Fire in the Sky: A Real UFO Abduction?

What evidence is there that Travis Walton was abducted for 5 days from an Arizona forest in 1975?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Aliens & UFOs

Skeptoid #94
April 1, 2008
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Take cover: The UFO's are coming out tonight to capture us with light beams and whisk us away to their planet for medical experiments. Today we're going to cast our skeptical eye upon the Travis Walton UFO abduction case, better known by the title of the movie made about it: Fire in the Sky. Among many UFO proponents, this case is considered among the most compelling, because of the number of corroborating eyewitnesses. Let's take a look, and see what happened.

In 1975, Travis Walton was a rural Arizona teenager working for his buddy (and eventual brother-in-law) Mike Rogers. Mike had a forest service contract to do odd jobs in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, and this particular job was to clear brush from a 1200 acre parcel. Travis, Mike, and five buddies spent the day working, and reported the adventure of a lifetime as they drove home along a remote forest road that evening. A small silvery disk shaped UFO, about 20 feet across, came floating along. Mike stopped the truck and they watched for a few minutes. Travis thought it was pretty cool and jumped out of the truck. He ran toward it for a better view, when suddenly a blue beam of light from the UFO struck him, lifted him a few feet into the air, and while his buddies watched in terror, he was tossed like a rag doll and thrown backward into the ground on his shoulder. Mike floored it and they got the hell out of there. A few minutes later, they decided this was perhaps not the most heroic and loyal of actions, so they went back. The UFO was gone. They searched for Travis for 20 minutes, but found nothing.

Once back to town they reported the story to police, who were more than a little skeptical. Upon hearing the news, Travis' older brother Duane telephoned a UFO group in Phoenix called Ground Saucer Watch, who advised him that if Travis ever returned, to take a urine sample and bring him to Phoenix immediately for a medical exam. After a few fruitless days of searching, Travis and Duane's mother instructed that the search be called off, which the police found a little strange.

The sheriff was not very pleased, and asked Mike and his crew to take a lie detector test. They all did, and all passed, except for one crew member whose results were inconclusive. This test was administered by an examiner named Cy Gilson, who was destined to return to the story almost 20 years later.

Five days after the abduction, Travis' brother-in-law Grant Neff said he received a midnight phone call from Travis asking him to come pick him up at a pay phone outside a gas station. Neff and Duane found Travis there, brought him home, but did not notify the police. Instead, they drove to Phoenix in the morning, to meet with the doctor promised by Ground Saucer Watch. Duane was upset to discover that the doctor, Lester Steward, turned out not to be a medical doctor at all, but a hypnotherapist.

Police were a little annoyed that they only learned of Travis' return through the mass media several days later: Neither Duane nor Mike had informed them. Still suspecting either foul play or a criminal hoax, police checked out the phone booth story. They found that the phone company did confirm the Neff home had received a call from the phone booth around midnight, but that none of the fingerprints on the phone were Travis Walton's. They found other problems too. While other people were out searching for Travis, Duane and Mike spent most of their time giving interviews to UFO investigators. Among the taped interviews that the investigators shared with the police were two interesting stories. Mike stated that he was delinquent on his forest service contract, and said he hoped Travis' disappearance would alleviate the situation. Duane said that he and Travis were lifelong UFO buffs, that they frequently saw them, and that they had recently discussed what to do if one of them were ever abducted.

There was one additional significant player in this cast of characters: The National Enquirer tabloid newspaper, which had a long-standing $100,000 prize offered for proof that UFOs were extraterrestrial. The Enquirer advised the Waltons that if they could pass a lie detector test, they might qualify for a large payment. Travis and Duane were not very keen on this idea, so the Enquirer agreed to keep the results secret should they not pass. The Waltons agreed. The Enquirer engaged an examiner named McCarthy, who, unfortunately, described Travis and Duane's results as "the plainest case of lying he had seen in 20 years." Duane was heard shouting that "he'd kill the son of a bitch." As agreed, the Enquirer did not publish the failed examination.

