Thursday, April 13, 2006


One of the more interesting things about 'paranormal' phenomona is how they swing in and out of fashion. No-one pretends to see ectoplasm spewing from spiritualist's mouths anymore, sightings of ghosts have dwindled in recent years and the once massive American 'alien abduction' industry was fatally skewered by that first South Park episode. Angels had a brief flare of publicity in the late eighties, but where are the fairies of yesteryear? What will be the big flap of tomorrow?

Raised in a society where critical reasoning was not only discouraged but downright dangerous, Russians are still prey to whatever lunacy happens along. Pravda (the Truth) has morphed from leaden propaganda mouthpiece into a ludicrous dimestore rag several parsecs behind the National Enquirer in journalistic integrity and conspiracy theories are even more rife in the wider Russian media than in the USA, which is saying something.

Tales of Soviet UFOs ("NLOs" in Russian) have enjoyed periodic brief waves of popularity both home and abroad, with the most famous incident, the 1967 flap, even prompting brief official sanction. This is the Soviet 'Roswell', but while the American incident was nothing more than a fallen Mogul spy balloon, searching for Soviet nuclear tests, the Soviet wave of sightings was altogether more sinister.

The '67 Flap

On the evenings of July 17, September 19, and October 18 1967 thousands of people across the Ukraine, Black Sea, Volga Valley and Caucasus reported a "crescent-shaped" object moving east. Waves of UFOs seemed to be invading southern Russia. Cossacks on horseback saw them high in the evening sky. Pilots aboard commercial airliners and military interceptors chased and dodged them. Astronomers at observatories in the Caucasus Mountains noted their crescent shape and their fiery companions.

The reports have excited western UFOlogists for years, thousands of reports, rather than one isolated sighting, surely this at last was the real thing, not mere saucepan lid fraud or hysterical misidentification?

An exciting, meticulously detailed, account by astronomers near Kislovodsk appeared in the magazine "Soviet Life" in February 1968.

"It was shaped like an asymmetrical crescent, with its convex side turned in the direction of its movement. Narrow, faintly luminous ribbons resembling the condensation trail of a jet plane followed behind the horns of the crescent. Its diameter was two-thirds that of the moon, and it was not as bright. It was yellow with a reddish tinge. The object was flying horizontally in the northern part of the sky, from west to east, at about 20 degrees above the horizon. A bright star of the first magnitude was moving at a constant distance ahead of the crescent. As it moved away from the observers, the crescent dwindled, turned into a small disk, and then suddenly vanished.

These cases appeared in Western UFO books of that period, too. The Caucasus apparitions, for example, were described as flying saucers hundreds of yards in diameter.

"Suddenly a huge flying object appeared, moving swiftly across the sky. As it passed the observatory its orange glow made it easily visible in the dusk. It was an amazing sight - an enormous crescent-shaped craft at least eight times larger than any known airplane. The horns of the crescent were pointed backward, emitting jetlike exhausts...Confirmation of the giant spaceship's existence soon came from other astronomers. The diameter of the flying crescents were between 500 and 600 meters...Several times, Soviet astronomers had reported that the huge spaceships were preceded or flanked by smaller UFOs which kept precise formations, matching the crescents' terrific speeds."

So what was this 'huge horned craft'?

The re-entry of Cosmos 169.

The Soviet Life UFO?

The shock wave caused by the re-entry of Cosmos-171.

FOBS fobbed off as UFOs

Misidentification of aircraft, satellites, rocket tests or even innocent lenticular clouds is nothing new, what makes these accounts significant is that these UFOs really were spacecraft and they really could have heralded the end of the world.

They were tests of a thermonuclear warhead space-to-ground delivery system, diving into the upper atmosphere on their way to a touchdown point east of Kapustin Yar. The programme was called FOBS (Fractional Orbit Bombardment System) by the Pentagon and entirely denied by the Soviet authorities who claimed the flights were Cosmos "scientific satellites".

For example, the September 19th event included sightings from Svatovsk (7:20 p.m.) Zimnik (7:20 p.m.), Volzhskiy (7:30 p.m.), Novooskolsk 7:40 p.m.), Severodonetsk (about 7 p.m.), Donetsk (8:20 p.m.), Zhdanov (8:20 p.m.), Mariinskiy (about 8 p.m.), and Roy (8 p.m.). Meanwhile, the Cosmos-178 spacecraft had blasted off from Tyuratam in Kazakhstan shortly before 6 p.m., circled the planet, and was flaming its way across the southern Soviet skies at 7:30. Cosmos 160 (May 17), 169 (July 17), 170 (July 31), 171 (Aug 8), 178 (Sept 19), 179 (Sept 22), 183 (Oct 18) and 187 (Oct 28) produced a spate of 'sightings' which are still cited to this day as proof of an alien assault.

