Lincoln La Paz, world-famous authority on meteorites and head of the University of New Mexico's Institute of Meteoritics, apparently took the occurrence calmly. The wire story said he had told a reporter that he would plot its course, try to determine where it landed, and go out and try to find it. "But," he said, "I don't expect to find anything."
When Jim Phalen had read the rest of the report he asked, "What was it?"
"It sounds to me like the green fireballs are back," I answered.
"What the devil are green fireballs?"
What the devil are green fireballs? I'd like to know. So would a lot of other people.
The green fireballs streaked into UFO history late in November 1948, when people around Albuquerque, New Mexico, began to report seeing mysterious "green flares" at night. The first reports mentioned only a
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"green streak in the sky," low on the horizon. From the description the Air Force Intelligence people at Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque and the Project Sign people at ATIC wrote the objects off as flares. After all, thousands of GI's had probably been discharged with a duffel bag full of "liberated" Very pistols and flares.
But as days passed the reports got better. They seemed to indicate that the "flares" were getting larger and more people were reporting seeing them. It was doubtful if this "growth" was psychological because there had been no publicity - so the Air Force decided to reconsider the "flare" answer. They were in the process of doing this on the night of December 5, 1948, a memorable night in the green fireball chapter of UFO history.
At 9:27 P.M. on December 5, an Air Force C-47 transport was flying at 18,000 feet 10 miles east of Albuquerque. The pilot was a Captain Goede. Suddenly the crew, Captain Goede, his co-pilot, and his engineer were startled by a green ball of fire flashing across the sky ahead of them. It looked something like a huge meteor except that it was a bright green color and it didn't arch downward, as meteors usually do. The green- colored ball of fire had started low, from near the eastern slopes of the Sandia Mountains, arched upward a little, then seemed to level out. And it was too big for a meteor, at least it was larger than any meteor that anyone in the C-47 had ever seen before. After a hasty discussion the crew decided that they'd better tell somebody about it, especially since they had seen an identical object twenty-two minutes before near Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Captain Goede picked up his microphone and called the control tower at Kirtland AFB and reported what he and his crew had seen. The tower relayed the message to the local intelligence people.
A few minutes later the captain of Pioneer Airlines Flight 63 called Kirtland Tower. At 9:35 P.M. he had also seen a green ball of fire just east of Las Vegas, New Mexico. He was on his way to Albuquerque and would make a full report when he landed.
When he taxied his DC-3 up to the passenger ramp at Kirtland a few minutes later, several intelligence officers were waiting for him. He reported that at 9:35 P.M. he was on a westerly heading, approaching Las Vegas from the east, when he and his co-pilot saw what they first thought was a "shooting star." It was ahead and a little above them. But, the captain said, it took them only a split second to realize that whatever they saw was too low and had too flat a trajectory to be a meteor. As they watched, the object seemed to approach their airplane head on, changing color from orange red to green. As it became bigger and bigger, the captain said, he thought sure it was going to collide with them so he
Green Fireballs, Project Twinkle, Little Lights, and Grudge.49
racked the DC-3 up in a tight turn. As the green ball of fire got abreast of them it began to fall toward the ground, getting dimmer and dimmer until it disappeared. Just before he swerved the DC-3, the fireball was as big, or bigger, than a full moon.
The intelligence officers asked a few more questions and went back to their office. More reports, which had been phoned in from all over northern New Mexico, were waiting for them. By morning a full-fledged investigation was under way.
No matter what these green fireballs were, the military was getting a little edgy. They might be common meteorites, psychologically enlarged flares, or true UFO's, but whatever they were they were playing around in one of the most sensitive security areas in the United States. Within 100 miles of Albuquerque were two installations that were the backbone of the atomic bomb program, Los Alamos and Sandia Base. Scattered throughout the countryside were other installations vital to the defense of the U.S.: radar stations, fighter interceptor bases, and the other mysterious areas that had been blocked off by high chain link fences.
