1960s: Dr. Gordon Patterson establishes The UTIAS UFO Project

By Rod Tennyson, Professor Emeritus, UTIAS


The surge in international interest in UFOs (unidentified flying objects) began around 1947, shortly after World War 2 (WW2). Many historical books document the host of sightings around the world, but little is known about the Canadian activities in this field that took place as early as 1950. Many Canadian government agencies were involved in documenting sightings reported by the public, including the Department of Transport (DOT), the Defence Research Board (DRB), the National Research Council (NRC) and the Department of National Defence (DND).

Canada’s official entry into the investigation of this UFO phenomenon started with Mr. Wilbert Smith, who headed up Project Magnet in 1950. While Smith’s main research interest focussed on geo-magnetism at the federal Telecommunications Division of DOT in Ottawa, he was keenly interested in the UFO phenomenon. Subsequently, he was officially authorized by a DOT Deputy Minister to make a detailed study of this phenomenon, called Project Magnet. Smith is quoted as saying that research into the earth’s magnetic field could lead “to something which may well prove to be the introduction of new technology.” He also noted “this is borne out by the investigations which are being carried out at the present time in relation to flying saucers.”

Smith believed that UFOs might be operating on geo-magnetic field effects. Mr. Smith went so far as to establish a government experimental detection facility in Shirley Bay to monitor anomalies in the local magnetic and radiation fields. Although he observed one dramatic change in a magnetic field detector, it was never explained. Eventually, Smith produced an ‘unofficial’ government report on his work that probably led to the subsequent involvement of the DRB, and other members of the DND in assessing the UFO phenomenon.

It was Dr. Omond Solandt, Chairman of the DRB, who initiated a formal request to set up a government committee to “see if we can make anything out of these flying saucer reports” in 1952. It should be noted at this point that Dr. Solandt was a good friend of Dr. Gordon Patterson, Founder and First Director of the University of Toronto Institute for Aerophysics (UTIA), the forerunner of UTIAS. DRB funded much of the early research at UTIA, and helped finance the relocation from the Downsview airfield and construction of UTIA at its current sight.

The committee Dr. Solandt formed was called, inexplicably, “Project Second Story” under the chairmanship of Dr. Peter Millman, who worked at the NRC Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Ottawa. It is interesting to note the membership of this committee since it indicates a strong government interest in the UFO subject at that time; members included representatives from the Directorates of Air and Naval Intelligence, Military Operations and Planning and members of the DRB. After several meetings spread over the year, the committee concluded that the situation did not warrant a large scale official investigation. Millman himself, however, concluded that there were indeed a number of unexplained cases, and recommended that the international community should establish a standard format for recording and reporting sighting. This committee essentially disbanded after 1953. Curiously, Mr. Smith, who had compiled a file on UFOs, was not a member of this committee.

Throughout the following years, DND maintained a UFO file based on reports submitted to the government from the public, and in some cases, actually sent investigators to interview witnesses to such sightings. In fact, DND investigators visited specific sights where ‘landings’ had reportedly occurred. These reports remained confidential and not available to the Canadian public. In 1968, the files were turned over to NRC under the oversight of Dr. Millman, who now worked in the Upper Atmosphere Research program at NRC. These reports were retained at NRC in what was called the “Non-Meteoritic Sighting File.” NRC’s main task in this field, as Millman saw it, was to remain a government repository for public sightings, with no field or investigative work undertaken by NRC.


In the 1960s, UFO sightings around the world increased exponentially, with many occurring in Canada. One remarkable story was reported concerning a close encounter with a UFO in the wilderness bush of Manitoba. Follow-up stories emerged that the witness had suffered serious illness from his encounter with the UFO. Although Canadian government files were accumulating many of these reported sightings, it appeared that no apparent ‘scientific’ field investigations were being conducted when ‘physical evidence’ was reported.

To add to this UFO frenzy, the U.S. established “Project Blue Book” and enlisted the aid of Dr. Allen Hynek, a well-known astronomer from Northwestern University, Illionis, to investigate American sightings. He originally debunked the existence of UFOs. In fact, one of his famous remarks attributed some sightings in a wilderness area as nothing more than an illusion caused by swamp gas. As many of us know, he changed his mind about UFOs and in fact became a strong advocate of the notion that there must be some substance to many of these stories. He in fact established a ranking of the types of UFO incidents he was investigating: those of the first kind (sightings), those of the second kind (some physical evidence, such as photographs) and encounters of the third kind–actual physical contact which would include abductions (the subject of a well-known movie of a similar title in which Dr. Hynek served as a consultant).

Thus Dr. Patterson decided to establish a core of aerospace scientists to investigate sightings in Canada. I was delighted when he asked me to lead our investigative group in these early days of UFO sightings. Two of my colleagues, Dr. Stan Townsend and Dr. Ray Measures, agreed to work with me. Interestingly, none of the senior professors at UTIA wanted to become involved, perhaps for obvious reasons. However, the three of us, being junior Assistant Professors, thought it would be a great learning experience to find out more about this subject, and to collaborate with U.S. scientists such as Dr. Hynek and Dr. James MacDonald. Dr. MacDonald, noted for his in-depth UFO reports, pleaded with the United Nations and the U.S. Air Force to formally support research on UFOs. Dr. McDonald had served in the U.S. Navy Intelligence section during the war, 1942-45, and was the Director of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the University of Arizona. In 1968, he visited UTIAS to review his case for the existence of UFOs. Later, in 1971, we learned of his mysterious death in the Arizona desert.