FOBS had made a public appearance during the 1965 October Revolution (Nov 7) parade. A TASS announcer boasted that "the column of rocket troops ended with orbital [sic!] rockets with atomic warheads, which are capable of hitting any aggressor unexpectedly, after making one or more orbits around the earth." The missiles shown here SS-10 "Scrag", though the FOBS flights were actually on SS-9 'Scarp' missiles. by Western military analysts - and may have been a ruse, since when FOBS test flights began they were atop SS-9 (R -36) "Scarp" missiles. The "Scarp" itself was unveiled late in 1967 with the threat that they could "deliver to target nuclear warheads of tremendous power. Not a single army in the world has such warheads. These rockets can be used for intercontinental and orbital launchings."

A typical FOBS flight involved launch from the Tyuratam test range east of the Aral Sea in Soviet Central Asia. The two-stage missile placed a two-ton payload into a low but stable orbit 100 miles above Earth's surface. An hour and a half later, near the cnd of its first orbit around the globe, the payload turned tail forward and fired a powerful braking engine which deflected it out of orbit and toward the ground. In the 6 minutes before impact onto a target zone east of the Volga River, the gradually descending warhead crossed over Athens, Istanbul, and the northeast coast of the Black Sea - where thousands of unsuspecting citizens were suddenly treated to a spectacular light show in the evening sky.

The Soviet authorities at first encouraged the UFO theory. Despite the earlier bombastic slips in the propaganda machine the official line was that the peaceloving USSR would never test such illegal orbital system. FOBS was patently a first strike weapon, explicitly designed to carrying out a devastating sneak attack on the USA. As a sub-orbital weapon it had no range limit and its orbital flight path would not reveal the target location. This would allow it to attack the USA from over the South Pole, evading NORAD's early warning systems which are built to detect attacks from over the North Pole.

Secrecy was paramount because the "Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies" had been signed in Washington, London and Moscow on January 27, 1967 and came into force on October 10, 1967. Article IV stated that "...Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction."

Though the Outer Space Treaty banned nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction in earth orbit it did not ban systems capable of placing weapons in orbit, and the Soviets avoided violating the wording, if not the spirit, of the treaty by conducting its tests without live warheads. Exposure of the FOBS tests in the very year Moscow had signed the treaty would, however, have greatly embarrased such a 'peaceloving' regime. Any use of FOBS in wartime would, of course, of broken the treaty, but that would have been the least of the worries of the world.

The brief rise and long fall of Soviet UFOlogy

The Soviets had dismissed every spate of western UFO reports as a product of 'capitalist war hysteria' and 'money grubbing yellow journalism' but with thousands of their own citizens reporting undeniably spectacular lightshows the authorities tried to turn it to their advantage. They had every interest in deflecting western media attention from tests of a frightening first strike weapon system.

A group of Moscow UFO enthusiasts, led by Feliks Zigel, astronomy professor at the Moscow Aviation Institute, formed a committee to study the events, chaired by a retired general, Porfiny Stolyarov. They were allowed to hold well attended public meetings and were invited to appear on National Television on November 10 and invite observers nationwide to send in UFO sightings for scientific analysis.

So by late 1967 the Soviet government was faced with the uncomfortable prospect of its citizens scanning the skies and reporting all strange lights they saw - and all with official approval. As these lights were often clandestine activities Moscow was striving to keep top secret, what started as an ill-considered but apparently harmless pandering to public curiosity was getting out of control.

The 1967 wave ended with the first tranche of 8 FOBS test flights. After October 28, there were no new flights until the following April (a rare pre-dawn test), an evening flight in Qctober, one a year later in September 1969, and finally two more in 1970.

If the dusk/dawn FOBS re-entry times were designed to allow optical tracking of the warhead descent trajectories it's remarkable, but telling, that no consideration was given to the consequence that hundreds of thousands of people would also see the fireballs.

