An Interview With The Dean, 1985
For over two decades, from 1948 à 1969, Dr. Josef Allen Hynek was a consultant in astronomy to the United States Air Force. The subject of his advice, however, was not the fledgling space program or even the moon and stars above, but Unidentified Flying Objects. In 1973 he founded the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) and had serves as Director and editor of its journal, International UFO Reporter.
Dennis Stacy : Dr. Hynek, as a scientist, you go back as far with UFO phenomenon as probably anyone alive today. Exactly how did that relationship begin?
Hynek : That's an easy story to tell. In the spring of 1948, I was teaching astronomy at Ohio State University, in Columbus. One day thee men, and they weren't dressed in black, came over to see me from Wright Patterson Air Force Base in nearby Dayton. They started out by talking about the weather, as I remember, and this and that, and then finally one of them asked me what I thought about flying saucers. I told them I thought they were a lot of junk and nonsense and that seemed to please them, so they got down to business. They said they needed some astronomical consultation because it was their job to find out what these flying saucer stories were all about.
Some were meteors, they thought, others stars and so on, so they could use an astronomer. What the hell, I said, it sounded like fun and besides, I would be getting a top secret security clearance out of it, too. At that time, it was called Project Sign, and some of the personnel at least were taking the problem quite seriously. At the same time a big split was occurring in the Air Force between two schools of thought. The serious school prepared an estimation of the situation which they sent to General Vandenburg, but the other side eventually won out and the serious ones were shipped off to other places. The negatives won the day, in other words.
My own investigations for Project Sign added to that, too, I think, because I was quite negative in most of my evaluations. I stretched far to give something a natural explanation, sometimes when it may not have really had it. I remember one case from Snake River Canyon, I think it was, where a man and his two sons saw a metallic object come swirling down the canyon which caused the top of the trees to sway. In my attempt to find a natural explanation for it, I said that it was some sort of atmospheric eddy. Of course, I had never seen an eddy like that and had no real reason to believe that one even existed. But I was so anxious to find a natural explanation because I was convinced that it had to have one that, naturally, I did in fact, it wasn't until quite some time had passed that I began to change my mind.
Was there ever any direct pressure applied by the Air Force itself for you to come up with a conventional explanation to these phenomena?
There was an implied pressure, yes, very definitely.
In other words, you found yourself caught, like most of us, in a situation of trying to please your boss?
Yes, you might as well put it that way, although at the same time I wasn't going against my scientific precepts. As an astronomer and physicist, I simply felt a priori that everything had to have a natural explanation in this world. There were no ifs, and or buts about it. The ones I couldn't solve, I thought if we just tried harder, had a really proper investigation, that we probably would find as answer for. My batting average was about 80 per cent and I figured that anytime you were hitting that high, you were doing pretty good. That left about 20 per cent unsolved for me, but only about three or four per cent for the Air Force, because they used statistics in a way I would never have allowed for myself. For example, cases labeled as insufficient information they would consider solved ! They also had some other little tricks. If a light were seen, they would say, "aircraft have lights, therefore, probable aircraft." Then, at the end of the year, when the statistics were made up, they would drop the "possible" or "probable" and simply call it aircraft.
What began to change your own perception of the phenomenon?
Two things, really. One was the completely negative and unyielding attitude of the Air Force. They wouldn't give UFOs the chance of existing, even if they were flying up and down the street in broad daylight. Everything had to have as explanation. I began to resent that, even though I basically felt the same way, because I still thought they weren't going about it in the right way. You can't assume that everything is black no matter what. Secondly, the caliber of the witnesses began to trouble me. Quite a few instances were reported by military pilots, for example, and I knew them to be fairly well-trained, so this is when I first began to think that, well, maybe there something to all this.
The famous "swamp gas" case which came later on finally pushed me over the edge. From that point on, I began to look at reports from a different angle, which was to say that some of them could be true UFOs.
As your own attitude changed, did the Air Force's attitude toward you change, too?
