Lonnie Zamora and the Socorro UFO
This famous 1964 UFO sighting by a New Mexico police officer has several interesting explanations.
by Brian Dunning
August 1, 2017
In any tome on UFOs worth its salt, the name of Lonnie Zamora always looms large. He is that species of eyewitness held in the highest regard by UFOlogists: a police officer. Police officers, so it is said, are never mistaken. They always know exactly what they're looking at. They cannot be fooled, they are experts at identifying anything they see, and their memories are faultless; all necessary requirements of their job. So when Lonnie Zamora saw an egg-shaped UFO in Socorro, New Mexico in 1964, it quickly became regarded as one of the most reliable. To this day, his sighting is cited by some as proof of alien visitation; and it is one of the legendary "unknown" cases listed in Project Blue Book. Today we're going to look at Zamora's report, the theories suggested to explain it, and see what lessons there are to be learned.
Socorro, New Mexico is not renowned as a great metropolis. It is home to the modest campus of New Mexico Tech (New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology) and enough infrastructure to support a small local mining industry. Its population has never managed to crack ten thousand, yet its siting on the banks of the Rio Grande allow it to be a spot of green in an otherwise bleak desert landscape.
In 1964 Officer Zamora was chasing a reckless speeding driver when he heard what he thought might be a dynamite storage shack exploding, so he abandoned the chase and turned up toward a perlite mine. Here's what he described two days later to radio interviewer Walter Shrode:
ZAMORA: I went up that little road, for about half a mile, I guess, came up to this little parking (?) there on the side of the road, and I thought I'd glance out of the window, looked to my left and seen this white object on the ground. Thought that it might be a car that had turned over. Crossed the (?) to go out there to investigate, thought maybe somebody might be hurt. At that time, I saw this white, egg, like egg-shaped looking object...
SHRODE: That it looked something like an egg, you mean?
ZAMORA: Yeah, from that distance I was it looked like an egg to me...
SHRODE: About the size of a car, I think someone said.
ZAMORA: Yes sir, it looked like a car that had turned over, therefore I would say about the size of a car.
As he got closer, he saw something like two people near the object.
SHRODE: Did they have helmets on like spacemen or anything?
ZAMORA: No sir, I wouldn't say they were people, I just... I saw something white, white coveralls, that's all I can say.
SHRODE: But you couldn't identify them as actually being an actual human being, like you or I are?
ZAMORA: No sir, I couldn't.
It blasted off with a loud rocket-like sound, and Zamora saw flames.
ZAMORA: It was very low to the ground, at the time I was seeing it, it was very low to the ground up to the perlite mill there, and then it started gaining in altitude.
Nobody doubted Zamora's remarkable report. The FBI came out and verified burn marks in the desert scrub from the object's rockets. Air Force investigators recorded a detailed account from Zamora for Project Blue Book. Their version was more explicit: the figures were definitely humanlike in white suits, and the vehicle was smooth and white, with no windows or doors, shaped either like a football or an oval. Its only feature was an insignia in red, about two feet high: an inverted V with three lines beneath it.
For some time, there has been an interesting candidate explanation floating around. At that time in 1964, NASA was testing an early engineering model of Surveyor, the lunar probe that went to the moon in 1966. This testing was done out of Holloman AFB in New Mexico at the White Sands Missile Range, and researchers have found records showing that the model was being carried by helicopter on the same day — although earlier in the morning — as Lonnie Zamora's sighting. Some have even pointed to early logos of various Hughes subsidiaries (Surveyor was built by Hughes Aircraft) as possible matches for the insignia drawn by Zamora. Surveyor landed with rockets, the same loud rockets that Zamora heard. And what would Hughes technicians be wearing besides white coveralls? In some articles describing this theory, it appears to be a virtual lock.
Maybe I'm just a skeptic, but I find it to be a terrible explanation. For one thing, Holloman is directly adjacent to the White Sands Missile Range where the Surveyor testing was done, yet Socorro is a full 150km away. It can hardly be argued that the engineers strayed slightly outside their boundaries. For another, never once in the recorded history of NASA or the Air Force have they transported their experimental craft far from their remote desert test facilities and directly into populated towns to test them, and it strains credibility to conclude they might have felt that doing so was the best course in this case.
Surveyor it was a tripod of aluminum trusses with a couple boxes at its base. By no remote description can it be said to look like an egg, an oval, a football, or an overturned car. It doesn't even have a flat surface on which an insignia could appear. And if it did, it would — like every piece of hardware NASA had ever flown — have had the NASA logo displayed, not some obscure Hughes subsidiary logo.
Surveyor had never been designed with any takeoff ability. Its retros slowed its descent, then it fell the final 3 meters to the surface, where it stayed. Zamora's description of a craft taking off and flying away had nothing to do with anything related to Surveyor. Anyway the engineering model had to be transported by helicopter, and Zamora probably would have noticed that. If the claim is that the oval-shaped craft that Zamora saw take off was the Air Force helicopter, then he was the most monumental ignoramus in the history of ignoramuses, and I don't hear anyone saying that.
