Investigation of UFO Events at Minot AFB
on 24 October 1968
On Friday, 1 November, Col. Quintanilla consulted a Mr. Goff within the Foreign Technology Division at Wright-Patterson AFB. The previous day, Werlich had informed Lt. Marano that he would be forwarding additional information to Blue Book, including the RAPCON tapes, radarscope photos, and overlay map; although, at this point, the only information available to Quintanilla was the Basic Reporting Data.
Talked to Mr. Goff, TDPA, who is quite familiar with air-borne radars. Mr. Goff said that from the evidence at this time it would appear to him that the sightings may have been precipitated by some type of ionized air plasma similar to ball lightning. He felt that a plasma could account for the radar blip, loss of transmission and some of the visual sightings. The entry of the missile site is being investigated by local authorities and with the information at our disposal at this time no explanation is offered.
Later that day, Quintanilla responded to Col. Pullen’s request of 29 October to submit a preliminary report for Deputy Chief of Staff/Intelligence Gen. Stewart, in order “to get this thing simmered down.” He had already informed Pullen that “I’m (Col Quintanilla) pretty sure it was either caused by an internal radar malfunction that also caused the blip or because of the inversion he might have also picked up an anomalous blip.” Evidently he reconsidered as a result of his conversation with Mr. Goff.
TO COL PULLEN SSO SAC. FROM LT COL QUINTANILLA. REFERENCE OUR TELECON WITH REGARDS TO MINOT AFB UFO’S. IT IS MY FEELINGS, AFTER REVIEWING PRELIMINARY INFORMATION SUBMITTED BY M[I]NOT THAT UFO PAINTED BY B-52 ON RADAR AND ALSO OBSERVED VISUALLY BY IP AND PERSONNEL ON GROUND IS MOST PROBABLY A PLASMA OF THE BALL-LIGHTNING CLASS. PLASMAS OF THIS TYPE WILL PAINT ON RADAR AND ALSO AFFECT SOME ELECTRONIC EQUIPMENT AT CERTAIN FREQUENCIES. PLASMAS ARE NOT UNCOMMON, HOWEVER, THEY ARE UNIQUE AND EXTREMELY DIFFICULT TO DUPLICATE IN THE LABORATORY. ALSO BECAUSE OF THE TIME DURATIONS, FEEL STRONGLY THAT SOME SECURITY GUARDS AND MAINTENANCE CREW WERE OBSERVING SOME FIRST MAGNITUDE CELESTIAL BODIES WHICH WERE GREATLY MAGNIFIED BY THE INVERSION LAYER AND HAZE WHICH WAS PRESENT AT MINOT DURING THE TIME OF THE UFO OBSERVATIONS. DO NOT CONSIDER THE PHYSICAL VIOLATION OF THE LOCK AS BEING RELATED IN ANY WAY WITH UFO’S. I CONSIDER THE UFO REPORTS AS FAIRLY ROUTINE, EXCEPT FOR THE PLASMA OBSERVATION WHICH IS INTERESTING FROM A SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW. WE WILL STUDY THIS REPORT IN MORE DETAIL WHEN WE RECEIVE THE RAW DATA FROM MINOT.
This is the first indication in the documents of a mechanism to explain both the air-radar and air-visual observations by the B-52 crew, which could also account for the loss of UHF transmission. Since “plasma of the ball lightning class” will be Blue Book’s final identification of the cause for the UFO reports, this would be an appropriate place to consider the basis for their conclusion.
“Plasma, Similar to Ball Lightning”
Plasma is the most abundant state of matter in the universe, which is visible as the electrically charged gaseous state of our sun and the stars. It is a distinct phase of matter separate from solids, liquids, and normal gases, which occurs at high temperatures when atoms are stripped of negatively charged electrons to form positively charged ions.
Most importantly, ionized gas can conduct an electrical current. The field of plasma physics is the science of ionized gases interacting with electric and magnetic fields that profoundly influence the state, either generated by current flows within the plasma (such as lightning), or applied externally. For example, the aurora borealis and australis is an affect of plasma accelerated from the sun's atmosphere into interplanetary space in the form of solar wind, compressing the earth’s magnetic field.
