New Mexicans for Science and Reason
The Socorro, NM UFO
A Different Angle on the Socorro UFO of 1964
By David E. Thomas, nmsrdaveATswcp.com(Help fight SPAM! Please replace the AT with an @ )
(An edited version of this article originally appeared in the July 2001 Skeptical Inquirer).
The Socorro, New Mexico UFO "Landing" of April 24, 1964 has long occupied a prominent place in UFOlogical lore. The case put New Mexico on the UFO map, and was only overtaken by the Roswell Incident when that legend emerged from obscurity and blossomed in the late seventies. The case is still highly regarded; Patrick Huyghe recently wrote about the Socorro sighting in The Anomalist, No. 8 (Spring 2000), in a piece titled "The Best UFO Case Ever? A Review and Update of the Socorro Incident."
The witness in the Socorro case is a well-respected policeman, Lonnie Zamora, who claimed in the report he filed (included in Project Blue Book, Brad Steiger, Ed., 1976) that he saw a flame in the sky, "bluish and sort of orange too...sort of motionless flame, slowly descending. ... narrower at top than at bottom...Sun was to west and did not help vision. Had green sunglasses over prescription glasses. Could not see bottom of flame because it was behind the hill....noise was a roar, not a blast..." The policeman drove around the area trying to see the flame again, and said he suddenly came across "a shiny type object ... oval in shape. It was smooth - no windows or doors. ... seemed like O in shape and I at first glance took it to be overturned car." He also described "two people in white coveralls...two persons..." Zamora said he saw the two people at a distance of 150 to 200 yards, and that "they appeared normal in shape... but possibly they were small adults or large kids." He also noted "what appeared to be two legs of some type from the object to the ground...the two legs were at the bottom of the object, slanted outwards to the ground." Zamora then got closer to the object, got out of his car, heard a loud roar, saw a flame, ran, bumped his leg, lost his glasses, and kept on going. He saw the object fly up, and move 10 to 15 feet above the ground, and then leave the area "travelling very fast." He radioed his dispatcher to look out his window for "an object .... it looks like a balloon." Nearby, the bushes were still smoldering. News reports in the local paper, El Defensor Chieftain, also mentioned "an unidentified tourist" who remarked about how "aircraft flew low around here," and that the strange object was a "funny-looking helicopter, if that's what it was."
Zamora's earnest nature and credibility, along with the physical traces, brought the Socorro "landing" to national attention. J. Allen Hynek came to town, and was very interested in the pod-like tracks and burn marks at the scene. Ray Stanford wrote a whole book about the incident, Socorro Saucer in a Pentagon Pantry. Phil Klass came to investigate. The Socorro event has appeared in numerous books and articles, and was even featured on Unsolved Mysteries. But what really happened there?
There are numerous hypotheses, of course. Stanford thinks it's another case of extraterrestrial visitors and government cover-up. Phil Klass, in UFOs Explained, makes a case that the whole thing was cooked up by the mayor to give Socorro some publicity. (Incidentally, Klass argues that the "unidentified tourist" could not possibly have seen both the craft and the police car.) Yet another hypothesis is that physics students with a little too much extra time played a trick on the town, but that rumor doesn't have much credible support. Major Hector Quintanilla, the Blue Book investigator for the Air Force, looked into the possibility that the craft was a prototype of the Lunar Landing Module being developed for the Apollo moon program, but found that no lunar lander prototypes were operational in April of 1964. Recently, Larry Robinson of Indiana University has suggested that Zamora saw "a manned hot air balloon." That scenario does match some aspects of the descriptions, such as the pitch changes from low to higher frequencies Zamora reported hearing from the flame, which might be a match for the propane burners of hot-air balloons.
Yet another possible candidate has emerged in recent years, about the time of the identification of the source of the Roswell Incident to a specific program, New York University constant-level balloon launches from Alamogordo in the summer of 1947 ["The Roswell Incident and Project Mogul," S/I July August 1995]. One of the participants in these launches, Charles B. Moore, stayed in Socorro and taught atmospheric physics at the college there, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (my Alma Mater). Moore, now retired, has had a very distinguished career, and received the prestigious American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Otto C. Winzen Lifetime Achievement Award for his scientific exploits, which included flying a balloon to the very edge of space. He visited the Socorro "landing" site in 1966, and thinks that Lonnie Zamora is sincere, and that he really did see something strange on that day in 1964. In 1995, a colleague of Moore's who ran the Skyhook Balloon program at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, Bernard "Duke" Gildenberg, learned from Capt. James McAndrew, the AF's point man on Roswell, that 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. A portion of the WSMR Range Log obtained by McAndrew appears below. Surveyor was a three-legged, unmanned probe, which was used to learn about the moon before the Apollo program got there. In fact, the Apollo 12 astronauts paid a visit to Surveyor 3 almost three years after it had landed on the moon. This new angle on the old Socorro story was first mentioned publicly in a brief piece in the July 15th, 2000 edition of James Moseley's Saucer Smear.