The local UFO investigators were not convinced it was a deception, however, and so they arranged a third polygraph, this time by an examiner named Pfeifer. Pfeifer reported the results as inconclusive, but the UFO group announced to the press that the results were positive and confirmed that the Waltons' story was true. This is also the examination that Travis states that he passed in his book. In later years, both of the other examiners (Gilson and McCarthy) studied the results and agreed with Pfeifer that they were inconclusive.

And that's about the point where the story fizzled out. Travis got a book deal out of it, called The Walton Experience, and made some money. This book is widely believed, but never proven, to have actually been ghostwritten by Jerome Clark, the editor of the International UFO Reporter. It's not clear whatever happened with Mike's forest service contract or whether Duane ever got any money out of the National Enquirer.

A lot of the information about the case, including the police suspicions and the Enquirer's suppressed polygraph test, was uncovered by Phillip Klass, the late full-time UFO investigator from CSICOP, now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Apparently feeling the heat, Mike Rogers proposed a new round of polygraphs for everyone to settle the matter, under an arrangement in which if they passed, Phillip Klass would pay for the exams; and if they failed, the UFO group would pay for them. But the offer wasn't as fair as it appeared. It was only valid if Klass agreed to one particular examiner: A guy from San Diego who gave polygraph tests to plants to prove that they have feelings too.

Some 18 years later Travis' book was made into a movie called Fire in the Sky, which was greatly fictionalized because the studio felt Travis' own account wasn't deemed interesting enough. As part of the publicity for the movie, the studio arranged for Cy Gilson — the polygraph examiner who had originally passed Mike Rogers and the crew — to test Travis, Mike, and one of the crew again. Not surprisingly, they all passed with flying colors. But then a new face appeared on the scene, whose identity has never been known but whom Klass called simply X. Mr. X telephoned Travis and claimed to be a military intelligence operative who happened to be hunting nearby on that day in 1975. The studio had Cy Gilson test Mr. X. The only report of Mr. X's polygraph results come from the most recent edition of Travis' book, wherein he claims that Mr. X was found to be truthful about what he had seen that day, but that he was lying about being a military intelligence operative. Travis opined that Mr. X may have been hired by Phillip Klass to gain popular credibility and then publicly announce that the whole thing was a hoax, a baseless charge denied by Klass. Another possibility is that Mr. X was simply some kook looking for publicity.

So that's about the size of it. What does a skeptical analysis of the Travis Walton episode tell us? Jerome Clark, the UFO editor, has said "After more than two decades, Walton's credibility survives intact. No shred of evidence yet brought forth against it withstands skeptical scrutiny." Well, this would be true, except that there simply isn't any evidence either way. Instead, there is a gaping lack of evidence. There were no injuries to Travis' shoulder from his violent throw in the blue light beam, there were no disturbances to the pine needles on the forest floor where it all happened, and the medical exams revealed nothing to indicate any trauma or malnutrition from his missing five days. Travis and his crew have had to rely only on polygraph tests, and then only on the cherrypicked positive results, ignoring the negative results. There is just as much polygraph evidence against the Walton case as there is supporting it. This self-contradictory nature is the reason why polygraph evidence is not legally admissible in court: Speaking strictly scientifically, it doesn't tell us anything.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

The few bits and pieces of physical, testable evidence that Travis' story would have produced, if true, were never present. To summarize, there is, and never has been, any proof that anything ever happened. The far more plausible explanation, that of a youthful moneymaking or attention-getting scheme by a couple of UFO enthusiasts, has worked out well. To critically analyze a far-out, incredible story like an extraterrestrial abduction, the first request we make is to show us any evidence. And, at this first hurdle, the Travis Walton story has failed completely.

Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

AP. "5 of 6 Pass Test In Saucer Mystery." Arizona Daily Sun. 12 Nov. 1975, Volume 30, Number 62: 9.

Klass, Philip J. UFOs: The Public Deceived. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1983. 133-136,161-221.

Sheaffer, R. "UFOs Sink Mir into the Ocean while the Alien Choir Sings On." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Jul. 2001, Volume 25, Number 4: 20.