Furthermore, lightning is a result of electrical discharges in the atmosphere breaking down into plasma, creating a conductive channel to earth for current in the form of a superheated lightning bolt to flash back up to the thundercloud. In all cases, a tremendously powerful source of energy is required to produce and sustain the state; otherwise, the plasma quickly dissipates and recombines as a neutral gas.
Ball lightning is an ephemeral phenomenon most often associated with thunderstorms. Witnesses typically describe a luminous ball one to 25 centimeters in diameter with the brightness of a domestic light bulb. It nearly always moves at speeds of about three meters per second, while floating about one meter above the ground; and may last up to 10 seconds or more, whereupon the ball extinguishes noiselessly or sometimes with a bang.
It is a well-documented phenomenon in the sense that it has been observed for centuries, and in many cases by well-qualified observers. However, anecdotal descriptions vary widely making it difficult to distinguish its specific and defining characteristics. Whatever it is, its appearance and behavior are unlike anything else we routinely come across in nature, though, without fully established properties, it cannot be argued to be an explanation for any strange report of a variety of glowing atmospheric phenomena.
Still, scientists endeavor to formulate an explanation for the existence of ball lightning. For example, a popular explanation proposed by Nicola Tesla (1904), is that ball lightning is highly ionized plasma (plasmoid) contained by self-generated magnetic fields. However, on closer examination this hypothesis appears untenable, since the ionized gas would be extremely hot and rise like a hot-air balloon. Adding magnetic fields might solve the problem of the coherence of the plasma but would make it even lighter. Most importantly, what source of energy could sustain a stable plasma ball preventing it from rapidly dissipating?
Plasmas are notoriously unstable and by nature evanescent, except when suitably contained and provided a sustaining energy source. Any valid theory for ball lightning must incorporate the energy source. For example, John Lowke (1996) proposed an interesting mechanism to explain the occurrence of ball lightning occasionally reported to enter houses through screens or chimneys, and even through glass windowpanes. To account for this, he proposes that after a lightning strike to ground, a moving electrical field pulse following filamentary paths in the ground continually breaks down atmospheric gases above the ground, thereby producing a moving corona ball. The reforming of the ball as the field moves through the windowpane gives the observer the impression that the ball has passed through the windowpane. While many theories have been advanced none account for all reported characteristics. Due to its unpredictability (roughly once in every million lightning bolts), naturally occurring ball lightning cannot be studied with scientific instrumentation, unless produced artificially in the laboratory. [Note: In 2012, scientists in China observing a thunderstorm captured a natural ball lightning event for the first time with digital video and two spectrographs].
Though ball lightning has long been a scientific curiosity, renewed interest in the 1960s followed the publication of statistical investigations by J. R. McNally (1960) in the Proceedings of the Second Annual Meeting of the Division of Plasma Physics of the American Physical Society. Interest increased as scientific journals published on the subject and research opportunities became available. For example, in 1968, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research provided a grant to physicists at Westinghouse Research Laboratories to study ball lightning; and a popular book written by an editor for Aviation Week & Space Review theorized ball lightning might be the cause of many unusual UFO reports (Klass 1968).
In October 1967, under the auspices of an Air Force UFO study contract with the University of Colorado, a group of physicists expert in plasma and atmospheric electricity convened to consider the theory. They examined a report of a large glowing object that paced an RB-47 aircraft over a distance of more than 700 miles, which was observed as an intensely luminous light by the pilots, confirmed by ground-radar, and detected on sophisticated ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) monitoring gear onboard the RB-47. After review, the unanimous conclusion was that the object was not plasma or an electrical luminosity produced by the atmosphere.
While the plasma-UFO theory found no support in the scientific community, it was occasionally useful to Blue Book in identifying some unique UFO reports, despite the fact it postulated one unknown phenomenon to explain another. Even so, the reported characteristics of the Minot UFO scarcely suggest a correlation to “plasma of the ball lightning class.”
