Friday, November 24, 2017

High Alert! UFO over Oak Ridge National Laboratory, circa 1951

Professor Alan D. Conger is the key player in this case, and we'll begin by introducing him thorough a few key quotes from his obituary:
Alan Conger, a pioneer in genetic effects of radiation, died 22 Dec 1995... He was 78 years old. Alan was born 23 Mar 1917, in Muskegon, Michigan. He attended Harvard as both an undergraduate and a graduate student, and received the Ph.D. degree in biology in 1947.
After (working in the weather service for the Army during WWII), Alan returned to Harvard to pursue his graduate work.. Alan had become interested in the genetic effects of radiation... He began his research career in this field at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1947 and had a major role in the early bomb tests in the Pacific.
Only small part of the following plays a role in the UFO case, but it's too valuable not too repeat.
Alan was well known for his puckish sense of humor... One tangible artifact to have survived his Florida period is associated with Alan's service on the Radiation Study Section of the National Institutes of Health. He donated to that body an alligator coprolite that he had collected in the Florida swamps, which he had mounted on an impressive plaque for presentation annually to the member chosen by his colleagues to have propagated during his study section tenure the greatest quantity of the material of which the coprolite was composed.
( We had to look it up. Coprolite means fossilized excrement.)

Flying Saucers over Oak Ridge National Laboratory

First, we need to introduce the location.
"Established during World War II by the Manhattan District, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) occupied the X-10 site on the fifty-six-thousand-acre reservation between Clinch River and Black Oak Ridge purchased by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1942. Initially called Clinton Laboratories after the nearest town, it began as a top-secret installation to produce plutonium for the first nuclear weapons." For further details, see The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture: Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

In The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Capt. Edward J. Ruppelt, ex-head of Project Blue Book said, "...UFO's were habitually reported from areas around 'technically interesting' places like our atomic energy installations, harbors, and critical manufacturing areas." He cited a notable UFO case from Oak Ridge, where an object was sighted by ground observers, confirmed by radar, and pursued by an Air Force plane:  
On June 21, 1952, at 10:58P.M., a Ground Observer Corps spotter reported that a slow-moving craft was nearing the AEC's Oak Ridge Laboratory, an area so secret that it is prohibited to aircraft. The spotter called the light into his filter center and the filter center relayed the message to the ground control intercept radar. They had a target. But before they could do more than confirm the GOC spotter's report, the target faded from the radarscope. An F-47 aircraft on combat air patrol in the area was vectored in visually, spotted a light, and closed on it. They "fought" from 10,000 to 27,000 feet, and several times the object made what seemed to be ramming attacks. The light was described as white, 6 to 8 inches in diameter, and blinking until it put on power. The pilot could see no silhouette around the light.
Ruppelt's story was just one of many from the facility. It's an old question: Are there more UFOs reported around sensitive government facilities because the objects are attracted to them, or is it just that the heightened security produces more false alarms? Fran Ridge's site has a page, NICAP: The Oak Ridge Sightings, featuring several similar events of this kind from around 1950, other Radar-Visual cases where planes were sent out to pursue UFOs reported over ORNL. 

1976: Alan Conger's UFO Disclosure

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory Review's Fall 1976 issue featured a look back at the organizations history: "this special issue of the Review contains a skeleton history of the Laboratory's first 25 years, interspersed with reminiscences, anecdotes, funny pictures, and a few expansions on particular aspects of importance to the Laboratory." There was only one reminiscence about a UFO.

Alan Conger Remembers... 
     Old-timers in the Biology Division may remember the overhang roof facing the highway outside my second floor lab in 9207 -our lunch patio where we dined on balmy days under the morning glories. At the height of the UFO scares (ca. 1951 ?), coming across some balloons and a helium tank left over from our first lab Open House, I filled six or so balloons with helium, tied them together with string, and attached a 6-ft strip of aluminum foil beneath as a radar target. With Kim Atwood's help, I got it out of the lab and launched from our roof patio, admiring its stately ascent as it drifted down Bear Creek Valley, rapidly transforming from a recognizable bundle of balloons and foil into an unidentifiable flying object. We then ran down the hall, calling out to Jack Von Borstel, Bill Arnold, Shelly Wolff, and others, "See the UFO!"
     It caused great excitement and much speculation about what it was, its size, velocity, and height; and soon, even more excitement when it was detected by the nearby radar station on Pilot Mountain, and the fighter-interceptor squadron then stationed at Knoxville was scrambled to intercept the intruder. With planes buzzing around, and our scientist friends seriously considering the object, the situation had rapidly become so very imposing that neither Kim nor I had the guts to confess to our hoax. We kept quiet and hoped the Air Force or AEC would be unable to identify us.
     A few years ago, my son, reading a book on UFOs, came across this incident as one of the case histories of UFO sightings from Air Force records. He recognized it as a hoax, and surmised that some unknown Oak Ridge scientists probably perpetrated it.
-Alan D. Conger, Professor of Radiobiology, School of Medicine, Temple University 

Conger's accomplice was Dr. Kimball C. Atwood III, senior biologist at the ORNL. Most UFO balloon hoaxes are perpetrated by mischievous kids, not Ph.D.s working at US government facilities.
 Up close, the UFO must have looked something like this.

But at a distance, the sun's reflection from metal foil would have been the most visible feature. The foil also provided something for the radar to find, serving as an improvised radar wind target of RAWIN. On radar, the foil strip registered as a solid object, and it was due to this the hoax worked well enough for the Air Force to scramble planes to catch the UFO.

Radar operator, circa 1950.
Dr. Congers did not remember the precise date of the incident, so it's difficult to match Air Force records. There is a possible match in Project Blue Book's files in this one from December of 1950:  18 Dec. 1950, Oak Ridge, Tenn. 

This episode and its exposure seems to have been the extent of Professor Conger's involvement in the UFO controversy.

In an interesting trivial footnote to the story, Conger's hoaxing accomplice, Kim Atwood, had a son who has written articles on medical quackery for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry's Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
"Kimball C. Atwood IV, M.D. is an anesthesiologist at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, Massachusetts. He is Assistant Clinical Professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine and Contributing Editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine." 
CSI is the den for UFO debunkers like Robert Sheaffer, James Oberg, Joe Nickell, and the late Phil Klass.

Thanks to Roger Glassel for locating the magazine article with Dr. Conger's confession.


  1. During the fall of 1950 there were many visual and radar sightings in the vicinity of Oak Ridge. See Chapter 16 of THE FBI CIA UFO CONNECTION (Amazon)

  2. Interesting story. Back in the 1930's R.V Jones, a British scientist at that time engaged in work on the infra-red detection of aircraft, pointed out that one of the problems with radar was that it could easily be 'spoofed' by launching balloons trailing wire cut to the appropriate wavelength.

    In the end a variant of this idea was come up with by someone else and became 'Window' (or as the Americans called it 'Chaff'), cut aluminum strips used to blind radar with false returns.

    Nice to see someone put the original idea into practice.

    1. Yes, and it came into play on a few other occasions as faux saucers, perhaps most notably in a case from the 60s that we'll cover later on, some enterprising CalTech students with an unusually technologically sophisticated Ufaux.

  3. This story reminds me of the Socorro, NM incident, the theory that college students had perpetrated a hoax.

    So far no students have come forward.


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