The Popular Mechanics Roswell Hoax

Robert Durant critiques Jim Wilson's Popular Mechanics article
and NPR interview

In the June 2003 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine, and then on the National Public Radio Todd Mundt Show, Popular Mechanics' "science editor" Jim Wilson claimed that he found the answer to what happened at Roswell in July 1947--nothing!

It was not a crashed spaceship.  Nor was it a Mogul balloon array.  It was plainly, simply, nothing.  Sweeping away 25 years of research including the General Accounting Office and U.S. Air Force investigations that produced over a dozen books alternately urging the spaceship or Mogul explanation, Wilson stands as truly the odd man out. 

Wilson is hoaxing the world.  I don't make that charge lightly against a professional journalist and a magazine with a hundred-year history as a staple of Americana.  Here is the dictionary definition of hoax: "To trick into believing or accepting as genuine something false and often preposterous."  This is the standard I will use to judge Wilson.

He makes the "nothing happened" case as follows.  Files on the Roswell Incident were begun in July 1947, and grew by accretion over the years.  Naturally, they were hidden under tight security classification in the National Archives.  Several years ago the Roswell files were declassified.  Wilson found them in the National Archives.  After sorting through the dozen large boxes, the intrepid journalist found "the primary documentation."  This was the daily log of activities at the Roswell Army Air Field.  The log shows nothing out of the ordinary in July 1947, and in fact the entries are just like those for June and August.  Therefore, plain as day, nothing happened. 

Short History of the Roswell Controversy

In order to even begin to make sense of this, let me list the highlights of the Roswell story as understood and agreed upon by all serious parties.  It starts with a sheep rancher who found something on his ranch that unsettled him.  He made the long trip into Roswell, where he talked to the Sheriff, who, in turn, called the Roswell Army Air Field.  And what he told the military must have sounded important, because they sent Major Jesse Marcel, staff intelligence officer, and Captain Sheridan Cavitt, chief of the Counter Intelligence Corps detachment. 

After inspecting the ranch, the officers returned to Roswell, and the following day Colonel William Blanchard, CO of the Roswell B-29 squadron  the world's only atomic bomb delivery unit issued a press release saying that his men had recovered a "flying disk."  This caused a furor, generating calls from points as far as Tokyo and Rome.  But later the same day the "disk" was explained as simply a weather balloon radar reflector.
There the story sat until 1978, when UFO researcher Stanton Friedman found Major Marcel, long since retired.  Marcel described the scene at the sheep ranch as a vast area littered with very strange material, and said that even after the passage of three decades he still thought it "Was not of this Earth."

Two years later a book was published based on the testimony of Marcel and others uncovered by Friedman and his associates, but there was no follow-up until the late 1980s, when a more comprehensive search for witnesses resulted in another book.  Television jumped into the fray, and Roswell quickly became a household word, synonymous with "government cover-up of crashed spaceship." 

By 1993 there was huge public interest in the case.  Bowing to pressure from his constituents, New Mexico congressman Stephen Schiff asked the General Accounting Office to trace the Roswell "paper trail."  The GAO is the investigative arm of the Congress, and armed with Top Secret clearances their personnel made inquiries of all relevant government agencies, such as the Air Force and the CIA.  All replied that they had no documents concerning the Roswell Incident.  Among the agencies denying possession of any Roswell files was the National Archives, which did so in a letter to Congressman Schiff dated May 20, 1993.

Whether the GAO would have expanded the Roswell inquiry is not clear.  Their mandate from Schiff was restricted to finding paperwork, and did not include interviewing witnesses.  However, in addition to collecting formal denials from federal agencies, the GAO did some spot-checking, and discovered that the outgoing 1947 message traffic from the Roswell air base had been destroyed without authorization and contrary to law.  The same had happened with the records of the Military Police unit at Roswell. 

While the GAO report was underway, and with hints that their investigation might be expanded, the Air Force surprised everyone by announcing that they would perform an independent, comprehensive investigation, in what Newsweek called "a preemptive strike" against Schiff and the GAO. 

The Air Force investigation of the Roswell Incident took place in 1994, and concluded that a top-secret balloon array had fallen on the ranch, and then a series of observers had somehow become convinced that it was extraterrestrial.  A second Air Force investigation in 1997 resulted in a book-length report asserting that the stories of alien bodies were caused by Air Force "crash test dummies" used in experiments in the mid-1950s.  How events in 1947 got mixed up with events occurring many years later was explained by a psychological mechanism apparently discovered by the Air Force called "witness time compression." 

With their work done, the two-man Air Force team (Colonel Richard Weaver and First Lieutenant James McAndrew) packed their files in large cardboard storage boxes, and sent the boxes to the National Archives.

The Air Force investigation was attended with much publicity, and thus the public, trying to be helpful, mailed videos, magazines, and so forth, supplementing data gathered by Weaver and McAndrew.  All of this material was included in the boxes sent to the Archives.  Nothing in the boxes was classified, either during the 1994 investigation, or when it was delivered to the National Archives.
Thus the questions of where the Archives Roswell files originated, whether they had ever had a security classification, and when they were deposited at the Archives have simple answers.  Professional journalist Jim Wilson could have found the answers by simply asking either the Archives or any of the civilian Roswell researchers with whom he admits to being in regular contact.

Wilson's Claims

That Wilson was the first to find the Archive files.  Bunk.  The files were common knowledge in the UFO community, and produced extensive commentary by researchers.
That the National Archives declassified the Roswell files.  Bunk.  The files were never classified.

That the Roswell files were begun in July 1947.  Bunk.  They were collected in 1994.

Morning Reports

A document Wilson found in the Archives is the July 1947 "Morning Report" prepared at Roswell.  This is a daily log showing the transfer of personnel to and from duty at the base.  The Morning Report is not an operational record.  For example, it does not even show B-29 arrivals and departures.  If World War III had erupted, that fact would not appear in the Morning Report. 

