Fwd = Sci-Fi digs for UFO info, but is it a hoax for ratings?
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Original Date: Tue, 5 Nov 2002 03:05:53 -0800
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Nov 1, 4:50 PM
Network joins search for 'truth'
Sci-Fi digs for UFO info, but is it a hoax for ratings?
By Billy Cox
It was a marketing strategy every bit as calculating as the buildup
for "The Blair Witch Project." Armed with the latest Roper Poll
numbers indicating 72 percent of Americans believe the federal
government is withholding information about unidentified flying
objects, the Sci-Fi Channel staged a press conference in Washington,
D.C., on Oct. 22 to declare its designs on learning the truth.
Sci-Fi announced its partnership with a new group called the Coalition
for Freedom of Information, directed by Washington lobbyist Ed
Rothschild. Its leading voice was former Clinton White House Chief of
Staff John Podesta, an avowed "X-Files" buff whose call "to open the
books about the government's investigation of UFOs" could've come
right out of Agent Fox Mulder's mouth.
Meanwhile, over there in the margins, like an asterisk in fine print,
was Sci-Fi's centerpiece -- a 20-hour miniseries called "Taken." Set
to premiere on Dec. 2, the project concerns alien abductions, and its
executive producer is Steven Spielberg.
If it sounded familiar, perhaps that's because, just a year and a half
ago, the same National Press Club venue was the site of a similar
action by the Disclosure Project. That's when a gallery of former
government witnesses called for open hearings on UFOs in Congress, so
far to no avail.
But there's an even longer view, stretching for decades along the
slippery slopes where show biz and high-level government intrigues
have generated little more than additional layers of confusing
mythology. Decades after his own byzantine encounters with former Air
Force Col. William Coleman, now retired in Indian Harbour Beach, a
documentary filmmaker remains bamboozled.
"I still don't know what happened, and I was right in the middle of
it," says Robert Emenegger, who now works for a public television
station in Fayetteville, Ark. "It was like being in a Kafka play. Bill
once joked with me, 'One day I'll take you out on a boat and tell you
what it really was, but then afterwards, I'll have to kill you.' "
The controversy began 30 years ago, when Emenegger and producer Alan
Sandler were approached by a military officer about the possibility of
airing footage of an actual alien spacecraft landing at Holloman Air
Force Base in New Mexico. Today, Emenegger's story has become the gold
standard as evidence of a government disinformation program
"Coleman's a fascinating character, a real player," says San
Francisco's Paul Meehan, author of "Saucer Movies" in 1998. "When I
watch 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,' which involved a UFO
landing at a remote location, recorded in secrecy by the government, I
can't help but wonder if Spielberg was influenced by what was rumored
to have happened at Holloman."
Don Berliner, who chairs the Fund for UFO Research in Alexandria, Va.,
has known Coleman since the latter had a Pentagon office. To him, the
USAF's public information chief from 1971 to '74 remains an enigma.
"Certainly Bill was one of the most objective Pentagon spokesmen I
ever met," says Berliner. "He had to spout the party line, but I think
he tried to be as honest as he could within those constraints. When it
comes to (UFOs), I think he's a conflicted man."
For his part, Coleman, who worked the Air Force's official study of
UFOs in the 1960s -- called Project Blue Book -- the Emenegger
controversy was always much to do about nothing. Today, at 78, the
survivor of 155 combat missions says the footage in question never
"There was nothing extraordinary on there that I could see," Coleman
says. "All I know is, we would not release the film because there were
special lenses on the cameras involved, and we didn't want our
technological abilities getting into the public domain."
Skeptic at first
According to Emenegger, the journey that would lead him to Coleman
began in 1972-73. Emenegger was producing commercial television ads
when he hooked up with Sandler, who was interested in doing military
While discussing ideas on advanced research projects at Norton Air
Force Base outside Bakersfield, Calif., Emenegger says security
officer Paul Shartle, chief of the base audio-visual department,
asked, "What would we think if there had been a landing of alien craft
at Holloman Air Force Base, that they were met by some of the
officers, and that TV camera people had filmed this landing?
