Allan Hendry and the Case for Scientific Study of UFOs
There is a book about UFO investigation and evaluation that, having been written decades ago, seems to have fallen far enough from memory today that many modern proponents of UFOlogy aren’t even aware of its existence.
Being one that travels and speaks at various UFO conferences myself, I have had the opportunity to speak with many (if not the majority) of the most widely recognized UFO experts that are active in the field today. I mention this here because, in my numerous conversations with these individuals, I have yet to find one that has ever read the book I am referring to, let alone having heard of it or its author (there is one exception, however, and that is the indefatigable, and perpetually-cheerful Stanton Friedman, who discussed this individual with me during a ride together through the California mountains in early 2016).
Allan Hendry was a commercial artist and astronomer who worked with J. Allen Hynek’s Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) during the middle to late 1970s, which culminated in his exhaustive work The UFO Handbook: A Guide to Investigating, Evaluating and Reporting UFO Sightings (Doubleday, 1979). It remains, arguably, one of the most complete and authoritative books on the UFO subject, and despite occasional derision Hendry garnered from skeptics, even UFO arch-debunker Phillip J. Klass referred to the book as “one of the most significant and useful books on [UFOs] ever published.”
Although Hendry was adept with astronomy, holding a B.A. from the University of Michigan, his wife Dr. Elaine Hendry was a physicist who also studied UFOs (in his dedication to her at the beginning of his book, he refers to her as “my wife the astronomer, who will always be my most important audience.”). Hendry investigated more than 1000 individual UFO reports during his time with Hynek at CUFOS, concluding that a very small percentage of UFO cases could still be deemed unexplained following careful inquiry, which typically involved interviews with witnesses, phone calls to local airports and aviation authorities, and field research with a variety of scientific equipment when warranted.
Hendry’s scientific field work involving UFOs most often led him to skeptical conclusions, although in the few instances where a case could still be deemed “unexplained”, he typically refrained from guessing about what phenomena may be responsible. Withholding judgement in the absence of clear facts or data might be what we would call “true skepticism”, although this often garnered negative opinions from those more easily persuaded by the dogmatism of various disciplines and social movements, whether they favored belief or skepticism. UFO advocates would label Hendry a “closet skeptic” for being unwilling to make the leap of faith toward identifying unexplained aerial phenomena as proof of extraterrestrials; skeptics, on the other hand, ridiculed Hendry’s acceptance that things which eluded clear explanation might represent something beyond our typical frame of reference, as it pertains to current observations of nature through science.
With time, Hendry, like so many who have attempted to reconcile the aberrations and inconsistencies of the UFO phenomenon, began to grow disillusioned. CUFOS had remained aloft thanks to funding over the years, which by the early 1980s had begun to diminish to the point that the center could no longer afford its solitary full-time UFO investigator. Hence, the financial situation, paired with Hendry’s own dissatisfaction with current inquiries and methodologies applied to UFO research, led Hendry to permanently leave the UFO field. Seldom does one who has contributed so much to a field of study abruptly vanish, despite the merit of their skill set; it could be argued, however, that Hendry was more than merely justified in his dissatisfaction.
My reason for bringing attention to Hendry with this article is simply this: Hendry was perhaps one of the very best examples of a researcher that was able to remove as much of his own bias from the equation as possible, resulting in a clear and uniform manner of studying the UFO phenomenon. His critics on both sides of the debate attacked him due to their own lack of understanding, having mistaken his resolute abstinence from unbridled speculation as being a position contrary to their own biased views. Seldom have we seen researchers with such discipline, and a willingness to seek to understand the phenomenon apart from narratives that stem from social movements, ranging from UFO advocacy groups and “experiencer” gatherings, to science clubs and skeptic conferences.
In The UFO Handbook, Hendry gives a fair assessment of the broader UFO phenomenon since the late 1940s near the outset of the volume, calling into question both the rationale for study, as well as what the nature of the phenomenon may truly represent:
They were supposed to have been “postwar nerves,” a fad that would die out after a brief period of time. However, the floodtide of UFO reports that started in 1947 gained a positive foothold that has not diminished in over three decades. Thirteen thousand reports of UFOs (and well-intentioned IFOs) were collected by the U. S. Air Force from the United States alone; such a large number makes it difficult to proclaim that UFOs don’t exist (in the sense that we define them here) but neither does it guarantee that they do.
The year 1947 is treated here as the beginning of the integrated concept we now call UFOs. Granted, there had been a number of unusual aerial sightings prior to this time: Roman “flying shields,” turn-of-the-century “airships,” and World War II “foo fighters,” to name a few; but these earlier sightings did not prompt a unified “UFO” system back then.
This only happened at the end of World War II. Since then, we have undergone a constant period of reports and there is nothing to suggest they will come to a halt. So, unquestionably, for better or for worse, we have a phenomenon of some kind on our hands — even if it is only a sociological/psychological one. The huge number of reports from the past guarantees that. Remember, prior to 1947, thousands of people were not reporting IFOs like stars, meteors, and aircraft lights as “UFOs” to the police departments and airports. Even if sociology is the ultimate explanation of UFO reports, the implications may be just as important.
