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Right now political journalists in Wellington are leafing through documents released by Archives New Zealand and the Defence Force which detail witness accounts of unidentified flying object sightings around New Zealand back to the 1950s.

I’ve spoken to a number of journalists today who sheepishly revealed they’d been roped into the effort to cover the release of the 2000 documents and were looking for scientific angles to the story.

Well, there are lots of those and I’m glad to receive the calls, because the last thing we need is people like Suzanne Hansen hogging this story – as she did today when she was featured in the Dominion Post‘s front page lead. Hansen is the director of the “research group” UFOCUS and in the Dominion Post describes how she has been fortunate enough to sight a UFO not once, but numerous times in her life, the first when she was just eight years old.

Now the papers that have been released today detail only witness reports of UFO sightings, not Defence Force analysis of those reports. Indeed, Squadron Leader Kavae Tamariki told the Dominion Post that the Defence Force did not have resources to investigate UFOs so had not been able to substantiate anything outlined in the eyewitness reports.

What we are are likely to see in the documents then is a random collection of anecdotes – many credible-sounding, many incredible, that between them will likely bear all the hallmarks of previous UFO sighting – from saucer-shaped craft to unexplained lights in the night sky moving in formation.

From ball lightning to weather balloons

What the reports may do apart from providing some entertainment on Christmas eve, is add to the knowledge of scientists who analyse how natural phenomena or innocuous man-made objects can be mistaken for UFOs that appear to alien spacecraft.

Such scientists include Australian astrophysicist Dr Stephen Hughes who claims ball lightning and other atmospheric phenomena could be behind numerous UFO sightings.

“If you put together inexplicable atmospheric phenomena, maybe of an electrical nature, with human psychology and the desire to see something – that could explain a lot of these UFO sightings,” he told BBC News.

His theory has attracted some support from a New Zealand-based scientist with expertise in ball lightning – the University of Canterbury’s Dr John Abrahamson. As the BBC explains:

Other scientists have suggested that charges dissipating through the ground can create balls of glowing ionised gas above it.

Dr John Abrahamson from the University of Canterbury, NZ, championed the idea 10 years ago that ball lightning consisted of vaporised mineral grains kicked out of the soil by a conventional lightning strike, an idea later tested with some success by Brazilian researchers.

When it comes to man-made explanations, weather balloons – released into the sky on a daily basis all over the world to take atmospheric measurements, are regularly the cause of UFO sightings, as are parachute flares.

Churchill’s please explain

Britain this year released a large number of UFO sighting reports, which are available on the UK National Archives website (at a cost of 3.50 pounds to download). They reveal plenty of unusual sightings like this one outlined by CNN:

The files include a sighting by a man in Birmingham, England, in March 1997. He said he came home from work at 4 a.m. to see a large blue triangle-shaped craft hovering over his back garden.

It was silent but caused dogs in the neighborhood to bark, the report said. It “shot off and disappeared” after about three minutes, the report said, leaving behind a “silky-white substance” on the treetops, some of which he saved in a jar.

It was not clear what happened to the jar and its contents.

There were also eyewitness reports associated with “Welsh Roswell” – numerous sightings of strange lights over north Wales in 1974, a massive explosion and claims of a cover-up. In New Zealand terms – the famous UFO sighting by crew on a plane flying over Kaikoura in 1978 is about as close as we get to the type of event described in the Welsh Roswell eyewitness accounts.

However, the UFO files released to date by the British reveal that the military for many decades took the existence of UFOs seriously. A letter claiming Winston Churchill ordered a cover-up of a wartime encounter between a UFO and a RAF bomber over the English coast have never been corroborated, but there is documentary proof (see letter below) that Churchill consulted his chief science advisor Lord Cherwell on the matter in the early 1950s.

Souece: National Archives

Source: UK National Archives

When the generals talk

The intriguing eyewitness accounts of UFOs I’ve read over the years are those that come from military personnel – particularly military pilots. There are numerous sightings of UFOs around military installations around the world and in the wake of World War 2 and into the Cold War, it is highly conceivable that the Russians or Americans were sending highly advanced aircraft to check out each others installations. I think these are the really interesting UFO reports and the most likely to yield information of Wikileaks-like significance – what are the still-classified prototypes of decades gone by that were dispatched into protected airspace of rival powers to spy on installations and in the process attracted UFO sightings?

Journalist Leslie Keen recently interviewed a number of ex military people for UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record and found that when these in the know people considered all rational explanations for what they had seen, they were still left with answers…

When Joe Blow calls up and sees a light in the sky, it can be explained, like, probably every time. But in these very well investigated cases–and there aren’t that many–they seem to have been able to eliminate every possible explanation that we know of. If you have something where you have a huge amount of information and data about, for which there should be an explanation, but there isn’t, it becomes a dilemma. You get these generals saying that, well, maybe they’re extraterrestrial. They’re never going to say that–they would never go close to that–unless there was a real reason for it.