An extraordinary thing happened to me on my way to the North Pole.
While I was flying with the NASA Aurora Expedition high over the Arctic, far
from civilization, I saw some strange lights below us on the ice. These lights
were miles and miles from any settlement or known life and they were arranged
in geometric patterns!
NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, with headquarters in
Washington, D.C., as set up by Congress has as one of its prime functions to
arrange for the scientific community to make measurements on the aurora, and
observations through the use of aeronautical and space vehicles. From February
29 to March 10, I accompanied such an expedition in an especially outfitted
Convair 990 jet, a fantastic plane which I nicknamed "the bird." It was the
most exciting assignment of my journalistic career, this covering of the
important 1968 scientific expedition sponsored by NASA, for my newspaper, the
Bradenton Herald of Bradenton, Fla. I was the only reporter on the second leg
of this well planned expedition instigated by Dr. W.G. (Bill) Fastie of John
Hopkins University to study the aurora borealis or northern lights.
In the first place it was a great thrill to fly on the beautiful 129 foot
Convair which had been purchased at a cost of $3.5 million and then had
another million spent on it in renovating and remodeling for its flights in
the rugged and dangerous Arctic conditions. New observation windows and camera
bays had been installed in the roof of the craft; an AllSky camera was built
in, along with a dark room for changing film. It contained survival equipment
including dog sleds in case we crashed in the Arctic and survived the crash?
Expensive instruments were installed spectrometers, photometers, wide angle
cameras and radio frequency receivers. The heavy frames with their tabulators,
panels and measuring devices were bolted down and the sensitive needles
adjusted for recording data on the aurora.
The huge Convair, appropriately named the Galileo, had become a flying
laboratory from which the scientists probed the secrets of the aurora, as
others have done before them for the past 200 years. Never before, however,
has anyone flown directly into the heart of the aurora and then traveled with
it high above four fifths of the earth's atmosphere as it journeys across the
continent night after night.
The timing had been carefully planned because of the near perfect conditions
existing then for the study. And this same factor probably was responsible for
my sighting the unusual lights. If there had been a cloud cover, if the air
had been less clear, if I had not been able to watch the earth below as well
as the aurora, I might not have seen the six unbelievably large circles of
As it was, 1968 was judged the best year for the aurora study since 1918, 50
years before. The periods from January 19 to February 8 and from February 22
to March 12 were selected because those periods marked peak clarity of the
air, along with all around best weather and viewing conditions.
Our base camp, from which we flew out in the evenings to "chase" the aurora
throughout most of the night, was Fort Churchill on Hudson's Bay, in Manitoba,
Canada. The Fort, our "jumping off place," is itself a very exciting spot.
It's now an important research base, a true crossroads of the world for
brilliant scientists from many countries, most of whom are engaged in research
projects of many varieties in a score of fields.
I arrived at Fort Churchill in a snowstorm on February 29, assigned to cover
the final segment of the aurora expedition and eager to get on with it.
Although it had taken me two days to fly to the Fort from Bradenton, with an
all night stopover in Winnipeg, I was anxious to fly again on the Convair.
Checking the schedule for that night I found we were to fly to Fairbanks,
Alaska. I received my briefing, met our host Sy Uhrich, manager and director
of the Canadian National Research Council which works
closely with NASA and leases facilities at the Fort and missile range to
United States researchers and others, and visited with Jim Hillis, Pan Am
project manager, and his wife Betty.
A storm kept us grounded that night but two nights later we did fly to
Fairbanks, following the aurora all the way. Subsequently we flew all over the
northern part of Canada, over most of the rest of Canada, over the Arctic
regions and the Polar Cap, Baffin Bay and Land, over parts of Greenland, most
of Alaska and the Yukon Territory.
We zigzagged back and forth in an intense surveillance of areas inside the
Aurora Oval which begins at Fort Churchill. There on the edge of the great
Oval, the center of which is the geomagnetic north pole in Northern Greenland,
the aurora displays great electrical and magnetic activity during its
appearances. The activity continues up and over the Polar Cap.
Although everyone else on board the Galileo was absorbed in studying the
aurora, I was watching the earth below as well at the aurora. I saw nothing
unusual while flying over Alaska or the Yukon, with the exception of the
fabulous show put on by the ever changing aurora.
We stayed over for a day in Fairbanks and flew back to Fort Churchill the next
night. Then followed "local" flights over the central and northern part of
Canada and finally the long flight to the polar regions, which many scientists
believe some day may become the center of world trade air routes.
Plans had included landing and refueling and possibly stopping over at Thule
Air Base in Greenland, a possession of Denmark, I had my passport ready but
because of the recent unfortunate H Bomb incident in Greenland the plan to
land there had to be scuttled. I was disappointed . . . I'd been told there
are 7,000 men stationed at Thule and only three women. What an interesting
place it must be!
Instead we flew as far north as our gas load would permit, then returned to
Fort Churchill. A plane as heavy and long as the Galileo could not
successfully land anywhere en route. It required a large airport with a long
smooth runway. The ice in the Arctic was too rough for a landing and not thick
enough over the Arctic Ocean to hold the weight of the Galileo with our heavy
load of instruments and 33 passengers. Besides, there was no other place to
refuel as only small scattered settlements lie north of Fort Churchill.
