Fire in the Sky: A Real UFO Abduction?
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 often not legally admissible in court: Speaking strictly scientifically, it doesn't tell us anything.
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.
Update: A potential inspiration for the tale concocted by Travis and Duane Walton has been found in a Robert Heinlein novel. The details can be found in Skeptoid #660. –BD
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