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January 16, 2013

Coastal Encounters?

It’s the age old question – do UFOs, unidentified flying objects, exist? And if they do exist, are they piloted by aliens? In the Internet age, conspiracy theories run deep, and on the Grand Strand, UFO sightings are a regular occurrence.

It’s the age old question – do UFOs, unidentified flying objects, exist? And if they do exist, are they piloted by aliens? In the Internet age, conspiracy theories run deep, and on the Grand Strand, UFO sightings are a regular occurrence.

If you were to count the registered sightings of unexplained stuff popping up in the skies above our Coastal Carolina heads in 2012, the number would exceed 100. If you were to map it from Pawleys Island in the south to Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina, out to Loris in the west and as far as our eyes can see over the Atlantic – more than 100 people saw strange occurrences in the sky and felt the need to call or go online and report them to the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC). You can dismiss them and say they’re all kooks with telescopes, waiting, wishing and hoping for an alien probe to come their way or you can admit there’s something up in our salty air.

The debate, literally, comes full circle on Saturday at Ingram Planetarium in nearby Sunset Beach, N.C. as Planetarium educator Ed Ovsenik will argue that UFOs do not exist, while guest speaker Rob Kutch will argue that they do. Planetarium director Mark Jankowski will moderate the debate - yes, it’s a UFO debate.

Images of the alleged UFO sightings being discussed will be displayed on the Planetarium’s Sky Theater dome ceiling. And according to a press release, “In addition to UFOs, you will also learn about the science of distant space travel – in particular, and the effects such travel has on equipment and the human body.”

And the debate couldn’t be timelier as we learned on Tuesday that an exhibit dedicated to UFOs will open this spring at one of Myrtle Beach’s most popular attractions. “Encounters: U.F.O Experience” featuring 200 UFO-related artifacts will open in time for the prime tourist season at Broadway at the Beach in the space most recently occupied by the “Bodies Revealed” exhibit. Why Myrtle Beach?

“Sightings over the Myrtle Beach region have been reported for nearly 50 years,” reads an excerpt from a press release touting the new exhibit. “One of the largest sightings of UFOs occurred in August 2012 when hundreds of people witnessed what appeared to be a large mother ship rendez-vousing with a smaller flying craft over North Myrtle Beach.”

And Brian Bouquet of The Event Agency, the company responsible for developing the exhibition, said in the same press release, “The coastal area around Myrtle Beach has a well-documented history of multiple UFO sightings. And, given Myrtle Beach’s interest in UFOs, it seemed like the ideal place to launch what we expect will be an exhibition that will eventually travel around the world.”

Take Us to Your Debater

Jankowski has been with the Ingram Planetarium since it opened 11 years ago. His background is in graphic arts and Internet technology. He started as an operator but it didn’t stop him from rising through the ranks to become planetarium director, learning astronomy, planetary science, and physics along the way. Jankowski says, “We try to host a special event every month in the offseason. Last month, on Dec. 21, we did an End of the World Party. It was a blast. We are very excited about the upcoming UFO debate.”

But this Saturday will be no party – it’ll be a face-off over the existence of outer space invaders. In the con corner, we have Edward Ovsenik. Jankowski says, “Ed has a PhD. in Marine Biology and he’s a compliance lawyer. His background in this field is showing how the government feels about UFOs. He’ll talk about the conspiracy and cover-up side of the issue.” And in the pro corner, we have Rob Kutch. “Rob has been a pharmacist and a clinical nutritionist for over 20 years. He’s also an avid UFO enthusiast,” says Jankowski. “He’s consulted with NASA about supplemental nutrition for a flight to Mars…He’s studied UFOs most of his life and was a part of a well-documented UFO sighting with his father in New Jersey.”

So what makes these guys qualified to prove or disprove the existence of UFOs? Kutch says, “Qualified? Anyone can be qualified, given the ability to logically analyze the different ways of looking at the topic. I have always loved science and technology. One of my qualities is the ability to get to the bottom line and disseminate various perspectives.”

Ovsenik, who is also an educator at the Ocean Isle Museum Foundation and Ingram Planetarium, echoes the sentiment. “What makes anyone qualified to debate the subject of UFOs? Let’s just say that I have a working interest in astronomy, providing education and exhibit materials for Ingram Planetarium, as well as a deep curiosity for space and what lies out there. My biggest question to ponder on is IF the Universe is everything, and the Universe is expanding, what is the Universe expanding into? Much more qualified minds than mine work on this question, but it is a fun one to deal with and think about in a person’s spare time. But, the answer to your question is that my education as a lawyer, and my experience in litigation, gives me a background in debating issues after researching the matter.”

