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.
Almost as soon as man learned to fly, he began spotting unidentified flying objects. During World War I, Britons panicked over sightings they believed to be German Zeppelins (see “Fear of Floating,” June/July 2009). World War II pilots regularly reported encounters with silvery balls of light that they called foo-fighters, whose origins were never conclusively explained. But it took the cold war and, later, the dawning of the Space Age, to turn UFOs into a popular obsession, and an object for systematic state scrutiny.
In the early 1950s, the fever spread quickly from the United States to the United Kingdom, reaching even an aging Winston Churchill. “What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to?” the prime minister asked his air force chief in a note in the summer of 1952. “What is the truth?”
Churchill was informed that the Air Ministry had in fact convened a top-secret Flying Saucer Working Party two years earlier, which concluded that all the reports amounted to natural phenomena imaginatively interpreted. That assurance was partly revised in September 1952, when a squad of Royal Air Force airmen in Yorkshire reported a strange white-silvery object tailing a Gloster Meteor fighter back to base after maneuvers, then suddenly shooting off to the west at “incredible speed.” The Air Ministry set up a detail in its intelligence branch to keep track of such reports in the future.
The mission of the “UFO desk” was always restricted to watching for military threats. But reports from the public inevitably offered broader theories about unaccountably stealthy alien visitors. Toward these sightings, the ministry adopted a policy of being, as one now-unearthed internal memo put it, “politely unhelpful,” and kept it up for more than half a century. Once locked in dank cabinets, stacks of these bland assurances can now be perused by anyone at the National Archives’ airy research center in the South West London suburb of Kew. “The Department does not dismiss the possibility that intelligent life could exist in outer space,” reads a typical 1978 missive to Mr. T. Butler of the Bradlington Constituency Conservative Association. “But no evidence has reached the MoD to date to suggest that UFOs have extra-terrestrial origins.”