the sun. When missiles got smarter, pilots began dropping bright flares; infrared seekers homed in on the decoys while warplanes fled from the field of view.
But today's missiles can track far more than the heat signatures of engines. They can pick out targets among decoys by discerning a warplane's movement and shape. Spectral sensors on missiles can even detect the color differences between a jet engine and a flare. In response, the military has deployed a variety of flares that can move under their own power and change color.
People in Erath County are certainly familiar with warplanes. During my visit, I get a taste of the 3200-square-mile Brownwood MOA in action. Helicopters and jets fly day and night. One afternoon, while I'm driving to Dublin on Highway 377, a T-38 Talon supersonic jet trainer rips past only a few thousand feet above the road.
The MOA is well-known to the leading civilian authority on Texas airspace, Steve Douglass. The author of Military Monitoring and an expert consulted by Aviation Week, Douglass has been tracking operations from his base in Amarillo for a quarter century. He is part of the so-called interceptors network, the plane spotters caricatured in the film Broken Arrow as "those guys in lawn chairs" staking out runways and bases. "Brownwood is used by Navy, Air Force and Army units," Douglass says, "including Apache helicopters, B-1s, C-130s, and F-16s. There are AWACS from Tinker AFB in Oklahoma City and KR-135 tankers from Altus in southwest Oklahoma. The airspace is especially active these days, with the new F-35 tactical fighter being assembled at a factory in Fort Worth and tested in the MOA." Lockheed Martin spokesman John Kent confirms that on Jan. 8, 2008, the first — and until June 2008, the only — F-35 test plane, the AA-1, was in Fort Worth, but it was not in the air that night. "It's restricted to daytime flight," Kent says, so that chase planes can monitor it.
Stephenville is only the latest in a long list of UFO incidents that are likely based on military operations, starting with the Battle of Los Angeles. Whether the recent Texas sightings were flight exercises involving evasion flares or tests of an existing plane, a new plane or a UAV, any military activity in the area is likely to remain unexplained for awhile. We now know about the secret programs behind the UFO sightings of decades ago. But what of programs that are still secret?
In the past, many projects sponsored by DARPA, which was behind the original Stealth and UAV research, have begun as secret black programs before showing up as public white ones. One example: stratospheric sensors developed for high-altitude airships under the ISIS program, which may have existed for years before it was made public in 2004. (Its funding for 2007 was $24.7 million.) These sensors could be used on huge wing- or boomerang-shaped blimps that can fly at altitudes of more than 60,000 ft and hover unmanned for months. "There have been many sightings of large, slow-moving triangle-shaped airships," says Steve Douglass, "starting with a sighting near Antelope Valley, Calif., in 1990." For many years airliners and ground observers have reported boomerang-shaped craft near Groom Lake.
The tethered "aerostat" lighter-than-air craft, which appeals to many agencies as a so-called poor man's satellite, also may trigger sightings. The Air Force uses these surveillance systems along the U.S.-Mexico border to support antidrug operations. The departments of Defense and Homeland Security are evaluating unmanned inflatables 500 ft long.
The military's secrecy exasperates some Stephenville locals, even veterans. "It's been 30 years since I was in the Air Force," James Huse says, "but I don't understand why they wouldn't come out and tell the truth. If they have the capability of putting on a show like that all they have to do is tell us. We'd get out our lawn chairs and watch."
But the Air Force's legitimate need for secrecy extends beyond its black programs. It releases information about all domestic flights on a case-by-case basis, says Capt. Rose Richeson, of the USAF Air Education and Training Command. "Usually we don't mind talking about training," she says. "But we would not talk about specifics if it were a matter of national security, or give details about training methods or mission scenarios that could be used by enemies of the United States."
Meantime, Stephenville has settled uneasily into its newfound notoriety as a UFO site. Some locals have become skeptical about the motives of MUFON. "Who funds it?" asks Steve Allen. And a certain amount of backbiting has set in among some of the eyewitnesses. Lee Roy Gaitan worries that some locals who have reported sightings are "just not credible" and cast doubt on his genuine account. "Some people stretch a story," Huse says. Others resent the way they have been depicted. "I made the mistake of saying it was as big as a Wal-Mart," Allen says. "People have been teasing me about it ever since."
"I didn't call them flying saucers or extraterrestrials," Huse says. "All I said was that it was unidentified flying objects, and I'm sticking to that. I couldn't identify them." People in Erath County, Huse says, aren't nuts or hicks. "We are just ordinary people who happened to look up."
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Posted by Steve Douglass at 10:52 AM