Since the green fireballs bore some resemblance to meteors or meteorites, the Kirtland intelligence officers called in Dr. Lincoln La Paz.
Dr. La Paz said that he would be glad to help, so the officers explained the strange series of events to him. True, he said, the description of the fireballs did sound as if they might be meteorites - except for a few points. One way to be sure was to try to plot the flight path of the green fireballs the same way he had so successfully plotted the flight path of meteorites in the past. From this flight path he could determine where they would have hit the earth - if they were meteorites. They would search this area, and if they found parts of a meteorite they would have the answer to the green fireball riddle.
The fireball activity on the night of December 5 was made to order for plotting flight paths. The good reports of that night included carefully noted locations, the directions in which the green objects were seen, their heights above the horizon, and the times when they were observed. So early the next morning Dr. La Paz and a crew of intelligence officers were scouring northern New Mexico. They started out by talking to the people who had made reports but soon found out that dozens of other people had also seen the fireballs. By closely checking the time of the observations, they determined that eight separate fireballs had been seen. One was evidently more spectacular and was seen by the most people. Everyone in northern New Mexico had seen it going from west to east, so Dr. La Paz and his crew worked eastward across New Mexico to the west border of Texas, talking to dozens of people. After many sleepless hours
50.The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects
they finally plotted where it should have struck the earth. They searched the area but found nothing. They went back over the area time and time again-nothing. As Dr. La Paz later told me, this was the first time that he seriously doubted the green fireballs were meteorites.
Within a few more days the fireballs were appearing almost nightly. The intelligence officers from Kirtland decided that maybe they could get a good look at one of them, so on the night of December 8 two officers took off in an airplane just before dark and began to cruise around north of Albuquerque. They had a carefully worked out plan where each man would observe certain details if they saw one of the green fireballs. At 6:33 P.M. they saw one. This is their report:
At 6:33 P.M. while flying at an indicated altitude of 11,500 feet, a strange phenomenon was observed. Exact position of the aircraft at time of the observation was 20 miles east of the Las Vegas, N.M., radio range station. The aircraft was on a compass course of 90 degrees. Capt. was pilot and I was acting as copilot. I first observed the object and a split second later the pilot saw it. It was 2,000 feet higher than the plane, and was approaching the plane at a rapid rate of speed from 30 degrees to the left of our course. The object was similar in appearance to a burning green flare, the kind that is commonly used in the Air Force. However, the light was much more intense and the object appeared considerably larger than a normal flare. The trajectory of the object, when first sighted, was almost flat and parallel to the earth. The phenomenon lasted about 2 seconds. At the end of this time the object seemed to begin to burn out and the trajectory then dropped off rapidly. The phenomenon was of such intensity as to be visible from the very moment it ignited.
Back at Wright-Patterson AFB, ATIC was getting a blow-by-blow account of the fireball activity but they were taking no direct part in the investigation. Their main interest was to review all incoming UFO reports and see if the green fireball reports were actually unique to the Albuquerque area. They were. Although a good many UFO reports were coming in from other parts of the U.S., none fit the description of the green fireballs.
All during December 1948 and January 1949 the green fireballs continued to invade the New Mexico skies. Everyone, including the intelligence officers at Kirtland AFB, Air Defense Command people, Dr. La Paz, and some of the most distinguished scientists at Los Alamos had seen at least one.
In mid February 1949 a conference was called at Los Alamos to determine what should be done to further pursue the investigation. The Air Force, Project Sign, the intelligence people at Kirtland, and other interested parties had done everything they could think of and still no answer.
Green Fireballs, Project Twinkle, Little Lights, and Grudge.51
Such notable scientists as Dr. Joseph Kaplan, a world-renowned authority on the physics of the upper atmosphere, Dr. Edward Teller, of H-bomb fame, and of course Dr. La Paz, attended, along with a lot of military brass and scientists from Los Alamos.
This was one conference where there was no need to discuss whether or not this special type of UFO, the green fireball, existed. Almost everyone at the meeting had seen one. The purpose of the conference was to decide whether the fireballs were natural or man-made and how to find out more about them.
