HARRINGTON, Lincoln County — Come with me on a trip into UFO land, with the believers, the skeptics — and a guy like me.
I have never seen a UFO, but I write feature stories, and when you write feature stories, you inevitably veer off into the unconventional.
In many ways, a modest manufactured home here in Harrington is Ground Zero for UFO enthusiasts. This is where tens of thousands of sighting reports are carefully cataloged into a computer.
This town of 430, an hour’s drive west of Spokane, surrounded by rolling acres of wheat fields, is the home of Peter Davenport, 74.
Seven days a week, in a one-man operation (except for a webmaster), he runs the National UFO Reporting Center. This is his 28th year.
“Giving up? Every day I think that,” he says.
He estimates he’s meticulously logged 180,000 reports since he took over the site in 1994 from the late Bob Gribble, a Seattle firefighter with a fascination for UFOs. And they just keep coming.
Then Davenport explains why he keeps going. “This is probably the most important scientific question ever to confront mankind. Are we alone in this galaxy, or are we not? In my opinion, we are not alone. We are visited on a routine basis by these things we call UFOs.”
THE REPORTS HAVE that look of just-the-facts: date, place, what was observed (although what was observed is sometimes very strange).
Davenport’s site is referenced in stories that have run in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. It is his site that the Federal Aviation Administration recommends for reporting UFOs.
He has never married, has no children, so his time is all his own.
For June 2022, for example, he logged 267 reports, most from the United States, and a few international ones:
● “I saw a darkish gray disk going in and out of the clouds.”
● “My wife and I saw a rectangular-shaped object that was lit up in the night sky.”
● “A large shadow moved over the house. It literally darkened the inside as well, passed across, and the power went out for a few seconds.”
Year in and year out, the reports are similar.
FOR DAVENPORT, a fascination with UFOs began when he was 6, growing up in St. Louis, when the family went to a drive-in movie.
“It was July or August of 1954. Suddenly there was a disturbance, and people running and shouting. I looked out the right side of our Studebaker and saw the most incredible thing I have ever seen in my life. It was so bright that it looked like the sun, shaped like one of those English rugby balls. It rose straight up and dropped down behind the movie screen. Then it was gone into the northern sky. I suspect that event goes a long way to explain why I’m sitting in this house in Harrington, talking to you about UFOs,” says Davenport.
It’s fitting that his UFO center is headquartered in this state. It’s not surprising.
In July, a report proclaimed Washington the No. 1 state in the country for UFO sightings, according to a compilation done by the online jigsaw puzzle site im-a-puzzle.com. It was based on two years of UFO reports from Davenport’s site, ending in December 2021. Washington reported 88.03 sightings per 100,000 residents, about twice the national average of 44.95.
The Pacific Northwest has a long history with UFOs.
The term “flying saucers” was born here 75 years ago.
On June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold, a businessman and an experienced pilot flying a single-engine plane, reported seeing nine flying shiny objects weaving and banking at astounding speeds by Mount Rainier.
NATIONWIDE, IN THE LAST couple of years — after being relegated to stories The Associated Press labels “Oddities” — UFOs are being taken seriously.
“UFO spotting has replaced bird watching as pandemic obsession,” headlined a Sept. 1, 2020, Wall Street Journal story. An August 2021 Gallup Poll said 4 in 10 Americans believe UFOs are “alien spacecraft visiting Earth from other planets or galaxies.”
A 2021 National Intelligence report to the Senate said the feds were unable to explain more than 140 UFOs, although no evidence was found of alien life.
During a May 17 House hearing with Pentagon officials, one testified about an “unidentified aerial phenomena,” or UAP. Reported a jet fighter pilot, “I do not have an explanation for what this specific object is.” NASA announced in June it was forming a team to examine UAPs.
DAVENPORT SPEAKS WITH the background of someone with a lot of academic credentials.
He has bachelor’s degrees in biology and Russian from Stanford University, and master’s degrees in fisheries and business administration from the University of Washington. He was one of the founders of a Seattle biotech company and sold his stock in 1995. The money was “helpful” in running his low-budget site, he says, which he estimates costs $250 to $500 a month.
It grates him that in all those hours answering the phone, he has to deal with joke calls.
“On a typical day, between 10% to 80% of calls placed to our hotline are crank calls,” says Davenport. “It started in a serious sense in 2017, when a young girl in Portland built a website of 10 scary telephone numbers to call. That’s given rise to between 30,000 to 40,000 crank calls in the last five years.”
On his phone’s caller ID, he recognizes a frequent such caller. He lets it go to voicemail.
“It’s filth, like they’re all coached with the same line,” says Davenport. “ ’A UFO landed in the backyard last night. It looked like a … [and here he uses a term for a sex toy.]’ “
At his age, he knows someone will have to take over the site.
