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The military UFO panel: (left to right): moderator [I forgot his name but I have his card at home], Col. Robert Friend, Col. Bill Coleman, Col. Charles Halt, Nick Pope, Col. John Alexander. (Credit: Antonio Huneeus)
The military UFO panel: (left to right): moderator [I forgot his name but I have his card at home], Col. Robert Friend, Col. Bill Coleman, Col. Charles Halt, Nick Pope, Col. John Alexander. (Credit: Antonio Huneeus)

The Right Stuff! Some thoughts on the UFO military panel in Las Vegas

The National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, where the Area 51 Myth or Reality exhibit is located and where the UFO military panel took place. (Credit: Antonio Huneeus)

The special event, “Military UFOs: Secrets Revealed,” held last Saturday September 22 at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, turned out to be a very interesting program. This was part of an ongoing series of lectures attached to their new exhibit, “Area 51: Myth or Reality,” and the goal was to present a number of military officers who were involved in official UFO investigations in the past. The museum—a mainstream institution linked to the Smithsonian—must be congratulated for taking this step, and let’s hope that other similar organizations will show the same courage.

The panel of speakers was composed by two of the last surviving members of the Air Force’s famous Project Blue Book, both now in their nineties. Col. Robert Friend directed the project between 1958 and 1963, and Col. Bill Coleman was the Chief Spokesperson for Blue Book between 1961 and 1963, and was later the main consultant and producer for the Jack Webb’s Project UFO TV series in the late seventies. Both these gentlemen gave a human face to Blue Book, showing a far more sympathetic view of the phenomenon than the stereotype of a debunking government organization long held by many in the UFO community.

The military UFO panel: (left to right): moderator Alan Palmer, Col. Robert Friend, Col. Bill Coleman, Col. Charles Halt, Nick Pope, Col. John Alexander. (Credit: Antonio Huneeus)

Next came Col. Charles Halt, who was the Deputy Base Commander of the Bentwaters NATO air base (leased by the RAF to the USAF during the Cold war) in the early eighties. Col. Halt was the only panelist who was not part of an official UFO investigation program, but instead became a witness—and a reluctant witness at that—of the famous Rendlesham Forest UFO incidents and close encounters of late December 1980 in Suffolk, England. Furthermore, it was Halt’s official January 13, 1981 memo, “Unexplained Lights,” written to the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) that really put this incident on the map. This occurred when the document was released later under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and leaked to the British press, where it was plastered on the front page of the now defunct News of the World. It was also Col. Halt’s strong and unequivocal statement that the government is still conducting a secret UFO investigation which made news, as seen in the headline of Lee Spiegel’s story in The Huffington Post, “Charles Halt, Former Air Force Colonel, Accuses U.S. Of UFO Cover-Up.”

The next speaker was Nick Pope, a very well known figure in the international UFO scene, who ran the UFO desk at the MOD between 1991 and 1994. Nick was the only foreigner and the only panelist who didn’t serve in the military, though his presence was fully justified since he did work for an official UFO project attached to the defense establishment of a major country. Nick addressed the issue of how the MOD had often misled the British public and media by minimizing the importance of UFO incidents using terms like “little green men” or “UFO spotters.”

The final speaker was Col. John Alexander, who lives in Las Vegas and is the author of the book, UFOs – Myths, Conspiracies, and Realities. Alexander has followed the UFO and paranormal scenes for decades. He undertook in the eighties an informal UFO study group within the Pentagon under the purposely misleading title of Advanced Theoretical Physics Project (ATP) in order to derail any possible FOIA requests using terms like UFO, flying saucer, or extraterrestrial. Although Alexander and Halt are friends and he writes highly about the Rendlesham Forest case in his book, there was obvious disagreement between the two colonels when it came to Halt’s allegation of a still secret, ongoing UFO government project. Alexander believes that some UFOs are real and that they should be investigated scientifically, but based on his experience with the ATP he doesn’t think there currently exists such a project. Let’s examine now in more detail some of the highlights of the “Military UFOs: Secrets Revealed” panel.

