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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 1999 > Apr > Apr 29

Re: P-47: UFO History: A Call for Papers

From: Bruce Maccabee <brumac@compuserve.com>
Date: Thu, 29 Apr 1999 11:51:37 -0400
Fwd Date: Thu, 29 Apr 1999 23:51:52 -0400
Subject: Re: P-47: UFO History: A Call for Papers

The USS Supply Sighting of 1904

Bruce Maccabee

In his premier issue of the "UFO Historical Review," author
Barry Greenwood has presented what would seem to be a reasonable
explanation for a sighting of three glowing bodies passing
through the atmosphere by several members of the crew of the USS
Supply, a Naval ship, on February 28, 1904.  Greenwood has made
the not-surprising suggestion that these were meteors.  The main
factors that seem inconsistent with the meteor hypothesis are
the claims that (a) the meteors "did come below the clouds"
estimated at about 1 mile (1.6 km) high, (b) they did "soar
instead of continuing their southeasterly course" which would
have taken them over the ship and (c) they were seen for "over
two minutes." The quotes are from the report written by Lt.
Frank H. Scofield as published in the Monthly Weather Review,
March, 1904 and reproduced below.  (Note: Scofield eventually
became the Chief of Naval Operations.)  The meaning of "soar" as
used here is that the glowing objects appeared to travel roughly
horizontally (constant altitude) below the clouds as they
approached the ship, and then they appeared to climb through the
cloud altitude and move directly away from the ship, to "soar"
into the heavens, at a constant angular elevation of about 75
degrees (but not radially away from the center of the earth; the
angular elevation would have to be 90 degrees for a radial
departure).  Scofield's report, entitled "Remarkable Meteors,"
begins as the objects were first sighted by the Officer of the
Deck and then by two other people on deck.  The objects
"appeared near the horizon and below the clouds, traveling in a
group from northwest by north (true) directly toward the ship.
At first their angular motion was rapid and color a rather
bright red.  As they approached the ship they appeared to soar,
passing above the clouds at an elevation of about 45 deg.  After
rising above the clouds their angular motion became less and
less until it ceased, when they appeared to be moving direcly
away from the earth at an elevation of about 75 deg. and in
direction west-northwest (true). It was noted that the color
became less pronounced as the meteors gained in angular
elevation.  When sighted the largest meteor was in the lead,
followed by the second in size at a distance of less than twice
the diameter of the larger and then by the third in size at a
similar distance from the second in size.  They appeared to be
traveling in echelon and so continued as long as in sight.  The
largest meteor had an apparent area of about six suns.  It was
egg shaped, the sharper end forward.  This end was jagged in
outline.  The after end was regular and full in outline.  The
second and third meteors were round and showed no imperfections
in shape.  The second meteor was estimated to be twice the size
of the sun in appearance and the third meteor about the size of
the sun.  When  the meteors rose there was no change in relative
position; nor was there at any time any evidence of rotation or
tumbling of the larger meteor.  I estimated the clouds to be not
over 1 mile high.  The near approach of these meteors to the
surface and the subsequent flight away from the surface appear
to be most remarkable, especially so as their actual size could
not have been great.  That they did come below the clouds and
soar instead of continuing their southeasterly course is also
equally certain, as the angular motion ceased and the color
faded as they rose. The clouds, in passing between the meteors
and the shop completely obscured the former.  Blue sky could be
seen in the intervals between the clouds. The meteors were in
sight for over two minutes and were carefully observed by three
people, whose accounts agree as to details. (the Officer on
Deck) sent a messenger to me who brought an untelligible
message.  When I arrived on the bridge the meteors had been
obscured for about one-half minute." Lt. Scofield carefully
interviewed the witnesses shortly after the sighting and then
compiled this report which would have us believe that "meteors"
traveled "in echelon" (a flying formation) underneath the 1 mile
high cloud layer and then rose upward, passing above the cloud
layer and apparently moving directly away from the ship.  As
Greenwood pointed out in his article, the statement that they
were traveling for a period of time below the clouds is
sufficient to reject the meteor hypothesis.  The report of
traveling  "in echelon" and then rising upward above the clouds
further contradicts the meteor explanation.  Nevertheless,
Greenwood argues that these were meteors for the following

1).  although the witnesses claimed that the objects were below
the clouds, this was an "optical illusion" because they were
initially at a very great distance near the horizon; they only
appeared to the "below the clouds"; they were only seen through
"intervals" in the cloud cover; hence they could have been far
above the clouds.

2).  the initial great distance made them look red (atmospheric
reddening, as with sunlight on the horizon) and as they traveled
along they got closer to the ship so the distance light had to
travel through the atmosphere continually decreased and the red
color diminished.

