The Truth is out There: We Look to the Skies with UFO Expert James T. Abbott

Throughout the known history of the world, there have been accounts of strange sightings and happenings in our skies. From the ancient Indian Vedic texts that describe flying crafts to phantom ships seen in the air in Roman times and strange phenomenon observed over Basel, Switzerland in the 16th century. In more recent memory UFO sightings, often along with footage of varying quality, come to the fore in their thousands each year. Many of these accounts are rubbished and dismissed, usually without good explanation, however, when such accounts come from police officers or pilots, they inevitably carry more weight and as such are harder to ignore.

The study of these unidentified flying objects has become a fascination for many, one man, James T. Abbott, has spent decades researching the phenomenon. In his book The Outsider’s Guide to UFOs he looks at 40 of the most compelling cases from over the past 70 years. We spoke to him recently to talk about the changing attitude to the subject we’re seeing from governments, his hopes for pushing the boundaries of scientific research to get more answers and just what makes a credible UFO case.

The MALESTROM: Let’s start with your definition of the term UFO…

James Abbott: It’s quite simple really, a UFO is an unidentified flying object, that’s all we know about them. We don’t know what they are, we don’t know where they come from or whether they’re an atmospheric phenomenon or whatever, so we start from pretty well zero in relation.

TM: What sparked your interest in UFOs?

JA: I think it was Donald Keyhoe’s book The Flying Saucers Are Real, and then I went on to read Edward Ruppelt’s great book on unidentified flying objects and it expanded from there. It started as a hobby and then it got to the stage recently four or five years ago when I was getting a bit fed up of all the bickering that was going on in the general environment of UFOs, the ‘I saw something, no you didn’t, yes I did’ sort of thing. I think the more you look into it the more you find that it is a serious phenomenon, it’s not something that can be explained easily and there are some fairly compelling pieces of circumstantial evidence around the subject and it all builds up into what I would call an ‘a priori case’ for some deeper research to be done. Governments have tried of course, but they’ve tended to look at it from a defence point of view only.

TM: How are official attitudes to the subject changing?

JA: I think it’s very much undercover at the moment or under the surface, lets put it that way. There is the evidence that there is a slight change in official approaches to the subject, particularly in America of course with the Department of Defence releasing those videos and accounts from the US Navy fighters. That I think is a bit of an earthquake in the whole phenomenon because the Americans have generally not revealed anything at all of what’s being kept in secret vaults inside the Pentagon and the release of that video for me is quite telling. It says the United States government doesn’t know what these things are, haven’t got a clue and they’re saying effectively ‘look, here’s some evidence, see what you all think about it’ to see if someone can come up with some reason.

TM: What do you make of that UFO footage?

JA: I think it’s incredible footage, not only is the footage incredible but the statement by the pilot David Fravor is stunning, he effectively said he’d have like to have flown one of those things. If it was just electronic you might think it’s something the electronics were picking up and shouldn’t have done, but then we’re talking about state of the art kit here, these are F-18 fighter planes, so if they were being fooled by clouds or electronic discharges from the atmosphere then I think the Americans would have been a bit embarrassed and not released the footage.

TM: The concept of UFOs isn’t still generally accepted though is it?

JA: That’s right and the media don’t help of course, for understandable reasons, they have to protect themselves. It was interesting when USA Today ran the story on the US Navy sightings they had a picture of a little green man on the page with a caption by it reading ‘was this the pilot?’ So they always protect themselves by keeping their tongues very firmly in their cheeks. I think that’s fair enough, it’s not an easy subject to grapple with, it’s really pushing the boundaries of belief where you think there’s maybe something behind it that’s not of this planet. I suspect there are parts which are of this planet, and maybe parts that aren’t.

TM: It’s seriously naive for us to think that things outside of our field of perception don’t exist isn’t it?

JA: Oh, it’s incredibly naive. I don’t think a lot of people realise quite how far physics is uncovering an extremely weird universe we never believed would be possible and it’s just not logical, it’s not rational, we’re looking at Quantum physics where particles can be in two places at once, where particles can be entangled over incredible distances and communicate faster than the speed of light. Scientific American ran an article recently in which they were talking about the probability of black holes being two dimensional and about the universe expanding forever, all of these things are pushing science closer to the weirdness that is the UFO phenomenon.

