Sunday, June 23, 2013

Spy Balloons and Philip Klass

In the last few days I have been fielding some inquiries about the Staff Sergeant Charles L. Moody abduction in August 1965. Moody had mentioned to Jim Lorenzen, then the International Director of the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO), that after his UFO encounter, he had gone to the news stand and bought a copy of Official UFO. I wondered what might have been in that issue and thought I could figure it out based on the date of the sighting, but the most likely candidate is Official UFO Volume 1, No. 2, which I don’t have and probably would have had a publication date of August 1975. It would have been on the news stand in late July, if the normal distribution procedure held true.

I mention all of this to explain how I happened to see Official UFO Volume 1, No. 4, dated November 1975. As I was putting the magazines away, I glanced at the cover which had a big headline in the middle of the cover that said, “Interview: Philip Klass Tells – “Why I Don’t Believe In UFOs.”

Okay, seeing an interview with Klass so early in his anti-UFO career seemed interesting. The interview was conducted by George Earley, who found himself at FORTFEST ’74 in Baltimore, and had an opportunity to sit down with Klass for several hours.

All that was fine, but not particularly helpful, and most of what Klass told Earley was the same thing that he would say time and again in articles, his SUN newsletter and his various books. One thing I did find interesting was his discussion of secret balloon projects.

Earley asked, “There have been numerous claims of CIA involvement in the ‘UFO coverup.’ Didn’t they suggest debunking UFO reports at one time?”

Philip Klass
Klass said, “Yes, and I go into the reason for that in my new book [which is now, what, 38 years old]. Just briefly – about the time flying saucers were discovered (perhaps “invented” is a better word) [and I point out in my new book to be published later, Secrets in the Government Files… hey, everyone else promotes their work, why shouldn’t I? that the sightings began before the Arnold sighting] in the summer of 1947, the CIA and the USAF and the Navy were involved in a top-secret program involving giant, camera-carrying balloons. [That’s right, Klass is blaming balloons for UFO sightings made in 1947 in this 1975 interview]. They would be released from Western Europe; the westerly winds would carry them over the Communist Bloc countries – Soviet Union, Red China, etc. – snapping photographs all the way. Then, if the balloons arrived over Japan, we would send up a radio signal which would bring the camera down by parachute. We would recover the film. We would get a lot of pictures of Russian farms, but, hopefully, we would also get some pictures of Russian military installations, pictures that might indicate the Russians might be preparing to start World War III. This was 1947 – 48, remember.”

Well, our favorite topic here, Project Mogul was certainly underway in 1947, but they were experimenting with using microphones to detect nuclear explosions as opposed to photographing the Russian landscape, but Klass is referring to projects that actually existed including Moby Dick, Skyhook and Genetrix, to name just a few. And while most of them were operating, in a limited and experimental fashion in 1947, they didn’t actually get going until later.

Klass said, “They were experimenting. It began to become operational about 1949 or 1950. Because it was an intelligence gathering operation, the CIA was in overall charge. The Navy supplied the balloons while the USAF supplied the cameras, radio gear and the parachutes. The CIA knew we were flying balloons over Russia to photograph their military facilities, and now here we are getting flying saucer reports. Did this mean the Russians were doing the same thing – releasing reconnaissance spy balloons from Russia and Siberia to fly over the U.S. and photograph our military installations? In those days, back in the 1950s, where we had our missile sites, our air defense installations, our bomber bases was a very hush—hush operation.”

All well and good but the basic premise here is flawed. Klass is suggesting that these high altitude balloons being flown around were the genesis of the flying saucer reports and speculates that the Soviet Union might have been doing the same thing to us. Except the balloon operations here, in the United States, didn’t begin until after the Arnold sighting in June 1947, with the exception of Mogul, but those balloons were in New Mexico or on the east coast and numbered about a dozen. So, whatever Arnold saw, it wasn’t one of these balloons, and the follow up sightings reported around the country were not these balloons.

 Oh, don’t get me wrong, balloons, weather and experimental, were responsible for some UFO sightings. Although I’m worried we’ll get into a big argument about it, I believe that Thomas Mantell was killed chasing a balloon, so it did happen. But the genesis of the UFO sightings, which actually began earlier than Arnold, was not caused by balloon research.

Earley asked about Skyhook, and cosmic ray balloons. Klass said, “Yes, the same type of balloons as used for that. And they flew at such very high altitudes – 100,000 feet or more – that they could not be shot down by ordinary fighter planes of that day. Of course this was a classified program, but what is [emphasis in original] a matter of record – and you can check on this – is that not all of those balloons made it to Japan. They developed leaks or came down for various reasons, and they came down in Russia and the Russians complained about ‘spy balloons’ in the United Nations. There are accounts in the New York Times about this. The U.S. delegate at the U.N. simply said that these were not spy balloons but scientific research balloons. So the CIA’s interest in flying saucers had nothing to do with the idea they were spaceships from another world; the possibility that they were Russian spy balloons similar to ours was what concerned them.”

