A UFO Conference to Remember
By Nick Pope
The International UFO Congress was established in 1991 by Bob and Teri Brown. They, together with their three daughters, organised an annual conference and film festival in Laughlin, Nevada. This became arguably the best-known annual event for the UFO community and many people attended every year, many travelling from overseas. Sadly, Teri Brown died in 2007, but it was her wish that the conference should continue. Bob and Teri’s daughters took on additional work but in 2010 they and Bob decided, reluctantly, that the best way to ensure the long-term survival of the event – as Teri wanted – was to hand the reins over to Open Minds Productions.
2011 was the first year in which the event was organised by Open Minds and in a break with the past the event relocated to Fort McDowell Resort & Casino in Scottsdale, near Phoenix, Arizona. I spoke at this year’s event and in this article I’ll give an overview of this event and explain why – for a number of reasons – it was a conference to remember.
As someone who has spoken at numerous conferences all around the world over the last fifteen years, I can honestly say that this year’s UFO Congress boasted the strongest line up I can recall. Open Minds founder John Rao clearly knew that in this first year under new stewardship, the event would be under close scrutiny, not least because some people had expressed the view that for nostalgic and sentimental reasons, the event should continue to be held in Laughlin.
The 2011 event featured over 20 speakers, including Stanton Friedman, Richard Dolan, Linda Moulton Howe, Travis Walton and Leslie Kean. The breadth and depth of the presentations was impressive and there was an interesting mix of ‘nuts and bolts’ ufology and more New Age material, ensuring that wherever people sat on the belief spectrum, there was something for everyone.
There are numerous reviews of the conference on the internet and given the number of speakers, I’m not going to attempt to summarise everyone’s presentation. Rather, I’m going to dip into a few of what I thought were the more interesting ones, as well as making some more general observations.
It’s always difficult to pick out one person, in a field that boasts so many well-known personalities, but investigative journalist Leslie Kean is someone who many regard as America’s most high-profile spokesperson for ufology. Her book UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials go on the Record made the New York Times bestseller list and Leslie appeared on numerous mainstream media TV and radio shows. Bill Clinton’s former Chief of Staff John Podesta (who also headed President Obama’s transition team) wrote the forward and endorsements on the back cover included ones from theoretical physicist Michio Kaku and CNN’s former space/science correspondent, Miles O’Brien. Needless to say, these three individuals do not normally endorse UFO books! In a subject where there is much bogus or disputed material, Leslie Kean limited her book to material from officials with verifiable backgrounds in the military, government and in the aviation community. All the material can be backed up, e.g. with documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Leslie makes no claim about the nature of the UFO phenomenon but – like me – believes that it raises important defence, national security and air safety issues and must, therefore, be taken seriously by governments all around the world. She continues to lobby on this issue and is working, behind the scenes, on a number of projects that could have profound implications for the way in which the subject is handled officially. Her presentation was an overview of her material and her personal quest, featuring some of the most compelling and verifiable cases on record. If you’re interested in tales of secret time travel projects, underground bases and teleportation facilities, this probably wasn’t the presentation for you. But if you like verifiable information from government insiders, check out Leslie’s presentation and her book: “Just the facts, ma’am”, as the saying goes.
John Alexander has a reputation (undeserved) as something of a pantomime villain in the UFO community. His ‘crime’ is that he used to be a Colonel in the US Army, looked into UFOs, concluded that there was something real (but not necessarily extraterrestrial) and worthy of study, but that contrary to the views of conspiracy theories, he doesn’t believe there’s a government cover-up on the issue. I like John. He’s the real deal (in a field that boasts more than a few characters falsely claiming to have a government/military background) and his position is broadly the same as my own. Aside from Leslie Kean’s book, John’s title, UFOs: Myths, Conspiracies and Realities is probably the most important title on the subject written since the work of Project Blue Book insiders Ruppelt and Hynek.
John’s presentation set out his views on the subject and I constantly found myself nodding during his presentation and saying to myself “yes, that’s exactly the way it works in government”. It’s amazing how many people disagree with him, despite never having worked for the US military or for the government. I have the same thing and it’s amazing how many people who have never worked for the Ministry of Defence pontificate about MoD’s UFO project, despite never having been involved with it. But John’s a good sport and even volunteered to take part in an additional event – a debate with Stanton Friedman about whether or not there was a cover up. John is an agenda-setter and the proof of this was that Richard Dolan altered his presentation and spent the first 15 or 20 minutes responding to points that John raised. Debates like this are constructive and interesting - it would be a very boring conference if everyone agreed with everyone else.
If you stop someone in the street and ask them what sort of person might turn up as a speaker at a UFO conference, Paul Hellyer probably wouldn’t be the sort of individual they’d predict. A former Canadian Minister of Defence, Deputy Prime Minister and Privy Councillor, he is now a passionate believer in an extraterrestrial reality. His book Light at the End of the Tunnel is one of the most interesting and provocative books ever to have included information on UFOs, though it covers other subjects too.
