Lawhon Commentary Regarding Ball Lighting and UFOs (revised)

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Loy Lawhon

June 6, 2012

Answer to article titled,
"Ball Lightning Theory Discounts UFOs at Exeter"
- Click: Here

July 21, 2008

Looking for some comments that answer the article,
"Ball Lightning Experiments Produce UFOs?" Click: Here

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This page has been revised with additional CohenUFO comments and pertinent URLs added.

jc 5/24/2008: After seeing some experiments people have put on U-Tube regarding the creation of ball lighting in labs, etc., I now believe Loy's statement #1 below may be incorrect, and that having seen the lab demonstration, and other photos people have submitted, the phenomenon most likely _does_ exist. I guess I would also have to take Loy's comment from #2 "almost all instances of ball lightning have occurred _following_ an ordinary lighting strike" with a grain of salt as well, as I believe it possible that it might be created if electrical conditions in a thunderstorm and the ground underneath were exactly right. N.B. - I have numbered the two statements in Loy's article below. The red and green are my comments.

However, even with this taken into consideration, the ball-lightning theory still does not appear to fit the "1965 Exeter, N.H. sightings." From all I have researched concerning the Exeter sightings, the majority, if not everything Loy says below concerning same _is_ basically correct, except for my following notations. (in red and green)

Commentary from Loy Lawhon
Regarding Ball Lightning and UFOs:

Loy Lawhon


In the summer of 1966, a former electrical engineer for General Electric named Phil Klass, happened to pick up Incident at Exeter. Klass was a technical writer for Aviation Week magazine. After he began reading the book, noting that many of the sightings occurred near high-tension power lines, he began to formulate a theory that the sightings were caused by "ball lightning". Klass wrote an article about the Exeter sightings that would be the first of his many articles and books debunking UFOs, and Aviation Week published it. It became widely accepted as a good explanation for the Exeter sightings. So good, in fact, that you will barely see mention of Exeter in UFO lore these days.

But IS "ball lightning" a good explanation for UFO sightings, and in particular the one above? We did some investigating of the phenomena, and here's what we found:

1) jc 5/24/2008: As per my initial comments above, Loy's first point below is most likely moot.

There is a great deal of controversy over whether ball lightning exists at all. Many scientists think that ball lightning is just an afterimage of ordinary lightning seen after a normal lightning flash. Others say that it is an "optical illusion" or that people have mistaken meteors for ball lightning. The only evidence that exists for ball lightning is "anecdotal accounts", and not a lot of those. Anecdotal accounts are just witness accounts, the same type of evidence we have for UFOs...

2) jc 5/24/2008: Again, as per my initial comments, the last sentence in his second point immediately below may possibly be open for some discussion as well.

Reports indicate that observed "ball lightning" can be white, yellow, orange, red, or blue. It is usually less than 50 cm in diameter, and it usually lasts only a few seconds. Witnesses report a strong smell of sulfur when it is nearby. Almost all reported appearances of ball lightning have followed an ordinary lightning strike and have occurred during a thunderstorm.

jc 5/24/2008: But, if you examine the rest of Loy's comments, I believe you will find that the majority, if not all of it _is_ correct and generally accurate regarding that Exeter case. However, the one extremely important point not highlighted here by Lawhon is that "Exeter" was not about "one" object. It wasn't *a sighting*, it was actually *a series of sighting(s) over several days time; not one description, but many.* There were at least sixty separate UFO incidents reported at the time. Some of those descriptions were extremely close-up and detailed, not just *balls of light*, etc. One can click on the following URLS (but probably most important, HERE) to get a clearer picture of some of the events, and to realize it was extremely difficult if not impossible to find a truly prosaic explanation for most, if not all, of it.

Loy's Comments continued:

None of this seems to fit the Exeter sighting. The sky was clear, there was no thunderstorm. The object seen was 90 feet in diameter and lasted quite some time, possible even long enough to follow a car 7-9 miles. Plus, although Klass' theory relies heavily on the high-tension power lines, ball lightning is not associated with power lines, but with normal lightning.

