B.G. Hilton – Author

In Search Of… S05E01 UFO Cover Ups (pt 2)

Inside the mysterious Hangar 18 is… a control panel, some sliding doors and a window with a red light behind it.

We left off last week with Leonard Nimoy standing by an army jeep near a chain-link fence, talking about the mysterious Hangar 18 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, alleged to be the place where alien spacecraft and/or actual aliens were stored.

When this episode was first broadcast in 1980, when the previously obscure stories of Roswell and Hangar 18 were gaining traction as key elements of UFO conspiracy lore. A feature film called ‘Hangar 18’ was released around this time, staring the Night Stalker himself, Darren McGavin. But clearly the USAF wasn’t yet aware of how this one particular hangar out of many USAF hangars was going to be the one that went viral. Perhaps for this reason they, get this, not only gave the In Search Of… people permission to film the exterior of the hangar, they were allowed to film inside.

That’s right. The weird supernatural show’s producers called the Air Force and said ‘can we take actual recording TV cameras into the heart of your conspiracy, please.’ And the United States Air Force said, ‘sure, why not? We certainly can’t think of a reason why you shouldn’t.’

‘What evidence of a cover up might we hope to find?’ Nimoy wonders as we view several seconds of footage of what looks like a window with a red light behind it. Or something. Hey, if you can’t figure it out now, there will be more chances later. They show this brief, meaningless clip a lot.

There follows more footage of airplanes and the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base carpark. This is all the actual first-hand evidence that In Search Of… actually gathers. But fortunately we quickly move on to some lovely hearsay and supposition. Nimoy talks about various attempts to design and build wedge-shaped aircraft, with what he claims is limited success. After some sweet footage of weird looking flying machines, we are suddenly switching from wedges to saucer-shaped craft because of course we are.

We get an extremely misleading account of the career of Edmond Doak. We’re told that he was obsessed with saucer-shaped flying machines, spent years trying to build them and had his Air Force contract cancelled ‘when he was near success’ with his Doak-16 aircraft with no reason given.

A little research reveals that yes, Doak’s aircraft company was working on VTOL flight for the USAF. However his Doak-16 aircraft looks nothing like a flying saucer and the reason the USAF stopped developing this aircraft was that they decided to stick with helicopters for their VTOL needs, combined with financial problems faced by Doak aircraft. In Search Of… certainly does show footage of Doak and co building and testing flying toroids, but it’s not clear from these pictures whether he intended to test the feasibility of an entirely toroidal craft, or whether he were just testing external parts of a plane. The Wikipedia article about the Doak-16 lists several USAF bases at which it was tested – but not Wright-Patterson. Make of that what you will.

Now we’re suddenly back to wedges and a failed wedge-shaped aircraft, and then an actual flying-saucer-shaped hovercraft, wobbling uncertainly a metre or so above the ground. Nimoy points out that no saucer shaped flying machine has ever been a success. Now, to me, that seems like it might form the basis of argument against flying saucers being real. Silly me! To In Search Of, the fact that several failed attempts were made on this sort of design just means that someone knows something!

“Does the government have some reason to pursue this quest?” Nimoy asks, before moving on and never mentioning it again.

Ray Fowler again. We see his (then) two UFO bestsellers, then Fowler tells his story. When he worked for a weapons systems contractor, and he sent a story to the Christian Science Monitor newspaper about UFOs disrupting weapons systems. He was immediately rebuked by the Air Force which, frankly, is something that they would be just as likely to do if the story was made up as if it were true.

Then it gets boring.

We see footage of Fowler on a phone to a guy who he says is a source on UFO stuff, followed by footage of Fowler in his home observatory. (Aside: he has a home observatory. It’s very nice.) Nimoy narrates Fowler’s recollections of this guy. Fowler talks about how everyone says this guy is reliable. Nimoy relates Fowler’s recollections again. Then the guy shows up.

Fowler interviews the source, who sits silhouetted in the doorway of the observatory. Nimoy narrates over this interview, which should give an idea of how interesting this is. The story involves the source working as an A-bomb consultant for the USAF in 1953 when he and some others were put on a bus with blacked out windows and driven… God this bit is just crying out for a re-enactment.

