An Atlas ICBM launch from Vandenberg AFB (edited from an image on wikipedia)

The Big Sur ‘UFO’: An Identified Flying Object

by Kingston A. George

Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 17, Winter 1993, pp. 180-187

(Internet posted with permission of the author through James Oberg (June 26, 2003). Photos and associated comments from Kingston George added July 2003.)

The Air Force obtained some unusual photography while experimenting with very sensitive optics equipment during ICBM launches on the West Coast nearly 30 years ago. Three years ago, in an article titled "Deliberate Deception: The Big Sur UFO Filming" (Jacobs 1989) one of the members of the experimental team claimed that the objects observed were beyond normal technical explanation and implied that the government had been communicating with aliens from outer space. Specifically, he claimed that the team had photographed an "intelligently controlled flying device." He asserted that it emitted "a beam of energy," its capabilities were beyond the science and technology of our time, and it was therefore probably "of extraterrestrial origin." He concluded that we had knowingly photographed a "demonstration ...put on for our benefit for some reason by extraterrestrials." I was the project engineer for these experiments. This article is intended to provide a more rational account of the sightings of September 1964 and to supply firsthand facts that should loosen any attachment the uninformed might have to Bob Jacobs’ version.

The Deployment

The United States Air Force conducted a test of a special light-sensitive telescope high up in the coastal mountains in the Los Padres National Forest above Big Sur, California, between August and November 1964. The objective was to collect low-light-level photography of missile launches into the Air Force Western Test Range from Vandenberg Air Force Base, situated a little over 100 miles to the south. The Big Sur angle presents a unique side-look during test launches, and paper studies convinced some of us that photo data from that location could be of significant value. Local telephoto-lens coverage from Vandenberg AFB is often obscured by the prevailing fog, while the special telescope could be placed at 4,000-feet altitude. Nine of eleven launches from Vandenberg were successfully covered during the three-month deployment (George 1964).

The 24-inch mirror telescope we borrowed was built in the 1950s on a modified 5-inch gun mount by Boston University under government contract. Owned and operated by the Range Measurements Laboratory of the Air Force Eastern Test Range, the B.U. Scope, as we called it, later supplied the television network feed during Saturn rocket launches in the sixties and seventies. It employed one of the best light-sensitive systems of the time, an image orthicon television camera tube.

An image orthicon "sees" stars quite clearly even in twilight. The brightest ones would bloom on the closed-circuit TV monitor to form a blob, with size related to brightness, and also leave a persistent trai1 behind as the telescope panned across it. The tracking operators used handwheels to constantly make tiny adjustments, and the TV screen resembled a pool of vigorous tadpoles. Today, a similar modern instrument detects stars several orders of stellar magnitude less bright than the best we could do in 1964.

The project was remarkably successful. Soon after we returned the borrowed instrument, a long-term plan was started for a permanent site. An up-to-date telescope is operated today in the Big Sur area by the Western Test Range’s successor, the 30th Space Wing of the Air Force Space Command.

I was the project engineer for the telescope experiment, and Lieutenant Bob Jacobs was one of the key field team members who, it later developed, was technically not authorized to view the pictures we were collecting. Bob was named the on-site commander by the 1369th Photo Squadron and managed the logistics of the operation at the Big Sur location. Years later, for reasons I can't fathom, Bob claims we witnessed an intelligent UFO in action around an Atlas warhead, followed by an Air Force cover-up. He provides details of his weird claims in an article for the MUFON UFO Journal (Jacobs 1989). What we saw WAS indeed unique and startling, but it definitely does NOT require invoking UFOs with purposeful goals and advanced weapons.

The Threat to National Security

The immediate success of the 1964 project led to a serious problem; we not only could see and gather data on the missile anomalies as hoped, but we also were viewing details of warhead separation and decoy deployment that were considered by the Air Force to be highly classified. The Air Force strives to be quite rigid in its approach to handling classified information, yet there were suddenly dozens of airmen, civilians, and contractors viewing data normally reserved to a few persons with the highest level of clearance. Of course at first no one realized the significance of the data.

By the early 1960s, the USSR had beaten the United States into space and set numerous "firsts" demonstrating an alarming degree of sophistication in rocketry and the space sciences. The limits of what was technically possible in space were not well defined for the military leadership. The United States owned radars that could detect incoming warheads thousands of miles from their targets and anti-missile missiles that could theoretically seek out an incoming reentry vehicle above the atmosphere. Could the Soviets nullify our land- and submarine-launched missiles with an anti-ICBM system? Today we can say it was naive to think either we or the USSR could have fielded much of a defense against ICBMs with the technology available in the sixties. But in 1964, the military leadership had to react as though a defense against the ICBM forces was around the corner.

