If you’re craving more UFO goodness, view our slide show of baffling photos taken by fellow Oregonians over the years.
LONG BEFORE OREGON became a magnet for the creative class, East Coast refugees, and retiring 20-somethings, our state was attracting visitors of a different kind: the alien kind. Not only was the term “flying saucer” coined here in 1947—unleashing a nationwide UFO frenzy—but two of the first-ever photographs of UFOs were taken just down Highway 99, at the Trent farm near McMinnville, in 1950. (See Close Encounters)
This month, thousands of curious onlookers, diehards, and experts will converge on McMinnville for the 13th annual UFO Festival—the second-most popular such celebration in the world, after Roswell, New Mexico’s—to commemorate the famous (and still controversial) photos.
But the Trent case merely scratches the surface of Oregon’s rich UFO history. By one estimate, Oregon has recorded more than 1,500 reported UFO sightings, making it third on the list of sightings per capita, close behind neighbors in Washington and Montana. We interviewed UFO investigators, debunkers, and historians to learn more about Oregon’s penchant for attracting the otherworldly. What we found just might surprise you.
When you see something wrong in the sky, Oregon’s chapter of the Mutual UFO Network uses science to solve the mystery.
ON AN EARLY FALL morning last October, Mercedes Corbin (note: not her real name) was driving west on Highway 26 when she spotted a tiny white light ahead of her hanging in the sky over North Plains. Still groggy from an early-morning flight, Corbin slowed to less than 40 miles per hour. The object grew larger and brighter until it hovered—soundless and wingless with flashing red and green lights—above a field just a few hundred feet away.
Heart pounding, Corbin took the next exit and circled back to the spot. But the strange object—which she described as a kind of Washington Monument on its side—had disappeared.
“I was not the only one who saw this,” she later wrote, noting that other trucks and cars had slowed down to watch it. “I am not crazy.”
Disturbed by the incident, Corbin began searching the Internet to find evidence of others who had seen the same thing. Instead, she found the Oregon chapter of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON). The national organization was founded in 1969 for the purpose of cataloging and investigating UFO reports. MUFON is—to borrow a phrase from Ghostbusters—who you’re gonna call when you see something unexplainable in the sky.
With the government, NASA, and even the SETI Institute (which takes its name from the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) officially not interested, MUFON fielded some 100 reports of UFOs last year alone. But these guys aren’t some goofy Big Gulp–fueled pack of X-Files-ites, pointing to every passing satellite as proof of extraterrestrials. In fact, MUFON classified fewer than half of those 100 reports as “unidentified” (including Corbin’s flashing object), ruling everything else out as hoaxes, airplanes, weather balloons, or simply lacking enough evidence for thorough investigation. And, according to the Oregon MUFON chapter director, Tom Bowden, even those “unidentified” flying objects don’t necessarily mean we need to put together a welcoming committee.
“It means there’s something flying around that is not one of our aircraft, and somebody saw it,” says Bowden, a computer programmer for a financial firm who has been studying UFOs since his college years in Illinois in the 1960s. “It means that there’s a problem that has not been solved, and in order to solve it we need more data.”
Bowden’s pragmatism might seem somewhat surprising in a group that includes its fair share of eccentrics. (Some members believe UFOs come from another dimension.) But logic and science are at the core of MUFON’s beliefs. Like Bowden, many of MUFON’s top members have scientific or technical backgrounds: Keith Rowell, the group’s assistant director (and resident human encyclopedia), is a retired technical writer. William Puckett, an investigator, is a former EPA and National Weather Service meteorologist. And Bowden was an investigator from 1976 to 1988 for the now-defunct Aerial Phenomena Research Organization, a group of sober-minded scientists hailed by the air force scientific adviser on UFOs, J. Allen Hynek, as one of the country’s best civilian UFO groups.
“What we’re trying to do is study UFOs in a scholarly way—as academics would if they bothered to look into it,” says Rowell, who hopes to donate his personal library of 1,500 UFO-related books to a university after his death.
To that end, MUFON has developed an elaborate protocol for investigating UFO reports, all of it laid out in a 250-page investigator’s manual. When a report is filed, MUFON investigators interview witnesses, collect any photographic evidence (employing a strict, police-department-style chain of custody), and document even the most innocuous information they can about the sighting, from wind speeds to light levels. Then, the investigation begins in earnest. Drawing on astronomy, weather reports, and FAA flight logs, all possible earthly explanations are tested and discarded until they land on one that fits: planets, military aircraft, birds, atmospheric effects, flyovers of the International Space Station. If, in the end, nothing makes sense, the case is declared a UFO.
“Photographs by themselves are useless,” Bowden says. “They don’t have any evidentiary value. It’s just whatever someone says it is. We have to get to the original source of the photograph in order for it to be considered evidence.”
