Firestorm: Dr. James E. McDonald's Fight for UFO Science

In the spring of 1966, a remarkable scientist, Dr. James E. McDonald, publicly entered the UFO research field. He set about using his influence in order to convince the scientific establishment that UFOs were a serious question that was being badly neglected.

McDonald was a top research scientist with powerful contacts in the government, the military, and the scientific community. He fully expected that he could use his impeccable reputation and his research skills to change things around, so that the scientific community would launch a well-funded effort to find out and report the truth. He felt strongly that the public had the right to know.

During the next five years, his research methods plus his particular talents and skills brought him to the very door of disclosure. He tackled the same problems we're all struggling with today and he, too, encountered walls of resistance, but he possibly got closer to the truth than anyone had before, or since. And the media, even the elite media, gave him constant favorable and objective coverage.

Most of you here recognize his name and know that he was very important, historically. And a few of you here tonight knew him personally, as I did, and worked with him in the field between 1966 and 1971. But a lot of the information in my book, Firestorm: Dr. James E. McDonald's Fight for UFO Science, no one ever knew before. Firestorm is an authorized biography of McDonald's UFO research years. When I archived his voluminous UFO files ten years ago and interviewed dozens of his academic colleagues, I didn't know a lot of these things either, but there it was, tucked away in files which had been guarded by his family for twenty years including four handwritten journals which no one even knew existed.

Jim McDonald was born in Duluth, Minnesota in 1920. He served in the Navy during WWII, working in a cryptographic unit in the Pacific area. After the war, he married Betsy Hunt, who'd been in the Navy, too. She told me she fell in love, first, with "his love for words". They had six children, two sons and four daughters.

He got his PhD in physics and meteorology in 1951 and rose quickly in his field. In 1954, the University of Chicago sent him to establish the new Institute of Atmospheric Physics on the campus of the University of Arizona at Tucson. His office was on the roof, closest to the sky. He was the institute's co-director for the first couple of years, but he wasn't happy "administrating". He liked to research and teach, so he stepped down to senior physicist, the position he held until his death.

He established the undergraduate and graduate levels in the Meteorology Department at the University and guided students through their own doctoral studies.

He was a prodigious writer. Refereed journals like Science and Nature, published many of his technical papers, and he presented many papers on cloud physics and climate modification before top scientific groups.

But he didn't stop there. His basic philosophy was that science existed to serve the people, so he also wrote non-technical articles in magazines like Scientific American, explaining complicated concepts like electricity in plain English. He had a way of using words so that anyone could understand him.

The most important thing of all, perhaps, is that McDonald avoided the politics of science, and always concentrated on searching out the truth of scientific questions. Consequently, he never fully recognized the politics lying behind government non-disclosure, and perhaps this actually brought about his early death at the age of 51. Nevertheless, McDonald remains the kind of leader we need today to pursue government disclosure. By studying his experiences with "government resistance", which seemed, in his case, to amount to an orchestrated attack, we can avoid such tragedies in the future. These experiences are fully covered in Firestorm (1).

McDonald was bluntly outspoken whenever he saw science being neglected and the American public in danger, and that's why he involved himself in what became known as the titan missile controversy. McDonald was never afraid of controversy. He was also fearless. He was described by one of his academic colleagues I interviewed for the book as "a man made out of steel."

In 1960, the Air Force began to ring American cities with defensive atomic missiles, in case the "cold war" with the Soviet Union turned hot. The Air Force wasn't even taking into account the simple fact of prevailing winds. McDonald tried multiple ways to explain to the government and the Air Force that if you put nuclear missiles all around a city, like they did at Tucson, and an enemy launched an attack at those missile sites, there would be nuclear explosions all around and prevailing winds would shower radioactive fallout all over the city.

McDonald tried to tell them that, logically, the missile silos should be placed downwind, so prevailing winds would sweep radioactive debris away from the population.

He testified before congressional hearings on the subject several times, but it was a fight he didn't win at first. The Air Force went ahead and ringed Tucson and a dozen other American cities. Gradually, however, his logic won out, and by 1963 missile silos were being placed downwind of major American cities.

His involvement with UFOs was equally as fearless and logical. Beginning in 1958, he quietly began investigating UFO reports around Tucson and explained about 98% of Tucson sightings as conventional objects or atmospheric effects. But the remaining 2% intrigued him. So in the spring of 1966 he publicly entered the UFO field. Nowadays, of course, we have many excellent scientists working in our field, but in 1966 McDonald astonished most of his academic colleagues when he took this public stand. But because they respected him and respected his work, they let him be. The difference between McDonald and many scientists in the field, however, is that he had academic freedom, which is becoming rarer as the years go by.

Starting in April 1966, he began speaking publicly on the UFO question before prestigious scientific organizations. The subject: UFOs as a serious scientific question. Crowds of scientists listened to him with great interest and even began confiding in him, reporting UFOs they'd seen personally but never dared mention before for fear of being ridiculed. He was making great headway toward convincing the scientific community, at large, that UFOs were a serious scientific question. Between 1966 and 1971 he gave hundreds of talks before scientific groups in the U.S., Canada, and Australia.

McDonald also worked closely with civilian UFO researchers. This had never happened before --- a top, prestigious scientist working openly with us. Most of us, at that time, belonged to NICAP, the national investigations committee on aerial phenomena, which had been founded in 1956. McDonald had studied the private UFO organizations very carefully and had come to the conclusion that NICAP was doing the best objective research of anyone in the country. So he joined his forces with ours.