Dawn on September 22, 1964

Just after sundown and just before sunrise, there is a period of time when objects at high altitude overhead are sunlit to an observer who is in darkness on the earth's surface. About 15 to 20 minutes before dawn, when the sky is quite dark, conditions are poised for optimizing the contrast and range of detection for objects hundreds of miles distant.

Such was the case during an Atlas launch nicknamed "Buzzing Bee" before sunup on September 22, 1964. On the TV screen, we watched the Atlas climb into the sunlight and shed its booster engine section about two minutes after launch. The sustainer engine shut down some two and half minutes after that, all normal for the Atlas, and we could still see the missile tankage against the dark, starry sky. And then, astonishingly, we saw a momentary puff of an exhaust plume, bright enough to "bloom" on the television monitor, and an object separated from the tank -- the reentry vehicle (RV) was released to follow its own trajectory to the target area. This was followed by two smaller puffs that also bloomed on the monitor, and then two groups of three objects became distinct from the sustainer tank and the RV. We watched all the objects slowly grow in separation from one another for another minute and it half. Then the objects grew so dim, and the tracking so erratic, that the operation was halted. We had watched the flight for about 8 minutes.

The Atlas was supposed to release decoys, simulated RVs to confuse and overload a missile defense system. The timing of the puffs we had seen was in the right ballpark. Beyond that we needed expert assistance to help explain the images. We carried a canister containing a thousand feet of 35mm black-and-white film (at that time, video was recorded by a synchronized film camera viewing a kinescope) to Vandenberg AFB, processed it, and began showing it with some excitement to the Atlas missile development people.

The reaction was startling! Soon after the first showing to the director of operations, all the top brass at Vandenberg had seen it and a copy was being made to fly to HQ Strategic

Air Command at Omaha. The classification was quickly changed from Secret to Top Secret. Buzzing Bee had opened an entirely new chapter in ICBM tactical thinking.

Jacob’s Observations

Jacobs reports in the MUFON article that he witnessed a saucerlike UFO circle the Atlas warhead, then direct a laser beam at it that bumped it out of the way and caused it to tumble out of orbit [sic] and miss the intended target by hundreds of miles. There are several fundamental flaws in that statement. To begin with, the Atlas was sub-orbital, as all ICBMs are, and it did not miss the target.

The image of the warhead, even if viewed exactly side-on, would be less than six-thousandths of an inch long on the image orthicon face, or between two and three scan lines. We could not resolve an image of the warhead under these conditions; what is detected is the specular reflection of sunlight: as though caught by a mirror. Practically all the data collected by the B.U. Scope on hard objects was through specular reflection. The same principle is involved in the little hand mirrors provided to military pilots so that an air search can find them by the glint of reflected sunlight if necessary.

We could also see the engine exhaust as a large gaseous plume that dissipated rapidly outside the earth's atmosphere. The small charges that released the decoys were seen as short flashes about as bright as a dim star. Nothing "circled" any of the images. A laser beam (or any directed-energy beam) is invisible in the vacuum of outer space. We are able to see the path of a laser beam in a surface environment only because of dust particles and ionization in the surrounding atmosphere. A laser beam damages a target not with momentum, but by heating and melting it.

Six conclusions are given by Jacobs in the MUFON article requiring comment.

Jacobs Conclusion 1: "What we photographed that September day in 1964 was a solid, three-dimensional, intelligently controlled flying device". Bob is referring to his impression of something circling the warhead when he says "intelligently controlled." Nothing of the sort happened.

Jacobs Conclusion 2: "It emitted a beam of energy, possibly a plasma beam at our dummy warhead and caused a malfunction." As noted above, the fact is that energy beams cannot be seen unless they hit something or pass through an atmosphere. We might see a target begin to glow with heat if we were close enough.

Jacobs Conclusion 3: "This 'craft’ was not any thing of which our science and technology in 1964 was capable. The most probable explanation of the device, therefore, is that it was of extraterrestrial origin." This remark must be Occam's Razor upside-down and backwards! Everything detected was indeed a product of our science and technology, although we had never had a direct view of it before. The Eastern Test Range people who operated the B.U. Scope for us had never seen views like this either, mainly because the telescope was situated to look "up the tail" of the launches on the East Coast. Also, images are seriously degraded by the light passing through a great deal more atmosphere than on our 4,000-foot mountain.

Jacobs Conclusion 4: "The flashing strikes of light we recorded on film were not from laser tracking devices. Such devices did not exist then aside from small-scale laboratory models." In 1962 I evaluated the feasibility of using a carbon-dioxide laser to illuminate launch vehicles hundreds of miles away! In the late sixties the Range Measurement Laboratory at the Eastern Test Range operated two high-powered lasers in the visible spectrum for imaging space objects at night on a regular basis. But Bob is correct in saying that the observations in 1964 did not involve lasers -- and, I would add, neither intra- nor extra- terrestrial.

