The term “flying saucer” was first coined back in 1947. A businessman and pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported what became the first major UFO sighting of the post-war era. When he landed his plane near Tacoma, Washington, Arnold told reporters that the objects he witnessed had flown in formation and appeared to float across the sky “like a saucer skipping across the water.” That name caught on with journalists and the public. In the decades since, there have been tens of thousands of reported sightings, along with a much smaller number of alleged UFO “crashes.”  The debris and other evidence has allegedly been hidden by the U.S. government.  Investigative reporter George Knapp looked into two of the most controversial cases in Part 2 of “UFOs: The Best Evidence.” Originally aired on Nov. 7, 1989, on KLAS TV in Las Vegas.

Series logo for 1989’s
“UFOs: The Best Evidence”
Read the entire series here.

Billy Meier is a one-armed Swiss farmer with a 6th-grade education, an unlikely choice to pull off the world’s most sophisticated UFO hoax. Since 1975, Meier says, he’s been in contact with cosmonauts from the Pleiades star cluster. Meier isn’t the first to claim extraterrestrial visitations, but he is the first to document contact in such stunning detail, with more than 800 photographs of strange aircraft. Not the fuzzy, phony UFO photos the world is accustomed to, but clear daylight pictures of multiple flying disks and identifiable reference points in the foreground and background.

UFO Expert Lee Elders spent five years investigating the Meier claims and he has yet to find evidence of a hoax.

 “The Meier photographs were the best we’ve ever seen in 40 years of record keeping. In fact, the quote we kept getting is they are too good to be true,” Elder said.

Elder says he was coaxed into investigating the Meier case by retired Air Force Col. Wendelle Stevens. The team spent five years gathering evidence, including the photos, film footage and sound recordings. More than 40 eyewitnesses substantiated Meier’s claims. Also investigated were small pieces of strange metal and reputed landing sites with the same swirling impressions (crop circles) that 10 years later would be associated with UFOs in England and other countries.

Instead of turning to UFO researchers, Elders and Stevens went to independent experts for their analysis. An IBM chemist concluded the strange metal was produced in a cold fusion process, a technology that at the time was is in its infancy on Earth. Hollywood special effects artists said the photos and film footage would be extremely difficult to fake and computer analysis of the photos by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and two universities found no evidence of a hoax. The bottom line: Outside experts independently decided the Meier material is legitimate. Added Elder, “I am personally 98% convinced that Meier did have visitations, 2% I reserve because it didn’t happen to me.”

However, the UFO community, angry at being excluded from the investigation declared Meier a hoax. Unsubstantiated stories were circulated that the Meier photos were of models suspended from a fishing pole. Elder found no evidence to support that theory. “Number one, what’s his motive? It’s not ego, it’s not money. Number two, how could he do it on the resources he had, $500 equivalent of Swiss francs per month? I don’t think one man could hoax this case. I don’t think a team of men could hoax it. How do you get 40 people to agree to a hoax over a period of time up to 8, 10 years.”

The Mutual UFO network, or MUFON, also considers the Meier case to be a hoax mainly because Meier would not cooperate with MUFON’s attempted investigation.

Editors note: Since 1989, additional information and analysis has emerged in the Billy Meier case. Although Meier still has many proponents who vigorously defend the legitimacy of his claims, further investigations by UFO organizations and independent researchers have raised serious questions, not only about the photos and videos but also the physical evidence cited in the Meier case. Included are links to sites that have explored the Meier claims in detail.

UFO Casebook: The Billy Meier Photos and Videos

Billy Meier UFO Case: Welcome to the Billy Meier UFO Case website

UFO hoaxes do happen, but fakes are rare, says physicist-turned- UFO expert Stan Friedman, as documented by the Air Force investigation called project Blue Book.

 “The number of hoaxes was fewer than 5%. The number of unknowns were more than 20%,” Friedman said.  “The number of psychological aberrations, a beautiful way to say crackpot cases was 2%. The hoaxers may get more press than they deserve because there are a lot of lazy media people around.”