It certainly did, quite a bit, as a matter of fact. By way of background, I might add that the late Dr. James E. McDonald, a good friend of mine who was then an atmospheric meteorologist at the University of Arizona, and I had some fairly sharp words about it. He used to accuse me very much, saying you're the scientific consultant to the Air Force, you should be pounding on generals' doors and insisting on getting a better job done. I said, Jim, I was there, you weren't you don't know the mindset. They were under instruction from the Pentagon, following the Robertson Panel of 1953, that the whole subject had to be debunked, period, no question about it. That was the prevailing attitude. The panel was convened by the CIA, and I sat in on it, but I was not asked to sign the resolution. Had I been asked, I would not have signed it, because they took a completely negative attitude about everything. So when Jim McDonald used to accuse me of a sort of miscarriage of scientific justice, I had to tell him that had I done what he wanted, the generals would not have listened to me. They were already listening to Dr. Donald Menzel and the other boys over at the Harvard Astronomy Department as it was.
Did you think you would have been shown the front door and asked not to come back?
Inside of two weeks I imagine. You're familiar with the case of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler from the history of astronomy? Brahe had the observations and didn't know what to do with them, and Kepler, who was nearsighted and couldn't make the observations, did. So essentially, I played Kepler to the Air Force's Tycho Brahe. I knew the Air Force was getting the data and I wanted a look at it, so I made very full use of the copying machines at Wright-Patterson. I kept practically a duplicate set of records because I knew that someday that data would be worth something. Toward the end, however, I was barely speaking with Major Quintanilla who was in charge. We had started as really good friends and then things got very bad because he had one lieutenant who was such a nincompoop, it seemed to me. Everything had to be "Jupiter or Venus" or this or that. You have no idea what a closed mind, what a closed attitude it was. I kept doggedly on, but I can safely say that the whole time I was with the Air Force we never had anything that resembled a really good scientific dialogue on the subject.
They weren't really interested in an actual investigation of the subject then?
They said they were, of course, but they would turn handsprings to keep a good case from getting to the "attention of the media". Any case they solved, they had no trouble talking to the media about. It was really very sad.... I think their greatest mistake in the early days, however, was not turning it over to the universities or some academic group. They regarded it as an intelligence matter and it became increasingly more and more embarrassing to them. After all, we paid good tax dollars to have the Air Force guard our skies and it would have been bad public relations for them to say, yes there's something up there, but we're helpless. They just couldn't do that, so they took the very human action of protecting their own interests. What they said was that we solved 96 per cent of the cases and that we could have solved the other four per cent if we had just tried harder.
Was it the famous Michigan sightings of 1966, explained away as "swamp gas" that finally did lead the Air Force to bring in a reputable university?
Yes, that, as you know, became something of a national joke and Michigan was soon being known as the "Swamp Gas State." Eventually, it resulted in a Congressional Hearing called for by then state Congressman, Gerald Ford, who of course later went on to become President. The investigation was turned over to the Brian O'Brien Committee who did a very good job. Had their recommendations been carried out, things might have turned out much better than they did. The recommended that UFOs be taken away from the Air Force and given to a group of universities, to study the thing in a as wide a way as possible. Well, they didn't go to a group, they went to a university and a man they were certain would be very hard-nosed about it, namely, Dr. Edward Condon at the University of Colorado. That was how the Condon Committee and eventually the Report came to be.
Were you ever called on to testify before, or advise the Committee?
In the early days they called on me to talk to them, to brief them, but that was the extent of it. They certainly didn't take any of my advice.
By 1968, the generally negative Condon Report was made public and the Air Force used its conclusions to get out of the UFO business. Were you still an official advisor or consultant at that time?
Oh, yes, I was with the Air Force right up until the very end, but it was just on paper. No one had cut the chicken's head off yet, but the chicken was dead. The last days at Blue Book were just a perfunctory shuffling of papers.
In terms of the UFO phenomenon itself, what was going on about this time?
Well, as you know, the Condon Report said that a group of scientists had looked at UFOs and that the subject was dead. The UFOs, of course, didn't bother to read the report and during the Flap of 1973, they came back in force.