NICAP was going top speed with the famous author and researcher, major Donald E. Keyhole, as its director. McDonald and Keyhoe became good friends and colleagues. Keyhoe was the first objective researcher on UFOs. He wrote four books on the subject the first, Flying Saucers Are Real, was written back in 1950. McDonald checked out Keyhoe's research very carefully and came to the conclusion that "Keyhoe has his facts straight". He predicted that someday Keyhoe would be recognized as the true dean of Ufology.

NICAP had 15,000 members at its peak. It was the largest civilian UFO research organization ever. Its publications included a newsletter The UFO Investigator, and books like The UFO Evidence(2) and UFOs: A New Look. From its beginning, it sought open congressional hearings on the subject of UFOs, and by 1960 convinced representative Leonard Wolf, to talk publicly on the subject for the congressional record.

NICAP, like McDonald, concentrated on one basic fact: that there were unidentified, craft-like objects flying in earth's atmosphere, being caught on radar, chased by jet pilots and seen by groups of reliable witnesses such as military personnel, traffic control operators and policemen.

NICAP did not concentrate on reports of UFO occupants and their possible motives. In speaking before hundreds of scientific audiences, McDonald never addressed the question of UFO occupants. He figured that once the scientific community understood the basic problem of UFOs they would set up a tracking system, involving the military, scientific sources, the government and the public all working together openly to track UFOs and that in this way the scientific fact of their physical existence would be proven beyond a doubt.

NICAP had investigative subcommittees all over the country. I belonged to the Los Angeles NICAP subcommittee. We often had gatherings when famous Ufologists visited Los Angeles, and McDonald met with us whenever his meteorological work brought him into town. He did the same with other NICAP subcommittees all over the country and, by doing so, interacted with hundreds of objective civilian UFO researchers during those five years. By request of local scientists who attended our meetings in Los Angeles, we never recorded them and almost never took pictures, so we never got a picture of McDonald with us.

He worked hand-in-hand with NICAP members, investigating hundreds of good reports, as well as on his own among the scientific community. He used every ounce of his intellect and powers of persuasion, concentrating on that one basic fact, of unidentified "aeroforms" (as he called them) traversing earth's skies, being tracked by radar and other sophisticated technology. McDonald's very cautious working hypothesis was that UFOs possibly were surveillance craft from outer space.

Although he was interested in the subject of UFO occupants, and even the psychic aspects of some sightings he discussed these only in private conversations, because of his strictly scientific approach, crowds of scientists and other technically trained persons filled the halls where he spoke. He repeatedly sought funding from NASA and NSF and was always given hope at first, for he was personally acquainted with high officials from these sources. But then invariably the answer would come back, "no". McDonald, who avoided the politics of science, couldn't understand what was going on, but it is possible that these officials wanted to obtain funding for him, but that "higher sources" told them to say "no".

There was almost no private funding available anywhere, either, for UFO research in McDonald's day but even without it, he personally researched, in depth, 600 good cases. He got some astounding reports from military facilities where he spoke. There's evidence that he wrote at least some of these confidential sightings in private notebooks, which have not yet been found. He refers to them in his handwritten journals as "small notebooks" or "pocket notebooks". I've tried for years to find them various places in Tucson, and will continue the search.

Early on, NICAP was convinced that there was an official government cover-up, but McDonald couldn't accept this. He preferred to think that the UFO phenomenon was so puzzling that the Air Force didn't know what to do about it, so they classified it and covered it up at local levels, and that the situation, in McDonald's words, was a "grand foul-up" instead of a true "cover-up". The freedom of information act didn't exist in those days. It was only in the last two years of his life that he began to find evidence of a true, government cover-up. The full story is in Firestorm.

Shortly before he publicly entered the UFO field, he approached the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., with a proposal for a quiet, one-man UFO study. He served on the NAS panel --of weather and climate modification and knew many of its top administrators. He received a go-ahead; they would fund his proposal. He began a handwritten journal to record his progress-the first entry was on April 5, 1966. Two days later, on April 7th, the National Academy of Sciences abruptly withdrew its offer. McDonald wrote: "the National Academy of Science (NAS) has been approached by George Miller of the House Science and Astronautics committee, but the NAS has decided against any positive action now. Will not go through with my idea of a one-man study, because it would be presumptive of criticism of the Air Force!"

Why did this happen? In February 1966 a secret Air Force committee had met to review the UFO question, and it recommended that the Air Force set up government contracts with a number of University teams to study it. On April 6th and 7th, a secret hearing was held before congress, and decided that the Air Force's University team idea should be funded with a half million dollars of taxpayers' money. On the 7th of April there was a public announcement and the National Academy of Sciences that same day told McDonald that they couldn't fund his study after all.

This was the first of many "coincidental" roadblocks, which were placed in McDonald's way, but it didn't stop him. But was it a coincidence? As you read along further, you can judge for yourselves. McDonald's "friends in high places" confidentially told him that he was "at the head of the list" of academics in Universities throughout the country to be chosen for the new Air Force study. He waited but didn't hear anything more.

In his early investigations around Tucson, he came across a startling 1952 encounter between an Air Force B-36 and two large, round, metallic objects which paced the plane over Tucson. This case so intrigued him that, in June 1966, he took a two-day trip to project Blue Book at Wright Patterson Air Force base, intending to track down this B-36 case and other sightings he was interested in.


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