It’s more than lazy media though. The Meier case, for instance, illustrates ufology’s most glaring weakness: the suspicion and jealousy that permeate the field. It sometimes seems as if everyone wants to be the only one who knows the true UFO story. UFO believers end up using the same tactics as UFO skeptics, ostracizing those whose ideas don’t conform.

Ask John Lear. His contention that ETs are evil is so far askew from mainstream UFO thinking that some MUFON members resigned during a symposium rather than listen to Lear.

Aviation pioneer John Lear. (KLAS-TV)

Lear was accused of spreading government disinformation, the most serious insult that can be made in UFO circles. Ironically, one man who made that charge, author Bill Moore admitted at that same symposium that he had been duped into disseminating false data planted by the government.

Would the government really go to such lengths to discredit UFO researchers?

It has, and it does.

Consider the example of Kenneth Arnold, the pilot whose sighting in 1947 spawned the term “flying saucers.” After his sighting report generated national attention, Arnold was investigated by the FBI, CIA, and IRS. Some government personnel suspected that Arnold might have been working as a communist operative.

Later, the CIA engaged in ongoing surveillance of UFO organizations. One prominent UFO club was infiltrated by CIA operatives. CIA personnel were eventually elected as officers of that organization, known as NICAP.

CIA scientists discussed how they might discourage UFO reporting by the public. One proposal in the 1950s involved famed animator Walt Disney. The CIA planned to recruit Disney to produce cartoons that ridiculed UFO sightings. Another plan involved popular television personality Arthur Godfrey.

More recently, a former Air Force intelligence officer with a history of spreading false UFO information appeared on a national television program, his face hidden, and told the audience the Air Force has alien beings in its custody and that the ETs enjoy eating strawberry ice cream. To some, this sounds like a government conspiracy.

 “And that’s exactly what it is. The government has been lying to the public for 42 years. It’s very, very difficult to go back and say we admit that we’ve been lying to you,” said Walt Andrus of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) back in 1989.

Forty-two years is a long time for the government to keep anything a secret, let alone something as sensational as UFOs. UFO researchers couldn’t agree more. They say there have been huge cracks in the coverup but that the public and press haven’t been listening.

Army intelligence officer Maj. Jesse Marcel saw the Roswell wreckage and things “not of this earth.” (KLAS-TV)

At the center of this whole scenario is a conservative New Mexico town, Roswell, which in 1947 was home to the Roswell Army Air Base. Roswell is the birthplace of what some have called the cosmic Watergate. What happened on that night in July 1947 sounds like the plot of an old science fiction movie. Residents saw a bright object streak across the sky, 70 miles out of town it exploded scattering debris over a large area. Rancher Mack Brazel found the strange metallic fragments and days later reported the matter to authorities. Roswell intelligence officer Maj. Jesse Marcel was dispatched to the scene to collect the wreckage. “One thing I was certain of, being familiar with all our activities that it was not a weather balloon, nor an aircraft, nor a missile. It was something else which we didn’t know what it was,” Marcel said.  

Marcel added that the thin foil like metal was virtually indestructible with strange hieroglyphics written on it. In his words, “It was not of this earth.”

Lt. Walter Haut, interviewed years after the Roswell incident, wrote a press release saying pieces of a flying saucer were recovered. (KLAS-TV)

Base commander Col. William Blanchard, certainly familiar with all aircraft of the day, agreed. He called up his press liaison, Lt. Walter Haut who recalled the conversation. “He called and said words to this effect. We’ve got pieces of what we think is a flying saucer.”

