Socorro ‘Student Hoax’ Tempest in a Pentagon Teapot (or something)

Well, the iconic 1964 reported sighting of a landed object with two occupants by Patrolman Lonnie Zamora in Socorro, New Mexico is certainly back in the news! Veteran UFOlogist Kevin Randle has written a new book about the case, and former Roswell Slides promoter Anthony Bragalia claims to have finally proven his earlier suggestion that Zamora was the victim of a hoax perpetrated by students at the nearby New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NMIMT).
Randle’s new book is Encounter in the Desert: The Case for Alien Contact at Socorro. I confess I have not yet read it, so I won’t comment on it. “Mrherr Zaar” commented on the Facebook group UFO_Pragmatism,

“I submit it does not present a single argument FOR [alien contact] at all. It is ultimately an exercise in explanatory nihilism which merely assumes that if something is unidentified that takes one “very close” to it immediately being extraterrestrial. (p. 249) He does not address any of the obvious problems. Zamora does not report seeing aliens – “Saw two people in white coveralls very close to the object. One of these persons seemed to turn and look straight at my car and seemed startled–seemed to jump quickly somewhat… I don’t recall noting any particular shape or possibly any hats, or headgear. These persons appeared normal in shape–but possibly they were small adults or large kids.” Implicitly they are not wearing spacesuits or air supply face masks or protective gear like dozens of other ufo humanoid reports in the early decades. They seem okay with breathing our atmosphere. They don’t seem to be grays or reptoids or insectoids or a more distinctly alien shape.”

As noted in my 2012 Blog entry A Socorro Student Hoax Confirmed?,  Bragalia was arguing that the incident was a student hoax perpetrated on Zamora, who the students did not like because he was a buzz-killer for their hijinks. On November 27, Bragalia published his latest piece on the incident (Link and commentary at

The newest wrinkle in Bragalia’s tale is this:

This author has found and spoken to an involved perpetrator of the Socorro UFO hoax, a student at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in 1964. Using resources and clues obtained over years, the identification was not easy. There were many missed opportunities, embarrassing moments, and awkward calls.

There is also major disappointment over what was not shared and what cannot be shared. I cannot tell you with 100% assurance exactly how the hoax was performed (I was not told, but I will make a good attempt later in this piece). And I am unable, due to the requested anonymity, to tell you the names of involved people. But what I did learn is perhaps equally as important, just as enlightening.

The individual did not reach out to me – I contacted him by phone. Retired and in his 70s, he is a man of accomplishment. Though he never denied being a perpetrator, he also does not want his name associated with the event. How many of us would want to recount our youthful follies to our children? Who amongst us would wish our names on the net, revisiting embarrassing moments during our late teens or early twenties? Where are those of us who will come forward to publicly explain our tricks and lies from college?

And that is where it sits. If we believe that Mr. Perp replied truthfully to Bragalia, and that Bragalia correctly reported it to us, then we have something that resembles a confession. Except that we don’t know who is making the supposed “confession,” or exactly what he is confessing to. So, Believe it or Not.
In support of his “student hoax” claim, Bragalia provided the following photo, with the caption “The Small Figures in White Coveralls, New Mexico Tech Physics Department in the Mid-1960s.” 

Definitely NOT from New Mexico Tech!
However, French skeptic Giles Fernandez pointed out that he had discovered several years earlier that this photo actually shows physics students from UC Davis visiting Intel, and suiting up in special ‘clean room’ suits, designed to prevent contamination of silicon wafers used in the manufacture of integrated circuits. It has nothing to do with Socorro or NMIMT. When this was pointed out to Bragalia, he blamed the error on his Webmaster, and said that the caption was being changed to “The Small Figures in White Coveralls, Similar to New Mexico Tech Physics Department in the Mid-1960s” (emphasis added). Why tech students in 1964 would be wearing suits similar to those used in contemporary Clean Rooms, designed to filter out the tiniest submicroscopic particles, was not explained. Or maybe he simply meant that the students had white overalls, like plumbers and handymen sometimes wear. How incredible would that be?

Arguments in favor of the “student hoax” explanation
  • The late Stirling Colgate, physicist and former President of NMIMT, said in a letter to Linus Pauling that he knew the Socorro UFO incident to be a student hoax. When questioned by Bragalia about this, Colgate reportedly acknowledged the hoax, but was evasive and refused to give any details or to discuss the matter further. 
  •  Dr. Frank Etscorn, New Mexico Tech administrator and behavioral psychologist, reportedly affirms the event to be a hoax. One of his graduate students reportedly investigated and solved the “mystery” of what happened, and who was involved. Unfortunately, further details are not available.
  • In a long 1965 letter to Dr. J. Allen Hynek (who investigated the Zamora incident in person shortly after it occurred), noted UFO skeptic Dr. Donald Menzel and his co-author Lyle Boyd wrote

    “We come back to the speeding car, which started the whole business. We certainly would like to know more about this. You have made it clear that Zamora was a gruff type, who enjoyed giving out tickets. It seems entirely reasonable that he might have antagonized some of the local teenagers, who devised a hoax to get even. This explanation, I might add, independently occurred to both Lyle and myself. The whole thing could easily have been planned to come off about as it did. The car came into his line of sight from a side road. Which side road? Could it have been from the direction of the flame and roar? Apparently Zamora thought he knew the occupant of the speeding car (Vivian Reynolds?) Was this driver ever found and questioned as to what he heard or saw? Did Zamora have a regular patrol route so that his approximate whereabouts would be known at a given time?

    In other words, we see as the most likely possibility that someone planned the whole business to “get” Zamora.”(p. 142 in case documents scanned by Paul Dean).

