It was a bitterly cold winter morning on January 5, 2000 in St. Clair County, Illinois. At just 4:00 in the morning it was black as pitch and more than three hours before sunrise, and the streets were correspondingly deserted. Today we're going to study what is said to have happened over the next 45 minutes or so, involving at least four police officers from different different towns, speeding down the highways, chattering on their radios, and pursuing what would become considered by some to be one of the most elusive UFOs in history. It's become known as the St. Clair Triangle case, and it's had UFOlogists scratching their heads ever since.
In all, seven people saw the object, including four police officers; due to the wee hours, not many people other than police officers were up and about. The first was 66-year-old Mel Noll who parked at his miniature golf course around 4 in the morning, to make sure his plumbing hadn't frozen. He saw what he described as a big house floating in the air, with windows and all sorts of details. He went to the nearby police station in Highland, where the dispatcher radioed officer Ed Barton. He saw a bright white light, followed it, then parked and got close enough to shut off his own lights and observed that it looked like a giant triangle with bright white lights at each corner. Nearby, insomniac Johnny Doss, listening to a police scanner, heard the call and also went outside and saw what he later described as having several bright lights.
Next, officer Dave Martin in a neighboring department spotted it, and described three bright white lights with a blinking red one in the middle. Nearby, officer Craig Stevens also heard the chatter and parked his car in a big dark field where he hoped he might be able to see something, and described a huge object with three bright lights in back and a red one in the middle. Further south, officer Matt Jany got out his binoculars and saw what he thought he heard the others describing. It was big, taller in the middle, with lots of lights on it; white on the extremities and red in the middle. The final sighting was two hours later, near sunrise, when commuter Steven Wonnacott saw what he described as a motionless arrowhead shaped object, with a few bright lights and lots of smaller lights on it. Overall, the object spent about one hour traveling some 100 km in a generally southwestern direction.
The UFO community wasted no time. Among the first on the scene was John Velier, a representative of Robert Bigelow, a name not unfamiliar to regular Skeptoid listeners. Robert Bigelow is the hotel magnate who founded Bigelow Aerospace, a serious venture that actually has two prototype inflatable habitation modules in orbit. His next most famous venture was the National Institute for Discovery Science, based in Las Vegas, and primarily focused on UFO research. Its other projects included Skinwalker Ranch where Bigelow employed a team to investigate cattle mutilations and look out for paranormal phenomena. Velier traveled to Illinois, interviewed as many of the witnesses as he could, and came up with two possible identifications for the object that was reported: First, that it was a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber; and second, that it was a prototype cargo blimp built by Aereon. Unfortunately both of Velier's theories were easily disproven. It was trivial to ascertain that neither a B-2 nor Aereon's only existing 26-foot prototype had been in the area.
Nevertheless, the sensational story went viral, driven mainly by the fact that four of the witnesses were police officers. The Discovery Channel immediately sprang into action and made a 1-hour special called UFO over Illinois. The Sci-Fi network (now SyFy) followed it up in 2004 with an episode on their series Proof Positive: Evidence of the Paranormal, and right after that came out, Peter Jennings produced a two-hour special Peter Jennings Reporting: UFOs — Seeing Is Believingthat aired in early 2005. The St. Clair Triangle had earned its permanent place in UFO lore.
UFOlogists today have a whole subculture of belief in "Triangles", as they call them. The UFO Casebook website devotes a whole section to these, evidently making the presumption that such objects regularly appear around the world. They even have a page describing their characteristics: their speed, flight capabilities, size, and appearance; yet their drawings and alleged photographs vary widely and clearly don't represent a single type of aircraft. The St. Clair sighting is listed on there, but so are other famous cases that have been thoroughly debunked as having had nothing to do with UFOs, such as the Rendlesham Forest case and the Phoenix Lights.
The idea that Black Triangle reports are actually sightings of secret military aircraft is one that, I think, can be pretty casually dismissed. Development of new aircraft is done in secret. In the U.S. it's usually done at the National Classified Test Facility, more familiarly known in pop culture as Area 51. They're never flown over populated areas at low speed and low altitude in a highly visible manner. If you show it to civilians, you're also showing it to the Russians, the Chinese, and everyone else in the world. No matter from which direction you examine the military aircraft hypothesis, you end up with implausible bupkis.
So now, let's turn our analysis toward our favorite old standby method. Before you try to explain a strange story, first make sure that the strange story actually happened, or at least that it happened as reported. We are singularly fortunate in this case, because we have two good pieces of evidence with solid provenance. We have a photograph that one of the officers took of the object, and we have the transcript of the radio conversation that took place. Going back to these original sources gives us a pretty good idea how well what actually took place that night matches up with the version that's reported on today's TV shows. Let's start with the photograph.
Officer Stevens had a Polaroid camera in his trunk, and fortunately had the presence of mind to go and grab it. He snapped the photo at 4:28am. But unfortunately, the photo doesn't tell us much of anything at all, and is of low quality. It's a grainy, red view of the night sky, and shows a line of four lights, with the leftmost light spaced some distance away from the others. The leftmost of the three on the right is much fainter than the others. The camera was shaking when the picture was taken, so all four lights traced the same wiggling path as the camera shook while the shutter was open. No details are visible at all, and the color of the lights cannot be discerned.