Paul Hellyer’s presentation was similarly unusual. While he spoke about extraterrestrials, his talk also covered global warming and – particularly – the banking system. There are many people in the conspiracy theory community who cover this subject. Some do it well, some do it badly and some are borderline racists who use the phrase “conspiracy of international bankers” in an attempt to mask their anti-Semitism. Amidst all this, Paul Hellyer is a genuine expert on economics, the banking system and fiscal policy. The text of his presentation, entitled “Global Fraud: Global Hope” is available on the www.victoryfortheworld.net website. In a field where there a lot of self-appointed experts on the banking crisis and the state of the economy, it’s interesting to see what a real expert says about all this. Whether you agree or disagree, it’s worth your time.
Back to Bentwaters
As Roswell fades from history into legend, the Rendlesham Forest incident is increasingly taking centre stage as the world’s most talked about UFO case. Open Minds assembled an impressive line up of witnesses and researchers, including Charles Halt, Jim Penniston and John Burroughs, Linda Moulton Howe and Leslie Kean. There has been some tension between Halt, Penniston and Burroughs, due in part to the accusation that the chain of command let down the witnesses. In the event, fortunately, everyone was polite and respectful, but there were some interesting conversations taking place in the margins of the formal presentations, to say the least!
Christmas 2010 saw the 30th anniversary of the Bentwaters case and new revelations (first broadcast in an episode of History Channel’s show Ancient Aliens) about how, when he touched the UFO, Jim Penniston received what he’s described as a ‘telepathic download’ of data. He states that a few days later, while at home, he had a “compulsion” to write several pages of ones and zeroes in his police notebook. Many people believe this is binary code and various experts have made attempts to decipher this, with differing results. This is extremely controversial, to say the least, and while outside the scope of this article, the debate about this latest twist in the Rendlesham Forest saga continues to rage furiously.
The Appliance of Science
I chose to use my time to present an overview of the two discussion meetings that the Royal Society held in 2010 to discuss the scientific search for extraterrestrial life and the societal consequences if life is discovered. I’ve written about this in two previous articles and don’t intend to repeat any of this material here, aside from saying that I believe that SETI may be the key to the discovery of extraterrestrial life. My presentation was a little too sciency for some people but – like John Alexander – I don’t go out of my way to present material that will necessarily go down well with the audience. I tell it like it is.
One point worth making, in relation to the societal consequences of the discovery of alien life, is the issue of just how much impact this would have. This, perhaps, lies at the heart of the differences in opinion between people like Richard Dolan and Stephen Bassett on one side, and John Alexander and I on the other. Richard Dolan and Bryce Zabel’s intriguing new book A.D. - After Disclosure portrays the ‘post-Disclosure’ world and makes a number of points about what a game-changer this would all be – “paradigm shift” is a phrase that describes a lot of how they imagine the world the day after it’s announced we’re not alone. And yet, as John Alexander provocatively but astutely asks, “Does any of this mean I don’t have to go to work tomorrow?” I’m sorry to have to break it to you, but unless our first definitive knowledge of an alien civilisation is a full-on, Battle: Los Angeles style alien invasion, then yes, you will have to go to work tomorrow. So, post-Disclosure, many things may change, but a lot of things will stay the same. Readers will have all sorts of views on this issue, I’m sure.
Fire in the Sky
Travis Walton is a huge name in ufology. The subject of a famous UFO abduction in 1975, his story was made into a Hollywood movie. Travis was a logger and is a tough guy, but when he tells his story, there’s a haunted look in his eyes and it’s clear to me that, whatever happened to him, he’s still traumatised by his experience. Interesting, I’ve seen the same look in Jim Penniston’s eyes (and as a former military cop he’s a pretty tough guy too – these people don’t scare easily) and wonder whether this is post-traumatic stress disorder.
Travis gave an overview of his experiences, which occurred in 1975 in Arizona. He and several other loggers encountered a UFO in the forest, which then shot a beam of light at Travis. Frightened, his friends fled the scene and when they returned, Travis was nowhere to be seen. When he returned, disorientated, he thought that only a few hours had passed, but he had actually been missing for five days. He later recalled being on the craft and has memories of the strange entities that were there with him.
What makes this story particularly interesting is that at one stage the local police investigating the disappearance suspected that Travis might have been killed by his co-workers. Had the story been made up, as skeptics suggest, it seems likely that when faced with the possibility of a murder charge, his co-workers would have revealed that the whole affair was a hoax. In another interesting fact about the case, over 35 years after these events, not one of the loggers has broken ranks to confess that the whole thing was a prank. Given people’s ego and the potential attraction (not least financial) of a ‘we fooled the world’ story, I would have expected this to have happened by now, if the case was bogus.
Travis took the opportunity to set a few things straight with regard to the movie Fire in the Sky, explaining that the film altered several key things in the story, to better fit the filmmaker’s vision of what audiences wanted to see.
