The Cash-Landrum UFO Incident
The UFO story seems to defy debunking because of the physical injuries suffered by witnesses.
by Brian Dunning
So often when we open the pages of UFO lore, we find this case or that case all claiming to be the one with the very best evidence. But when we've looked at each of these in turn here on Skeptoid, they invariably fall apart as the evidence, examined closer, turns out to be anecdotal or misinterpreted. Over all of these years, one UFO case has been sent to me time and time again, for it's one of the very few said to have resulted in physical injuries to multiple witnesses, and even to have triggered a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the government. It happened in Texas in 1980 and is named after its two primary witnesses: the Cash-Landrum UFO Incident.
Two women, Betty Cash and Vicki Landrum, accompanied by Landrum's 6-year-old grandson Colby, were driving along the flat Texas expanse near Dayton, on a lonely straight road through dense trees. It was December 29, sometime around 9:00 pm. Seeing a very bright light in the sky ahead of them that appeared to be blowing flames, they pulled over and got out to look. They described a large diamond shaped object, about the size of a water tower, hovering around treetop level, apparently modulating its altitude by blasting flames. The heat from the object was intense, so much so that it drove them back to the car. Cash reported that the car had gotten so hot that her hand was burned when she touched the car's roof; Landrum said the vinyl dashboard was softened so much by the heat that her hand left an impression in it.
Soon the object ascended, and was approached by a large group of helicopters which soon surrounded the object. Cash and Landrum counted and variously reported there were either 23 or 26. Many of them were tandem rotor helicopters, consistent with the CH-47 Chinook used by militaries worldwide. The helicopters and their diamond-shaped escort soon drifted further away, and the witnesses continued their journey.
But it's what happened afterward that made the story famous. The witnesses appeared to have suffered acute radiation poisoning, with symptoms including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, general weakness, and also severe burns on their arms and faces, wherever the skin had been uncovered and exposed to the object. Betty Cash was hospitalized for two weeks, and had followup hospitalizations as well. A lot of her hair fell out, as well as some of her fingernails. In large part, it's this severe physical harm to the witnesses that has ensured the Cash-Landrum Incident's place in UFOlogy.
Beginning with an episode of That's Incredible! in 1981, Cash and/or Landrum appeared on at least half a dozen TV shows, and their story has been promoted on more recent shows such as Unsolved Mysteries and Sightings.
Finally, Cash and Landrum pursued a $20 million lawsuit against the federal government, claiming damages from a military operation. It was in the courts for years, but was ultimately dismissed. The plaintiffs had been unable to provide evidence that helicopters belonging to the US military were there that night, or that the US military possessed any large diamond-shaped aerial vehicles.
Most of what's known about this story stems from the efforts of John Schuessler, an engineer who worked for a contractor at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and who was also a member of MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network) and a lifelong believer in alien visitation. After the incident, Vickie Landrum had made a number of phone calls to various military and government agencies, and when she tried NASA, they handed her over to their resident UFO enthusiast, known for his personal interest in such things. Schuessler took up their case, spearheaded the investigation, and collected everything which he self-published in his 1998 book The Cash-Landrum UFO Incident.
The typical treatment I've heard about this event is that you can't argue with the physical injuries, so something real must have happened that night. Well, maybe. But let's not forget the very first question we should ask: Did the story happen as reported? We don't necessarily know that these people received any injuries. There are photos of Cash with her hair falling out, but how do we know that was caused by this event? The reported health problems are not a known consequence of being in the vicinity of aircraft, and the whole thing with the flaming, diamond shaped UFO is, to say the least, unfamiliar, and not something we're experienced enough to proclaim "Oh yes, those cause your hair to fall out." So I'm going to choose to be skeptical, and open my mind to the possibility that the pop-culture version might not be above question.
Let's begin with these alleged injuries. First, it's important to note that initially, only Cash reported the serious effects; Landrum's reported symptoms were limited to sunburn and eye irritation, and the same with her grandson. When Cash checked into the hospital four days after the incident, her face was swollen and sunburned, she was losing hair, and she had a headache. Schuessler's book includes many doctors' notes, indicating that they basically found nothing wrong with her. The sunburn and associated swelling soon cleared up along with the headache, and when she checked out two weeks later the only remaining condition was bald patches on her head. The doctors' notes all agreed she had alopecia areata, confirmed by a skin biopsy and microscopic examination of the follicles. Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease that causes patches of your hair to fall out. It can be temporary or permanent, it can be patchy or total, and usually more on one side of the scalp than the other. As this was the conclusion of multiple doctors who actually examined and tested her, we can probably put that part of the story to bed. Her hair loss had a prosaic medical explanation unrelated to the UFO.
Cash had also had heart surgery before, and suffered a heart attack a few years later. She also developed breast cancer and had both breasts removed. While Schuessler concluded that the UFO caused all of these and her eventual death by heart failure, we should also note that these are leading causes of natural mortality and — given her history — likely would have been her cause of death regardless of her UFO experience.
