One fine summer evening in 1953, with Bank Street bustling as thousands of ball fans headed to Lansdowne Park to watch a game, Wilbert B. Smith, a senior radio engineer with the Department of Transport, and his research team released a weather balloon over the area. Not just any weather balloon, this one was covered with aluminum to make it disk-shaped, while fastened to its centre was a large aircraft flare timed to ignite when the balloon reached 5,000 feet, or 1,524 metres.
The silver object rose slowly in the air and, at 5,000 feet, glowed brilliantly for 15 seconds as its flare ignited. What Smith and his team, dubbed Project Magnet, expected to happen next was a deluge of phone calls from panicked and concerned citizens about the unidentified flying object they’d just seen. It was 1953, after all, with the post-Second-World-War Cold War in high gear and UFOs and their possible extraterrestrial origins frequently in the news. What they got, though, was nothing, or, rather, the conclusion that people just don’t watch the sky all that much: not one person called to report the strange object. This, however, hardly deterred Smith and his colleagues.
Project Magnet was formed in December 1950 on the authorization of Commander C.P. Edwards, then Deputy Minister of Transport for Air Service, with the aim of investigating UFO claims in Canada. It ran separately but in conjunction with a multi-department effort coordinated by the Defence Research Board, named Project Second Storey, to investigate reports of UFO sightings. According to Smith, Project Magnet was never officially sanctioned and no government funding was provided; he had simply requested some space and surplus equipment at a Transport Station at Shirley’s Bay, with which to collect research in his own spare time. Project Magnet’s primary goal was to study how the Earth’s magnetic field could be harnessed as a propulsion system for vehicles, a technology Smith believed extraterrestrials used.
At the time, 50 per cent of Canadians believed “that these mysterious disks are not just imagination and that they are not just a natural phenomenon,” according to a poll conducted by the Canadian Institute of Public Opinion.
“So many reliable people are among the witnesses,” noted the Fort William Times-Journal, “it is no longer possible to ignore entirely the possibilities that some aerial survey of the earth is being taken by personalities from some other part of the universe.”
Reports of UFOs in Canada stretch back to 1792, when explorer David Thompson reported a bright blob flying overhead in northern Manitoba. In February 1915, the lights of Parliament Hill, Rideau Hall and the Royal Mint were extinguished after reports of unknown lights crossing the St. Lawrence River and headed for Ottawa reached Prime Minister Robert Borden. Thought to possibly be an aerial attack, the sighting were later blamed on fireworks-laden balloons released in Morristown, N.Y. to celebrate a century of peace.
Smith, who in 1955 became one of City View’s three inaugural trustees, was himself an ardent believer in aliens. In a speech delivered to the Vancouver Area UFO Club in 1961, a year before his death, he claimed to have communicated with extraterrestrials, whom he at least occasionally referred to as “the boys topside.” An engineer, he was particularly interested in such technical matters as how their spacecraft was built and how they were propelled. He claims they explained to him how the speed of light is not constant, and that time was not the measured chronological ticking we imagine, but a “field function” that changed throughout the universe, and which could be altered. Their ships, he was told, were supported on the Earth’s gravitational field. The fields surrounding their ships, he added, created areas that reduced areas that weakened the strength of objects that came into contact with them, accounting for the destruction of earthly military craft that flew too close to them. This explained, among other phenomenon, the May 1956 crash of a military jet into the Villa St. Louis convent in Orleans — the jet, Smith said, flew into a “very strong vortex of reduced binding,” causing it to break apart.
“I wrote a very stiff memorandum to the appropriate people in my own department pointing out some of these facts,” he wrote. But his letter, he maintained, “wound up on the crank file.”
Similar unstable vortices, he added, were created when nuclear explosions occurred. An unnamed friend of his who had also been in contact with “these people from outside” claimed to have spoken with one, Tyla, a garbage collector whose job it was to clean up the radioactive messes created by such man-made explosions. Tyla, Smith said, gathered the material, took it aboard his ship where it was rendered inert, and then dumped it in some secluded spot on Earth. In 1948, Tyla reportedly told his friend that he would dump his next load near Ottawa, and that he would pick an opportune time so many people could witness it. According to Smith, it took place on Remembrance Day that year: “We looked up to the north-west of Ottawa and there was Tyla’s little craft, an egg-shaped affair in the sky, and coming out of the tail-end of it was what looked like an almost dissipated portion of a jet trail that was dropping down.”
By summarizing sightings reported in 1952, Smith reported that UFOs were “a hundred feet or more in diameter; they can travel at speeds of several thousand miles per hour; they can reach altitudes well above those which should support conventional aircraft or balloons; and ample power and force seem to be available for all required maneuvers.”
The sightings, he noted, occurred at approximately six-week intervals, and most frequently when Earth and Mars were nearest to one another. In his 1952 report, he wrote: “We are forced to the conclusion that the vehicles are probably extraterrestrial, in spite of our prejudices to the contrary.”
The Project Second Storey committee, of which Smith was a member, developed a weighted 28-question questionnaire for those who reported seeing UFOs, to try to determine the likelihood that what they thought they saw actually happened. The conclusion, according to Smith, was that there was a 91-per-cent chance that reported sightings involved real objects, and a 60-per-cent chance that those objects were extraterrestrial vehicles.
On Aug. 8, 1954, Smith and his team at Shirley’s Bay recorded a disturbance they believed was caused by a UFO. Among the telling signs were Morse code transmissions too rapid for a trained operator to decipher.
Only days later, Project Magnet was disbanded. “Scientists,” wrote the Ottawa Journal, “say there is no proof flying saucers exist but they honorably admit there is no proof that all the strange and wandering objects reported in the sky are freaks of imagination or atmosphere.”
It was, Smith explained in a 1957 Weekend Magazine article on UFOs, all a matter of perspective: “If a stock promoter told you that there was a 60-per-cent probability that a certain stock would go up, I don’t think you’d invest with him. But if the weatherman told you there was a 60-per-cent probability that a hurricane was going to hit your area, I think you’d hurry up and bring in the lawn furniture.”
In 2017, there were approximately 1,100 UFO sightings reported in Canada, including 31 in the Ottawa area. The truth remains out there, somewhere.
Source: Ottawa Citizen