UFO Landings And Physical
Trace Cases In France
By Adam Sage
Belfast Telegraph

On a cold Monday morning 22 years ago, Jean-Jacques Velasco was sitting in his office when a gendarme rang to tell him about a strange incident. Renato Nicolai, a retired technician, had been working in his garden in Trans-en-Provence, near Nice, when he saw a dark, round object come down from the sky, settle on the ground and take off again, the gendarme said. Over the years, Velasco has heard many such stories, and disproved most of them. But this one was different - this one was credible, he believes.. Something seems to have landed in Trans-en-Provence, he says, and that something has never been identified.
But who is Velasco? Another crackpot determined to find a flying saucer? No, he is a scientist working for the state-run National French Centre for Space Studies (CNES), where he heads a department responsible for analysing what are commonly called unidentified flying objects (UFOs) but what are officially known as unidentified aerospace phenomena (UAP).
A neatly-dressed, bespectacled man, Velasco talks with the careful precision of an academic who is keen to be understood. He is not saying that he has come across visitors from another planet; he is saying merely that events occur for which science has yet to find an explanation, and which merit further inquiry.
Velasco's department was set up in 1977, the year that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released amid a global UFO fever. Across the world people thought they saw strange figures, flying saucers and bright lights.
But there were few serious attempts to probe the issue. The CNES set up the Service for Expert Appraisal of Atmospheric Re-entry Phenomena (Sepra). Based in Toulouse, the department is as pedantic as its title sounds: the staff are state-employed scientists, shaped by a prudent, rigorous and somewhat bureaucratic culture. In France such bureaucracy can often be cumbersome and painfully rigid. Yet in this domain at least, this rigidity offers a guarantee of impartiality that is rare as far as UFOs are concerned.
Last year, when the CNES was told to reduce its 1.3 billion budget, the organisation's president, Alain Bensoussan, ordered an audit into Sepra's work. A wide range of French scientists was asked whether it was worth continuing research; almost all said yes.
One reason is because, unlike most other UFO-hunters, Sepra's staff are neither seeking publicity nor peddling an obscure belief in extraterrestrial civilisation. They say they do not know whether extraterrestrial beings exist or not, and look disparaging when you ask them to voice their hunches on the question.
They do not have hunches, only statistics. Yet the statistics that Velasco has made public are eloquent. Since, 1977, Sepra has received some 6,000 reports of alleged UFO sightings. Of these, 110 are from civil or military aircraft crew, and the rest from ordinary French people who have almost invariably contacted their local gendarmerie.
In 21.3% of cases there is a clear, indisputable and banal explanation: a firework display, a novel lighting system involving a luminous balloon, a cloud above the Pyrenees that is shaped like a flying saucer. In 24.9% there is a probable explanation, and in 41.3% the information is too vague to be of use. But in 12.5 per cent of cases about 750 sightings since 1977 the evidence is detailed and inexplicable, and is thus categorised as an unidentified phenomenon.
Most alleged UFOs are spotted by the sober and sensible, says Velasco. "In all our statistics on the people who see these phenomena only one in 1,000 is not credible because of alcohol. People go to gendarmerie spontaneously; mainly because they want to know what they have seen."
Yet a witness's good faith is not enough, and the story must be corroborated. Consider, for instance, a case reported in 1994, when the crew of an Air France flight from Nice to London saw a dark, 300-metre long object over the Paris region. The object disappeared before the aircraft had got near it, and the flight continued without difficulty. A few days later Velasco travelled from his office in Toulouse to the military aviation control centre outside Paris, where he was given a read-out of the radar information from the day in question. It revealed that an unknown object had indeed flown over the French capital.
Consider, too, the Trans-en- Provence case. Velasco went through the usual checks with the gendarme. Was there evidence? The apparent answer was yes, as there were marks in the grass where the object had supposedly landed.
Velasco drove to Trans-en-Provence and took ground samples. These showed that the area had been heated to between 300ºC and 600ºC, that it had been compressed by something weighing up to a tonne and that the plants there had been affected by a strong electromagnetic field. Velasco concluded that Nicolai had indeed witnessed a strange happening. So should we conclude that little green men were taking a look at Provence from their spaceship? Velasco dismisses such ideas.
"We cannot say whether there is a link between the question of extraterrestrial life and that of non-identified aerospace phenomena," he says. "But we can show that UFOs exist. The problem is interpreting them, and I hope that scientists, and other people, look at this question more seriously."



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