Thursday, April 29, 2021

The U.S. Air Force vs Man-made UFOs

 There are many sightings of unidentified flying objects that remain unexplained mysteries. That being said, UFO hoaxes date back to at least the 17th century.

In the previous STTF article, The UFO-Kite Connectionwe mentioned how young Isaac Newton frightened his neighbors by flying a kite with a paper lantern attached to it in the night sky. However, long before that there were man-made objects flying, at least as far back as the 3rd century, ones that would become an important part of UFO history. Those were Kǒngmíng lanterns in China, made of thin fabric or paper, their flight powered by the hot air from a candle flame inside. In different times and places, these hot air balloons have had many names, such as Chinese lanterns, fire balloons, or sky lanterns. It took a few centuries, but the sky lantern became a novelty in the West. The 1820 book, A New and Comprehensive Edition of The Art of Making and Managing Fireworks with safety and ease, contained instructions on how “To make a Fire Balloon.”

Moving closer to the age of flying saucers.... During the airship mystery of 1896, skeptical San Francisco newspaper reporters launched paper lanterns to compare the public’s reaction to what had been reported. Their launch was possibly what was the first intentional UFO hoax. From the late 1940s on, conventional balloons launched by authorities for weather studies and military experiments caused considerable confusion when reported as UFOs. While that was unintentional, later there was a deliberate flap caused by youngsters in the 1960s launching balloons as hoaxes, and the simplest and cheapest kind to make were fire balloons. The U.S. government had appointed the air Force to deal with the UFO issue, and that included the hoaxes. From the late 1950s until the end, Project Blue Book was faced with a ballooning problem. 

Photo from’s How to Build Birthday Candle Engine Powered UFO Fire Balloons

One of the first such cases mentioned was in the summer of 1956 in Denver, Colorado. Details are sketchy, but the Kansas Ottawa Herald, August 21, 1956 reported, “Out in Denver the other day two bobbing lights were seen in the sky. They proved to be balloons with candles burning.” 

The next year there was a far better-documented case we’ve previously covered, The 1957 UFO Crash at Knoxville, Tennessee, a saucer near the atomic energy installation in Oak Ridge. A group of six science-minded teenaged boys made their balloon out of gift-wrapping paper and two pie tins.

In early 1961, as the result of a ten-cent bet, five college students working part time at Marshall Space Flight Center launched hot air balloons over two nights in Huntsville, Alabama. The candle-powered craft caused witnesses to call the press and police to report flying saucer sightings.

Montgomery Advertiser, March 6, 1961

Project Blue Book files contain many such cases of what they termed “garment bag balloons.” The first description of such a hoax was from December 13- 14, 1962, Greenfield, CaliforniaThe investigator believed these models were filled with gas for lift:

“Large envelopes or balloons, single or double thickness, 6 to 8 feet long can be made and filled with natural gas used in private homes. Evidence that plastic bag balloons have been made and used by pranksters, has been found by the California State Forestry Division in Monterey County.”

In his FOTOCAT article on the 1966 New Jersey UFO sightings at Wanaque Reservoir, Vicente-Juan Ballester Olmos reported on a letter published in the Spring 1967 issue of FATE magazine, saying, “the writer reported that high school boy practical jokers hoaxed a whole nation by faking sightings over Wanaque Reservoir.” The letter described their method of construction: “Take a plastic bag‒the kind dry cleaners use to wrap clothes‒, a wire hanger, a strip of electrical wire, a wad of cotton, a can of lighter fluid, a roll of tape, and a six-inch piece of string.”

These hoaxes inspired a legion of copycats, and the balloons were cheap and easy to construct.

The San Bernardino County Sun, Dec. 4, 1966

Fire balloons caused many problems for observers who were unaware of what they were looking at. The media had programmed the public to expect to see saucers, so that's how they were most often interpreted. In the night sky, it was difficult to determine the size, distance or speed of the the glowing objects, and when they burned out, they sometimes produced the illusion of extraordinary maneuvers, vanishing or zooming away at impossible speeds. 

