Friday, February 21, 2014

The RB-47 Case, American Airlines and Original Sources

Over the last several weeks I have been looking into the RB-47 UFO sighting from July 17, 1957. It is an interesting case with the possibility of multiple chains of evidence but that is a discussion for another time. Right now I’m more interested in the problem of original sources.

Let me explain.

I thought that I would see what Richard Dolan had to say about the case and was a little surprised that he devoted only about a half page to it. What I found more interesting is a second case he described on that same page. He wrote, “On the same day as the RB-47 incident, an airliner one hundred miles east of El Paso nearly collided with a UFO ‘at least the size of a B-47.’ Two passengers were injured and hospitalized; no known aircraft was near.”

Well, I recognized the report because this aspect had been presented in some of the RB-47 case notes I had seen and was actually connected to it. The footnote didn’t provide much illumination. It took me to Timothy Good’s 1988 book, Above Top Secret and page 283.

Good reported, “On 17 July 1957, Flight 655 en route from Dallas to Los Angeles with Captain E. [identified as Ted in some sources] Bachner at the controls had a near miss with an object ‘at least the size of a B-47,’ 100 miles east of El Paso, Texas. Two passengers suffered slight injuries and had to be taken to hospital on landing. No known aircraft were in the vicinity at the time.”

His footnote cited Coral and Jim Lorenzen in UFOs: The Whole Story which was published in 1969. They mentioned it on page 79 in the Signet paperback. I didn’t have this book in my library and the reason seemed to be that I spent most of 1969 outside the United States. I didn’t have the opportunity to see it.

But, knowing Coral Lorenzen and the way she created her books, I thought that there might be a mention of this in The APRO Bulletin. I checked the September 1957 issue and on page three found another reference, which would be indirectly, I believe, the original source of the quotes by Dolan and Good.

Here we learn that “Ted” Bachner of American Airlines was flying a DC-6 and was about an hour out of Dallas. He said that he spotted an object about ten miles away, climbing fast. It was coming at him and he said that when he saw it wasn’t going to miss, he “dumped my ship [dived] 200 feet in a right turn. It whipped only 50 feet over our heads. It sure looked big up there.”

Lorenzen concluded her report writing, “It has been definitely established that no planes were in the area at the time.”

Well, that wasn’t exactly true. In the original reports found in the Project Blue Book file, it was suggested that the other aircraft was a B-36 but there were none of those in the area at the time which doesn’t, of course, eliminate all aircraft.

The El Paso newspapers, not to mention the Blue Book files, establish that American Airlines Flight No. 655, did serve to avoid another object. Two passengers were injured, and this, because it was a near miss, required documentation, reports and investigation. The mysterious object in the near miss was American Airlines Flight No. 966.

Brad Sparks interviewed American Airlines Director of Operations Larry L. Strain on February 3, 1976, who said that both Bachner and the captain of 966, T. A. Hinson, agreed in their written statements on file that they had been involved in the near miss on July 17. In other words, the pilots of both aircraft had been found and both had submitted the required documentation for a near miss, which allowed investigators to identify the specific flights.

There is additional documentation. In a November 8, 1957 letter by Roy Keeley of the Department of Commerce to Brigadier General Harold Watson and eventually forwarded to Major George Gregory at Blue Book, Keeley wrote, “….incident mentioned occurred on July 17, 1957, near El Paso, Texas, and involved American Airlines’ Flight No. 655. Investigation of this incident definitely established the fact that the unidentified flying object was American Airlines’ Flight No. 966, which had previously departed El Paso, Texas, enroute to Dallas, Texas.”

It is certain that this “UFO” case has been identified. Coral Lorenzen can be forgiven because, when she prepared The APRO Bulletin, the information was that Flight 655 had nearly missed an unidentified object. The solution wasn’t provided until some months later. That solution was part of the Blue Book file which was not only classified in 1957 and in 1969 when her book was published, but misfiled so that even the Condon Committee investigators couldn’t find it in the late 1960s.

But decades later, when Good and Dolan were writing, that solution was available. The August/September 1957 issue of NICAP’s U.F.O. Investigator contained information about the incident with the note that “a scheduled flight of an eastbound four-engine airliner was undoubtedly the ‘unknown’ though no negligence was indicated.” (Which was published after Coral Lorenzen’s note in the APRO Bulletin, but before her book was published… she should have known about it at that time.)

