Prosaic Explainations: The Failure Of UFO Skepticism

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The Case of the Flashing Triangle

It is rare when the physics of the physical evidence in a sighting absolutely proves a prosaic explanation to be wrong. If there is physical evidence associated with a UFO sighting, its value or pertinence is generally disputed by the skeptics, who find some justification for ignoring the physical evidence and thereby removing an impediment to accepting the proposed explanation. However, in the case I am about to discuss the physical evidence stands on its own and MUST be explained if the sighting is to be rejected as evidence for the ET or OI/NHI hypothesis.

During the early morning of December 31, 1978, between 12:15 AM and 3 AM local time there was a series of sightings off the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand. These sightings made news around the world. While flying on a freighter aircraft loaded with newspapers a TV news crew saw and filmed strange lights which, in the opinion of the experienced air crew (pilot, copilot) were extraordinary. The series of sightings can be very roughly divided into three parts: (1) between 12:10 AM and 1 AM while the aircraft was flying from Wellington to Christchurch; (2) between 2:10 AM and 2:40 AM while the aircraft was flying northeast from Christchurch; and (3) between 2:40 AM and 3 AM while the aircraft was flying roughly north-northwest toward Cape Campbell (on its way to Blenheim; see FIGURE 9).

The sighting of a very bright light during part (2) was featured in international media because of the lengthy color movie film made at the time. It was this section of film that garnered a collection of spurious explanations such as Venus, Jupiter, light reflected from the breasts of flying birds, drug running aircraft and a Japanese squid boat (which uses bright lights at night to lure squid to the surface where they can be netted). Although the numerous prosaic explanations offered for the sightings in parts 1 and 2 have been shown to be wrong there is not space in this article to describe them. Instead, the subject of this discussion is one of the sightings that took place during part 3, a sighting that never was discussed by the media (probably because it was not emphasized in the original press stories out of Australia and New Zealand). The complete story of this part has been published in the article entitled, "Analysis and discussion of the Images of a Cluster of Periodically Flashing Lights Filmed Of the Coast of New Zealand, which is published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol 1 #2, 1981, pg. 149 ( An email version is available from the author. The published article presents the in-depth analysis of all the images in the movie film obtained during this sighting. It is sufficient for this discussion to describe only those few images which are of particular interest here.

The TV news cameraman used a large Bolex electric camera with a telephoto lens. He held this camera on his shoulder because there was no room on the flight deck for a tripod. The flight deck has windows at the front and sides positioned so that the fields of view of the pilot and copilot, added together, is somewhat more than 200 degrees from left to right (the pilot sits on left side of the cockpit, the copilot on the right). The cameraman sat in a seat between and slightly behind the pilot and copilot and therefore had a field of view of less than 180 degrees. This is important to understand, because from his position he could not film the right wing of the aircraft without placing his camera lens directly in front of the copilot or sitting in the copilot's seat.

At 2:51 a.m., as the Argosy freighter was heading almost northward enroute from Christchurch to Blenheim (see FIGURE 9), the Wellington Air Route Traffic Control Center (WARTCC) announced to the crew that there was a large radar target north-northwest and about 20 miles ahead of them. They were about 20 miles east of the coast, approaching Cape Campbell, at the northeastern "corner of the South Island, at the time of the radar report. The air crew and the news crew recall seeing a light appear ahead of the plane and the news reporter on board recorded a statement about seeing a flashing light "like an aircraft beacon" that suddenly dropped downward and started "rolling and turning." He also said that he could see "orange and red among the lights." This all appeared to be happening in the sky above the land or ocean near the northeastern area of the South Island.

Although it is impossible to prove from direct evidence that the cameraman filmed this same light (because there was no synchronization between the filming and the audio tape), it can be proven that this section of his film was taken in the same time frame (before the landing at Blenheim, which is on the film). Moreover, the film does, indeed, show a flashing light which cannot be identified with any known light in the area. Its flash rate is about once per second.

The movie camera created a series of pictures, called "frames," which recorded the images of the light, one after another, at a rate of about ten frames (ten pictures) per second. (The cameraman intentionally slowed the frame rate from the normal 24 frames per second in order to be sure that he got good exposures of the images.) Looking frame-by-frame through the 279 frames of the flashing light one finds that there are about ten frames per cycle of the flash (nearly thirty cycles are on the film). During each cycle the images start large and white or very pale yellow (overexposed) and they shrink in size and brightness to dim combinations of red and yellowish-orange and then increase in brightness and size back to large and white. It is of importance, for comparison with the proposed prosaic explanation, to note that the overexposed images have NO trace of red associated with them (see FIGURE 10).

Philip Klass devoted three chapters of the above cited book (UFOs, The Public Deceived) to the famous New Zealand sightings. He proposed numerous prosaic, though, in my opinion, wrong, explanations for the lights seen and filmed and for the radar targets which were reported during the flight of the aircraft, first southward from Wellington to Christchurch (part 1 mentioned above) and then northward from Christchurch to Blenheim (parts 2 and 3 as discussed above).

