The Knowles Family UFO Incident
It was reported as if it was the story of the century, which given its details, it could very well have been. According to the story, an Australian family on a road trip was pursued by a glowing UFO, and in full view of witnesses in other cars, the UFO landed on top of them, picked up their car in the air and dropped it several meters, blowing out a tire. It was January 1988 and the Knowles family of Perth was traveling cross country when the terrifying event happened. Today we're going to dig as deep as we can into the events of that night, and see if we can determine whether this truly was an extraordinary case of intervention by aliens from another world — or if there might be some other explanation.
Just some 13 hours into their trip toward Melbourne — a journey of some 3,500 kilometers — the Knowles family of four was driving along the coastal Eyre Highway across the Nullarbor Plain in Western Australia, known for its barren and dry desert geography. Faye Knowles and her three young adult sons, plus two dogs, were all packed into a small Ford Telstar sedan. The time was anywhere between 2:45 and 5:30 in the morning; accounts vary. Sean, 21, was at the wheel with his mom sitting right behind him. There is a lot of variation in the accounts of what happened next, but it's some combination of seeing bright lights on the road ahead and also following them from behind; a mighty swerve to avoid one such light that nearly caused them to hit oncoming traffic; and possibly turning back to have a second look for the light. Regardless, at the pivotal moment, Sean reports driving east at 200 kph (125 mph) to escape a pursuing light, which they described as having a yellow center and shaped like an eggcup. At this point they reported a strange smell, a strange gray smoke or mist filling the car, and their voices seemed to slow down and sound low pitched. There was a thump on the roof, and Faye reached outside to feel for it, finding something spongey or rubbery. Suddenly the car was lifted and dropped, blowing the right rear tire, and forcing Sean to make an emergency stop. The family ran into the bush and hid behind a tree for 15 minutes, believing that the object was looking for them. Finally they returned to the car, changed the tire, and continued their trip without further incident, reporting what happened at the Mundrabilla roadhouse, the very next stop on the road.
Luckily the story received prompt and aggressive media attention, and I say luckily because that gave us plenty of good reporting of the incident while it was still fresh in the family's minds. A mere 36 hours after it happened, the whole family was interviewed on the evening news. We were treated to a firsthand account of all these details, giving us something to compare against the way the story's told today. That's important, because what we see time and time again with stories like this is that they grow over time, often substantially, with each retelling — often to the point that the version of a famous story you hear today bears little resemblance to what really happened. So let's take some of the most important details from this story and compare them with what the family actually said at the time.
The tale began — so we're told — with the family seeing a brightly lit UFO flying around. But contrary to the reports, the family was clear that they only ever saw the light on the ground. Here are Faye Knowles and her son Sean telling a television reporter what they saw:
In fact they never reported a flying light at all, only lights at the horizon straight ahead and straight behind along the Eyre Highway, said to be the longest stretch of absolutely straight road in all of Australia. In fact their description was indistinguishable from that of the Min Min Light discussed in Skeptoid #133, Australia's most famous ghost light. In that episode we detailed the research that conclusively proved the Min Min Light was a superior mirage, showing distant car headlights below the horizon to be hovering eerily just above the horizon; an effect which changes with temperature gradients, explaining how sometimes they might have seen lights ahead and other times lights from behind. No lights described by the Knowles family were inconsistent with this common optical illusion.
But the most extraordinary part of this story is that the UFO landed on the car and then lifted it high enough that dropping it blew a tire. Let's see what the family actually said about whether their car was ever lifted at all:
So not only were they highly noncommittal about whether the lifting ever took place or not, Sean (who was driving) was quite clear that the tire blew the moment the UFO landed on them, and not as the result of being subsequently lifted and dropped. That would be a hard detail to get wrong, if so extraordinary an event had in fact taken place. Elsewhere in the same interview, Sean reiterated this:
Most likely the blowout was simply from the excessive speed. Tires have various speed ratings, and typically only sports cars come equipped with tires rated to go much faster than 200 kph. The Knowles' 1984 Ford Telstar was about as far from being a sports car as you can get, and came equipped with S-rated tires, intended for speeds up to 180 kph. Exceeding the speed rating doesn't mean that your tires will instantly explode, but if Sean did indeed get the Telstar up to 200 kph for several minutes then a tire failure was indeed a very likely outcome. Hear the family's description of the moments before the tire failure:
Although the story says there were witnesses to the car being lifted, in fact there were never any witnesses presented, or any corroborating accounts. One truck driver who heard their story at the Mundrabilla roadhouse later said he had also seen a light hovering above the car headlights in his rear view mirror; again, consistent with a superior mirage. Judging by the times it's been estimated that he could have been some 10-15 kilometers ahead of the Knowles family. So it's possible this lone corroborating sighting was actually of the Knowles family themselves!
There are other details we could go into on this story — a claim of strange dust on the car which turned out to be nothing, inconsistent reports of dents on the roof which may or may not have been from a luggage rack or from bags tied to the roof and which can't be seen in the news photographs, and a few others — but the last we'll mention is the family's claim that their voices all slowed down and became low pitched. It is not unusual for one's voice to be a bit hoarse in the morning. The family had been driving through the desert for 13 hours straight, and the incident happened in the wee hours before sunrise. There's not really a medical name for it, but it's called "morning voice" and the most common cause is your vocal cords drying out overnight, and this can happen as a result of mouth breathing, drinking too much the night before, or simply spending the night in a dry climate like the extremely arid Nullarbor Plain. It is fully to be expected that the Knowles' would have woken up in the car with morning voice that day; no extraterrestrial intervention required.
So what did happen to them on that strange night? Psychologist and author Robert Bartholomew studies a phenomenon he calls "small group panics". Compare his description of this phenomenon to the situation in which the Knowles family found themselves:
Writing in Psychology Today, Bartholomew summarized several of the approximately 30 such cases he has collected, including not only this case but also that of the Kelly-Hopkinsville "space goblins" case discussed in Skeptoid #331. Bartholomew summarized the Knowles family case thus:
Whether the lights they saw were Min Min style superior mirages or something else, we can't know; but we do know that it panicked them up to 200 kph, fast enough to blow a tire that could have easily accounted for everything else they perceived. There appears to be insufficient reason to introduce supernatural elements like aliens, as there simply aren't any pieces of evidence in need of an explanation. Call me skeptical, but the official Skeptoid conclusion is that the only interesting things that happened that night in 1988 were probably a neat mirage effect and an intriguing sociological phenomenon. Both of those things are real and well evidenced, and between them, they sufficiently explain all the details of the Knowles Family Nullarbor UFO.
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