"Well, I was a skeptic. I thought this UFO stuff was a lot of BS. But
Shartle described the film in great detail, descriptions of the
aliens, that it happened in May 1971. But it was all handled
semi-officially. What was so strange to me was, at the time, he told
us this film was unclassified. Shartle said if you want to pursue
this, bury it along with things like laser and dog training and
holography; otherwise, if you ask just about UFOs, a lot of red flags
are going to go up. So that's what we did."
Emenegger says he and Sandler "went through the motions" of filming
assorted Air Force projects, with the understanding that they would
get exclusive access to the Holloman footage at the end of the line.
In 1973, as a precondition for release of the film, they met with
Coleman, and others, at the Pentagon, to submit their script (even
though they hadn't seen the footage) for technical accuracy.
By that time, Project Blue Book had been terminated for nearly four
years, after a University of Colorado committee concluded the
phenomenon reflected neither advanced technology nor a threat to
national security. Coleman had joined Blue Book in 1962, following a
conversation with Air Force Secretary Gen. Eugene Zukert.
"Before I took the job, I knew I needed to explain my own sighting to
him," Coleman recalls. "After I told him the story, he said, 'Good,
you're just the guy for the job. You've remained objective, and that's
what we want on the program -- to tell the truth.' "
Coleman's sighting is now legendary among UFOlogists. In 1955, while
piloting a B-25 over Alabama, he and his four-man crew attempted to
pursue a silvery disc reflecting mid-day sunlight. The object cast an
oval shadow when it dropped to the deck, then eluded the bomber with a
series of evasive maneuvers. Although Coleman collected and filed
individual eyewitness reports from his men, the account never turned
up in the Blue Book archives.
Exactly what happened when Coleman met with Emenegger and Sandler
depends on who you talk to.
"I looked at it just as a commercial venture on their part, a couple
of guys out to make some bucks," says Coleman. "But in terms of
(releasing) the film they were so interested in, I showed it to my
people and they said no. Not because of anything on the film, but
because of the particular camera lenses. They said they didn't want
the Soviets to know our capabilities."
Sandler couldn't be reached for comment, but Emenegger says what
happened next was especially "bizarre," given how they had already
done location shots on-site at Holloman, and even interviewed
"It wasn't some clandestine adventure. Everyone had been very
cooperative, in terms of allowing us access. We made no secret of what
we were working on. In fact," Emenegger says, "I talked to the head
radar guy there and said, 'I'll bet you were really amazed in '71 when
that thing came down,' and he said, 'You mean the flying bathtub?' I
said, 'Yeah,' and he said, 'You really don't talk about things like
"So I'm at the Pentagon with Bill, and he's saying how we need to be
careful about certain things because of national security, blah blah
blah. And then he said, 'Let me set you up with George Weinbrenner,'
who was the commander of foreign technology, which was in this
half-underground bunker with all these surveillance cameras.
"And I asked Weinbrenner about the landing of an alien ship at
Holloman, and instead of saying, 'What the hell are you talking
about?' he started talking about how difficult it was to get
information about Soviet aircraft, and about how easy it was to get
stuff on our planes. Then he starts talking about spying. And he draws
a picture of a MiG on the wall, and I'm thinking, god, my question was
about an alien landing at Holloman, and Weinbrenner was going on about
how the Soviets have developed weather alteration patterns, and that's
where the really big problem is.
"I thought I was in the Twilight Zone."
Hold the film
The Air Force never released the film. Emenegger says he got several
different explanations from Coleman.
"I love Bill. He can do no wrong in my mind, even though he can
stretch things," says Emenegger. "But one time, he told me it was
because of the camera lenses. Then he told me it was because the real
incident involved the landing of an SR-71, which was supposedly
classified at the time. Once, he even told me it was because we didn't
have diplomatic relations with the extraterrestrials.