Well, that might not be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but there is some truth in there. The Japanese, during the Second World War had succeeded in launching some 200 to 300 attacks on the United States using “balloon bombs.” Six people were killed in these attacks, and some forest fires were set, but given they had launched some 9000 of the balloon bombs, the results were small and the damage done was of little consequence. The tragedy was the deaths of the six people… which given the destruction rained down on England, Germany and Japan during the war pales in comparison.

Anyway, the timing seems to suggest that the balloon explanation offered here is a little more enthusiastic than the data warrant. But what is really interesting was that Klass was floating [pun intended] the idea of balloons before it was fashionable. Kind of like the old adage, “Let’s just send up a trial balloon ….”


cda said...

You mention the Mantell case. I accept the skyhook balloon answer. What we cannot say is whether it was a genuine cosmic ray research balloon or a 'spy balloon' intended for the USSR. I would say the former, but we cannot be certain.

As to the general idea that these balloons were used for spying on Russia, Klass was probably overplaying the case. When you consider the period in question (late 1940s) and the high risk that such a balloon would stray off course and land in Russia, or in fact anywhere else (and would thus be lost), I find it hard to believe that many of them were launched at all. Japan? Why should any finder in Japan even bother with it, let alone inform the authorities and return the film? What about the vast areas of China, Mongolia, Siberia and so on where the device might descend? Would a casual civilian finder even bother with it, especially if it was tagged in a foreign (to them) language?

What I am saying is that the expense of sending these spy balloons thusands of miles to hopefully land in other countries hardly seems worth getting (maybe) a few lucky photos of Russian missile sites. Think of all the wasted and useless film on board, just to get one very lucky snapshot.

In due course these 'spy balloons' were replaced by better things like the U-2 and then, of course, spy satellites. The former took off from a base in Peshawar, Pakistan. And we know what happened to one of these, don't we?

Steve Sawyer said...

Part 1 of 2:

My understanding (as minimal as it is) is that the Skyhook-type "spy balloons" had constant altitude adjustment hardware on board in addition to camera equipment.

If the vast majority, as seems likely, were launched near the Western European borders of the then Soviet-occupied countries surrounding the Soviet Union's main land mass into generally West to East air flow patterns at a certain height in the atmosphere, or stratosphere, it would have been well worth the "random" or "lucky" chance of getting aerial photos of Soviet and East Bloc military bases, airfields, troop formations, etc., since during the post-WW II era (up until the advent of the U-2), no other nearly as effective means to technically surveil broad expanses of Soviet territory were possible or even existed to get such critical, objective intelligence, since the Soviet Union was fully-closed to foreign outsiders, and Western aircraft, with few exceptions, that were closely-controlled and monitored in any case.

Considering that the NSA/NRO have spent up to $2 billion plus for one spy satellite, or that one B-2 bomber with all associated costs is also more than $2 billion each, what's a few thousands of dollars for a camera-equipped, balloon-borne photo or other type of technological spy system (acoustic, like Mogul, or to detect radiation particles from nuke tests, etc.) in the early days of the Cold War? The U.S. could well afford it, and had the critical "need to know" what the Soviets might be up to militarily, since they had the A-bomb and were our primary enemy.

The potential payoff would have made it well worth launching dozens, perhaps hundreds of such surveillance systems on very high-altitude balloon systems, would it not? They couldn't be shot down, and no air or land-based missile systems existed in the Soviet Union at that time to knock them down, either.

And, as Klass himself was quoted in Kevin's post here as saying:

"They would be released from Western Europe; the westerly [actually, that should be "easterly"] winds would carry them over the Communist Bloc countries – Soviet Union, Red China, etc. – snapping photographs all the way. Then, if the balloons arrived over Japan, we would send up a radio signal which would bring the camera down by parachute. We would recover the film.

Recovery of film capsules dropped upon radio signal on parachutes was also done in mid-air by specially equipped aircraft, btw, just as was done with the early spy satellite film pods ejected from low-orbit at predetermined times, which when they entered the atmosphere, would then also pop a parachute and be retrieved in mid-air by special aircraft with a big, horizontal "V"-shaped apparatus on their noses to catch up the parachute lines and draw the photo cartridges into these specialized aircraft.

And, it wouldn't have mattered is such balloon-borne systems periodically malfunctioned, for technical or weather-related reasons, usually, and fell short of the planned photo cartridge-pod release points, whether Russia, China, or elsewhere. It was anticipated that a relatively small number of such systems might (and did) fall into "hostile territory," when the Soviets or others could actually or belatedly find and locate them, that is. Most just got lost and "disappeared" into the wilderness. They may have even been equipped with atmospheric-level detectors with auto-destruct explosives if they fell below a certain altitude short of planned recovery destinations. Just part of the multi-faceted "program" and inherent risks such intelligence projects always have and/or "carry." The project engineers and intelligence personnel involved were not dummies, anthropomorphic or otherwise. [Heh... little 'Roswellian' reference, there. 8^} ]

Steve Sawyer said...

Part 2 of 2:

OTOH, there is the question of really how truly effective these early Cold War balloon-borne photo and other intelligence sensor systems actually were.

I suspect not nearly as successful as would have been hoped by their creators.