Jankowski explains how the topic of UFOs does relate to the science of astronomy and physics but the study of these objects with elusive and questionable proof is something outside of these science fields. “I like to compare the study of UFOs to cryptology and the search for Bigfoot,” he says. “They are both what people refer to as pseudoscience. Besides eyewitness accounts and a few pieces of inconclusive evidence there’s no hard proof of either’s existence.”

Kutch also runs a nutritionist blog,, where no topic is out of bounds. He’s excited about the debate and the interaction with Jankowski and Ovsenik in front of an audience. He says, “Ed and I know each other. We’re going to have fun and educate. Part of this debate is giving the history, going back to the pyramids and the Pacific islanders and their first experiences with outsiders. We’ll work up from there.”

But what in the Hubble Telescope are they debating about? They will deal with universal ideas concerning the existence of UFOs and an overall summary of the history of UFOs. But what about all this local activity we’re seeing? What kind of encounters are we having on the Grand Strand?

Close Encounters of the Grandest Kind

This is an excerpt from a reported sighting from the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC): “December 8, 2012, Approximately 19:30, driving southbound on Hwy. 501 from Conway, SC to Myrtle Beach, SC while crossing the Lake Busbee bridge, my partner and I saw several red lights grouped together in the north east part of the sky. The lights proceeded to separate and form triangles (obtuse and acute) moving south. There were three lights per triangle. The movements were very rapid and linear. The movement was so fast that the shapes just appeared. There were several triangles formed. My partner and I pulled over to observe the phenomenon. The lights started to disappear. South of us, two orange lights remained. Then one disappeared and only one was left. It dropped down below the trees, and then it slowly rose in the sky. From the distance similar to that of a star, it transformed to a blurry white/silver spot. The blur started to drop closer until it was close enough to recognize as a triangle with rounded edges. It was spinning very fast, which created some type of ‘waves’ in the air around it.

When it got to the height slightly lower than a hovering helicopter, it transformed into a bubble/balloon with some type of ventilator on the side. It was falling in a floating fashion similar to that of a plastic bag. It floated over our heads and towards the woods before reaching Hwy. 501 Business.”

This is one of more than 100 similar reports. Most of us have either seen something strange or know someone who has a story like this. It’s part of our culture, the seeing by some and the dismissal by others – for everyone who’s seen an incident in the skies, there’s five people to tell them they’re full of shit. It used to be worse. There was a time when if someone claimed they saw something unusual and chose to speak about it, immediately their credibility was questioned. Jankowski says, “More and more learned people are coming forward and admitting they saw a strange occurrence. Years ago, a pilot would be fired if they came forward and said they saw something strange.”

But times have changed. It has become a comfortable topic, more commonplace. With all the supposed information on Area 51 and alien autopsies, the writer Whitley Strieber’s account of his alleged abduction, and a bazillion fictional movies and books – it is now part of our cultural fabric. There are thousands of stories where aliens crash or kidnap or make contact in some way. And people listen without immediate judgment. Seeing unidentified sights in the heavens have become an acceptable, almost normal event.

The first UFO sightings on the Grand Strand happened back in the 1930s. Since then, we have checked-off the descriptors used to categorize sightings – every term in the reporting center’s book has been tagged for our sightings. We’ve had saucers, toy-tops, possible crafts with and without visible and audible propulsion. We’ve had light patterns in our skies that have been described as triangular, cigar-shaped, crescents, spheres, domes, diamonds, eggs, pyramids and cylinders. It turns out, people get very particular when trying to identify a flying or hovering object.

The increase of sightings through the years could have a connection to the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base arriving in 1940 and the increasing productivity of the base. The reportings picked up in the ‘60s, maybe because of the rise of science fiction entertainment and the extra military movement in our area. Through the years, the base was often at the center of passing local UFO discussions and hot conspiracy rants until its closure in 1993.