Oh, here it comes. And it’s a doozy!

There’s a little footage of driving on a desert highway, and then a bunch of footage of American solders in the desert. Either the re-enactment budget has gone through the roof this season or this is file footage. The solders set up lights around what looks like either a flying saucer or a 1960s camper van. Is it a clip from an actual movie? No, it can’t be. It’s lining up with the episode narration too well. There’s even alien autopsy footage, albeit inside a tent that’s been backlit to create a silhouette. This is the single most elaborate re-enactment on this show, with it’s long history of cheap re-enactments. It’s really, genuinely, unironically well done. Perhaps the saucer looks a little silly, but it has to be the most expensive prop the show has ever used, so I can’t criticise.

Too bad all of this is in the service of a clichéd story — crashed saucer, alien autopsy. Basically a reiteration of Roswell only set slightly later, and in Arizona instead of New Mexico.

Footage of Wright-Patterson again. Big old cars in carpark. Nimoy says that usually filming is banned here — but this time someone asked if it was okay and they said ‘yes’. Rumours of aliens in freezers in Hangar 18. Nimoy says there are ‘giant freezing chambers’ in said hangar, though it’s surprisingly they didn’t take any footage of this when they were allowed inside, opting instead for the control panel, red windows and the sliding doors of the control-panel-and-red-window room.

Now we’re talking to Don Ritter, the building manager of Hangar 18 since the 1940s. He looks exactly like a building manager employed by the Air Force. He says that one of the things the hangar was used for was testing the ability of airplane engines to cold start. Makes sense, the USAF has bases in the Arctic and they need to know that their planes can start in extremely low ambient temperatures. That would certainly explain why you’d need such enormous freezing chambers, when actual alien remains would fit nicely in a domestic chest freezer. Just sayin’.

But before we can discuss this further, we cut back to Fowler. He says that US Government knowledge of extra-terrestrials should have been released slowly beginning in the 1940s, but instead the cover-up has gone on so long that admitting the truth would be embarrassing.

Col Belgrave, looking very much like he’d prefer to be talking about something else, says the USAF doesn’t have any proof of UFOs. There is an implied plea to please stop asking him.

Back to their creepy shot of the red window in Hangar 18, Nimoy says that they’ve found one small clue (what?) but that was enough to ‘profoundly influence our perception of our place in the universe. Sounds nice, when he says it.

Then Col Friend again. He rather surprisingly says that some of the cases he looked at ‘had a lot of promise,’ but refrains from speculating about what that might be or specifying any particular case. This is literally the only moment in this episode that gives me pause, and that’s just because we’re dealing with someone who is approaching the subject cautiously and scientifically. I find it a lot easier to agree to the general statement that perhaps some UFO investigations might have been worth pursuing further, than with the wild claim that there were literally freezers full of ETs.

Finally we’re back to the re-enactment of someone picking up metal fragments in the desert. Nimoy sums up, saying UFO stories are ‘halfway between science and speculation.’

So really good production values this episode. The re-enactments were just plain cool and the few seconds of footage of some control room in a hangar was effectively transformed into something genuinely creepy. The sighting stories are of the ‘aliens are unbelievably advanced but somehow can’t park without totaling their ride’ variety. The electronic music is first class, genuinely unsettling.

But like I said at the beginning, this is the X-Files in documentary form. Aliens in freezers, mysterious cover ups, high-level denials and witnesses who build tension by seeming reluctant to spill the beans — until they launch into a practiced story. It’s fun… if you don’t take it too seriously.

My interest in Roswell et al mostly comes from the pop-culture surrounding the story. I’m interested in UFO lore in the same way I’m interested in the history of Middle Earth or in rating Batman actors. It’s just nerd stuff to me.

But there are people who genuinely buy all of this – and this belief is not always harmless. And that belief comes in part from shows like In Search Of… This is why I have very mixed feelings about this episode. It’s literally the best and worst that the show has to offer.

Summing up:

Nimoyness: 10/10, Reenactments: 10/10, Exasperated USAF officials: 10/10, Creepy music: 9/10, Making three seconds of footage from inside an aircraft hangar seem significant and unsettling: 11/10. Overall: 50/50. High Distinction.

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B.G. Hilton - Author