In Chapter 27 he discussed the section of film which is of interest here. Klass described the flashing light in the film as follows: "a light that fluctuates rapidly from dim red-orange to a bright white, then back to red-orange, then back to bright white at approximately the flash rate of the red-orange anti-collision beacons installed atop and beneath the the Argosy's fuselage."

Here Klass refers to the red, not red-orange, rotating beacons on the top and bottom of the aircraft. These beacons project narrow beams of light that rotate around and appear as red flashes to a distant observer. These beacons were captured on film by the cameraman before the flight began. He set up his camera on a tripod while the plane was still at the airport and filmed the plane as the engines were warming up in order to "run in" his camera. The images of these beacons show that when the light is pointed at the camera and is, therefore, brightest, the image is overexposed and consists of a yellow central circle surrounded by a wide, red annular region, i.e., a red ring around a yellow center (see FIGURE 10).

Noticing that the flash rates of the upper beacon and the light on the film were, for all practical purposes, equal, Klass proposed that the flashing light on the film was actually the upper beacon. How could this have been done since there was no way the cameraman could directly film the beacon from inside the aircraft? Klass writes:

"(the cameraman) would not have been able to film the topside beacon directly. But its intense illumination could have been reflected off one of the aircraft's rotating propellor blades when the beacon rotation rate and the propellor speed were roughly synchronized., Such synchronization would have occurred when (the captain) began to throttle back for his descent (into Blenheim), possibly increasing the propellor pitch angle. A short time later, when he throttled back further, the requisite synchronization would have been lost and the (UFO image) would mysteriously disappear."

The images on the film vary considerably in shape and size from frame to frame. Klass offered the following explanation of the image shape changes:

"If (this section of film shows) a reflection of the beacon from the curved surface of the propellor blades, whose rotation rate was not perfectly synchronized with the rotating topside beacon, it readily explains the remarkable changes in shape,size and appearance of the (UFO) images that occur in a fraction of a second."

The actual explanation for the shape change is straightforward and has nothing to do with a hypothetical temporary synchonization of the beacon and the propellor rotation. Since the cameraman supported the camera on his shoulder in a moving, vibrating airplane most of the images were smeared by camera motion. However, some images were either not smeared or were smeared very slightly. This is because the camera pointing direction vibrated about some average position. Each time the image moved away from the center of the film the cameraman would twist the camera to recenter the image. The image would reach a maximum distance from center and then the image motion would momentarily cease before the direction reversed and the image moved back toward the center. Therefore, the frames obtained during moments of direction reversal, the "stationary frames," contain images that were not smeared or smeared very little. The brightest white images in these stationary frames are circular or nearly circular. The white and red-orange images that occur between stationary frames were stretched by the camera motion into "hot dog" shapes (elongated). The stationary frames which contain the dimmest, smallest images show a very unique arrangement of lights: a triangle consisting of an orange "dot" image just above two side-by-side red "dot" images.

Klass points out in his book that I rejected his hypothesis that the UFO image could have been a result of filming the reflection off the propellor of the beacon. Unfortunately, however, he did not describe my objections to his hypothesis even though he should have known what they were because of our extensive discussions of this sighting in numerous letters long before he wrote his book. (Note: I first explained to Klass the optical reasons for rejecting the beacon as the light source - see below - in May and June, 1980, nearly 3 years before his book was published. Yet he published his explanation anyway.)

My first objection is not based on physics but on the fact that the cameraman, from his middle seat, could not have filmed in the direction of the propellor without putting his camera in front of the copilot or sitting in the copilot's seat, and neither the cameraman nor the copilot recall either such event.

The second objection is based on fundamental physics (optics/photography) and is, in fact, devastating to Klass' "prosaic explanation." (As mentioned above, I made him aware of this objection but he did not include it in his book.)

The clues have already been given and the astute reader may have already deduced the second objection. It is most evident in the comparison of the bright, overexposed UFO images with the bright, overexposed beacon images. As I stated above, the cameraman filmed the red flashing upper (and lower) beacon before the plane took off. The film shows that when the beacon was pointed toward the camera the images were relatively large and consisted of a yellow central circular area surrounded by a wide red annular region. The yellow center is caused by overexposure to the extent that the film cannot produce the correct color (it produces pale yellow rather than red because more film color layers than just the red-producing layer have been exposed by the extreme intensity of the light). The red annular region is a result of light scattering sideways in the film. As the light scatters sideways from the extremely bright central region of the image, the intensity decreases to a level at which the film can produce the correct color, in this case, red. (Example: had the light been green there would be a pale center with a very green annulus around it.)

This is completely different from the brightest images on the UFO film, however. A careful examination of the overexposed images shows that the centers are white or very pale yellow and there is NO red annular region (see FIGURE 10). That means that these images were absolutely NOT made by filming a red light, whether directly, as by having the camera film directly toward the beacon, or indirectly, such as by reflecting the beacon light off the rotating propellor blades. (There is another optical/photographic reason for rejecting the "propellor-reflected-light" hypothesis: a reflection off propellor blades would be extremely weak because the blades do not "fill up" the space. After all, propellor blades "disappear" and you can "see through them" when they are rotating rapidly. Any reflection under such circumstances would be extremely weak and diffuse and very unlikely to cause any overexposed images.)