So now let's turn to the radio transcripts, beginning with the original dispatch:
DISPATCH: Lebanon, this is a call from Highland P.D. in reference to a truck driver who just stopped in. He said there was a flying object in the area of Lebanon. It looks like a two-story house. It had white lights and red blinking lights, and it was last seen southwest over Lebanon. Could you check the area?
OFFICER BARTON: Did they say the truck driver was DUI or anything? 10-4, I'm out.... [Pause] Just a quick question. If I happened to find it, what am I supposed to do with it? If I see it, I'm not saying a word.... [Pause] Also be advised the last thing that went over Lebanon — this was approximately five minutes ago — was a military cargo plane. It looked like a C-5. [Pause] Be advised there is a very bright white light east of town. It looks like it's just east of Summerfield, and it keeps changing colors. I'll go over there and see if it looks like an aircraft. It doesn't look like an aircraft, though.... It's not the moon, and it's not a star. [Pause] If you would, will you contact Scott Air Force Base and see if they have anything flying in this area please? [Pause] Whether it's a plane or not, it's heading westbound now. It should be really close to Scott now.... As a matter of fact, if the Shiloh officer looks up, they can probably see it by now.
OFFICER MARTIN: I see something, but I don't know what the heck it is.... It's probably heading to Lambert (Field).
OFFICER STEVENS: I've got that object in sight also.
DISPATCH: Are you serious?
OFFICER STEVENS: It's huge.
DISPATCH: Does it look like a... What does it look like to you?
OFFICER STEVENS: It's kind of V-shaped. It looks like it's possibly headed toward Lambert.
DISPATCH: 10-4. That's what Shiloh said when it was heading towards Fairview Heights.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: (Hums the Twilight Zone theme song)
OFFICER STEVENS: Really. Does Dupo have a Polaroid?
DISPATCH: That, I don't know.
OFFICER JANY: I'm not sure what you're seeing. It appears to be pretty high in the area. When I could first see it with binoculars, you could see it was different colors. Now it appears to be white.
OFFICER STEVENS: Is it very large?
OFFICER JANY: It's hard to tell. It's pretty far off.
OFFICER STEVENS: This object was above me about 500 feet. And it was huge.
OFFICER JANY: This thing appears... it's probably 20 or 30,000. It's about where planes usually are. It's not low at all.
So whatever Jany saw with his binoculars was obviously different from the low, slow, big thing the other guys were seeing, and was almost certainly just an airplane and unrelated to the event. But clearly the other guys did all see something. Officer Stevens, who took the photo, also filed the following report:
While I was sitting there, I observed a very large flying object coming from a southward direction. The object was flying very low from 500 to 1000 ft., and was flying very slowly. The object was making no noise. I could only hear a very low decibel buzzing sound.
Writing in the St. Louis Riverfront Times three months after the incident, reporter William Stage said he'd been advised by the FAA that the object reported was an advertising blimp. The American Blimp Company, since acquired by Van Wagner Airship Group, was the largest operator in the region, and still is nationwide. It only took me two phone calls to Van Wagner to learn that the 20+ year veterans there have heard all the UFO stories so many times they've forgotten more than they remember. Of the St. Clair incident, one veteran told me "Everyone in the airship industry knew what it was, but the news still reported it as a UFO."
Unfortunately, nobody at Van Wagner knew of any records showing the details of times and dates of blimps in transit from one event to another back in 2000, but they operated dozens of blimps of several different types, usually at some sports competition or other event. I asked mainly about how the craft would fly between events in different cities. They typically fly at about 1,000 feet above ground level, around 55-65 kph (35-40 mph), depending on the wind. The distance between the first police sighting in Highland and the last one in Dupo, just about an hour later, is just about 55 kilometers. If for some reason it later turned and came back toward commuter Wonnacott just at sunrise, its direction and appearance would fit quite well with what he described.
The Airship Group veterans told me their blimps are pretty quiet in flight, making nothing more than a low noise when at low altitude, much like what officer Stevens reported. The blimps have a pair of bright landing lights which may or may not be on at any given time. Most blimps had a red light on the bottom and a white strobe on the top, as well as port and starboard red and green lights on the tail fins. During an event, the pilot would switch on a pair of 1,000-watt lights inside the blimp's envelope to brightly illuminate the whole craft, including whatever advertising was on the side; but back in 2000, they also flew a type of blimp that had arrays of small lights on the side that could spell out messages or depict simple images.
The route flown by the mysterious object that night happens to exactly correspond with the route a blimp would have taken in transit from an event in Indianapolis to either St. Louis or Kansas City, all three of which are among Van Wagner's major locations. They also frequently take VIPs and clients on sightseeing tours, so it shouldn't surprise anyone if the blimp changed directions or looped around. This all happened just outside St. Louis, where Van Wagner often had events.
Put succinctly, I couldn't find a single significant difference between the St. Clair object and an advertising blimp in transmit, which is exactly what the FAA told the Riverfront Times. The size, the speed, the sound, the lights; everything was well within the ballpark of the reports. I also couldn't think of a single reason why the UFOlogists utterly failed to make the slightest effort to investigate this obvious possibility. It took me two phone calls; surely they could have done the same — unless, perish the thought — it might not have led them to their preferred conclusion.