3).  the existence of three objects can be explained as a result
of a single large meteor breaking into three parts.

4).  there were no trails reported, but meteors don't always
have trails.

5).  the two minute duration is not inconsistent with known
durations of meteors (Greenwood cites a 100 sec meteor
observation in 1972).

These reasons seem "reasonable."  And yet, Scofield seemed
"awfully certain" that these objects were below the clouds.  As
Greenwood stated in his article, "...if the objects were below a
cloud cover...it is unlikely that they were meteors without
their having impacted nearby.  It also strains logic to think
that large meteors would take an upward turn that close to the
surface and disappear from view."

More than 20 years ago, when I became interested in this
sighting report (published in NICAP's UFO Evidence) I decided to
do something no one else had ever done (and Greenwood did not
do).  I decided to check the original record to see if there was
anything left out of Scofield's report. There was.

The log of the U. S. Naval Ship Supply is at the National
Archives. For the date and time in question we read: "0400 -
0800 Cloudy to fair; light breeze from WSW; at 0600 wind shifted
to SW; steaming on course NE(1/4)E; executed morning orders;
steam 125 lbs., revolutions 64.6.  At 0610 three large bodies
appeared in the sky traveling from NW(1/2)W.  The largest one
egg or pear shaped, with sharp point and ragged edge to full
body aft.  In size it appeared to be six times the size of the
sun.  The next one was round and about twice the size of the
sun.  The third one was round and about twice the size of the
sun. They were in echeleon (sic) when first seen and were below
the clouds and traveling fast and rising to directly overhead.
They were dull red in color and were in sight about three
minutes.  The largest body would cover all of them.  When first
seen were like an airship."

Supplemental information registered in the log at 0600 hours
includes: "wind 9.8 knots, SE, force 2, barometer 30.38, air
temperature 62, water temperature 58" and the all-important
information on clouds that is only hinted at by Scofield:
"stratus, moving from north, coverage 9." Stratus are
horizontally layered cloud caused by atmospheric cooling over
large horizontal areas.  They are not very thick vertically and
can exist from the surface (where they are essentially fog) up
to a mile or more. "Coverage 9" indicates that the sky was about
90% covered by the cloud layer which was moving southward
(coming from the north).

Mr. Greenwood's hypothesis is that the supposed meteor (which
subsequently broke up) entered the atmosphere hundreds of miles
from the ship in the direction of the initial view (NW by 1/2 W
or about 292 degrees azimuth).  It's track took it directly
toward the ship as it curved around the surface of the earth.
Subsequently it began to glow and then split into three parts.
Eventually it became visible to the Supply officers on deck
while at a distance of perhaps 800 km or about 500 miles.  For
Greenwood's hypothesis hypothesis to work it would be necessary
that there be NO cloud cover in the direction of the meteors
when they were first seen and, furthermore, that there was no
cloud cover in the direction of the meteors until the they got
much closer to the ship at an angular elevation of about 45
degrees when they reportedly rose through the cloud layer.  It
would be at this time that clouds started to block the direct
view.  This means that there had to be a "slot" or opening in
the 90% cloud cover from the horizon up to an angular elevation
of at least 45 degrees, with the axis of this slot aligned with
the azimuth of the "meteors." This is, of course, possible, but
highly unlikely considering the layered nature of stratus

Mr. Greenwood's hypothesis as described and illustrated by his
drawings can be illustrated by imagining a straight line path of
a meteor above the curved surface of the earth.  Assume this
meteor started to glow at an altitude of about 100 km (60
miles), then penetrated the atmosphere to a depth of about 50 km
(30 miles) and then continued along a substantially straight
path that took it away from the earth, probably becoming
invisible as it reached once again about 100 km altitude.  It
would have reached 100 km just before it was over the ship so
that it's highest observed angular elevation would have been
about 75 degrees. (Note: the actual track of a meteor this close
to the earth is a slight curve with radius much greater than the
radius of the earth, 6328 km or about 4,000 miles.  However, use
of a curved-path in this illustration would seriously complicate
the analysis and provide little further information.  Of course,
the "ultimate" curved path for a non-crashing object is parallel
to the surface of the earth, i.e., an orbit with radius of
curvature (6328 + H), where H is the minimum height of the
object.  No grazing meteor track would have a radius this
small.)  Further, his hypothesis would require that the first
view of this meteor (or group) was at the time that it was about
at it's lowest altitude.  Assume, then, that it was 50 km high
when first seen.  By geometry one can show that if it was first
seen at 50 km altitude while traveling along a straight path
that would pass through 100 km altitude over the ship, then its
distance would have been about 800 km or 500 miles away and it
would have been right on the horizon.  Initially the angular
elevation would have increased slowly, but then the rate of
increase of elevation would itself increase, being the most
rapid as the meteors disappeared nealy over the ship (with
looking almost straight up as the meteors traveled nearly a
horizontal path over the ship), in contradiction to Mr.
Greenwood's suggestion that the rate of increase of angular
elevation would decrease as the meteors moved away from the

