From SKEPTIC magazine, Vol. 7, No. 4, 1999

Phil Klass has since died in August 2005 (see my obituary for SKEPTIC magazine
and his official one in the Washington Post).


ETs May Be Out There . . .
But He Says They're Not Here

An Interview with Philip J. Klass,
the World's Leading UFO Skeptic

By Gary P. Posner

 
Phil Klass Invited to take part in an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) panel discussion on UFOs some 33 years ago, Washington aerospace journalist Philip J. Klass needed to bone up on the subject. Thanks to a favorable review in the Wall Street Journal, Phil bought a copy of John G. Fuller's Incident at Exeter, which was filled with reports of glowing balls of fire near high-tension power lines. Klass became an instant "believer" in UFOs -- as a possible freak atmospheric electrical phenomenon similar to ball lightning. But more research led him to discover that UFOs were not nearly so one-dimensional. And the burning quest to explain them all (his critics would say "explain them all away") would consume him to this day.

Dubbed the "Sherlock Holmes of UFOlogy" in a book review, Klass's public persona more closely resembles that of the late Howard Cosell. He may rub many the wrong way, but like Cosell, Klass "tells it like it is," and welcomes the ensuing heat.

Still a workaholic 13 years into his active retirement, Klass typically put in a 40+ hour week throughout his 34-year tenure as senior avionics (aviation electronics) editor of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine (Av Week), known as the "Bible of the aerospace industry." Klass commonly stayed up past midnight working on UFO-related matters, including responding to the 5-10 daily inquiries, some from lands as distant as India and Russia.

Graduating from Iowa State in 1941 with a B.S. in electrical engineering, Klass worked as an avionics engineer for General Electric. In 1952 he decided to try his hand at technical journalism with Aviation Week. One of only two journalists ever to be named an IEEE Fellow, Klass has also been honored by the Aviation/Space Writers Association with awards in 1972, '74, '75, '77, and '86. In 1989, the Association presented him with its ultimate tribute, the Lauren D. Lyman Award for a career distinguished by "the qualities of integrity, accuracy and excellence in reporting." In 1998, the Royal Aeronautical Society (London) bestowed upon him its Boeing Decade of Excellence Award for lifetime achievement.

In 1976, Klass helped to found the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), and has served on its Executive Council since the outset. He also chairs CSICOP's UFO Subcommittee, and has contributed numerous articles on UFOs to CSICOP's journal, Skeptical Inquirer. In March of 1999, with a little help from his friends, the International Astronomical Union formally changed the name of asteroid 1983 RM2/7277 to "Klass."  [Late note: CSICOP has subsequently been renamed Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI).]

Klass has written six books on UFOs, including one for young readers. His one non-UFO book, Secret Sentries in Space (1971), was the first to deal with spy satellite technology. He is also proud of having written the first article on secret inertial guidance technology (1956), the first on infrared missile guidance and detection (1957), and the first on the coming age of microelectronics (1957) in which he predicted -- without benefit of "psychic" power -- that the then-embryonic technology would revolutionize electronics.

Phil, who has a younger sister, was born in Des Moines and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He dedicated his first book to his father, whom he credits with imparting to him "the crusader's zeal for what seems 'right' regardless of whether it brings popular acclaim." His mother had the honor/duty of proofreading his second book, UFOs Explained, which is still widely regarded as the best ever written on the subject. Although he has no children of his own, Phil has been married for nearly 20 years to Nadya, who, after escaping from communist Bulgaria with her son in 1973, joined the Voice of America as a news editor for its Bulgarian service. And though I don't believe him, Phil claims to have no fear of "UFO abduction" when walking Shi-Shi, his Lhasa apso, along the Potomac waterfront.

In a missive to a gossipy newsletter called Saucer Smear, a critic has written that my own "primary claim to fame is being [the] lowly proofreader for Klass's SUN," his bi-monthly Skeptics UFO Newsletter, which keeps more than 300 subscribers across the U.S. and other countries up to date with its cutting-edge coverage. My relationship with Klass actually began about 20 years ago, when I wrote him about a few classic UFO cases whose implications were staggering -- if the incidents were genuine. I had been an activist "believer" well into my 20s, and in high school I had even served as Maryland's "Youth Council" representative to NICAP, the most respected of the pro-UFO organizations of that era. But my dialogue with Phil introduced me to the concept of "critical thinking," previously a black hole in my education despite a Phi Beta Kappa key and medical degree. And we have been good friends ever since.