Perhaps, rather than "ball lightning", another electrical phenomenon known as "St. Elmo's Fire" was meant instead? The first time I heard of St. Elmo's Fire was when I read Moby Dick by Herman Melville:

All the yard-arms were tipped with a pallid fire; and touched at each tri-pointed lightning-rod-end with three tapering white flames, each of the three tall masts was silently burning in that sulphurous air, like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar.

There was a great scene in the movie when Gregory Peck, as Ahab, held up a harpoon and the green fire glowed at the tip. But St. Elmo's Fire is a green or blue glow above a pointed object on the ground, like the masts and lightning rods of the Pequod. St. Elmo's Fire is created by a positive electric charge reaching skyward in response to an area of negative charge in the clouds or air above. Instead of generating a lightning strike, the corona discharge, as it's called, causes millions of tiny sparks to radiate from objects like the masts of ships, utility poles, antennas, the wings of aircraft, or a harpoon, causing the green glow.

Does that sound like the Exeter sighting? The Exeter object didn't stay in one place over a utility pole, it moved around quite a lot. It wasn't a soft green glow, but a brilliant red, brighter than a car's headlights.

There is a type of corona discharge that causes a glow around high tension power lines. It occurs when the air around those lines becomes highly ionized. However, the glow follows the cloud of ionized gases or air, and would not tend to move in a horizontal direction. Besides, it requires something to cause the cloud of ionized gases, and in the Exeter cases, there was no evidence of such a thing. Any other type of corona discharge from high-tension power lines would require a significant discharge of electricity from those lines, and the engineers at the Exeter and Hampton Electric Company reported no unusual voltage losses recorded at the times of any of the sightings. Once again, there was no evidence of any cause for such a discharge and no evidence that such a discharge occurred.

Whatever the Exeter objects may have been, the "rational" explanation proposed by debunkers rivals the extraterrestrial one in improbability. Brilliant red corona discharges from power lines are as rare as hen's teeth, if they occur at all, yet we are expected to believe that they occurred not once, but numerous times in and around Exeter within a short time. Where is the cause-and-effect? What conditions occurred to create these "coronas" in the fall of 1965 in New Hampshire that have not been duplicated there since and have not been reported anywhere else? Perhaps the debunkers are less critical of their own "explanations" than of those of UFO "believers"? One "debunker" (Robert Sheaffer) even suggested the planet Jupiter as an explanation for Muscarello's sightings! Sheesh!

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Additionally (from CohenUFO):

. . . and how do you explain this as ball-lightning? . . or this? . . . or this?

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Ball Lightning Experiments,

Flame Vortex's
Their Limits to Explain UFO sightings

jpg courtesy of


Every once in awhile someone will come up with an all-encompassing theory to expain all UFOs. Persinger and Devereux attempted to do this with their combined theories; Devereux's Earthlights via Tectonic Strain and Persinger's Hallucinations via Electromagnetic Stimulation of the brain. Both of these have been demonstrated as being insufficent to explain the leftover 10-15 percent or so of UFO cases which stubbornly refuse to acquiesce to these thoughtful explanations. (Please see: James McDonald statement number six at link)

4/10/2010: Philip Klass, journalist and well-known UFO skeptic, attempted to discount the Exeter, New Hampshire UFO sightings by saying they were similar to ball lightning, however one need only read the actual Exeter case testimonies to decide if Klass himself ever really read what people had sworn they had seen, and whether their collective descriptions truly sound anything like ball lightning or lightning of any sort.