As happens in any conference, opinions were divided. Some people thought the green fireballs were natural fireballs. The proponents of the natural meteor, or meteorite, theory presented facts that they had dug out of astronomical journals. Greenish colored meteors, although not common, had been observed on many occasions. The flat trajectory, which seemed to be so important in proving that the green fireballs were extraterrestrial, was also nothing new. When viewed from certain angles, a meteor can appear to have a flat trajectory. The reason that so many had been seen during December of 1948 and January of 1949 was that the weather had been unusually clear all over the Southwest during this period.
Dr. La Paz led the group who believed that the green fireballs were not meteors or meteorites. His argument was derived from the facts that he had gained after many days of research and working with Air Force intelligence teams. He stuck to the points that (1) the trajectory was too flat, (2) the color was too green, and (3) he couldn't locate any fragments even though he had found the spots where they should have hit the earth if they were meteorites.
People who were at that meeting have told me that Dr. La Paz's theory was very interesting and that each point was carefully considered. But evidently it wasn't conclusive enough because when the conference broke up, after two days, it was decided that the green fireballs were a natural phenomenon of some kind. It was recommended that this phase of the UFO investigation be given to the Air Force's Cambridge Research Laboratory, since it is the function of this group to study natural phenomena, and that Cambridge set up a project to attempt to photograph the green fireballs and measure their speed, altitude, and size.
In the late summer of 1949, Cambridge established Project Twinkle to solve the mystery. The project called for establishing three cinetheodolite stations near White Sands, New Mexico. A cinetheodolite is similar to a 35 mm. movie camera except when you take a photograph of an object you also get a photograph of three dials that show the time the photo was taken, the azimuth angle, and the elevation angle of the camera.
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If two or more cameras photograph the same object, it is possible to obtain a very accurate measurement of the photographed object's altitude, speed, and size.
Project Twinkle was a bust. Absolutely nothing was photographed. Of the three cameras that were planned for the project, only one was available. This one camera was continually being moved from place to place. If several reports came from a certain area, the camera crew would load up their equipment and move to that area, always arriving too late. Any duck hunter can tell you that this is the wrong tactic; if you want to shoot any ducks pick a good place and stay put, let the ducks come to you.
The people trying to operate Project Twinkle were having financial and morale trouble. To do a good job they needed more and better equipment and more people, but Air Force budget cuts precluded this. Moral support was free but they didn't get this either.
When the Korean War started, Project Twinkle silently died, along with official interest in green fireballs.
When I organized Project Blue Book in the summer of 1951 I'd never heard of a green fireball. We had a few files marked "Los Alamos Conference," "Fireballs," "Project Twinkle," etc., but I didn't pay any attention to them.
Then one day I was at a meeting in Los Angeles with several other officers from ATIC, and was introduced to Dr. Joseph Kaplan. When he found we were from ATIC, his first question was, "What ever happened to the green fireballs?" None of us had ever heard of them, so he quickly gave us the story. He and I ended up discussing green fireballs. He mentioned Dr. La Paz and his opinion that the green fireballs might be man-made, and although he respected La Paz's professional ability, he just wasn't convinced. But he did strongly urge me to get in touch with Dr. La Paz and hear his side of the story.
When I returned to ATIC I spent several days digging into our collection of green fireball reports. All of these reports covered a period from early December 1948 to 1949. As far as Blue Book's files were concerned, there hadn't been a green fireball report for a year and a half.
I read over the report on Project Twinkle and the few notes we had on the Los Alamos Conference, and decided that the next time I went to Albuquerque I'd contact Dr. La Paz. I did go to Albuquerque several times but my visits were always short and I was always in a hurry so I didn't get to see him.