Purists have always hated UFO hoaxes, but some within the saucer scene felt that any publicity was a good thing as long as it kept the topic in the news. Many of these hoaxes went into the record as genuine UFO cases, but a few were prominently exposed as hoaxes. There were probably hundreds of these balloon pranks, but we’ll focus on well-documented cases, especially the ones with photographs of the balloons or perpetrators.

Courtesy of Louis Taylor, below is a photo taken on March 25, 1966, by two teenage boys in Farmington, Missouri, Terry McClintock and Bill Nash. A garment bag balloon in flight?

The Daily Banner, April 4, 1966

The San Carlos Saucer Scare

The San Francisco Examiner, Dec. 7, 1966

“About That Saucer...

The highway patrolman who saw what he thought was a flying saucer over San Carlos Saturday night might have known it was just a lot of hot air. Jon Barnard, 16, of Belmont (foreground) and friends, Jack Allen, 17 (rear) showed him how they took an ordinary plastic bag (like the one from dry cleaners), plugged up one end, delicately balance some candles in the other end, light them and let the bag go. Then people see it and wipe their eyes and...” 

More detailed coverage appeared in the San Rafael Daily Independent Journal, Dec. 7, 1966:

BELMONT (UPI) - Mysterious flying saucers which nearly made believers of a California highway patrolman and a veteran airport tower observer were explained yesterday by their creator—a 16-year-old high school student. One of the strange devices was sighted over San Carlos shortly before midnight Saturday by off-duty Patrolman Vern Morse and his wife. Morse said the glowing object resembled a flying platform with struts. He said there appeared to be someone wearing a crash helmet inside—although the object was only “about the size of a hot water heater.” The patrolman said the craft was completely silent, but moved away from him at about 30 miles an hour. At about the same time, Donald Bennett, supervisor of the control tower at San Francisco International Airport, called authorities from his San Mateo home to report three red-orange glows in the sky at an estimated altitude of 20,000 feet, moving at about 250 m.p.h. “I could not make out any shape,” he reported, “but they definitely were not aircraft.’’ His observation was confirmed yesterday by Carlmont high school junior Jon Barnard, but the estimates of altitude and speed were a little off. The youth said he launched about 20 of the strange objects Friday night and about 30 Saturday night. He explained how they were constructed.

PLASTIC, STRAWS “You take one plastic bag, used by cleaning firms to protect clothes,” he said. “Then you plug the coat-hanger end at the top. Get a bunch of plastic straws from a soda fountain. You use them as struts to hold the bag open.” A circular structure of the straws, inserted end-to-end. provides a platform for nine birthday candles, four in the center and one at each spoke of the struts. “Now,” Jon explained, “You light the candles, holding the top of the bag until hot air fills it. Then you let it go, and away flies your hot air balloon, giving off a gentle glow from the candles.”

NO FIRE WORRY The youth said most of his flying objects came down in his neighborhood when the candles went out, but a few carried well on strong winds that accompanied a weekend storm. Jon said he wasn't concerned about fire because the plastic bags will not burn and, “Anyway, it was pretty wet those nights.” However, his career in the unidentified flying object field was cut short by Jon's father, J. L. Barnard, who said the balloons were a project “which had unforeseen effects.” “There won’t be any more,” the father added.

Maybe not from Jon, but there were more. Many more.

Besides the signature fiery orange glow produced by the garment bag balloons, another characteristic was their dropping something like “molten metal,” which was really candle wax or the plastic melting. Many hoaxes went unsolved, but in some rare instances, physical evidence was recovered.

NEA Telephoto, Dec. 3, 1966

Project Blue Book case file: Dec. 21, 1966, Lemon Grove, California

Another incident, this one from Monmouth, Illinois in early March 1967.