So that people do not automatically assume that John Abrahamson and his former student Peter Coleman have solved the entire problem of UFOs with the "flame in the vortex" concept, here are some statistics I submitted to Paul Devereux. They illustrate the placement of "ball of light" UFO sightings within the total picture. One can apply same to "ball lightning" sightings as well.

and, here are some quotes from page 230 of Abrahamson and Coleman's thesis:

"A Unified Theory of Ball Lightning
and Unexplained Atmospheric Lights"

Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol 20, No. 2, pp 215-238, 2006

3. Application of the Theory to UFO Lights

Several investigators like Benedicts (1951) and Klass (1966, 1968) have proposed ball lightning as an explanation of some UFOs. However, what is now required is a credible ball lightning theory that could explain some of the diverse properties of UFOs. The explanatory capability of the vortex fireball theory could be what is needed to more fully interpret a difficult-to-explain UFO that has generated world-wide interest (Coleman, 1997a, b). As a caveat, it should be pointed out that this theory does not in any way directly rule out the possibility of extraterrestrial craft. The theory may be applied to help filter out a class of events attributed to a natural atmospheric effect in vortices. (jc: bolding and italics are mine.)

A certain proportion of UFO lights show typical features attributed to a combusting vortex. Such features are well described in many UFO publications (e.g. Hervey, 1978; Cade & Davis, 1969), and are summarized below. A larger table of UFO properties was presented in Coleman (1990) but for the purposes of this paper a shortened list will suffice.

(jc 1/3/2011: It is also necessary to interject here that one must keep the following in mind since some might tend to forget this fact when reading the following list - *The conditions in the atmosphere must be such that would tend to create a tornadic-situation in the first place.*)

Shapes like tubes, spheres, linked to tube below, disc, etc.

Sounds described as a swarm of bees or a moving train.

Rotation. Comment: Rotation is a common feature when whirlwinds are reported by observers.

A central fireball surrounded by other fireballs (sometimes appears as a 'wheel') that can split and recombine.

Wind or rush of air and hovering motion.

Tilting of luminous cylinders. Comment: This is a commonly observed feature of natural vortices. For example, Simpson et a1 (1986) reported on water spouts that tilt to 10-20 degrees from the increase in vertical wind speed with altitude (i.e. wind shear) pushing the funnel into an inclined position.

Flames issuing from torpedo-shaped body (Cade and Davis, 1969).

One UFO linked by a luminous thread to another one above (Zou, 1989).

Holes and trenches in the ground, "excavated" by the fireball.


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New Informationjc 6/6/2012: With regard to the article published in the Nashua Telegraph, Tues, August 23, 1966 by Evert Clark, titled "Ball Lightning Theory Discounts UFOs at Exeter" and recently reposted on the Internet:

When Phil Klass dismissed the Exeter sightings by saying almost all of them were at night and almost all occurred near power lines, he actually demonstrated the following:

1) Klass apparently never read or simply ignored the witness descriptions. One needed only to carefully read some of those descriptions to realize there was a problem with his theory. By reading the information at the URL, one can see they weren't all seen at night, or near power lines.

2) It is important to note that since at least one, if not more, of the sightings contained a description of an out-of-norm craft of some type, it was not really proper to dismiss all sixty sightings in that generalized manner.

3) In a number of cases it was pointed out the UFOs were un-plane-like and silent. During the interviews, teenagers agreed with adults concerning descriptions and details. Descriptions given were fairly specific and eliminated ball lightning or fire-balloons as the cause. The objects (craft?) sometimes followed cars, in one case for approximately 7-9 miles.

4) It may have been correct that Klass investigated what was known about ball lighting however, it would appear he never juxtaposed what he learned concerning same against the actual Exeter witness testimonies. If he had, he would have discovered that some of those testimonies included size estimates and descriptions which appeared to eliminate ball lightning and other prosaic objects as the cause.

* N.B. Descriptions above were taken from John Fuller's 1966 book, "Incident at Exeter." Fuller traveled to Exeter fairly soon after the incidents occurred and, with a transistor recorder, recorded witness interviews which were used in creating his book.


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For additional information concerning the Exeter case:
Please read the rest of my rebuttal to Larry Robinson regarding Exeter.


For an update on the present 2012 status of Exeter 1965:
One can discover the numerous problems concerning Joe Nickell and James McGaha's virtually embarrassing attempt to solve it (posted on the Internet in 2012), by clicking HERE. (See if you believe they made a truly honest attempt to research it properly, and if their parent organization CSICOP [Committee for Scientific Investigation] is really as scientific as they claim.)