Feedback and Followups
A handful of updates to past Skeptoid episodes... eyebrow raising to say the least.
Once again it's time to apply some update patches to previous episodes, part of the iterative cycle by which these episodes improve year after year. Today we have additional information augmenting the conclusions on the Rendlesham Forest UFO incident, the Travis Walton "Fire in the Sky" story, gremlins, the Banjawarn Bang in remote Australia, and the 1979 Vela Incident over the South Atlantic Ocean.
The Rendlesham Forest UFO
Let's get started with an item that was sent to me by at least fifty of you over the past few weeks, which is amazing. It concerns the Rendlesham Forest UFO incident of 1980, in which American airmen at an Air Force base in England chased blinking lights through the trees. Although the story gradually expanded to ludicrous proportions that included airmen inspecting a landed UFO, the constables who were present found that the young men were simply seeing the flashing lighthouse nearby. Then, in late December 2018, newspapers printed a sensational story claiming the "mystery" had finally been solved: a former SAS "insider" named Frank had come forward and confessed that the entire thing had been a prank — according to his claim, UK Special Forces pranked the Americans by attaching blinking lights to black helium balloons. The newspapers all reported Frank's story uncritically, stating that the entire thing was now solved. Many of you wrote me that I should now update the Skeptoid episode with the solution.
Well, not so fast. I first got in touch with Ian Ridpath, the astronomer and science writer who lives near Rendlesham and is arguably the leading authority on the events of that night so long ago. Ian had seen these recent newspaper stories, and he wrote back to me:
I read Dave Clarke's blog post. He teaches investigative journalism. The reporters who wrote these new articles should probably take one of his classes. For his post is not reporting Frank's story as fact; in fact, quite the opposite. It's a thorough takedown and debunk of this person's email, sent to him years ago, by an anonymous writer who he called "Frank" for the purpose of his blog. There are any number of bits of Frank's claim that indicate he knew nothing about the SAS and was likely making it up the whole thing as he went.
What probably happened is that an announcement came out about an upcoming TV miniseries dramatizing the old Rendlesham story yet again, no doubt framing it as an actual alien visitation. Newspaper reports, keen to print a scoop in the light of the announced series, found Clarke's article and worked it into a sensational-sounding "solution" to the "mystery".
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: be gravely skeptical anytime you see mass media reports of an old mystery finally having been solved at long last. It's almost always just some kook looking for publicity, usually with a hoary old long-debunked wacky claim, who wrote a press release and was lucky enough to have it picked up.
Travis Walton: "Fire in the Sky"
So while we're on the subject of UFOs, let's look at a Facebook message I received from listener Robert. He found an interesting precursor for the Travis Walton UFO abduction story called Fire in the Sky, discussed in Skeptoid #94. Sounds like it's very possible that Walton and his brother Duane may have picked up an old book to get the inspiration for the story they've sold and resold a dozen times over:
So maybe a little similarity or two...
I have no way of knowing whether the Walton brothers were Heinlein fans or if they ever read this book, but Duane is on record saying they were both lifelong fans of UFOs and of science fiction. So who knows. It certainly wouldn't be the first such case we've discussed on Skeptoid, where people were inspired by a fictional story to improve their own UFO report.
Now we're going to move on to Skeptoid #627 about gremlins, the creatures said to have harangued the mechanicals of World War II aircraft. We have a pair of followups to this story.
First, one of the most popular stories attributed to gremlins tells of a transport plane that left from San Diego in 1939, headed for Honolulu, but turned back and landed with everyone on board having been horribly murdered. There are a number of reasons we know this story is fictional, but one that I mentioned in the episode had to do with the fact that in 1939, the US military had no transport planes with that kind of range; such a flight could never have taken place. But then, listener Scott wrote me:
Now, being an aviation buff myself, I'd had the same thought when doing the research. In fact, I'd even come across this same page that Scott referenced, an aviation history article published by the State of Hawaii. So I did know about these flights. In fact, I've written extensively on Amelia Earhart's disappearance in 1937, a time in which the Pacific Ocean was already being crisscrossed by commercial and military air traffic.
But nowhere in any of these flights listed, or anywhere else, could I find a record of a transport plane with a range of 2,250 nautical miles — the distance from San Diego to Honolulu. Military transport planes carry heavy loads, and those of the day had shorter ranges than passenger planes or bombers. And so, with thanks to Scott for the feedback, I'm going to have to let this one particular point stand.
In our second followup, it bears recalling that the gremlin legend was traced back to a WWII cartoon character named Percy Prune, who warned pilots against gremlins as a humorous way to advise them of common mechanical problems to look out for. The war department artist who created Percy Prune was Bill Hooper. I got this email from listener John Hooper:
Of that I have no doubt.
The Banjawarn Bang
Next we have an update on Skeptoid #531 on the Banjawarn Bang, an enormous explosion heard and felt throughout a remote part of Australia in 1993. Although it has been fairly conclusively determined to have been the explosion of a hypersonic bolide — something like the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor or the 1908 Tunguska event — for a long time many suspected that it might have been a test of a nuclear bomb by the Japanese terror cult Aum Shinrikyō. In the episode (recorded in 2016), I said:
Today, Shoko Asahara, the founder of Aum Shinrikyō, sits on Japan's death row with twelve of his fellow conspirators.
And then I heard from listener Steve, who added in July of 2018:
Their new status has been noted on the episode transcript page — same as with all updates and errors that are discovered.
Alert 747: The Vela Incident
We have a spookily related update to another mysterious boom suspected to have been a nuclear test, only in this case, it actually was. Skeptoid #592 was about a 1979 event called the Vela Incident, after the satellite that first detected it. All signs point to this great atmospheric flash as having been a nuclear test over the ocean between South Africa and Antarctica. If so, it would have been a treaty violation. That no nation claimed responsibility indicates that it may have been done clandestinely to avoid publicly violating the treaty.
Taken as a whole, the evidence indicates that it was indeed a joint test conducted by South Africa and Israel. Shortly after the episode came out I received an email from a source I trust, who had formerly worked in intelligence but asked me to omit his name and agency. He confirmed that my conclusion in the episode is also the conclusion of the international intelligence community.
However, that is — to you, anyway — an anecdotal claim from a random person on the Internet, and a second-hand anecdote at that. So here's something more substantial. I got this information from a number of listeners but this one came from Dominic:
He linked to a report of new research that published radionuclide studies of grazing animals from Western and South Australia shortly after the event, which found elevated levels of the short-lived element iodine-131. The authors wrote that these detections "provide robust and credible evidence for a nuclear fission event." Taken altogether, the evidence is strong enough that we can confidently close the book on this one. The Vela Incident of 1979 was indeed an illegal atmospheric nuclear explosion.
Do you have feedback, a followup, or — most important of all — a correction to an error made in a previous podcast? Email it to me at email@example.com and it shall be duly double checked, and if confirmed, included on an upcoming show just like this one. My own research certainly isn't perfect, but with your help, it gets closer.
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