It wasn't just the FOBS spaceshots that needed coverups. The top secret new military satellite center at Plesetsk north of Moscow had opened the year before for polar-orbit spy satellites. Sooner or later, one was bound to be launched in twilight when its sunlit rocket exhaust plumes would standout like a torch in the sky. With the sanctioned UFO mania sweeping the USSR, such reports were bound to be published widely, betraying strong hints about the hitherto concealed existence of the military space center.

That is exactly what happened, three weeks after the televised UFO appeal, on December 3rd, 1967. The Cosmos-194 Vostok-class spy satellite blasted off from Plesetsk at 3 p.m. local time, shortly before sunset. As it rocketed northeastwards along the Arctic coastline, its contrails were visible to eyewitnesses in the wintry night below. It became, and remains, the famous "Kamennyy UFO" since it was spotted from an aircraft on route from "Mys Kamennyy" (Cape Stoney) in the New Siberian Islands to Moscow.

The last straw came in February 1968 when Zigel published a UFO article containing a precise technical description of the officially nonexistent FOBS warhead re-entry masquerading as a flying saucer and so, a few weeks later, a new Soviet UFO policy was abruptly unveiled. There would be no more published reports of UFOs since it was all "nonsense." The Stolyarov Committee was disbanded and Zigel was told to drop the topic of UFOs. The lid was clamped down and the FOBS/UFO connection went unrecognized in the public literature for 15 years.

The U.S. Defense Support Program produced early warning satellites which enabled the US to detect a FOBS launch, the 1979 SALT II treaty prohibited the deployment of FOBS
("Each Party undertakes not to develop, test, or deploy:...(c) systems for placing into Earth orbit nuclear weapons or any other kind of weapons of mass destruction, including fractional orbital missiles") and the missile was eventually phased out in January 1983.

The 1977 'Giant Jellyfish' UFO.

In 1977 Tass carried a dispatch from the northwestern port of Petrozavodsk entitled "Strange Natural Phenomenon over Karelia." Nikolay Milov reported that "On September 20 at about 0400 a huge star suddenly flared up in the dark sky, impulsively sending shafts of light to the earth. This star moved slowly toward Petrozavodsk and, spreading out over it in the form of a jellyfish, hung there, showering the city with a multitude of very fine rays which created an image of pouring rain."

The "visitation" unleashed a torrent of rumors. People later reported being awakened from deep sleep by telepathic messages. Tiny holes were reportedly seen in windows and paving stones. Cars were said to have stalled and computers to have crashed, and witnesses smelled ozone.

Soviet UFO enthusiasts rushed to embrace the case. "As far as I am concerned," claimed science-fiction author Aleksandr Kazantsev, "it was a spaceship from outer space, carrying out reconnaissance." According to Dr. Vladimir Azhazha, "what was seen over Petrozavodsk was either a UFO, a carrier of high intelligence with crew and passengers, or it was a field of energy created by such a UFO." Zigel, the dean of Soviet UFOlogists, agreed it was a true UFO: "Without a doubt--it had all the features."

This mass sighting did spark high-level official interest in UFOs. Two studies, one civilian, one within the military, were set up, the civilian team continuing formal investigations until 1996.

Platov and Sokolov Report

After the collapse of the USSR, Dr. Yuliy Platov of the Academy of Sciences and Colonel Boris Sokolov of the Ministry of Defense, summarized the results of the Soviet Union's official 13-year study of UFO reports for an issue of the Academy of Sciences journal, published in Moscow. They explained that from the start, the teams "assumed a high probability of a military-technical origin of the observed strange effects."

"Many people are the eyewitnesses of strange things, which cannot always be precisely identified with natural or man-made effects. However, this amount is very insignificant, and from this there does not follow even a 'hint' of the probable interference of extraterrestrial forces into our lives."

The infamous "Petrozavodsk Jellyfish UFO" of September 20, 1977 was actually the pre -dawn launching of the space spy satellite Cosmos-955 from the secret Plesetsk space center. The multiengined booster's contrails, backlit by the dawn sun, were split in the imaginations of excited witnesses into multiple glowing tentacles.

It was the start of a series of twilight satellite launchings from Plesetsk which were widely observed in Moscow and surrounding densely-populated regions of central Russia - and were misperceived as giant flying saucers. Other similar events occurred on June 14, 1980 and May 15, 1981.