An infrequent sailor but avid snow skier until just a few years ago, Klass, age 80, now ambulates with the assistance of a walker. In 1997 an anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital managed to nearly silence his voice by traumatizing, and permanently paralyzing, one of his vocal cords. But Klass's mind -- and pen -- remain razor sharp, to the delight of his grateful followers and to the constant vexation (or worse) of his legions of detractors.

Skeptic: How do you account for the virulence of your critics?

Klass: I'm flattered, because it reveals that my efforts have struck a sensitive nerve.

Skeptic: You've almost gleefully shown me a letter in which an anonymous writer calls you a "scurrilous, untruthful, un-American, cheating ignoramus." Are your efforts motivated, in part, by a desire to provoke such visceral responses?

Klass: Not in the slightest. My sole objective is to either find a credible prosaic explanation for a UFO report, or if that isn't possible, then to rush to my typewriter -- now my PC -- and write the most important story of my life for Av Week, which would be the most significant article we've ever published.

Skeptic: But in your personal correspondence with some of your critics, you do like to "tweak" them pretty good at times.

Klass: I find that while some "pro-UFOlogists" are sorely lacking in a sense of humor, others enjoy tongue-in-cheek chit-chat. But I fail to see how that relates to the UFO cases that I investigate.

Skeptic: Well, one of the main raps against you is that, rather than acknowledging that a UFO case has no apparent prosaic explanation, you instead resort to crying "hoax."

Klass: I never encountered a single hoaxer during my entire 10 years with GE. And in my first 14 years at Av Week, up until the time I began investigating UFO reports, I encountered only one spinner of tall tales. So, believe it or not, when I first began looking at UFO reports, I naturally assumed that the witnesses were probably just honestly describing what they believed they had seen. But I quickly learned that I was too trusting.

Zamora's sketch My first major investigation was in 1966 when I visited Socorro, NM. Two years earlier, a policeman -- Lonnie Zamora -- had reported witnessing an egg-shaped UFO land [see his sketch right], two ETs in coveralls briefly scurry around, and then the UFO blast off like a rocket. Now at that time, I suspected that some glowing UFOs near high-tension power lines might be freak atmospheric phenomena which I called "plasma UFOs," similar to ball lightning. And I knew that the Socorro area frequently suffered intense thunderstorms. So, I suspected that Zamora might have seen a plasma. Dr. J. Allen Hynek had already briefly investigated this case for the Air Force's Project Blue Book and had rejected the possibility of a hoax, so that thought hadn't even entered my mind when I went down there.

But that began to change when an atmospheric physicist at the New Mexico Institute of Technology in Socorro told me that he hadn't even bothered to take the few minutes drive to the site. He explained to me how the town was economically depressed and that city officials were trying to attract industry, and urged me to "nose around" a bit. I soon learned that the local newspaper ran a box in every issue saying that the most efficient way to attract new industry is to first attract tourists. When I interviewed a man who lived right near the landing site, and had been working in his garden when the UFO supposedly blasted off, he told me that he hadn't heard a thing, and that when he visited the site soon afterwards he saw no physical evidence to support Zamora's story and suspected that it was a hoax. When I interviewed the police radio dispatcher who had taken Zamora's call for backup, he recalled that, strangely, Zamora had not requested a fellow police officer or someone from the Socorro sheriff's office, but instead asked that a specific state trooper be sent. And I found out that Socorro's mayor owned the "landing site" property and the town's only bank, and earlier had sought approval to build a new road to the UFO site for the benefit of tourists. So, when I wrote UFOs: Identified, I was confident enough to suggest that this case might be a hoax. And by the time my second UFO book, UFOs Explained, was published, I did unequivocally characterize the case as a hoax, as I've done subsequently regarding a number of other highly suspicious cases.

Skeptic: But the Socorro "tourist trap" was never built.

Klass: Yes, but the plan had been initiated. On the first anniversary of the "landing," a newspaper article quoted a city official as saying outright that they intended to use it as a tourist attraction, and it reported that the road to the site had recently been upgraded. It also mentioned that a movie about UFOs had recently shot some scenes in Socorro. Perhaps when members of the City Council learned the truth, they opted not to proceed any further with the plans.

Skeptic: In UFOs: Identified, you actually endorsed a photo as a genuine "plasma UFO," only to later realize that you had been hoaxed. Might that embarrassment have caused you to become a bit too quick to cry "hoax"?