Portion of WSMR Range Log for 24 April 1964
The timing isn't right for the UFO sighting -- the range log calls for morning tests, and the sightings occurred in late afternoon - but then 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. In fact, bombing runs scheduled for that part of the range might have delayed the tests.
There are many other tantalizing bits that might support the Surveyor explanation for Socorro.
Of course, this new evidence is far from conclusive. A lot has happened since 1964, and it's difficult to reconstruct events from that long ago, especially events with strong implications. Was it a college prank? A hoax? A balloon? An alien craft from another world? Perhaps we'll never really know. Gildenberg is confident that William of Occam, of Occam's Razor fame, would think kindly of the Surveyor explanation, especially over some of the other contenders.
Three years after the unmanned craft Surveyor 3 landed on the moon, the Apollo 12 manned mission touched down nearby. This image shows mission commander Pete Conrad retrieving items from Surveyor 3; the Apollo 12 lunar module appears in the background.
Photograph by Alan L. Bean, courtesy NASA.
Introducing yet another possible explanation of the mysterious Socorro Incident of 1964
My name is Ron, and I was born in Socorro 2 months before the sighting. My mother worked at the First State Bank at the time, and knew Polo Pineta and Lonnie Zamora.
She heard first-hand the description shortly after Lonnie saw the UFO. He was SO scared, he went to the Catholic Church to confess and pray before he reported to Polo, who then went to the bank the next day to talk to people he knew there. (Polo said the FBI told him not to talk to anyone. He was mad, and said, "No one will tell me what I can and can't say in my town!", and proceeded to tell those at the bank - including my mom - what happened.)
Lonnie was pursuing a couple of teenagers leaving town, and broke the chase to investigate something he saw. He reported a silvery craft, angular, with spindly legs, and had markings "like what Boeing puts on their planes", and "two in silvery suits who got into the craft and left". This was NOT a balloon-looking craft.
My mother and father went to the site the next day. They saw (along with a bunch of locals) some depressions in the sand, like the pads of a medium-weight craft had set down, and a bush with some scorch marks and possibly some kind of oily substance (mom didn't touch it).
In the summer of 1965, my mother saw a picture of the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) in the Midland, TX (where we were living at the time) newspaper, and her first reaction was, "That's Lonnie's spacecraft!" She read the article, and discovered it was a picture of an Apollo LEM on display. I hope this helps.
I'm Ron's mother and he forwarded me (as you can see) what he had sent you. On the evening of April 24, 1964, my husband was at the college campus - NMIMT where he was a senior majoring in physics. I was at home with our new baby (Ron). He called and asked if I had the radio on - the campus was abuzz with a UFO that had been sighted. I turned on KOMA out of Oklahoma City which is the station we listened to at night and it was abuzz!
The next morning we drove out to the site. There was a police car sitting off to one side. There were perhaps 7 or 8 cars parked over to the other side and folks just standing around looking. There wasn't a lot to see. There was one round indentation in the dust near where we were standing (I don't know how many total) - about like what our tires were making. There was no indentation into the hard packed ground as some later stories said. I walked up to the little mesquite bush in the middle and it was somewhat blackened. I didn't touch it but it may have been burned a little and might have had a bit of oil on it. We stood around for a bit too and then left to go home.
Holm Bursum III was president of the First State Bank and Polo Pineda was his right-hand man. At the time of the sighting, Polo was acting police chief. I'd worked there since Sept. 1961 first in the real estate department under Ruth McKibben and then moved to the bookkeeping department but still took my morning breaks with her, Polo and one of the tellers. On Monday morning we were in the kitchen when Polo came in.
He was as mad as a hornet. Ruth asked him what was going on with the UFO. His first comment was that he'd been told that he wasn't to talk to anyone about what had happened but this was his town and he'd talk to whoever he pleased! He sat down with his coffee and proceeded to tell us.
What he said was this...
Lonnie Zamora was pursuing a vehicle going south near the edge of town when something caught his eye. He drove up on the mesa and looked down to see a round craft with two individuals in silver suits walking around it. After a minute or two they got in and it took off. Describing the craft, he said that it had markings on it similar to what Boeing puts on its planes. Lonnie was so upset/scared that he first headed to the Catholic church for confessional and then contacted Polo. Shortly after that, I was in the front of the bank and there were two obviously FBI men - black suits and sunglasses (which they took off as they entered). They went up to one of the tellers and asked for Polo. I went back and told Polo they were looking for him.
The following year we were living in Midland, TX, I'm guessing maybe May or June, my husband had brought in the newspaper and it was lying on the couch. I glanced down at it and hollered to my husband that Lonnie's UFO was on the front page of the paper. What I saw fit the exact description that Polo had given us. It was a photo of a LEM with an article. I wish I had kept that newspaper but it simply wasn't anything of consequence at the time.
My mother passed away in 2000. In going through her effects, I found that she had kept the letter I had written her about the UFO during the week after the sighting. The description I gave back at the time matched exactly what I remember from the day.