United States Congress. Scientific Validity of Polygraph Testing: A Research Review and Evaluation. Washington, DC: Congress of the U.S., Office of Technology Assessment, 1983.

Walton, T. Fire in the Sky: The Walton Experience. New York: Berkley Pub. Corp., 1978.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Fire in the Sky: A Real UFO Abduction?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 1 Apr 2008. Web. 29 Jul 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4094>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 98 comments

I'm a relative of Travis. He is my mom's cousin. I heard the story first from my parents and so, ever since, I've believed in aliens. My mom explained everything as this says, but this had more info, for she had only heard from Travis himself and my grandmother. I do believe in aliens and I hope to, in my lifetime, see them, because it feels strange to know they are there, but not there

Tristan, Arizona
March 26, 2014 4:03pm

"Why do aliens appear to 20th Century Americans with pickup trucks in remote country locations? Why does the Virgin Mary pop up for poverty-stricken Roman Catholic peasants?"
- Ralph, Nottingham, England
January 02, 2014 3:14am

Because the Evil Galactic Overlord of Epsilon Draconis - with his secret base in the Hale Crater on Mars established as a logistics support for his future invasion of Earth - will only allow his minions to appear to a bunch of dumb@$$es in order to destroy credibility about his plans for dominating us and grinding us under his heel.
The sillier the incident sounds, the less likely it is that serious scientists, or Military people, will consider it.
Normal people will just see it as a "Silly Season" phenomenon and ignore it - which will play into the dictator's hands so that we'll be totally unprepared when his Flying Saucers attack our planet and destroy our infrastructure; and his military forces occupy.

Wassamatter with you ? Didn't you see 'Mars Attacks'?

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
March 29, 2014 8:57pm

I will keep this short. I NEVER BELIEVED in any of this. UNTIL I saw as Plain as day in my front yard, like Your car in Your driveway. I was in shock for 2 Months. I don't talk about it, because I know what my reaction was BEFORE. I do not drink or take drugs. I am College educated. I know what our technology is capable of. I saw it come in, it went down the street at about 35 feet high. ZERO SOUND TWO large green rectangles on a suacer shape blinking. The Dog across the street was going crazy. It shooshed it!! Then it came over me, and checked me out for about 8 seconds, in one second, it was a green star GONE! I asked the neighbors about their dog. They said it was missing. I saw them later, Their dog came back in 3 days. TOTAL TRUTH.

Forrest Morgan, Naples
April 25, 2014 2:28am

You do know, don't you, that people are innocent unless "proven" guilty. Also, you can't and therefore, are not required to, prove a negative!
please keep these things in mind when trying to trash someone's credibility!

Kelly, St louis, Missouri
April 27, 2014 1:05pm

After reading many comments, I can see many people are missing the point of this Skeptoid. The question is not, "Are aliens and ufos real?" it's asking if this particular story is true. After reading more into the story of what evidence there was it does seem this story was made up. You'd want to gather as much evidence as you could to back up your story. Did Mr. Walton ever mention being sore from being thrown? Does he have nightmares that OTHERs can backup? After many years have passed, do we have a high rate of ufos reported around National forests? He's able to describe some details very well while others not. Why is that? And as it happens to many, has he been able to recall more details since then?

Nick, Poteet, Tx
April 30, 2014 8:08am

Umm lets see Travis was interviewed in a special program by FBI equipment that shows deception and truthfulness, He failed and the results showed he was deceptive and untruthful

rick harrison, Las Vegas nv
May 12, 2014 12:34pm

I have heard of this story now and then for a long time and people are in either one of two groups: complete hoax or one of the most credible abduction stories of the century. Before I give my take, I would like to offer a third possibility: Maybe what they saw was ball lightning. The blue light was a lightning discharge that left Travis stunned. His belief in UFOs led him to have an abduction dream that took several days to come out of because of the lightning strike.
I enjoyed this particular Skeptoid because it filled in a few gaps that I had not heard before. However, I don't believe it proves it a hoax. So much seems to hinge on polygraph evidence which I always believe depends on who is paying for the exam. Also never explained is what happened to Travis for those 5 days. And I think it rather strange that a whole UFO abduction would be concocted as an explanation for being behind on a forest service contract.

