The Socorro Incident
New Mexico is a mighty fine state with a rich cultural heritage. According to the state’s official website, a fabrics arts show, featuring “quilters, stitchers, local beaders, and silk painters.” Personally, if I were visiting America’s centermost state, I’d be more interested in seeing the few hundred museums that I suspect exist to educate the children on the development of the atom bomb. Sadly, this state is also famous for another reason: it was, in 1964, the site of one of the most well-known UFO sightings of all time.
Officer Lonnie Zamora was, as was his duty as a peace officer, chasing a speeding black Chevrolet down a country road slightly before 6 pm in the town of Socorro. Little did the reckless driver he was about to have a stroke of luck unparalleled in human history: space aliens were about to save him the hassle of being pulled over.
Officer Zamora saw a flash of light and heard a booming sound come from an area near a local dynamite shack, which was coincidentally owned by the town’s mayor. Knowing that sounds of explosions from a hut filled with explosives can only mean trouble, the officer broke pursuit and drove towards the source of the flash. As he got closer, he saw what he at first thought to be an overturned car. Two figures, wearing white cover-alls, were out on the ground tending to it. They appeared surprised at seeing Zamora’s car, and rushed to get back into their ship.
Zamora, who would later be referred to as "well regarded as a sober, industrious, and conscientious officer and not given to fantasy," described the craft as being made of a smooth, shiny white material and shaped like an egg. It sat on three or four telescoping legs.
As he stood watching it, he heard several loud thumps, like a heavy door being slammed, and flames and smoke began to shoot out of the bottom of the thing. The two figures were no longer visible. A strange sound, unlike a helicopter or jet airplane engine, rang out and Zamora, thinking that the thing was about to explode, prudently high-tailed it for his own vehicle.
The thing, whatever it was, did not, however, explode. It rose a few dozen feet into the air accompanied by that strange sound, hovered for a moment, and then flew off in total silence. It cleared the roof of the dynamite shack by no more than three feet. This whole time, Zamora was between 50 and 100 yards away. He watched the thing fly off into mystery. By his judgment, it took about 3 minutes for the craft to cover six miles and pass over a distant highway. That would mean that this particular space ship was cruising at a brisk 120 miles per hour.
As it flew over, Zamora noticed some sort of red insignia on the side of the craft which was later identified as the Arabic notation for the planet Venus. I have no idea what to make of this, other than that perhaps aliens are trying to disguise their spaceships using words in human languages. Or maybe aliens aren’t involved in this at all.
Zamora, suitably shocked, radioed police headquarters and asked if they could see the thing out their window. They could not. He then requested some backup, and another officer came out to secure the “scene.”
Unlike most cases of UFOs, this particular spaceship left a lot of physical evidence on the ground. There were impressions on the ground where the ‘landing pads’ had touched, some of the local brush was on fire, and there was a rectangular trench, as though something had scooped up a pile of dirt.
As soon as what officer Zamora had seen became public, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the government went absolutely crazy. The CIA, FBI, Air Force, Army, and local government sent teams to investigate the incident. Their conclusions: something really weird happened.
Later, a handful more sightings would be reported. A gas station attendant reported that a nameless tourist commented on seeing a weird looking craft fly over his car, and that he’d seen a police car following it. The fact that this guy has never been found, and due to some evidence pointing to the fact that what he described seeing wasn’t physically possible (from the directions things were traveling, etc) I think it’s safe to say that there’s nothing in this second report. A third report came from a nearby family who claimed to have seen an object shaped like a propane tank a few hundred yards from their home, sitting in a field.
Any number of theories have been proposed to explain the sighting. Some think that Zamora was a prankster pulling a hoax; the fact that he was, apparently, the most reliable 'square' in the world more or less shoots that idea down. Some claim that local physics students played an elaborate prank on the officer. This theory actually has a lot in common with the theory that the object was a spacecraft manned by aliens: it’s not impossible, but there’s no proof to support it.
Some claim that the object was in fact a balloon of some sort, some even going so far to claim that it was an experimental Navy/CIA project of sending clandestine balloon-things cross-country. It could have been a weather balloon, an observation balloon, or a blimp of some sort, say these theorists. There are, however, a couple of problems.
No hot-air balloon travels at 120 miles per hour. UFO enthusiasts investigated the prints made by the landing pads, and estimate the weight of the craft at 8 tons. Even with the general tendency towards exaggeration, it still weighs a lot more than any balloon ought to.
So if it’s not a balloon, and it’s sure as shooting not a UFO, what was it?
Interestingly enough, a most learned gentleman by the name of David E. Thomas came across a daily log for nearby White Sands Missile Base. In it, the testing of a lunar module is scheduled for the same day as Zamora’s sighting, albeit in the morning, rather than the evening. The test would have involved a lunar module tied to the side of a Bell helicopter – which would have looked fairly strange, and would have been mostly made of a “white, shiny material.” The helicopter would have been piloted by two technicians, both wearing white coveralls.
The indents in the soil, supposedly made by an alien ship’s landing pads, come fairly close to matching the landings pads of a lunar module. A testing apparatus on the underside of the module, meant for collecting soil samples, would have left a trench similar to the one found at the scene. According to famous UFO investigator J. Allen Hynek, the scorch marks found at the scene would not have provided sufficient lift to move a heavy ship, but the attitude jets on the sides of the landing module could have left similar marks.
Suffice it to say that I think there’s a good chance that this sighting was caused by two technicians trying to get their day’s work done late, before the boss caught up. Again, I can't say what really happened, but I can say what the more likely explanation is. Does the 'technicians behind schedule working late' theory seem more or less likely than space aliens traveling to earth and stealing our dirt? This case had me stumped at first, but there’s a rational explanation, or at least several solutions more rational than space aliens, to everything.
Be seeing you.
First Published in The Triangle, 10 February 2005.
Lonnie Zamora's original drawing of the ship he saw. I forgot where I took it from, but they took it from Lonnie Zamora, so I guess it evens out.
A Bell UH1 helicopter. Photo courtesy Boeing.com. This helicopter, made in 1967 would be similar to one used to test the lunar module. Note that, excepting tail boom, it has a generally oval shape.
Astronaut Conrad fooling about with the Surveyor 3 lunar module. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.