Klass referenced it in his 1974 book UFO’s Explained as part of his flawed analysis of the RB-47 case (which is a discussion for another time… but he puts Flight 966 in the traffic pattern at Love Field, Dallas when it was actually nearer El Paso).

 I found the problems with the sources by following the trail. I shouldn’t have had to do that. Other writers should have done it first when they cited the case. I found it all because I was attempting to verify, from original sources, what was claimed. I had an advantage, having read the various other accounts of the RB-47 incident that predated either Dolan’s or Good’s books but they should have found some of them as well.

The footnote I could have created for this aspect of the case would be (remembering that Good’s book was published in 1988 and Dolan’s in 2000):

Clark, Jerome. UFO Encyclopedia, Second Edition. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1998: 781 – 783; Dolan, Richard. UFOs and the National Security State. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads, 2000: 199; Gillmor, Daniel S.  ed. The Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects. New York: Bantam Books, 1969: 260 – 266; Klass, Philip J. The RB-47 Case – A New Explanation. Washington, D.C.: The Author, December 30, 1971 (see also, Klass, Philip J. UFOs Explained. New York: Random House, 1974; 186 – 215); McDonald, James E. “Science in Default: Twenty-two Years of Inadequate UFO Investigations.” In Carl Sagan and Thornton Page, eds. UFOs – A Scientific Debate, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972: 56 – 70; Printy, Tim. “The RB-47 Case: UFOlogy’s Best Evidence?” SUNlite 4,1 (January/February 2012): 1, 5 – 38; Project Blue Book Files, Microfilm Roll 28, Case 4810; “Scientists Say Near Collisions May Involve Space Vehicles,” The U.F.O. Investigator, August/September 1957: 9,; Thayer, Gordon David. “RB-47 Radar/Visual Sighting.” In Ronald Story, ed. The Encyclopedia of UFOs. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1980: 297 – 298; “Two Planes In Near Collisions With UAO,” The A.P.R.O. Bulletin, September 1957: 3
These entries refer, for the most part to the American Airlines flights and how they crept into this case. In the last few years I have tried to make the footnotes and citations as complete as possible. Quoting a single source that is not the original source doesn’t have the credibility that a footnote that refers to the original source or that provides information on a variety of sources has.

And for those who had not been keeping score, it is clear that the Air Force explanation for the RB-47 case, that it was the American Airlines airplane does not work because the aircraft were nowhere near one another. At the time the crew of the RB-47 was reporting a visual UFO sighting, that airliner was more than four or five hundred miles away in El Paso, sitting on the ground. 


Curt Collins said...

It's by no means unique to the UFO field, this kind of lazy journalism and even outright plagiarism can be found in anything from newspapers to history books.

The Internet has seen an explosion of this, spreading bad information faster and further than ever. The biggest step backwards in accuracy in journalism may have been the ability to just "copy and paste" with a couple of clicks.

Lance said...


Have you read Tim Printy's long work on this case?


Terry the Censor said...

I like this kind of analysis, Kevin. An objective method of analysis that is free of partisanship. It requires no speculative explanations -- for or against a case -- just scrutiny of the sources.

Perhaps this is why so few partisans use this method and rely on second-hand sources they already agree with -- they get the answer they like.

Anyway, you're going to have to add a "UFO corrigenda" tag, you have so many of these kinds of posts. If you run out of book ideas, you can collect these types of cases together: cases that UFO proponents should stop citing as positive evidence. It would be a fine service to ufology.

KRandle said...

Lance -

Yes... had you looked at the footnote you would have seen his analysis in there.

Terry the Censor said...

I have a copy of UFOs: The Whole Story.

In the book, the whole episode is condensed to just one paragraph (a very slight source indeed).

Whereas the APRO Bulletin has Ted, the book has Ed. The book does not mention time of day or the altitude of the incident, but it does give us the flight number of Bachner's plane.

Anthony Mugan said...

Can but agree with the main point of your post. There are far too many secondary sources that get widely referenced that contain numerous issues. The problem cuts both ways with many sceptical authors damaging their case by excessive 'trimming' of the data to fit a particular hypothesis and many pro-ETH authors over interpreting the data or not properly checking their facts.
It makes for a mess and requires each of us to reinvent the wheel. The RB-47 case as a whole is interesting although it hasn't made the cut into my personal list of what I term 'primary cases' due to some wriggle room in the data it is quite close to making the cut and could come back into play if the frequecy of the signals detected turns up as significant from other evidence in the future.

