The recent revelation that a secret U.S. Defense Department program has investigated reports of UFOs has sparked a flurry of conversation in social and mainstream media. But it’s hardly a new topic: debate about whether the UFOs existed – and the Pentagon was covering up their existence -- was covered extensively in Aviation Week & Space Technology more than 50 years ago. And our reporting had a decidedly anti-extra-terrestrial bent.

Philip J. Klass, Aviation Week’s legendary avionics editor, published an in-depth analysis in the summer of 1966 suggesting that some reported sightings of UFOs were actually “luminous plasmas of ionized air, a special form of ‘ball lightning’ generated by electric corona that occurs on high-tension power lines under certain conditions.” 

Klass noted that a then-popular book about UFO sightings near Exeter, New Hampshire, “expresses the belief that top Air Force and government officials know that the UFOs are extra-terrestrial spacecraft but successfully kept this a secret for nearly two decades to prevent national panic.” But he was skeptical. “A much more plausible scientific explanation emerges when the Exeter sightings are analyzed,” he wrote, devoting another four pages to lay out that analysis.

Klass went on to become a leading skeptic of UFO sightings, traveling extensively to conduct investigations first hand. In 1976, he, astronomer Carl Sagan, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov and other notables founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Klass also wrote six books debunking reports on UFO incidents and published “The Skeptics of UFO Newsletter” in his spare time.

I had the privilege of knowing Phil early in my career and even co-wrote an article with him – on signals intelligence, not UFOs – in the late 1990s. But when I went looking for his 2005 obituary in our bound volumes of past issues, the page had been mysteriously torn out. 

Revenge of the aliens?