William Granger, Marion, Indiana
August 12, 2014 7:44pm

I wish I had more space for this - here goes
1. The original polygraph by McCarthy was using a technique called Relevant/Irrelevant (RI) examination which is 70% accurate at best and wasn't admissible in courts as it has been shown to sometimes produce 80+% false positives. Courts did admit Control Question Technique (CQT) into evidence as it is highly reliable (90%) with few false positives. Reviews carried out by recognized experts of the 1975 RI test taken by Walton show only inclusive results which would be expected from the RI method under such circumstances.
2. Klass was a well known and indeed voracious debunker. He has been shown to be embellishing the truth on the following points
a) McCarthy, according to Klass was well respected with 20yrs experience in the field when he was actually using a technique 30 years out of date and was not an expert to the level suggested
b) He said that Walton and Duane were UFO freaks following an admission to this interview on a radio show - the transcript shows that neither of them made such a claim.
c) Klass describes in his book that Walton had failed the first polygraph examination miserably and this information had been suppressed by APRO when actually APRO's (legal and scientific) advisors had said that the test was inconclusive due to non ideal conditions - namely (described by cynical skeptics such as Enquirer reporter Jeff Wells) the kid (Walton) was a wreck and McCarthy was very hostile during the test

I'll leave it with U

Stuart, Nottingham
March 16, 2015 6:13pm

To continue:

In response to" Well, this would be true, except that there simply isn't any evidence either way"; its all here http://www.ufoevidence.org/documents/doc347.htm - I've summarised and directly quoted also in the above post

The only things we can really use is the polygraphs. Of the 10 CQT polygraphs carried out during the week of Walton's disappearance and return, nine were passed including his mother and brother, one was inconclusive (Dalis)

Twenty years later, in 1993, Cy Gilson retested key participants Travis Walton, (foreman and Walton friend) Mike Rogers, and Allen Dalis (the original "inconclusive" result), using a state-of-the-art computer-scored CQT methodology. All three passed.

The 1993 tests were ordered by Jerry Black, an independent working for Paramount to protect their reputation when releasing the film of the incident. Walton's book says that Black claimed "Walton stood to lose a lot by agreeing to this test, but did it anyway - this was the clincher for me"

The significance of the unanimous passing of competently administered CQT examinations by all six witnesses is considerable. Assuming independent tests, the odds of gross hoax (all participants lying about the UFO encounter) is less than one-tenth of a percent using the reasonably conservative figure of 70% for test accuracy, and on the order of one in a million using the 90% figure suggested by field tests. In short, relatively strong evidence that some kind of real event took place.

Stuart, Nottingham
March 16, 2015 6:45pm

I have a tendency to believe this depiction of what happened as it is set in 1975 which at that time the public were not familiar with ufo reports on a regular basis. Today there is numerous footage of ufo's reported by the media, airoplane pilots and the public. With camera phones available and the public being more familiar with this phenominon we are at least in todays climate open to the reality of extra terrestrial craft. Photo proof and video camera proof, not the mention the elaborate crop circles appearing across the globe.

Travis described the "greys" and the "nordic type" of beings in that decade in the 70's when that information was not really out there for the perusal of the public.

To face such rodicule at that time, 1975, to loose ones self respect and be put under such scrutiny is a huge "ask" to believe that a group of loggers, being use to manual labour and living that lifestyle, mixing and working with working class people -- to concoct a story like this is for me improbable.

Anyone reading this who is an absolute skeptic, please remember that less than 100 years ago our planes were made of paper and wood!

Also if our world is 400 million years old, it only takes an alien race to be 400 and ONE million years old to be way far more advanced that us.

I hope Travis get to have the film "fire in the sky" remade to what he claims to be a more accurate version of events, as I would love to see it.

scrump, lincolnshire
May 1, 2015 1:52pm

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