Project Blue Book’s human face

The author (center) with Col. Bob Friend on left and Col. Bill Coleman on the right. (Credit: Antonio Huneeus)

It was particularly a pleasure for me to see again Col. Bob Friend, who received me at his home in Orange County, California, in 1990 for a lengthy interview, now posted in our website. 92- year-old Bob Friend is a legend not only because of his role in Blue Book, but because he is the last surviving member of the famous 332nd Fighter Group of the Tuskegee Airmen, which opened up military aviation to people of color. They often had to literally fight in two fronts: the Nazis abroad (they were based in Italy) and the racist prejudices of many in the home front. Col. Friend’s involvement with Blue Book began in 1958 as an accidental assignment, but once he took the reigns he tried to run a professional investigation, developing among other things a thorough questionnaire. He also stressed in his presentation that at least during his tenure (other Blue Book directors before and after him were less sympathetic) the USAF didn’t try to belittle witnesses, even in cases like Joe Simonton’s famous “UFO pancake” case in Wisconsin in 1961, where they concluded the experience was triggered by mental delusion. For a detailed look at Col. Friend’s involvement with Blue Book, check my 1990 interview, which covered a number of cases and issues.

Col. Bill Coleman was the only panelist that I had not met before, though I’d heard his name for years. He began his talk by describing a UFO sighting experienced in 1955 while piloting a B-25. The UFO descended from a height of 20,000 feet and “we got right down to the treetops and I closed in on it very rapidly,” said Coleman. Grant Cameron of PresidentialUFO.com has unearthed a much earlier description of this incident from June 1978 at the Merv Griffin TV talk show. Coleman was promoting then the release of the Jack Webb’s Project UFO TV series, based on the Blue Book files. Coleman made the following description of the object in that interview: “It was about 60 feet in diameter and 10 or 11 feet thick through the center. It had what looked like a titanium-type finish (silver gray). I pulled up and made a hard turn that put it out of sight for roughly four seconds. We whipped back to pull up alongside of it and it wasn’t there. I zoomed up to 1500 feet. `There it is!’ I said. It was about 2 miles in front of us going across a field leaving a dusty trail behind it. I guessed its speed at about 170 MPH.”

Col. Bill Coleman speaking at the military UFO panel in Las Vegas. (Credit: Antonio Huneeus)

I interviewed Bill Coleman briefly for a new Open Minds series to be released soon in our YouTube channel. Since I knew about his close friendship with researcher, author and TV producer Bob Emenegger, I asked him about the famous and controversial allegations regarding a planned UFO landing at Holloman Air Force Base around 1971, which has circulated in the UFO community for decades, but has never been proven. The story was first aired in Emenegger’s 1976 TV documentary, UFOs: It Has Begun, narrated by Rod Serling. Coleman came up with a novel explanation for the rumors which I had never heard before. According to him, the rumors were sparked by the presence of a still, undeclared top secret spy plane. The full details will be posted shortly in my YouTube series Your Need To Know, and excerpts are also sown in the Spacing Out! special program done from the museum’s lobby.

There can be little doubt that both colonels Friend and Coleman gave a far more sympathetic view of Project Blue Book than what you find in Donald Keyhoe’s books and countless other ufological sources. What it shows is that, like any other human organization, Blue Book had different approaches to the phenomenon depending on who was doing the investigation or presenting the facts. Coleman, for instance, replaced Col. Lawrance Tacker as Blue Book’s public spokesman, and so he told his superiors that he might not be the right man for the job since Tacker was notoriously closed-minded and antagonistic towards the UFO community (he really did fit the debunking stereotype). But apparently the USAF decided at that point to present a softer face to the public and the media. This same phenomenon applies to Nick Pope’s tenure at the MOD UFO desk. He obviously developed a strong interest in the phenomenon, which he has pursued ever since, while some of his predecessors and followers looked at it strictly as a job and really didn’t seem to care much about it beyond following orders.

The evolution of Col. Halt

I’ve known Col. Charles Halt for many years, meeting him for the first time around 1991 behind the scenes of the shooting and recreation in Maryland of the Unsolved Mysteries TV series episode on the Bentwaters UFO. I believe that was the first time that Halt, who had then recently retired from the military, agreed to appear on a major TV show. A few months later, together with Bentwaters researcher Dr. Ben Jamison, we visited Halt at his home in northern Virginia, where he played for us the original cassette tape of the live audio recording of the UFO sighting over the Rendlesham Forest made by him and other members of an USAF patrol in late December 1980. This tape and the so-called Halt memo became the key initial pieces of evidence of the Rendlesham Forest affair.

Col. Charles Halt, a key a witness of the famous Rendlesham Forest UFO incidents in Suffolk, England, in December 1980. (Credit: Antonio Huneeus)

Col. Halt was always a reluctant witness who didn’t really want to become part of ufological subculture. Although he eventually appeared over the years in many events, including two press conferences at Washington’s National Press Club and also at our own International UFO Congress in 2011, he was always a cautious man who restricted his commentary strictly to his key role in the Rendlesham affair. That’s why I was surprised when he told me during a brief conversation we had outside the museum before the panel of speakers started, that he was now certain that there was a secret government UFO investigation that would basically survey and scoop any significant piece of evidence collected by other military or intelligence agencies. Moreover, he believed this project was not inside an official U.S. government agency, but rather conducted by a private company subcontractor, so that it wouldn’t be subjected to possible Congressional inquiries or FOIA requests. Although he certainly can’t prove any of this, it makes perfect sense as a logical scenario, and the allegation has more weight if you know Halt’s cautious personality.