So I'm going to go out on a limb and say no, whatever Lonnie Zamora saw was most definitely not the Surveyor engineering model from Holloman.
A more persuasive explanation came from the unlikely source of Linus Pauling, the famous chemist who is as well known for his two Nobel prizes as he is for having descended into crankery in his later years, both with the promotion of Vitamin C as miracle cure-all, and less well known, for his interest in UFOs. After his death, a letter was found in Pauling's files from 1968, which he'd sent to Stirling Colgate, then President of New Mexico Tech, and received a handwritten reply on the bottom. As a postscript to his letter, Pauling had asked Colgate what the people at New Mexico Tech thought about the Lonnie Zamora incident, and Colgate scrawled back:
I have good indication of student who engineered hoax. Student has left.
Students at tech universities have a long and time-honored tradition of pranking, and it turns out that Lonnie Zamora had worked on campus for several years, where he had developed a reputation for being somewhat rigid and impatient with the students. Consequently he was not overlooked by those with mischief on their minds when he became a police officer. UFO researcher Tony Bragalia corresponded with Dr. Colgate by email several times in 2012, as well as with two others from New Mexico Tech, to get some more of the story — although no former students' names were forthcoming. What it came down to was this.
The Energetics Lab on campus stocked all kinds of pyrotechnics, more than enough to make all the audio and visual rocket and explosion sounds that Zamora saw and heard, as well as the burned scrub. White lab suits were conveniently available. And in the exact words of the university president himself, the craft itself consisted of:
A candle in a balloon. Not sophisticated.
With one driver to possibly lure Zamora to the scene by speeding, perhaps another to tow the big white balloon off into the distance at high speed when it took off:
ZAMORA: It flew low to the perlite mine, and then from there on it did go faster than you could barely view.
It's also noteworthy that in the Air Force report, when Zamora radioed in and was asked what it looked like, his exact words were "It looks like a balloon."
One criticism of the hoax explanation is that these alleged students were never named or came forward. But I'm not surprised. In this case especially, there's no way I'd expect any real hoaxers to ever reveal themselves. Why not? Because when you're a college student, and your little afternoon prank on the local constabulary turns out to mobilize not only the Feds but half the branches of the armed services, some of whom work with your professors, and you'd rather graduate than spend the rest of your life at Fort Leavenworth, you tend to zip your lip. No, I'm not at all surprised that these students — assuming they existed — never went public with their involvement.
The faculty of New Mexico Tech certainly seemed satisfied that their little rapscallions were responsible, and that those same rapscallions had the means and a motivating lack of other diversions. It's the only complete explanation anyone has proposed that neatly checks all the boxes, fits all the descriptions, and requires no alien intervention. No doubt this will not be a popular explanation among those UFOlogists whose preferred conclusion is an alien spacecraft, but that's going to be the case no matter what.
As for Lonnie Zamora, he stayed in Socorro, had a good full career as a police officer, and was buried there in town when he died in 2009. Not a word written about him by anyone cast the slightest doubt on his sincerity, his honesty, or the integrity with which he conducted himself in all the official interviews that were thrust upon him. Moreover, he was said to be friendly and well liked, a good patriot and family man. He just didn't want to talk to you about UFOs anymore. He'd been there and done that.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Lonnie Zamora and the Socorro UFO." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
1 Aug 2017. Web.
16 Dec 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4582>
References & Further Reading
Bragalia, A. "The Socorro UFO Hoax Exposed!" The UFO Iconoclast(s). RRRGroup, 23 Sep. 2009. Web. 23 Jul. 2017. <https://web.archive.org/web/20090928071052/http://www.ufocon.blogspot.com/2009/09/socorro-hoax-exposed-famous-1964.html>
Editors. "UFO Witness Sighs at Reports of What He Supposedly Saw." Albuquerque Journal. 27 Apr. 1964, Newspaper: 1.
Nicks, O. Far Travelers: The Exploring Machines. Washington, DC: Scientific and Technical Information Branch, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1985. 124-140.
Sheaffer, R. "A Socorro Student Hoax Confirmed?" Bad UFOs: Skepticism, UFOs, and the Universe. Robert Sheaffer, 12 Aug. 2012. Web. 23 Jul. 2017. <http://badufos.blogspot.com/2012/08/a-socorro-student-hoax-confirmed.html>
Steiger, B. Project Blue Book: Top Secret UFO Findings Revealed. New York: Ballantine Books, 1976.
Thomas, D. "KRQE Interviews Dave Thomas on Socorro UFO." The Socorro, NM UFO - Explained? New Mexicans for Science and Reason, 1 May 2006. Web. 25 Jul. 2017. <http://www.nmsr.org/socorro.htm>
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