The Rock Island Argus (Illinois),  March 11, 1967

The Decatur Daily Review, March 10, 1967:

Saucers or Hot Air? Plastic Bag Found at Monmouth

Monmouth (AP) A solution to the western Illinois flying saucer sightings mystery may have been found near the Monmouth waste disposal plant today. Reports of unidentified flying objects ranged from the Quad Cities to Peoria Wednesday and Thursday. Robert Merwin, superintendent of the city's disposal plant, found a hot air balloon made of a clear plastic bag, soda straws and a candle. He found the object tangled in brush on the north edge of Monmouth on a road leading to the plant. The soda straws were glued together and held the bag open. It was believed that the candle provided heat to propel the object and also gave off a soft greenish light. The plastic bag was similar to those used by drycleaners. Ralph Eckley, city editor of the Monmouth Review - Atlas, said recent magazines on newsstands in Monmouth have given descriptions of how UFO's were built by college students elsewhere. He noted that there are more than 1,000 students at Monmouth College and a similar number at Knox College in Galesburg. Several mysterious objects were reported in Southern Illinois.

In a few instances, the hoaxers confessed, such as the high school boys from the Sacramento, California in the area.

Kannapolis Daily Independent, NC, March 24, 1967

The hoaxes gave Project Blue Book yet another problem, since many people seeing the balloons sincerely thought they had witnessed something unearthly. The Air Force described the situation to one such witness in the Aug. 23, 1967 letter by Col. James C. Manatt, USAF, director of Technology and Subsystems.

Two Belated Confessions

Reporter Steve Cooper revealed in 1986 that during the mid-60s that he had been involved in a partnership hoax launching candle-powered counterfeit UFOs.

The San Bernardino County Sun, Feb. 17, 1986

In California during the San Diego flap of 1967, one of the witnesses described the UFO "as a ball of fire spilling molten metal... climbed vertically at high speed..."

UPI article, Nov. 30, 1967

Decades later, the truth came out. In the 2006 book, Motley Rock Stories, Jack Valentine confessed how he and his friends created the extended saucer flap that, "put all of San Diego on a UFO scare.”

 “Tac devised a hot air balloon that would travel almost out of sight, catch fire, and drip melting plastic... Our regular evening launches garnered us lots of TV and newspaper coverage… I'm not sure anyone ever had a rational answer for what they saw during that time.”

Project Blue Book Quits 

Part of the UFO popularity of the 1960s was due to the widespread balloon hoaxes, and in a way they may have helped accelerate the Air Force getting out of the UFO business. The public attention caused the launch of the Condon Study, which was to evaluate whether the UFOs were worthy of government attention. During this time, another Project Blue Book case was reported by security policeman at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Dec. 23, 1967. He sighted a yellowish circular object rising silently in an arc towards the sky. One of the witnesses determined it was a lighted balloon, but neither the objects or the hoaxer were caught.

The garment bag-type balloon hoaxes continued through 1968 and 1969, but by that time the Air Force was getting out of the UFO business thanks to the negative conclusions published  by the Condon Study. Project Blue Book shut down, and from then on, flying saucers, hoaxed or otherwise, were not the Air Force's problem.

Hoaxes Endure 

A post-Blue Book hoax occurred Oct. 21, 1973 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 68,000 people witnessed a UFO, a "dome-type structure." Guyton and Romney Stubbs later admitted, “We wanted to capitalize on the UFO hysteria.” With a hot air balloon, they “convinced a stadium full of LSU fans that they had seen a UFO.” For the full story, see "Saturday Night (UFO) Fever" by Ruth Laney.

Garment bag balloons eventually became less popular, but in time, sky lanterns became easily commercially available. Sky lanterns took over as a leading cause of UFO sightings, most of them launched in celebrations, but some of them were flown by a new generation of hoaxers.

 . . .


For Further Reading

 UFOs Explained, by Philip J. Klass, 1974, see chapter 3, “Hand-made UFOs."

Isaac Newton's hoaxing and early lighted kites were featured in a 2016 article by Martin Kottmeyer.

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