Investigating UFO Reports

Jane Brooks, Treasurer UFO RESEARCH S.A. INC.

(Investigator No. 3, 1988 November)


The word "reports" appears in the title of this article for a good reason: there are no UFO's (unidentified flying objects) available for examination.

All that we have to work with are eye-witness reports, and in a few cases. physical traces such as crop or grass damage.

Some "researchers" are certain that they already know what UFO's are. Therefore they tend not to investigate reports (ie try to determine what the witnesses have seen) but instead collect them as evidence in support of their belief. These people are more religious than scientific in their approach, and hence the term "believer" is a more accurate one for describing them than "researcher" or "investigator". Believing is not a topic in this article, but investigating is.

Unless UFO reports are investigated as well as being collected, we will never be able to find out whether or not exotic theories such as the popuLar one that UFO's are extraterrestrial spacecraft are true. Many people who see something they are unable to identify or explain have NOT seen something really strange, but are unable to recognize what they have seen either because they are unfamiliar with it, or see it under unusual conditions. What are UFO's to the witnesses are IFO's (identified flying objects) to experienced investigators.

Before it can be concluded that a witness has seen something strange, investigators have to try to make sure that they have not overlooked a phenomenon already known to humans, and which fits the description provided by the witness. Therefore, in order to be able to investigate UFO reports, a person needs to acquire some basic knowledge of meteorology, astronomy, astronautics, physics, botany and psychology. Social skills are also important when interviewing witnesses. These requirements sound daunting, but an investigator does not need to be an expert in all or any of these fields; he or she needs to be better informed than the average person. He or she will, however, need to be able to determine when expert advice is needed.

As an example of how a natural phenomenon can be misinterpreted, consider the effects the atmosphere has on the appearance of stars and planets. If people see a light in the night sky changing colour and shape, and jiggling about, they will think to themselves: "That cannot be a star or planet, because it is changing and moving." A better informed person will know that the changes observed are due to refraction of light by, and turbulence in the atmosphere, and it is normal for astronomical objects to have that appearance when low in the sky.

A well informed investigator will be able to distinguish between the misinterpreted and the unexplainable. Some examples of objects and phenomena which are commonly mistakenly regarded as being unexplainable are the appearance of the planets, Venus, Jupiter and Mars; the stars Canopus and Capella; meteors and re-entering space junk; clouds, mirages, rare meteorological phenomena, meteorological balloons; aircraft, kites, airborne debris; fungus rings in grass. It must be pointed out that even highly skilled people such as pilots can misinterpret what they see.

Often an experienced investigator can identify an object for a witness from the initial description given (usually by phone). If this is not possible, the witness will be asked to complete a report form. Unfortunately, many people who are puzzled enough to make a phone call never get around to completing and returning the form, and the report cannot be investigated further. It is interesting to note that only about 1% of reports are deliberate hoaxes, and most of these can be picked up as being such without having a completed report form.

Once a form is received, investigators go through a process of elimination in which the information provided is checked against known natural and man made phenomena, to see if there is a conventional explanation which fits the data. Thorough investigators are not necessarily TRYING to "explain away" a UFO report, but the principle of "Occam's Razor" tells us that if there is more than one possible explanation for something, the simplest or most conventional one is most likely to be correct. Before turning to a theory such as the popular extraterrestrial theory, one would need to be unable to come up with any other explanation. Even then, caution is required.

One should not jump to the conclusion that unexplained = extraterrestrial. For many years circular depressions that appear mysteriously in crops have been believed by some people to be evidence of extraterrestrial spacecraft having landed, even though no one had reported seeing a spacecraft making one of the circles. In the 2 June 1988 issue of "New Scientist" it was reported that the Tornado and Storm Research Organization (TORRO) had had eye witness accounts of two of the circles being formed.

British farmers saw that they were formed by a kind of whirlpool vortex in the atmosphere. They just happened to be in the right place at the right time to see it happening, and no-one else had had this opportunity!

In case the reader is getting the impression that because most UFO reports turn out to be misinterpretations, it follows that they all have conventional explanations, here are two reports investigated by UFO Research S.A. on which you may ponder.

On Feb. 4, 1973 witnesses in three independent cars driving along Highway One at night approximately 51km out of Kimba saw, in a clearing, an orange/red rectangular glow of light with a sharply defined, white clothed human figure floating in the middle of the shape. All sets of witnesses independently reported the phenomenon to the Kimba police. Subsequent investigation showed that nothing abnormal was or seemed to have been in the clearing.

On 30 July 1977 at about 4:30pm a man driving along the main Williamstown to Birdwood road noticed an unusual object gradually getting lower in the sky. He stopped his car, and saw that the jumbo-jet sized object had come to rest on the ground near a large electricity pylon. It had a long, fat body, a tail, but no wings or wheels. After a few minutes it rose vertically at great speed into the air.

The usual process of elimination has not revealed explanations for these two reports. Neither are they classic types of "flying saucer" reports, and caution dictates that the only conclusion which can be reached is that we have no explanation for them.

This article has covered only a small portion of topics encompassed by the investigation of UFO reports.

One kind of report not mentioned is the "close encounter", which is much less likely to be the result of a misinterpretation. Another kind where witnesses claim to have been abducted, are even stranger, and require the expertise of psychologists during their investigation. For those readers who would like to look more deeply into the investigation of UPO reports, the book "The UFO Handbook: A Guide to investigating, evaluating, and reporting UFO sightings" by Allan Hendry is recommended reading.

There are also several ACUFOS (Australian Centre for UFO Studies) documents available, some of which are listed below.

Investigating UFO reports can be frustrating, but it helps to broaden one's general knowledge and stimulates the mind. Anyone interested in obtaining these documents and/or actually becoming an investigator, or wishing to report a sighting, can contact UFO Research S.A.


"UFO's Over Australia: A Selection of ACUFOS Research Findings and Debate" Edited by Mark Moravec and John Prytz.

"Basic Investigators Guide" - UFO Research Australia. Compiled by Keith Basterfield.

"Catch a Falling Frog" by Derek Elsom. "New Scientist" 2 June 1988.

"Mystery Circles: Myth in the Making: by Paul Fuller. International UFO Reporter, May/June 1988.

Australian Entity Study Group Case Document, Kimba, South Australia. Published by UFO Research, S. A. Inc.

"The Continuing Saga of our Birdwood Case". Published by UFO Research S. A. Inc.