On January 5, 2009, report debunkers Chris Russo and Joe Rudy, “we set out on a mission to help people think rationally and question the credibility of so-called UFO ‘professionals.’” The pair launched a hoax, in the form of flares dangling from helium balloons, over New Jersey. Their “Morristown UFO” received extensive media coverage. “Unexplained Red Lights Spotted in Skies,” hyped Fox News, for example. The simple hoax even snookered Bill Birnes, publisher of UFO Magazine and lead investigator of the History Channel’s UFO Hunters . (See “How We Staged the Morristown UFO Hoax,” April 1, 2009. Online at skeptic.com , feature; accessed April 2, 2009.)
Similar hoaxes are common. According to Margaret Sachs in her The UFO Encyclopedia (New York: Perigee Books, 1980, p. 30), “Because of the scarcity of reference points in the sky, these hoaxes have often caused as much confusion as legitimate research and weather balloons.” Many such hoaxes have been uncovered.
Indeed, according to Gene and Clare Gurney in their Unidentified Flying Objects (New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1970, pp. 69–70:
“One of these ‘successful’ hoaxes took place in Westport, Connecticut, in 1966 when a group of boys set out to prove that many UFO reports are inaccurate. To carry out their hoax they purchased a number of weather balloons from a surplus supply house. From time to time they launched of their balloons with a lighted red flare hanging beneath it. The balloon carried the pulsating red light on an erratic journey across the sky until eventually the light disappeared.
“After each landing the boys checked Westport area newspapers for UFO reports. Some observers reported seeing a blinking red light; some saw a cluster of red lights. An oval object with raylike spokes, a cluster of multicolored lights, and a UFO with a searchlight trained on the ground were also reported. There were even rumors that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had investigated the Westport UFOs and refused to reveal the result.
“Finally, this hoax, too, was uncovered, but the boys had demonstrated that UFO observations can be unreliable. Their experiment worked almost too well. When newspapers carried accounts of the hoax, some of the “UFO observers” refused to believe that they had seen a weather balloon carrying a red flare. It was an authentic UFO, they insisted.”
The refusal of some observers to accept the evidence that they were fooled highlights one reason such hoaxes have limited success: they tend to appeal most to debunkers; others are not so likely to get the desired message, but instead conclude that the tricksters are just mean-spirited [unprintable]s. It surely isn’t helpful when Russo and Ruddy state: “Now, you may be thinking that UFOs are only seen by a mullet sporting, tobacco chewing, dolt whose highest aspiration is to make an appearance on the Jerry Springer Show , but in fact doctors, lawyers and even pilots report seeing flying saucers, flying triangles, and aerial shapes of all manner of an unidentified nature. Even over the skies of an affluent suburban community in New Jersey.” Please, let’s have less gratuitous disparagement of poor, rural folk and more exposés of Bill Birnes’ ineptness.