MUFON’s academic approach follows a long lineage of scientific exploration of UFOs dating back to the US Air Force’s Project Blue Book, a group of soldiers and scientists who began tracking and investigating “flying saucers” in 1952. When the military terminated the group in 1969, its work was left to volunteer groups like MUFON, which have become exceptionally image-conscious as a result of media and other groups painting them as kooks.
To wit: Monthly meetings are open to the public, but recording and photographs are typically prohibited. Case files are available online, but the names of witnesses and investigators are changed to pseudonyms. Interviews with members are granted, but only with reassurances that the purpose is not to poke fun—or worse. In an e-mail, prior to our interview, Bowden noted his concern: “They [the CIA] have operatives placed in many news organizations for the dual purpose of intercepting specific news items and for introducing propaganda.”
Some think this insularity has had a negative effect. “There’s not a lot of collaboration between groups,” says Puckett, who runs his own reporting website, ufosnw.com, though he has worked with Oregon MUFON on a number of investigations. “That’s a major problem.”
Indeed, methods of investigation, proof, and tracking vary widely across organizations and individuals. Without a centralized database or rigorous international standards of investigation, winning over a dubious public to the global UFO “phenomenon” remains a gargantuan task.
But it’s one Oregon’s MUFON continues to take on, united behind their common belief in science.
“I say look at the data,” says Puckett, who in 15 years of study has never seen a UFO himself. “You only need one case to be real, and there are thousands out there. Everybody can’t be crazy.”
Four accounts from our extraterrestrial past
CASE: THE FIRST “FLYING SAUCER”
Date: June 1947
Location: Oregon and Washington
Rescue pilot Kenneth Arnold (left), was flying east from Mount Rainier when he spotted nine silvery objects flying in an echelon formation at supersonic speed ahead of him. The objects moved in an “eerie” side-to-side fashion for about two minutes before jetting out of view, Arnold said. When he landed, Arnold recounted his tale in exceptional detail, noting the angle of the objects’ trajectory, their speed, and estimated size. The crafts, according to Arnold, were more triangular than circular—like curved wings. However, in his discussion with a reporter from the East Oregonian, he described the crafts as moving like saucers “skipping across water.” The paper ran a story about “flying saucers,” and the term was born. Arnold’s sighting may have been the first of its kind, but a veritable deluge of UFO reports across the country followed. The infamous Roswell “crash” occurred only one month after Arnold’s tale was published, and in 1947 and 1948 the military received hundreds of similar reports.
CASE: THE FIRST PHOTO EVIDENCE
Date: May 1950
Location: McMinnville, Oregon
On a cool May evening, Evelyn Trent was feeding chickens on her McMinnville-area farm when she saw something unusual in the sky and called for her husband, Paul, to grab the camera. The two black-and-white snapshots the Trents took—the first photos of a UFO in the US—are grainy and dark, but the disc-like object hanging in the center of both images is crystal clear. Every grain of the Trents’ two black-and-white photos has been examined, analyzed, and reanalyzed over the past 62 years. Debunkers have argued that the Trents must have hung an object from the power line near the top of the photo, but UFOlogists have concluded the pictures are real. Despite the publicity storm that followed them, the Trents lived out their next 40 years (they passed away in the ’90s) quietly: they never sought to monetize their fame, never asked for their negatives back, and never reported anything similar again.
CASE: MUTILATED COWS
Date: October 1990
Location: Vancouver, Washington
Between June and October, Richard Fazio, owner of New Columbia Garden Farms on the banks of the Columbia River, found five of his cattle dead and scattered across three different pastures. Many cows’ organs and parts had been carefully removed —eyes, ear, tongue, rectum, udder, genitals, belly skin. Oregon State University analyzed tissue samples and determined the wounds were consistent with “electrosurgical excision” and “heat-induced injury,” possibly from laser. None of the injuries matched the typical explanations for cattle deaths (disease, weather, or predators). Two neighbors testified they had heard unusual sounds in the night before the carcasses were discovered. One of them said she had been startled by a “little man” carrying a “flashlight” in one of the pastures. The Clark County Sheriff’s Office quickly closed the case—without ever charging a suspect in the crime.
CASE: CROP CIRCLES
Date: July 1998
Location: Hubbard, Oregon
On his approach into Hubbard’s Lenhardt Airport, a pilot saw an intricate pattern of circles, lines, and arcs in the wheat fields below. Farmer Doug Aamodt claimed to not know anything about the design on his land, igniting a media frenzy and sending dozens of UFO experts to the site. After analyzing the formation’s measurements (about 250 feet long and 170 feet wide), soil samples, and swirls, researchers determined that it was consistent with other crop circles, but they remained uncertain about how it got there. No official explanation was ever found, but at least one witness claimed to have seen an unusually bright object in the area at night, just before the circles were discovered. Since then two similar crop circles have been reported in the same field. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the field had a history of crop circles as early as the 1920s, well before UFOs became part of popular culture.