We were fortunate in having clear nights for our flights and although we flew
most of the time between 37,000 and 40,000 feet high we could see the rough
peaks of jagged ice below, the huge icebergs and "pressuring" ice packs that
erupt and explode from time to time in the Arctic as the pressure points build
up. We also saw the flat miles of ice covered no man's land at the top of
It was a stark awesome sight, especially when viewed by the blue green light
of the aurora. Only an occasional fog patch or cloud momentarily blocked our
view. These passed quickly, however, and for the most part our vision was
completely unobstructed during the six or more hours of each flight. The high
Arctic flight was fantastic in more ways than one! It was thrilling to be able
to look down on stars, for instance. Lack of any smog, city pollution and dust
left the sky around the horizon so clear and clean that we could see big,
brilliant stars there that never are visible from so called civilization.
And finally we were completely alone. We saw no other planes. We passed
nothing in the sky. Far below us on the ground we had seen tiny settlements
and villages, identifiable from tiny pinpoints of light. We had learned to
recognize the long reflections of the moon on the few clouds we saw, and the
moonlight on the ice below as distinguished from the light of the aurora on
Another aerial phenomenon which appears in the Arctic airglow was also under
study by some of our scientists on the Galileo. So we learned to tell the
fabulous soft pink airglow from the aurora, which appeared in startlingly
lovely blues and greens. When the "breakup" began toward morning the beautiful
plumes, ribbons, spirals and streamers of the aurora often had in addition
pink and violet fluted edgings.
It occurred to me that this was like being in another world; the empty frozen
crust below us stretched as far as we could see by the light of the aurora; we
might have been the last or only people in that vast expanse of white - in
fact I'm sure we were right then.
It was growing colder by the second and I walked up to the cockpit just for
the exercise. The great Japanese authority on the aurora, Akasofu, was in the
observer's chair but he was pressed so tightly to the window, looking up, and
was so small that I squeezed in alongside him.
Our outside gauge showed 60 below zero and I mentally added on another 300 for
the wind chill of the Arctic where there is no shelter. After a few minutes I
made my way back to the coffee bar, drank a hot cup of coffee and returned to
my seat, huddling into my parka.
But when I glanced out of the window I quickly forgot about being cold. Far
below on the icy surface were three round glowing lights arranged in a
straight line. Each light was huge; all were the same size and perfectly
round, they were luminous, glowing with an inner white light completely
different from any other thing we had seen in the Arctic.
These lights were so different, in fact, that at first I just stared,
fascinated, trying to memorize everything about them before they disappeared
They were not at all like lights of any settlement or village I've seen from
the air and I have flown a lot. Settlement and village lights are bright like
stars; these were softly luminous and glowing. They were not like lights on a
boat, ship or any familiar flying craft. They looked like flying saucers
landed on the ice. And if that's what they were they were huge ones.
I was positive they were not reflections of the moon for we were leaving them
behind us on the ice. They were standing still, while reflections tend to
follow along as you fly.
Another unusual thing was that the lights were an equal distance apart. It has
been my observation that natural phenomena are not often found so equally
spaced. It also seems unlikely to me that any crafts known to us would land on
Arctic ice in this manner, exactly the same distance, and in this case
probably miles apart.
I was greatly impressed by their size, vividly recalling as I did the size of
the miniature villages we had flown over many miles back. In comparison, these
luminous objects, whatever they were, must each have been as large as several
city blocks, perhaps even larger. I could hardly believe my eyes!
They were fast disappearing into the distance when I suddenly remembered I
should ask some of the others on board about them. Everyone seemed intent on
the instruments or on looking up out the observation bays. No one seemed
interested in what was below us. However, I managed to pull Joe March,
official expedition photographer, over to my window. "What are they?" I
"I don't know," he replied. "I really don't know."
He operated the All Sky camera mounted on the roof of the fore part of the
Galileo and had to get back to his post.
I poked the scientist in the seat ahead of me, "Look! Down and back, quick!
What are they?"
"Hmmm. Well, now... just don't know. Some kind of reflections, maybe?"
"You know they're not. They're not following along."
"They don't look like settlements. I don't know what they are."
The three lights disappeared into the distance below and behind us and a
moment later I saw the next three. They were round, glowing white and
luminous, about the same size as the others. But this time the three, instead
of being in a row, were arranged in a triangle.
Each one represented the point of a triangle and the tip of the triangle was
in line with the three lights I had seen a moment before.
I pulled out my reporter's notebook and made a quick sketch so I wouldn't
forget the arrangement of the lights.
The man in front of me was looking up at the aurora but I nudged him anyway.
"More things down there! What are they?"
He peered down, saw the lights and shrugged. "More reflections I guess .
. . or whatever the other
After watching the triangle out of sight I held my sketch up
into the light of the aurora where I could see it better. The three equally
spaced circles plus the triangle formed an arrow!
What significance could this strange symbol, formed by the lights on the ice,
have? How can we explain the unique formation of the mystery lights?
Although they appeared to be on the ice, could they have been under the ice?
We may never know the answer. We may never see the strange lights again. I do
not know what they were. I only know that I saw them.
After we returned to base by another route and everyone had his sleep out I
questioned those I met in the dining room next day. All except the two I had
poked said they did not see the lights on the ice beneath us. No one admitted
ever having seen UFOs, so at last and regretfully I dropped the subject.
But I still can see in my mind, as clearly as I saw them that night, those
strange lights on the ice up there over the Polar Cap. And the more I think
about them the more convinced I become that they were the result of
intelligent planning for an unknown purpose. I am convinced that we are not
alone, at least we weren't that night.
“The hypothesis that these (UFOs) are extraterrestrial surveillance . . . I
regard as most likely.”
Dr. James McDonald, physicist.
“At first, without any question at all, I thought it (UFO belief) was stuff
and nonsense. But not any more.”
Dr. J. Allen Hynek, astrophysicist.