Peace in Space
Dr Carol Rosin was another popular speaker. A former associate of German scientist Wernher von Braun, she was one of the earliest people to campaign against the weaponisation of space, in relation to projects such as SDI, better known as ‘Star Wars’. She founded the Institute for Security and Cooperation in Outer Space and used her presentation to make a case for the peaceful use of outer space, formally unveiling a document entitled “The Outer Space Security and Development Treaty of 2011”, which seeks to ban all weapons from space. This is a topical issue, with Air Force Space Command taking an increasingly important role in the US military, as military planners talk about the ‘future battlefield’, where space is increasingly important, particularly given the issue of how many communications systems (and other key systems) depend of satellites.
I didn’t have the opportunity to have a discussion with Carol about this and having spent 21 years in the MoD, with my final posting being to the Directorate of Defence Security, I take the view that we should take whatever action is necessary to guard against the various threats we face. That means developing defensive capabilities to safeguard satellites, but may mean developing offensive capabilities too. Readers will doubtless recall the alarm expressed when, in 2007, the Chinese destroyed one of their own satellites with a missile, in a test obviously designed to send a clear message to the West.
I commend Carol for highlighting this issue, though I suspect that the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is the correct forum in which to have this debate. Additionally, any limits placed on the weaponisation of space must exclude any systems designed to interdict NEOs (i.e. comets or asteroids that are designated “Near Earth Objects”) that might pose a threat to the Earth.
As many readers know, the UK’s bestselling national daily newspaper, The Sun, has championed the UFO issue in recent years and has put a UFO story on the front page twice in the last three years. In line with their ongoing commitment to keep the subject in the public eye, they sent one of their reporters to Phoenix to cover the event. Perhaps inevitably, the resulting feature concentrated on some of the more colourful characters at the conference, but a few years ago it would have been unheard of for a national newspaper to cover a UFO conference at all. There’s an interesting issue here – the UFO community often complain that their subject doesn’t get mainstream media coverage. But then, when the subject is covered, there are complaints that the coverage is too skeptical, or that it ridicules the subject (or both). As a journalist and broadcaster myself, I’m intrigued by the UFO community’s view of the media and this issue will be the subject of one of my future columns in UFO Matrix.
In The Margins
As ever with a large conference of this nature, much goes on aside from the lectures. There are Meet the Speakers events and Gala Dinners, screenings of UFO documentaries, abductee discussion groups (not open to the media, to safeguard witness confidentiality) and a vendors room where the speakers can sell (and sign) their latest books and DVDs and where other vendors can sell you just about any UFO-related book or DVD you’ve ever heard of – and a few you haven’t – along with a huge range of other New Age/alternative products.
But most of all, I should stress what a real sense of community there is at an event like this. I often hear ufologists tell me they feel awkward discussing the subject with work colleagues, or even with friends and family members, in case they’re thought of as a little odd. But at a UFO conference, there’s no such reticence. Self-evidently, everyone has a common interest in the subject and while particular areas of interest vary, as do opinions, there is more that binds attendees together than sets them apart.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the bar and restaurants. Speakers and attendees freely mingle, catching up with old friends and making new ones. Speakers are happy to pose for photographs and sign people’s programmes and there’s a real sense of fun. There’s a lot of networking and exchanging of information. Some discussions can get quite lively, but all are interesting. It’s this social side of the conferences that attract people from all around the world, many of whom use a substantial part of their holiday allowance to come to the UFO Congress, perhaps combining this with sightseeing elsewhere in the US.
USA v UK
Though UFO Matrix and Healings of Atlantis are making sterling efforts in organising and sponsoring UK conferences, it’s worthy of note that the UK conference scene is nowhere near as extensive as in the US. A conference on the scale of the International UFO Congress or the Mutual UFO Network’s Annual Symposium is not currently possible, though I have no doubt that UFO Matrix and Healings of Atlantis are working towards this goal. The UK UFO community has not yet organised a conference on the scale of those put on by the late Graham Birdsall, both in terms of the number of high-profile speakers (particularly those from overseas, who UK attendees would not normally get a chance to see in person) and in terms of audience numbers.
A Conference to Remember
Those readers who weren’t at the conference or who haven’t heard the news may wonder why – aside from the fact that this was an impressive conference – I describe it as one “to remember”. The answer is that I got married there! Or rather, Elizabeth and I slipped away from the conference, with Elizabeth’s parents, drove to the courthouse in Phoenix, and returned married. To say that fellow speakers and conference attendees were surprised is an understatement. But the news soon spread, by word of mouth and via Facebook and various blogs – nowadays conference attendees (and some of the speakers) give a running commentary on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere. New media is playing a greater role in all our lives these days and sites such as Facebook are increasingly important not just in promoting a conference before it takes place, but in reporting on it in real-time, giving those not able to attend an intriguing insight into proceedings and enabling them to interact with the more technologically-minded of the speakers. Anyway, suffice to say, it was an extremely memorable conference for me!
The 2011 UFO Congress was a fantastic event. Planning is already underway for the 2012 event and you can make suggestions, via the Open Minds website, about speakers you’d like to see at next year’s event. This is important, because it shows that the organisers are listening to feedback and doing their utmost to put on the sort of event that the UFO community wants to see. So, if you only attend one UFO conference next year, check out this event.