But Wilson found nothing in the Morning Report about "an unusual incident" on the July 4th weekend.  From this he concludes that "nothing" is the answer to the Roswell mystery, or what has mystified hundreds of researchers, including the Air Force and the General Accounting Office.  Wilson's miraculous and unique insight escaped all others.  But that is probably because  as he claims he is the first to locate and study the Morning Report.

Bunk.  The Morning Report was discussed by researchers at least as early as 1991.  It is mentioned in passing in the "believer" as well as the skeptical literature, but never with Wilson's absurd interpretation.  The1997 Air Force "crash dummies" report discusses the Roswell base hospital Morning Report.

"Nothing happened" says Wilson.  But "something" happened to cause a national and international uproar, albeit for only a day.  So why was this uproar not even hinted in the Morning Report, Mr. Wilson? 


When asked by Todd Mundt why the Roswell files had been classified in the first place, Wilson replied with yet another unique insight.  It concerned a messy court-martial, involving an Air Force physician, a nurse, adultery and fraternization, which is a no-no in the military, and means that a senior soldier is prohibited from socializing with a person junior in rank. 

Over the years other writers, not gifted with Wilson's genius, have speculated about the secrecy that is unanimously acknowledged to have cloaked Roswell.  Some say it was to protect the Mogul spy-balloons, others that the government would risk anarchy by admitting that an ET craft had crashed.  Wrong, says Wilson.  The Roswell files contain the records of the court-martial, and their prurient details were so sensitive that the government had to keep them and all other data secret until the principals were long dead, you see. 

In fact, that court-martial material was found by other researchers who preceded Wilson rummaging through the National Archives files, and was the subject of humorous discussion.  The best bet is that when the Air Force 1994 "investigation" became desperate to account for the stories about alien bodies, they focused on the "crash test dummies" dropped over New Mexico in the mid 1950s.  Thus they gathered anything they could find from that area and era, and so broad was their search that this court-martial was included.  In any event, the court-martial took place in the mid 1950s, and for that reason alone had nothing to do with the events of July 1947. 

Second-Hand Witnesses

Incredibly, Wilson claims that there are no first-hand witnesses supporting the Roswell story, only "second-hand" witnesses.  Anyone having the slightest acquaintance with the Roswell literature  pro or con  can name dozens of first-hand witnesses.  How credible they are, or the true nature of what they describe, is of course subject to intense dispute.  But that they do not exist, as Wilson claims, is bunk.

Nothing -- well, maybe Something

Eventually, Wilson departed from his absolute "nothing happened" line, and proposed a weird collection of possible explanations for the July 1947 events at Roswell:

Wilson rambles: "One of the scenarios that has not really been ruled out yet is that what crashed at Roswell is an experimental vehicle that was aimed at spying on the Soviets, and it was one of these things that just never really developed, because the technology did not mature in time.  Remember now, we also had a rocketry program going, we had a U-2 program going, later on we had the SR-71 program going.  But early back in the '50s, the early '50s, there was a belief that we could spy on the Soviet Union with very high altitude balloons.  And I should point out that this idea is now being revived again, so it may be another explanation for the Roswell episode, even though it is somewhat detached from that particular weekend in 1947."

It seems Wilson suffers from the scary "witness time compression" syndrome.  The first U-2 test flight was in 1955, the first SR-71 test flight was in 1962, thus they can't be connected with July 1947.  The 1947 rocket program has been studied with care, and scholars are unanimous that it had nothing to do with Roswell.  Why are these "explanations" even mentioned?  The spy balloon is the official U.S. government explanation for Roswell, and the favorite of informed skeptics, but Wilson just lets it pass with the incomprehensible comment that it is "detached from that particular weekend in 1947."
And finally, Wilson adds an explanation that has absolutely no basis in the historical record of aviation, a field in which he has a demonstrated, unquestionable expertise:  "But we know that both the Germans and the Japanese were doing work with very high altitude manned balloons.  And it's quite possible that at some point, one of these experimental vehicles crashed." 

In addition to the fact that no such manned balloons existed after World War I, one must consider the plausibility of the crash of a manned German or Japanese balloon halfway around the world in Roswell, New Mexico in July 1947, two years after the total devastation of the German and Japanese military establishments. 

Deliberate Deception

"To trick into believing or accepting as genuine something false and often preposterous."  We have demonstrated that Wilson's long list of claims contradict easily determined and well known facts.  What he says is plainly both false and preposterous.  But did he act out of ignorance?  That is the remaining question, and central to the charge that he is a hoaxer. 

Under his byline, Wilson has written three articles about Roswell published in Popular Mechanics.  He attended the 50th anniversary celebration at Roswell in 1997.  For years he has exchanged information with Stanton Friedman, a leading expert on the Roswell Incident.  His familiarity with the specialist Roswell publications is demonstrated by his extended discussion on NPR of the recently discovered Kauffman fraud.  (The late Frank Kauffman made broad claims about his part in the Roswell clean-up and cover-up, and appeared on TV programs as a primary witness, but has been proven to be a liar.)  No, Wilson can't plead ignorance. 

So What?

At stake here is the chance to discover what really happened at Roswell in July 1947.  The intelligent intrusion of the media, certainly including a magazine like Popular Mechanics, is welcome.  But when that media attention demeans the topic and does violence to the universally acknowledged facts, it subverts the possibility that we will ever have the answer.

Shame on you, Jim Wilson!


Note:  my transcription of Jim Wilson's appearance on the National Public Radio Todd Mundt program can be found at

Robert J. Durant
106 Hessian Hill Drive
Pennington, NJ  08534
September18, 2003