The Institute also had a working relationship with the Canadian National Research Council in Ottawa which had access to DND sighting reports. Thus, our first task was to visit NRC and review DND files that were not open to the public. I recall that Prof. Barry French accompanied us on that visit since he was intrigued by what the DND might have on file. As soon as we arrived on site, we were asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement that would prevent us from ever disclosing any of the contents of the files we were about to read, subject to severe penalties for non-compliance. We all agreed somewhat reluctantly, since it put us in a position of not being able to even talk to our boss, Dr. Patterson, about what we had read. Suffice it to say, even 40 years later, there was a great deal of investigative information that could not be made public since many of the comments made by the interviewers from different government agencies might be subject to legal action. On the other hand, there were some cases with photographic evidence that were termed “unexplainable.”

As a result of this first foray into the world of confidential information, we agreed to inform the ‘Doc,’ our friendly name for Dr. Patterson, that we saw nothing that should dissuade us from following through with our plans, at least for a year, to see what evidence we could accumulate.

Over the next year or so, we were deluged with phone calls about sightings, photographs and on occasion reports of physical evidence that had to be investigated. Some phone calls actually resulted in a visit by at least two of the committee members when we felt there was a real opportunity to hear about a ‘high probability’ sighting. At this point, I should mention that we received many reports of individuals ‘communicating’ with aliens, but there was little  we could do other than listen politely and move on to other calls.

One particular phone call came from an Ontario Provincial Police station in Whitby, requesting the UTIA team to come out that night to speak with one of their patrol officers who had seen UFO lights flying down the length of Lake Ontario, parallel to the highway. The officer had been so entranced by these lights, as he tracked them along the highway, that he hit an embankment and flipped his car. Dr. Ray Measures and I went out and met the officer, whom we interviewed in a jail cell; not that he had been arrested, but it was the only private space available there at that time.

We believed he had seen these lights and we told his commanding officer that we had also received other calls from people who had seen similar lights flying at high speed over the lake. Later the next day, we found out through contacts we had with the Canadian Air Force that it was common practice for fighter aircraft to attempt to penetrate US air space over the lake in joint exercises undertaken by the U.S. and Canada. The lighted aircraft would be visible, and then at a certain point in the exercise, the lights would flash out, giving the impression of the ‘UFO’ vanishing at high speed. After that, we received no more calls  from the OPP.

Many photographs were received by our group, most were fakes, such as the one shown below in Image 1.

Black and white photograph of a fake UFO hanging from a wire
Image 1: Fake UFO hanging from a wire.


Black and white photo of a black smudge in the sky over a snowy bank
Image 2: Unexplained optical effect or UFO?

On other occasions, we received photos that we could not prove were fake, yet they seemed unusual, such as the one in Image 2.

One particular Class 2 sighting involved a colour slide of a grey coloured elongated object that cast a cloud on the forest trees below, as well as reflecting sunlight off parts of its surface. This slide was submitted to our group by a forester in northern B.C. It was found to be authentic, based on an analysis performed by DND in Ottawa, (prior to the computer age)…..in other words, the slide was clearly and provably undoctored, and the object’s size was consistent with the shadow on the trees…not a photograph of a tossed disc, which we often received as ‘evidence’ of a flying saucer. We might have dismissed this sighting as being an unusual cloud except for the fact that the forester had noted that after a few minutes, the object suddenly flew off and disappeared. This was a ‘sighting’ that we could not explain.

One interesting case that we solved related to what is known in the UFO literature as ‘angel hair.’ We were sent spherical-shaped clumps of metallic strips (about 4 in. in diameter) found in a deserted area of a farmer’s field in northern Ontario. It turned out, after analyzing the composition of the strips, to be aluminum radar chaff, based on measurements we made of their individual length and width. These clumps of radar chaff were dumped during war games between the U.S. and Canada when Canadian fighter aircraft attempted to penetrate U.S. airspace undetected across the lake at night. This was a non-scheduled exercise to test U.S. readiness.

Clumping of the chaff occurs when it is stored in canisters in a hanger and becomes damp over time. When the canisters are slit in flight to produce a floating cloud of radar-reflecting chaff, it can fall to earth as clumps. Knowing the strip dimensions apparently allows the calculation of the wavelength of the radar being used – much to the dismay of the U.S. military. We were quickly informed not to publish this data. Consequently, not wanting to antagonize DND, we kept quiet about this information and reported only that the material was aluminum foil, not some alien material. We were never pressed to explain where it came from.

We analyzed many sightings and physical evidence, including, for example, ground circles in remote fields, and we interviewed many people who claimed to have seen a UFO. Our UFO program was phased out following the publication of a significant UFO report by Dr. Edward Condon. Condon was a well-known and respected physicist from the University of Colorado hired by the USAF Office of Scientific Research to perform a comprehensive review of all sightings logged in their Blue Book files. We visited Condon in Colorado prior to the publication of his findings, to get his assessment on this phenomenon.

In the end, his conclusions essentially laid to rest the reality of alien space craft visiting earth, based on the data he had at hand, although he had to admit there were several cases that were both credible and unexplainable. His report resulted in the closing of Project Blue Book in 1969, as well as our program at UTIAS. Later, however, Dr. Hynek formed a Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) in 1973 under his direction, and purchased the UFO files from NICAP when it folded shortly after the Condon report. Hynek died in 1986, but CUFOS still exists today.

Occasionally, we hear of Members of Parliament asking the government to release specific UFO files, and to open the books on any classified documents pertaining to UFO reports. Most cases that are classified remain so due to legal and privacy concerns, not because of any attempt to hide information about the reality of UFOs.