- Most commonly, ball lightning observations occur during thunderstorms and are associated with lightning. Aside from the fact that late October is not when seasonal thunderstorms occur in northern climates, the weather was moderate and cool, with a high overcast, and visibility reported as 25 miles.
- Whereas a typical ball lightning is about the size of an orange or a grapefruit; in nearly all instances, the size of the UFO was described as very large — compared to the size of an aircraft.
- Whereas, ball lightning has a lifetime of 10 seconds to one minute, the UFO echo painted on the B-52 radar paced the aircraft for about 10 minutes. Later, the pilots visually observed the UFO in a stationary position on or near the ground for at least 4 minutes.
- Whereas, ball lightning typically moves horizontally about a meter above the ground at a velocity of a few meters per second, the UFO paced the B-52 from 20,000-9,000 feet altitude at speeds up to 280 knots (322 mph).
The only characteristics that correlate to some degree are color — typically red to yellow (though ball lightning is not particularly bright, or reported to change color); and the correlation to electromagnetism, which provided Blue Book with a justification for explaining the B-52’s radar echo and concurrent loss of UHF transmission.
Project Blue Book Final Report
On Thursday, 7 November, Col. Pullen in the Special Security Office at SAC Headquarters responded to Quintanilla’s TWX message of 1 November, prompting him to complete his analysis and forward a final case report.
REFERENCE YOUR TDPT MESSAGE REGARDING MINOT AFB UFO. SAC COMMANDER AND STAFF ARE EXTREMELY INTERESTED IN THIS ITEM. REQUEST A COPY OF YOUR REPORT OF THIS INCIDENT BE FORWARDED THIS HEADQUARTERS AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. IF ANY DIFFICULTY IS ENCOUNTERED SECURING RAW DATA OR ASSISTANCE FROM MINOT PLEASE ADVISE. YOUR EXPEDITIOUS HANDLING OF THIS INCIDENT IS APPRECIATED.
Nearly one week later, on 13 November, Quintanilla completed his evaluation and forwarded the Minot UFO case report to SAC. The final report consists of a one-page letter providing his conclusions in the form of multiple-choice possibilities, and eleven pages of attachments cobbled together supporting the conclusions.
TDPT (UFO) 13 NOV 1968
UFO Observation, 24 October 1968
Special Security Office (SAC)
1. Reference SSO message 071540Z, with regards to evaluations of UFO reports from Minot AFB. The following conclusions have been reached after a thorough study of the data submitted to the Foreign Technology Division. The ground visual sightings appear to be of the star Sirius and the B-52 which was flying in the area. The B-52 radar contact and the temporary loss of UHF transmission could be attributed to a plasma similar to ball lightning. The air visual from the B-52 could be the star Vega which was on the horizon at the time, or it could be a light on the ground, or possibly a plasma. The physical violation of the lock of OSCAR 7 does not seem to be related to UFOs in any way.
2. No further investigation by the Foreign Technology Division is contemplated. For your information we are attaching a copy of the sequence of events, a resume of the sightings and a discussion of the background information.
FOR THE COMMANDER
HECTOR QUINTANILLA, Jr., Lt Colonel, USAF Chief,
Aerial Phenomena Branch,
Aerospace Technologies Division,
Quintanilla explains the ground-based observations as appearing to be “the star Sirius and the B-52 which was flying in the area.” Misidentification of aircraft or celestial objects were often useful as default explanations, particularly when complete and sufficient information was unavailable to rule out the possibility. In fact, an accurate reconstruction of the entire flight track of the B-52 was possible, since RAPCON controlled all movements and conversations were recorded with time references. In any case, the notion that military personnel, whose work required them to remain at remote stations for days in the countryside surrounding Minot AFB, would not be familiar with routine movements, patterns, and sounds of jet-powered aircraft seems disingenuous.
Quintanilla suggests that the haze and layered cloud conditions could have diffused the light sources making identification difficult. However, the overcast conditions only existed above 9,000 feet, while the B-52 would have been below these altitudes when it was in vicinity of the base, which is also when the landing lights would be turned on. In addition, such an explanation requires believing that more than 16 ground observers in various locations all misidentified the aircraft — an unlikely occurrence. It also requires that both the B-52 and the star Sirius account for the entire range of ground observations, implying that observers could not differentiate between a scintillating fixed star and a B-52 in flight.