But as to the specifics of the quality and level of results or "findings" from such systems, they seem largely to have been "lost" to history, and/or may still be mostly classified under the usual proviso of "sources and methods" restrictions.

The main point is that such early "spy systems" on either Skyhook-type balloons or balloon trains, like Mogul, were considered so important that many classified projects employing such airborne means were, figuratively and literally, "launched."

The nature of the intelligence to be gained [since within a few years after the Soviets' unanticipated early test of their first A-bomb in 1949 (detected, btw, by "technical intelligence," on a radiation-sensor / filter-equipped U.S. spy aircraft flying near Soviet borders picked up airborne nuke explosion radiation isotope particles, not Mogul), the Soviets then had copied the B-29 and B-36 and had the airborne means to fly to the U.S. and Europe to drop gravity nuclear bombs in a potential first strike], was so incredibly critical to know and confirm the particulars of, that a variety of balloon-borne and other sensor-based systems, both on border-flying and even border-violating U.S. aircraft (and ground-based detection systems) were promulgated before the U-2 to attempt to gain the crucial intelligence that the military and intelligence community agencies were compelled to try and gather for national security defensive purposes.

So, fuck yeah, balloon-borne and a wide variety of other airborne and ground-based systems were developed to gain the PHOTINT, IMINT, SIGINT, COMINT, and MASINT (measure and signature intelligence) required to get a better handle on and foreknowledge of any moves the Soviets might make to initiate a nuclear war.

Cost, "waste," "luck," or other "random" variables were both anticipated, and much less important than some might surmise, due to the absolute "need to know" what the Soviets militarily were (or might be) up to.

The memories of Pearl Harbor were still fresh, and searing, in the minds of the American men and women in the military-industrial-intelligence-governmental "complex" who survived WW II, and a nuclear first-strike by the Soviets was such a frightening and unthinkable potential that it had to be addressed and determined, in advance, by all possible means and at all costs, financial and otherwise.

As for "And we know what happened to one of these, don't we?" as CDA so coyly references the Soviet "SA-2 missile shoot-down" of Gary Powers U-2 on May 1, 1960, well maybe. Maybe not.

Powers is alleged to have thought, among a number of others, that a bomb was planted in the tail section of his substituted U-2 prior to takeoff from Peshawar, Pakistan, and was intended to bring down his U-2 nearly intact, in order to sabotage the aircraft, provide the Soviets with an intelligence coup, and to then, as a consequence, derail the imminent Paris "Four Powers" Summit meeting that Eisenhower and Khrushchev would have attended two weeks later and that might have led to an early form of U.S. - U.S.S.R. detente, which apparently neither the U.S. nor Soviet military were all that "keen" about.

Of course, that's just yet another speculative conspiracy theory. You know, like some UFOs being, well, perhaps something as yet truly unknown. 8^}

Kurt Peters said...

... words.... words... words...

....who among us understands that Klass was the Avionics Editor of the premier cold war CIA disinfo mag:

Aviation Week & Space Technology????

Steve Sawyer said...

"... words.... words... words..."

Yeah, "Kurt" -- Pssst... Over here. Uh-huh. Let me tell you a little secret. Words have meaning. They convey ideas. Provide a medium for debate. This is a comment thread.

Get used to it.

Maybe even contribute something useful, or more productive than your usual oddly "humorous" asides.

Oh, and most here with a knowledge of history already know Klass was AW&ST's avionics editor, a very interesting magazine I began reading 40 years ago, and which I doubt could be accurately described as the "premier cold war CIA disinfo mag."

They reported on and broke a large volume of stories on various aerospace, spy satellite, military aircraft, and other mil/intel tech development issues that I would surmise the CIA, among other "three-letter agencies," really weren't too pleased about at times. Not at all.

Or was that just your opinion? Sources? Cites? Yeah, I didn't think so...

Or are you just "into it" for the diversionary 'lulz,' as the netkiddies once used to say? 8^}

Kurt Peters said... Steve 'Eyeball' Sawyer...while I realize that you are SO busy with the release of your new flic: 'Monsters University', perhaps you might find a few minutes to 'describe' your tech bona fides and your assured clearance-based achievements, OK?

Kurt Peters said...

P.S. 'Mike Wazowski'... I forgot to ask that you enlighten me as to how YOUR aerospace credentials can get MY notice, honey....

Kurt Peters said...

P.P.S., Mikey:

"premier cold war CIA disinfo mag." is most likely the most accurate thing I have written here.

Kurt Peters said...

(...I am getting tired now....)

ANYWAY... Mikey: I began reading Aviation Week over 45 years ago, as it was part of an acronym that will likely befuddle your genius:


Anthony Mugan said...

Perhaps the main point is that whilst some small fraction of UFO reports from the period can plausibly or possibly be connected to high altitude balloons of various types the idea that this 'explains' the origin of the 1947 wave is just bizarre and unfortunately therefore consistent with quite a reasonable proportion of Klass' proposals on this topic.

Steve Sawyer said...

How does one even begin to respond to the kind of comments, above, made by "Kurt Peters" to me?

Other than to simply ignore them.