Lucci photos Klass: Too quick? I don't think so, no. But it sure taught me not to be too trusting of seemingly honest folks. That was the first UFO-photo case I ever investigated. A teenager named James Lucci had taken two nighttime photos [see right] of a glowing "plasma-looking" UFO in front of the moon. I saw them in John Fuller's Incident At Exeter, which was the first UFO book I ever read. But even though the pictures had been "authenticated" by a respected investigator with NICAP, I felt I should make my own investigation. So I interviewed James and his older brother John, and afterwards I had no particular reason to doubt their word. I also spoke with their father, who was a professional photographer in the Air Force and had been in Europe when the photos were taken. He told me that he had no idea how anyone could fake photos like that. But one of them faintly resembled a kitchen saucer held in the palm of a hand. So I asked James if he would allow me to photograph him in his front yard -- where the UFO photos had been taken -- with him holding a kitchen saucer. He flatly refused to do that, but he did agree to take a picture of me holding a saucer. But that photo, and some more like it that I took after I got home, were done in daylight, without a flash to make them "glow," and they didn't look anything like the Lucci photos. Then, shortly after my book was published, I learned that a photographic analyst for the University of Colorado's "Condon (UFO investigation) Committee" had managed to create a flash photo that looked somewhat similar to Lucci's. And sometime later, Robert Sheaffer created an even better one, and that finally convinced me that I had been "had." It wasn't until about 20 years later that John Lucci finally admitted to another investigator that the photos were indeed bogus.

Skeptic: What case took the most time to find a solution?

Klass: I spent several years on the 1978 New Zealand case. That one received a lot of media coverage because of the videotape that was taken by a TV crew flying aboard a plane along the coastline. Dr. Bruce Maccabee, who's a well-known pro-UFO researcher and optics specialist, visited New Zealand and claimed that all of the diverse UFOs taped during that flight defied prosaic explanation. During the next few years, Bruce and I exchanged -- and I'm not exaggerating -- approximately 2,500 pages of single-spaced, typewritten letters about the details of this case. And while those exchanges were going on, I learned that after the incident, the pilot had had a suspicion that the longest-duration UFO -- which resembled the full moon because it had been filmed with an out-of-focus telephoto lens -- might have actually been one of the Japanese squid boats that use intense illumination to attract the squid. And when the pilot checked the official records, he found that one Japanese squid boat captain had registered his intention to fish in the vicinity of Christchurch, NZ, where the UFO was filmed. Part of the case had also involved "radar-blip" UFOs detected during an earlier flight. But a New Zealand scientist found that this particular radar often displayed spurious blips, some from surface ships and trains, under temperature-inversion atmospheric conditions. I even included a photo showing spurious blips on the same radar screen in my book, UFOs: The Public Deceived, which contains three entire chapters on this complex case. But in spite of all that, Maccabee rejected the Japanese squid-boat explanation, and declared the case inexplicable in prosaic terms. And not long after that, he endorsed the two dozen "hokey-looking" UFO photos taken by Ed Walters in Gulf Breeze, FL, which many pro-UFOlogists now agree are double-exposure hoaxes.

Skeptic: Let me ask you about the MJ-12 crashed-saucer government documents that Stanton Friedman and others have promoted. You've labeled them a hoax as well. But didn't you lose a $1,000 bet with Friedman over the authenticity of one of them?

Klass: I did pay Friedman $1,000 in 1989 after he successfully met one of my challenges -- but it was not a "bet" or a "wager" because it was risk-free to him. William Moore and Jaime Shandera, who were two of Friedman's partners in promoting the MJ-12 papers, claim that they discovered a memo in the National Archives purportedly written on July 14, 1954, by President Eisenhower's special assistant, Robert Cutler. The fact that Cutler had actually been out of the country on official business on the day the memo -- which, by the way, was unsigned -- allegedly was written indicated that it was counterfeit. But another suspicious aspect to me was that it had been typed in "pica" typeface rather than the smaller "elite" typeface that was used in all the Cutler office letters that I had obtained from the Eisenhower Library archives. So, thinking I had a sure hand, I offered to pay Friedman $100 for every genuine Cutler letter that he could find that was written on a pica-face typewriter -- up to a total of $1,000. To my surprise, Friedman was able to find about 20 such letters, and I promptly sent him my check. But, mind you, this was more than a year after he had refused my proposed "wager" which could have yielded him many thousands of dollars if he were able to demonstrate that the MJ-12 crashed-saucer documents were authentic -- but which could have cost him money if they proved counterfeit. The evidence that they are phony is overwhelming, as I've detailed in numerous articles.

Continues with Part 2