Hence Klass' explanation is rejected for perfectly good physical reasons. (Note: a TRue UFO might be able to violate physics as we know it, but known objects such as beacons, cameras, and film cannot violate physics as we know it. The previous argument against the beacon hypothesis is based on well-known optical physics.)

The logical, skeptical response to the absolute rejection of this explanation would be, of course, to propose another explanation. Since the airplane was flying many miles off the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand, and since there were beacons along the shore, the first logical suggestion would be that the film shows one of these beacons. The cameraman said he was certain that he had not filmed a beacon. He said that whenever he saw a light which he couldn,t identify he asked the pilot or copilot to identify it. The air crew was, of course, familiar with the beacons in the area and told the cameraman which lights were beacons. The statement by the cameraman is supported by a comparison of the film images with known beacons. Careful analysis of the film indicates that the source of the images was a triangular arrangement of lights consisting of a pale yellowish-orange light that pulsated at about 1 Hz, which was above two pulsating side-by-side red lights. The intensity of the upper light ranged from effectively zero (no image) to such a large value that it overexposed the film. The red lights also pulsated at 1 Hz, but in the opposite phase: when the upper light was at zero brightness the red lights were maximum, and vice versa. The red lights never got bright enough to overexpose the film. Using information supplied by the New Zealand government a search was made of all the beacons within about 50 miles of the aircraft. None of the beacons had a triangular arrangement of lights. Moreover, all the beacons were found to be too weak, too far away, to have the wrong flash period, or the wrong color. There is no beacon that could account for the film.

Yet another logical suggestion would be another aircraft. However, there were no other aircraft flying in that area of New Zealand at the time, according to the air traffic controller who was monitoring the Argosy flight to Blenhiem. (The radar was picking up anomalou targets, however.)

The possibility that the film showed light from a boat was considered. There are no flashing lights such as this on boats (which have steady lights that do not change color). The only boats with lights bright enough to make overexposed images at long distances are squid fishing boats. They use very bright incandescent lights to lure squid to the surface at night for netting. The Japanese squid fleet was in New Zealand waters at the time, but their lights are steady and only white.

Yet another suggested explanation is that there was an emergency vehicle or police car with its lights flashing on the land closest to the airplane. Aside from the fact that emergency vehicles do not carry lighting of the type that would create images such as this, the pilot checked with the authorities and was told that there were no emergency or law-enforcement vehicles traveling the New Zealand highways and byways near the location of the plane at the time.

Another suggestion was that a light inside the aircraft was filmed. However, this suggestion was rejected because there were no flashing lights inside the aircraft and, furthermore, the captain had turned off all the cockpit lights, leaving only steady, dim red meter lights on the control panels.

As a last resort one might propose a distant bright planet on the horizon, fluctuating in brightness and color as a result of random atmospheric refractions. However, such fluctuations would not be perfectly steady and furthermore, Venus, the only astronomical light source bright enough to produce images remotely like these, was not visible at the time.

Now you know the reason that Klass proposed the upper beacon explanation: he was aware, from our considerable correspondence on this sighting, that all the other explanations had failed. The only remaining light that had a remote chance of explaining the sighting was the upper beacon, because of the near equivalence of the flash rate. Then Klass had to propose an auxiliary hypothesis to explain how the beacon could be filmed from inside the aircraft by reflection off the propellor. This was very clever, but unconvincing to the experienced optical physicist. The final rejection of his hypothesis is based on the images of overexposed red lights as described above.

Without any other known sources of light to create the film images, this has to be considered unexplained and I know of no reason to believe that it will be eventually explained. It is a TRue UFO. If we assume that the lights which made these images were part of the object detected by radar at 2:51 a.m., at a distance of about 20 miles ahead of the airplane, then quantitative estimates can be made of the intensity and spacings of the lights (see the above cited reference for details of the calculations). From the spacing of the "dots in the triangular images (orange "dot above to side-by-side red "dots) one can calculate that the red lights were about 50 feet apart and the yellow-orange light was about 90 ft above the red lights. (Note: the calculated spacing is proportional to the distance assumed. If the lights were closer the spacing was less.) At its peak brightness the intensity of the upper light was considerably over a million candlepower. It was as if a powerful, pulsating spotlight had been pointed toward the witnesses on the airplane.


The few sightings discussed here are important because they illustrate the problem faced by skeptics who would argue that, because there are prosaic explanations for all sightings, there is no evidence for ET/NHI/OI contact. The problem faced by the skeptics is that there are sightings for which the generally accepted (by skeptics!) prosaic explanations are wrong or at least unconvincing. The failure of UFO skepticism, from the scientific point of view, has been to allow such explanations to be accepted by the scientific community. If UFOs were "ordinary science," the proposed explanations would have been rigorously analyzed, and probably rejected, rather than simply accepted. Scientific ufology needs skeptics, but skeptics who are capable of recognizing when a sighting simply cannot be explained by any prosaic explanation.

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