TM: In your book, you look extensively at accounts, some very early, but there are even earlier ones back to the Indian Vedic texts and later, accounts of UFOs aren’t new are they?

JA: No it’s not new at all. The only problem with the stuff that’s pre late 19th century is there are very few ways we can sensibly interrogate it. We just have to take it as a possibility, as skeptics quite rightly say it could be anything. My view is we should be looking at modern stuff, even with the stuff over the last 70 years, there’s no way of actually getting at the truth of whatever might have happened, or what might not have happened. So Rendlesham 1980, what actually happened? Was there a landing? Was there something that landed in the woods that was seen and touched and walked around? Or was it somebody’s practical joke?

Photograph of Suffolk Police inspecting the supposed landing site in Rendlesham Forest

All of these things are not susceptible of proper scientific inquiry and what I think we need to do is have a primary scientific inquiry which starts from the point of view of saying there is an anomaly, there is a priority case for more research and therefore lets set something up. Bearing in mind of course that a lot of this stuff is going to be beyond current science, way beyond it. Even the atmospheric stuff, ten years ago we weren’t even close to understanding what upward striking lightning was, or blue jets, or sprites. Well, now science is taking those as real and saying these things can happen and they’re a danger to future hypersonic aircraft and all the rest of it. The bottom line is we simply have masses of stuff out there that we don’t understand and our current science can’t tell us a lot about it. We’re trying to get primary data but we need to push the boundaries of science as well.

TM: Just how much credible evidence do we have of these unexplained objects?

JA: It depends on your definition of credibility. If you take the police approach to this and you say I’m a policeman and somebody has just robbed a store, you’ve got one witness and the witness says the guy was seven foot tall with an athletic build with blonde hair. Well, the police might or might not believe one witness, but if twenty other witnesses come forward and say yes that’s exactly what he was like, a very weird bloke, and he did this and he did that, then the policeman starts to think right there’s something to that.

I think credibility depends on what you’re looking at and how you assess the evidence, so that’s why in the book I’ve taken 40 of what I consider to be the most credible cases, the ones that were cited by police officers, pilots and so on, that’s not to say that an 18-year-old waiter from the local hotel that has wandered outside one night and has seen a glowing globe in the sky doing weird things, that’s not to say he’s wrong, he might well be right, but I do think we should be starting with people who are trained observers who have seen things are reporting them in a dispassionate way.

Airline pilots do, military pilots tend to do. I mean going back to Farnborough in 1952 you’ve got Hubbard the test pilot who saw an object in the sky and got laughed out of town, he went on to be a very eminent guy but he never withdrew that claim, he said yeah that’s what I saw, and it was doing weird things. It was floating in the sky like a sycamore leaf he said. When guys like that are seeing things I believe that they’re credible.

TM: Do you think some of these UFOs are military testing?

JA: I’m absolutely certain that at some time over the last 70 years people have seen advanced aircraft of some sort and have got excited thinking they were looking at interplanetary crafts. It’s not that that’s impossible, it’s simply that in every single case that we look at that is not capable of being explained in any other way, logic seems to imply that all of them will have been some advanced aircraft. And the things that they are seen doing are not the type of things Earthbound aircraft can do. It’s exactly what Commander Fravor was saying about that US Navy sighting, it was doing things no Earthbound craft could possibly do, descending from 80,000 feet to 50 foot above the water in seconds and stopped dead, then went away just as quickly. Those sort of accounts from people who are used to seeing things in the sky also backed up by instrumentation and the USS Princeton’s own radars, they’re the ones that really make you think. We can’t keep ignoring all these things just because we laugh at little green men.

TM: Why do people see so many different shapes? Although there are many of the same reoccurring shapes like cylinders and orbs…

JA: That’s exactly the way people have seen things for at least 100 years. And each generation has described them in terms they understand best. In the late 19th century it was airships and then coming into WWII we had orbs and the foo fighters and so on, then after the war people saw discs in the sky, Kenneth Arnold spotted those things flying very strangely. Again if Kenneth Arnold was fooling everybody and wanted to make a story seem real about interplanetary spaceships why tell a story about things bouncing along like pebbles on a pond? The circumstantial evidence itself is pretty weak, but when you link all these things together, if you were a police officer you’d say, ‘yes it could well have been’.

