Department of Flying Saucers
Nick Pope, formerly with the UK's Ministry of Defence, warns that space aliens will be drawn to the Olympic's Closing Ceremonies. Read more about the UK's UFO program—which ran from 1959 to 2009—here.
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, September 2010
(Page 2 of 5)
“I’m not a fully paid believer in little green men, but some cases do give you pause for thought,” Pope muses during a conversation in a London coffee shop. “Conventional science feels very uncomfortable with UFOs because they involve studying something that is no longer there.” (Clarke argues that the 1993 sightings were simply a Russian rocket reentering Earth’s atmosphere.)
Jean-Jacques Velasco, who for 21 years sat in Blanc’s chair at GEIPAN and its predecessor organizations before leaving in 2004, strays much farther than Pope into green man territory. “Artificial and controlled objects have appeared in our atmosphere without any question,” he concludes. “UFOs are phenomena with a deliberate behavior, often traveling at incredible speeds. If they are artificial probes, they cannot be of terrestrial origin.” Velasco’s working hypothesis, it becomes clear, is that the best-documented UFO reports correlate with nuclear weapons tests in the decades after World War II. Therefore benevolent aliens may be warning mankind against its dangerous folly.
Amid such passions, Yvan Blanc does his best to remain calm and unbiased in his unexpected new specialty. UFO reports still pour in daily either from gendarmes on the beat or a network of 100 volunteer investigators that GEIPAN established in 2008. “Witnesses are emotional. That is the main difficulty,” Blanc observes in labored but precise English. “It is hard to tell what they saw.”
Blanc files away four out of five sightings without leaving CNES’ modernist Toulouse campus by consulting air traffic patterns and the sky chart for the night in question. “What has surprised me most in this job is people’s ignorance of astronomy,” Blanc notes dryly. “It’s amazing how many people think they have seen a UFO when it is just the planet Venus.” (That’s exactly what happened across the Atlantic to a pre-presidential Jimmy Carter, who reported the glow from the second planet to Blue Book investigators in 1973.)
But GEIPAN does classify 23 percent of sightings as “unidentified phenomena,” and last year, about 10 cases were puzzling enough to lure Blanc out of his chair for on-site investigations. GEIPAN works in conjunction with the French air force, civil aviation authorities, the French national police force, and meteorological offices. Most of the UFO reports Blanc receives come from one of these sources. When a report arrives, Blanc consults his extensive advisory board, made up of astronomers, air traffic controllers, and military personnel, and if there is no immediate explanation for a sighting—aircraft being tested, an especially bright planet—Blanc decides whether to launch an investigation.
In the GEIPAN director’s office, a modest wall of fame displays photos of some of these mysteries. All have been solved without recourse to the extraterrestrial. The eerie lights over Brittany turned out to be Chinese lanterns, mini hot-air balloons powered by candles, whose release has become a fad at European rock concerts and the like. A bizarre apparition that looked like a circular light over Marseille proved to be a window reflection after an unusual snowfall in that Mediterranean port. A weird backyard crop circle was traced to a rare microscopic mushroom that burns holes in the ground overnight. A Klingon-ish aircraft seen floating menacingly above the roofs of Paris was simply a large balloon released at a rugby match the same afternoon. And so on.
Yet deeper in the GEIPAN archives, there are mysteries for which Blanc has no explanation. In France’s most famous UFO case, a resident near the southern village of Trans-en-Provence reported in 1981 that an oval craft some eight feet in diameter landed briefly on his land and left abrasions. GEIPAN’s investigation concluded that something had, in fact, been there: A “large-size event had indeed occurred.” And an analysis of surrounding alfalfa plants showed them to have chlorophyll levels inexplicably below normal.
Blanc’s second example of unsolved enigma is even stranger: a 1967 incident near Cussac in rural France in which a young brother and sister out herding cows reported four meter-high “devils” levitating into a spacecraft across a field. Asked whether such testimony could be credible coming from children aged 13 and 9, he replies, “We assume that witnesses are telling the truth about what they saw.” In any case, he keeps an artist’s lyrical rendering of the alleged Cussac visitors disappearing into a blazing bright ship next to his own case memorabilia on the wall.