Hendry’s statements here offer us much food for thought. First, the interpretation of existent, but unexplained phenomena through a technological lens (which namely occurred after WWII) may have resulted in “a modern myth of things seen in the skies”, to borrow some verbage from Carl Jung’s assessment of UFOs. This interpretation, while possibly representative of one or more varieties of legitimate phenomena, may or may not have anything to do with aliens from space, or even technological aircraft, at least as we know it. Of course, there may indeed be strange things seen in the skies, or in a variety of other places (oceans, vast woodland areas, etc), but we could nonetheless be mistaking these phenomena for things that aren’t an accurate representation of their true nature.
A question which comes to mind here is, “what kinds of phenomena (apart from UFOs) do we know of today, which we did not know of during and shortly after the Second World War?” Today, there are numerous atmospheric phenomena of which we have gleaned a scientific understanding fairly recently; these include “sprites”, an unusual variety of colorful lightning phenomenon which were first predicted to exist in the 1920s, though the discovery of their cause occurred only in the last few years.
In 2015, the Washington Post reported on the sprites, and their cause:
Scientists are just now figuring out what’s causing a rare phenomena known as lightning sprites — basically red-orange firework displays that sometimes happen high up in the atmosphere during thunderstorms.
The elusive sprites, caused by only the most powerful lightning strikes, can sometimes be seen with the naked eye at night, but only last a few milliseconds. They look like jellyfish or carrots, and happen between 30 and 60 miles above the earth in a layer of the atmosphere called the mesosphere.
The Washington Post article went on to report that the fundamental cause of these unique, colorful bursts has to do with “atmospheric gravity waves,” which are present within the electrical fields that lighting produces. However, there was another novel statement that appeared later in the article, as it relates to the history of observation of these strange luminous anomalies in the past:
Because lightning sprites are so hard to observe, we’ve only been aware of their existence during the past few decades. Nobel laureate C. T. R. Wilson predicted they existed in 1924, but it wasn’t until 1989 that they were officially discovered (World War II pilots reportedly saw them first, but scientists waved them off for lack of credibility).
The sightings made by World War II pilots, as mentioned in the excerpt above, of course refer to what were called “Foo Fighters”. During the Second World War, a number of unusual things were reported by both Allied and Axis pilots over Europe. Strange “fireballs,” colorful displays of light, and other unusual descriptions were given for these “objects”, which were occasionally mistaken for being experimental enemy weapons.
Can we say that the recent discovery of what causes lightning sprites provides the ultimate solution to the Foo Fighter mystery? With little doubt, at least some of the sightings can be accounted for in this way. Perhaps there are still other varieties of phenomena that remain undiscovered or little understood today, which might help account for things WWII pilots, and countless other pilots and individuals elsewhere over the decades that followed, have seen.
There have been a number of UFO reports collected over the years, and from seemingly reliable witnesses, which do appear to suggest something more than just little understood atmospheric phenomena. Disc-shaped objects, large triangular craft that move in almost perfect silence, oblong vessels with unusual luminous arrays, and a host of other objects have been reported throughout the last several decades. While it may seem difficult to explain such things as being any variety of natural phenomena, can we say with any more certainty that their seemingly exotic nature, technological though it may appear to be, definitely represents alien visitors from afar?
After the passing of several decades, it seems that plenty of evidence for something… a phenomenon which we have resolved to call UFOs. Despite this, there is very little evidence that supports a conclusive origin for these phenomena, amidst the myriad opinions on what they are believed to be. Yes, many today, whose interest has been held by the strange stories of UFOs in our skies, remain beholden to a hypothesis that supposes “alien visitors” are indeed here in our midst… but again, it is only fair to ask, where is the proof that this alone is the solution to the mystery of UFOs?
Our intent here is not to make an argument against UFOs entirely. To the contrary, it seems very likely that a broad range of phenomena observed over time have caused us to amass an equally diverse collection of narratives about this perceived phenomenon. No two reports are alike, and in equal measure, the theories about their origins remain numerous and varied.
Yet even if we were to suppose, in the most skeptical sense, that UFOs existed solely as a concept, stemming from our various misperceptions of other varieties of phenomenon, the “false narratives” that have been built around them may nonetheless have inspired, and even shaped the natural progression of technological development for humanity over the years. To put things another way, could it be that the influence our observations of UFOs have had on our culture, and the development of new technologies, has been of benefit to us… even if we’ve wrongly supposed a number of things about their origins or purpose?
In the end, it certainly does seem that there is more for us to learn about UFOs, and the implications of their study in a variety of academic disciplines. Allan Hendry advocated this sort of approach to the study of UFOs decades ago, and in truth, few mainstream UFO researchers since have taken such a scientific angle in tackling the phenomenon. In the eventual sense, with further science applied to the way UFO cases and data are studied, new scientific advancements may also be made from the continuation of UFO research; though it remains to be seen whether a more clear understanding of the phenomenon results in the identification of something that meets our expectations, or proves to be far different from anything we imagined.
Thus, perhaps the more burning question, rather than what we should seek to learn “about” the phenomenon, has more to do with what we are yet to learn from them.