His webmaster, Christian Stepien, 62, of Santa Barbara, the retired founder of the software company Experlogix, says he’s willing to spend the hours. Also a UFOlogist, he says, “I have the bandwidth for it.”
I DID TELL YOU at the beginning that a trip into UFO land is unconventional.
Davenport used to live in Seattle. In 2006, he ended up in Harrington because it’s near a decommissioned Cold War-era nuclear missile silo. He bought it for $100,000 because he always had wanted to own one.
He stores a few UFO paper files in cabinets there, but mostly it’s a cavernous, empty, dank place.
Sometimes he takes visitors on a tour. The silo is a local legend (you can read about it in The Backstory on Page 2 of today’s magazine).
Looking at Davenport’s website, you easily can understand why UFO skeptics are skeptics. There are no smartphone high-resolution images of a UFO that landed in the middle of a city park.
The images are of shapes, lights, streaks or drawings; the latter obviously done by individuals with minimal drawing experience.
What you do find are reports from individuals who say they saw something, and it was strange.
Here is one from Dec. 29, 1994, near LaCrosse in Whitman County. I picked that one because on Davenport’s website, with its rudimentary drawing, it is featured in the image gallery.
“Mother and six children were driving northwest on Zaring Cutoff Road when the children spotted bright lights to the right side. They were three seemingly identical black, delta-shaped ships with a very bright yellow or white ‘headlight’ on the front, which was scanning the ground ahead of and below them as they flew across the road at an estimated speed of 5 mph. After the objects had crossed the road, passing directly over the car, they turned south and continued moving in that direction.”
Davenport says that as he talked to the mother on the phone, he could hear her children in the background “blurting out corrections.” “It was a wonderful form of confirmation,” wrote Davenport.
ONE UFO SKEPTIC is Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester in New York. There are numerous UFO skeptics.
I contacted Frank because in 1992, he earned a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Washington and co-authored with UW emeritus astronomy Prof. Woodruff T. Sullivan a May 2016 paper in the journal Astrobiology on their calculations based on the discovery of more than 3,000 “exoplanets,” planets outside the solar system.
Based on factors needed for alien life to exist in an exoplanet — such as orbits in the right “Goldilocks” location that are not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist — they concluded that there have been extraterrestrial civilizations. Whether such civilizations currently exist they couldn’t answer.
That led Frank to write a May 30, 2021, New York Times Op-Ed. It was headlined, “I’m a physicist who searches for aliens. UFOs don’t impress me.”
To him, “phenomena observed using well characterized scientific instruments far away in a galaxy” are considerably different from reported “sensational findings just a few miles away in our own atmosphere.”
In a telephone interview, Frank says, “Think how much better camera technology has become since Kenneth Arnold. How come pictures of UFOs are so blurry?”
Frank says about reports such as the LaCrosse one, “In general, it’s personal testimony, and you can’t do a whole lot with personal testimony. That’s not what science is about. Science requires measuring with equipment.”
Davenport is used to the skeptics.
Of the blurry UFO images, he says, “Traditionally, most people don’t know how to use their camera. The night focus mechanism on most cameras doesn’t function very well when all you have is an indistinct source of light.”
About Frank, he says, “Has he looked at my data? Has he ever attended one of my presentations?”
Frank replies, “I have looked at UFO images and data. People send me stuff all the time. From a scientific perspective, there isn’t much you can do with it.”
Davenport is asked why no UFO ever has landed at a city park, to be witnessed and photographed at length.
“You have to talk to the aliens to get an answer,” he says.
Well, what can you say about that?
The soccer fields at Lower Woodland Park would make a grand landing site.
Three often-cited UFO sightings
1. Navy pilots and UFOs
NAVY PILOTS ARE the guys portrayed by Tom Cruise in the “Top Gun” movies. You would trust their observations in the air, wouldn’t you?
A number of videos of Navy pilots encountering baffling phenomena are on the internet.
A notable one is from 2015, taken aboard a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet from the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, near the Florida coast.
The audio begins with the pilot at first saying he’s seeing a drone. But then: “It is a (expletive) drone, bro. There’s a whole fleet of them! … My gosh, they’re all going against the wind. The wind is 120 knots to the west … Look at that thing! … It’s rotating!”
UFO skeptic Mick West, who runs the website Metabunk.org, did his own research. He gave a detailed explanation, saying the UFOs were nothing but glare from the Navy jet’s gimbal system, a tool that uses motors and intelligent sensors to support and stabilize a camera.
2. 75 years ago, flying saucers started with Kenneth Arnold
HE WAS AN experienced pilot with more than 4,000 hours of high-altitude pilot time.
Kenneth Arnold lived in Meridian, Idaho, and sold fire-extinguishing equipment. He piloted his single-engine Call-Air A-2 around the Northwest to visit clients.