In 1981, a midnight rocket launch from Plesetsk lit up the skies of Moscow itself and sent the capital city's residents into a blitz of unconstrained creativity. UFO expert Sergey Bozhich's notebooks contain reports of numerous "independent" UFO encounters during this ordinary launching. "Pilots of six civil aircraft reported either a UFO in flight or a UFO [attacking] their aircraft," he wrote. "At 1:30 a UFO attacked a truck along the Ryazan Avenue in Moscow." One witness even reported waking from a deep sleep to see a "scout ship" with a glass cupola and small alien pilot cruising down his street.


A much earlier incident, still reported in Western UFO books, took place at Kamchatka on July 25, 1957 when, supposedly, anti aircraft guns opened fire on a fleet of fast-moving UFOs.

The summer of 1957 was also marked by the first flight tests of Russian SS-6 ICBM from the Tyuratam rocket center east of the dusty remains of the Aral Sea. The 4,100 mile flight path crossed the Kamchatka peninsula, with the warhead splashing down in the Pacific just offshore. Such tests were undertaken in strict secrecy and ordinary Soviet soldiers had no more idea about their existence than anyone else. The keen gunners were trying to shoot down Soviet test warheads and rocket fragments.

UFOs nearly spark war

Another oft related story tells of how UFOs nearly triggered nuclear war on October 5, 1982, at a missile base near Khmelitskiy in the Ukraine.

This story famously appeared on ABC 'Prime Time Live' in October, 1994 when host Diane Sawyer and correspondent David Ensor presented uncritical interviews with former Russian military personnel who described a 900-foot-wide UFO hovering over their missile base while their command consoles switched themselves to "prepare to launch" for 15 seconds before returning to normal. The location was given as Byelokoroviche, but it's the same incident.

Sokolov, who took part in the investigation which began the very next day, presents a very different version.

The eyewitness reports from more than 50 people, as documented within hours of the sighting, described bright flashing objects on the northern horizon, in the form of "a balloon." Within hours the investigation team had located records of parachute flares and night-bombing exercises occurring at another military base in precisely that direction at precisely that time.

"It should be added," Platov and Sokolov continue, "that the fault of the operation of the command post equipment had nothing to do with the observed phenomena, it just completely accidentally coincided in time." The fault merely involved an indicator light, and there was no evidence the missiles themselves were affected in any way. Nevertheless, the missile base commander, while genuinely alarmed, evidently found it more convenient to blame extraterrestrials rather than his own maintenance troops for the scare.

Siberian UFO sightings

Platov and Migulin describe events on June 3, 1982, near Chita in southern Siberia, and on September 13, 1982, on the far-eastern Chukhotskiy Penninsula when Air defense units scrambled interceptors to attack supposed UFOs. In both cases, balloon launches were recorded, remarkable only because the balloons reached a higher than normal altitude than usual before bursting.

"The described episodes show that even experienced pilots are not immune against errors in the evaluation of the size of observed objects, the distances to them, and their identification with particular phenomena," the report observes.

Won't get fooled again

However credulous western UFOlogists continue to be, western military intelligence wasn't so easily fooled at the time. An NSA document, written the year after the soviet 'flap, was obtained by eager UFO researchers via the Freedom of Information Act and discusses the UFO 'problem' and hypotheses of explaination.

"Many responsible military officers have developed a mental 'blind spot' to objects which appear to have the characteristics of UFOs," the paper warned - precisely the 'blind spot' the Soviets hoped to exploit by allowing their launches to be seen as UFOs. One of five explanations for UFOs was "secret Earth projects," and so "Undoubtedly, all UFOs should be carefully scrutinized to ferret out such enemy projects."

UFOSKI flies again

Russia may be one of the few places where belief in UFOs lingers on, as this UPI report from 2001 bears testimony.

MOSCOW, Jan. 29 2001 (UPI) - An unidentified flying object hovering above the runway of an airport in Barnaul, in eastern Siberia, forced the airport's closure for almost two hours, Russian news agencies reported Monday. During the incident, which occurred on Friday night, the crew of an Ilyushin 76 cargo jet refused to take off after spotting the glowing object hovering above the end of the runway. Another freighter preparing to land at Barnaul airport also spotted the object and the pilot diverted his jet to an alternative airfield. The object flew off and vanished some 90 minutes after it was first spotted, the reports say.

Quite how much vodka had been drunk that day isn't recorded.

Video of a Russian UFO
UFOs in the Urals
This month in UFO history

The excellent work of UFO debunker James Oberg
Entirely contradictory 1994 report from Flying Saucer Review


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