Back when supposed UFO sightings were becoming common, two people in an Air Force control tower reported seeing an object resembling “a lighted upended automobile” that the Air Force later said it determined was an aircraft.
But J. Allen Hynek, a Chicago-born astronomer and Northwestern University professor who studied UFO reports for the Air Force, wasn’t convinced.
“So, the witnesses were solid, the radar operator competent, and the object unidentifiable as any other phenomenon, and therefore the object had to be an aircraft,” Hynek wrote.
He studied at the University of Chicago, taught at Northwestern and Ohio State University and founded the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies in the Chicago area. He approached the topic of UFOs with a healthy skepticism, according to Mark Rodeghier, the center’s scientific director.
“He absolutely came into the subject as highly skeptical at the phenomenon, as almost every scientist was back then,” Rodeghier says. “He was a scientist dedicated to the data. He, over time, said, ‘Wait a minute, not only can I not explain this, this stuff can’t be explained.’ ”
Paul Hynek, one of Hynek’s five children, says his father “wanted to go to the edges of mainstream science and see what’s going on there and push things a little further” but “would give an unbiased look.”
From 1947 to 1969, more than 12,000 UFO sightings were reported, and 701 were categorized as “unidentified,” according to FBI records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times, many of which are now part of the newspaper’s “The FBI Files” database.
Hynek died in 1986 at 76. The FBI often will agree, on request, to release records it maintained on people who have died.
Hynek’s FBI files show he was vetted by the FBI, which reported it got references commending him as a man “of good character” and a “person of good habits.”
Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s initiative that investigated UFOs, ended in 1969, concluding that, whatever they were, supposed UFOs didn’t pose any threat to national security.
Hynek “strongly resisted accepting the idea that a genuine UFO phenomenon might exist,” according to his text “Twenty-One Years of UFO Reports.” He wrote that he studied UFO reports based on “strangeness” and “probability,” analyzing which reports seemed unexplainable and the objectivity of the people who reported a UFO sighting.
The FBI appeared to entertain the possibility UFOs existed. Hynek’s article “The UFO Mystery” was published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin in February 1975.
“There are many misconceptions about the UFO phenomenon held generally by those who have never examined the data,” Hynek wrote. “The first of these is, of course, that UFO reports are made mainly by crackpots. The facts are quite otherwise.”
Melville Ulmer, a physics and astronomy professor at Northwestern who worked with him for about six years, says Hynek was convinced there was a UFO phenomenon, though not that it necessarily was connected to extraterrestrial life.
“He wasn’t committing himself to the conclusion that it was, but he did have the conclusion that so many people can’t be having this experience without there being some explanation,” Ulmer says.
According to Ulmer, Hynek thought the phenomenon could have been a mass psychological effect.