There will never be a data set that is accepted by all but it is possible to get to a subset of cases where attempts to identify a mundane explanation can be convincingly falsified. We then need to come up with an actual set of tests for the ETH, but that's a whole other discussion.

jeff thompson said...

This excellent post illustrates well why only evidence matters. Claims and unverified quotes from published sources don't cut it.

Larry said...

So, if I'm interpreting this correctly, the two pilots involved didn't necessarily interpret this event as a UFO or Flying Saucer, but rather, as a conventional mid-air near-miss. The suggestion that it was somehow UFO-related came after the fact by others who weren't there.

So, Bachner saw an oncoming object, correctly interpreted it as being on a collision course, took the correct evasive action, and lived to tell about it. Everybody involved--including the pilot of the other aircraft agree about the facts. The point being, this seems to support the idea that Airline Transport Pilots (ATP) are generally pretty good and reliable observers in high stress situations like this.

So, why would we accept Bachner's and the other pilot's word when they say they had a conventional near-miss but reject (for example) Chiles' and Whitted's word when they say they had a near-miss with an unconventional object under similar encounter conditions (near head-on, high-speed, passing within 100 feet or so, etc.)?

Or, for that matter the Airbus A320 near-miss of a "cigar/rugby ball" metallic object near Heathrow, last summer?

Anthony Mugan said...

Hi Larry
Unless I've misunderstood it the 1957 incident was originally reported as a UFO but quickly identified.
It's off topic but whilst Chilles-Whitted is an interesting case there was a meteor seen in the area so it isn't the sort of totally 'clean' case that I'd personally use as part of the core data set, despite its historical significance in influencing SIGN's 1948 estimate.

Lyall M said...

Is the first sentence a typo or a test? I thought BS because the B-47 didn't begin test flights till December of 1947. It isn't till about three quarters of the way thru the 1957 date shows up which makes perfect sense for when the recon and electronic warfare entering service.


Ronboid said...

Regarding the B-47 linkage....
How can people in June 1947 be talking about B-47s when the B-47 didn't fly until December 1947?

KRandle said...

All -

Sorry about the 1947 typo... used to tying 1947 and it didn't help that the aircraft was a RB-47. Too many 47s running about here. I think I have everything that is supposed to by 1957 now corrected to that date.

Larry -

The difference here is that the documentation from the 1957 near miss exists, both pilots were identified, and all agree that the unidentified craft was another airplane... even the NICAP UFO Investigator for September 1957, suggest that the most likely candidate for the unidentified craft was another four-engine aircraft.

No one disputes that Chiles - Whitted saw something that flashed passed them. The question is about their interpretation of it. Their drawings of the object are remarkably like those of the Zond IV reentry that was clearly returning space debris. And, many of those videos of meteor falls that we see on the internet look quite a bit like a cigar-shaped craft with lighted windows.

So, there is no question that Chiles and Whitted saw something, were startled by it and even mentioned they, at first, thought it might be a jet. Given the descriptions and what we know now, it seems reasonable to identify their object as a bolide.

Dave said...

I wonder if you guys have read what appears to be an updated analysis of the RB47 case by Brad Sparks with an internal pdf date of 2011 at this link:,%20Manuals%20and%20Published%20Papers/Pilot%20Reports%20of%20UFOs/

the paper title is;


Rob Mercer said...

A couple of years ago I was given a few boxes of Blue Book files and papers by the officer charged with boxing everything up at Wright-Patt. The contents include various files that were put together for the press as well as collected items about UFOs (letters, cartoons, etc.), investigation tools, regulations, film, slides and more. In going through everything, I will occasionally come across a piece from a case that for whatever reason didn't make it to the National Archives. One item in particular that I came across was a color slide with a beautiful photo from inside a plane looking back towards the tail. It was among the papers in a folded white envelope. The only writing on the slide besides Kodachrome was the word "B-47 Tail" in pencil. I asked the lieutenant if he had any idea what it was from to which he had no answer. I've dated the age of the slide to be 1949-1957 by its style.
The slide shows a strange object behind the craft that could very well be a glare. I've done extensive searches, through the Blue Book archives but have found no case among any of the B-47 sightings that mention this photo. I just want to bounce the image off of other people that know a little bit about the RB 47 to get their opinion. The only thing I know for certain is that the slide did come from the Project Blue Book office in Dayton, this much I can prove. Email me to see it.