For an extended period, the personnel at N-7 were observing a UFO in the south-southeast sky, though their descriptions scarcely suggest the misidentification of a fixed star. Sirius is one of the brightest celestial objects in the sky and easily seen during the winter months due to its blue-white brilliance. At the time of the sightings, it was in the south-southeast to south sky at 159-175 degrees azimuth, ascending at elevations above the horizon from 22 to 24 degrees. To account for the confusion of the observers, Quintanilla introduces contributing factors, including a moderate temperature inversion during the period.
Normally, rising air will cool at a uniform rate as it ascends in the atmosphere, creating a gradient in which temperature decreases by an amount known as the adiabatic lapse rate. Due to weather conditions, in certain situations a warmer layer of air above prevents the cooler air from rising, creating irregularities in normal lapse rates, while increasing the scintillation of celestial objects viewed through the atmosphere.
Blue Book typically appealed to any evidence of a temperature inversion, especially when explaining anomalous radar echoes, since atmospheric inversion layers can refract and reflect radar waves, producing spurious returns on the radarscope. But recent evaluations by Martin Shough of Blue Book’s radiosonde data, including a more comprehensive data set provided by the U.S National Climatic Data Center, indicate gradients generally close to the mean, and do not support the conditions inferred by Blue Book.
As previously discussed, the possibility that “plasma similar to ball lightning” could be the cause for the B-52 radarscope return is untenable, and without scientific foundation. On the other hand, Claude Poher has proposed that the loss of radio transmission could conceivably be the result of a zone of highly ionized air encompassing the UFO. For example, when the B-52 co-pilot pressed the button to transmit, the amplitude of the antenna's local electrical field would increase, immediately attracting the ions and electrons. With a thick layer of ions encircling the transmission antenna the transmitting energy would be absorbed in the agitation of ions and the heating of air. In this instance, the critical frequency (484 MHz) is superior to the frequency of communications (270 MHz), and the wave is absorbed rather than transmitted. In addition, the B-52’s IFF/SIF transponder transmitted without a problem since it operated above the critical frequency at 1 GHz.
Quintanilla further suggests that ”possibly a plasma” could account for the large object visually observed by the B-52 pilots on or near the ground. Ball lightning is such a rare and ephemeral phenomenon that the probability of a huge ball of plasma maneuvering at various speeds near a B-52 for 10 minutes, and later appearing to hover near the ground for at least 4 minutes without any evident source of energy to sustain it, in fact, constitutes a UFO in all but name. Nevertheless, Quintanilla provides two additional possibilities: “The air-visual from the B-52 could be the star Vega which was on the horizon at the time, or it could be a light on the ground.” Based on information supplied by Quintanilla in his report (Attachment #3-1), at the time of the observations the star Vega was about 345 degrees azimuth, and two degrees below the horizon. The B-52 heading was 290 degrees placing Vega to their right. In other words, for the pilots to observe Vega they would have had to view it out of the right side cockpit window — below the horizon line. In fact, they flew directly toward the object that was on or near the ground beneath them.
Finally, the suggestion that it “could be a light on the ground” fails to identify any source for the “unusually bright light never seen [before] in this area,” which according to Maj. Partin, “looked like a miniature sun placed on the ground.”
The 24 October 1968 Minot AFB case provides a unique opportunity to examine official attitudes and Air Force policy regarding the UFO phenomenon. In this case, Quintanilla’s conclusions were typical of the methods, and faux science the Air Force employed to eliminate unidentified reports, and reassure the public of the lack of evidence behind UFOs. For over two decades the policy was successful, and continues to reinforce a prohibition on taking UFOs seriously. This is particularly true in authoritative public sectors where the publication of erroneous and more often misleading scientific data, sustained by the repetition of false narratives, has effectively established a culturally induced ignorance or doubt. What has always been lacking and remains so after more than 60 years is an objective, systematic scientific study of the UFO phenomenon — in a search for the truth.