The Hot Zone
A look at local UFO sightings over the past 10 years*
30 Unusual lights
12 Flying orbs
4 Disc-shaped objects
4 Triangle-shaped objects
3 Cigar-shaped objects
40 Other objects
WHEN: March 9, 2012
WHERE: Southeast Portland
WHAT HAPPENED: Eleven orbs—glowing orange, red, and white—fly east to west across the night sky before abruptly veering north and vanishing one by one.
16 Other objects
8 Unusual lights
2 Flying orbs
2 Triangle-shaped objects
1 Disc-shaped object
WHEN: February 11, 2012
WHERE: Downtown Vancouver
WHAT HAPPENED: A witness sees a large, glowing orange orb hovering in the air in the distance. It appears to be ascending the north face of Mount Hood.
11 Unusual lights
2 Cigar-shaped objects
1 Triangle-shaped object
1 Flying orb
4 Other objects
WHEN: February 15, 2012
WHAT HAPPENED: A bright light moving east to west zigzags, pauses, then shoots out of sight on an arcing path.
OREGON CITY 8
CORNELIUS/NORTH PLAINS 3
LAKE OSWEGO 2
WEST LINN 2
WOOD VILLAGE 1
*Drawn from MUFON’s database of reported sightings
Oregon’s UFO History in Brief
MAY 1949 A fishing party on the Rogue River spies an unusual hovering object through binoculars. The description of the saucer-shaped craft given by two of the men is very similar to the one in the McMinnville case a year later.
SEPTEMBER 1959 A policeman and FAA employee at the Redmond Airport see a bright, reddish object hovering 200 feet off the ground. It registers on multiple nearby radar screens before rising out of sight with a “long yellow and red flame from lower side.”
JANUARY 1973 A veteran and his family driving south along the coast encounter three “yellowish glowing objects” near Coos Bay. The man gets out to inspect them and finds a large object made of a sparkling, gemlike material.
MARCH 1981 A man listening to police radio frequencies on his CB captures a 30-minute audio recording of sounds coming from a 30-foot-wide orange light hovering above the Columbia River near St. Helens, lighting up both banks.
FEBRUARY 1984 A 16-year-old driving home with her boyfriend around 11 p.m. near Fern Ridge comes across a black, triangular object hovering over a marshy area by the side of the road. Other drivers pull over to observe it and then speed off, frightened.
1985 A flight attendant on a trip to Portland serves a passenger with “very piercing eyes and an unusual forehead” traveling without any luggage. The passenger inquires about the mass and velocity of the plane but doesn’t know the names of everyday objects.
SUMMER 1989 Ranchers in La Pine report 35 cattle found slaughtered and mutilated over the course of a few weeks. The Deschutes County DA heads up a task force whose report remains secret to this day.
JULY 1992 Nine witnesses at Glenwood Park in Southeast Portland see a “very bright” and “intense” light hovering silently above the area for almost 30 minutes. An out-of-focus VHS recording shows a glowing red dot against the night sky.
MARCH 1996 Two witnesses capture a video of six glowing spheres hovering in the afternoon sky above Lake Grove. The unidentified orbs are gold, blue, and pink and appear sporadically over the next two hours.
DECEMBER 2004 A Springfield man photographs a “very, very bright” bluish circle with a red rim in the night sky—which he believes to be the under-side of a UFO. Investigators initially believe it could be a planet, but none should have been visible that night.
JULY 2005 A Eugene couple photographs a “bright reflective” saucer moving across the sky. The FAA won’t provide radar data to investigators, but witnesses report that three military jets show up minutes later and tail the object until all are out of sight.
AUGUST 2005 In Eugene, several independent witnesses report “unusual” bright lights in the midnight sky, close to the ground and moving erratically. A grainy picture from one of the witnesses shows a red circular object, glowing yellow on the edges.
Real or Fake?
The country’s leading UFO debunker, Robert Sheaffer, tells us why he doesn’t think Oregon’s famous Trent UFO photos are real.
GRAY SKIES The Trents’ photos show an overcast sky, but the Weather Bureau recorded clear skies for the entire day the Trents reported taking them.
SHADOWS The Trents claimed to have taken the pictures at sunset—but the angle of shadows on objects in the foreground suggests the sun was in the east.
SAUCER PLACEMENT If the object in the Trent photos were far away and moving, it should appear different in size and location in each of the images, which were taken roughly 10 feet apart. But when the two photos are compared, the UFO object remains in the same place and roughly the same size in relation to other objects in the photo (like the power lines above it).
SO … WHAT ELSE COULD IT BE? If you look at the picture long enough, Sheaffer says, the UFO starts to resemble a 1940s truck side mirror.