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How dramatic were the 'Operation Mainbrace' UFO sightings, really?

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How dramatic were the ‘Operation Mainbrace’ UFO sightings, really?

And where is all the documentation?

Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.


The series finale of History Channel’s Project Blue Book featured some pretty crazy stuff during serious military maneuvers, so we asked retired Air Force pilot Steve Lundquist to take a look at the case and give us the real lowdown.

When I was asked to look at the 1952 Operation Mainbrace UFO sightings, I was initially quite curious, as I’d never heard about them. Operation Mainbrace, meant to show that Denmark and Norway could be defended from potential Soviet attacks, was the largest maneuvers NATO had every conducted to that point, involving 10 nations, 80,000 men, 1,000 planes, and 200 ships. Surely an event of this nature would have excellent documentation and thorough investigation.

After reading the accounts listed here by NUFORC, one of the premier UFO reporting centers in the country, I had to revise my opinion. The page consists of nine paragraphs of text with no links, no pictures, or even anything to really follow up on. Googling “Operation Mainbrace Sightings” turns up articles that are either exact rewritings or expanded retellings. In other words, the sources were all rather circular, and never really got beyond the simple text-only page.

This kind of circular referencing is extremely common with accounts of UFO sightings. Generally, there’s a first report of something, usually in a news clipping or (today) a blog post, and then all other references either read word for word off this original report, or they contain embellishments that spice the story up. You never really find any more meat on the bone, yet people doggedly keep gnawing.

So what about those nine paragraphs of text? They describe what Operation Mainbrace was, and then list a series of events where different things are declared to be important UFO sightings. The only tidbit that got me curious was the account from the U.S.S. Franklin D. Roosevelt, that stated a reporter named Wallace Litwin took a series of color photographs which “turned out to be excellent.” Only a poor print has ever surfaced, and I’m not even sure what I’m supposed to be seeing in this picture. If it’s the white dot at the edge of the clouds, it’s quite disappointing.

Operation Mainbrace photograph

The other thing that struck me was the heavy reliance on the fact that the observers were well-qualified. I don’t know what makes someone “well-qualified” to sight, identify, and categorize unknown aerial phenomena. I myself could notionally be “well-qualified” based on my experience, education, interests, and overall background. But even I was fooled by my own eyes and brain.

As a military pilot with extensive qualifications in meteorology, astronomy, and all things aviation-related, I spent over half an hour trying to chase down Venus! I’d previously scoffed at other people’s recountings of similar situations, because obviously I would know better. But when you’re in the situation, and your brain has made up its mind, it takes a great deal of effort to overcome your preconceived conclusion.

And the thing that makes this even more insidious is that experts are so often convinced they can’t be fooled (*sheepishly raises his hand*), that they sound convincing to those who weren’t there, and sometimes even convince the people who were there of their viewpoint. Sometimes it’s a good idea to question accounts told by well-qualified witnesses even more than someone who has no idea what could be going on.

For analysis of something with a little more source material, check out what former video game programmer Mick West has to say about the recently released Navy UFO videos. My favorite is where the pilot insists that a craft is skimming along the surface of the ocean at several hundred miles per hour. West shows that without a frame of reference, the pilot is mistaken, and the object is really closer to 14,000 feet in altitude, and by doing some simple math, shows that it’s really going closer to 40 miles per hour, exactly what you’d expect from a balloon.

For everything else, all I can do is remind you that people are notoriously bad at judging size, distance, speed, and just about anything else when it comes to things in the sky. The lack of a frame of reference just makes it difficult. When something is difficult, we employ shortcuts and layer our expectations based on where we are and what we’re doing.

How dramatic were the 'Operation Mainbrace' UFO sightings, really?

I’d love to deconstruct each Operation Mainbrace sighting with those principles in mind, but with the staggering lack of details, I got nothing. I can see, though, why Project Blue Book would be happy to use these sightings for a season finale. It’s virtually a blank canvas, with some very impressive-sounding seeds, just based on the surrounding environment. And they took A LOT of liberties, adding in USOs (Unidentified Submerged Objects) and an impending World War III scenario with the Russians. Makes for much more dramatic television than what seems to have actually happened.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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