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In the Orbit of UFO Enthusiasts
Operating in a Galaxy of Doubt, Disbelief and Dismissal, UFO Buffs Make Their Case That . . . We Are Not Alone

By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007

As a meeting spot for UFO enthusiasts, Logan's Roadhouse might seem a tad unlikely. But once a month or so, the back room of the bustling, busily decorated chain restaurant in Fairfax becomes the mother ship for area ufologists (yes, that's what they prefer to be called). They gather there to snack on chicken tenders and chili, and exchange sightings and extraordinary stories in the company of like-minded people who won't think they've completely lost their marbles.

"When I first started 20 years ago, it was a bunch of old guys with their pocket protectors, but now the meetings are getting more diverse," organizer Sue Swiatek says.

Swiatek, a software analyst by day, is the state director of the Virginia chapter of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), a private organization that investigates and compiles data on reports of unidentified flying objects. She and her husband, Rob Swiatek, an oft-cited UFO expert, are, for lack of a better term, the first couple of Virginia ufologists.

On Saturday, they will be among the featured speakers at Mysteries of Space and Sky IV: Sixty Years of UFOs, a daylong conference open to the public at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold. Rob Swiatek's talk, "Sacre Bleu! UFOs Over France," alone seems well worth the conference's $30-$40 admission fee.

For UFO buffs, 2007 is a multiple anniversary year. It was 60 years ago that whatever happened in Roswell, N.M., happened. It was 60 years ago that the term "flying saucer" entered the lexicon. And it was 55 years ago that reports of UFOs flooded the Washington region. This very newspaper ran stories with such headlines as " 'Saucer' Outran Jet, Pilot Reveals" and "D.C. Girl Sees Saucer Float Under Clouds."

Five years ago, a new case arose when F-16 fighter jets were scrambled from Andrews Air Force Base to pursue what turned out to be -- dum-de-dum-dum -- an unknown craft. Spooky, huh? And because it happened exactly 50 years to the day of saucers being reported over the region, the event prompted a flurry of local ufological activity. (And, no, don't insert a "we all know how painful that can be" joke here).

Of course, UFO enthusiasts are used to having their ideas about aliens and intergalactic spacecraft ridiculed. Those who opine that there are "others" out there are bound to hear they're more than a little out there themselves. If you talk to enough of them, you realize they have heard all of the insults before: nut job, wacko, loony, space case. But perhaps the most insulting thing to call a UFO believer is, well, a believer.

To believe, they argue, is to imply that there is room for doubt. But, they tell you, if you study the cases, follow the facts, examine the evidence, there is no room for doubt. "We're not believers; we're concluders," says Paul Nahay of Silver Spring. Meet him and find out what he and other local concluders have to say about UFOs.

Paul Nahay, 49, Silver Spring

Job: Computer consultant

When did you first get interested in UFOs?

I recall being in fifth grade and getting a book on UFOs called something like "Is Anybody Out There?" I had the usual teenage-boy interest in the subject. Living in Indiana in 1993 renewed my interest when somebody very close to me described a very close encounter. A few years later in Takoma Park, an apartment mate described a close encounter with a flying saucer, a giant machine sitting in the air. Another friend had an astounding close encounter along the Atlantic City Expressway. He and the people in the car saw beings looking out at them from a flying saucer. None of them were into UFOs. None of them pursued the issue at all.

Ever had a UFO experience?

Mine was Nov. 10, 2002. It was a rectangular, impossibly large, dark object, with a strange texture, miles away in the sky. There was not a cloud in the sky; it was about 1:30 in afternoon on Route 295 in New Jersey. It was much larger than any man-made thing. Slightly moving. Extremely weird, and I didn't go and report it. . . . You're so confused by it that you sort of doubt yourself. But I saw it as clearly as I saw a building.

What is it that most convinces you that UFOs exist?

I'm not interested in the unidentified objects. I'm interested in ones that are clearly identifiable and piloted by things that are not human and are clearly intelligent. The volume and quality of the evidence is what's convincing.

Why do you think UFOs are visiting Earth?

"Why is this happening?" is a very loaded and dangerous question. Any answer is in danger of being shot down. . . . Many people, including my wife, view the abduction phenomenon as complete fiction and as a psychological aberration. . . . The implication, and this is dangerous to extrapolate and somewhat fringe theory, is that they are in the process of integrating with us. I know it sounds crazy and like the movies, but that seems to be the case.

How do you deal with skeptics?

I personally try not to because they [tick] me off so much. It doesn't have to be a matter of belief; there are studies that can be read. There's no end of reputable books. Most skeptics either know nothing about the field or they simply echo back the bogus reports that have been made.

Has your involvement with the subject of UFOs hampered your relationships or career plans?

I am reluctant to talk about it. It's the one subject that you can't talk about in polite company. [Laughs.] I've been lucky because I've been a freelancer. I know people who have full-time jobs, particularly with government or military, and they have to be more careful. It has caused some rough edges in some personal areas. [Laughs.]