Jacobs Conclusion 5: "Most probably, the B. U. Telescope was brought out to California specifically to photograph this event which had been pre-arranged. That is, we had been set up to record an event, which someone in our Government knew was going to happen in advance." My supervisor at the time, Gene Clary, and I would have been thrilled to have had any kind of support from anywhere in the Government! The truth is, getting permission to use the national forest site, arranging air and ground transportation, finding $50,000 to pay the air freight, and attending to myriad other physical and monetary obstacles, took us the better part of nine months.

Jacobs Conclusion 6: "What we photographed that day was the first terrestrial demonstration of what has come to be called S.D.I. or 'Star Wars.' The demonstration was put on for our benefit for some reason by extraterrestrials." Then what was the reason, and why did nothing come of it? No, the terrestrial demonstration period was so fruitful and successful that we established a permanent site at Anderson Peak above Big Sur!

Finding the "Real" RV

What had we really photographed? Both the U.S. and the USSR had ongoing research programs in the 1960s for defense against ballistic missiles and to develop options to outwit possible defenses. Omitting the technical details, what had happened on Buzzing Bee was that two decoys were fired off by small rocket charges on schedule, but some of the decoy packing material also tailed along and could be seen optically and also by certain kinds of radar. A little cloud of debris around each decoy warhead clearly gave away the false status, almost as well as coloring the decoys bright red.

This, of course, led to more than a little consternation at SAC Headquarters and in higher military circles. Although correctable by redesign, the alarm in the minds of the strategic analysts was that the Soviets could defeat our ICBM decoys by using a few telescopes on mountain peaks in the USSR and relaying information on which objects were decoys to the Soviet ICBM defense command center. An immediate concern was that, although few understood its significance, a raft of people at Vandenberg AFB had seen the data. Vulnerability of a major weapons system is normally classified Top Secret. How could this matter be kept from leaking out?

Issue Resolved

As might be expected, the military reaction came swiftly. Everyone who was at the telescope site or had seen the film had to be identified. All, including Jacobs and myself, had to be questioned on what they had seen and what they thought it meant. Each was cautioned not to mention what was on the film to anyone and not to discuss it with others -- even fellow workers who had originally seen it at the same time! None of us had more than a guess at the meaning, and the civilian intelligence experts who did the "debriefing" gave no hints.

Weeks later, my clearance level was increased to allow me to see the films again and analyze them. I don't think Bob Jacobs ever gained the required clearance. The people later assigned to operate the equipment and carry the films around were subsequently cleared to the required level. The Top Secret film was marked for downgrading and declassification after 12 years, but its utility was over after a few months. Top Secret storage is too difficult and expensive for keeping items of dubious worth, and the film and related materials were all destroyed long before the 12 years were up. Only a few of us even remember the incident today, and Bob Jacobs is being both safe and cagey in observing that the Air Force denies the existence of the film or other hard evidence.

The photo site established on Anderson Peak has undergone many changes and improvements over the years, and has continued to collect data during ICBM launches of high value to national defense. Much of the photography has needed security protection and the processes are in place to provide it without fanfare. There has never been a repetition of the security panic that followed the events of September 22, 1964, when Buzzing Bee literally and figuratively lit up the sky over the Pacific.

 

References

George. Kingston A, 1964. Preliminary Report on Image Orthicon Photography from Big Sur. Headquarters 1st Strategic Aeropace Division, Operations Analysis

Staff Study, October 13.

Jacobs, Bob. 1989. Deliberate Deception: The Big Sur UFO filming. MUFON UFO Journal, No. 249, January.

Physicist/engineer Kingston A. George retired recently after 30 years of Air Force Civil Service and continues as a private aerospace consultant. His initial appointment in 1961 was as an operations research analyst for the 1st Strategic Aerospace Division at Vandenberg AFB, California, where he pioneered many of range safety and range instrumentation systems deployment. As chief engineer for safety at Vandenberg AFB in 1989, he was honored in Washington, D.C., as the recipient of the Air Force Association's Senior Civilian Manager of the Year Award. He currently resides at 937 Diamond Drive, Santa Maria, CA 93455.

 

Kingston George provides additional information

In July of 2003, I was fortunate to have been sent an e-mail from Kingston George through James Oberg. Although he gave three photographs of the crew, I only post one because of web space limitations. Additionally, he sent a photograph of moon craters taken through the telescope. The results were excellent for the color films in use at the time. Many thanks to Kingston George for the additional details.