It was six or eight months later before the subject of green fireballs came up again. I was eating lunch with a group of people at the AEC's Los Alamos Laboratory when one of the group mentioned the mysterious
Green Fireballs, Project Twinkle, Little Lights, and Grudge.53
kelly-green balls of fire. The strictly unofficial bull-session-type discussion that followed took up the entire lunch hour and several hours of the afternoon. It was an interesting discussion because these people, all scientists and technicians from the lab, had a few educated guesses as to what they might be. All of them had seen a green fireball, some of them had seen several.
One of the men, a private pilot, had encountered a fireball one night while he was flying his Navion north of Santa Fe and he had a vivid way of explaining what he'd seen. "Take a soft ball and paint it with some kind of fluorescent paint that will glow a bright green in the dark," I remember his saying, "then have someone take the ball out about 100 feet in front of you and about 10 feet above you. Have him throw the ball right at your face, as hard as he can throw it. That's what a green fireball looks like."
The speculation about what the green fireballs were ran through the usual spectrum of answers, a new type of natural phenomenon, a secret U.S. development, and psychologically enlarged meteors. When the possibility of the green fireballs' being associated with interplanetary vehicles came up, the whole group got serious. They had been doing a lot of thinking about this, they said, and they had a theory.
The green fireballs, they theorized, could be some type of unmanned test vehicle that was being projected into our atmosphere from a "spaceship" hovering several hundred miles above the earth. Two years ago I would have been amazed to hear a group of reputable scientists make such a startling statement. Now, however, I took it as a matter of course. I'd heard the same type of statement many times before from equally qualified groups.
Turn the tables, they said, suppose that we are going to try to go to a far planet. There would be three phases to the trip: out through the earth's atmosphere, through space, and the re-entry into the atmosphere of the planet we're planning to land on. The first two phases would admittedly present formidable problems, but the last phase, the re-entry phase, would be the most critical. Coming in from outer space, the craft would, for all practical purposes, be similar to a meteorite except that it would be powered and not free falling. You would have myriad problems associated with aerodynamic heating, high aerodynamic loadings, and very probably a host of other problems that no one can now conceive of. Certain of these problems could be partially solved by laboratory experimentation, but nothing can replace flight testing, and the results obtained by flight tests in our atmosphere would not be valid in another type of atmosphere. The most logical way to overcome this difficulty would be
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to build our interplanetary vehicle, go to the planet that we were interested in landing on, and hover several hundred miles up. From this altitude we could send instrumented test vehicles down to the planet. If we didn't want the inhabitants of the planet, if it were inhabited, to know what we were doing we could put destruction devices in the test vehicle, or arrange the test so that the test vehicles would just plain burn up at a certain point due to aerodynamic heating.
They continued, each man injecting his ideas.
Maybe the green fireballs are test vehicles-somebody else's. The regular UFO reports might be explained by the fact that the manned vehicles were venturing down to within 100,000 or 200,000 feet of the earth, or to the altitude at which atmosphere re-entry begins to get critical.
I had to go down to the airstrip to get a CARGO Airlines plane back to Albuquerque so I didn't have time to ask a lot of questions that came into my mind. I did get to make one comment. From the conversations, I assumed that these people didn't think the green fireballs were any kind of a natural phenomenon. Not exactly, they said, but so far the evidence that said they were a natural phenomenon was vastly outweighed by the evidence that said they weren't.
During the kidney jolting trip down the valley from Los Alamos to Albuquerque in one of the CARGO Airlines' Bonanzas, I decided that I'd stay over an extra day and talk to Dr. La Paz.
He knew every detail there was to know about the green fireballs. He confirmed my findings, that the genuine green fireballs were no longer being seen. He said that he'd received hundreds of reports, especially after he'd written several articles about the mysterious fireballs, but that all of the reported objects were just greenish colored, common, everyday meteors.
Dr. La Paz said that some people, including Dr. Joseph Kaplan and Dr. Edward Teller, thought that the green fireballs were natural meteors. He didn't think so, however, for several reasons. First the color was so much different. To illustrate his point, Dr. La Paz opened his desk drawer and took out a well worn chart of the color spectrum.
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