What would it take to make acceptance of UFO phenomena more widespread?

There are highly credible witnesses, people who we entrust, and when they say, "I saw this thing" . . . you can't just whisk this away. I mean, even Jimmy Carter saw one. [Laughs.]

Don Berliner, 77, Alexandria

Job: Aviation and science writer, Fund for UFO Research chairman

Ever had a UFO experience?

Probably not, which is not the answer you want. I saw something that seems to be related to UFOs. There was a great flurry back in the late '40s and early '50s of green fireballs. They looked like giant meteors, and I had a good sighting of one of those. I long ago gave up looking. Though I still always get a window seat on an airliner.

What is it that most convinces you that UFOs exist?

Two things. One, the consistency of sightings by expert witnesses -- professional pilots, military and airline -- of oddly shaped vehicles seen in the broad daylight. Vehicles whose shapes are not familiar and whose technical performances are right off the scale. . . . The other is the federal government's very suspicious behavior of putting outlandish explanations on UFO reports, explanations and interpretations that don't reflect the body of the report.

Why do you think UFOs are visiting Earth?

Well, if indeed they are and aren't explainable in some other way, I have absolutely no idea. It's very risky to use human reasoning when you're dealing with something you have defined as nonhuman.

How do you deal with skeptics?

That's a tricky word. The people who are convinced that UFOs don't exist or can't be of any consequence call themselves skeptics, but they have a carved-in-stone belief. I don't know what the right word is to describe them; we have some unkind words. [Laughs.] Hey, maybe they're right; I don't know. But if you're going to claim to be scientific in your outlook, you should be scientific in your outlook.

Has your involvement with the subject of UFOs hampered your relationships or career plans?

Not that I'm aware of. In the early days, when I was still in the Air Force, occasionally I would try to get people interested and people would poke fun, but nothing serious.

What would it take to make acceptance of UFO phenomena more widespread?

I've got a long list of things. Live video footage of a classic disc performing amazing maneuvers. Physical evidence, say, from the Roswell crash so that we could analyze the material. Something solid.

What about alien abductions? Do you believe in those?

Oh, is that a bag of worms. It is far beyond anything else in the UFO field for bizarreness, but the reports we get from all over the world are highly consistent. . . . It's something that deserves a lot more study. I'm certainly not going to brush it off, but it is really far out.

Antonio Huneeus, 57, Fairfax

Job: Freelance science reporter and editor

When did you first get interested in UFOs?

There was a very interesting case in Chile in 1977, and I was a reporter and I wrote it up. That was my first UFO article. I had no idea at the time that this was going to consume years of my life.

Ever had a UFO experience?

Well, I would only say that I have had a UFO sighting, not an experience or close encounter. In the Chilean Andes, I did see some strange lights that were zigzagging in the sky and moving in unexplained fashion. This was in 1988.

What is it that most convinces you that UFOs exist?

Well, there's just a lot of great evidence, once you filter all the noise and the wild allegations. Unfortunately, the field is contaminated by a lot of unsubstantiated rumors and sensationalism. Anybody that wants to get involved in this has to realize this and filter it and get to the good cases.

Why do you think UFOs are visiting Earth?

We have no idea, to tell you the truth. That's why they are a mystery.

How do you deal with skeptics?

I understand them, because I used to be skeptical. . . . A certain degree of skepticism is healthy. And that applies to the believers' side as well.

Has your involvement with the subject of UFOs hampered your relationships or career plans?

Perhaps in the early years, I could sense that people would have kind of a funny reaction. . . . But in the last 10 to 15 years, I understand that it's still not treated seriously, but it has become part of the culture. People think it's an exciting subject, and they want to know more. In some foreign countries, the culture is much more disposed to accepting information about UFOs. In America, it's mostly thought of as entertainment.

What would it take to make acceptance of UFO phenomena more widespread?

It would help if we had a very dramatic, solid case with multiple witnesses. Some case that could bring the phenomenon back to the front page.

Sue Swiatek, 49, Fairfax

Job: Software analyst and publishing specialist; Virginia state director of the Mutual UFO Network

When did you first get interested in UFOs?

I was 8 years old, and I read about the Betty and Barney Hill abduction case in Look magazine. I took it very seriously; it had the ring of truth. I thought if they can pick up one couple, they can pick up more. That's what led me to have a lifelong interest.

Ever had a UFO experience?

Well, apparently. I was just driving along and saw something for five to seven seconds, and I couldn't resolve it. It was a stubby fuselage, fatter than a plane, and it wasn't tapered like a plane would be. It didn't have a tail or wings. But you know as well as I do, if a plane's at a certain angle, you can't tell. I'm very skeptical, so that's still in my gray basket. It was a big object. . . . It was weird, I will say that.

What is it that most convinces you that UFOs exist?

When I get involved with local people in local cases and I see the fear in their eyes and how serious they are about what they've seen. When you meet real people and you know that they don't want publicity, they don't want their name in the paper, it's very powerful when you meet them. . . . People who have close encounters feel threatened. They think the UFOs might be coming back, they fear the government and they feel their friends and family are going to ridicule them.