Haut wrote and released a story that was immediately picked up by newspapers and wire services spurring phone calls from all over the world. Maj. Marcel was told to load the wreckage into a B-29 and fly it to Wright Field in Ohio. He landed first at Haight Air Force headquarters in Fort Worth, where Gen. Roger Ramey took control of the debris, ordered Marcel and others to keep quiet and issued another news release saying the debris was from a crashed weather balloon. As he and Marcel posed for reporters with debris from a balloon, the real wreckage, according to witnesses, was flown under armed guard to Ohio. Years later Major Marcel admitted the ‘photo op’ with media was meant to deceive, “The newsmen saw very little of it too, a small portion of it, and none of the important things … that have these hieroglyphics or markings on it. And when the general came in, he told me not to say anything … that he would handle it.”

Army Lt. Bob Shirkey said a funeral parlor in Roswell, New Mexico, provided small caskets for alien bodies. (KLAS-TV)

The story held for 30 years until Stan Friedman and his colleagues started digging. They found more than 100 witnesses with first- or second-hand knowledge of the Roswell incident. They also believe that the debris was from an alien spacecraft that crashed miles beyond the Brazel ranch. Numerous witnesses say they saw the crashed disk, the bodies of dead aliens inside, but the military seized the evidence and swore them to secrecy. Lt. Walter Haut says flat out the story of the weather balloon was a coverup, so does fellow Lt. Bob Shirkey, the officer who ordered up the B-29 that transported the strange debris. He saw the wreckage and thinks if it really was from a weather balloon, it would not have been flown to Ohio in such a hurry. Shirkey also has knowledge of the alien bodies. The information is from a close friend who ran the town funeral parlor in the ‘40s. It has never been made public until now.

“Did you see the sketches in the paper of the humanoids, or the bodies, and I said yes.” Shirkey said his friend told him, “I can tell you that’s what they looked like. Our funeral parlor supplied the caskets for the Air Force to use because we had the contract and they came in and took all the baby size or youth size caskets we had.”

What would an alien spacecraft be doing and Roswell in the first place? Well, in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, New Mexico had more UFO sightings than any other place in the world. Consider one possible explanation. It was at Los Alamos that the atomic bomb was developed and built. The Trinity site is where the first A-bomb was detonated. White Sands is where all post war missile tests were conducted, and Roswell was home to the 509th, the only Atomic Bomb Wing in the world. If an alien intelligence wanted to learn about human military capabilities, New Mexico was the place to be. The strange sightings and somewhat flimsy excuses continued long after the alleged Roswell crash.

Lonnie James, an Air Force radar operator, tracked an object that moved “well over 2,000 mph.” (KLAS-TV)

Air Force radar operator Lonnie James worked at Roswell in the ‘50s. He recalls at least three instances when UFOs were picked up on radar and seen from the ground. Jets were scrambled but they couldn’t get close. “The sweep on the radar comes around every five seconds. The rate of speed was so great … it disappeared off the radar before we could get a check the speed on them,” said Sgt. James. He estimated their speed at “well over 2,000” miles per hour. The Air Force stuck to their story that the strange craft were weather balloons. “Weather balloons do not behave in that fashion,” was the response from Sgt. James.

The people of Roswell had a hard time believing the government stories about the crash. Harry Riedel, Editor at the Roswell Daily Record explained it this way, “I think after the recent exposure, I think that really a lot of people believe it.”

A newspaper account of rancher Mack Brazel’s report of a UFO crash near Roswell, New Mexico. (KLAS-TV)

An odd footnote to the story. In September, the Roswell incident was featured on the NBC program Unsolved Mysteries. Within days of that broadcast, the people of Roswell started seeing weather balloons. During our interview with Walter Haut a weather balloon floated over his backyard. Another was spotted on the drive from Roswell to Albuquerque. Is there a vital need for weather data in the New Mexican desert or is someone trying to prove something?

Former U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater thinks there’s something fishy about the whole story. As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and an Air Force general, Goldwater had a top-secret security clearance. During a visit to Wright Patterson Air Base in Ohio, he asked to view the hangar where the Roswell wreckage and other UFO information were reportedly stored. Permission was denied. Goldwater later wrote that he was told the matter was classified above top secret. He was also told to never ask again.

Next Story: Secrecy surrounds UFO studies since 1940s — Part 3