Kutch’s voice is electric when he describes his UFO experience in New Jersey. “My father was always an amateur astronomer. We used to live in a house near the airport. I was in my 20s. I was in the house and my father was outside trying to mow the lawn before the sun went down. He called to me to come out to the yard. He was staring up into the sky. Right above him, us, there was a round, almost translucent object. It had a brilliant blue glow. There were no stars, the sun was setting. A plane came from the airport and the object flashed across the sky and was gone. It was not as fast as a shooting star but faster than a satellite.”

Even though this was years ago, Kutch has very vivid details to describe the sighting. This also seems common – precise elements that add a sense of exceptionality to the event, while tying it to the larger context of the UFO experience. But in a moment when adrenaline is pumping and your mind is going crazy, are these exact details always reliable? Is there a certain level of historical UFO osmosis happening in our consciousness?

Which leads to the bigger question – do these individual eyewitness accounts become a personal myth, a big-fish-in-the-sky story?

Eye Object, Your Honor

Jankowski says, “According to Hawking Radiation (named after the physicist Stephen Hawking) concerning space travel, it would take the energy of 1.5 million atomic bombs going off to produce the warp drive needed to travel to other or parallel universes…The fuel needed for the journey could fill the planet Jupiter.” This is no personal myth, this is a scientific fact. Which means, it’s highly unlikely that the skies are filled with hundreds of visitors from far away galaxies – so what are all these people seeing? And where and when can we go to see them?

“The best time to see a UFO?” Jankowski says laughing, “When the people of Nibiru go on vacation.” He tells us about Planet X or Nibiru from the Zeta Reticuli star system and the idea that it was on a collision course for Earth in the near future. The idea has been rejected as false by astronomers and planetary scientists. “If you want to try to see something unusual, you can go to densely populated areas in the early evening or early morning before the sun comes up. Most UFOs are seen over the water. But they’re moving 500 to 600 miles per hour, so bring binoculars.”

Is Jankowski, the director of a planetarium, really telling us that we have alien crafts hovering off our coasts, waiting to attack? He says no. “Sometimes people call us or visitors to the planetarium tell us what they saw and we can look and see if they’re satellites. Our software here at the planetarium can track satellites. Other times, it’s military maneuvers. I’ve talked to a retired navy pilot and he says the heat-seeking flares they use look like they are hovering from a great distance. There’s also light reflecting off the bottom of moving aircraft. There always seems to be more sightings during wartime when the military is more active.”

Recently, Peter Davenport, the director of NUFORC in Seattle, spoke about the nature of the sightings along the Grand Strand in an article done by The Sun News. He said, “The lights don’t seem to be military flares. They don’t behave like it.”

But the majority of the UFO reports can be disproved or explained by satellites or meteors or military maneuvers. Even the pro-UFO Kutch says, “My father had an experience in the early ‘50s. He saw what they call a cigar-shaped UFO. There were a lot of these cigar-shaped sightings in the early ‘50s, but they turned out to be military and government covering experimental stuff up.”

Ovsenik says, “Many times we see things in the sky that we cannot at first explain – cloud formations, moving lights, etc. Have you ever seen Sundogs (scientific name parhelion)? At first you might question the appearance of multiple suns. But then, in hindsight, you realize that thin, high clouds refracted the light of the sun and made it appear as if we had three suns. The first time I saw the green flash at sunset I did not know what it was, but then I found out and the explanation made sense.”

Galaxies Colliding

So both sides of the debate agree - there’s something going on up there that appears to run counter to normal. But is it a visitor invasion or visual obstruction? That’s for the debaters to make their case and battle it out. Jankowski says, “It’s always harder to disprove UFOs. It comes down to a burden of proof.” And if you’re trying to disprove past sightings, you’re essentially telling people their eyes are liars, their memories are flawed. How can you argue with an individual’s personal history/myth?

Ovsenik tells us what he wants to accomplish with this debate: “Don’t believe everything you see, hear, or read on the Internet. Use your thinking and reasoning skills to come to a sensible solution. Occam’s Razor (which states that when hypotheses compete, the one that makes the fewest assumptions should be selected) applies to life in general.”

Kutch fires back: “I want the audience to be given all the possible pros and cons and let them decide. The attending public will decide for themselves no matter what either side comes up with in the discussion.”

Jankowski adds about the very nature of UFO discussions, “For some reason, in other countries, there’s a lot more public information available because they don’t have the stigma attached to UFOs that we do in the United States. But it’s getting better. That’s what this debate is all about. Our participants will discuss the issues in the fields, we’re able to give the audience a visual element and we’ll be taking questions from the audience.”

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