Why do you think UFOs are visiting Earth?

I believe they are coming here to explore and glean some kind of resources from our planet. Whether that's DNA material or something more prosaic, who can say? Maybe it's just knowledge.

How do you deal with skeptics?

I personally don't mind skeptics. I don't get my feelings hurt. I am who I am. Some people ask me questions about the fact that I'm a Christian. A guy once said, "How can you believe in God and UFOs when there's no proof in either one?" I think he thought my brain was going to explode.

Has your involvement with the subject of UFOs hampered your relationships or career plans?

So far, no. This article may change that. [Laughs.] A lot of my friends are in the UFO field. If people can't tolerate me believing this, then we're probably not going to be that close anyway.

What would it take to make acceptance of UFO phenomena more widespread?

We have meetings about just this thing. The thing that would work the best we have no control over, and that would be a major sighting or a wave of sightings that involved a large geographic area. Or if there was a major disclosure by our government, that would help.

Norm Gagnon, 47, Springfield

Job: Graphic and architectural designer, UFO investigator

When did you first get interested in UFOs?

In 1995, I started investigating, researching, reading about it. I started to make a little noise so that people could contact me if they have unusual sightings.

What is it that most convinces you that UFOs exist?

I did observe at least three sightings. I saw something, looked up and thought it was very unusual. When I observed these I didn't think, "Hey, UFOs," I just thought, "Wow, that's unusual." On one sighting, my wife and I saw two unusual floating-type objects. I don't mean flying saucers or ships, I just mean unidentified floating, flying objects.

There's too many sightings out there. Something is going on. There is also a lot of fraud out there, and I've seen a lot of pranks and movies on YouTube that are fakes. One of my interests is trying to determine fakes by looking at photos and visiting with people.

Why do you think UFOs are visiting Earth?

There's so much to say. I can't give you a simple sentence. I believe there are formidable forces outside our physical realm of time-space and these extra-dimensional beings have been hovering our skies and even visiting us since the beginning of human history. One of my objectives as a ufologist is to not only document these sightings but, most important, to help the folks that may have been affected be these encounters.

How do you deal with skeptics?

Well, myself, I'm a skeptic sitting almost on the fence. I do believe what people say they see are manifestations and aerial phenomena. However, I cannot point the finger and say that these are absolutely from another universe. I say these are manifestations that could have been created on Earth. I also believe that our government has vehicles that they test which are top secret which sometimes fly away from where they are supposed to be. They are futuristic, man-made vehicles that we don't know about. But as to aliens, I do not believe, personally, that there is any alien visitation.

Has your involvement with the subject of UFOs hampered your relationships or career plans?

Um, not really. As to my work, my regular day job, I really don't talk about it. Most people don't talk about it. My involvement is usually outside work and with groups like MUFON. My passion is that I love investigating, just getting down to the ground level and looking for evidence that can be collected.

My wife is aware of what I'm doing, and she's not too crazy about what I do. But I'm not going to stay in this [field] for the rest of my life. I'm collecting reports or photographs for a book I'd like to write.

Ben Moss, 52, Annandale

Job: Information technology consultant

How old were you when you first started exploring ufology?

I was a kid. Probably 7 or 8. Walter Cronkite did a UFO show, and I was fascinated from that point forth. The media was a lot more open than it is now.

Ever had a UFO experience?

There's one thing I saw in college that looked like a cruise missile prototype. I heard a whistle and then rockets fired on its side, and it started climbing away at rapid speed. This was in the mountains of Virginia. In Key West, I saw two objects that looked like meteorites that crossed the sky and then stopped. Then they caught up to each other and then turned at a right angle.

What is it that most convinces you that UFOs exist?

Well, I think Roswell was the crash of an extraterrestrial spacecraft. . . . I've talked to individuals, several military people, who were out at Roswell at the time, and there's a lot of evidence. The danger is if we find evidence of other life out there, we have to keep it a secret.

Why do you think UFOs are visiting Earth?

Well, if you know anything about astronomy, you know we have a fairly young sun. The more we look, the more we see that there are systems out there that are like ours but much older. Anything that's of a high technology, say 500 years advanced from what we have, will look like magic to us. Perhaps like things that our minds can't process.

It makes sense that we're being monitored by other beings. The theory is that man is a very aggressive race and that they want to put restraints on us or to prevent us from attacking them. We're a warlike race, and if you're studying it, you need to figure out how to control it.

How do you deal with skeptics?

I'll just logically try to argue the point. A reporter or someone in public office is not going to talk about UFOs because of the ridicule, and that's tough to overcome. If someone firmly believes that none of this is true, then it's never going to be true to them.

Has your involvement with the subject of UFOs hampered your relationships or career plans?

I pretty much do my own thing. But, no, I don't blurt it out a lot. I don't mind talking to friends about it. I can argue in a logical way and point to evidence.

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