The Day the UFO Deactivated the Nukes
Just before 8:45 on an icy morning, March 16, 1967, missile officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana were all snug in their underground Launch Control Centers, some asleep, others on duty and perhaps enjoying a hot coffee. All were ready to do their job and launch their missiles should the call come in — which, luckily, it never did. But this was not to be the ordinary quiet shift. Lt. Robert Salas was the one at the console, and one by one, ten warning lights representing the ten missiles of Oscar Flight all blinked on. He scrambled to his feet, and just as he was waking his partner, a phone call came in. It was his topside security team. They said there were strange lights flying around, with a red one hovering right outside their gate. Salas had no time for that, as all ten of his missiles were giving a No-Go signal. An entire flight of the United State's nuclear arsenal had been disabled, apparently by a UFO. And now, 55 years later, this incident has been cited in the US House of Representatives hearings declaring UFOs a threat to national security, with the ability to shut down our nuclear weapons. Today we're going to look into the Malmstrom UFO case of 1967, and see whether Congress did their homework properly or not.
The story comes from the 2005 book Faded Giant, self published by James Klotz and Robert Salas, that same officer, who is the primary source for the entire event. Salas' story had received scattered mentions throughout the UFO literature prior to the publication of his book, as he'd certainly talked about it; but it wasn't until his book came out that the incident received wider attention. That attention was magnified just a few years later in 2008, when UFOlogist Robert Hastings included the story in his book UFOs and Nukes: Extraordinary Encounters at Nuclear Weapons Sites. Since then, Hastings and Salas have both promoted the story as factually true and representing an authentic national security threat.
Notice that I say that as if the story is a little bit dubious. Well, that's because it is. However, at this point I want to insert a very important disclaimer. I spent a lot of time on the research for this episode, including reading as much of Salas' book as I could, and a lot of other stuff. My disclaimer is that, in my opinion, Bob Salas has been completely honest in his reporting of this incident. My conclusion is that he's been honestly mistaken in piecing together certain memories, and I also believe he's become invested in his version of the recollection and has erred on the side of confirmation bias in certain instances — as do we all. So please do not mistake anything in this episode as charging him with dishonesty or with any motivations other than protecting the United States and its national security. Any person can hold those values, and also believe in alien visitation, and also conflate memories. In fact many of us do.
Much of Salas and Klotz's book consists of the response to a 2001 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request asking for:
(Note the requester's use of the term silos, a word used by civilians, but never by anyone who knows anything about the Air Force.)
The response consists of five quarterly logs of the 341st Strategic Missile Wing history, detailing the investigation of the faults in the missiles that went offline. However, there's a big problem: While Salas recalls that he was working at Oscar Flight when his missiles all went down, the documents produced don't include a single mention of Oscar. They talk only about a seemingly-identical failure at Echo Flight.
In Faded Giant, Salas acknowledges this contradiction:
So we've got a bit of a problem with Salas' account, but let's move on. The documents go into tremendous detail about what happened to Echo Flight. When Salas saw the warning lights on his console, what was indicated was that all ten missiles were in an LF No-Go condition. This means that the launch facility is unable to deliver its ordnance onto the intended target, for any of a million possible reasons. How long was this the case? Here's what it said:
That's about how long it took for a Minuteman II to restart itself, which was not unheard of and would happen automatically, at which time the warning lights all went out and everything was back to normal. And the report went on to note that this was not considered unusual:
In fact there were several miscellaneous issues noted at the various Echo Flight facilities, all pertaining to the power from the local commercial power station, Fergus Electric Co., which advised that they'd had a transformer short at their Winifred Substation that serviced Echo Flight. This brief outage caused all the launch facilities to automatically fire up their diesel generators.
Boeing, the constructor of the Minuteman II, found that this outage, something often accompanied by a spike or surge, coincided with noise coming through the C-53D Logic Coupler interface line, which could cause a transient fault at the launch facility. What could cause this kind of noise? Two causes were suggested: an EMP (electromagnetic pulse, basically a bolt of lightning or other power surge), or simple electrostatic noise. Some 200 panels at Malmstrom's launch facilities were given engineering inspections, and no damage consistent with an EMP was found. Boeing attempted to recreate the failures by doing EMP tests, subjecting the systems to simulated lightning strikes, but all the tests produced negative results. It was found that a line called the Sensitive Information Network could transmit the same noise to all ten missiles in the flight, thus explaining why all ten, and no other missiles outside Echo Flight, were affected. In the end, all Boeing and the Air Force could say was that Echo Flight experienced "some type of adverse power effect".