In the late '90s, Ron and I were in Roswell and stopped at the UFO museum there. I told the operator about the Socorro sighting and my belief that it was a LEM. Socorro sits very close to White Sands. He said he'd try to look into it and let me know what he found out but I never heard from him. About six months later, there was a statement issued by a government agency that the Socorro UFO was actually the LEM. Now I don't know if it truly was or if the gentleman at the museum had talked to someone and they felt that was a good way to explain it.
If you want to put this on your website, you're welcome to do so. I'd really hope that others that were in Socorro at that time would add what they saw. The story has become so bizarre that I'd really like to see facts.
NMSR thanks Ron, and Dorothy Landoll for a fascinating explanation.
A NEW WITNESS?
Subject: Socorro Saucer explained
Date: Sun, 31 Dec 2017 17:17:41 -0800
From: Kevin J Ashley
To: 'Dave Thomas, NMSR'
I think we may have been at New Mexico Tech at the same time. I attended there from 1973 through 1979 taking my BS and MS in Mining Engineering.
In any case, I just came cross your NMSR website when I was looking for information on the Socorro Saucer. I hadn’t thought about it in years but now that I am semi-retired I have more time on my hands and have been cleaning out my desk of files on various subjects.
In short, I know the answer to the Socorro Saucer Siting because I talked to one of the people who was on the other side of the arroyo that morning when Officer Zamora showed up. His name is Bruno R____ and he was a mining engineering student at Tech in the early 1960’s.
While I was at Tech, the El Defensor-Chieftain made up a poster from the articles on the Socorro Saucer siting of which I bought a copy. I took it with me to my first job which was at Fluor Mining & Metals in San Mateo, CA in 1980-81. One day at lunch I was regaling my coworkers with the tale of the Socorro Saucer based on the information in the poster. As I finished the story I noticed one of the other mining engineers who worked there leaning against the door and laughing. When I asked him what he was laughing at he said, “It was me.”
He then told his story about the incident. He said that he and another mining student were bored and looking for something to do that day. They got their hands on some dynamite (possibly from the dynamite shack mentioned in Officer Zamora’s account) and decided to have some fun setting it off under an old overturned metal barrel. The first time they did this the barrel went flying into the air which they found very amusing so they did it a couple more times. (It was probably the third explosion that attracted the attention of Officer Zamora.) Delighted with the result of the barrel being thrown in the air again, they set about putting together one more explosion. As they were bending down getting everything set they were apparently seen from across the arroyo by Officer Zamora. The two of them, who were wearing white coveralls, were seized with a sudden need to get the hell out of there because being caught doing a stupid stunt like this with dynamite would get them both expelled. (Officer Zamora notes in his statement that one of the persons looked at him and seemed very concerned.) Evidently the fuse had already been lit when Bruno and his friend legged it for their vehicle to get away. Office Zamora started toward the site when the explosion went off and as he dived for cover he lost his glasses. What he saw the couple of times he glanced up was the oil drum being projected upwards with flame coming out from the bottom. Bruno and his friend kept a low profile throughout the entire affair after that and I may have been the first person he told this story to. This was in 1980, sixteen years after the affair. (I believe Dr. Workman was President of NMT in 1964 and his reputation 10 years later was still that he was a zero tolerance kind of guy.)
Reading over the account by Officer Zamora his original description seems to fit well with Bruno’s account. It is the “filling in” of details where the mystery arises. For instance, when people went back and found four burn spots, these became a configuration of thrusters from a vehicle, not the scorched remnants of multiple dynamite explosions. Also important is that this was not a hoax. Bruno and his friend were not trying to fool anyone. This is just a case of an observer trying to explain something that they have not seen before.
Over the years I have told people this story as an example of how a very straightforward event can get blown way out of proportion. I even sent it off to “Unsolved Mysteries” thinking that they would be interested, but I never heard anything back from them. I guess I should have realized that the show was called “Unsolved Mysteries”, not “Solved Mysteries”.
In any case I figure that now that Lonnie Zamora is gone someone should get this all on the record before Bruno kicks the bucket too. I haven’t talked with Bruno since the 1980’s so I don’t know if he would be willing to come forward, but an organization like yours might be able to coax him out for the good of science. I have found Bruno’s LinkedIn page and it appears he lives in Felton, CA. I will leave it in your hands.
Kevin J. Ashley
Redwood City, CA
The Socorro Landing has a special place in my heart, as it sparked
my first skeptical curiosity. Back in 1964, I was an 11-year old boy
living just 90 miles north of Socorro, and the Socorro UFO story was
big news in the young boy community. Some neighbor kids drew the
outline of an alien foot in the alley, and tried to convince me it
was real, but I "debunked" the assertions by pointing out the
unnatural concave shape of the "feet," and the over-large distance
between prints. After the neighbor kids confessed, I penciled in a
little UFO on a photograph of my back yard, and showed it to them. I
expected them to laugh it off as yet another hoax, but was surprised
when the former hoaxers bought into my doctored photo hook, line, and
sinker. That was my first encounter with the Power of the Paranormal;
I'm sure it won't be my last.
- Dave Thomas