When Halt told me all this privately, I thought that maybe he was speaking off-the-record, so I was doubly surprised when he repeated in totally unambiguous terms exactly the same thing at the panel: “I’ve heard many people say that it’s time for the government to appoint an agency to investigate. Folks, there is an agency, a very close-held, compartmentalized agency that’s been investigating this for years.” Halt also told me during our conversation that there was an effort going on to prepare the public to accept the existence of UFOs. Again, the allegation of a long-term conditioning program is not a new idea, it has been floating around for many years and even decades, but it’s not the type of thing you would have expected to hear from Col. Halt in the past.

Despite their friendship and the fact that he supports his testimony and role in the Bentwaters case, there was an obvious disagreement between Halt and Col. John Alexander, who is emphatic that such compartmentalized agency does not exist because if it did, he would have discovered it during the course of his in-house UFO investigation during the period of the so-called Advanced Theoretical Physics Project (ATP). But this argument didn’t swayed Halt at all and there was a little fireworks between the two of them at the panel. With a grim in his face, Halt told Alexander that perhaps he was naïve in his belief that the government couldn’t keep secrets from him or, worse, that he had an agenda.

The military and UFOs

Col. John Alexander made a pretty persuasive argument to explain why some members of the military have encountered UFOs and/or are interested in the phenomenon. The military, he said, are just a microcosm of the population at large, and so we find among the ranks basically the same percentages of witnesses and people interested in weird stuff that exist among civilians. Alexander, now 74, is a former Special Forces commander in Vietnam who has had a long career pursuing the paranormal from inside the military. He also worked developing non-lethal weapons at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and later served as chief aide for Robert Bigelow’s organization, which is the reason he moved to Las Vegas.

Col. John Alexander speaking at the military UFO panel in Las Vegas. (Credit: Antonio Huneeus)

Although Alexander is skeptical of many UFO-related conspiracies, including the 1947 Roswell crash and the reverse-engineering claims at Area 51, he definitely thinks that UFOs are real and have been around for centuries. “Whatever this is, it’s far more complex than we ever anticipated,” he was quoted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Elaborating further on this idea, he stated that “we need to make it permissible for scientists to discuss and research these topics” and to learn to ask “the right questions.” Philosophically speaking, Alexander is really a follower of Dr. Jacques Vallee, the famous French-American astrophysicist, computer scientist and UFO author, who has always eschewed the simplistic “ET or nothing” reductionism of both ufology and the media, in favor of more complex scenarios involved multiple dimensions and human consciousness.

The presentations by the panelists was followed by a long and spirited Q&A session which touched upon a variety of issues. There were a couple of skeptics who seemed rather annoyed that a museum attached to the Smithsonian would put such a pro-UFO program and exhibit. They obviously had expected a far more conservative and skeptical approach from both the speakers and the National Atomic Testing Museum, but the rest of the audience of about 200 people were not bothered by this. All in all, it was an excellent program and the museum ought to be congratulated for doing the right thing. Let’s hope that other mainstream organizations will follow their example.

The National Atomic Testing Museum filmed the whole event and will have soon DVDs available. You can find their website here.

My colleagues Jason McClellan and Maureen Elsberry of the Open Minds web program Spacing Out! interviewed most of the speakers and other researchers attending the event from the lobby of the museum. Their program is posted at the top of this article.

About Antonio Huneeus

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Open Minds Investigative Reporter J. Antonio Huneeus has covered the UFO field from an international perspective for over 30 years. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications in the U.S., Latin America, Europe and Japan. He was also the co-author of the Laurance Rockefeller-funded “UFO Briefing Document – The Best Available Evidence” and edited the book “A Study Guide to UFOs, Psychic & Paranormal Phenomena in the USSR.” Huneeus studied French at the Sorbonne University in Paris and Journalism at the University of Chile in Santiago in the 1970s. He has lectured at dozens of UFO Conferences all over the world and been interviewed by many media outlets including The Washington Post, the Sy-Fy and History Channels, Nippon-TV, etc. He received the “Ufologist of the Year” award at the National UFO Conference in Miami Beach in 1990 and the “Courage in Journalism” award at the X-Conference in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in 2007.

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