If the meteors were climbing out of the atmosphere, and hence
cooling and hence glowing less as they approached the ship, they
might fade to invisibility before passing over the ship but at
no time would the angular elevation seem to stop increasing as
long as the meteors were visible.  In other words, there is no
way that glowing meteors could appear to stop their approach to
overhead, i.e., to stop the increase in angular elevation, and
then fade out as if moving directly away from the ship at an
elevation of 75 degrees.  The observation that the angular
elevation ceased to increase once it reached about 75 degrees
seems to be completely incompatible with the meteor hypothesis.

Mr. Greenwood has suggested that a sighting duration of "over
two minutes" is unusual, but not an impossible meteor duration.
Of course, we see now that the actual observer who wrote the
entry into the ship's log placed the duration at about 3
minutes, so Scofield was being conservative. A good question to
ask at this point would be, what is the longest duration that
one might expect to see a meteor? I answered this question some
20 years ago at a time when the Coyne-helicopter case was being
debated.  Since Greenwood referred to the 1972 fireball meteor,
let's use it as an example.  It became visible when it was about
90 km high and at it's lowest it was about 60 km high.  This was
a "skipping meteor" which passed through the upper atmosphere of
the earth, glowed, and then "bounced off" the atmosphere and
continued its travels through the void of space (having suffered
a severe deviation from its initial track).  Now imagine as
before a straight line cutting through a circle, where the
circle represents that atmosphere at 90 km altitude (above the
circular earth) and the straight line is a good approximation to
the path of a meteor.  The closest distance of the straight line
to the surface is 60 km.  One can show using geometry that the
**straight line path** from 90 km above the surface down to 60
km and back up to 90 km (5 degrees elevation) is a distance of
about 1250 km.  The 1972 fireball traveled at roughly 14.5
km/sec on average.  If we use this as an estimated speed for the
Supply "fireballs" than, if someone had watched it from the
beginning to the end of its glow, he would have seen it for
about 1250/14.5 = 86 seconds (an observer exactly under the
center of the glowing path would see this travling from horizon
to horizon in 86 seconds).  (Note: the 1972 meteor approached
the earth from behind at about 10 km/sec, but then accelerated
as it got closer and was traveling at about 14.5 km/sec relative
to the surface of the earth at its closest approach.)  Of
course, the meteor did not travel in a straight line, but rather
curved over the earth and hence traveled a slightly longer path
in the atmosphere than calculated here.  A space satellite that
observed the meteor in infra-red light estimated the glow path
was about 1500 km and the duration of visibility to the
satellite was a bit over 100 seconds.  (This satellite was able
to detect the infra-red glow before the meteor made the
atmosphere hot enough to be visible to the eye, and then the
satellite was able to "see" the meteor longer then the naked
eye.)  This is the value quoted by Greenwood as if a ground
observer could have seen it for that duration, but, of course,
no ground observer could see it that long.  Actually the ground
observed durations ranged up to 1 minute with most of the
observations being 40 seconds or less.  The famous film of this
fireball lasts "only" 26 seconds.

One concludes from this analysis that it is virtually impossible
to see a meteor **from horizon to horizon** that lasts as long
as 100 seconds. The USS Supply officers sighted the meteors, not
from horizon to horizon, but at most about halfway, from the
horizon to overhead.  This would take half as long, say 50
seconds or less.  Hence the claimed duration of "over 2 minutes"
and perhaps as much as 3 minutes lies far outside the normal
meteor duration of visibility.  These were truly remarkable,
i.e., remarkably slow, meteors.  (Note that **orbiting** bodies
in low earth orbit could have observation durations this long,
but they would not escape the orbit, so they would not appear to
soar. Furthermore, to maintain a glow, such an orbiting body
would have to travel at a high altitude, far above the clouds to
avoid frictional energy loss that would slow it further and cool
it below glowing speed.)

The "bottom line" on the meteor hypothesis is that it is
strained, at the very least, by the observation that they
appeared to travel beneath the clouds (considering the 90% cloud
cover), strained even further by the observation that the
angular motion ceased and they appeared to travel directly away
from the ship, and finally it is rejected by the reported
duration of over 2 minutes.

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