Kenneth Arnold with a drawing of his UFO sighting

Kenneth Arnold with a drawing of his UFO sighting

TM: You mentioned the word dispassionate earlier, many of these accounts are simply by people doing their civic duty and informing the authorities in a measured manner, like the case of Henry White in Clapham (1914)…

JA: Precisely. He saw something, they were in the middle of a very nasty war and he reported it. It could well have been ball lightning or whatever else the skeptics claim, the problem is with all of these explanations you have to be able to scientifically show how it exists for minutes at a time and so far they’ve been able to show ball lightning might exist and that it can exist for seconds, but nothing more than that.

Ball lightning

TM: I suppose the big problem with the view from the scientists perspective is they just don’t believe in the possibility of other life out there, again slightly nieve…

JA: It’s incredibly naive. For scientists to discount something just because it doesn’t fit into our current scientific paradigm is stupidity, not just naivety, that’s not what they’re supposed to do, scientists are supposed to say, ‘look here’s something we don’t understand, let’s try and understand it.’ If that means that whatever they’re trying to understand gets explained in natural terms as new meteorological or physical phenomenon then that’s fine by me, I’ve got no problem with that. If you can explain all these sightings in natural terms then that’s great, we can all go away and do our own day job, but at the end of the day, I think it’s incumbent on scientists to put their money where their mouths are.

They make a big deal about being dispassionate, about being objective, not being swayed by subjective arguments, but here is a phenomenon that I can show has been going on at least 70 years and with massive numbers of observations every year, more than 2 million since the turn of this century. And thousands of observations each year probably will be inexplicable in scientific terms and they turn their backs on it saying it can’t possibly exist. That’s the rocks from the sky issue.

TM: Which of your accounts of sightings have you found most interesting?

JA: I love them all, they’re all very compelling but I think the Lonnie Zamora one is particularly interesting because it also has a pathos and a tragedy to it in the sense that he was just an ordinary copper who was driving a car one day and saw a flash and as was his duty he went to investigate. What he saw was something that not only shook him to the core but made him a laughing stock for probably the rest of his life. The poor bloke was vilified by just about everybody apart from his very close friends. Now I find the Lonnie Lamora one very compelling, a lot is said by the reaction of people afterward. If they go around giving studio interviews at TV stations getting paid I tend not to be too convinced. But if they do not make money out of it, like the Trents and Charles Holt of the Rendlesham case their attitude tells a lot. They’re hurt, bemused, baffled and they say ‘yes I saw it, but please tell me what it was, if it wasn’t something incredibly weird then please tell me what it was.’ To be honest, that’s what scientists should be doing, they should be able to turn round and say ‘yes we understand that, it’s this.’ Or ‘no we don’t understand and we’re going to keep investigating.’ That to me is a respectful and proper way to do science.

Farmer Paul Trent’s famous UFO photo from over McMinnville, Oregon

TM: Have any recent cases caught your eye?

JA: The best one is the American Airlines one over Arizona recently where once again, and this is the point, sometimes airline pilots see things in the sky, but when other airline pilots in different planes see the same thing that’s when you start to sit up and notice. This case is particularly compelling on that basis. There are huge numbers of things, there was a lad in Exmouth last year who took a video of what appeared to be a triangular formation of lights over the city. He was a bus driver and he saw this object or thing in the sky, there’s a video online which is incredible really as you get a sense of his shock and surprise and he’s really annoyed at himself for not having a proper camera with him, he’s only got his cell phone. And the footage is convincing, it looks like what he said was happening and there were other witnesses that said the same thing.

Those sorts of sightings where people are seeing things and then being completely baffled by the whole thing, just as you’ve got hundreds of reports on UFO sights all over the world of people saying ‘I saw this, I don’t know what it was, please explain it to me’, they’re not talking about seeing little green men sticking their heads out of the window or being abducted by aliens, it’s ordinary people going about their everyday lives and they see things and then report them, to me that’s convincing, that’s a witness. They may be right, they may be wrong in that they’re seeing a natural thing like a planet, a star or so on but it really is incumbent on us to say these things are the following, this explains all of them.