In the 1952 book he wrote, “Coming of the Saucers,” and in various interviews, including with me way back in 1977, he repeated the same story about what he saw flying by Mount Rainier.
It was 3 p.m., he told me, “When a very bright flash lit up the plane and the sky around me.” At first he thought it was the sun.
“But the flash happened again, and that’s when I saw where it was coming from. It came spasmodically from a chain of nine circular-shaped aircraft way up from the vicinity of Mount Rainier … I could not find any tails on these things. They didn’t leave a jet trail behind them. I judged their size to be at least 100 feet in diameter.”
Using the clock on his instrument panel, he judged the flying objects were traveling at 1,760 miles per hour.
The story was picked up by The Associated Press. Subsequent headlines used “flying saucers,” and the term was born.
The Air Force concluded it was a mirage.
Back when I interviewed him, Arnold, who died in 1984 at age 68, said, “I made my report because I thought it was my duty. It was the only proper and American thing to do. I saw what I saw.”
3. Oregon farmer Evelyn Trent’s historic flying saucer photos
ON MAY 11, 1950, at around 7:30 p.m., Evelyn Trent was feeding the chickens and rabbits outside the family farmhouse just outside McMinnville, Oregon, about 40 miles southeast of Portland.
She saw an object that looked “like a good-sized parachute canopy without the strings, only silvery-bright mixed with bronze,” she told The Oregonian in a 1950 story. It made no sound and was “sort of gliding,” she said.
She ran to tell her husband, Paul Trent, to take pictures. He managed to take two photos with his Kodak Roamer folding camera.
The photos ended up in a full-page story in LIFE magazine, which, in that era, was one of the most influential mass communication mediums.
Skeptics have several explanations. It was something hanging from a power line. It was a detached side mirror from a vehicle.
A 950-page report commissioned by the Air Force and led by nuclear physicist Edward U. Condon studied a number of UFO sightings. The 1968 study included the Trent photos and concluded the images were real and that the couple was truthful, even if Evelyn Trent had told The Oregonian in 1950 that she had seen flying saucers at the coast three separate times.
What is undisputed is that the McMinnville photos remain one of the most prominent images ever taken of a UFO.
That’s not a UFO. It’s something easily explained.
1. Starlink satellites
On Aug. 20, the National Weather Service’s Seattle office tweeted images of lights in the sky that at least some people mistook for UFOs.
They were actually a Starlink-55 “train,” a massive satellite system that Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched to provide high-speed internet service to even the most remote areas on Earth.
The company launches the satellites in batches, hence the appearance of a train of lights. This was the 55th Starlink mission, of 53 satellites.
To the Weather Service tweet, one person replied, “Oh my GOSH! My buddy and I were climbing Rainier on Aug 15 early morning … about 12,500 ft at 1:30 a.m. and breathing hard and looked up and saw this. We couldn’t find any news about it and just about swore we saw aliens!!”
“The biggest culprit of all,” writes Ian Ridpath, a British astronomy writer, editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Astronomy and a UFO skeptic.
He writes, “Venus is the brightest object in the night sky after the Moon and can dazzle the eye, sometimes appearing cross-shaped.”
He says there are a number of videos taken with handheld camcorders that appear to show saucer-shaped objects making erratic motions. The motions are noticeable only when the camera is zoomed in, “due simply to tremors in the hands of the excited camera operator.”
Says the astronomy site EarthSky.org, “A meteor — or a piece of debris from space — might leave a strange-looking trail … “ They can be so bright, they can briefly light up the night sky.
4. Lenticular clouds
They are mistaken for UFOs because of their saucer shape. Lenticular clouds form when stable, moist air flows over a mountain, creating a series of oscillating waves. They’re a common sight around Mount Rainier.
5. Sky lanterns
These are small hot air balloons made of translucent paper, launched at festivals and other occasions. They used to be commonly called Chinese lanterns, as they go back to the Han Dynasty.
Contrails often are confused with “slow-moving meteors,” “unannounced comets” or other sorts of strange UFOs, according to EarthSky.org. They look impressive, but they are vapor or condensation trails produced by high-altitude aircraft.
7. Rocket junk
A March 26, 2021, story in The Seattle Times told of falling SpaceX rocket junk putting on a “a fast-moving shower of glowing points of fire.”
For about 40 seconds, a cloud of fiery objects streaked across the heavens, trailing parallel tails of fire.
Genevieve Reaume, a Portland TV reporter, was outside her home.
“We were awe-struck. Completely swept up and overwhelmed with what we were seeing,” she said.
Reaume said she didn’t consider it an alien invasion. “But it was something that was not man-made, was my initial guess … some sort of rare astrological event.”