UFO Buzzes Balloonists!

August 15, 2012

On Sunday, July 29, 2012, three intrepid balloonists went aloft over Genesee Country Village (one of the largest living history museums in the United States) located in Monroe County, New York. I should actually say Intrepid balloonists, because that was the name of the replica Civil War gas balloon the trio were dangling from.

Balloons like the Intrepid were operated by the Union Army Balloon Corps. They were largely developed by Thaddeus Lowe (1832–1913), a self-made scientist, as well as a balloon entrepreneur and showman, who sold the idea to President Lincoln. The balloons could carry an operator and telegraph equipment to provide aerial reconnaissance. Secured by a long tether, they provided safe observation of distant Confederate troop movements. (If shot at, they could quickly be hauled down and any bullet holes easily repaired.) On an early occasion, as a free-flying aeronaut Lowe had accidentally landed in enemy territory, but his wife Leontine, in the disguise of an old crone, arrived in a covered wagon to rescue him and his equipment. At the 1862 Battle of Seven Pines, Lowe’s observations of the oncoming rebels saved an isolated Union contingent. (The Confederates formed a smaller balloon corps but—like their Union counterparts—faced many problems. Balloons were eventually discontinued.)

The balloon at Genesee Country Village is the first replica of such a spy balloon. It is like the original except for the flammable hydrogen gas being replaced with helium. For a fee during a limited time, passengers—in this instance my wife Diana Harris and me—could go aloft, accompanied by a Civil War re-enactment balloonist. The tethered ride took us to a height of 250 feet—about 25 stories. (See first photo.)

Although we saw nothing but beautiful rolling countryside at the time, on printing our photographs I discovered in one a UFO apparently buzzing our balloon! In this photo (see second picture), there is an unmistakable something—looking for all the world like an extraterrestrial craft, a classic “flying saucer.” Were aliens attracted to our nineteenth-century technology? I assure readers that the photo is just as printed from my camera’s memory card; I have not altered it in any way. Can you divine what it may be—before highlighting the following paragraph?

Answer: Although the “saucer” struck me as odd, I quickly saw a clue: A duplicate print from the exact same photo file lacked the mysterious UFO. Indeed, the term UFO soon proved once again to be inaccurate—the “saucer” being no longer unidentified, nor flying, nor a real object. Instead, my stereomicroscope revealed it to be merely an artifact—a tiny blob of developer byproduct, apparently—from the photo printing process!