And the fact that governments keep returning to this subject and keep setting up investigations like Condign back in the late 1990s in Britain, it means governments keep thinking there must be something to it, but what is it? And they set their scientists on it and they come back and say they can’t explain it. The Condign report came up with all sorts of possible explanations for UFOs, but the key word is ‘could’, it’s always ‘could be’, there’s never any lasting proof and there’s never a sense that they’ve covered all the possible options.

TM: The problem is there’s still such a stigma around the subject. You defined the term UFO very clearly at the start of this interview, but the mention of the word conjures up in many that people who believe in such things are crazy…

JA: I think that’s two generations of ridicule and general disbelief of the subject. I get it exactly the same if I tell a friend I’m interested in UFOs, they say ‘what! How on earth did you get into that?’ I have a very good friend who lives in Northern Island who read the book and she came back to me and said she hadn’t realised there was so much to it, she still didn’t know what there were and still had her doubts, but it does open the doors a little bit and I hope that’s what this book will do.

TM: What did you come across when researching probably the most famous UFO incident, the one that took place in Roswell? Did you find much credibility in that? There’s that credibility word again. 

JA: I think the word credibility is a very important one, it’s all we’ve got at the moment until we get decent scientific results and information. Are the witnesses credible? Is what happened credible? What happened was incredible, but that’s UFOs if you look at all the stories. With Roswell, it comes down to a simple question. Why was that press release issued by Blanchard? It seems beyond the realms of belief that a mere career Colonel, who went on to become a General would issue a press release about flying saucers, effectively saying a disc had been recovered and that it would settle all the questions about what people had seen in the sky recently. That was a well-crafted press release, it mentioned discs six times. It did not mention balloons, it did not mention fragments of balloons or weather, it simply said a disc had been recovered. To me, that bit alone destroys virtually the whole of the Roswell story, because it means deliberately they set that hare running that this disc had been recovered, it was such a strange thing to do and set the whole world talking.

Roswell Daily Record newspaper detailing the flying saucer story

Normally if something actually happened and they recovered parts of what they thought to be an alien spaceship that would have gone straight undercover with no question about putting out press releases and if they did it would have read ‘no need to worry everybody, what crashed on that farm was actually a weather balloon, we have all the fragments now, you can all go back to sleep.’ That would have been the logical thing to do. For me, I think it was likely something else that they wanted to cover up with a colourful story that would take all the attention from the real thing. It could have just been a Mogul balloon that crashed, they were highly secretive at the time, spying on the Russians, and they may have just tried to deflect that with the flying saucers. I do believe Roswell was not about aliens, but probably more to do with the US government and what they were doing at the time.

TM: Going back finally to science, do you think we’ll ever see that sea change where the narrow perception field is widened and scientists accept that some of these things might be otherworldly?

JA: I think it’s already happening. If there is going to be a sea change I think it’ll be a gradual one that will take place over 30 to 50 years because the whole subject is so complex I don’t think anyone is going to go into a laboratory and suddenly find an answer to the whole thing. You’ve got organisations working all around the world but they’re badly underfunded and the process as it is is extremely slow. I think it’s important to note the Department of Defense release of these videos because it indicates they are willing to share at least some very important data that looks credible, so I suppose that represents a bit of a sea change, maybe we’ve stopped being worried that these things are secret Soviet weapons and the governments have convinced themselves that even if they are from a distant galaxy they’re no threat to us because they haven’t done anything to us ever. So if those to things are true that they’re not secret weapons and not a threat maybe we should start sharing information and look at them as a scientific anomaly and find out what they are.

The basic fact is we might learn a lot while doing so, it might expand our science. Luis Elizondo of the To the Stars Academy came to the conclusion that these things were real and were based on science we simply didn’t understand. He was talking about space-time warps, quantum physics drives, all kinds of things. I think even the scientists and advanced engineers are struggling at the boundaries of what they know and until we know more about the quantum world and the universe itself and how it operates, what dark matter is and how it interacts with gravity, if we can start to build our own knowledge then perhaps we’ll see possible ways in which these anomalies could be caused, they could be perfectly natural or they could be visitors from another galaxy.

The Outsider’s Guide to UFOs by James Abbott is out now.

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