Crew2 pic has me in it, pointing with my finger at the cameraman, undoubtedly Bob Jacobs. I have the sunglasses on. We both took a bunch of pictures this day. Mansman and the W.O. are also in this picture.

Also attached are 3 BMP pictures (My note: I converted these to JPG and the first two are shown above with the third below) I used in my talk that I created on the computer several years ago. One shows the decoy packed in its container with the styrofoam blocks to hold it firmly in place during the rigors of launch. A second shows what was supposed to happen - when an explosive charge at the base of the decoy shoved out the cone on a timed command, nylon cords were designed to hold the packing blocks near the tube while the decoy left town at a few feet per second. Of course, we could not see these things, and in fact no one knows precisely what failed. It is conjectured that little brass rings imbedded in the styrofoam blocks to hold the cord tore out from the block. Styrofoam is not noted for strength, and presumably the force of the ejection sequence was too much for it. Everything of course burns up on reentry (except the styrofoam itself, which almost surely survived the reentry, being feather-light, but landing in the mid-Pacific) removing all the evidence.

The third BMP is a close representation of what we actually saw on the BU Scope television display. In the real pictures, the objects were not so well defined, and the blobs were more misshapen The main thing we could see clearly is that the decoys had companion objects, giving them away very readily, while the real RV is off by itself. We used a 1000 line scanning system, and captured the data on 16mm film.

Interactions with Robert Hastings concerning the Big Sur case

Recently, I had a dialogue with Robert Hastings in the Bad Astronomy and Universe Today forum. Robert spent a lot of time criticizing this article and implied it was flawed and referenced his recent article on the Big Sur incident in the International UFO Reporter. When I pressed him on how flawed George's story was, all I could get from him was that George confused something Jacobs stated and thought he had stated "orbital" vice "sub orbital" and that Jacobs never stated he said "laser beams" and instead meant "Plasma beams". Other than these two red herrings, Hastings could not demonstrate that George's article was factually flawed or that George was lying about the events of 22 September 1964. In fact, I told Hastings if he could satisfactorily demonstrate to the forum that George was lying about what he wrote and the events did not occur on the "Buzzing Bee" launch as he stated, then I would remove this article from my web site and, in it's place, I would put a web page stating the article was falsely written. Hastings did not take my offer, and I can only assume, that he could not demonstrate that George lied even though he implied this several times in our discussion.

What also came of this discussion was that Hastings provided me with correspondence between Jacobs/Mansmann and several UFO authors as well as one between the two men. Several times Mansmann and Jacobs expressed a strong belief that aliens were visiting the earth. Either they felt this because of the one incident or they had established this belief and let it bias their recollection of the events they saw back in 1964. It is impossible to say but the letters themselves resolve very little.

The most important thing I think I got from the Hastings interchange is that he based a majority of what he wrote about Big Sur based on what Jacobs told him and what he learned in the Mansmann letters. When I pressed for technical details he refused to answer or could not answer them. He did not even know the "code name" for the launch on the 15th of September 1964 (it was "butterfly net"). I also asked if he looked at other projects (which included some early ASAT tests from Kwajalein or Johnston Island) for indications they might have been involved. Again, he refused to or could not answer the questions. Lastly, I asked if he could provide one document that suggested the USAF high command was concerned about their warheads being shot down by a new weapon that was possibly Soviet. One would expect there to be quite a bit of chatter in the USAF high command after a dummy warhead had been interfered with by forces unknown.  Hastings could not provide one document to suggest something truly extraordinary happened on any of the flights filmed by the BU telescope.

This leaves me at the position I currently hold regarding Big Sur. There are four possibilities that are being presented as a solution to the story:

  1. The events are as Kingston George described and Mansmann/Jacobs confused the events over the years being influenced by their belief in alien visitation.
  2. Jacobs and Mansmann lied about the event occurring as they have described.
  3. Some other test was being performed on one of the launches in September 1964 that was misinterpreted by Jacobs and Mansmann as an alien spaceship interfering with the warhead.
  4. Jacobs and Mansmann are telling the truth concerning what happened that September, have accurately recalled the event, and there is a massive cover-up by the US government to hide the fact that aliens are visiting the earth and interfered with a dummy nuclear warhead test.

When weighing the probability of what happened, the least likely is the Jacobs/Mansmann story. Kingston George's recollections, having been present at the scope site that September, represents the most likely scenario. The idea that Mansmann and Jacobs are lying about the story is a possibility but I don't see anyone making the claim (Hastings tried to bait me into saying they are liars) and it is difficult to prove. Until somebody can provide additional documentation that the Jacobs/Mansmann story is true or that there is another answer then the most likely scenario is the Kingston George story where Jacobs/Mansmann misinterpreted what they saw on the film.

 

Back to My skeptical opinion about UFOs