To summarize the entire event, Fergus Electric blew a transformer; a power spike followed by an outage sent noise to one or more Echo Flight launch facilities which then spread it to all the other missiles in the flight, all of which rebooted automatically as they were designed to; but giving the young Lt. Salas the scare of his life.
But as far as UFOs go, there is only a single mention in the entire document of anything like UFOs or lights or strange things in the sky:
Period. So, whatever Salas was remembering from all those decades ago, the records of the Wing remembered it differently.
But if the UFOs form such a ubiquitous part of this story, why was it found that nobody had reported anything usual on that night? Because it hadn't happened yet, and wouldn't for more than a week. Salas and Klotz did track it down. According to various local newspapers, there was a UFO sighting in the town of Belt, Montana, about 50km from Malmstrom AFB on March 24... eight days after the Echo Flight incident. Because of the discrepancy of those eight days, Salas decided that that must be the date he remembered. So, according to the best history he and Klotz were able to cobble together, the Echo Flight incident was on March 16, and the UFO-caused Oscar Flight incident he remembers must have been "on or about" March 24. Therefore, according to Salas, there was not one but two incidents where UFOs shut down missiles, just over a week apart. All existing Air Force records say no, there was just one incident, at Echo, on the 16th, and no UFOs were involved.
Later in 2010, Salas went back to some of his colleagues from 1967 and asked for statements describing what they remembered, but what he received were vague, noncommittal, second or third hand, and written from 43-year-old memories tainted by the Faded Giant and UFOs and Nukes books having both been out for years. Two others, missile officers Captain Eric Carlson and Lieutenant Walter Figel, had strongly worded replies once the book came out. Carlson said:
And Figel said:
Obviously there's very little we can draw from the 43-year-old memories of any of these men. Their memories do not agree at all. Even if they did, it would be the documented evidence of what took place at the time that would be our primary source.
The whole case is reminiscent of the Roswell incident of 1947, which we discussed way back in Skeptoid #79. In that instance, the entire story was based upon the memories of a young mortician working in Roswell, Glenn Dennis. UFOlogist Stanton Friedman, working on assignment for the National Enquirer tabloid, worked with Dennis to help him reorganize his 42-year-old memories into a narrative that we now recognize as the alien crash at Roswell. Once the story became huge and people started submitting Freedom of Information Act requests to force the government to disclose what happened, Air Force researchers found that the individual incidents Dennis remembered happened over a span of 12 years and had nothing to do with each other. With Friedman's prompting, Dennis had — honestly and with the best of intentions — confused his memories with one another. Unfortunately that's just the way our human brains work.
Bob Salas was a missile officer at Malmstrom for a number of years. He remembered the Echo Flight incident of 1967. He also believes he remembers a time when the Oscar Flight also had problems, a memory which is probably incorrect as there is no record of it. And he remembers the reporting of the Belt, Montana UFO sightings. Working with Klotz, they reconstructed and rearranged some real incidents and some remembered incidents, and produced the story we now have today — that UFOs shut down nuclear missiles, a clear threat to national security.
Except, by all the records and data that exists, no such thing ever happened. Ten missiles of Echo Flight restarted normally following a commonplace commercial power failure on March 16, 1967, being down between ten and forty seconds. Eight days later, some people reported a UFO to the newspapers in a town 50km away. There is no rational reason to conclude one thing had anything to do with the other. We probably owe Bob Salas a vote of thanks for doing his best to reconstruct the timeline of what he believes was a threat to national security, but the fact is it simply did not happen. If the members of today's congressional subcommittees are making policy based on events reported in UFO books that are clearly disproven by the actual records of what took place, then we may indeed have a threat to national security on our hands — one that comes from incompetence within.
A big thanks to former missile officer Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, USAF, Retired, for his invaluable help with this episode.
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