"I'd bet my life that Bill never saw the film. You know how people
sometimes play a role, where you're talking about something that they
don't know about, but they don't want to let on, so they play along?
That's what our conversations were like."
"The film I saw was made at Vandenberg (AFB)," Coleman says. "What I
saw, I didn't get excited about. Sometimes when you launch missiles,
you'll get a light phenomenon called halations, which can look like
UFOs. They can be seen rising with the missiles, they can even be seen
going in the opposite direction. This is what we were dealing with. As
far as the Holloman stuff, I'm not sure what they were talking about."
Despite the confusion, the Sandler/Emenegger documentary nevertheless
made it onto the airwaves in 1974. Called "UFOs: Past, Present and
Future," it was narrated by "Twilight Zone" host Rod Serling. Coleman
appeared on-camera, and the feature earned a Golden Globe nomination.
In 1980, an expanded version called "UFOs: It Has Begun" was released.
Supported by stock footage, the Holloman landing -- which does show
the descent of a curious glowing orb against a desert backdrop that
Emenegger is at a loss to explain -- is presented, according to
Serling, as "an incident that might happen in the future, or perhaps
could've happened already."
In 1988, Shartle would tell his side of the story on national TV.
During a two-hour special called "UFO Coverup: Live," Shartle
described the 16mm film as having documented the arrival of "three
disc-shaped craft," one of which landed and opened the door to three
"human-size beings" with gray complexions, tight jumpsuits, and "thin
headdresses that appeared to be communication devices." The ETs were
then met by Air Force officials, who escorted them away.
Additional corroboration Shartle might've provided died with him last
year in a car wreck.
"It's a good metaphor for the UFO situation in general," says Dr. Colm
Kelleher, of the National Institute for Discovery Science, a Las Vegas
research organization. "It's very difficult to pin down, and
unfortunately, we didn't realize just how important Shartle was until
it was too late to interview him."
Coleman says he never met Shartle and doesn't know what to make of his
After leaving the Pentagon, Coleman went on to become an advisor to
"Project UFO," an NBC prime-time series produced by Jack Webb
("Dragnet") that ran from 1977 to '78. Each episode lifted a page from
the Blue Book files and turned it into a dramatization in which some
cases were solved, while others remained mysteries.
"From the Air Force point of view, we never got close enough to any
technology that would make (further study) worthwhile, to spend money
that way," says Coleman, mindful of renewed calls for UFO glasnost on
Capitol Hill. "You follow me? It wasn't promising enough. I never saw
anything that would get us excited, and I had all kinds of
Coleman predicts there will be no earth-shattering documents recovered
through new Freedom of Information Act initiatives, and that
congressional hearings on more recent events will be unproductive
because "we haven't had any interesting cases involving
high-performance aircraft in years."
At the National UFO Reporting Center in Seattle, which has been
collecting data since 1974, director Peter Davenport says it fields
some 25 calls a day, the best of which get posted on its Web Site
daily. The most dramatic recent video footage, linked up at
www.nuforc.com, was taped over Albany, N.Y., in October, and is now
reportedly in the possession of the FBI.
"It's a shame," Davenport adds, "that Mr. Coleman wouldn't consider
what happened over Waldorf (Maryland) interesting."
In that early-morning July 26 incident, witnesses reported seeing
F-16s chasing a glowing UFO for more than half an hour near
Washington. But a North American Aerospace Defense Command spokesman
contradicted the civilian witnesses, and reported the pilots made no
visual contact: "Everything was fine, so (the planes) went home."
"Well, that would put them (military spokesmen) in the position of
lying, and I don't think that happened," Coleman says. "Our policy was
always to find out the correct answer before you speak. Because if you
start ad-libbing too soon, you may damn well tell a lie and create
something you can't stop."
Copyright © 2002 FLORIDA TODAY.
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