Landrum saw only an optometrist for her reported eye irritation, who noted that she appeared to be developing a cataract in one eye. No injuries were found, so far as we know. About eight months later, Landrum's story changed, and she too claimed to have lost her hair and several fingernails, but she never sought treatment for this, never mentioned it earlier, and no photographs or medical records ever supported it.
We do know that acute radiation poisoning was not involved, as the UFO proponents generally assert. We know this because doctors unanimously agree that if the reported symptoms had been caused by radiation, a fatal dose would have been necessary, and all three would be dead. But they all lived normal lifespans, so we know the cause of the reported symptoms was not radiation.
The sunburn is interesting, but also suspicious. The only photographic evidence of it was shown on the April 1981 episode of That's Incredible! where they told their story. Gary Posner, a skeptical medical doctor, described what he saw in an email to author Robert Sheaffer:
Betty's arms [showed] discrete, round, sunburn-type rashes that immediately caused me to suspect that she had created them by covering her arms with a garment containing circular cutouts and then exposing herself to sunlight (or a sunlamp).
There was no mention of these circular sunburns in the hospital doctors' notes that Schuessler included in his book, nor any mention of her sunburn at all except the swelling on her face. We also know that Schuessler carefully cherrypicked what to include in the book and what not to. As he began his investigation and spoke with other members of the UFO enthusiast community, he received an offer from Dr. Peter Rank, a radiologist and member of a group called the Fund for UFO Research, to examine Cash's medical records and give his medical opinion. He did so, and in a letter to Schuessler, concluded:
I think it is important to assure Betty that on the basis of the medical information you have provided me, that there are no signs of serious injury to date. You may also reassure Vicki that her cataract was probably a pre-existing condition and not necessarily related to her incident.
Schuessler included most of the letter written by Dr. Rank in his book, but not this important concluding paragraph asserting that neither woman suffered any significant injuries as a result of the alleged incident. I interpret this omission as cherrypicking: throughout his book, Schuessler included the bits of reports that supported his thesis that military helicopters escorted a dangerous UFO through the skies that night, and ignored the bits of reports that did not support that. If the doctors did say anything about Cash's odd circular sunburn spots, Schuessler buried it.
One wonders if the women were seeking to provide evidence that they'd been harmed by the UFO, and that they may have remembered Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the movie that had come out just a few years before, in which sunburn was depicted as the primary evidence of witnessing a UFO.
Some authors have concluded that the women hoaxed their experience seeking financial gain, evidenced by their $20 million lawsuit. This isn't unreasonable, and there were some red flags in the transcript of their interview at Bergstrom AFB, conducted some months later as a precursor to the filing of their lawsuit. They were there to establish that Air Force helicopters were involved. Although the incident took place well after dark and little of the sky was visible above the tree-lined road, Cash was adamant that these twin rotor helicopters said United States Air Force on the side — spelled out long, not abbreviated. The interviewer, USAF Captain John Camp, was very careful and specific about this, and the women were quite clear.
Here's the problem. In 1980, the US Air Force did not have any twin rotor helicopters. There were other operators in Texas who did — the Air National Guard and the US Army — but Cash and Landrum were clear that these said Air Force. Regular Air Force helicopters only had the words spelled out small and in black, which there's no way the women would have been able to see from far away in the dark. The only thing they might have been able to see would have been the familiar US military insignia with a star in a roundel with bars. Once, when Capt. Camp asked Landrum to draw on a signed piece of paper exactly how the words appeared, 7-year-old grandson Colby interrupted and said "[you mean the helicopter] that landed in Dayton?" and Landrum immediately shushed him. Clearly, they were lying about their description of the helicopters, in a clumsy attempt to win a financial settlement.
As far as the diamond-shaped UFO spouting flames that forms the heart of this story? I am not going to attempt to identify what it may have been; first because I'm in no position to have any clue, and second because its very existence stems from a single implausible anecdote. Other authors have proposed a celestial object, an aircraft landing light, a hot air balloon — all things that we know have prompted UFO reports, and that we know have fooled smart people into thinking they were seeing something extraordinary, many many times — and it's very possible that the three witnesses did see something like that.
The other thing I'm not going to do is call "hoax" on this one, because that implies a calculated deception. It's a reasonable likelihood that they actually did see something that night; probably nothing extraordinary, but something they personally didn't understand — and if there's anything we've learned from more than a decade of Skeptoid episodes it's that people honestly and frequently misinterpret things and confuse correlation with causation. It happens every day. In my experience, it's completely plausible that Cash and Landrum wrongly, but honestly, placed the blame for their health problems onto whatever they saw; and even pushed the truth a bit trying to get the Air Force to pay for it. When you believe in your heart that the Air Force did something wrong that harmed you, you don't necessarily feel that it's wrong to exaggerate evidence — like seeing the words Air Force on the side of the helicopters, adding on symptoms to people who didn't have them, even faking sunburn spots on your arm — as long as it's in pursuit of what you believe to be a just settlement.
And so we have another typical chapter in the lore of UFOlogy: an ordinary human event, twisted and amplified by a true believer author who started from his preferred conclusion and worked backwards to persuade the public, and created a legend.