    One interesting thing that doesn’t seem to have been discussed is the existence of an “aircraft graveyard” belonging to NMIMT quite near the site of the incident. The UFO investigative group Ground Saucer Watch (GSW) of Arizona wrote up “Socorro – New Mexico Revisited,” published in the UFORA Newsletter, July-August, 1982 (p. 131 in the same scanned documents). They wrote,

    As the investigators were leaving the actual site, they noticed an area approximately 1 3/4 miles away, which gleamed in the sunlight. Extracting binoculars from their vehicle, they viewed what appeared to be an abandoned aircraft junkyard. Later, they discovered that the aircraft were part of the property of a local technical school – New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. This information was obtained from a clerk who works for the City Court system. He warned the researchers not to enter the storage area, because two men were recently convicted of breaking into this property. GSW’s team became curious and decided a closer look at the area was warranted. They traveled on a road through the technical school’s campus and came upon a barrier.

    Walking some distance away from the road they found a point at which the contents of the storage area could be viewed. To their amazement, the area contained a large variety of both segmented and intact aircraft. There appeared to be some Navy and Marine jet fighters, some Bell “X” aircraft and a nose section of a large ballistic missile.

    GSW determined that the property did indeed belong to NMIMT. They contacted C. B. Moore, professor of atmospherics, and a man who plays a significant role in UFO history quite independent of this, primarily because of his connection with Project Mogul. Moore told them that the junked aircraft were part of the Terminal Effects Program, which began in 1947, with most of the aircraft arriving during the 1950s. Moore replied to GSW that he had investigated the Zamora incident on his own, “and can assure you that there is little probability that it had anything to do with students or the Institute. If we can believe Officer Zamora (and there is no reason except for the strangeness of the observation that we should not), then it appears that he saw a Lunar Landing Module (LEM) but his observation was at least 12 months before the module was first tested here.” A very strange comment, indeed!

    I am not suggesting that the aircraft graveyard necessarily played any part in this incident, but it is a damn peculiar thing to discover so close to a possibly aerospace-related incident. Might the scattered aircraft and missile parts have been used to create a hoax saucer? Might the area have afforded hoaxers a place to operate, and to hide?

Arguments against the “student hoax” explanation
  • How did the students make the balloon disappear so quickly?
  • How did the two students in white overalls make themselves disappear, especially since Zamora and Officer Chavez were walking the site of the alleged landing just a few minutes later? This would seem to require something like a magician’s disappearing act.
  • Dave Thomas, founder of the skeptical organization New Mexicans for Science and Reason,  is a NMIMT graduate. To look into the possibility of a hoax originating with NMIMT students, he set up an internal website available only to those who are students, employees, or alumni of NMIMT. Its purpose was to allow people to tell what, if anything, they knew about the 1964 Zamora incident. While a few people expressed the opinion that it was a student hoax, there was no specific or useful information obtained from anyone. This strongly suggests that no ‘student hoax’ existed. 

Thomas has suggested an interesting possibility of what Zamora may have seen. According to documents obtained from the White Sands Missile Range, “on April 24, 1964, there were special tests being conducted at the north end of the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) involving a helicopter used to carry a Lunar Surveyor around for some tests… Surveyor was a three-legged, unmanned probe, which was used to learn about the moon before the Apollo program got there….The Surveyor tests were done with a small Bell helicopter that supported the craft from its side… The tests missions were manned by a helicopter pilot and a Hughes engineer – two persons, in white coveralls.” Not only does the time of day of this planned test (morning) not match Zamora’s sighting (which occurred just before 6 PM), but this is a long way from Socorro, about 80 miles as the helicopter flies. Still, as Thomas notes, “things don’t always go “according to plan,” and many tests which have defied completion by morning have been known to somehow get finished up in the afternoon.” The possibility of the Surveyor testing cannot be ruled out.

    What do I think Zamora saw?
    A brand new way to fly in 1963
    In 1996, engineer Eugene Robinson of Indiana University suggested that what Zamora saw was an early version of a propane-powered hot air balloon.  This  explanation has been largely ignored by UFOlogists. It was not even mentioned by Randle in his Socorro book. When asked why, he replied that it was a “non-starter.” I’m not so sure about that.
    The propane hot air balloon is a familiar sight today, but back in the mid 1960s it was quite new, as this article in Popular Mechanics (published just one year before the Socorro incident) shows.
    “As of this writing, two of these new balloons have been sold and a third is on order… Raven is coming out with a new, larger model with an old-fashioned wicker basket that can carry two men standing up. Price tag: $5000.” 
    Popular Mechanics, April 1963.
    The propane burners on such a balloon make a loud “woosh,” as Zamora described hearing. It seems quite likely he may have seen an experimental two-man propane hot air balloon briefly land, then take off again. In fact, that suggestion seems to best match the details Zamora reported. Might this two-man balloon be what Zamora saw?

    Some of Robinson’s comments on the incident:

    • The reported flame colors (blue and orange) agree with the propane flame used by hot-air balloons.
    • Zamora never saw the full shape clearly. He lost his glasses before it rose enough.
    • He never saw the platform. It was behind terrain, then he lost his glasses.
    • The dust Zamora saw here could have come from the burner blast.
    • The envelope went straight up as it lifted and centered over the platform.
    • The envelope remained in this position until it had enough lift to raise the platform off the ground.
    • Once the platform lifted off the ground, the wind moved the balloon horizontally.
    Given all these conflicting yet plausible explanations, it is difficult to say for sure what Zamora saw. Unless someone can explain convincingly exactly how the supposed “student hoax” was carried out, I will assume that the unexpected landing of a newfangled propane hot-air balloon is the most likely explanation for this classic UFO incident.

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